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

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This is a monster post about pickup truck camping, a full-on guide to outfitting and living in the back of your pickup truck. We are going to cover a lot of information, including what you need to know when deciding on a canopy, common approaches for building out the back, organization, and gear, how it is used in practice, and so much more!

Don’t forget to check out the associated articles for more details about each element, print out the truck camping guide at the end, and to join our exclusive Pickup Truck Camping Facebook group to connect with like-minded folks.

Table of Contents

Truck Canopy Camping – The Ultimate Guide

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 rite 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 cliché outdoorsy rig the Subaru Outback, Jeeps, SUVs, pickup trucks both large and small, and 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.

Though there are options ranging from a rooftop tent, a truck bed camper, the canopy, or even a truck bed tent… Read more about the pros and cons of each approach.

One of the main advantages to using a canopy for camping is the stealth factor: no one really imagines someone camping out in the back, whereas it is pretty obvious if you’ve got a van or a rooftop tent on your truck. This opens up some stealth camping opportunities that might not otherwise be available.

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

Pickup Truck Camping: A Guide to Outfitting and Living in the Back of Your Rig truck-camping, epic-dirtbag-adventure

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.

My 1991 Toyota Pickup

I’ve got a 1991 Toyota 4×4 Pickup (Hilux), which is a series of trucks 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.

Little did I know just how many incredible adventures we would have in the ensuing years, thanks to truck camping.

Since this initial build, I’ve put more than 45,000 miles on my truck, taken to monster road trips of the American West, and then gone on to drive across Mexico, and Central America, ship my truck across the Darien Gap to continue driving through South America.

It’s been quite an adventure!

Read More: Get Inspired by My Truck Camping Adventures

Join the #PTC Community

Be sure to join our private Facebook group with thousands of Truck Camping enthusiasts. Ask questions, get answers, and share photos, along with your own tips and tricks. Request to join and you will be approved soon!

Truck Camping – Canopy Selection

My truck did not have a canopy, 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.

But if you’ve got the time and a limited budget, your best bet is to regularly keep an eye out on Craigslist, the Facebook marketplace, or even your local classified ads, to try and get a good deal. Be aware of the quality of a used canopy because potential leaks can be really bad if you’re camping back there.

As for buying a new canopy, when I returned back to the West Coast and was gearing up for my first 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 set up–things like a carpeted canopy liner in order to help with condensation (you can also stick velcroed 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 time delay. They did the installation and wired up the light and cigarette lighter adapters in the canopy as well.

Read More: 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.

(At the end of this post you’ll find some of the builds that influenced my decisions)

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.

Camped among the boulders in Hidden Valley in Joshua Tree National Park.
Instagram Adventures: Camped among the boulders in Hidden Valley in Joshua Tree National Park.

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

  1. The elevated sleeping platform where you have gear storage underneath, 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, 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 advantage of this approach is the relative security of gear, you can place all your expensive climbing and outdoor gear underneath the platform and, provide you can lock your tailgate, you’ve got a pretty smash and grab safe setup.

This approach may not be problematic if you’re just going out for the weekends or short trips, but if you ever want to take a long trip (or ever encounter inclement weather), then you will see the limitations of the elevated sleeping platform.

Whereas, the back shelf style seemed to be in favor by those who have been dirtbagging it for a long time. Professional climber 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 space for organized gear storage and any gear in the back is more susceptible to the smash and grab style break-in.

Read More: Elevated Sleeping Platform vs Backshelf

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

I envisioned all sorts of elaborate ideas in my mind, 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 famous 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 running along side 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 existed. I’m sure some obscure climbing dirtbag without internet built it way back in the 70s.

Now he’s probably scouring at me for having “invented” the Transformer Style of Truck Camping.

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

I’m not super savvy when it comes to building things, but I talked to my good buddy Jeff who has been working construction forever and he agreed to help 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 a bunch of screws.

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

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 the 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.

In the photo above you can see how the vertical side bins are attached to the truck.

Here we precisely notched out 2×4 where the canopy clamp fits by using a Skilsaw set to the appropriate depth.

Below you can see the same photo with the canopy clamps now in place.

Some readers have since pointed out that their canopy clamps weren’t so spacious, so you may need to replace them. Here is the style of canopy clamp that my truck canopy came with.

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 removed the plastic tailgate cover and replaced it with a precisely cut piece of plywood.

This wood tailgate cover 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, the fuel canister of my Jetboil 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.

In the photo above you can see the new tailgate cover which is perfect for a place to sit while you grab a bite to eat or a place to cut vegetables, cook, whatever.

This type of tailgate is way better compared to the plastic grooves if you will be using your truck for camping.

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

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

As you can see above, the left-hand vertical side bin featured a tabletop for eating or my computer and serves as additional secure storage underneath, thanks to my extra security precautions…

Adding More Security

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

The idea here is 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.

