Truck Camping – A Guide to Outfitting and Living in the Back of Your Pickup

The Dirtbag-Mobile. Every climbing bum who decides to spend a length of time on the road inevitably ends up living in and out of their vehicle.

It’s kind of a right of passage.

The types of vehicles that people end up dirtbagging in are about as varied as climbing itself.

You’ve got your standard little car, the cliche outdoorsy rig the Subaru Outback, Jeeps, SUVs, pickup trucks both large and small, you’ve got vans–from the super classic VW bus, to minivans, to the bigger and more upscale vans like the Sprinter–and you’ve even got the occasional trailers and RVs.

The two most common dirtbag rigs from what I’ve seen are pickup trucks with a canopy or some type of van.

Here we’re going to be discussing building out the pickup and canopy combo, since that’s what I’ve got.

Camping under the stars with the glow of Las Vegas in the background.

Camping under the stars with the glow of Las Vegas in the background.

More often than not, we don’t have the liberty to decide what sort of vehicle we’re going to dirtbag in. It’s usually whatever it is we happened to buy a few years back.
I’ve got a 1991 Toyota 4×4 Pickup (Hilux), which is a series of truck that predates the Tacoma model.

This truck has been my one and only vehicle since high school and I knew when I decided to bum around the country that it was going to be me and my old truck… But now as my new home on wheels.

Truck Camping – A Video Tour of My Home


Watch the video on Youtube.

Canopy Selection

My truck did not have a canopy however, so that was a necessary purchase before departure.

There is the possibility of finding a used canopy, but that wasn’t really feasible for me given that I was on one side of the country and my truck was on the other.

So when I returned back to the West Coast and was gearing up for this trip, I hit up the local canopy store to shop for a new one. I ended up going with the Leer 122 model which had the elevated roof (important for extra headroom).

I did a lot of research prior to the purchase on what makes an ideal canopy setup–things like a carpeted canopy liner in order to help with condensation (you can also stick velcro’d things to the ceiling, like lights), the other recommendation was for getting the flip up contractor windows on the sides,

I couldn’t make up my mind and so went with one sliding screen window and one flip up window. I still go back and forth about whether I would have preferred two contractor windows or not…

The order took a few weeks to come through from Leer and be delivered to the retailer, so be sure to account for the delay. They did the installation and wired up the light and cigarette lighter adapters in the canopy as well.

Building out the Back

Backtracking a little: in the months leading up to my departure I did *a lot* of research about how to best outfit the back of a pickup truck for living and gear storage.

I scoured the internet for photos and details about what people did, I combed Mountain Project and Summit Post for threads about this topic.

There are a lot of different ways to do it and there are a lot of opinions about what the best way is. I got lots of great ideas doing this research and got a pretty good sense of what people liked and didn’t like about their own setups.

This process was invaluable in helping me reach my own conclusions.

There are two overarching approaches in how people design and build out the back of their trucks:

  1. The elevated sleeping platform where you have gear storage underneath, this seemed to be the most common approach by far; and
  2. The more simplistic “back shelf” approach where you just have some sort of shelf by the cab which you place your feet under while sleeping, and allowing you maximum headroom.

Essentially the first approach favors gear storage over livability, while the second approach favors livability over gear storage.

While the elevated sleeping platform approach was the most common, it was also quite frequently followed up with a sentiment of dissatisfaction.

Most likened it to sleeping in a coffin.

The advantages of this style is the relative security of gear, you can place all your expensive climbing and outdoor gear underneath the platform and provided you can lock your tailgate, you’ve got a pretty smash and grab safe setup.

The back shelf style seemed to be in favor among those who have been dirtbagging it for a long time. Steph Davis comes to mind first and foremost as an advocate of this approach.

This is simply put, the most “livable” style with the most headroom since you don’t have to deal with the coffin for sleeping.

The downside of course is that you have less organized storage space and any gear in the back is more susceptible to the smash and grab style break in.

I thought a lot about the pluses and minuses of each approach, but kept thinking there’s got to be a best of both world’s approach, right?

I came up with all sorts of elaborate ideas, like a hinged platform in the middle that would pop up for more space, and other convoluted ideas that I don’t even remember.

There were two turning points that shaped my design.

First, I solicited feedback from a climbing guide friend who has a similar truck setup.

His major point was to keep it simple–too many people over engineer these things with elaborate drawers and cubbies that slide out for gear access.

It’s important to remember that that will mean more money, time, and complexity to build, and also more weight in the back (which equals more money in fuel consumption).

So Keep It Simple, Stupid.

The second pivotal moment came at the 11th hour…

Just after I got my canopy installed I posted something on Facebook to the tune of “Now, to make a truck a home…”

And funnily enough, a famous pro-climber replied to my post with this huge paragraph of what he would recommend (yeah, I’m one of those guys who befriends the pro-climbers, mostly just to see what they’re up to, but also to be inspired by awesomeness).

In a nutshell, he said he spent many years living in the back of a Toyota, and his favorite method by far was the back shelf approach, coupled with two vertically oriented side bins along the wheel wheels for additional storage and organization.

So, this last minute suggestion sent me off in a new direction… What about these vertically oriented side bins coupled with a movable platform?

“Truck Camping: A Comprehensive Guide to Outfitting and Living in the Back of Your Pickup via @desktodirtbag”

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My Transformer Style Setup

In all my research I never came across another approach exactly like the one I eventually settled on, but maybe they’re out there somewhere.

