Last year we jumped into the world of truck camper RVing as total newbies, and what a wild ride it has been! We learned a lot and want to share a few insights we picked up along the way plus give you some news about where this journey has taken us.
Of course, our info about truck camper RVing is based on our limited experience with one particular truck camper, a 2005 Arctic Fox 860, and one particular truck, a 2016 Dodge Ram 3500 dually. Other RVers with different truck/camper combos have different experiences.
A large part of why we decided to get a truck camper after living in a fifth wheel for 13 years is that good friends of ours spent 25 years wintering in a fifth wheel in Arizona and going on short jaunts around their home state of Montana in a truck camper in the summertime. They absolutely loved the various truck campers they had over the years, and hearing their stories inspired us.
What could be better than camping in the forest and riding the US Forest Service roads in a Polaris RZR?!
TRUCK CAMPER JOYS:
There are many great things about truck campers and they all stem from their small size. Unlike most other kinds of trailers and motorized RVs, you can park it in an ordinary parking space, whether on the street, at a store, at a National Park overlook, in a National Park campground, or at the hospital, as we found out.
You can load it onto a ferry boat where fees are charged by vehicle length, and it will cost you half as much (or even less) than if you were towing a trailer.
You never have to be concerned about whether your rig will fit into any kind of campsite, and you can even pull into a friend’s driveway for the night without knocking things over as you plow through their neighborhood (been there, done that, yikes!).
If you plan to tow a boat, or a side-by-side, or a Jeep or anything else, you can hitch it directly to the truck. Of course, if the camper sticks out beyond the back of the truck, you’ll need a hitch extension, but at least you won’t be towing your extra toy behind a truck and fifth wheel in a long train that isn’t even legal to drive in a lot of states.
In our case, the truck we had to work with is a diesel. So, we could take our camper up any steep mountain grade and the truck didn’t even break a sweat. This meant we could transform our powerful truck into a motorized RV worthy of mountain passes with the modest incremental cost of purchasing an older truck camper.
WHERE TRUCK CAMPERS & TRAILERS ARE MORE OR LESS EQUIVALENT:
We were surprised to discover that our truck got the same fuel mileage when we were carrying the truck camper as it did when we were towing the fifth wheel. The camper weighs around 3,500 lbs while the fifth wheel weighed 14,000 lbs, so you’d think the truck wouldn’t work as hard with the camper, but that’s what we saw.
Our truck gets anywhere from 15 to 21 mpg when it is not towing or carrying heavy weight. It got around 9 to 12 mpg towing the fifth wheel trailer and it got about the same carrying the camper.
TRUCK CAMPER CHALLENGES:
This is where our learning curve took off.
Swing-Out Landing Legs for Dually Trucks
Our first discovery was that the wide hips of our dually truck couldn’t fit between the front landing legs of the camper. We had to replace the two front factory-installed landing legs with a special type that can swing outward so the truck could fit between them as it backed in under the camper to load it up. Then they could be swung back inward for driving.
The wide hips of the dually required front landing legs that could swing open to let the truck back in. In this pic, the leg is in the “out” position.
The landing legs can be rotated outward for loading and unloading the camper and then rotated inward for driving. Shown here in the outward position.
The camper we bought didn’t come with swing out legs so we had to add them before we could bring the camper home. The seller delivered the camper to an RV repair shop where we had the work done.
Install a Tie Down System
Our next discovery was that the camper must be tied down to the truck so it doesn’t slide off (the tailgate of the truck gets removed so the truck camper can be loaded into the truck bed).
We chose to go with the top-of-the-line Torklift camper tie down system which consisted of Torklift’s bolt-on anchor points (the Talon Tie Downs for the truck and the Camper Anchor Relocation/Repair Kit for the camper.
Once these were bolted onto the truck frame and the camper frame, we used the Torklift FastGun Turnbuckles to tie the camper onto the truck. The FastGuns are super secure and they have a quick release mechanism that makes them very easy to put on and take off when loading and unloading the camper.
The Torklift Tie Down system has three components in each corner: an anchor point on the camper (“Camper Anchor Repair/Relocation Kit”, an anchor point on the truck (“Torklift Talon Tie Down”) and a connection between the two (“Torklift FastGun Turnbuckle”).
As great as this system was, the installation was another step in the process that needed to happen before we could take the camper home.
These two upgrades — swing-out landing legs and camper tie downs — were modifications to the rig that were much like buying a hitch, a hitch receiver, tow mirrors and a brake controller (or buying a truck with a factory installed Tow Package) for a truck/trailer combo. They are add-ons that must be done and done right before you can go anywhere, and they not only take time but add to the overall cost of the rig.
Truck and Truck Camper Marriage – A Match Made in Heaven?
