So, you want to build a great overland expedition truck camper rig that can not only explore the world, but also get you far off the beaten path? I don’t blame you. A well-designed, properly outfitted truck camper rig will allow you to do more things and more see places than other types of recreational rigs. You won’t find a large Earthroamer or Hellgeth Unimog on the White Rim Trail in Utah or on the Mohave 4×4 Road in California. Without the proper guidance, however, it’s easy to get tripped up. Four years ago, I started to build my truck camper rig, but along the way I made some poor choices that set my plans back. Through trial and error, I finally bought the right truck and the right camper and that’s 90 percent of the game. So, if you’re looking for some pointers on how to build your own truck camper rig, you’ve come to the right place. I’ll tell you what you should and shouldn’t buy and what options to choose from that will save you money, save time, and reduce frustration.
I. Truck Camper Considerations
If you’re just starting out and have neither a truck nor a truck camper, I strongly recommend that you buy your truck camper first. Doing so will allow you to choose the right truck with the right amount of payload to safely haul your truck camper (more about payload later). Fortunately, when it comes to buying a truck camper, the choices are many. Truck campers can be purchased at several price points and include long-bed and short-bed pop-up campers as well as short-bed and long-bed hard-side campers with and without slide-outs. If you have your sights set on a pop-up, then you’re pretty much set. They all have the low-profile, the low-weight, and the low-center of gravity to excel in extreme off-road conditions. On the other hand, most of the hard-side truck campers rolling off of today’s assembly lines aren’t particularly good for going off-road, especially the extreme stuff. Most are simply too large and heavy. But don’t fret. There are still plenty of hard-side truck campers in the market to meet your off-road, truck camper needs.
So what exactly should you look for in an extreme off-road truck camper? First, slide-outs are out. Sorry, but they add too much weight. Sure, you can take them off-road, but you’ll be pretty limited on the type of terrain you can tackle without over-flexing and damaging your camper. Second, choose a truck camper with a low profile. Obviously, all pop-ups meet this criteria, but if you want a hard-side truck camper this means buying one without a basement (basements are fine, of course, in pop-ups). Yes, a basement can accommodate larger holding tanks, but a basement also produces a taller, higher profile camper that is limited on where it can go (things like low hanging tree branches and rock overhangs will stop a high profile camper in its tracks). You’ll also want a truck camper that is no wider than 7.5 feet. The reasons are similar to buying a low profile rig. You want a truck camper that will allow you to travel down narrow roads and trails. The extra width can be limiting unless you enjoy scraping and scratching up the side of your rig.
An often overlooked factor when choosing a truck camper is how it’s constructed. Aluminum framing is used by most truck camper manufacturers today, but there are a few that still produce wood framed units. Like anything, there are pros and cons to each. Aluminum is lighter, doesn’t rot, and is mold and termite resistant, but it also “sweats” during cold weather (a primary cause of delamination), is more expensive, is subject to more thermal loss, and becomes weak and brittle with time. On the other hand, wood is stronger, cheaper, easier to work with and repair, and insulates better, but is also heavier and can rot and mold over time if exposed to moisture. The only truck camper manufacturers that I know of that still use wood to build their frames are Northstar Campers, BundutecUSA, Adventurer, and Alaskan. These manufacturers arguably build the strongest and most durable truck campers in today’s market as well.
An important thing you’ll need to keep in mind when shopping for a truck camper is the center of gravity (COG). Every truck camper has a COG which identifies where along the length of the camper the weight is centered. Basically, the camper’s COG needs to be in front of your truck’s rear axle. Most campers have a sticker identifying where the COG is located to take some of the guess-work out of it. You never want to have the COG behind your rear axle because this will impair your truck’s handling off-road. Verifying that your COG is “good” is fairly easy and will require a couple of trips to the scales with and without your camper. If your front axle weighs less with your truck camper on your truck then your COG is “bad.” You can usually correct this by reloading your camper, ensuring that most of the weight is in front of your rear axle.
Now that you know what to look for, let’s take a look at seven specific models that are terrific for overlanding and going off-road:
1. Lance 865:
Perhaps the most popular of all the models listed in this article, the aluminum-framed Lance 865 is a terrific off-road truck camper that was just reviewed on this website. The wet weight of the 865 is approximately 2,300 pounds, though fully loaded, it will probably top out at 3,000 pounds. With no basement, and a width of only 7 feet, 2 inches, it more than meets our strict requirements for going off-road. The tank capacities are pretty decent, too, with 30 gallons fresh, 14 gallons gray, and 13 gallons black. The well-apportioned 865 features a fairly large wet bath, a full-size kitchen, a queen bed oriented north-south, and a cozy U-shaped dinette. The only real negative with the 8-foot-7-inch long 865 is its small battery compartment—it’s large enough to hold only one Group-27 battery—though there are workarounds for this limitation like adding an additional AGM battery inside or by buying a Torklift HiddenPower battery auxiliary system. The Lance 865 is available only for short-bed pickup trucks.