Conceptually, I knew what I wanted, now it was time to try and make it into reality.

I’m not super savvy when it comes to building things, but I talked my good buddy Jeff who has been working construction forever to give me a hand–he had the know how and all the tools to help pull it off.

We grabbed a bunch of lumber at Home Depot: a few 2x2s, 2x4s, a few sheets of 1/2″ plywood, and bunch of screws.

All in all, it was around $100 worth of lumber (I took back unused lumber at the end of the project).

The biggest question was how we could secure the vertically oriented side bins to the bed/side of the truck… They would need to support weight from above and not collapse inward.

The lining on the bed of my truck offers nice, deep, 1/2″ thick grooves along the length of the bed, so it was the perfect thickness for a sheet of plywood.

Jeff came up with the idea of precisely notching out the 2x4s where the canopy clamps were… Thus we could remove the canopy clamps, put the 2×4 in place and clamp the canopy to the truck with the board in between.

How the vertical side bins are attached to the truck--precisely notched out 2x4 where the canopy clamp goes.

How the vertical side bins are attached to the truck–precisely notched out 2×4 where the canopy clamp goes.

How the vertical side bins are attached to the truck--canopy clamp attached.

How the vertical side bins are attached to the truck–canopy clamp attached.

From there we could cut out a few more pieces of 2x4s to brace the plywood wall at the correct distance. Building these side shelves was perhaps the most time consuming part of the whole process.

We built vertical bins on each side and then secured the 2×2 rails to the side bins–these rails would hold the plywood sleeping platform in the elevated position.

From there we cut out the large 1/2″ sheet of plywood to fit. Then we took off the plastic tailgate cover and replaced it with a precisely cut piece of plywood.

This would offer a flat space for cooking, sitting, whatever, instead of the grooves that were there with the liner.

We also cut a few circular holes into the tailgate sheet which would hold cups, fuel canister with my stove, etc and prevent them from sliding off if you accidentally bumped into it.

Back tailgate replaced with wood for cooking, sitting, etc. An absolute must do.

Back tailgate replaced with wood for cooking, sitting, etc. An absolute must do.

I decided to include a “table” over one of my vertical side bins, which would offer a flat place for my laptop and other items, while only permitting access from underneath (additional secure storage).

The left hand bin featured a table top and additional secure storage underneath.

The left hand bin featured a table top and additional secure storage underneath.

Another time consuming piece of the build was my decision to put hasp locks between the tail gate and the sleeping platform.

The idea here being that when the plywood sheet is in the elevated position, I could flip the hasps over the swivel locks on the plywood and essentially lock my tailgate to my sleeping platform and restrict access to valuables underneath.

This was done because my tailgate does not have a lock–of course, the canopy when locked prevents you from opening the tailgate, but I questioned the security of the canopy locks.

Hasp and locks installed on tailgate.

Hasp and locks installed on tailgate.

Hasp and lock provides an additional security boost/barrier for goods stored underneath

Hasp and lock provides an additional security boost/barrier for goods stored underneath

The whole build was completed in one afternoon. It required some precision handiwork, and I was grateful for Jeff’s help, input, and ideas.

My truck camping rig set up for "base camp" mode.

My truck camping rig set up for “base camp” mode.

I still had more small detail work to do to refine it though.

First and foremost, I removed the whole thing (it can be taken completely out with a few tools and about fifteen minutes) and then treated all the lumber with sealant.

There were other subtle little additions, like putting in a couple little nails to prevent the backshelf from sliding out when I removed my sleeping platform from the elevated position.

As well as adding the “L brackets” to the rails near the tailgate, effectively preventing the sleeping platform from sliding out at all when locked to the tailgate (without the L brackets, you could probably have dropped the tailgate and caused the sleeping platform to slide out somewhat–possibly even breaking the wood).

All the Photos Without Clutter

How the vertical side bins are attached to the truck--precisely notched out 2x4 where the canopy clamp goes.

How the vertical side bins are attached to the truck–precisely notched out 2×4 where the canopy clamp goes.

How the vertical side bins are attached to the truck--canopy clamp attached.

How the vertical side bins are attached to the truck–canopy clamp attached.

Back shelf setup, which is not attached

Back shelf setup, which is not attached

Back shelf setup, which is not attached, it can be moved around as needed.

Back shelf setup, which is not attached, it can be moved around as needed.

Vertical side bins--right hand bin is open on top.

Vertical side bins–right hand bin is open on top.

Vertical side bins--looking back toward the tailgate. TIP: Velcro can be used to attach things like the thermometer.

Vertical side bins–looking back toward the tailgate. TIP: Velcro can be used to attach things like the thermometer.

The left hand bin featured a table top and additional secure storage underneath.

The left hand bin featured a table top and additional secure storage underneath.

Get a power inverter to charge your electronics.

Get a power inverter to charge your electronics.

I had a cigarette lighter charging system in my canopy that was connected to my primary battery.

I had a cigarette lighter charging system in my canopy that was connected to my primary battery.

My truck camping rig set up for "base camp" mode.

My truck camping rig set up for “base camp” mode.

The large plywood board easily slides out. This is 1/2" plywood. Thicker wood might be too heavy and also unnecessary.

The large plywood board easily slides out. This is 1/2″ plywood. Thicker wood might be too heavy and also unnecessary.

