We are all shaped by our own experience. My road less traveled for a then 23-year-old began in 1967 with a 1949 Willys Jeep Overland Utility Wagon with a tired Chevy 265 V8, 5.38 pigs, 7.50 x 16-inch military NDCC tires, (that’s non-directional cross-country in military speak), Studebaker 33 percent overdrive, and my first springs-over-axle conversion. Half a century and 14 4WD vehicles later, Jeannie and I have completed our search and build toward off-road and overlanding nirvana. We still go looking for remote and even sketchy locales with poor traction and bad access. This was all cultivated while we were younger and dumber. Based upon this hard-earned experience, I present 13 vital off-road tips for truck camper rigs.
There are two parts to the truck camper equation—obviously, the truck and the camper. Most of the upgrades go to the truck if you pick the right camper. In 2001, I bought a new Dodge short-bed 2500 4×4 truck equipped with a High Output (HO) Cummins Turbo Diesel; an NV5600, six-speed manual trans; and a NV241HD manual transfer case. I bought this truck, because of all the domestic pickup offerings at the time, the Cummins HO had the best drivetrain, and the engine had the best chance of outliving me. So far so good.
After a year or two of using the truck as my daily driver, and after buying our first camper—a used Lance Lite 165s—I began to upgrade parts that were not the ruggedest with an eye now for camping at the trailhead and possibly overlanding. These upgraded parts include Top Gun Customz control arms made for 6 inches of lift, but installed on a 3-inch front coil spring lift; a 4-inch exhaust system; Vulcan Big Line Pusher Pump Kit relocation to frame in front of fuel tank; and a low fuel pressure alarm (idiot light goes on below 5 pounds pressure). I also installed a SpynTec Dana 60 Hub Conversion Kit; an inner spindle bearing kit; new Dana 70 spindles; new Timken bearings; new hub seals; Dana 70, 35-spline outer stub shafts; a Mile Marker Dana 70 lockout hub assembly; and factory ABS sensors and studs. I also deleted the front axle disconnect (CAD), unit bearings, and stock 32 spline axles; and added a front 35-spline Eaton Detroit True Trac torque biasing, gear-driven limited slip with 4.10 gears.
I resisted the temptation to fiddle with the engine, which invariably makes it less reliable. Reliability is paramount for an adventure rig. Actually, the 245 horsepower; 505 TQ output of the Cummins is just enough, but not too much and puts less stress on the drivetrain. I consider this arrangement to be a reliability plus.
The Truck Camper
Firstly we have to agree there is no perfect way, or machine, or attitude, or bank account that will get us to a truck camper rig that works in all situations and conditions; that satisfies everyone in the rig on a long trip across Mexico or the Yuma Dunes. Everything is a tradeoff—everything. What works in deep snow does not necessarily work going up the dunes, but we strive to push our efforts to a line that covers the most basses for our own paradigm, which changes over time. Jeanie was happy to drive the truck camper 20 years ago, but time marches on and she doesn’t feel comfortable driving the six-speed manual anymore. This is a user caution.
The common ideal on putting a truck camper together is to buy the camper first and then buy the truck that can haul it. That does not work in all cases, but is a logical start. Many buy the truck first; for reasons other than carrying a truck camper without knowing the payload capacity and are sorely disappointed when their half-ton will not carry their triple-slide Host Mammoth. We bought our Dodge Cummins first to flat tow and later trailer our Jeep CJ-8 rock crawler to the trailhead without a camper in mind. One day in 2001, I picked up the weekly Recycler, an LA used junk rag and found a 3-year-old 1998 Lance Lite 165s camper for sale that was used only three times. The price: $6,500. It was built to fit a short-bed truck and we had a short-bed truck. It was narrow. It was not tall. It was only 1,842 pounds-wet. It had a north-south queen bed. It was the stripped-down version. I roared over to the seller and consummated the cash sale the same day. This is to say that you need to take advantage of the truck vs camper situation, whichever comes first, but with the eventual composite in mind.
The best security for taking a truck camper down the hot and dusty road is to have a like-size camper accompany you. No pull-line gang of Jeeps or Toyotas can extract a well-stuck 10,000-pound truck camper. I found this hanging around with the heavier rigs on the dunes. We tried for hours to pull a Mil-Spec Hummer H1 stuck on a rock in the sand with numerous Jeeps to no avail. When another Hummer H1 came along, the stuck one popped right out.
Failing a same-size companion vehicle, you need to think about self-extraction. The best way if traction is the problem is to lower the pressure of the tires in deep sand, mud, or snow. If you get your axles twisted up sending power to the wheels with the least traction, you need some kind of traction enhancer. I’ve had almost every kind of limited slip to full locking differential made, and they each have their pros and cons.