2. Northstar Laredo SC:
The truck camper I own, the Northstar Laredo SC is a popular and proven design that has been around for many years. Unlike the Lance 865, the Laredo can be purchased in both long-bed and short-bed configurations. It has a floor length of 8 feet 6 inches, a width of 7 feet, and a very low profile for a hard-side camper. The Laredo’s floorplan features a U-shaped dinette forward, a large and spacious kitchen, and a north-south queen bed. Like the Lance 865, the Laredo has a small battery compartment, but can be outfitted with a dual battery box if ordered as an option at the factory. The tank capacities are excellent in the Laredo with a 40 gallon fresh water tank, a 14 gallon gray water tank, and a removable 5 gallon cassette for the black water. The only real negative with the Northstar Laredo is its small bathroom—it doesn’t have a sink. Not a big deal for most, but some will balk at this. The Laredo’s frame and walls are constructed entirely of wood. Make sure you order the winter insulation package. Base price, $21,890.
3. Adventurer 80RB
With a dry weight of only 1,757 pounds, the Adventurer 80RB is the smallest and lightest of the hard-side models featured in this article. While the holding tanks in the 80RB are pretty small at 15 gallons fresh, 6 gallons gray, and 6 gallons black, it has everything else you need to off-road and boondock comfortably, including a nicely equipped bathroom and a fully equipped kitchen with a fairly large 4 cubic foot refrigerator. The interior of the Adventurer 80RB is very attractive with cherry cabinets, fully radiused corners, and a simple, yet functional dinette featuring a flip-out sofa that can be converted into a bed. The wood-framed 80RB has a floor length of 8 feet long and is 7.5 feet wide, perfect for going off-road. Like the other hard-side models featured here, the standard 80RB battery box can only hold one battery, but a larger battery box that can hold two batteries can be ordered special from the factory. Fits on both short-bed and long-bed pickup trucks.
4. Hallmark K2:
Widely regarded as the best popup truck camper manufacturer in the market today, Hallmark offers a complete line of high-end, quality campers. One of these is their highly touted K2 model. The K2 is an 8 foot truck camper built for both long-bed and short-bed full-size trucks. Constructed of a surprisingly strong composite fiberglass, it weighs only 1,262 pounds dry and is only 6 feet 9 inches wide. It’s a terrific low profile truck camper with only a 64 inch exterior height popped-down. Popped up the amount of headroom is an impressive 80 inches. The tank capacities are pretty decent, too, with 30 gallons fresh, 12 gallons gray, and 5.3 gallons black, plus it has a battery compartment large enough to house two Group-27 batteries. The big negative with this model is the small size of the bathroom–there’s only a toilet–but it does have an outdoor shower option. A North-South cabover is also optional for the Hallmark K2. The base price is $28,995.
5. Outfitter Apex-8
Made for short-bed, three-quarter-ton pickup trucks, the Outfitter Apex-8 is a popular choice with off-road enthusiasts. This 1,450-pound-camper is constructed of an aluminum frame and composite foam and features an electric roof lift with a manual over-ride. One feature of the Apex-8 that I really like is its spacious, 80 inch cabover with a pull out drawer. This drawer can be used either for storage or as a bed for children. The choice is yours. The Apex-8 also has a fully enclosed, heated basement housing a large 44 gallon fresh water tank, a 16 gallon gray water tank, and a 16 gallon black water tank. The bathroom is fairly large for a pop-up, too. In addition to a marine grade porcelain toilet, the bathroom also has a full-size shower and a sink. The battery box in the Apex can hold only one battery, but in the ones I’ve seen another battery box can be added quite easily. The floor length of this well-equipped pop-up is 8 feet and the camper is only 7.2 feet wide. As you can see, the features and specs are pretty impressive for the Outfitter Apex-8. Base price is $29,650.