Above you can see the hasp locks which I decided to install for increased security. I lock my tailgate to the sleeping platform, which prevents the tailgate from being opened and protects all the expensive gear underneath.

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

This additional security step is highly recommended.

While, of course, anyone dedicated to breaking in could still get in with the help of an ax or crowbar, the vast majority of these sorts of thefts are quick and crimes of opportunity.

If you can deter them with more work, they aren’t likely to be sawing away in the back of your truck to see what’s underneath… Most are smash and grab style thefts.

Here is a link to the style of hasp locks that I installed on my truck.

One of my most commonly asked questions is about how to lock the canopy from the inside while you are asleep.

I do this thanks to one of those cable snowboard locks, which I wrap around the L-Brackets (more on that a moment) and around the canopy door, which prevents it from being opened.

Read More: Truck Camping FAQ

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.

Above is my truck camping rig set up for “base camp” mode after the initial build, but 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, just remove the canopy clamps) and then treated all the lumber with sealant.

There were other subtle little additions, like putting in a couple of little nails to prevent the back shelf from sliding out when I slid the sleeping platform out from the elevated position.

I also added 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).

Read More: Step-by-Step How I Built My Truck Camping Setup

Truck Camping Photos Without Clutter

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

Note 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, meaning it can be lifted up or slid side to side in order to more easily access what I keep in either side bin.

I did place two small nails into the vertical plywood (not the side rails), so the back shelf does not slide out, away from the cab window.

Back shelf setup, which is not attached, it can be moved around as needed.
Vertical side bins--right hand bin is open on top.

Here you can see the right-hand side bin, which I decided to leave fully open to provide easy access to some gear.

Near the contractor window is where I often keep my foldable camp chair, among other things I like to have on hand.

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

Right-hand vertical side bins–looking back toward the tailgate (with the wooden tailgate topper temporarily removed).

PRO TIP: sticky Velcro can be used to attach things to your headliner like the thermometer or simple LED lights. But be sure it isn’t heavy, or you can damage your headliner.

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

The left-hand bin featured a table top which serves as my mobile workspace for blogging and freelance work (which is how I earn a living while traveling) as well as additional secure storage underneath.

Get a power inverter to charge your electronics.

A 400W Power Inverter is crucial for happy truck camping. This is how I keep my laptop and other electronics charged while I’m in the back.

I can also run things like a personal fan at night for camping in hot weather.

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

This cigarette lighter adapter was installed during the canopy installation. It was initially connected to my starter battery but it is now connected to my secondary battery so I can run all my electronics and lights without worrying about killing my starter battery in the morning.

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

Here is a photo clearly showing my truck camping build while it is setup for “basecamp mode” which prioritizes comfort and livability.

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 plywood is too heavy and also unnecessary in my opinion.

I weigh about 180 pounds and sleep in the elevated mode at times. I have even done it with my girlfriend as well — the both of us up there — and while there is a slight bowing, it is not enough to worry about.

For one, my boxes are about 1″ below the platform and help support any bowing. Two, I often place a short section of 2×2 to brace the entrance of the platform when entering, but you could use something else, like a section of plywood measured to cover the difference.

Once you are inside on the elevated platform, your weight will be dispersed over a fairly wide area.

That’s my opinion, anyway, and the same sheet of plywood has held up for 4+ years.

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.

FYI: you don’t need to lift up the back shelf to slide it into place. That was just for demonstration. I normally place some gear on the shelf to keep it out of the way while I slide the platform back into position.

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

Here’s a close-up shot of the hasp locks that I use to secure my gear underneath and deter any thefts.

I have traveled many, many miles though (including through all of Latin America, where these types of thefts are more prevalent) and have managed to avoid any attempts at theft.

Hasp and locks installed on tailgate.

Another shot shows how it is attached to the underside of the wood covering my 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.

As mentioned earlier, adding L Brackets under the rails will prevent the platform from sliding whatsoever when it is locked in place. More details follow in this article.

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

The wooden tailgate is a step that is not only important for sitting, cooking, etc, but it also allows the attachment of the hasp locks.

Read More: How I Built My Truck Camping Setup

Truck Camping Gear

The build is only one aspect of truck camping life, but another important aspect is the gear you use on a day-to-day basis.

I would encourage you to take your inspiration for gear from the world of backpacking for the most part and try to get lightweight, high-quality gear that will last for years.

The basic premise of truck camping is being entirely self-sufficient, which means being able to travel (aka the truck), sleep, and cook.

The next most important considerations are:

Your Sleep System

A quality down sleeping bag that will cover a wide range of temperatures (mine is a 15 degree down bag), a real pillow (don’t do memory foam, it freezes), and a comfy and portable sleeping pad rather than a household mattress.

Here’s the sleeping pad I currently favor for comfort and portability, but there’s a lot to be said about picking a truck camping mattress or sleeping pad…

Read More: Truck Camping Mattress Selection Tips

Your Cooking Setup

When I first started I just used a Jetboil for basically everything, but as I’ve gone longer and farther, I’ve upgraded to a two-burner Coleman propane stove (which you can hook larger propane tanks up to).

