Some humans seem to have a natural desire to roam. If you’re anything like me, you crave new places and new experiences more than some people crave carbs and nicotine. Sometimes hitting the highway and getting lost somewhere new isn’t as easy as we want it to be.
Whether you need to travel for fun or necessity, having a comfortable place to lay your head at the end of the day is reassuring and revitalizing. No matter what happens, at the end of the day you need a place to return to that offers comfort, rest, and a sense of security.
Although certainly not as posh as a five star hotel or even a luxury RV, truck camping offers a combination of rugged flexibility that’s hard to find anywhere else. If you’ve ever been on an extended road trip, you already have an idea of what it feels like to live out of your vehicle. With some careful planning, you can turn your pickup into a comfortable and portable home base, no matter where the road takes you.
Truck camping allows you to access more remote areas than traveling with an RV. It also allows you to carry more supplies and creature comforts than you could easily hike to your destination in a backpack. Truck camping provides a near perfect balance of convenient comfort and rough adventure.
Being able to live out of your truck offers possibilities for those bitten by the travel bug, camping enthusiasts, and those preparing for a Worst Case Scenario. If you’ve ever considered living out of your truck, whether for a few days, weeks, or months, this article has the information you need to get started.
Why to Camp Out of Your Truck
AAA reports nearly 100 million Americans will take a family vacation this year. According to the website, ValuePenguin, lodging costs will make up about 26% of their total vacation budget. Because cost prevents many people from traveling, reducing that one major travel expense could allow the average person to experience more travel adventure.
Camping from your truck also provides important mobility that could save you and your loved ones in a SHTF scenario.
There are several advantages to making your truck bed your home away from home, especially when compared to more rugged tent camping or the luxury amenities of an RV or hotel stay.
Camping in your truck is:
- More comfortable than tent camping, especially in wet, rainy weather.
- Offers more security than tent camping.
- Provides an extra level of protection from curious wild animals and wandering snakes.
- Gives you unmatched freedom and flexibility.
- Less expensive than an RV or expensive hotel costs. Even the most extravagant truck bed build-out will still cost less than a cheap RV.
The Different Styles of Truck Camping
There are probably as many styles of truck camping as there are trucks and campers. However, these are the five basic variations. Each style has its own list of benefits and drawbacks. The “best” style depends on your personal needs, preferred level of comfort, vehicle accommodations, and level of adventure.
You may find there is no “best” option. In that case, you may want to combine two styles or use this information as a launching point for creating your own unique camping method.
The Traditional Tent
According to Outdoorindustry.org, approximately 40.5 million Americans go camping each year. Tents are the shelter of choice for most of those campers.
With traditional tent camping, your truck is basically used for transportation and gear storage. The biggest advantage to using a standalone tent is you won’t need to make any modifications to your vehicle. All you really need is a basic pop-up tent and a sense of adventure.
The classic tent provides major camping flexibility. It can be easily moved from one vehicle to another. Since the structure is not attached to your truck, you can easily move your vehicle without moving your campsite. This allows you to spend a few days exploring the surrounding area without breaking camp.
A portable tent also allows you to set up camp in more remote locations. Even the best four-wheel drive can’t safely traverse the roughest off-road terrain. If you really want to get off-grid, you can park your truck at the end of the road and hike your camp even further into the wilderness.
For this reason, I often keep a small pop-up tent stored under my truck seat. This way, I can use my outfitted truck as a “base camp” and hike into rough country to set up a more secluded outlying “spike camp.”
Truck Bed Tents
Providing incredible location flexibility and an added layer of security and comfort, a truck bed tent is exactly what it sounds like – a tent pitched in the bed of your truck.
Putting your sleeping arrangements in the bed of your truck provides several advantages.
First, a vehicle tent gets you up off the ground. While it may only be a few feet, that distance can make is huge where chipmunks, raccoons, and dangerous snakes are a concern. If you’re camping in the desert, those few feet will also keep scorpions and other dangerous creepy crawlies out of your boots and sleeping bag. (If you ask me, this may be the best-selling point for a truck bed tent.)
