Whether you’re doing it for a night or it’s been on your bucket list for years, camping in the back of a truck is one of the most liberating adventures you can experience. The freedom of going anywhere you please, sleeping wherever you park, and saving money at the same time is a taste of real independence that even the most cash-strapped can afford to realize.
After all, a road trip needn’t be expensive. In fact, camping in your pickup truck can be whatever you want it to be — fitted out with the latest gear and gadgets, or just some basic items, like a tarpaulin and sleeping bag. No matter if your needs are high or low maintenance, there’s a truck camping solution for everyone.
Perhaps your truck already feels like a second home and you’ve already thought about taking a nap in it. If you have everything but the kitchen sink stowed away somewhere, chances are your truck is ready to level up as a camper too. All it takes is a little planning ahead, a few camping essentials, and you’re good to go!
In this article, we’ll cover all the areas you need to consider to make your truck camper as comfortable and successful as possible. We’ll talk about:
- Why truck camping is better than tent camping
- How to set up your truck
- All about canopies
- Sleeping arrangement
- Camper truck cooking
- Staying safe
- Camping tips & tricks
- A final verdict on the pros/cons of truck camping
Why truck camping is better than tent camping
As a first time camper, you may find truck camping much easier and quicker to set up than tent camping. If you arrive at a camping site during the night or in adverse weather, setting up a tent is more trouble than it’s worth. With hardly any lighting and mud all around, you’ll probably end up wanting to go home after 10 minutes of grappling with poles and getting dirty.
Depending on the canopy you choose (we cover this in a later section), camping out the back of your truck offers more convenience than camping on the ground. Firstly, since you’re elevated from the ground, you’ll always remain dry and protected from heavier weather elements. Secondly, you won’t have to worry about finding a level surface or have to deal with uncomfortable rocks and stones. It’s also easier to maintain a clean interior, as sleeping on a higher level allows in much less dirt and dust.
Sleeping in your truck is also better if you’re sensitive to noise — the side panel of your truck is great for blocking out sounds that would otherwise wake you if you were closer to the ground. And for those who aren’t too fond of sharing the nights with small bugs and animals, sleeping in an elevated position minimizes those possibilities.
The only times when tent camping may be a better idea is if you’re planning to stay somewhere for longer or there is more than one person with you. As well as being able to fit more gear into your truck, you can leave your tent at the camping site without undoing your sleeping arrangement and go out driving for the day. If you’re constantly on the move, however, then truck camping is definitely quicker and easier.
Deciding how to setup your truck
Figuring out how to build out your truck bed into a suitable living space is the first and most important step for successful camping. Depending on the level of comfort you would like, or your DIY capabilities, you’ll want to work this out before your trip, rather than just leaving on the fly.
Of course, you can make like a truck driver and just sleep across the front seats, though this isn’t really a long term solution for camping. It can get very constricted in a truck with all the things you need to take with you, so planning room for sleep and storage space is essential.
If you’re a confident builder, you can construct a raised sleeping platform with just a few pieces of timber and have space underneath for storage, or you can organize shelves on the side and sleep in the middle. Otherwise, if DIY isn’t really your thing, you can just move your things (provided there aren’t too many) out of the way for when you want to sleep.
If your truck is roofless at the back, then arranging a canopy is a must. Again, if you’re great at setting up tarp awnings, you can settle for this simple option, especially in the hotter months. In colder climes, this may not be adequate however and you’ll need to consider sturdier solutions.
Various things you’ll need to consider are:
- Having enough headroom: A few inches extra over the cab of your truck can make all the difference. The extra headspace will help you move around things easier, change clothes quicker and generally improve maneuverability.
- Protection against condensation: Getting a carpeted headliner is an ideal solution for protecting against condensation. It helps to absorb any moisture that accumulates throughout the night, especially rain. Another benefit of having a carpeted headliner is that is can be used to velcro things to it, such as lights and clips, etc.
- Windoors or screened windows: If going for a camper shell or rooftop tent, you’ll need to decide whether you want solid windoors or screened windows. Solid windoors protect against the elements, while screened windows have better ventilation.