The Coleman stove will allow you to cook basically whatever you want and has improved my quality of life tremendously. The larger propane tanks will last a long time and are refillable, you’ll just need the adapter hose.

Those are the two most basic things, but there are many other important things you should get, ranging from a nice camp chair, storage bins, water jugs, and other comforts…

Read More: What You Need to Get Started Truck Camping

The above will give you a great overview of the essentials, but I’ve also put together a much more comprehensive truck camping gear list which covers basically everything that I’ve brought with me while truck camping across 15+ countries and 45,000+ miles.

Read More: Truck Camping Gear Essentials

My Setup in Practice and Use

Again, my truck camping build is somewhat transformer-like in that things can change around as I see fit.

Below I’ll be showing my truck camping setup as it is actually used while on the road as well as a few tips and tricks that I’ve picked up after so many miles.

On the Go Mode

I have the “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 resides 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 duffel 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 vertical 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 all day and need to pull over and get some rest, be it in a parking lot, a residential cul-de-sac, or wherever. I usually toss a couple of items in the cab of my truck and crawl into the “coffin” sleeping arrangement for a quick night’s rest, but I can also crawl in without placing anything in the cab.

This is perfect for Wal-Mart parking lots, casino camping, 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.

Here’s a typical view, where I’ve got gear both above and below the platform. Things can be shifted around allowing me to sleep in the elevated mode, or I can place a box or two in the front cab.

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

Here is my sleep set up while I am in the On the Go mode.

I’ve since changed my sleeping mattress, but this was a great sleeping pad too!

Base Camp Mode

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 a while, like 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.

Above you can see the sleeping style for base camp mode… This means placing gear on the back shelf and putting your feet underneath.

Base Camp Mode is where I will usually unpack a little and leave my food, cooler, a duffel bag of clothes, etc sprawled out at the campsite, sometimes in a tent, other times just places up front in the cab.

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 in the above photo that the large gear boxes are only slightly under the sleeping platform, and I also have a 2×2 section which both helps support my weight and prevent excessive bowing.

Also notice the blue bag where I keep all my cooking gear, a soft-sided bag is much better for odd-shaped cooking gear rather than a box. Also, those water bags are no good, definitely get a hard-sided water container.

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 expensive down jackets, which would be much more problematic (and costly) to replace on the road.

Truck Camping Swag

Truck Camping In Action

90% of the time I keep the platform in the lower mode and leave the gearboxes and food on top of the wooden platform — this makes it quicker and easier to set up when I arrive at quick (simply move a few boxes and set up my bed).

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.

It sounds difficult to remove the platform from below with gear on top, but it’s surprisingly easy…

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 without removing all the boxes and 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 Neoair, Therm-A-Rest Dream, and the Teton Sports XXL Cot Pad) here’s what’s worked best for me and my thoughts on a truck camping sleeping setup.

When I first set out I was just camping solo, but most recently I met someone to bring along on my truck camping adventures… And truck camping as a couple has a whole new set of considerations and limitations.

Andrea and I have been driving south from Seattle through the American West, Mexico, Central America, and on to South America.

Here’s a short video demonstrating our space in the transformer / back shelf mode while camping as a couple.

Watch More: Truck Camping Videos

Photo Gallery In Use

Below are a few photos of my truck camping setup when I initially set out on the road, including how I organize my gear, and a few tips, tricks, and insights that I’ve since learned about this lifestyle.

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

I travel with a cooler, but some folks will even install a portable fridge back there, but that was a bit beyond my budget. I’d rather spend it on traveling.

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

Everyone will develop their own organization system, depending on their adventures and the amount of gear they are bringing.

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

My fancy curtains initially consisted of cardboard boxes and those Magic Shades. The Magic Shades are great, the cardboard boxes not so much. I later velcroed plastic clips above the windows, which allows me to easily attach a long length of black fabric for curtains. I still use the Magic Shades.

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

The Magic Shades fit perfectly over the square windows at the back. Also, notice the LED light at the top, the light attaches to a base plate by magnets, and the base plate is attached by Velcro. This means I can easily remove the lights thanks to the magnet, without peeling off the Velcro.

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

A comfy sleeping mattress, a real pillow, and quality down sleeping back are the three keys to a good night of sleep while truck camping.

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 L-Brackets attached to the underside of the side rails. These prevent the platform from sliding out when it is locked in place.

The cord stashed there is pre-cut to run between the L Brackets, which I string across so I can remove the sleeping platform from the lower position as the cord holds the boxes back, allowing me to simply slide it out from under everything and place the sleeping platform in the elevated position.

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

Ensure that your gear and boxes all fit snugly together, this ensures things don’t slide around or get broken while you are driving. Also, don’t use these water jugs… They WILL leak.

