North Coast 500 in a Military Truck Camper

Jimmy Bond Filming Location, Glencoe

The NC500 has quickly become Britain’s right-of-passage for motorhome, camper and road trip enthusiasts. The route which starts, and technically ends, in Inverness, Scotland, is a narrow, weaving and most importantly beautiful route around the Highlands. Most tourists travel the route in a car, campervan or motorhome, though in 2020 I decided taking my ex-military camper truck would be fun. During 2020 and between lockdowns, there was a brief period where the world almost returned to some normality and COVID-19 was in decline, it was almost a perfect time to travel. Having never properly tested the truck for its intended purpose, I drove it from York, UK and up to Inverness to start the full journey of the North Coast 500 camper truck adventure.

Preparations Before The Road Trip

The 3 days before I set off were manic! I had seriously underestimated how long the jobs would take to finish, and some oils were delivered late. I originally planned to change the engine oil, filters, replace the gearbox oil and fix a small leak. Then my exhaust heat shield cracked and so I had to weld this and then repaint before refitting. Since I was taking the exhaust off to fix the oil leak I thought it wouldn’t be too troublesome to fix the heat shield at the same time.

Truck Gearbox

Refilling almost 5 litres of gearbox oil using a big syringe while being cramped between air tanks and a chassis frame is an experience I’m not looking to recreate again anytime soon. I think next time I’ll search for a better solution. I found it laborious and difficult to suck up oil from a large bottle and then squirt it into the side of a gearbox! After banging my head on the air tank brackets numerous times I eventually put enough oil in and moved on to replacing the PTO plate gasket which had developed a leak.

Getting the exhaust back on was certainly harder than taking it off. It’s not light. Being laid on my back with the weight on my legs, while trying to line up the downpipe and feed the mount into the brackets was tough, and I found it was only achievable through severe swearing and punching. Once it was roughly in place, I tightened the loose bolts in turn to eventually find its fixed location. Three full days of jobs like these and the truck was ready. With just enough time to fill the cupboards with food, fuel tanks with diesel and top the water tanks, mid-day on a Friday I was ready for launch.

NC500 Itinerary 7 Days

Starting from York I had 7 full days, giving myself only an extra half day to travel north of the border. The route I took passed anti-clockwise from Inverness and is notably the best direction, giving the best views as you travel south-west along the most picturesque section of the route. Wanting to see as much as possible in the time given, I opted to add Orkney and Skye on to the itinerary. Though these are not technically part of the North Coast 500 they were definitely worth the extra effort.

Beach NC500

My itinerary went as follows:

Truck Parked Skye

North Coast 500 Accommodation

Fortunately for me, the ex-military camper truck is self contained. This being that once I’d loaded up with almost 600 litres of water I don’t need to resupply again for quite some time and were not close to running out of water for the duration of the road trip. It has a full-sized shower, toilet and batteries which recharged when I drove. Hot water/heating heated by the engine or internal heater meant that I could park overnight almost anywhere. This proved on the trip as invaluable since I was continually told that NC500 campsites were overfull and turning people away by 16:00 each day, booked or not.

Parking overnight was very easy; there are lots of areas to stop. Parking this 4x4 truck was effortless, often just driving off the tarmac and on to a dirt track to park for the night. Maintaining respect for land owners and following the code that anywhere I stopped was left how I found it, I didn’t need campsites.

NC500 Military Truck

Ok, let’s address the elephant in the room. The NC500 is a map of tiny, often single track, network of roads passing through one of the most remote parts of Britain. What’s an ex-military 4x4 camper truck doing on these? Would it even fit?
It fits! Although it looks very large, it’s not as long as some of the larger motor homes that travel on some of these roads. It has a large ground clearance, meaning that it doesn’t risk running aground on the twists of these roads. This actually gives the vehicle type a clear advantage over other vehicles. It has incredibly low gearing, meaning that even at up to 10.8t it will stop and start on the steepest hills and the handbrake applies on all 4 wheels. It is a little slower going up the hills, and a little slower going down them, but it will mostly match car speeds on the level.

Mountains NC500 Route

Before I set off on this road trip I posted on social media what I planned to do. Most people were great and loved the truck almost as much as I do, but there are always a few Karens with their doubts. A fair point came from someone, if you get deliveries to a shop I’ll definitely get this truck there... While actually on the route everyone I met were brilliant and welcoming.