The large plywood board can be placed in the upper position for gear storage below and sleeping above. Tip: you don't need to lift up the back shelf to slide it into place. That was just for demonstration.

The large plywood board can be placed in the upper position for gear storage below and sleeping above. Tip: you don’t need to lift up the back shelf to slide it into place. That was just for demonstration.

Hasp and lock provides an additional security boost/barrier for goods stored underneath

Hasp and lock provides an additional security boost/barrier for goods stored underneath

Hasp and locks installed on tailgate.

Hasp and locks installed on tailgate.

Tailgate locked on both sides to the large wooden platform, effectively preventing access to gear underneath.

Tailgate locked on both sides to the large wooden platform, effectively preventing access to gear underneath.

My setup locked up. Access is limited under the left side table and platform, but open along the right side.

My setup locked up. Access is limited under the left side table and platform, but open along the right side.

Back tailgate replaced with wood for cooking, sitting, etc. An absolute must do.

Back tailgate replaced with wood for cooking, sitting, etc. An absolute must do.

In Practice and Use

Again, this setup is somewhat transformer-like in that things can change around as I see fit.

I have my “on the go” mode, where I keep my sleeping platform in the elevated position with my major items stored underneath.

I have four large plastic boxes for gear and food, as well as a medium sized cooler, that typically reside under the sleeping platform. They fit very snugly together, which is an important feature so you don’t have boxes or things sliding all over, smashing into one another while driving.

I’ve got a duffle bag of clothes, some smaller boxes, and other miscellaneous items that usually live on top of the platform. Lots of other “loose” gear is stored in my side bins, from my camera tripod, to ice axes and crampons, to extra toilet paper and soap.

The on the go mode is ideal for when I’m just driving and need to pull over and get some rest. I usually toss a couple items in the cab of my truck and crawl into the “coffin” sleeping arrangement for a quick night’s rest.

This is perfect for Wal-Mart parking lots or other single nights of sleep while on the road and driving between destinations.

A view of my regular gear setup in the back while on the move.

A view of my regular gear setup in the back while on the move.

My sleep setup in the elevated position--things can be moved into the cab or positioned along side the mattress.

My sleep setup in the elevated position–things can be moved into the cab or positioned along side the mattress.

The second configuration is with the sleeping platform lowered, which I refer to as my “Base Camp” mode, and is usually employed when I’ve found somewhere to settle in for awhile, an established campground or what have you.

My bed setup for base camp mode--you put your feet under the back shelf in order to sleep.

My bed setup for base camp mode–you put your feet under the back shelf in order to sleep.

This is where I will usually unpack a little and leave my food, cooler, duffle bag of clothes, etc sprawled out at the campsite.

Sometimes I leave all my climbing and camping gear at the site, but I usually feel better leaving valuables like that in my truck, so I place it on the upper shelf for sleep mode, and then if I’m driving to the crag or into town, I will place them back on the bed of the truck (so they don’t slide off or fall down).

Notice the large gear boxes are only like 1/2" under my platform. Make sure everything fits very snug and won't slide around.

Notice the large gear boxes are only like 1/2″ under my platform. Make sure everything fits very snug and won’t slide around.

Sometimes the items I place underneath the sleep platform change.

For instance in the Sierras, with the bear lockers and trailhead storage, I needed to keep all my food and scented items accessible for storage, so I would place my clothes and other assorted items under the platform.

I will also typically secure those sorts of items under my locked platform if I am gone for a few days in the backcountry, because in reality I could probably care less if someone broke in and stole my box of food, versus someone who stole my clothes or down jackets, which would be much more problematic (and costly) to replace on the road.

Photo Gallery In Use

A view of my regular gear setup in the back while on the move.

A view of my regular gear setup in the back while on the move.

A view of my regular gear setup in the back while on the move.

A view of my regular gear setup in the back while on the move.

My sleep setup in the elevated position--things can be moved into the cab or positioned along side the mattress.

My sleep setup in the elevated position–things can be moved into the cab or positioned along side the mattress.

My window covers. The collapsible auto shades work great, along with boxes. Notice the light velcroed to the ceiling.

My window covers. The collapsible auto shades work great, along with boxes. Notice the light velcroed to the ceiling.

Definitely get a large and comfortable inflatable mattress, this is the Therm-A-Rest Dream. Very comfy.

Definitely get a large and comfortable inflatable mattress, this is the Therm-A-Rest Dream. Very comfy.

A view under the platform and left hand table. I kept my electronics securely stashed under the table. The blue bag is a my kitchen supply--don't use a box, kitchen stuff is pokey and strange shaped, a bag is better.

A view under the platform and left hand table. I kept my electronics securely stashed under the table. The blue bag is a my kitchen supply–don’t use a box, kitchen stuff is pokey and strange shaped, a bag is better.

Notice the large gear boxes are only like 1/2" under my platform. Make sure everything fits very snug and won't slide around.

Notice the large gear boxes are only like 1/2″ under my platform. Make sure everything fits very snug and won’t slide around.

Keep things you use frequently very handy, like your headlamp.

Keep things you use frequently very handy, like your headlamp.

Notice the L Brackets which keep the platform from sliding out at all while locked.

Notice the L Brackets which keep the platform from sliding out at all while locked.