13 Vital Off-Road Tips
What are the essentials for off-roading a truck camper? At first glance, this seems to be an oxymoron. Who would take their shiny, 10,000-pound camper off-road? There are a few of us, who are mostly aged-out, hard-core Jeepers and rock crawlers. So, if anything, what have I learned about preparing the truck and the camper? Here are 13 vital off-road tips for truck camper rigs with commentary:
First and foremost is beefing up and prepping the truck’s drivetrain to take the punishment meted out by trails such as California’s Mojave Road. You can never have enough truck is a mantra espoused by many old timers, and starting with the right truck places you far ahead when it comes to off-road capabilities.
2. Truck Frame
What you want is rugged and stiff truck frame to start with because so many things that will pull your camper apart depend on your frame. Why stiff? Once you get your axles severely twisted beyond parallel, and the suspension nears the end of its range of motion, the frame will start to flex and pull the camper tie downs right along with it putting a terrible strain on the camper frame itself. Wood or aluminum, it doesn’t matter—wood flexes a little bit; aluminum flexes not at all and will break if enough shear force is exerted. Earlier Ford long frames (F-250/F-350) had the most frame flex of the lot, compared to Dodge and GM, but have in recent years tightened up the flex. Notice I said long frames. I’m in the camp that likes a short-bed pickup because the frame twists less than a long-bed frame. It’s just physics.
3. Camper Guides
One way to secure your truck camper into the bed of your truck is to use what are called “Camper Guides.” These are four simple metal triangles placed slightly wider than the width of the bottom of your camper and bolted to the bed to keep the camper from moving from side-to-side and reducing the inordinate strain on your tie-downs and camper frame. Mine were from Lance, but there are now much better alternatives out there.
You want the heartiest suspension offered by the company, but know that the factory suspension is always a compromise between carrying capacity and ride quality. If you carry a truck camper, you want to swing the needle into the carrying capacity camp. Over the years manufacturers have moved from a rather stiff set of leaf springs with a thick bottom placed overload spring to limit the suspension travel from over extension, with maybe some upper overloads, aka: secondary springs, on the bigger trucks, to coils; air suspension; mono springs; and sometimes a combination of air bags and coils or leaf springs. But air bags do not have the long track record of the lowly leaf spring and have their set of woes that only become apparent after a siege of hundreds of miles on really awful roads and trails. Coils and air bags have what I call the “recoil” phenomenon where every change of axle attitude had an equal and opposite rebound: summed up as the, “boinga-boinga-boinga” syndrome. Dumb, old leaf springs are tried and true, and when they go over a deep hole have a slow reaction, mostly caused by the friction between the leaves themselves and also because the leaves actually absorb some of the change. There are many aftermarket spring packs offered by manufacturers who have carefully explored the weight to be carried and amount of flex and stability needed with a heavy truck in the off-road environment.
Building my own rear suspension was a gradual process, which is a good thing, testing each degree of so-called improvement over what existed before. A friend who had the same year truck as mine wanted to off-load his Dodge 3500 DRW upper overloads (two thin leaves). I had one thicker spring up there that came stock with a Dodge 2500 with the camper Package. This one spring increased the carrying capacity of the 8,800-pound stock GVW (1,800-pound payload) 1,000 pounds to 2,800 pounds. I added the two upper overloads to the single to have three leaves in the upper overloads. Later I added a 1,000 pound helper-spring in the lower pack adding up to eight leaves in the rear pack. Along the line I added Torklift StableLoads which made the three upper springs come into play quicker. For the then load with the Lance Lite 165s camper, it worked out to be just about right. For those who say, “why didn’t you just get a SRW 3500 back then?” None was offered. The camper package 2500 was the defacto SRW 3500 of the time. The frames, brakes, driveline, trans and the transfer case were the same. Only the hubs, front and rear are extended, and the rear axle actually narrowed for the dually.
Of course, heavier shocks are a must. The large issues are the weight of your camper and how far off the pavement you are going to wander. I’m still using Rancho 9000XLs on the rear axle because I keep getting free ones when they wear out, and they adjust to an empty load and ride somewhat smoother on “1”, and stiffen up when pointed to “9” on the dial. I only use those two positions, but wish I had a second pair on the rear. I’ve had luck in the past with gas filled KYB’s. Currently there are a lot more choices to weigh that will fulfill your needs. The front axle needs only a single-phase shock, but a mighty one especially if you are running a diesel, as the weight changes little, whether loaded or not. There is always a period of adjustment in tuning your shocks to your load. If you have a rather supple suspension you might try double shocking the rear with adjustable shocks giving a wider range of control over your load. I did this with some of my rock crawler jeeps and smaller trucks to good avail.