Highlights of the NC500

Looking at the road trip as a whole there were many highlights, but the ones that stuck in my mind are where I’ve vowed to return:

  1. Sandwood Bay – This large beach with crystal clear waters was practically deserted when I visited, though not due to the pandemic. The closest road to this beach is at Blairmore Car Park, some 6.5km walk away. The walk isn’t difficult or overly steep, but is obviously enough to keep the average tourist away and leave only the adventurous to its delights. As you approach and look down onto the beach and its large sand dunes, you walk past a derelict farm building, the whole area surrounded by mountains. This area is in one of the most remote parts of Britain and if it wasn’t for the ambient temperature when I visited in October, I could well imagine being abroad.

  2. Military Truck by Bealach Na Ba Sign
  3. Glencoe – I have to first admit that this area was only on my radar after watching James Bond and imagining standing where he did in the film. Before setting off for the NC500 I researched the exact co-ordinates where Bond stood looking out on the valley of his home. I made a decision that I would attempt to recreate that image, only for me it would be with a military truck and not an Aston Martin. The success of this photo almost made the whole trip for me, but the beauty of that spot isn’t all Glencoe has.

  4. Bealach na Bà, also known as Applecross Pass – I can’t remember how many YouTube videos I’d watched or web pages I’d read before I decided that I’d attempt to drive this road. Truth is, it was no more difficult for my truck than the rest of the NC500 had been. I’d seen lots of videos warning about driving this road in a motorhome, but I wasn’t in a motorhome, as such. In all honesty, I think some people make it sound worse, more dangerous or difficult than in reality it is. The drive was a joy, amazing views and in most part a good road, even if a little narrow and surprisingly busy. Driving through the fog at the top of the mountain only added to the atmosphere. Then the long drive down and through the mist, revealing its natural beauty, gave a sense of magnitude and only enforced my decision to travel anti-clockwise around the route.

  5. Fairy Glen
  6. Fairy Glen – Not to be mistaken for the Fairy Pools, both on the Isle of Skye. The Fairy Glen is a magical area of rounded mounds of grass with a strange, even mystical, circle. Legend has it this circle is where the fairies danced around, maybe the same fairies from the pools, but I’m not sure. Aside from the fiction, this place is beautiful and gives some amazing views of the local area. Climbing to the tallest mound, you have sight of at least three waterfalls and of course the coast of the island.

  7. Kylesku Bridge – I’m a bit of an engineering nerd normally, but aside from the magnificent beauty of this bridge within the dramatic landscape I didn’t research much about its build. That said, I’m sure I want to return here and explore the immediate area more. If it had been just another bridge maybe it wouldn’t have affected me as much, but the simple curve with the backdrop of mountains and water made it simply breathtaking.

As with any road trip, you never have enough time to stop and see everything you drive past, and those points you do stop at, you rarely give enough time to. That’s the thing with a road trip, it is just a highlight. A bit like skimming a book, reading only the pages you randomly stop at, if you like what you see you can always buy the book. In the same sense the North Coast 500 in Scotland gave me some Highland highlights.

The Machy Wagon Trial as a Camper

The Machy Wagon, the name given to my truck from the Military, successfully made it around this 1,500 mile journey without fault. Where I needed it to keep me warm, it did. Warm showers were a daily luxury I had, and cooking was of course a success. It started, stopped and turned whenever I asked, it took me everywhere I wanted to visit, and cost no more than I had predicted in fuel, at £690. Of course this fuel price is larger than that of a car or van, but then they don’t look half as cool. But, when looking at a week’s accommodation in hotels for up to 4 people with views like I had, it’s no contest really.

There were a couple of small changes I need to work on. The bungee cord which holds the fridge under the cooker was more elastic than I had thought it would be, thus allowing the fridge to slide forwards and back while driving. I didn’t realise this until day 4, and only as I noticed bearings rolling around the inside of the box. It didn’t stop it doing its job, just made it a bit stiffer to pull out. I’ll replace the slider and use a chain instead of a bungee cord to hold it still. The main food cupboard was fitted with a magnetic catch to hold the door shut while driving, this worked fine when the cupboard was empty but failed miserably when stocked full of food. I’ll be adding a lever catch instead. During the trip I made do with an elastic band tied around the handle to keep the door shut.

The Machy Wagon was a success!