Building a Great Overland Expedition Truck Camper Rig (Part I)

Tips For Building a Great Off-Road Rig

So, you want to build a great overland expedition truck camper rig to explore the world and get far off the beaten path? We don’t blame you. A well-matched, properly outfitted truck camper rig will allow you to do more things and see more places than other types of recreational vehicles. Without the proper information and guidance, however, it’s easy to make mistakes. This happened to us several years ago when we first started building our rig. Our first truck and camper were well-matched, payload wise, but our rig was anything but trail worthy. Through trial and error, we finally bought the right truck and the right camper and that’s 90 percent of the game. So, if you’re looking for a little guidance on how to build a great all-terrain rig, you’ve come to the right place. We’ll explain not only which truck and truck campers are best, but also which options to get and which items to buy to outfit your rig.

I. Truck Camper Considerations

If you’re just starting out and have neither a truck nor a truck camper, we 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 truck campers, today’s consumer has many choices. These include both regular slide-in and flatbed truck campers for both long-bed and short-bed trucks as well as pop-up and 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 needed 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. Most are simply too large and heavy. But don’t fret. There are still plenty of hard-side truck campers in today’s market to meet your off-road, truck camping needs.

So what exactly should you look for in a great overland expedition truck camper? First, slide-outs are out. Sorry, but they’re too heavy. Sure, you can take them off-road, but you’ll be pretty limited on the roads you can tackle without over-flexing and damaging the frame of your camper (a good flatbed camper would be the only exception to this rule). Second, you’ll need 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 large 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—things like low hanging tree branches and rock overhangs will stop a high-profile camper in its tracks. Third, you need a narrow camper no wider than 7.5 feet (7 feet is optimum). The extra width can be limiting unless you enjoy scraping and scratching up the side of your camper. As for the type of construction, it really doesn’t matter—aluminum, wood and molded fiberglass all have their pros and cons.

With regard to truck camper options, we recommend several. First, make sure your camper is equipped with a large fresh water holding tank. Water is king and is your most important resource off-grid. Because of this we recommend a minimum holding tank size of 30 gallons. We also recommend a battery compartment large enough to house two 110 amp hour lithium or AGM deep cycle batteries, though a larger battery compartment with more amp hours obviously is better. In order to keep your batteries charged, we recommend two charging systems, a 300 watt solar power system and a heavy-duty alternator battery charging circuit. The benefits of solar power are well-known and well documented on this website, so we won’t go into it in detail here, but the benefits of a dedicated alternator charging circuit are often overlooked. Heavy-duty trucks have large alternators that generate a massive amount of amperage, especially diesel trucks, which are usually equipped with 160 amp alternators. It’s foolish not to tap into this readily available source of battery charging when driving. Sure, most trucks already have a charging circuit, but the 14 AWG wire found in 99 percent of them is woefully undersized, resulting in an anemic 2- to 3-amp charge rate. We recently published a great article on how to build a dedicated, heavy-duty alternator charging system that provides much more amperage. It’s not that difficult and well worth the time and effort to install one.

The flatbed truck camper has become increasing popular in the overland marketplace and for good reason. Not only is the flatbed truck camper larger and more spacious inside, but it also offers larger holding tanks and larger battery compartments to extend your time off-grid. Not only that, but the flatbed tray can be built to include all kinds of things, including lockable storage boxes, additional batteries, a midships spare tire mount, a 12 volt air compressor, extra holding tanks, and an extra fuel tank to increase the comfort and range of your overland adventure rig. The choices and options are almost limitless. But the flatbed tray isn’t limited to traditional flatbed campers only. You can also build a flatbed rig with side storage boxes using a traditional slide-in truck camper like Aaron Wirth’s Lance 825 truck camper rig. Several companies build quality flatbeds, but newcomer, Sherp-Tek, builds one of the lightest, most versatile flatbeds in the industry. Unlike the standard flatbed, which has only one configuration, Sherp-Tek’s flatbed design is modular, can accommodate both standard slide-in campers and flatbed campers, and can be reconfigured with numerous upper deck options in a matter of minutes. Depending on size and options, Sherp-Tek’s flatbed goes for anywhere between $6,900 and $16,000.

II. Truck Considerations

Choosing a truck camper that meets all of your requirements is only half the game, getting a well-matched truck is just as important. Lots of things needed to be considered when looking for a good truck, but a sufficient payload rating is probably the most important. 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 the truck (you’ll need to take it to the scales to get this figure) from the truck’s gross vehicle weight rating (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 overland adventures.

A 4×4 drivetrain is one of the biggest, must-have options to get when shopping for a truck. Sooner or later you’re going to need it, we 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 truck, 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 when driving off-road far outweigh the cons.

Having a wheelbase conducive to off-roading is also important. Indeed, a short or long wheelbase can play a major role in how trail-worthy a truck truly is. 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. 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 wheel (DRW) trucks are a liability off-road. It’s true that duallies, as they’re popularly called, offer superior stability and handling on asphalt and higher payloads, but they’re also wider in the “hips” and less adept off-road. Yes, duallies “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 (SRW) trucks are narrower, lighter, more versatile, and give superior traction and maneuverability on all types of road surfaces. Because of this we strongly recommend getting a SRW truck. If you have any doubts, take a look at the high-end, four-wheel drive overland expedition rigs like the Provan Tiger, EarthRoamer, and Sportsmobile. Not one of them offer DRWs, it’s not even an option.

