Truck Camping 101 Elevated Sleeping Platform versus Backshelf

Truck Camping 101 – Elevated Sleeping Platform vs. the Back Shelf Approach

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I’ve got another YouTube Truck Camping video for you today. In this video I talk about the two fundamental approaches that people take when building out their pickup truck sleeping platform setup in the back of their canopies for long term truck camping and the pros and cons of each approach.

The video provides a clear description of each as well as demonstrating the approaches, but if you’re unable to watch the video right now, here’s the gist of it:

After you’ve got your canopy picked out (see my previous post and video on canopy selection), your next step will be to build out the back in order to sleep and keep your gear organized.

I did a ton of research about truck camping builds in the months leading up to building out my truck and what I found is there are generally two approaches that people take.

Pickup Truck Sleeping Platform Setups

The first and most common approach is the elevated sleeping platform approach whereby you build a large plywood sheet or some other variation on that theme where you can place all your gear underneath, organized in drawers or boxes and then sleep above that.

The main advantages to this approach are the organized and dedicated gear storage space underneath and living area above. You can essentially just crawl in and go to bed. It also provides a more secure area, or at least “out of sight, out of mind” approach to safeguard your gear from potential thieves in parking lots or trailheads.

The downsides to that approach are the lack of living space and lack of headroom. This approach is essentially only good for crawling in and going to sleep, as it provides no real space to hang out, pass the time, change clothes, etc.

You are essentially prioritizing gear storage over livability. Which is all fine and good. Most people believe they aren’t going to spend much time at camp or at their truck. But if you’re doing it for the longer term, you will definitely end up passing time in your truck, whether it be for sickness, laziness, weather, bugs, or whatever.

Most people that I’ve talked to or read about who have utilized this approach mention that they sort of end up hating it. It is not much different from hanging out in a coffin.

The second approach which is more favored by long term dirtbags and travelers is the backshelf approach whereby you essentially just lay a plywood sheet across the back of your canopy a few feet in width and place your gear on the shelf as you sleep, mattress on the bed of the truck, and feet underneath the platform.

There are variation of the approach that include side bins for organization or not, but the principle remains the same.

The advantages to this approach are the much more ample living room (at least compared to the elevated sleeping platform) in that you can sit up in the back of your canopy to watch movies, read a book, change clothes, etc. Tip: use your pillow as the back of your couch.

While the disadvantages to this approach are the smaller amount of dedicated gear storage space (essentially just the back shelf and the side bins), and you lose the “out of site, out of mind” protection offered by the sleeping platform with gear storage underneath.

You will also have to shuffle gear around more frequently with the backshelf approach–meaning from when you’re camping to when you’re driving you will have to place any heavy boxes or large items from the backshelf back down on the truck bed so they don’t fall.

It all depends on the amount of stuff you have (less is more!), but in my case, I keep the sleeping mat rolled up and have a dufflebag of clothes (between the two of us), two medium sized boxes for food, one small cooler, and one large box for misc. camping and backpacking gear.

The process when arriving at camp is place the two food boxes in the cab of the truck, the dufflebag on top of them, put the large gear box on the back shelf along with the cooler, and then unroll the sleeping pad. Reverse that process to leave camp, even to run errands or go to the trailhead.

In the end I decided to combine the best of both approaches with my transformer style sleeping pad which includes rails mounted on the sidebins that allows me to move the sleeping platform up or down depending on what I’m looking for in that moment.

I will say that 9 times out of 10 I am sleeping in the truck in backshelf mode. It is, simply put, much more comfortable. But every once in a while I do love the convenience of the elevated sleeping platform, especially when it comes to more covert parking lot overnighters. We have even used it as a couple in the elevated sleeping platform and it performs just fine.

More often than not though, the reason to retain the dual approach is the ability to lock and secure my gear underneath whether at a trailhead, or parking it on the street in the city–always good to keep away prying eyes.

Coupled with the fact that I can lock my tailgate to my sleeping platform with the hinges and hasp locks, I provide a relative boost in security to most opportunist thieves. In either case, I sleep better knowing my gear is better protected than the car next to it.

So there you have it, the two primary approaches to truck camping sleep setups and the pros and cons of each approach.

I’m biased, of course, but I think the transformer style offers the best of the best and is what I would recommend to anyone considering building out the back of their truck.

Hope that’s helpful.

As always, if you have any questions at all about this truck camping life, sound off in the comments below or shoot me an email directly at

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Author, Writer, and Head Honcho 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. Since then he set out traveling to Colombia, drove across all of Central America, and also wrote a best selling book: Big Travel, Small Budget. He just finished driving his old truck across all of South America. Follow the adventures on social media or read more about me.

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    Just a comment on the van/truck question. I’ve done both. In fact I’ve done pickups/SUV and Van.

    Trucks give you the options of the bulletproof Toyota’s and 4 WD – two big pluses. Van’s give you MUCH more space and with a limited slip differential pretty good off-road capability. Nothing like you get with a pickup but for the vast majority of sites – it’s fine.

    For now with my two big dogs and girlfriend I’m sticking with a full size Chevy/GMC van which has been quite reliable and if I need less space (and have the money 🙂 – they are quite a bit more expensive – I will look to the pickups.

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