Truck Camping 101

A short course on tent-free camping

by Branden Johnson ©2005

The author's truck. Note the pivoting lights (up top), sleeping platform with padding, gear alcoves and divided lower bed.
The author’s truck. Note the pivoting lights (up top), sleeping platform with padding, gear alcoves and divided lower bed.

Picture this: you and your buddy just finished a marathon caving trip and all you want to do is crawl into the cozy confines of your sleeping bag. As you pull up to the top of Scottsboro Mountain on this cold and rainy winter night, all you have to do is walk to the back of your truck, open your camper top lid, climb up on your sleeping platform, and in sixty seconds you’re dreaming of finding the long sought after triple-connection route between Ellison’s, Sinking Cove, and Fern! Meanwhile, your buddy spends the next twenty minutes fumbling with his tent in the freezing rain while yelling things that rhyme with “son of a hitch” and “pluck!” This little scenario illustrates a great advantage of a style of camping many cavers enjoy known as “truck camping.” So, what exactly is truck camping? Why do it? How can you do it? Well, all these questions and more will be answered as we explore the intricate and weird little microcosm that is truck camping…

Muddy ground, creeping critters, leaking tents! All disadvantages of tent camping. Add the fact that you have to do something with that muddy, soggy tent the next morning and tent camping becomes even less attractive. No mud, no bugs, no leaks! Just some of the benefits of truck camping. Plus, the next morning, just crawl out of bed and you’re ready to go. Basically, the advantages of truck camping come in the form of efficiency (in setting up/breaking down camp), security (from the elements and critters), and mobility (especially when camping in different spots from night to night). Sound good? Well, before you head off and begin construction on your very own redneck RV, let me say that there are some disadvantages to truck camping. If you’re camping in a compact pickup and you’re over 6’ tall, you may have to “bend” a little to fit in with the lid closed. And, if you like to sleep naked with the covers off, you might find yourself in an awkward position in the morning when your buddy comes over to wake your lazy butt up! But, we’re cavers, right? We’re used to being in tight places and seeing each other naked. Of course, family considerations (if you have a bunch of rug-rats) and financial considerations (if you don’t already have a truck) might dictate your camping method. But, for weekend camping in muddy and over-grown terrain, especially when you don’t want to waste a lot of time making/breaking camp, the benefits of truck camping are hard to beat! The rest of this article will highlight some of the truck camping lore I have learned along the way. There are certainly other methods and I encourage you to be creative in your quest for the ultimate caving vehicle!

At its most basic level, a truck camping rig consists of a pick-up truck to which is added a camper shell and a sleeping platform. Beyond that, you can stay as simple or get as complex as you want. Take Andy Zellner, for example, as the model of efficiency. I swear that when he pulls up on the scene, he has only three items in his truck: caving gear, a box of Papa John’s Pizza, and Ashley Chan. Just the basics! On the other end of the spectrum are folks who have set-ups so elaborate that they are truly like mini-RVs (though I’ve yet to see someone install a crapper or a shower in their truck). I imagine that most of us fall somewhere in between, having the basic platform plus a few other amenities such as lighting, a tarp system, or a cool camp kitchen. Or, if you’re like me, you’ll find yourself constantly peering into other trucks like some deranged campground pervert, always on the lookout for the latest and greatest idea to liberate!

The Platform

Ashley Chan attempts to wake-up after a night of truck camping bliss! Andy Z supervises.
Ashley Chan attempts to wake-up after a night of truck camping bliss! Andy Z supervises.

Basically consisting of a wooden deck held up by one of several support methods, the platform divides your “living space” into two areas: the sleeping area above and the gear area below. Now while there are many different methods for building your set-up, I’ll describe here the method I use because it’s easy to build, it’s quick to remove, and it maximizes storage space underneath. For supports, I use five pieces of 2×6 lumber cut to equal lengths. These should be long enough to span the width of the truck bed from sidewall to sidewall. The boards will actually be lying directly on the lip of the camper top but the sidewalls underneath will be providing the strength. One is placed at the head of the bed, one at the foot, and the others are evenly spaced in between. On top of these goes the deck. I use 3/8” plywood. For a quick installation, simply cut a 4’x 8’ sheet to the length of your bed and slide it up onto the supports. However, as most beds are at least 5’ wide, this will result in gaps on either side of the deck. For a tighter fit, use two 4’ x 8’ sheets and rip them so that each covers half the width of the bed. Now just cut them to length, slide them onto the supports, and spread them out to each side. A few carriage bolts and wing nuts will hold the deck to the supports and will keep things from shifting (note that nothing is “secured” to the truck or shell directly). As a final touch, a piece of outdoor carpet lain on the deck will smooth out any seams or rough spots. Your platform is now ready for your favorite air mattress and sleeping bag. Or, for the ultimate comfort, try a piece of 4” foam padding cut to the size of the bed and throw in a down comforter! Other construction methods used by folks more innovative than myself include: free-standing joists for deck support (allows a lower deck, so more headroom), removable sectional deck panels (allows easy access to a particular spot from above), and half-decks (allows full use of the other side of the bed).


Doug Strait's unique hi-top rig features fans to keep cool and hinged panels for easy access to gear.
Doug Strait’s unique hi-top rig features fans to keep cool and hinged panels for easy access to gear.