My inverter and thermometer. It gets hot in the desert. Velcro can be used to attach things to the carpeted liner.

My inverter and thermometer. It gets hot in the desert. Velcro can be used to attach things to the carpeted liner.

Another view of my sleeping arrangement in the elevated position.

Another view of my sleeping arrangement in the elevated position.

Keep a foam pad or part of a foam pad on hand. Much more comfortable on the knees when trying to grab gear or move things.

Keep a foam pad or part of a foam pad on hand. Much more comfortable on the knees when trying to grab gear or move things.

You can easily slide the platform down from the elevated position and slide it under your boxes--just lift up each corner of a box to start and then slide it in.

You can easily slide the platform down from the elevated position and slide it under your boxes–just lift up each corner of a box to start and then slide it in.

Slide the platform underneath without removing my boxes. I kept two large boxes for gear, two smaller boxes for food, and a small cooler underneath more often than not.

Slide the platform underneath without removing my boxes. I kept two large boxes for gear, two smaller boxes for food, and a small cooler underneath more often than not.

Just another food of changing things around. I placed two small stopper nails on the side bins right by the back shelf to prevent it from sliding forward when removing the platform (I did not nail it down though, it was not attached and could be moved around).

Just another food of changing things around. I placed two small stopper nails on the side bins right by the back shelf to prevent it from sliding forward when removing the platform (I did not nail it down though, it was not attached and could be moved around).

View of the window covers and velcro attached light.

View of the window covers and velcro attached light.

View toward the other side.

View toward the other side.

Even hotter now... View of my electronics setup.

Even hotter now… View of my electronics setup.

Get a few sunshades--I had three sets. Two for the front window, two for the side windows in the canopy and two for the main window of the canopy (at the tailgate).

Get a few sunshades–I had three sets. Two for the front window, two for the side windows in the canopy and two for the main window of the canopy (at the tailgate).

Another view of the L Brackets which kept the platform from sliding at all--simply attached to the underside of the 2x2. The string was to run between the L Brackets on both sides so I could remove the platform from under the boxes while keeping the boxes from sliding out with it.

Another view of the L Brackets which kept the platform from sliding at all–simply attached to the underside of the 2×2. The string was to run between the L Brackets on both sides so I could remove the platform from under the boxes while keeping the boxes from sliding out with it.

A view of my base camp set up. Boxes placed on the back shelf, all full of heavy climbing and camping gear, but well supported in the center of each by the side bins.

A view of my base camp set up. Boxes placed on the back shelf, all full of heavy climbing and camping gear, but well supported in the center of each by the side bins.

My home office.

My home office.

Sufficient headroom for me in the Leer 122 Canopy (I'm 5'9").

Sufficient headroom for me in the Leer 122 Canopy (I’m 5’9″).

Another awkward selfie in my home away from home.

Another awkward selfie in my home away from home.

The hole was meant to provide access under the table which may be otherwise hard to reach.

The hole was meant to provide access under the table which may be otherwise hard to reach.

View of the tailgate again.

View of the tailgate again.

My bed setup for base camp mode.

My bed setup for base camp mode.

My bed setup for base camp mode--you put your feet under the back shelf in order to sleep.

My bed setup for base camp mode–you put your feet under the back shelf in order to sleep.

Simple things like a light with a hook can be attached in order to cook at night from the tailgate.

Simple things like a light with a hook can be attached in order to cook at night from the tailgate.

My truck camping setup at night. Happy travels.

My truck camping setup at night. Happy travels.

Final Thoughts

So I’ve been living in the back of my truck pretty consistently (excluding backcountry nights and the rare hotel) now for more than four months (since March 2013).

And every night in the “front country” has been spent in the back of my truck (versus a tent), and it is awesome for life in the windy desert like Joshua Tree and Red Rocks where you don’t have to deal with a flapping tent.

I must say I’m super happy with my transformer style setup.

There is definitely a convenience factor to having the coffin mode available and a peace of mind with having gear locked up underneath, while it is far, far more comfortable to have the extra space and headroom afforded by the “back shelf” mode.

Believe me, when you are forced to hang out in your shelter because of weather or whatever, you would much rather be able to sit up and move around in the back than be confined to the coffin.

It’s also nice to be able to easily remove the sleeping platform for the occasional clean and sweep–dust and sand infiltrate the back no matter what, it seems, in these desert environs.

I’m pretty content with how things came together and there isn’t a whole lot that I can think of that I would want to change…

One thing might be to use a different style lock and clasp for the tailgate though, it currently requires a precision alignment to lock both (I’ve got the technique down, but it can be fussy sometimes).

One of the biggest things that my setup is missing right now though is the dual battery setup with the isolator. This was something I hoped to do before leaving, but never got around to it, plus I’m not too mechanically/electrically inclined, so I was always intimidated.

But, in essence, having a second battery (deep cycle marine gel) that is charged from the alternator, but isolated when you are drawing from it would allow one to charge and run their electronics without worry of giving yourself a dead battery.

Currently, I’m just charging off my main truck battery, and am super cautious to periodically start my truck and recharge (I will idle the truck once every hour).

Beyond the building aspect, I plan to do a future post or two about other thoughts and insights about making life in the back of a truck a little better.

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“Truck Camping: A Comprehensive Guide to Outfitting and Living in the Back of Your Pickup via @desktodirtbag”

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If you enjoyed this post, also be sure to check out: 

Truck Camping Inspiration

Here are some of the photos and write ups that I found really valuable when I was doing my initial research–along with some of my thoughts about what I found helpful or unique or just plain cool.