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

I have a small metal basket hanging here where I keep important things that I want to keep handy… Mainly my headlamp or lights, but also the Spot GPS Messenger, for instance.

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

Notice the L Brackets (visible between the tailgate wood and sleeping platform) 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. Yeah, it gets hot in the desert — which is why a personal fan to connect to the inverter can be a lifesaver. 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 things from the boxes or move things around.

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.

I 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 photo 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 LED light.

View toward the other side.

View toward the right side bin, where I can place the cut out from the left-hand bin to create another small table, as needed.

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 of those Magic Shades — I’ve got three sets. Two for the front windshield (as seen here), two for the side windows in the canopy, and two for the main window of the canopy door (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 setup. Boxes are 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 is where I get a lot of my work done while on the road. Having a side hustle, particularly an internet-based one, is a great way to earn money while traveling and to help pay for your truck camping adventures.

Read More: 40+ Side Hustle Ideas to Earn More Money

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

It’s nice to be able to sit up and hang out in the back while truck camping… Something that definitely isn’t possible with an elevated sleeping platform.

Another awkward selfie in my home away from home.

I’ve got more than enough headroom thanks to the Leer 122 canopy and my Base Camp Mode.

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

The cutout was meant to provide access under the table which may be otherwise hard to reach, it is also where I now keep my 400W Inverter.

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

Simple additions like an LED lamp with a hook can be hung from the canopy door in order to light up the tailgate while you are cooking in the evenings.

My truck camping setup at night. Happy travels.

Final Thoughts on Truck Camping

The nomadic truck camping lifestyle has been incredibly freeing, not only is cheap and accessible to almost anyone, but it can take you beyond places you even imagined. One book that I’d recommend to all newcomers to this lifestyle is Bob Wells’ How to Live in a Car, Van, or RV, which will help you better understand the ins and outs of this lifestyle.

I’ve spent literally hundreds of nights truck camping now… More than four years later and I’ve still got the original build, and everything continues to hold up well, including the 1/2″ plywood sleeping platform which I thought might become bowed.

The only changes I’ve made are with respect to truck camping gear, but not my actual truck camping setup.

I must say I’m still 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 (especially in Latin America!), 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 dusty or 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).

Camped near the Pacific Ocean in Baja California in Mexico.
Instagram Adventures: Camped near the Pacific Ocean in Baja California in Mexico.

I also got a dual battery and isolator set up in my truck and it is one of the best things I’ve done for my truck camping beside the actual build.

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 the worry of giving yourself a dead battery.

Previously, I would just charge off my main truck battery and was super cautious to periodically start my truck and recharge (by idling the truck once every hour).

Read Next: What You Need to Get Started Truck Camping

Also, be sure to check out: 

The Most Common Truck Bed Camping Mistakes

Pickup Truck Camping Guide

Turn your pickup truck into the ultimate adventure mobile. This printable truck camping guide will help you through the process.


  1. Get a truck if you don't have one! 🙂 I've traveled all over the world in my 1991 Toyota Pickup. The bigger the truck bed the better. Short beds have workarounds but they are not ideal unless you are quite small.
  2. Find a new or used canopy for your truck. Read this guide on what to look for when buying a canopy. My top recommendation is to find an elevated canopy like the Leer 122 (what I use).
  3. Decide on what sort of truck bed sleeping platform you want to build. The two most common are an elevated sleeping platform or the backshelf (and side-shelf) approaches. I did a transformer setup for the best of both worlds, here is my step-by-step guide building the transformer style setup.
  4. Purchase essential gear to start truck camping which includes a sleeping pad or mattress, sleeping bag, two-burner stove, cooler, storage boxes, etc.
  5. Go on a test truck camping run at a free boondocking campsite without amenities to test your setup. Read more about finding free camping in the USA.
  6. Consider your electronics system and how you will charge devices while on the road. You could get an outside system like the GoalZero Yeti but I recommend using a dual battery and isolator under the hood.
  7. Join the Pickup Truck Camping group on Facebook for an amazing, like-minded community where you can ask questions and get answers from experienced truck campers. Be sure to pick up your #PTC stickers, shirts, and swag!
  8. Review the detailed truck camping gear and accessories (plus a packing list) and start planning your epic truck camping adventures. Might I suggest this national park road trip, the most scenic drives in the USA, or this west coast USA road trip? Here is more info on road trip planning for you, based on 10s of thousands of miles of adventures.
  9. Sign up for more truck camping tips, tricks, and info delivered straight to your email inbox from yours truly.


I hope this helped you get started with truck camping! I know it can be confusing when you are just getting started, which is why I started writing so extensively about it.

If you have any questions about truck camping, road trips, budget travel, or anything else shoot me an email at ryan@desktodirtbag.com.

(I love getting questions! That is how I get ideas for my blog posts and what to write about!)

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Did you find this helpful?