Another advantage of a truck bed tent over the traditional standalone version is that offers some extra protection from the elements. The bed of your truck actually becomes a protective, insulated layer a traditional tent doesn’t offer. The sides of your truck bed can also help shelter your sleeping area from gusty winds and driving rain.
However, truck bed tents only come in a few standard sizes. There’s no guarantee of a perfect fit, and they typically aren’t adjustable. If your tent doesn’t fit snugly, you could end up with water inside your sleeping area. For this reason, it’s always a good idea to carry some extra tarps and bungee cords to help seal up your tent in the event of serious weather.
Space is another issue with a truck bed tent. These compact sleeping areas often provide little extra room to move around. Most only offer enough room to sleep comfortably. This can be a real bummer if the weather turns bad enough to keep you tent-bound.
Attachment tents have many similarities to the traditional tent. Like a standalone tent, an attachment tent rests on the ground. Most come with a rain fly and some are spacious enough that the average adult can stand up comfortable inside.
Attachment tents basically differ from a traditional tent because they incorporate the interior of your vehicle into your camping space. Sometimes this is achieved by wrapping part of the tent around the hatchback of your SUV. Other versions incorporate a portion of the tent directly into the bed of your truck.
Where attachment tents really shine is the extra interior space for sleeping or storage. For added convenience and versatility, some models can completely convert into a standalone tent.
Up on the Rooftop
Thanks to social media and an adventurous generation of young adults, rooftop camping is gaining popularity in the United States. Not exactly a newcomer to the camping scene, rooftop tents have long been a camping staple in Africa and Australia where dangerous wildlife is more common.
With even more elevation than a truck bed tent, pitching a roof top tent will keep you well out of the reach of even the most curious North American wildlife, including coyotes, wolves, and most bears.
However, the biggest advantage for American campers is comfort. Most rooftop versions are made of heavy-duty canvas or hard fiberglass. This sturdier construction makes them feel more like a real room with real walls. Many models are also equipped with something that resembles a real bed. Throw on some quality bedding, and it almost feels like you’re sleeping in a hotel.
The extra elevation offered by a rooftop tent also makes it easier to catch a cool night breeze. If you’re camping in the heat of summer, even the slightest breeze can feel like a luxury.
Unfortunately, the characteristic that gives rooftop tents their advantages is also the major drawback – they are on your roof! For heavy-duty off-roading, a rooftop rig can throw off your vehicle’s balance, making them top-heavy and prone to tipping. You probably don’t want to do much driving with your set-up on the roof of your vehicle.
Campers with mobility issues may also have trouble getting into and out of a rooftop tent. This includes young children, fur-covered traveling companions, and your buddy who had one too many beers before hitting the sack.
Conversion camping is by far the broadest category of truck camping. From bare bones essentials to elaborate luxury, a quick internet search will result in a plethora of converted vehicles, from fully outfitted buses to basic attached truck canopies.
The best thing about a fully converted vehicle is there is zero set-up. You just park your vehicle at your campsite, maybe rearrange some gear, and… Voilà! Instant camping.
Other advantages of conversion camping include:
- Easy camp set-up.
- A comfortable place to sleep.
- The security of a locked door.
- Solid, weatherproof roof and walls to protect you and your gear from the elements.
The beauty of converting your truck bed into a rolling camper is that it can be as simple or as elaborate as you want. You can start with a basic canopy. Most are manufactured for specific models, so you can trust them to provide a perfect fit. From there you can build in as many or as few amenities as your heart desires.
Some people choose to sleep directly on the truck bed, either with a simple sleeping mat or a more comfortable mattress. Another option is to build a raised platform and place your bedding on top. This option provides ample storage space for extra gear like a camp stove, folding chairs, and hunting or fishing equipment.