The Best Sleeping Rig for Pickup Trucks

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Mal Daly’s elevated split deck configuration: also includes good ideas like using velcro to attach things to your canopy, adding plywood over your tailgate, built in bottle openers, and lots of tips and tricks for things to think about.

Truck Camping in Style – Roll Global

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Different approach in that they hung one end of the sleeping platform with hooks and U bolts. One of the best write ups with full details about rigging up an electrical system with second batteries and an isolator, as well as using power inverters. They were then able to incorporate cool things like a mini fridge, lights, and mini PC fans for air circulation.

A Home for the Homeless

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Photos of a wheel well height sleeping platform with one large drawer on the underside, also has a second battery supply and some hinged panels toward the cab for retrieving items.

Bert Gets a Rump Remodel – The RV Project

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Another wheel well height sleeping platform with a pretty intricate set of little drawers and storage space underneath.

Tacoma Camper – Baja Taco

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A very nicely done wheel well height sleeping platform, even covered with carpeting. Includes pad locks to protect underneath storage, as well as a built in and lockable toolbox for additional secure storage. I really like the canopy win-doors which include a screened slider–wish that was an option for mine.

’89 Toyota Pickup: Climber’s Edition – Mountain Project

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Bed height elevated platform with a large drawer that can also double as a pull out table.

Truck Camping – Steph Davis

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Steph Davis’ back shelf setup which maximizes head room. Stack items on the back near the cab and you can sleep on the bed with your feet underneath the shelf.

Living in a Truck: A Manifesto – 1 Girl on the Rocks

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Using a large shelf that sits on the canopy lip, a la Steph Davis, maximizing head space and livability. Numerous other tips and tricks about life in a truck.

Truck Camping with Jack

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Bed height elevated sleeping platform. Modular setup which allows for quick and easy assembly/disassembly.

Truck Camping 101

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Lots of ideas about general truck camping setups, good tips and tricks like making a tarp awning in foul weather.

Truck Drawers / Sleeping Platform – Expedition Portal

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An extremely elaborate wheel well height sleeping platform which includes heavy duty lined drawers, slide out bed platforms, and even built in hot water!

Truck Camping: Electricity

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Some great details about power inverters and how to power your household gadgets while on the road.

Truck Bed Buildout – Mountain Project

Mountain Project forum thread with and general ideas about rigging up a truck camping setup.

Pickup Truck Bed Designs – Super Topo

Super Topo forum thread with ideas, photos, tips, and tricks.

Are you putting together your own build? I’d love to see photos of what you ended up with!

Be sure to check out the comments below for more information and input from other readers.

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About Ryan

I'm a lover of the great outdoors and a former Washington DC based desk jockey who left behind the working world for a year-long dirtbag climbing trip in 2013. Since the beginning of 2014 I've been traveling through Colombia and have since settled down in Medellin for the time being.

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32 Comments


  1. Awesome, detailed post! We are obsessed with our truck-bed. 100% worth the effort, makes life on the road much more manageable and keeps us organized!

    • Thanks Vikki! Couldn’t agree more about taking the time to make an awesome setup for your wheels. I mean, especially when the thing is going to be your primary place of residence for months on end!

  2. As always, great article! While my dirtbag adventure will likely only be about 6-7 months, I am starting to wonder about logistics. You mention that most people use the automobile they have. I drive a Prius. Not ideal for sleeping in, but I’m a pretty content ground dweller. I know that long-term I may start to question this. Here’s the proposition I’m considering: by saving on gas (45-50 mpg), I can occasionally cough up the money for lodging when I feel the need for added comfort. I can definitely do the number crunching, but I’m wondering if you’ve encountered people doing this or did similar analyses of your own at any point. I’d love to hear any insights you may have on this.

    • Hey Brett! Awesome to hear that your own plans are coming together. I can’t really recall seeing any dirtbags rolling around in a Pruis… I wouldn’t imagine it to be the ideal vehicle for transporting gear and living out of, but the gas savings would really add up over 6-7 months on the road. In general, I’m in favor of going with what you’ve got and finding creative ways to make it work. Maybe you can add a rooftop box? On some vehicles, people even remove the passenger seat(s) for extra storage space. The biggest problem with the Prius that I see would be finding a place to sleep while you are on the road… But I guess that’s where your gas savings and cheap hotel would come in. I know Gina Begin has been living in her little car for a long while now, check out her stuff, and maybe reach out to her. She’s a veteran at dirtbaggin’ it in a car: http://www.ginabegin.com/2013/05/the-ultimate-guide-to-living-on-road-15.html

    • Hey Brett (and thanks, Ryan!)-

      I’ve been living out of my Mazda 3—not the hatchback version!— for over two years now. I love the gas savings (standard transmission; I can get up to 40mpg) and the ease of getting around places. I don’t love that I can’t lay flat (hurts the back) and that organization is tricky. However, there are certainly ways to make it work. Ryan linked to one article and there are two others that shed light on some important aspects when going on a long road trip like this.