Please let me know with a comment on the blog below or reach out to me on Facebook or Instagram. Feel free to share a photo on Instagram with the #desktodirtbag hashtag once you put this into action!

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


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


A 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


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 padlocks 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 maximizes headroom. 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 maximizes head space and livability. Numerous other tips and tricks about living in a truck.

Truck Camping with Jack


Bed height elevated sleeping platform. A modular setup that allows for quick and easy assembly/disassembly.

Truck Camping 101


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!

Truck Camping: Electricity


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 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 information and input from other readers.

Did you find this post helpful? Help me out and Like it, Tweet it, Pin it, or otherwise share it! Thanks!

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Head Writer and Adventurer at Desk to Dirtbag
Ryan is an author, adventurer, perpetual wanderer, and self-proclaimed dirtbag (but that might not mean what you think). Originally from Seattle, he headed to Washington D.C. where he spent five years working for Congress before heeding the call of the wild. He set out truck camping to road trip across the American West, and then across all of Central America and South America. When he isn't on the move, you can find him living as an expat in Colombia. He is also the author of the best selling book: Big Travel, Small Budget that will help you travel more for less. Follow the adventures on social media or read more.

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Comments 91

  1. I love the idea of making a tarp awning from your truck to stay dry in the rain. My brother has been wanting to take his family camping but their tarp has a bit of damage from repeated use. We’ll have to look into finding a tarp repair place he can take it to so they can continue to get use out of the thing.

  2. I never knew that the two most common dirtbag rigs from what I’ve seen are pickup trucks with a canopy or some type of van. This gives me an idea of how to go out. Thank you for the information about truck shells.

  3. This thread is older than dirt. It’s standing the test of time and my wife and I are following it to outfit our F150.

    I have a piece of information worth sharing. I ran across a product called 5-ply 1/2 inch exterior plywood. Most places have 4-ply but the lumber yards that cater to contractors carry the 5-ply to replace 3/4 sheathing. I’ve used it for decking in attics and some people use it for roof sheathing. It’s stiff as 3/4.

  4. I found a pre made rear truck bed interior I had it shipped in from California. There are you tube videos on it. The video is listed under “carpet kit”. It came from a place called Vacavalley truck center. The owners name is Kevin. It looks like your interior but it is all professionally finished and marine grade carpeted with memory foam seating and sleeping surfaces. It is easy in /easy out so you can still use your bed if you ever need it. It’s a well made unit, no buyers remorse.

  5. Hey Ryan, epic blog!

    Quick question: How did you secure the plywood to your tailgate?

    I have a 92′ toyota pickup with no bed liner.


    1. Post
  6. Hey Ryan,
    Thanks for sharing the ideas.
    Looking to get my Tacoma on the road for a SW trip next spring.

    Something to think about for fans- 4-6” computer fans, already dc so no power conversion. Versatile mounting options. Also 24v available-which will run quieter/slower.

    Keep moving,

  7. Hi Ryan – Great info. I was wondering how you weatherproof the shell. My son and I took a trip to Glacier NP last June. All was fine til we drove in rain. The shell leaked even tho we just weatherproofed it using rubber gaskets (after we used closed cell foam and realized that was worthless). I guess running a hose over the shell to test it is not equal to driving 80mph in a downpour for 4 hours. Who knew?! Lol. Any tips to stop rain from getting in, particularly the corners? Not fun to open up the tailgate to find your sleeping bag is wet. So bummed. What do you use as weather stripping, etc.?

    1. Post

      Hey Maria, I’ve never actually had any problems with the weatherproofing on my shell, the only thing I’ve done is gone in and add the foam weatherstripping in the corners where you could see daylight. But that was more to do with dust entering the back than rain. You could try using some sort of water sealant type of caulking to truly waterproof it, maybe?

  8. Hi Ryan,

    I need a good heater for the winter. I am thinking no propane due to ventalition issues with that. Any suggestions and brands that work the best?

    Thanks! Karen

    1. Post

      I don’t have recs because I’ve always just gone the traditional cold weather camping route with warm clothes, winter sleeping bag, boiled water in a nalgene, shot of olive oil before bed, etc, etc. Perhaps someone else might chime in… I’ve heard of folks (with the appropriate dual battery setup) using electric blankets, or yeah, the Mr. Propane heater (but not while they are asleep).

  9. Wow, what a detailed post!
    You really make a shelf like this? Awesome!
    What are the main benefits of this shelf to a truck tent? I think they have the same purposes and tasks.
    Again, thank you for sharing the useful information!

  10. Hey there Ryan. Cool blog! I love the idea of trucking-it! I’m not able to do something like that, though I wish that I had taken the time when I was younger to do so. Here’s a suggestion that you might consider, if you haven’t already considered it before: Obtaining and using a hammock. I’d suggest bolting in an eye hook on the truck, or using the bumper as a tie point if you don’t have a second tree around. Also, in the high desert, you could use rocks as anchor points for it. Just an idea, from one camper to another.