Most truck campers live by the axiom: clean stuff above (clothes, sleeping gear, etc), dirty stuff below (everything else). Now while the upper area is pretty simple to keep organized, the lower section easily becomes cave gear hell if you don’t have a system. My method starts with dividing the bed in half. I use a piece of 3/8” plywood, turned upright, to make a non-load bearing “wall” down the center of the bed. I store cave gear in one half of the bed and store everything else (cooler, cooking gear, etc.) in the other. This further separates the muddy from the non-muddy and provides quick access to cave gear when needed. It also prevents shifting of gear when off-roading. I also wall off the areas around the wheel wells to create two little alcoves perfect for storing boots, water jugs, tent poles, etc. Cheap, plastic, waterproof boxes work great for storing gear and make it easy to slide stuff in and out. Speaking of getting gear out, a ski pole, a hiking stick, or a piece of metal rod with a hook bent at the end all work well for snagging gear stuck at the front of the bed. Perhaps the most important aspect to organization is consistent, logical packing. By always storing things in their place and by keeping frequently used items easily accessible, you will never be seen “prairie dogging” at the back of your truck while wondering where you put the damn toilet paper!


Tarpology at its simplest!
Tarpology at its simplest!

Now there comes a time in every truck campers life when he or she will want to pitch a tarp. Why? Well, because while camping in the middle of the summer during a downpour, you have two choices for staying dry: you can sleep with the lid down or you can pitch a tarp. The lid down option gets pretty damn stuffy, so I opt for the tarp. Now I know this seems like we’re getting dangerously close to the tent camping realm, but trust me, this is still much faster. Start by draping one end of an 8’ x10’ tarp over the back of your truck, overlapping the camper shell by about three feet. Secure this end of the tarp to the sides of the truck or to the wheels using a couple of bungee cords. At the other end of the tarp, place an aluminum tent pole at each corner and secure these to the ground using tent stakes and accessory cord. Simply tighten everything and adjust the height of the poles to ensure drainage off the tarp and you have a cozy little set-up that will maximize ventilation and prevent a soggy sleeping bag. You also have a great place to hang out, cook, etc. This is a really fast set-up and, with practice, you can pitch it in about 3-5 minutes. The key is to keep all the ingredients together and ready for deployment at a moments notice. Also, the cords should be pre-cut to the proper length and, rather than fumbling with knots, use the commercially available guy-line tensioners (available at outdoor outfitters). Conveniently located trees can also be used in lieu of poles. For an alternative that doesn’t depend on your truck, replace the bungee cords with two additional poles, cords, and stakes, thereby making a freestanding shelter. This gives you a little “carport” that you simply back up under at the end of the day.


Command central featuring lighting and fan controls, a power outlet and a MP3 jack.
Command central featuring lighting and fan controls, a power outlet and a MP3 jack.

Admittedly, much of this section may be overkill, but let’s face it: gadgets are cool! To start, you need a 12-volt power supply. Many camper shells come with these, but you can pretty easily hard wire one directly to your battery and terminate it in your shell with a 12-volt outlet. From here, you can plug in a whole host of devices including laptops, DVD players, battery chargers, etc. Add a power inverter and you have even more options. I’ve actually run my electric ice cream maker from my truck! You can also splice into your power supply and hardwire additional switches and lights to supplement the often junky lights provided with camper shells. I have lights both above and below my platform, and the upper ones pivot outward to illuminate the “changing area” when caving after dark. Now, to see the coolest of all electronics set-ups, check out the Martinmobile (as in Jeff and Nina Martin). An array of switches, knobs, and other flashy things control a fan, various sets of lights, speakers, and even a jack for plugging in an MP3 player. All of this is housed in a control panel mounted at the back of the truck that truly looks factory installed. Very slick!


The Martin Mobile! Check out "command central" on the lower left.
The Martin Mobile! Check out “command central” on the lower left.

Still want to cram more junk in your trunk (oops, I mean truck)? No problem! Here are a few more ideas to round out your rig. To avoid malaria when sleeping with the lid up, a piece of mesh cloth draped across the back of the your platform and held in place with Velcro tape will keep mosquitoes at bay. Need a little stability in your life? Then try one of the small, folding aluminum tables to make your cooking chores a bit easier. When collapsed (and when you’re not sleeping), these can be conveniently stored under your mattress. Want to stay toasty on those chilly winter evenings? Coleman makes a great little “catalytic” heater (the Black Cat) that they advertise as okay to use in enclosed spaces (mine hasn’t killed me yet). One little propane canister will heat your truck all night long. For a great place to rest your tired butt, cut a piece of outdoor carpet to the size of your tailgate and you have comfy little loveseat than can be rolled up and stored when not in use. And by the way, there’s no need to break the bank when putting your camping rig together. The vast majority of the items mentioned in this article can be purchased at your friendly neighborhood Wal-Mart!

A late night exit from an all-day cave trip, the prospect of another great trip tomorrow, or the chance to sit around a fire swapping tall-tales…these are all reasons why cavers often choose to sleep under the stars instead of heading for home. And, there are certainly many options when deciding exactly how and where you’ll be sleeping. In the end, does it really matter what type of camping set-up you use? Not really. As long as you’re out there caving and having fun with friends, by all means use whichever camping system works well for you. But for some, truck camping has proven to be an efficient system and a fun little hobby (an obsession for others) and is worth considering. Many thanks to all those truck camping pioneers whose original and innovative ideas inspired this article. I hope you enjoyed it! Now, if I could only find a way to install a crapper in mytruck…!!!