6. Four Wheel Camper Hawk
With a floor length of 6.5 feet and a dry weight of only 895 pounds, the Four Wheel Camper Hawk is the smallest and lightest off-road truck camper featured in this article. Designed specifically for short-bed trucks, the aluminum-framed Hawk has no rear overhang, meaning it has a great departure angle, perfect for going off-road. You won’t find a bathroom in this small popup, just an optional porta potti, but it does have everything else you need to explore and boondock in comfort. Like the Hallmark K2, the Hawk sports a very low profile with a cabover thickness of only 10 inches in the down position. It features a 20 gallon fresh water tank, a fully equipped kitchette, an east-west queen bed, 6 feet 6 inches of interior headroom when popped up, and three different floorplan options at the factory. Of all the campers featured, the well-made, well-designed Hawk has the lowest price at only $14,495 for the base model, but don’t let that fool you. This rugged and attractive camper is made for extreme off-roading. Available in both aluminum and fiberglass exteriors.
7. Phoenix Pop-Up Flatbed
Interested in a flatbed pop-up truck camper for more interior space? Well, the good folks at Phoenix Pop-up Campers build perhaps the coolest looking flatbed truck campers in the industry. And when I say, “build,” I mean it. All of their designs are custom builds from the ground up. You start with a base model and add only the options that you want for your overland expedition rig. Want an 80 gallon fresh water tank for extended time off-the-grid? You got it. How about a beefy bank of four batteries and a 2,000 watt pure sine wave inverter to power your appliances? Sure, they do this all the time. As custom specialists, Phoenix Campers can build a flatbed, aluminum framed, aerodynamic rig to match almost any truck out there from the standard Ford, Chevy, and Ram heavy duty pickup trucks to the slightly unconventional yet highly capable Fuso, Toyota, and Unimog heavy duty trucks. They’re also one of the few companies out there that can paint your truck camper a custom color to match your vehicle. If you decide to go this route, then the folks at Phoenix Campers will need your truck for one week for the final fitting. Pricing starts at $19,995 without options.
II. Pickup Truck Considerations
You’ve chosen your truck camper, now it’s time to select your truck. Getting a truck with the right amount of payload to safely haul your truck camper is critical, not only for the safety of you and your family, but also for the life of your truck. The truck’s payload, expressed in both pounds and kilograms, can be found either on a driver’s side door pillar placard or in the glove box on a payload certification form. You can also determine the payload of a truck by subtracting the curb weight of your truck (you’ll need to take it to the scales to get this figure) from the truck’s GVWR. Basically, everything being carried in your truck, including all passengers, gear, and your “wet,” fully loaded truck camper, should be below your truck’s rated payload. Doing this ensures your rig will be safe no matter what kind of weather you encounter or what kind terrain you come across in your off-road adventures.
Since you’ll sometimes be driving off-road, a four-wheel drive drivetrain for your pickup truck is a must-have option. Sooner or later you’re going to need it, I guarantee it. Even though you’ll lose some payload having this feature, four-wheel drive will serve you far better, especially when driving in snow, sand, and mud. It will also help when climbing smooth rock and steep gravel roads. Sure, you can drive off-road in a two-wheel drive, but the front and rear axles will bottom out more on rough roads and you won’t have the traction and the peace of mind that only a four-wheel drive truck provides. Besides, a four-wheel drive has a better resale value than a two-wheeler and an aggressive looking four-wheel drive just plain looks better. It’s true that a two-wheel drive gets better fuel mileage, but the pros of having a four-wheel drive for off-roading far outweigh the cons.
Having a wheelbase that is conducive to off-roading is important when building your overland expedition rig (the wheelbase is determined by measuring the distance between the front and rear axles). A truck with a short wheelbase will have a smaller turning radius and will be able to tackle sharp crests off-road. Conversely, a truck with a long wheelbase will have a larger turning radius and will bottom out often on rough terrain. Because of this the maximum wheelbase that you’ll want for your truck is about 156 inches. Basically, this means choosing nothing larger than a short-bed pickup truck with a crew cab. This also means that a long-bed pickup truck with a crew cab is out, it’s simply way too long and will bottom out far too often off-road. In my opinion, the optimum wheel-base for a truck and truck camper combo would be about 147 inches–the equivalent of a short-bed pickup truck with a super cab.
In spite of what some may tell you, dual rear wheels are a liability off-road. It’s true that “dually’s, as they’re popularly called, offer superior stability and handling on asphalt and offer higher payloads, but they’re also wider in the “hips” and less adept at off-roading. Yes, dually’s “float” better over certain surfaces like loose sand, but the big negative with them is that jagged rocks can get wedged in between the rear wheels causing flats and other damage. On the other hand, single rear wheel trucks are narrower, lighter, more versatile, and give superior traction and maneuverability on all types of road surfaces. Because of this I strongly recommend a truck with single rear wheels. If you have any doubts, take a look at the high-end, four-wheel drive off-road RVs like the Provan Tiger, Earthroamer, and Sportsmobile. Not one of them has dual rear wheels, it’s not even an option.
