Truck Camping – A Guide to Outfitting and Living in the Back of Your Pickup
My new Kindle book Big Travel, Small Budget has a full chapter on overland travel and truck camping — it will be free until 8/26. Don’t miss this if you want to get more out of your truck camping… Get it here.
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, even one with a multifunctional folding truck ramp, 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.
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.
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.
Check out the companion blog post to the video above: Considerations when buying a canopy.
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:
- The elevated sleeping platform where you have gear storage underneath, this seemed to be the most common approach by far; and
- 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?
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.
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.
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).
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.
The whole build was completed in one afternoon. It required some precision handiwork, and I was grateful for Jeff’s help, input, and ideas.
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).
More Photos Without Clutter
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, casino camping, or other single nights of sleep while on the road and driving between destinations.
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.
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).
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.
Truck Camping In Action
90% of the time I keep the platform in the lower mode and leave the gear boxes and food on top of the wooden platform.
But if I want to move the platform into the elevated position either for gear security (leaving it at a trailhead or parking in the middle of a big city) or in order to sleep in the elevated mode (parking lots typically), I can do so quickly and easily without removing the gear.
Check out the video for a demonstration as well as a discussion about the elevated sleeping platform.
Here’s a short video demonstrating the reverse: moving the sleeping platform from the elevated mode to base camp mode with all the gear below. I move the platform first and then rearrange the boxes where they belong in order to maximize livable space.
Something you shouldn’t neglect: choosing a mattress or sleeping pad for your truck camping setup. I’ve tried three different setups (Therm-A-Rest Neoir, Therm-A-Rest Dream, and the Teton Sports XXL Cot Pad) here’s what’s worked best for me and my thoughts.
Most recently (since early 2015) Andrea and I have been venturing around the American West as a couple and camping primarily out of the back of the truck. Here’s a short video demonstrating our space in the transformer / back shelf mode.
Photo Gallery In Use
So I’ve been living in the back of my truck pretty consistently (excluding backcountry nights and the rare hotel) now for more than a year in total, I would say.
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).
I have been hard at work compiling the answers to some of my most frequently asked questions and other insights and resources in my new Truck Camping Tips and Tricks email list. Check it out if you are into truck camping or would like to get yours setup!
If you enjoyed this post, also be sure to check out:
- All of my related truck camping posts which dives into many other aspects in my truck camping adventures as well as my truck camping playlist on YouTube.
- Truck Camping: A Video Tour of My Home where I talk about some of the other aspects of truck camping and demonstrate my setup in video form–moving pictures!
- A Few Random Products I Love From Life on the Road where I detail a few of the creature comforts that made my time on the road better, from the amazingly comfortable blow up mattress I used to how I kept my water cold and my meals hot; and
- How Much You Should Budget for a Climbing Road Trip where I go into the nitty gritty of money and how much it will actually cost to “live the dream”.
- Budgeting and Real Monthly Expenses for a Major Road Trip where I show you how much I spend for a month on the road in the American West.
Did you find this post helpful? Help me out and Like it, Tweet it, Pin it, or otherwise share it! Thanks!
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.
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
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.
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
Another wheel well height sleeping platform with a pretty intricate set of little drawers and storage space underneath.
Tacoma Camper – Baja Taco
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
Bed height elevated platform with a large drawer that can also double as a pull out table.
Truck Camping – Steph Davis
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
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.
Bed height elevated sleeping platform. Modular setup which allows for quick and easy assembly/disassembly.
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
An extremely elaborate wheel well height sleeping platform which includes heavy duty lined drawers, slide out bed platforms, and even built in hot water!
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.
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 and just kept traveling... I also authored the Amazon Kindle book Big Travel, Small Budget: How to Travel More, Spend Less, and See the World. I love helping people to escape the rat race, live more intentionally, and find more adventure. Be sure to connect with me on Instagram.
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