6. Sway Bars
Anti-sway bars like the Hellwig Big Wig are a must. Again, this depends on the weight of your camper and how far off pavement you intend to wander. Generally the thicker ones are better for heavier loads and cannot be beat for pavement pounding. Mine are thinner to better fine tune my personally built up suspension. But let’s talk about the ins and outs. An anti-sway bar tries to keep your axles parallel to the truck’s frame rails, offering greater and greater lateral resistance as you get off parallel. The bar actually torques or bends as the ends are forced in different directions. It gives you a sharp retort if going over a one wheel bump or dropping into a hole just trying to keep the axles level. I’ve found that to be terribly fatiguing if traveling mile after mile on bad roads. Have you ever noticed how hitting your axles into a diagonal dip like a driveway at an angle throws you around but hitting the tires simultaneously is a lot less jolting than hitting the driveway one wheel at a time? The bar ends are moving in parallel motion with no restriction. The fix is to disconnect one side of the rear anti-sway bar and tie it up to the connector rod with a zip-tie. If you know the nut size on the sway bar rod connector (mine was an odd 16 or 18 mm) you can quickly crawl under there with the tool and a zip-tie to do the deed. This saved our hides on the 140-mile-long Mojave Road and the 100-mile White Rim Trail. Jeepers have done this anti-sway bar (quick) axle disconnect for decades when in the rough so there is no reason to not do it with truck campers. With the tire pressure down to give flotation and act as part of you suspension, there is actually less sway because of the friction of the leaves and lack of recoil with the anti-sway bar disconnected.
7. Frame Flex and Tie-Downs
This is a discussion on what to do to keep the camper box from pulling itself apart. What? Over on Expedition Portal there is an ongoing discussion on how to keep your camper box in one piece using a three-point or diamond shaped four-point pivoting frame. This is mostly aimed at the long, flexy-framed truck chassis from Fuso and other foreign builders. So how does that affect us here in America? There is a certain point at which domestic trucks’ frames will bend or flex under certain loads. If your camper is hard mounted or tightly tied down to the frame any frame flex will directly effect the frame of your camper trying to twist both in parallel. At what weight point this becomes a danger is unknown to me, but I’ll offer a random number: 3,200 pounds on a SRW short-bed, and even less on a long-bed. Why? Because longer framed trucks can twist more easily than a short-bed. Other factors are involved including how off-road your guts and experience will take you, and which manufacturer’s truck you wheel.
When I had my 1,842-pound wet Lance Lite 165s on a short bed 2500, the frame did flex on occasion basically because the suspension had reached the end of the easy part of its travel and the frame was next. But I noticed over the years of taking the camper on and off that there was a lot more weight to the front of my Lance than to the rear. Just one session hand cranking the jacks up and down will illuminate that condition. My trail fix was to loosen the rear tie downs to limp mode with an inch or more of extra extension to allow the rear of the box to lift off the frame on one side of the truck bed. I also would loosen the front ever so slightly to keep the frame and box independent of one another to a degree during really twisty circumstances, but not enough to loose the box out the back. One other obvious solution is to avoid dropping diagonally opposed wheels into holes or over rocks trying to hit obstacles straight on to avoid axle twisting. This became second nature grinding up the waterfalls and over the rocks of Goler Wash and Mengel Pass in Death Valley. The bottom line here is the lighter your camper is the better result you will obtain. Conversely, big, wide, heavy, tall campers are up against it for rough trails.
If you only occasionally go off-road, the stock wheels that came with your truck are good enough, with caveats. The only true heavy-duty wheels with a very high load rating for 2500-5500 trucks expecting to haul a camper into the bush are made by Stockton Wheel to order; Alcoa makes one or two forged sizes applicable to domestic pickups with a high load rating, originally in 16-inch with an 8 on 6.5 bolt pattern for Ford, Chevy, and Dodge. There is a thriving used market for these. Buckstop Truckware offers a super single arrangement for dually brush trucks to singles, but in the undesirable 19.5-inch size; Method Race Wheels makes an 18 x 9-inch wide 8 on 6.5-inch wheel with a 4,500-pound load rating; I tried to access Rickson’s website, but it’s apparently down.
I still have a pair of Mickey Thompson 16 x 12-inch super single wheels with a 3,600-pound load rating with 375 x 65R16 (33 x 15.50), 3,750-pound capacity super wide tires with an all-terrain tread: singularly the best truck camper sand tire I’ve ever deflated. The footprint at 20 pounds is 18 inches wide by 16.5 inches fore to aft—now that’s flotation. But most aftermarket wheels fall into the “glitz only” category and are to be avoided for heavy-duty off-road use. The load rating tells all. What about duals? I don’t recommend taking a dually off-road unless you have a wide trail on which to follow, which can be limiting. What about beadlocks? No need as far as I’m concerned. Even running at very low pressure down to 3 pounds on my Jeep, I’ve never run a tire off the rim. Beadlocks also have balancing woes. The sad part is the off-road community of adventure campers is so small there is hardly any aftermarket support for high capacity, sturdy wheels. Just remember, bling ain’t going to cut it with wheels.