    1. Post

      Oh yeah, I definitely bring a hammock with me while traveling… Love that thing, although I haven’t done an attachment point on my truck, though that would be cool!

  11. Thank you Ryan for sharing . Learned a lot for sure. Has anyone posted anything about leaks from the truck cap? and how they kept their gear from getting wet.

    1. Post

      Hey Pete, I haven’t personally dealt with any leaks yet, but a number of people in the FB truck camping group have had issues, particularly with older canopies… If you aren’t in the group, definitely join, lots of help on that issue.

  12. HI, I have a pickup Hilux 4×4 1990 with 5 seats.

    Can I make anything to turn my pickup into a camper van to travel with my kids?

    I noticed that you have a simple 2 seats Hilux truck with longer cargo area where you setup all your camper bedroom etc..

    Can I make something similar with my truck considering the cargo area is smaller?..

    1. Post

      How long is your bed? If it’s shorter, you might trouble outfitting something, particularly if you want to go with your kids. Your best bet may be to supplement with a traditional tent, that way you or them could be in the pickup, and someone else in the tent. Everybody with their own space.

  13. Hi Ryan

    I have a Tacoma with a leer 122. Can you please give me a good idea on how to open and close the canopy back door and windoor from the inside ? Rope ? Hooks ? hmmmm

    Thanks and yes I have the same build in the back. I love it.


    1. Post

      Hey Jade, I’ve always just reached out the back to close it, but if you need to rig something, perhaps tying a small cord to each of the handles/locks (from the inside)? Or yeah maybe you use a gear hook / box retrieval stick with a 90 degree angle that would work as well. It comes in surprisingly handy for lots of different hard to reach things.

  14. Hey Ryan,

    Thanks to you I built my own truck camper. I bought a LEER top and put a memory foam mattress in the back. I built a basic wood frame, and tried to maximize living space and comfort. It feels more like a Truck Bedroom then Truck Camping. I use bed sheets and blankets instead of sleeping bags. I haven’t seen this as very common. Do you foresee any issues with doing it this way?

    1. Post

      Hey John! Looks like an awesome build… In terms of bed sheets and blankets being a problem, I don’t see why they would be. We used bed sheets as we got into hotter and more humid climates in Central America and we stuff the sleeping bags away. Hope you are enjoying the truck bedroom lifestyle.

  15. I am a frequent flyer and I do go traveling a lot. Yet recently, I usually take my daughter with me. We both love nature and being a part of nature. Indeed, in this early Jan 2017, we plan to take a trip to enjoy the atmosphere when the spring comes. Car camping! Why not? 🙂
    Thank you for sharing this info and please keep it up.

    1. Post
  16. Any thoughts on what to do if you’re tall. I love the tacomas off road ability and size but the bed is a little short for my 6’3 frame. Really don’t want to buy a bigger vehicle. I’ve actually got a platform to work in my Honda CRV but it’s not built for off road travel where I want to spend more time.

    1. Post

      I’ve heard of a lot of guys that sleep diagonally and make it work. Or others that have placed a little awning like thing over the doorway so they can sleep with the tailgate open and hang their feet out the door. I’d be interested to hear what you come up with…

  17. Hey Ryan,

    A few months ago I searched out ‘truck living’ and found your blog. I have been reading and following since. Thanks!

    I don’t think you have run into this problem, but I have to deal with condensation in the cap as I live in a moist climate. I was thinking of an old van type roof vent with fan for active ventilation, or drilling holes along the side of the cap, inserting short cuts of pipe with fine screens (mozie land), and capping them. This way I could control for rain, cold, etc., but create some passive cross ventilation at roof level.

    Do you have any thoughts on this, or other ideas that would deal with the condensation? BTW, I had the cap door open, and the opening covered with mosquito netting. It didn’t help at the roof level.


    1. Post

      Hey Melody, thanks for the email. I’ve traveled through some extremely humid areas (Central America)… I’m taking it that your canopy does not have a headliner? That in and of itself helps a great deal. Personally I would be hesitant to put holes or van roof vents in my cap, but that may be what you want to do. I would try sleeping with a portable personal fan first and see how that helps with the condensation issue. For me it worked wonders while sleeping in those hot and humid environments. I ran mine off the inverter connected to my secondary battery.

      1. Try gluing carpeting on the walls and ceiling. I survived many a downpour in the Olympic mtns. with no condensation whatsoever after I put the carpet up.

        Jason W.

  18. I agree that you should have an elevated platform in the bed of your truck. That way, if you have a truck shell and are going to sleep in your truck, you don’t have to pack as light. I think you would just need to make sure the platform can support your weight.

  19. That is some nice information. Right now I make small tailgating trailers for cooking. However, I am looking to expand the product line and you have some nice space saving ideas that can be used in trailers.

    By time the tvs are installed and the refrigerators and the swingable grill, It is always good to have ideas on how to put a lot of stuff in a small space.

