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
- My 1991 Toyota Pickup
- Truck Camping – Canopy Selection
- Building out the Back
- My Transformer Style Setup
- Adding More Security
- Truck Camping Photos Without Clutter
- Truck Camping Gear
- My Setup in Practice and Use
- Truck Camping Swag
- Truck Camping In Action
- Photo Gallery In Use
- Final Thoughts on Truck Camping
- Truck Camping Inspiration
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.
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
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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.
There are two overarching approaches to how people design and build out the back of their trucks:
- The elevated sleeping platform where you have gear storage underneath, 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, 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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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).
Truck Camping Photos Without Clutter
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Everyone will develop their own organization system, depending on their adventures and the amount of gear they are bringing.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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 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 LED light.
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.
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 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 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 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
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.
I’ve got more than enough headroom thanks to the Leer 122 canopy and my Base Camp Mode.
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.
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.
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).
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:
- Truck Camping Gear – What You Need to Get Out There which talks about all my favorite gear recommendations from the cooking systems, to a sleeping pad, to curtains, and much more!
- Budget Travel Resources – Truck camping is one of the best ways to travel cheaply, but there is so much more to it, here is my massive guide to traveling cheaply whether at home or in other countries.
- All of my related truck camping posts dive into many other aspects of my truck camping adventures as well as my truck camping playlist on YouTube.
- Budgeting and Real Monthly Expenses for a Major Road Trip where I show you how much I spend for a month on a West Coast USA Road Trip.
Essential Truck Camping Gear
- Teton Sports Foam Sleeping Pad
- 15 Degree Down Sleeping Bag
- Two Burner Coleman Stove
- Aeropress Coffee Maker
- Hard-Sided Water Container
- Collapsible Camp Chair
- 800W Power Inverter
- Cooler for Food Storage
Road Trip Essentials
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- Purchase essential gear to start truck camping which includes a sleeping pad or mattress, sleeping bag, two-burner stove, cooler, storage boxes, etc.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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 email@example.com.
(I love getting questions! That is how I get ideas for my blog posts and what to write about!)
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
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.
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.
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!
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.
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