      Here’s all of them, in a row :

      http://www.ginabegin.com/2013/04/the-ultimate-guide-to-frugal-living-on.html

      http://www.ginabegin.com/2013/05/the-ultimate-guide-to-living-on-road-15.html (Ryan linked to)

      http://www.ginabegin.com/2013/05/the-ultimate-guide-to-living-on-road-pt.html

      These cover different aspects like health, exercise, entertainment, hygiene, organization, budget, safety, etc while living in a small space. Let me know if you have any other questions, though, for sure. Happy to help! gina@ginabegin.com

  3. Ryan – great write up! I’ve always thought about doing something similar to my Suburban for when I travel alone to festivals and events slinging outdoor gear and the wife stays at home.

    One site that I found a year or more ago was Life Remotely. They converted their truck to accomodate 3 people traveling from Seatle to the end of South America. They camped in tents most nights and some hotels/hostels but did a lot of conversions to their truck. Plus they blogged the whole time which is pretty cool if you want to take the road trip international.

    Take a look at their site – they had some pretty good details on the electronic side with installing a second batter for extra juice and to even power a fridge.

    http://liferemotely.com/

    Keep up the great posts!

    Chris
    @thegearhouse

    • Hey Chris! Thanks for reading and leaving a comment! I’ve actually been following the Life Remotely crew as well, what an awesome adventure… Definitely something I’d love to do, plus, like you said, lots of great info there about outfitting and living in a vehicle. Cheers!

  4. Enjoyed your article! The dual battery setup is painless. I’m a farmer at heart and have the itch to explore, so I have mixed some tricks from a few worlds and made some easy fixes.

    For example, on your dual battery, the farm just purchased a brand new 2013 Chevy 3500HD with a dump bed. It has dual batteries. How was it installed? They grounded both batteries to the frame and connected the positives with a very large fuse. ~15k later its still working. While its not recommended to do it this way, I think it would work fine in your case. Add the marine battery somewhere in your shell and run a heavy positive from the original battery. Put a large fuse in it(I’d research to see the number, I can’t remember off the top of my head) and your isolator switch inline (probably 2nd battery side of the fuse).

    Not sure if you have the 22re, 3.0v6, or 3.4v6 (that body style was limbo madness) but there are some easy and somewhat cheap alternator upgrades available to power out your second battery.

    And…

    You need to visit Arkansas. Horseshoe Canyon Ranch, Sams Throne, and so many other hidden gems.

    • Hey! Thanks for stopping by and checking this out, I appreciate your comments as well. It is something I really should do… I’ve done a bit more research on this since I initially posted it, and it is less intimidating the more I read. It just comes down to actually doing it and spending some more money, I guess. I’ve got the 22RE in my truck… I still need to look more into the alternator aspect though.

      I have heard good things about the climbing down in those parts, but I’ve actually never been down that way (never made it further south than the New River Gorge in WV). Something I would love to check out at some point though!

  5. Found this article through the link that Therm-a-rest shared. Fortuitous as I’ve been pining over a dirtbag mobile for a while now. I live in Squamish, BC, and this place is chock full of them. I don’t imagine I’d be turning my current vehicle, a Hyundai Accent, into a vehicle I could live out of anytime soon.

    A few questions:

    1) Have you ever lived with another person in your pickup for an extended period of time, if so, how was it?

    2) How does it fair in the cold? When I finally get a pickup I’d like to use it during the winter for skiing and ice climbing.

    • Hey there! Love Squamish, I was up there for a few weeks in July. Those are great questions, thanks for asking and commenting here.

      1) I haven’t lived with another person sleeping in the back (where you at ladies?!). I have spent a few weeks here and there on the road with others, I slept in the back, they had their own tent at camp. It does get crowded having two people with full alpine kits sharing the same storage space. You have to juggle space and work together to get to things. As for two people sleeping in the back, I think that would be pretty tight (doable, but challenging). In my research (links in this post at the bottom) I know there were a few couples living in a shared truck bed…

      2) I haven’t spent very many nights in full on winter conditions (that 12 degree night in Boise comes to mind!), so I can’t comment too much. It was fine for that… Mostly it was hard transitioning from the warmth of the cab to the frigid air while you are shifting things around and getting ready for bed, but then once you were inside the canopy it was fine. Lots of frosty ice on the inside windows, but in my sleeping bag all was well. It stays a little warmer in the canopy. Maybe I’m a wuss, but I didn’t want to spend an extended period of time dirtbagging it in my truck while I was ice climbing (I spent the first two months in Ouray, CO, sharing a rental), I just thought it would be too challenging/miserable to dry and manage gear in a confined space with the shorter daylight hours. I’d be perfectly content doing future weekend trips with this setup though!

  6. Hey Ryan,

    I came across your YouTube vid when I was looking for ideas to make some sort of sleeping platform in the back of my truck. I just picked up a cab-high ARE topper and would like to put some sort of system in there like yours.
    One thing I found while looking on the topper websites is a piece of weather strip designed to go between the tailgate and the truck bed. It has a special wedge shape to it so when you close the tailgate it makes a watertight seal. It is just the thing to keep the dust and dirt from entering the back of your rig when driving down the dirt roads. They’re inexpensive too, for a full size truck like my Dodge it’s only $25. It has adhesive on one side, so installation looks simple.
    This might be just the thing to cut down on the sand and dirt you mention that seems to infiltrate.

