This article comes from an interview that I did with author, adventurer, smokejumper, entrepreneur and Sportsmobile dweller, Jason Ramos. When I stopped to take a couple of photos of his rig at Overland Expo, I had no idea what a bundle of experience I was walking into. Not only does he have a stellar rig that he’s lived out of since 2006, he has spent almost 30 yrs. as a a firefighter and is currently a smokejumper in his 17th season. Smokejumpers parachute into remote areas to combat wildfires. He recently wrote an historical/autobiographical book about his journey from volunteer firefighter to seasoned smokejumper, and he is also the founder and owner of PRg, Product Research Gear, a company that works with other companies to help evaluate their products either in development and testing cycles or in the upgrade cycle.
Jason and I spoke on the phone a while back and pretty early on into the conversation I realized that this guy with the cool rig (that I thought was going to be the sole topic of this article), has a hell of a lot more going on than that. So, I had to suss out how to structure an article around this diverse individual. I’m going to start off by saying that I came off the phone with a solid sense of having spoken to someone who has earnestly followed his passions in life with a lot of integrity and as a result, has accomplished some pretty crazy, amazing feats. But first, and probably least importantly (don’t throw rotten tomatoes) I will start with his…
Life in a Rig
Jason drives and lives in a 1995 E 250 Sportsmobile. He has lived in a van since around 1997. Reasons? The Siren’s call of nature and the ability to wander. Jason grew up camping in an RV with his dad and fishing on his boat. Some of his fondest memories come from these adventures. He remembers looking out the windows of the top bunk, loving it. “People say that what you do when you’re young gets imprinted on you, well I guess that’s what happened!”
Jason is an avid windsurfer, motorcycle rider, beach loving, desert rat who has had a few adventure rigs along the way. He started out with a Chevy Love, sleeping out of the back of the truck when on trips. Next, he got a Tundra King Cab, with a kitchen set-up in the back. Then when he got into wind surfing, a buddy, helitack crewmember, firefighter and brother wind surfer,“Old Kahuna”, suggested he get a van. Years later, while flying on the way back from a fire, he and Old Kahuna spotted Jason’s “dream van” in a used auto lot 500-600 feet below. They circled back, checked it out, then when they landed, drove over and Jason bought his first van, a 1974 Ford Econoline E300 Campervan with a gas stove and fridge.
Jason ripped everything out, put in new cabinets, pergot flooring to deal with sand and mud, a bose sound system and a platform bed.
He used his van as a home away from home until he began to realize that paying rent was a waste of money. Jason was either out fighting fires in Washington, living part of the year out of his van in Baja CA or visiting friends and family in southern California. He began to feel like he was pouring money into an empty cave. It was then that he decided to take after his van dwelling buddy “Old Kahuna”. In 1999, Jason ditched renting apartments and started living out of his van full time. In 2006 he purchased an E250 Sportsmobile.
When asked about the pros and cons of living life in a van, Jason said he couldn’t think of many cons. “The biggest downside is when I am traveling and I need to find a legal place to park overnight. In some areas, like Malibu, it’s impossible. To live in a van you have to be very flexible. With some flexibility, what could be cons are normal life. Things like having no stand-up shower and having to make use of every inch of room become normal. I live very comfortably, I’ve created great storage solutions under the bed and in other areas with netting. I have painted some of my cabinets with black board paint so that I can conduct meetings in my van and write notes on the cabinets until I can transfer them to my computer. I’ve got cush gel mats, great insulation and weather gear. It’s the little extras, like great artwork, a great mattress and bedding…I love it to death; it’s home for me.
Smokejumper and Author
Jason is a smokejumper, part of an elite team of firefighters that parachute into forest fires, usually in the backcountry, to work on controlling them. He started his firefighting career in 1989 as a Riverside County volunteer firefighter at the age of 17. When I met him, I was taking a photo of his rig. We started to talk and he told me that he was there to promote a book he had written called Smokejumper, a memoir about his journey toward becoming part of this unique and elite tribe of fire fighters. I got the book and thoroughly enjoyed reading it. In it he documents the history of the smokejumper program, which started in Winthrop in 1939 with help from the Eagle Parachute Company and the Forest Service. Later in 1940, Major General William C. Lee, better know as the godfather of airborne, took this idea to Fort Benning Georgia and formed an Airborne unit that was implemented on the night of June 5th 1944. This is a personal and historical memoir and I’m not giving any more of it away. It’s a solid read, fascinating and enjoyable. I will unabashedly tell you to go buy a copy on Amazon.com.
As Jason and I were discussing his book at Overland Expo, I started looking around for the vendor selling the cinnamon rolls I kept smelling. Breakfast… I think he noticed, because he pointed out a strange cylinder on the ground beside us that had little tufts of fragrant smoke swirling out of the ends. It was a solar baking device, called a GoSun, and he had a load of cinnamon rolls cooking.
Jason started his company, Product Research Gear LLC, out of his love of and the necessity for excellent (read trustworthy and durable) gear. His company relies on a cadre of outdoor professionals to evaluate and design gear for a variety of companies. The creation of PRg came out of his long history of gear use. When he was 18 years old, he started as an equipment manager for the volunteer fire department. He was a gearhead who liked fixing things and making sure they were clean, up to par and ready to go. When the fire department needed new or different equipment, he’d research then call companies to get what was needed. DuPont was his first “cold call”. He spoke to them about fire textiles. Soon, he began to work with companies helping them solve issues with equipment. Every product that he either used or sourced was put to a rigorous test in the field and when something didn’t work, Jason gave companies feedback on the issues and possible solutions. As time went on, he started becoming known as the “get it” guy. “I’ve just always been into finding really good, solid gear. The people who worked with me, friends and family all joked that I should start a store. They’d ask for something and I would find the best product I could for them.”
“In the 1990’s I started working with SOG knives as a dealer for law enforcement and firemen. I still have my first knife! Now that company is like family to me. I became a dealer for other companies as well like Cascade Designs (MSR), Filson, and others. My company, Product Research Gear (PRg), came out of all of this. I and my team of specialists, or cadre, all whom I have met or worked with in the field, do collaborative testing on products for a year. I’ve got doctors, instructors, meteorologists, etc. all firefighters or smokejumpers with these specialties, on my cadre. They are the best of the best. This company is not just about money, I don’t get paid to evaluate products. It’s about using, testing and giving valuable feedback and suggestions on how to make products excellent. You have to remember that this started with me sourcing products for the firefighters to use when I was a rookie. It’s important for me to get professionals the right gear, gear that will last. It could save their lives. When a product passes the test, PRg oftentimes becomes a dealer. Jason Ramos wants his company to make a difference, whether that’s by testing or improving upon a product that will help save a firefighter or smokejumpers life or by providing a family of campers a reliable and long lasting tent.
Out of all of this…what Jason left me with was the impression that he is a multifaceted individual who follows his passions and walks through life with integrity. It takes a brave person to do that, smokejumping aside, of course.
- This documentary, Patriot Profiles about smokejumpers that Jason took part in
- PRg at productresearchgear.com
- His book on Amazon Smokejumper: A Memoir of one of America’s Most Select Airborne Firefighters
- smokejumperbook.com– more about smokejumping, a TEDx talk by Jason and more
Photos courtesy of Jason Ramos
Written by: Lori Palmer