We hadn’t realized before we bought our beautiful truck camper that when you match a camper to a truck (or vice versa), you are setting the stage for them to get married. Hopefully, they fall in love and it is a match made in heaven.
In our case, it wasn’t. Our dually long bed truck was a bit big for the camper. Coming from the world of trailers, we couldn’t imagine that a truck could be too big for any kind of RV setup, but in the world of campers the pairing of the truck and camper is so precise that it is possible to have too big and ungainly a truck for a given camper.
Campers are designed with specific sizes of trucks in mind. Our particular camper was advertised back in the day (2005 era) as being compatible with either a short bed truck or a long bed truck. Since it was short bed compatible, I don’t think the designers intended it to be paired with a long bed dually.
Loading and Unloading the Truck Camper – A Unique Issue with the Arctic Fox 860 and Long Bed Trucks
The camper is standing on its own four legs so so the truck can slide in underneath.
Like all truck campers, the layout of the bottom of our camper was a rectangle designed to fit in the bed of a truck. However, it had an extra box sticking out on the left side of the rear entry door. This box held all the sewer valves and the outlet for the sewer hose as well as providing storage for the landing leg controller, so it was not something that could be removed.
The right side of this compartment is the left edge of the bottom of the camper that fits into the truck bed. So, the whole sewer gear compartment sticks out beyond the profile of the bottom of the camper (illustration below).
This simplistic drawing shows the problem. The truck bed is in red and the camper floor is in black. The sewer gear box sticks out of the rear driver’s side of the camper which reduces the clearance for loading the camper into a long bed truck by several inches:
The sewer gear box sticks out from the side of the camper, making it a tight fit width-wise in a long bed truck.
Unfortunately, as we backed the truck in under the camper, we had to make sure not to hit that box while also ensuring that the dually wheel wells didn’t catch on the sides of the camper either. All this had to be in perfect alignment while backing up the full 8′ distance of the truck bed. We had about an inch to spare in total, and we had to back the truck perfectly straight for the entire 8′ length of the truck bed.
Okay, now back the truck up perfectly straight…
Looking up at the bottom of the camper as it slides into the truck bed, you can see the sewer gear box is going to hit on the left side of the bed.
After adjusting the truck so the camper’s sewer box doesn’t hit on the left side, over on the right side the camper just clears the dually’s inner wheel well. Phew!
Needless to say, it was a white knuckle affair every time we loaded or unloaded the camper, and it usually required jockying the truck forward and backward a few times to get it aligned perfectly. Sometimes we lightly bumped the tall spindly camper landing legs in the process, making our hearts jump. With every bump and shudder of the top-heavy camper, I was grateful it didn’t fall over.
Also, our 2016 truck bed was a few inches higher than the 2005-era trucks our camper was designed for. So, we had to raise the camper a few inches higher on those spindly legs than was originally envisioned by the designers. The camper looked like a giant bug with very long legs, and one time when the wind suddenly picked up to 30+ mph, the whole very top-heavy contraption began to sway on those spindly legs. We both ran for our lives for fear it might topple over on us.
Ironically, we’ve done plenty of challenging things with RVs and boats together, but nothing was as difficult or frustrating as loading and unloading this camper. Down in Mexico, we anchored our large beautiful sailboat in lots of dicey places, sometimes spending the night listening to waves crashing on rocks right outside our windows.
One time, in the violently unpredictable Sea of Cortez, our boat dangled, twisted and turned at the end of our taught 300′ anchor chain in powerful onshore winds with huge waves pounding the beach just a few feet behind us. Unnerved, we decided to leave that frightening setting for a safer spot on the other side of the island only to have a mammoth wave promptly crash over the deck and bend the one inch diameter stainless steel Garhauer racks holding our 14′ kayak as if they were made of rubber. The kayak was saved from the raging sea by a few stout lines that now seemed like pieces of sewing thread.
Due to the higher bed height of modern trucks, the camper has to be raised a few inches higher on its thin legs than was originally intended.
Yet none of those experiences matched the panic that we both felt when we loaded the camper on and off our truck. It was an ordeal.
Because we couldn’t load and unload the camper easily, we essentially lost the use of our truck by itself, not only when we were traveling but also when we were home. At home, we felt like we needed to get another truck for hauling jobs in our daily lives (how silly would that be?!). While traveling, we couldn’t leave the camper in our campsite and instead always had to take pack it up and take it with us no matter how short a distance we needed to go. We did have the RZR with us, and we happily drive it RZR on lightly traveled roads, but we don’t drive it on highways or roads with fast moving traffic.
