If the 2018 Overland Expo West is any indication of the future, the flatbed truck camper is here to stay. Numerous flatbed campers were on display at the annual show, including three brand new models, one from a brand new company.
We like to think that Truck Camper Adventure has contributed to this increase. We’ve been a strong proponent of flatbed campers for several years not only because they offer more living space and storage, but also because they provide greater capacities for water and power. For those who like to explore off-road and camp off-grid there really isn’t a better camper. That’s one reason why we were excited to see Alaskan Campers’ new flatbed camper at the 2018 Overland Expo. Alaskan has been building flatbed campers since 1992, but the Alaskan 8.5 Flatbed Cabover is company’s first model with a side entry. This design feature not only frees up the back of the camper for things like motorcycles, bicycles, and luggage racks, but also makes a better floor plan inside because it separates the bedroom from the dinette.
Aside from the side-entry floorplan, what really got us excited about this particular rig was seeing a flatbed truck camper, “Alaskan style.” Alaskan makes what is probably the most unique truck camper in the world. As everyone knows, the slide-in truck camper comes in two basic forms, the hard-side and the pop-up. When you buy an Alaskan camper you get both. How is Alaskan able to do this? By building a patented hard-top that hydraulically raises and lowers with the flip of a switch. For cabover models like the 8.5 Flatbed Cabover, the deployment of three flip-up panels in the cabover is the only manual intervention required by the owner during setup. The whole process of raising and lowering the hard-top takes only a few seconds.
What was the inspiration for such a unique design? The story is actually quite amusing. Don and Irene Hall were traveling up the old Alcan Highway in the early 1950s in a large, hard-side truck camper to do some hunting. The couple came upon a washed-out part of the road. Don tried to go around the wash-out on a sloped shoulder, but as he did so the rig started to tip over. Don was able to turn downhill to avoid tipping over, but ended up getting the rig stuck in a roadside marsh.
While the couple was sitting around the campfire that night, waiting for help, Irene pulled out a hat box and told Don, “if you ever want me to come f*****g hunting with you again, make me a camper designed like this hat box that slides up and down. Low for traveling, up for camping.” The rest is history. Needless to say, Don Hall went to work designing a telescoping, hard-side truck camper that met Irene’s strict requirements, and in 1953 his first camper was complete. Word of Don’s new and unique design quickly spread and it wasn’t long before he was building his campers as a full-time business.
Fortunately, Don Hall’s basic design has essentially remained unchanged over the years. The old adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” applies in this case. Why mess with something that works? When it comes to building a quality-made, iconic camper you don’t. Like the originals built in 1953, today’s Alaskan campers are framed entirely out of wood and wrapped with the same 3-inch aluminum break skin pattern used in the originals.
But Alaskan hasn’t been entirely stuck in the past—the company has made some important changes over the years. In 1971 Alaskan began offering a cabover option with an east-west bed orientation, which was a dramatic departure from the basic non-cabover model the company started with (today you can also get an extended cabover with a north-south bed). The company made another important change in 2003 by building its campers 3 inches wider, providing owners with even more living space. And, of course, in 1992, Alaskan began building flatbed campers. Today, these options are being offered to customers at minimal cost. The cost for the flatbed option is only $1,600 more, while the extended cabover goes for another $455.
With the prominence of aluminum framing in the RV industry today, some may balk at Alaskan’s preference for using wood, but they really shouldn’t. While it’s true that wood is prone to rot from long-term leaks, it’s also easier to work with compared to aluminum, insulates better, is just as strong as aluminum, and is easier to repair. Alaskan isn’t alone in their preference for using wood either. Quality truck camper companies like Northstar, Bundutec, Hallmark, ALP, and Capri still frame their campers out of wood. Sure, wood can rot out if a persistent water leak gets to it, but not if you regularly maintain all of the windows and penetrations in your roof.
The truth is, water is the enemy of any RV, no matter how it’s constructed. I’ve seen extensive damage from water leaks in aluminum framed RVs too. This is why routine maintenance is so important—ignoring it can eventually lead to costly repairs. If you’re still not convinced that wood is still a viable alternative, look at what product is used to frame our homes. It isn’t aluminum. There’s a reason for that.
As for the inside of an Alaskan camper, “wow,” is usually the first word that comes to mind when you first step foot in it. Unlike many of the truck campers being built today, you won’t see any modern, “Euro” design elements or residential “foo-foo” in an Alaskan camper. Instead, what you’ll find is a retro, leather and wood interior quite unlike any other truck camper being built today.
In an Overland Expo article we published last year, we said that Alaskan’s all-wood, maple interiors reminded us of an old log cabin. While that’s true, a better comparison would be the interior of an ocean-going yacht from the 1950s. With this resemblance, calling an Alaskan camper a land yacht would be spot on, but alas, our friends at Airstream have been using that moniker for its aluminum travel trailers since the 1940s. We’ll have to be content with calling Alaskan’s unique product a truck camper. That’s a pity, the simplistic name doesn’t do an Alaskan camper justice. You won’t find another truck camper in today’s market using Wilsonart maple laminates and Norwegian pine paneling on the ceiling.