Can a half-ton pickup truck haul a truck camper? I get that question all the time. The answer is, yes, but with several caveats. It depends on the truck, it’s rated payload, and the size and weight of the camper you have in mind. The 2015 Ford F-150 short-bed (154 inch wheelbase), crew cab, two-wheel drive, with the heavy duty payload package, has a rated payload of 2,799 pounds. That’s a pretty impressive number even for a three-quarter-ton. Most half-ton pickup trucks out there, however, have much less payload, usually around 1,600 pounds. This reduced payload basically limits you to pop-up truck campers and smaller hard-slide campers like the Lance 650 and the cab-less Northstar Vista. With the exception of the aforementioned Ford F-150, most half-tons will need upgrades to the shock absorbers, spring packs, brakes, and tires, the latter meaning a capacity improvement from the weak passenger tires that came with your truck to a set of good light truck (LT) tires with a Load Range of either D or E.
III. The Finishing Touches
As you know, a tire’s primary function is to provide traction. For off-road vehicles, this means gripping all kinds of surfaces from snow, dirt, and mud to sand, rocks, and boulders. If your pickup truck also serves as your daily driver, I recommend getting a good set of all-terrain (AT) tires. With interlocking tread elements, AT tires provide excellent traction on not only smooth pavement, but also on mud, snow, and ice. However, if your truck camper rig will be used off-road more than on, then a good set of mud-terrain (MT) tires will server you far better. MT tires feature aggressive tread patterns that provide superb traction on all types of off-road surfaces, including snow and mud. MT tires won’t last as long as AT tires, and they’re a lot noisier on pavement, but they will provide better traction when driving off-road and that’s the name of the game.
Keeping your camper anchored to your pickup truck is obviously critical and is accomplished by using a combination of truck camper tie downs and turnbuckles. There are basically two tie down systems from which to choose: Torklift and Happijac. Both are fine systems with each offering several advantages and disadvantages over the other. The big advantage of the Torklift system is that it bolts to the truck’s frame underneath the truck bed and is a stronger, more rugged design, while the Happijac system requires drilling into the truck’s bed and rear bumper to install. The Happijac system, however, does prevent side-to-side movement better and is better for off-road use, but the Happijac rear bumper tie down mounts have been known to fail under stress. Because of this, I recommend a hybrid approach for your overland rig–the Happijac tie down system in the front and Torklift tie downs or Talons in the back.
Turnbuckles are essential pieces of hardware in truck camper ownership. They act as the “middleman,” securing your truck camper to the tie-down system of your truck. Off-road conditions will test the ability of your tie downs and turnbuckles to control the forces or stresses working against your camper. Proper tension and installation of your turnbuckles is critically important. Too much tension will over stress and damage your camper while too little tension will allow your camper to shift and slide around in the bed of your truck. Make sure you read and understand the installation instructions for your turnbuckles to make sure they work optimally. I highly recommend the Torklift FastGun. There isn’t a better turnbuckle in the truck camper market. For an in-depth review of the Torklift FastGun, check out my review here.
Due to the nature of extreme off-roading, there’s a good chance that your camper will slide around in the bed of your truck. The most common and easiest fix to prevent this from happening is to install a rubber mat. You can buy specially made bed mats for the specific make and model of your truck or you can buy a couple of horse stall mats and piece them together to fit in the bed of your truck. Both options work great, but the specially made mats are easier to use and remove when needed. I use a Dee Zee Heavy Duty Bed Mat in my Ram 3500. If your camper still slides around after installing a bed mat, then I would buy or make some braces to install in your truck bed. Simple 2×4 inch braces should be more than sufficient to keep your camper immobile while you’re traveling off-road.
Lastly, I recommend outfitting your rig with a strong winch bumper and an appropriately sized winch. As you know, deer and elk (or a quad) can appear suddenly and without warning, especially on winding roads. The last thing you want to have happen is a breakdown far from help due to a wrecked radiator or engine. Winch bumpers can be purchased at several price points and can be made from either aluminum or steel. I recommend the strongest and lightest bumper your truck can handle. The winch, which should be rated for 1.5 times your rig’s GVWR, provides your rig with a valuable self-recovery tool. No matter how skilled or how experienced you may be driving off-road, eventually you’ll get stuck on one of your adventures. For this reason, it’s best to be prepared. For these important items, I recommend the Buckstop winch bumper and the Warn heavy-duty winch. Both manufacturers have been around for years, are known for their quality, and will provide your overland adventure rig with many years of reliable service.
A special thanks to Mark Larson, Michael Harris, Dave Rodgers, Phoenix Campers and Four Wheel Campers for permission to use their photographs.