  20. Hey Ryan!

    Any idea how many miles are on your truck? I’m planning on buying a used Taco and I’m not sure what mileage to shoot for, and considering I’m a poor student I don’t have much to spend…

    Also, what do you do for maintenance on the road?

    Keep up the good work man!

    1. Post

      Hey Joe, I just hit 178k on my truck. I remember when I started out the first time around it had like 144k or so. They are known to go quite far, so we’ll see how it goes. Maintenance on the road… I just stop at those oil lube places for the most part, and do regular weekly checks under the hood for fluid levels, etc. I’m not too mechanically inclined!

  21. Ryan, it’s only available digitally at this point… for the Kindle app or for iPad. But I’ll send you a PDF if you’ll let me know an email address to send to.
    Best, Roger

  22. That’s a really great overview with lots of detail, Ryan. I put together a campervan using a Ford cargo van (it’s huge in there compared to a car!) and I’ve been traveling the west for 3 years. I put together a little book about how I did it and would be happy to send a free copy, Ryan. Just let me know.

    1. Post
  23. Great article, Ryan! I love the detailed explanations of the various options for sleeping. I consider myself a veteran “light-duty traveler” who stumbled across some of these things by accident over the years. My needs are different than yours (I’m usually traveling long distances for days and weeks at a time for work or vacation, so I usually don’t hunker down in a base camp very often), but I have a few questions and points to share:

    1. My vehicle is a Ford F-150, which is not great for off-road travel but is by far the best I’ve ever had for mobile living. The 6.5-foot bed is perfect for my 6+ foot height, and I can probably haul everything I own other than my home furniture in the back of it. How long is the bed of your Toyota? I’ve always assumed a small pickup would tight length-wise for comfortable sleeping.

    2. I’ve always traveled with the assumption that anyone who wants to break into my truck will do it, so I haven’t been overly concerned about securing valuables in the bed. I’ll typically lock these things in the cab out of sight. As a result of this, the “bed under shelf” approach works best for me.

    3. The “bed under shelf” approach is even better with a newer full-size pickup, since the beds are deeper and the shelf is higher than it is for a small pickup.

    4. I’ve always been afraid of using a power inverter connected to the main battery in my truck because of concerns about draining the battery. Instead, I use a portable auto/marine battery charger as a power supply (a Wagan Power Dome), and it works well for long road trips because I can use it while camping and recharge it while driving.

    1. Post
  24. Awesome build! I’d love to do this identical setup for my 93 Toyota 2WD. Do you know if the bed dimensions are the same? I would assume between the 4cyl 2wd and the v6 4wd they used the same bed…

    Also, how much did it cost you for all the materials to build this? Do you have any plans/dimensions that I could use to speed the project up?

    Thanks again, awesome pickup and great camping setup!

    1. Post

      I’d hazard a guess that the dimensions are the same, but I’m not certain. Either way, I’m sure the bed will work for you provided you have enough spae between the wheel wells and your bed is long enough for your height.

      It was around $100 in materials to build, and took the better part of an afternoon to put it together.

      I don’t have specific plans or dimensions, unfortunately.

      Be sure to join the private FB group mentioned in the article for more truck camping ideas and inspiration from others! http://www.facebook.com/groups/truckcamping

  25. In the 80’s, pre 86 I had a 72 Toyota corolla 4door, removed the seat, inserted a I/4 or I/2″ plywood pane blocked up on both ends so it would not rock and I was ready to camp. Though at 5’8″ I couldn’t stretch out. Who cares when your travelling. I now have a 93 explorer and it works great.

  26. Cool post! This is really helpful. I’m going to try and drag my better half camping this year and our pickup canopy would go great with these tips! Thanks for the post.

  27. Nice setup Ryan. I’m looking more for the storage aspect than the sleeping in aspect. I like how you used the cap clamps to hold things in place. Do I understand right that those are the only things holding the side shelf units in place? That and maybe the ribs in the floor of your bed? So if you unclamp the cap, the whole side cabinets would just slide out?

    Thanks for the ideas… looks good.

    1. Post

      Thanks! Yep, the canopy clamps and the grooves in the bed liner are the only things holding the side shelves and sleeping platform in place. You just pop off the clamps with a ratchet and the whole things lifts out / slides out easily. That’s what I did to treat the wood after construction, takes maybe 15 minutes to pop out. Very modular. It’s been in there for more than two years now, same wood, and everything is still looking good and working fine. I like it!

  28. Hi Ryan: Nice job on the truck. I also have ’94 Toya 4×4 coffin sleep setup. Looking to change (access cab wanted) and may use some of your ideas. One thing I didn’t see you mention is ventilation. I am from the Mid-Atlantic region(DC/Maryland, you’re old stomping grounds) and ventilation at the New is important. My side windows have screens and I use an old mesh fly with a flexible pole for the rear tailgate area. It works really well. Kinda jerry rigged but is easy to put up and take down as well as pass through for nighttime truck exits. Not needed out west as much since bugs and humidity are lower but can’t live w/out it in these parts.
    The best rig I have ever used is the VW Syncro Vanagon, 4×4, great sleep setup, small turning radius. Sweet little ride.