This particular rig was built by Alaskan Campers specifically for the 2018 Overland Expo. John McPherson, the owner of the company, and Bryan Wheat, the CEO, wanted to go with a Ford F-350 for the build, but Dorrie Benson, Alaskan’s Director of Marketing, convinced to the two go in another direction. GMC eventually won out with the company going with a GMC 3500 4×4 powered by the 6.0L Vortec V8 and GMC’s 6-speed automatic transmission for this build. To give the truck some added lift, Alaskan opted to go with a Cognito Stage 21 leveling kit with upper control arm, Method race wheels with Milestar Patagonia M/T tires, and a set of Firestone air bags.
The key component of this impressive truck camper rig, however, and the one that makes everything work is the custom, ProTech aluminum flat-bed. Consisting of two large storage boxes, a custom bolt-down system to keep the camper securely in place, mudflaps, and a sweet-looking rear light panel with six oval lights, the flat-bed doesn’t have an air compressor and other “bells and whistles,” but it does provide the basics needed to haul this flatbed beast around.
As for the camper, this new 8.5 flatbed cabover model comes with everything you’d expect to find in a great overland expedition truck camper. The spacious 8-foot 5-inch floorplan features a leather, 44-inch rear dinette that can collapse into a full-size bed, a large kitchenette, several overhead cabinets, a Thetford C224 swivel cassette toilet, and an east-west queen-size bed. Features of this 1,940-pound camper include a 27-gallon fresh water tank, a Novakool R4500DC compressor refrigerator, two group-31 AGM batteries, a two-burner cooktop, a 12 volt dual USB charge station, LED lights, an outdoor shower, a horizontally mounted 5-gallon propane tank, tinted windows, and an optional Zamp 160 watt solar power system, a must for anyone who likes to spend any amount of time off-grid.
And speaking of options, Alaskan is now offering the Truma Combi water heater and furnace as an option in most of its campers. Imported from Germany, this revolutionary, space-saving appliance not only saves on weight, but is also quieter and uses less power than the traditional American-made furnace. The low amp draw of this appliance alone makes it great for the winter, especially if your camper is equipped with a compressor refrigerator. We introduced the Alaskan team to the Truma Combi at the 2017 Overland Expo and were thrilled to see it in this brand new camper (in this particular model, the unit is mounted underneath the driver’s side dinette seat). Truth be told, the Truma Combi costs more than an American-made furnace and water heater—about $1,700 more—but who wouldn’t want to have a combination water heater and furnace that takes up half the space, uses less power, and saves a good 30 pounds in weight? I wouldn’t hesitate to put one in my camper if I had the choice.
If that’s not enough, Alaskan gives you even more options when ordering a flatbed camper. For example, this particular flatbed wasn’t built with a wet-bath, but if you want one, Alaskan can easily put one in for you. The company doesn’t normally outfit its campers with a grey water holding tank either, but if you want this feature, the company can easily put one of these in as well. Rather have more fresh water than a grey water holding tank? Alaskan can do that too, giving this overland beast a total of 54 gallons of fresh water. Additional options include a north-south cabover, a Zamp 320 watt solar power system, a Torklift glow step, and a smaller 3.5-cubic foot Nova Kool R3800 compressor refrigerator. Moreover, this flatbed can be ordered in lengths of 6.5 feet to 10 feet to accommodate both short-bed and long-bed 3/4-ton and one-ton trucks.
As you can probably tell by now, We’re big fans of Alaskan Campers. Like the Airstream travel trailer, the Ford Mustang, and the original U.S. Army Jeep, the Alaskan camper is an American icon, a symbol of American ingenuity and know-how. When we first heard that Alaskan Campers was going to be attending the Overland Expo for the first time in 2017, we were thrilled because we think Alaskan’s telescopic, hard-top design is perfect for overland expedition travel—the pop-up provides a low center of gravity, better off-road travel, and less wind resistance, while the hard-top offers better insulation, better security, and a full-length door. Alaskan’s full-length door provides more than just convenience, it also provides a pain-free way to enter and exit the camper (if you’ve ever bumped your head or strained your back entering or exiting a traditional pop-up, you know what I’m talking about).
What does the future hold for flatbed truck campers?
“I see the industry going towards flatbeds more and more,” explained Bryan Wheat. “Is it the cure-all? No, but it definitely does have some advantages in that it allows you to move the ‘pieces of the puzzle’ around when designing it. I’m still a fan of keeping the camper a normal slide-in then putting it on a flatbed with storage boxes on the outside that way the camper stays the same, so if you ever want to sell it, you’ll have more customers willing to buy it because it’s a normal camper. But the pros of having a true flatbed camper is that everything is safe and sound and warm on the inside and allows us to outfit it with more things like the Truma, more batteries, and extra holding tanks.”
If you happen to be looking for a rig already fitted out with this new flatbed truck camper, you’re in luck. Alaskan still has this rig for sale for a cool $99,000. The price includes everything—the truck, the camper, and the flatbed. If you’re interested, I wouldn’t wait. This rig won’t last very long.
|Alaskan 8.5 Flatbed Specifications|
|Width||7 feet 4 inches|
|Travel Height||58 inches not including A/C|
|Exterior Height (Top Up)||79.5 inches|
|Interior Height||6 feet 3 inches|
|Overall Length||13 feet 5 inches|
|Floor Length||8 feet 5 inches|
|Fresh Water Tank||27 gallons|
|Black Water Tank (cassette toilet)||4.75 gallons|
|Dry Weight as optioned||1,949 pounds|