By Janet Carter #3419
Belle Campground in Joshua Tree National Park.
Photo courtesy of Teresa Petrykowski and Sterling Udell #111914. Read more about their camper travels at www.where-rv-now.com.
First let me say, I’m not full-time RVing anymore. I’ve done that off and on, when my “real life” would permit it, ever since I started RVing alone in the 1980s. Today my children have grandchildren, so I’m free to leave whenever I want and stay gone as long as I like. However, now that I’m older, I’m much less willing to do strenuous physical effort every morning before leaving the campground. I sold my 24-foot Coachmen travel trailer because I was tired of hitching it up and bought a Sun-Lite truck camper.
Truck camping isn’t new to me. In 1997 when I was full-time RVing, I had a huge camper on a huge GMC truck. Actually, what I had was a mini-motorhome without wheels. It had a full dry bath and all the bells and whistles, and I’ve had seller’s remorse ever since I sold it.
Since the pickup truck I had been using to tow the recent trailer was only a half-ton, I was obliged to find a smaller camper to fit the weight limitations now available to me. Truck campers are more prevalent in some parts of the country than others. I live in Dallas where they are so rare people stop me in grocery store parking lots to ask questions about it. Therefore, it took me three years to find the one I wanted.
Today’s largest new truck campers offer as many as four slide-outs, but the basic premise is the same as in that 1997 Fleetwood Elkhorn. You’re living in the bed of a pickup truck, and your floor space is limited to that. The bed of my Chevy Silverado is six feet, six inches long. There are new units available that provide plenty of niceties even for that small size.
Selecting Your Camper
Generally, if you intend to buy a truck to use for camper carrying, it is suggested that you start with a heavy-duty one-ton or three quarter-ton long bed because you will have a greater selection of campers to choose from. The configuration of the bed will matter, so ideally you should select both truck and camper at the same time in order to be sure the weight and the all-important “center of gravity” match up. The owner’s manual of the truck will have details on the vehicle’s capacity.
A pickup camper should be packed with more attention to balancing the load than with a motorhome or trailer, simply because it is smaller. You may decide to beef up the springs of your truck eventually, if needed.
Prices for today’s new campers range from under $3,000 to the $60,000 Chalet with three slides, an optional fourth and a laundry list of possible add-ons.
According to Steve Johnson of Princess Craft RV Sales, www.princesscraft.com, in Pflugerville, Texas, outside of Austin, Lance is the most popular brand with 80 percent of the market currently. Because their units are made of wood, they are sturdy but too heavy for many of today’s lighter weight, gas-economic trucks.
There are two main categories of camper available now: the standard hard-side and the pop-up type. These have a canvas top that lies flat on the cabover bed while you drive and is cranked higher to stand-up height when you camp. The advantage of the pop-up is more aerodynamic driving, less weight on the truck chassis and often the original cost. Disadvantages would be the necessity to crank up the top just to stop for lunch at a rest area, and the deterioration of the canvas top over time.
Palomino makes the Maverick and the Bronco, both popular pop-up brands. The Travelite Superlite is a hard-sided unit that will fit on a short bed half-ton. Eagle Cap and Adventurer are manufactured by ALP. Arctic Fox and Wolf Creek are made in Oregon by Northwoods. CampLite makes a lighter aluminum model without wood, called the Livin’Lite.
One interesting aspect of camper shopping is the possibility of having one custom built to your own design.
Capri Campers, www.capricamper.com, out of Bluff Dale, Texas, near Fort Worth, has been making what is called “cowboy campers” for the bull-rider set for nearly 40 years.
Whether you choose the most basic Model 42 ($2,155), the Lariat ($4,690) or the Rodeo Deluxe ($8,565), you’ll get a light-weight hard-side, bare-bones camper built by hand to your order.
Also handmade by a family business, Coyote RV (Phoenix Pop Up Camper), www.phoenixpopup.com, in Commerce City, Colorado, near Denver, makes the most absolutely unique, each-one-different, pop-up style campers you can imagine. These are the campers chosen by intrepid world adventurers, and each is configured for a specific person and vehicle. Whether you intend to travel in a tiny Toyota pickup, a 4x4 1942 Dodge army truck or an intimidating Ford SVT Raptor, they can accommodate your wildest daydreams. Just reading the odyssey blogs by satisfied customers is a trip. Check out the photo gallery on their Website.
I asked Steve Johnson who he found to be his most likely customer. He told me that it depends on your stage of life. Singles and young couples may start with a pickup camper and graduate to a larger RV when they start a family. Retirees invest in the luxurious motorhomes and fifth-wheels, then tend to downsize to pickup campers when they decide to simplify their lives.
“These are not for everybody,” he emphasized. “Before you spend that $20,000 or $30,000 dollars for a fancy new one, rent one and try it out. Be sure you know what you’re getting.”
A common problem I saw in some of the new smaller units was the inclusion of some amenities simply for “bragging rights.” Manufacturers are so eager to list things on their window sticker, you have to wonder if the designer ever camped in it.
For example, a wet bath that looks like a wet bath but is so narrow only a child could actually use it. Step into the shower, sit on the toilet, lean over the lavatory as though you were brushing your teeth. And do it before you close the deal, not later on.
Some “bragging rights” problems can be easily circumvented. Often there are too many burners on the range with zero kitchen counter space. If I am cooking a recipe so complex I need three burners, one of them griddle-sized, I will definitely need counter space for preparation. To solve this problem in mine, I went to a commercial restaurant supply store and purchased a metal donut cooling rack of the same dimensions as the entire cooktop and fastened it down on top of the burners with cable ties. This gave me a two-foot square stable work surface.
Perfectly beautiful new units may have unexpected hidden problems, such as having no built-in propane system. Don’t assume the fridge is automatically three-way (propane, electric or battery) as is usual in motorhomes and trailers. Some refrigerators in campers are only electric, thus preventing you from boondocking in a forest glade beside a trout stream someday. As in the pop-up tent campers, the refrigerator may have to be manually changed over from one power source to another from the outside compartment. If this is true, locate the outside door you would have to remove to make the change and consider how accessible this will be to you when the camper is sitting higher up in the bed of your truck.
Needless to say, you don’t want the propane tank on the camper to end up located just above the place where you fill the gas tank of your truck because of the fumes, in case you forgot to turn off the propane before you drove away that morning.
Advantages and Disadvantages
The advantages of downsizing to a pickup camper are its compact size, the ease of driving it in city traffic and the ability to park it in tight spots, public places or your suburban driveway. The disadvantages are also in its compact size. Storage is limited to the weight your truck will carry, not just the number of cabinets. If you plan to feed six people for dinner, you’d better ask them how much they weigh or else serve them outside.
So if you’re considering downsizing, you might want to check out a pickup camper, but take Steve Johnson’s advice and use one before you buy one.
For someone wishing to simplify their travel life, it’s perfect. There’s no need to hitch up a trailer or a toad (no more shoulder pain), and it’s nimble, flexible, able to climb high mountains, better for gas mileage, inconspicuous when boondocking and easy to drive through barricades in construction zones.
And if you decide to go with a custom builder, you could even design your own camper from scratch. How much fun would that be?