    Be safe,
    J Turner

  7. Hey Ryan, this is awesome. I’m looking at doing something like this in the back of my 91 toyota (probably identical to yours) but a lot of designs I’ve found are too complex or big for my little truck. Yours looks awesome. I’ll be using my primarily for search and rescue and the occasional solo camping trip.

    • Thanks Ellie! Hope the info was helpful, I look forward to hearing how yours comes together, and any changes or improvements you might make to it. I’m still quite happy with my setup.

  8. Hi Ryan,

    Great website! I spent a summer living out of a ford focus hatchback while road tripping around the United States. The rear seats were replaced with a small platform to store gear and the rear windows were tinted. I enjoyed the freedom that anywhere I parked no one would see me hop from the drivers seat to my platform for some zzz’s. Also no one would guess that someone is sleeping in a 3dr ford focus.

    The pickup truck has a lot of advantages but do you find it limits where you are comfortable camping because it is more noticeable to get in and out of the sleeping area? Also someone is more likely to guess it is being used for camping.

    Thank you & Take care.

    • Thanks for leaving a comment, Rob! I didn’t find that it limited where I felt comfortable camping, but I always tried to be discreet… Waiting until few if any people were around before I hopped in and usually peeking through the windows so I’m not hopping out right next to someone loading their groceries or whatever. I slept in all sorts of random places in that time on the road, more often than not it was in permissible camping areas, but there were other times it was more frowned upon–from grocery store parking lots, to auto repair places, etc. Certainly is more likely to guess that someone is camping in it, but I only got hassled once (by a rent a cop telling me to move on).

      Cool that you made your Ford Focus work for you… I’d find it hard to sleep longer term in that setup, I think. Though I do like the thought of having ready access to drive off and being able to lock yourself in–the only two things that are somewhat unsafe about sleeping in the back of a truck.

  9. Hey thanks for the great insight on a pickup camping setup! I just purchased a 2002 tundra with a 74″ bed. Picking it up in Denver in a week and driving it to Durango and then around the southwest. I mainly decided on a truck for a mobile place to keep my dog(that doesn’t have an interior he can rip to shreds), but I am thinking of building a setup similar to yours. You haven’t used yours with a canine companion have you? Any suggestions on keeping it dog-friendly, dog-comfortable and dog-proof? I will be keeping him in the back while at work and such and will be camping in the back with him and possibly another person.

    • I don’t own a dog, but I have taken my buddy’s two dogs out with us to the trailhead at least. Not sure that I have great recommendations for how you would go about living in the truck with your dog. All we really did was lower the large wooden deck to the bottom position, throw down some soft doggy beds and pillows, then cover it all with a giant blanket which also covered like the side bins to keep dog hair from getting all over. It was nice and cozy for the dogs while driving down the road. Then we just put packs and other gear on/in the side bins. We used some big metal clamps to secure the blanket to the side bins and keep it from falling down or sliding around. I would think avoiding any carpeting would be a good bet, just go with blankets and things than can be taken out, cleaned, and you can sweep out the back.

      I’d love to hear if you come up with a nice solution though. If you aren’t bringing along too much gear, you could probably have decent space for your dog and gear, and be able to shift things around for sleeping? Good luck!

      • Well, I’m near the end of my current adventure with my truck. I started in Durango, CO and am in Bellingham,WA ready to either take the ferry here or drive up to Prince Rupert, BC to take the ferry there, on my way home to Juneau, Alaska.

        I used your set-up as a guide in building mine. It is a little different – it’s shorter a little bit, as I have a shorter canopy cover and I didn’t make the sleeping platform flush with the walls of the truck bed – but it turned out great! I’m really happy with it. Also, one of my favorite parts about it is none of it is actually attached to the truck. So I can take everything out and it makes cleaning a little easier. I’d post photos if I knew how. If you feel like seeing it let me know and tell me how to get them to you!

        Thanks again for sharing your experience and insight!

        • That’s great Michael! You could email some pics to Ryan@desktodirtbag.com and if you were interested I could even add a pic or two to the above post. Maybe even with a paragraph or two about what you did differently, what you liked, what you’d change, etc… Let me know!

  10. We have always taken our pets with us camping. I grew up with both dogs and cats, and they all went along; two adults, two children, a dog, and two cats all in a 10.5′ slide in camper. More room than in a topper for sure, but still “busy” with that many.
    The thing I wanted to mention was that I moved from Seattle to Loveland, Colorado north of Denver in July ’05. I brought my ’01 Dodge Ram 2500 with a 8.5′ Northland Grizzly slide-in camper. It was myself and my 9 year old Black Lab mix Lucy. One thing I had not anticipated was the temperatures here in Colorado. It was 105-106 degrees for the first week I was here. My job was in Boulder, which is known for its “bunny-higher” types. I couldn’t leave Lucy in the camper at the RV park because I didn’t have air conditioning in the camper. I took her to work with me and tied her long rope to the trailer hitch on the truck so she could crawl under it and get into the shade. I also put out plenty of cold water for her that I replenished often. By the afternoon of my first day at my new job I heard rumors that people were going to call Animal Control on me for having my dog outside in temperatures that hot, even though she had both shade and water. I ended up having to leave early my first day so I could go purchase a $600 air conditioner and install it in the camper so I could leave Lucy there during the day and I didn’t have to worry about her comfort.
    It’s Winter now, so high temps aren’t an issue, but we just had close to a week of sub-zero temps that can be just as dangerous for your 4-legged friend. Please keep this in mind and be prepared for the temperatures. Don’t make my mistake and have to scramble to get what you need to keep your pet comfortable.
    I will also add that blankets are the way to go. You can arrange them how ever you need, and you can remove them to clean them or any other messes that always seem to happen with your pet along for the journey.
    Have fun and be safe.