Leaving a campsite with camping goodies in it like a patio mat and camp chairs without a rig present is asking for trouble. Someone arriving at the campsite could easily assume the goodies were abandoned (we have found tons of abandoned camping gear on public land that we’ve watched sit there day after day). Likewise, having to put everything away inside the rig in order to drive a few miles somewhere is inconvenient.
This all sounds a bit dire, but I believe the ease of loading and unloading–which makes it either possible or impossible to drive the truck without the camper on it–is 100% dependent on how well matched the truck is to the camper. If it’s a good match, getting the camper on and off the truck shouldn’t be difficult. That said, we haven’t seen many truck campers in campsites that have been unloaded from the truck they drove in on.
The bottom line for us is that our truck and camper were not a good match for each other and they ended up getting a divorce. Thankfully, the divorce was an amicable one.
In Contrast: A Good Truck/Camper Pairing
When we sold the camper, the perfect buyer snapped it up, and we saw the difference that a good pairing can make.
We took the camper off our truck and got ready to load it onto the buyer’s truck.
He has a 2002 Chevy shortbed truck, and the camper fits it like a glove. He slid his truck underneath with ease, never having loaded a truck camper before, and he looked like a pro as he backed in. FIrst, the camper didn’t need to be raised very high for the truck to slide underneath. Then, the camper fit into the bed without that awkward sewer box even getting involved. Because it was a shortbed truck, the sewer gear box hung off the back of the truck and didn’t have to get squeezed into the truck bed. Undoubtedly, the designers assumed that half or more of their buyers would be people with shortbed trucks.
The camper sticks out beyond the short bed of the truck unlike on a long bed where the back end is flush.
The troublesome sewer gear box doesn’t have to be squeezed into the bed of the truck because it hangs off the back — perfect!
As we watched the buyer load the camper on his truck so easily, it was obvious his new truck/camper combo would be a match made in heaven. Perhaps a bigger camper would have given us a better overall experience, but by this time we were ready to try something completely different!
PERSONAL CAMPING STYLE – IS TRUCK CAMPING FOR YOU?
Besides the technical issues of pairing the truck and camper, there’s also a huge difference between living in a camper and living in a larger rig. Obviously, a truck camper is a small space. But there is more to it than that.
The space is quite vertical, especially if the camper door is on the back of the camper at the level of the truck bed. The bed of our truck — which is the floor level of the camper — is at chest height for me. So, we had to step up from ground level to chest height just to enter the camper.
Torklift makes a stair system called the Glow Step that folds down to the ground accordion style from the truck bumper. Some folks nickname the Glow Step the Stairway to Heaven because it is such a long staircase. I found portable plastic stairs that fit into the camper while we traveled. These were sturdy and easy to go up and down.
When the truck was unhitched from the utility trailer it was a straight shot into the camper: two steps on the plastic stairs and two steps on the camper’s stairs. If we left the trailer hitched up, we had a turn in the staircase.
A two-step staircase was a cheap solution for climbing up to the entry door where there are two more stairs before entering the camper.
With the flat bed trailer hitched up to the truck, we step up to the trailer tongue and then up into the camper.
Mark also made a very clever platform out of plywood to fit on the tongue of the RZR trailer. This made a staircase landing where we could pause to open the door when our hands were full. We usually kept the RZR trailer attached to the truck, so this platform was a really nifty upgrade and didn’t take him long to make. We kept it in the RZR when we were driving.
Mark built a platform for the trailer tongue that gave us a landing midway up our staircase.
This stairway solution worked really well.
Because the buyer’s truck bed was much lower than ours, he didn’t need the plastic stairs and could get away with a 7 inch step stool, if even that. See? Match made in heaven.
Many truck campers have the entry door on the side of the camper rather than on the back. Because of the placement of this door, the truck camper hangs off the back end of the truck. The beauty of a side entry door is that it is substantially lower to the ground than a door placed on the back of the camper. This reduces the number of stairs needed to get up to the doorway and makes it much more like going into a trailer or motorhome.
The disadvantage of a side entry door is that if you plan to tow something behind the truck, you will need a hitch extension because the hitch receiver on the truck will now be recessed under the floor of the camper.
Once inside the camper, whether it is a rear entry or side entry door, you can sit at the dinette, stand in the kitchen or bathroom, or crawl into the bed. For one or two people this is fine — it’s just tight living. You’re out seeing the world anyway, so who cares? However, we found it is not so easy if you have pets.
Buddy had only one choice for where he could spend time comfortably in the camper: on the bed. He could sit at the dinette, but didn’t like to do that for longer than a few seconds.
Buddy joins us at the dinette.
“What’s for lunch?”
He could also be on the floor, but he was under foot and not comfortable standing there. So, in the end, his only place in the camper was on the bed. He loved it there, though. He could watch the world outside through the windows on either side of the bed and it was soft and comfy.