While a raised platform will definitely provide more storage space, that storage space is gained by sacrificing head room. Some campers feel uncomfortable with the coffin-like feel of sleeping so close to the ceiling. Many a camper has awakened in the middle of the night to bump his or her head on a canopy ceiling.
Obviously, the customization potential for a truck bed conversion is off the charts. Only limited by what your imagination can dream up, the list of possible interior features is almost limitless. You can hang curtains, string lights, build bookshelves and storage cabinets. The sky’s the limit!
If you’re looking for some inspiration for your own conversion camper, check out this video from Cottage Life.
Essential Truck Camping Gear
Many campers are captivated by the freedom and adventure of tackling some remote destination with nothing but their truck and the gear you can pack inside. However, trekking off to remote destinations comes with some inherent dangers. Along with the standard camping hazards, truck camping comes with several additional risk. Fortunately, luck favors the prepared.
You don’t want to end up stranded off-grid due to a vehicle malfunction. With a little preparation, you’ll have everything you need to deal with an unexpected flat tire, getting stuck in the mud, or some other potential truck catastrophe.
A Basic Tool Kit and Jumper Cables
This should be a no-brainer. If you are going on any kind of road trip, you should at least have a basic tool kit in your vehicle. However, if you are heading off-road, a tool kit is even more essential.
A tool kit isn’t a magic fix, however. You should also know how to properly use the tools inside. Knowing how to change fuses and spark plugs, how to clean the carburetor, and fix basic wiring can be a lifesaver when truck camping.
As for jumper cables, every car should have one, no matter the destination. Although it is possible to jump start a vehicle without jumper cables (The Art of Manliness walks you through the process), it is way easier to keep a set of jumper cables in your truck, just in case.
If you plan to turn your pick-up into an adventure vehicle, the roads you travel won’t always be smooth. You’re bound to encounter mud, sand, gravel, and monstrous pot holes. Dealing with a busted tire miles from the nearest paved road can instantly turn a fun outdoor getaway into a total nightmare.
Always carry at least one spare tire. If you want to be prepared for the worst case scenario, carry two. And a spare wheel.
Heavy Duty Jack
Any old wimpy jack won’t be enough to help you change a tire on soft sand, squishy mud, or shifting gravel. Some jacks work better than others in intense 4-wheel drive environments. We cannot stress how important an off-road jack is for truck campers who want to venture off the well-beaten path.
A Good Shovel
While a shovel is a great tool to have on hand in every camping situation, truck campers may literally find themselves stuck without one. A good shovel can be a godsend if you find yourself stuck off-road, providing a way to dig yourself out of trouble.
You won’t find any Shell stations in remote camping areas. Running out of gas could be a life-threatening situation, especially if you are truck camping far off the highway. Having a back-up fuel supply could be a literal life saver.
Before you embark on your truck camping journey, you should also plot your fuel stops. Some stretches of highway may not offer an easy pit stop. You’ll also want to fuel up before you leave the highway for more remote driving.
You may not be able to rely on your cell phone or GPS on a serious off-road adventure. Be sure to carry paper maps and a good old-fashioned compass just in case. According to The Manual, these are basic tools every outdoor enthusiast should know how to use, whether your truck is involved or not.
Do a Final Gear Check
Before you leave for any camping adventure, you should check your gear. Then, just like Santa, you’ll need to check it again. This will help prevent leaving some essential piece of equipment behind.
If you’re truck camping, you should also have a mechanic check to make sure your vehicle is in top condition. Offroaders.com has a complete pre-camping vehicle checklist.
Summing It Up
Freedom is an American ideal and there’s nothing quite like the freedom of hitting the open road. With some basic gear and a little preparation, you can stay literally anywhere, taking home with you right in the back of your truck.
A proper truck camping set-up allows you to travel virtually anywhere, from the big city to remote wilderness areas, and eliminates the cost of expensive hotel stays. When you use your truck as your home away from home, a whole host of travel possibilities opens up.
While the gear mentioned in this article can make for a more comfortable experience, all you really need is a truck, a full tank of gas, and a wild sense of adventure.