III. The Finishing Touches

So far, we’ve provided important information to help you choose a great truck and camper, and like we said earlier, that’s 90 percent of the game. The final 10 percent involves outfitting your rig with the right equipment and gear to make it trail worthy. Sure, some of these items are pretty costly, but it’s better to invest now than be broke down and stranded later. The items do NOT include basic camping equipment and basic survival gear (though it was tempting to place things like a water purification system on this list), or standard vehicle maintenance items. Instead what you’ll find here is a collection of items to keep you and your rig rolling and you and your loved ones safe.

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, we recommend getting a good set of all-terrain tires like the Cooper Discoverer AT3 XLT. With interlocking tread elements, all-terrain 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-road, then a good set of mud-terrain tires will probably serve you better. Mud-terrain tires feature aggressive tread patterns that provide superb traction on all types of off-road surfaces, including snow and mud. Mud-terrains won’t last as long as all-terrain 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. As for the wheel, we recommend getting 16-, 17- or 18-inch wheels as these will not only provide a sufficient weight rating to haul a camper, but will also accommodate a tire with enough sidewall for airing down should you ever need to do that.

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 with 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 attachment points are higher off the ground and are better off-road. While the Happijac system prevents side-to-side movement better and is better for off-road use, the Happijac rear bumper tie down mounts have been known to fail. Because of this, we recommend a hybrid approach to secure your slide-in truck camper—the Happijac tie down system in the front and Torklift tie downs or Talons in the back. We also recommending going with Torklift FastGuns for your truck camper turnbuckle needs.

Due to the nature of extreme off-roading, there’s a good chance that your camper will shift around in the bed of your truck. The most common and easiest fix to prevent this from happening is to install a rubber mat in the bed of your truck. 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. We use a Dee Zee Heavy Duty Bed Mat in our 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. Four simple 2×4 braces screwed into the bed of your truck should be more than sufficient to keep your camper immobile when traveling off-road.

Lastly, we recommend outfitting your rig with a strong winch bumper and an appropriately sized winch. Deer and elk (or a quad) can appear suddenly and without warning, especially on winding roads. The last thing you need is to be stranded far from help due to a wrecked radiator or after getting stuck in soft sand or mud. Winch bumpers can be purchased at several price points and can be made from either aluminum or steel. We recommend getting 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. Accordingly, we recommend getting a Buckstop winch bumper and the Warn 16.5ti heavy-duty winch. Both manufacturers have been around for years, are known for their quality, and will provide your adventure rig with many years of reliable service. Additional recommendations for outfitting your truck camper rig can be found by clicking here.

This is a major update to an article originally published on this website in 2015. Part II, which provides examples of completed truck camper rigs, can be found by clicking here.

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About Mello Mike 454 Articles
Mello Mike is an Arizona native, author, and the founder of Truck Camper Adventure. He's been RV'ing since 2002, is a Jeep and truck camper enthusiast, and has restored several Airstream travel trailers. He currently drives a 2013 Ram 3500 4x4 pickup truck with a 2016 Northstar Laredo solar powered truck camper mounted on top. He enjoys football, music, hiking, travel, photography, and fishing. He retired from the U.S. Navy in 2004 as a CWO3 after 24 years, worked in project management until 2017, and now runs this website full-time. He also does some consulting and RV inspections on the side.

2 Comments

  1. I have done a couple of improvements to my rig that you covered. Mostly suspension that where quickly valued. The safety value of the front Aluminess bumper seemed over the top because I’ve never needed one before. It paid for itself during a Deer strike at 45 MPH. No damage, well not to the truck anyway. I guess I better quit procrastinating and get a winch installed before I need it too. As has been said, “only the fool learns from his own mistakes.” “walk with wisdom”

  2. Mike,
    A very good start to an all encompassing piece for the neophyte and TC veteran alike. You’ve distilled most of the basics for taking the lowly truck camper into Terra Incognita. A few notes: 17 inch wheels have the lowest max load capacity of available tires in the 16/17/18 inch range. Another is the mystery behind wheel weight ratings; hard to find hard facts. Most wheels have the load rating stamped on the inner rim. Be sure your wheels are up to the load of your TC. This has been an ongoing problem for those who walk the walk with off-road style TCs. Maybe you’re covering this in the 2nd installment, but the general intended use dictates a lot of perimeters about your truck camper. For instance, if only a 3 season camper is needed (not well below freezing in the dead of winter) items like heated tanks, mongo insulation, and a basement just add unneeded weight. The most important number in deciding on an off-road style camper is the loaded weight. The lighter, the better. Also, many pop up TC’s, like my brother John’s 9.5 foot OUTFITTER! weigh considerably more than my 20 year old, puny, wood framed Lance. It has no extras, so it weighs what the sticker says: 1842 pounds wet. Well, the 200 W solar rig adds a little. It just looks tall and top heavy. The weight is down low, so the top is just air. But i fully agree on the narrow part. Mine is 86″ wide, and experience has taught me that narrow is better than wide and height is less important than width. It just looks important. Loosing the jacks helps lower the weight at about 160 pounds, as well as narrowing your width.
    This is going to be THE classic primer for those wanting to get their junk out beyond the burbs.
    jefe

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