I use Cooper Discoverer AT3-XLT tires in a 315/75-R16 size (35 inch) because they have an abundance of sidewall for increasing low pressure flotation on sand and fit in my wheel wells; are relatively quiet; and last longer than aggressive tread tires. Lots of lug area with minimal void area.
I use traction aids called True Trac, torque biasing, gear driven diffs, front and rear. They are transparent in delivering traction to the wheels with the most traction, not the least like clutch type limited slips, and go to full lock across if detecting no difference in side to side in resistance. If you have the bucks, ARB’s are a proven locker. However, they are more complicated and require a separate compressor and hoses, which failed me a couple times on my CJ-8. On the front axle you will rarely use it. For heavy trucks I cannot recommend the full boat Detroit locker because of the handling issues. A factory rear limited slip or locker is good enough for most off-road driving.
11. Self Recovery
Self recovery equipment is vital. Every off-road camper should have a 12-ton jack; a jack pad; a 4-inch 32,000-pound, recovery strap with loops on the end; several sizes of “D” rings, aka shackles; recovery points on the truck both front and rear; a short-tree saver; and maybe a 4,000-pound rated scissor jack for bending sheet metal off the tires after a collision with rocks, trees or other vehicles; a Safety Seal tire repair kit; and a can of WD-40 spray (and a match) for re-beading a tire that has come off the rim. A winch can be useful if you are alone and find your way into a quagmire or stuck to the frame in snow, but is only useful if you know how to use it under a variety of conditions. I’ve had six or seven winches on rigs in my time, and actually wore out a Warn 8K, using it to get unstuck more than 300 times. The tiny bronze spur gear to the bull gear had no teeth left by the time I got through with it. A high duty cycle air compressor or CO2 tank to get your tires re-inflated after off-road use.
Certainly take any spare parts that could go south. Mine include a lower radiator hose; some hard to find sensors; a new fan belt or belts; a fuel filter; an oil filter; extra lug nuts; a small drill driver with adapters; an appropriate lug wrench; crank for lowering the spare tire; enough tools; and a small collapsible shovel.
12. Work the Angles
Work to increase the three angles—the approach angle, the breakover angle, and the departure angle. My way to the best angles I could muster was to do a 3-inch inch overall loaded lift, 35-inch tires, and have a short-bed truck. Again, a compromise that works.
13. Minimize Outriggers
Minimize the parts hanging on each side of the camper. This includes awnings for side clearance. Also minimize the roof’s profile by having things up top as low and lightweight as possible. In my experience it’s better for your rig to be taller than wider.
Any pop up camper, with its lower profile is better than a hard side when it comes to off-road use, mostly due to the lower height and lower center of gravity. That is until you get older or try to endure endless rain; very low temperatures; and headlight deep snow, or use the camper in stealth mode. Remember, if the top is up, there is more than likely someone in there. With a hard side which doesn’t change shape, one is not sure. The weight can be deceiving. My brother’s Outfitter Apex 9.5 pop-up camper weighed a lot more than my little Lance hard-side. It just looked smaller and lighter.
Closing Thoughts on the Camper
Some final thoughts on the camper itself, mostly geared toward domestic use. Keep it lightweight, narrow, not tall, simple and self contained with nothing hanging on the sides. Decide which seasons you will use the camper. If using a lot in summer, get the smallest, lowest profile air conditioner you can get away with. Jeanie and I don’t do summer, so air conditioning is unnecessary. Store nothing on the roof and keep all your heavy items down as low as you can on the rig. If using the box for skiing or in the dead of winter, order the sub- zero insulation package, or whatever the manufacturer calls their maximum insulation. As Mello Mike has outlined, solar power is where it’s at with a truck camper. Be sure to have enough for your location.
A cassette toilet is the most appropriate for overlanding and boondocking. If there are two of you in the box, be sure to have a north-south bed. Having purchased a new camper last summer, and after thoroughly inspecting live, a couple dozen new camper offerings, we chose the Northstar Laredo SC with the sub-zero insulation, but with no air conditioning; no microwave; no oven; no rear bumper; no awnings; no backup camera; no rear door window; nor TV to reduce the weight and things that could go wrong or be scraped off by passing trees or rocks; and increase the amount of storage space. Most of the new, shinny object, bling laden campers have precious little storage space. The 12 volt compressor fridge and lighting run on 320 watts of solar and storage batteries. The two-burner stove top, hot water heater, and the simple heater run on propane. The camper has 41 gallons of fresh water. Using tried and true instead of new and untested appliances is a good thing when you are way out there.
Editor’s note: This article was presented by Jeff at the 2020 Truck Camper Adventure Rally in Quartzsite.