Buddy’s favorite place was up on the bed where he could stretch out and look out the windows.
However, he was kind of stuck there. He’s a good jumper, but it was a long jump down to the floor and we didn’t want him jumping up and down off the high bed for fear the pounding would be tough on his slender limbs or we’d get in his way accidentally and cause him to injure himself.
He could aso jump up into the camper from outside on the ground, but again, we weren’t keen on having him jumping around in case we accidentally stepped in his path while he was jumping and injured him.
Buddy loves the outdoors, but with the truck camper he had to wait for one of us to help him in or out.
So, we ended up having to lift him in and out of the camper and also lift him on and off the bed. This meant he had no independence, and he was kind of stuck wherever he was, either outside in the campsite or inside on the bed, until we helped move him. In contrast, when we had the fifth wheel, he could come and go as he pleased.
SELLING AN RV IN TODAY’S CRAZY MARKET
Everyone wants to get out into nature and leave Lockdown World far behind.
So, after our trip to Quartzsite we knew it was time to sell our Arctic Fox camper and buy something different (and exciting!).
We learned a lot in the selling process. If you are selling an RV these days, here are some things we learned when we sold our camper on Craigslist in February, 2022.
First, the market is moving really fast and NADA Guide is not keeping up. We priced our camper based on dealership asking prices for similar untils nationwide that we saw listed in RVTrader.com. The asking prices were through the roof and insane. They were essentially double the NADA Guide prices. But we went with the flow and asked an insane price that fit in with the others.
We’d had our eyes on the RV market for a while and had noticed that good quality used rigs in excellent condition were selling quickly. We’d see a cool rig one day and it would be gone two or three days later. That happened repeatedly.
We put the ad up on a Tuesday and had some calls and made 3 appointments for showings on Saturday. None of the three who saw it on Saturday bit right away, but we had interest from five other people calling us from 200 to 1,000 miles away.
Saturday night I got a call from a serious buyer who put down a substantial deposit and promised to be out to pick it up on Tuesday. He lived 1,200 miles away and it would take him 2 days to drive to our place. Plus, he wanted to install new tires on his truck before making the trip. I changed the ad to “Sale Pending.”
On Sunday, all three people who had seen the camper the day before called to make offers. Meanwhile, four other people from 40, 180, 200 and 250 miles away respectively all made full cash offers, saying they could come with cash in hand the next day (Monday) to pick it up. I told them I had a deal pending that would take a few days to close and that I would call them if it fell through. Four of the prospective buyers kept in close touch during the next few days to see if the deal fell through.
Needless to say, the buyer was good to his word. Once he arrived, it took two days for him to complete the formal wedding ceremony between his truck and our camper. He got the tires he wanted before the trip and was able to find tie downs that fit his truck in a shop within an hour’s drive.
He was a smart shopper. He told us he had been looking for a camper like ours for over a year, and he had missed out on four previous deals because he didn’t move fast enough. That’s why he was willing to make the deposit sight-unseen and drive 1,200 miles to get the camper.
When I notified the other four prospective buyers that the deal had gone through, they were all sorely disappointed. Undoubtedly, they approached the next prospective deal they saw very differently.
The flatbed trailer was a fun place to hang out and get a slightly elevated view.
Of course, I have no idea if this kind of insanity in the RV market is ongoing out there three months later. A lot has happened in the world since then, and the inflation of both consumer goods, gas and diesel plus rising interest rates will surely put a damper on the enthusiasm people have for buying RVs. However, that is the RV sales experience we had just a short time ago.
It’s possible it could take a while for world events to affect the prices and availability of used RVs. Just prior to the financial crisis in September of 2008, we began shopping for a sailboat to go cruising. However, it wasn’t until January of 2010 that we began to see used boat prices finally begin to come down, due largely to marine loan foreclosures.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR RLT??
We bought another rig, which I’ll introduce in the next post. Our RV buying story in this crazy market was just as wild as our truck camper selling story, and so far we think we made the right choice and totally love it.
When we went adventuring in the truck camper last year, each time we left we enthusiastically packed for 5 to 7 days. However, we invariably came home after only two or three! I don’t know if it was due to boredom or feeling fidgety or because we were living in such a confined space, but that was the pattern each time we took the camper out.
Two weeks ago we took our new rig out on its maiden voyage shakedown cruise. Cautiously, we packed for just 3 days only to find we had to run out and restock our essentials twice! To our great surprise, when we finally had to head home due to a prior engagement, we realized we’d been out for 9 happy days.
So, right now we’re buttoning up the homestead and packing up the new rig so we can head out and see the world for a few glorious summer months!
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