- Power availability: Sure, you can power a cellphone in the cigarette lighter ports, but you may want to look into how to charge and run electronics from the back of your truck. This is especially important if you want to use your devices at night without having to climb into the front to charge. A cigarette lighter adapter port can be hooked up to the back of your truck’s canopy and covert the current to a standard household power source, where you can also plug in your laptop.
If you’re keeping an eye on budget and have some time before your trip, a good idea is to check your local classified ads or Craigslist for used canopies. Just be sure to ensure the quality is still like new — there’s nothing worse than having to deal with potential leaks later. Otherwise, here are a couple of types of canopies you can go with:
If you want to truck camp longer term and you’re ready to invest in the best of the best, then you can’t beat a proper camper shell, or truck cap, like ones by Leer that are fitted to your specs. With options such as an elevated roof for extra headroom, electric wiring, sliding screen windows and more, having a camper shell turns your truck into a convenient, weather-proof camper that can be easily returned to its original state after. Just as good as any camper van.
When you think of camping out of your truck, a truck bed tent is probably one of the first things that come to mind, with good reason too. They’re much less expensive and lighter than conventional canopies, providing both comfort and convenience. Also, they’re easier to remove when converting your pickup truck back to normal. If you want somewhere to start looking, Amazon has a great selection of high-quality tents for various truck bed sizes.
The only downside is that they may be less weather-resistant than the alternatives and less secure. Also, you’ll need to take it down every time you drive.
Before you start thinking about mattresses and pillows, is the back of your truck adequately lined and protected? For added comfort, you might want to consider installing a bed liner.
Bedliners give truck backs the look and feel of a carpet while providing insulation and protection against mold and mildew. You can either fit in some carpet yourself (just make sure it is a water-resistant kind) or have one made to fit your specific vehicle model. Bedliners also tend to have anti-skid surfacing to prevent cargo from shifting — ideal when you’re on the move and don’t want your things flying all around the place.
Moving on to finding the right sleeping pad to go underneath your sleeping bag, there are a variety of options you can choose from:
- Regular foam pad. They’re usually available in a variety of thicknesses.
- Air mattress. This is a good choice if you have elevated roof space.
- Trifold mattress. The most compact option as they can be folded and stored away. They’re also very comfortable to sleep on and usually made of memory foam.
Lastly, don’t forget to bring a pillow with you. It’s one of those small things that are easily forgotten, but very much missed. Bringing a familiar pillow (or two) will help you get a good night’s sleep, just like in your bed at home.
Camper truck cooking
Unless you plan on eating out every day, having some sort of cooking gear even to warm up a hot drink or soup is a good idea. A small propane gas stove does it in most instances and is a great investment. Some are as cheap as $10 but depending on what kind of cooking you want to do, there is a wide range of choices out there.
A portable cooler or fridge is also essential for storing food. A cooler will keep food fresher for longer, but for longer trips, you may want to get a small fridge that you can wire up to your truck. This is especially important in the summer and ideal for lunch meats, cheese, and well, beer. Your truck also has a great table – the tailgate! If yours has an uneven surface, bring along a plank to place on top to stabilize. Aside from the above, here are some additional accessories you should take with you to make cooking easier on your camping trip:
- Can opener
- Backpacking knife (convenient and compact)
- Cup/drinking bottle
- 1-2 pots/pans (non-stick is preferable)
- Cutting board
- Dish soap
As with any camping, personal privacy and safety are a priority. Making sure your truck setup is secure and keeping within the rules of the local forest service is crucial for your protection and wellbeing.
Before you leave, do a last-minute lookover on your truck. Check all nuts and bolts are secure on your truck canopy, tailgate and other fixtures you have included. Be wary of attachments added with velcro and don’t suspend too much weight on your canopy ceiling. It could be a safety hazard or ruin your canopy.
When it comes to storing flammable items, such as lanterns, fuel canisters, and camping stoves, make sure they are moved away from linens, blankets, and other combustible materials. Always check on flammable items before you go to sleep and make sure you have a fire extinguisher on standby at all times.
Camping or not, you should always have an up-to-date first aid kit in your truck. Rusty knives, the outdoors and skin sometimes collide, and you’ll want to be able to deal with it on the spot. Take plenty of band-aids, iodine and gauzes, as well as medicine, insect repellent, and other medical kit items.