    Thanks for your blog, Charlie
    PS did you ever climb ET in Columbia, MD? You look familiar.

    1. Post

      Yeah, ventilation can definitely be a problem… I’ve just got one window with a screen on it if bugs are an issue–though I haven’t camped in too many areas where they are truly horrendous. Normally I just sleep with the windows/door open to let airflow. I’ve seen some more industrious folks even put in the rooftop fans on their truck camping rigs. Pretty elaborate and beyond my pay grade, but worth searching expedition portal. I like the mesh fly idea if I happen to travel to buggy areas again. Cheers!

  29. I’ve always dreamed of doing this to a pickup truck and going camping with a loved one! Do you think this would work for a music festival (ex. Electric Forest) Is it pretty robbery proof?

    1. Post

      I think it would work pretty well for a music festival, I don’t see why not. I wouldn’t say it is robbery proof, but generally robbers are looking for quick and easy targets, like a purse sitting on the front seat, just smash and grab. If someone really wanted to rob what was under they platform, they surely could, but they’d need more tools and more time to do so. And they don’t even know if there is anything good under there… I’d like to think of it as a really good robbery deterrent.

  30. This are some nice ideas. I love camping out with my buddies. I already have a multi purpose bed extender so this will really go well with it.

  31. Ryan I need just to sleep in my tacoma 09′ over night. My truck is open so I need a canopy. Would a warm sleeping bag be enough.
    What do you recommend. I need to sleep in parking lot outside my business. Just till morning. what to you recommend homeless but has a viable business.(martial art school) Thanks

    1. Post

      Hey Anthony, I guess the big question is what part of the country you’ll be sleeping in and what sort of weather you can expect… I would imagine when conditions are fine that a warm sleeping bag would be more than enough (I used to do that before I had a canopy). You’ll just have to worry about rain (snow?) and other inclement weather, but otherwise I don’t know why not. A cheap bivy sack from an army surplus store might be a good addition as well.

    2. Anthony,
      I’ll throw this suggestion out to you too – while a warm sleeping bag would be a good start, maybe a couple sheets of plywood to put over the truck bed with a tarp over that would provide you some extra protection from rain/snow and also trap in some body heat. You wouldn’t have to make them permanent and could just slide the wood into the bed when not sleeping under it. A cheap bivy as Ryan suggested would also be a good consideration and a quality sleeping pad to provide some warm rating and comfort from the truck bed.

  32. 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?


    1. Post

      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.

  33. 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.


    Thump and
    The Thump Truck

    1. Post

      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!

  34. 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?



    1. Post

      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.

  35. 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.

    1. Post

      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? 🙂

  36. 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?

    1. Honestly I would sell the Accord and get a pickup, they work so much better and if you get a 4 cylinder 2wd the mpg’s are about the same. I imagine that a 4 seater would be nicer but I currently have a 97 reg cab Tacoma with a bench seat and it works great. There’s much more storage behind the reg cab seat than you would expect.

      I’m picking up a 4×4 Extra cab pick up tomorrow and selling my current 97 Tacoma. It’s older and it’s got a lot of miles but it still has a lot left to go. Mine is available in the 3 grand range. They’re hard to find and all the rust free trucks are out here in the west but mine is one example of many good Tacos that are available at an affordable price that will fit the bill perfectly.

  37. 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.


  38. 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.

    1. Post

      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!

      1. 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!

        1. Post

          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!

  39. 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.

    1. Post

      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.

  40. 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.

    1. Post

      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.

  41. 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

    1. Post
  42. I 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 fare in the cold? When I finally get a pickup I’d like to use it during the winter for skiing and ice climbing.

    1. Post

      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!

  43. 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.


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

    1. Post

      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!

  44. 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.


    Keep up the great posts!


    1. Post

      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!

  45. 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.

    1. Post

      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

    2. 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/2013/05/the-ultimate-guide-to-living-on-road-15.html (Ryan linked to)


      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. I’m for using what you have got as well but if what you’ve got just really isn’t up to the job it doesn’t hurt to consider switching to something else. Not sure what year your Prius is but if it is fairly new I imagine you could sell it for much more than what an older reliable 4 cylinder Tacoma would cost you. My 2wd Tacoma manual trans gets 30mpg pretty easily and I’m never tempted to get a hotel. The price difference in the two vehicles alone may well make up for the extra cost in fuel and potentially tempting lodging plus even in a 2wd pickup you will have a much easier time going off the beaten path then you will in a low hanging passenger car.

      1. Post

        That’s a good point… One could also use the difference in cost between selling a nicer, newer car, and buying something to cheaper to actually finance the trip they’re looking to head out on…

    1. Post

      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!

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