    Regards,
    JT

  11. Any thoughts on camping in a 2-seater truck vs a 4-seater (extended cab with 2 small seats in the back)?

    Also, heard of anyone camping in an Accord sedan? I’m wondering if it’d be worth it to buy a new Tacoma to convert into a dirtbaggin’ vehicle or if I should try to make it in a sedan. Lots of variables… I’ve got the cash but it’d eat into the “cushion” I have for living on the road (about 50% of it). OTOH I could buy a used Tacoma, but they hold value so well it’d seem like long term it’d be best to get it new. I’ve seen some with 250 miles sell for $8,000+. Thoughts on getting a new truck using my beat-up sedan?

  12. Back in the 1970s and treeplanting in Oregon, I and Tony Lessa lived for two weeks at a time in the back of my 1954 Chevy PU. The canopy was just a simple shell with the board across next to the cab. After the fourth or fifth trip out in the season the accumulated funk was too much. You can imagine two hard-working guys in very muddy and cold conditions coming in after work with dirty wet gear. Pretty desperate circumstances but before Reagan trashed the treeplanting industry our coop ( Hoedads & then Second Growth) was making good money so we endured the hardships. It works for the young. Now, at 76, I find sleeping two of us between the wheel wells in a Dodge G. Caravan (seats removed) much too crowded. I think I will tent and the wife can have the van.

    • That’s great, Carl. Thanks for popping by and leaving a comment. I always love to hear about other people’s set ups and what works and doesn’t–some of which holds true from decade to decade! Always a little harder trying to accommodate two people, gotta go for one of those big ol’ Sprinter vans? Or maybe a van with a rooftop, fold out tent? :)

  13. Hey Ryan,

    What did you use for covering up your side windows? I noticed that you have something holding the “blinds” in place, but I can’t figure it out from the pictures.

    Also, what do you do with your food in bear country if you’re sleeping in the truck? Do you just store it in the cab?

    Thanks,

    Patrick

    • For the large square windows near the tailgate I just used those big “magic auto shades” like these, which fit perfectly to cover up those side windows and the back window by the tailgate (I had four in the canopy) and another set up in the cab for my actual window. As for the longer side windows I just used a USPS box, haphazardly stuck up against the window. Nothing fancy.

      Food in bear country… When I was in *real* bear country, like in the Sierras, I always kept my food and scented items in the provided bear lockers. Any of the trail heads or camping areas will have bear lockers. Other than that I never really worried about. Just kept it in the cab, yeah. But the Sierras were the only place I went with any considerable bear problems.

  14. I’m a 60 year young widow who just bought a bright yellow 2003 S10 step side with the intention of camping in it. But I discovered that finding a used S10 step side topper is harder than finding hen’s teeth!! Buying a new one wasn’t an option. Just found a black step side topper for a Ford Ranger. Isn’t a perfect fit but it works. And the colors compliment each other although color wasn’t my primary concern. I took two days to drive from the St. Louis area of MO to the Kansas City area to pick it up.

    I may be 60 years old but my life is far from over and I’m really excited about being able to truck-camp again. I used to have a ’81 Ford Courier with a shell and camped out in it all the time.

    I love your idea and will probably use it as the basic plan for the back of my truck. I love taking road trips to the south-west and love the idea of being able to camp out in some of the areas I so enjoy exploring. I’m planning on driving Route 66 from Chicago to Santa Monica in 2019. I will be 66 myself that year so I think it’s appropriate.

    I want to know how you attached the plywood to the inside of the tailgate?? I really like the idea of security that it gives for when I won’t be with my truck. I don’t see any obvious bolts so I’m really curious.

    Thanks

    Thump and
    The Thump Truck

    • Hey Wanda! That’s so awesome, congrats on the new ride and your awesome plans.

      Just goes to show that this is a viable option, no matter your age. I love the freedom that my truck camping setup offered me.

      I have a plastic bed lining on my truck, which also covered the back of the tailgate… I just popped the screws off, took off the plastic liner and drilled holes in the sheet of plywood to match those used by the plastic tailgate cover. Sorry if that doesn’t help you with your setup. But I’m sure you could just drill your own holes in the metal tailgate. Use the plywood cover as a guide for your screw holes…

      Hope you check back in and let us know how it goes!

  15. Hey Ryan,

    LOVE you set up, thinking of tweaking it slightly and using it for my truck, however I had a question for you as to how heavy/weighed down your truck bed is now with all that lumber and hardware in it now, and the higher canopy. Have you noticed a sizeable decrease in gas milage? Was there a noticeable change at all?

    Thanks!

    • Thanks Lo. I didn’t actually measure the difference in mileage between how my truck was (without canopy) and then adding the canopy and plywood setup. I did certainly notice a drop in MPG after when my truck was also fully loaded with camping and climbing gear as well as the plywood and canopy…

      For that reason I think a minimalist setup (sort of like mine) is certainly preferable to a highly intricate setup with lots of drawers, cubbies, and other additions. Keep it as simple as you can for whatever you need it for. That goes for the gear you bring along as well. Less is more.

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