Sometimes, you may find yourself either camping in a place where you really shouldn’t be, or there may be other people about. Depending on how you feel about the situation, it may be best to stay locked in for your own personal security. Installing a simple velcro curtain system may also help you maintain privacy if you have transparent windows.
If you have interior lights installed in your canopy, give them a test run in the dark before your trip — you’ll want to be certain your shadows won’t be too revealing!
Camping tips & tricks
So you’ve sorted out your sleeping arrangements and truck fit-out. To make your camping experience even more successful, here are some camping hacks to help you along the way:
Take a portable power station
As much as we all want to have a digital detox, going camping without a cellphone probably isn’t very practical. Having some sort of portable power station such as a mobile power bank for USB devices, or a generator, will help you out in all manner of sticky situations.
Wash clothes with a garbage bag
Aside from finding a campsite with laundry facilities, there are easy ways you can wash your clothes while camping. For instance, instead of using the usual plastic bowls to wash your stuff in, take with you a clean garbage bag. All you need to do is fill it partly with water and detergent, then swirl it around until you’re satisfied your clothes are clean. Empty the bag, rinse, hang and dry! Or, if you want to get really fancy, you could try a portable washing machine that gives a more thorough result.
Clever outdoor hygiene
Wet wipes (the biodegradable kind) are a camper’s best friend. Save water for your face and hair. If space allows, inexpensive portable showers are an awesome addition to your camping set — some even include solar-powered heat and inbuilt pressure systems. Quick-dry microfiber towels should also be part of your hygiene kit.
As for going to the toilet, nature can be very forgiving. However, do be mindful of local environmental regulations and make sure you aren’t going where you shouldn’t. All waste material should be collected and disposed of where possible. Portable toilets can take up a lot of room, so bring with you a simple urine bottle or folding commode chair.
No matter where you camp, it’s very likely that at some point you’ll be fighting the battle of the bugs. If you have an open-ended canopy, strategically placed bug netting will help keep out mosquitoes and other not-so-friendly bugs from your sleeping area. Avoid camping in damp areas or places where there is stagnant water. And above all, bring insect repellent and itch relief creams!
Use duct tape for everything
Whatever you do, don’t buy with rope and shovel, or you’ll get some funny looks at your DIY store. Jokes aside, duct tape is a must-have for all your camping needs. Uses range from fixing tears, making a rope (twisted duct tape), sealing food packages, fixing glasses, marking trails, and more.
Get creative with camping chairs
No camp is complete without a folding camp chair. After all that driving, you’ll want to relax outside comfortably. There are so many to choose from — camping chairs with side tables, extra reinforcement for back pain, sturdiness for heavier bodies, reclining capabilities and so on.
Fancy percolators are nice to have, but there are ways you can make your morning coffee without having to invest in specific makers. Cowboy coffee is the rustic way of brewing that involves dropping coffee grounds into a pot of boiling water, giving a distinct, down to earth taste. To make cowboy coffee:
- Fill up a pot of water and bring to the boil on your campfire or stove
- Once boiling, remove from the fire and sit for 30 seconds
- Add 2 tablespoons of coffee for every 8 ounces of water, stir well
- Allow the pot to sit for 2 minutes, stir, then allow to sit for another 2 minutes
- After 4 minutes of brewing, add a small amount of cold water on top to help the coffee grounds settle to the bottom
- Pour into a mug, taking care that the grounds remain in the pot. If some transfer to your mug, wait another minute for the grounds to settle
- Throw away your used coffee grounds (they’re biodegradable!) and rinse out your pot
- Enjoy your coffee, cowboy style
If you’re new to camping and want to make it a more regular thing, how about starting out a camper gift list to build up your camping gear over time?
While not for all tastes, 77 million U.S. campers say camping in the back of a truck or car camping is one of the best vacations you can ever have. What’s not to love about exploring our beautiful national parks, connecting with nature, saving money, and having the freedom of time and space?
OK, some prefer hotels, services and creature comforts, which is fine. But as mentioned earlier, truck camping is what you make it — you can have all the mod cons, as long as you’re willing to invest. For everyone else, just get out, drive and you’ll soon find what ticks.