While it’s true that van life has exploded in popularity, a good number of van lifers are migrating from van life to truck camper life. The reasons for the move are simple. More living space and greater mobility on a 4WD truck. We’ve published several stories of owners making this change. Harvey Shaw, who recently purchased a Northstar Laredo truck camper, is the latest example. Harvey explains in his own words why he made the upgrade to a truck camper and the lessons that he has learned along the way.
In the Beginning
After decades of tent and van camping where we had the absolute bare minimum equipment (a cooker, cooler, shovel, wash basin with a mattress added to an empty van), and I should add minimum comfort, we decided to look at RV’s. That is how the truck camper became the focus of our research. There is one main reason for this, flexibility. We could have a camper when we needed it, yet still have a truck for daily use.
In all of the years of camping on three continents, you could count on two hands the time we stayed in anything similar to an RV park. We are dispersed campers to the core. National Parks have been an exception to the rule.
After a few years looking around the Internet, reading reviews and about experiences folks had with truck campers, things fell into place and we selected a truck, a Ford F250 and the truck camper—a Northstar Laredo SC. Influencing our choice was actually the website you are now reading. Mello Mike owned a Laredo at the time and now rolls in a Bundutec Roadrunner.
We wanted a rig suitable for off-road, far-out dispersed camping, something self contained. We got this with our 2018 Northstar Laredo SC, which has a super layout, two 20-pound propane bottles, plenty of cabinet space, and a cassette toilet, an absolute must. We also opted for a rooftop solar panel, which charges even when the truck camper is under cover at home.
We were somewhat disappointed with the build quality of the Northstar Laredo SC, which we picked up at the factory in Cedar Falls, Iowa. From the first night out we had problems. Fortunately, we stayed at state park near the factory so these issues could be addressed. The electrical system wasn’t properly wired. From there, the list of things grew that I needed to replace or repair. For example, a hinge on one of the cabinets above the kitchen sink wasn’t screwed in the right place, so I had to fill the screw hole with wood filler and properly position the hinge. We quickly learned that owning a truck camper meant knowing how to repair or replace parts.
But that wasn’t the worse it, though this isn’t necessarily a reflection on Northstar. We left the large Dometic Seitz window by the dinette open in the “vent” position during one extremely stormy night. This turned out to be a bad idea. Heavy winds lifted the window off of its hinges and it fell to the ground. We were able to lift it back into place and learned that when there is any kind of wind, do not open that window. One woman we met told us about having the same experience in New Mexico during a storm.
While we love the overall layout of the Northstar Laredo SC, we have to say that in some respects Northstar’s quality and attention to detail is lacking. From my vantage point, quality is not necessary a point of great focus by the industry as a whole. We’ve made no modifications to our truck or to the truck camper other than one indispensable one. More about this later.
Our maiden trip back to Arizona from Iowa took us across Iowa, South Dakota into Yellowstone and the Tetons, and down through Utah. Our first morning in South Dakota, we woke to a snow covered truck camper. It was just plain cold in early May.
One of the first problems we experienced with the truck camper was the fact the thing didn’t stay put on the truck bed, though we had a rubber bed mat. It shifted so that the left front tie-down was rubbing the side of the truck, but since I use my mirrors a lot, I noticed that this was happening before things got worse. This also made it difficult to open to fuel fill door! We stopped on a good piece of asphalt, and this being our first trip out, we didn’t want to start unloading the truck camper. We put down the jacks in a manner that somehow pushed the truck camper back where it belonged. Then we duct taped some pieces of foam rubber we had around the jacks in the front to protect the side of the bed.
From then on we took small steps to prevent the slipping and a sliding though none of these stopped the problem. Compounding matters was the height of the truck’s cab. Despite careful driving at slower speeds, the top of the cab would sometimes hit the bottom the cabover. This is a problem with all Ford’s, of course, and something that all Ford owners need to be aware of when shopping for a camper.
I put out the questions on how to solve these two problems on here at Truck Camper Adventure Forum. A couple of replies seemed like good ideas and we tried them out, including putting a heavy piece of insulation on the bed and having the truck camper loaded onto that. Unfortunately, this was during the height of the pandemic and I couldn’t get the exact piece of insulation suggested. I got close, but not close enough.
Finally, to clear the cab of our Ford, we built a riser out of 2x4s. As part of the riser we also install two braces to help keep the camper centered when mounted on the truck. I install these braces through a small door inside the camper that gives access to the bed around the wheel wells. While doing this, I tape on two smaller pieces of insulation on top of any exposed area of the 2x4s to reduce rubbing. This is necessary unless you can load the truck camper to the exact same position every time and then you could put on permanent blocks. This seems to solve the problems of slipping and tipping to around 99 percent and that is good enough for us. The big thing, of course, is that the 2x4s riser lifts the truck camper enough, so that hitting the truck roof has stopped completely.
Things to Know
- The need to winterize your camper
- Change the anode rod in the hot water heater regularly
- Know the dimensions of both your truck and camper—height, width, weights.
Get Remote Jacks
The first time unloading the camper with manual jacks was a chore, taking about 2.5 hours in the hot Arizona sun. Running around in circles manually raising and lowering the jacks a down quickly lost its luster. I saw the owner of Northstar, Rex Willett, use a hand drill with a special bit that fit the jack cranks, so I bought a bit that fit our manual jacks. Then we bought a second drill, so my wife could take one side of the camper and I could take the other, eliminating the need to run around the camper. This with some more experience positioning the truck camper on the bed brought the load time down to a one hour. Still too long. The solution was retrofitting a set of HappiJac remote controlled jacks, a simple install. We are now loading the truck camper in maybe 10 minutes without a bead of sweat!
Why in the world the electric jacks are just not standard equipment is beyond me, but if you are someone that will not be keeping the truck camper on your truck, you need electric jacks! Make sure you order them from the factory.
Our Truck Camper Adventures
Just a few lines here as this really is for future articles. We’ve been quite a bit around the Grand Canyon as it is close to home, the Utah’s National Parks and back roads, Big Bend and Padre Island in Texas, in Colorado we’ve been across the Southern area on up and around Pike’s Peak, across Independence Pass and up to Dinosaur National Monument. Coming up this year will be the Pacific Northwest.
On the North Rim on our first trip in the Kaibab National Forest in Arizona we drove around the forest roads. One such road got narrower and narrower as branches got closer and closer to the truck camper (always have a saw along!). Suddenly we were at a steep, rocky, heavily leaning-to-the-left downgrade. There was what looked like maybe an obstacle set up to prevent driving down but because of its position we were not sure if that was what that was about so we went for it. Nice and easy, nice and tippy. It was a ways down, but not even a half mile. My advice for anything like this is simple—drive slow. When in doubt, don’t do it, your doubt will have a negative effect on your driving.
At the entrance to Tuweep (advance reservation necessary) the ranger asks if you have driven this kind of road before. Makes sense when you see the entire road.
At Dinosaur National Monument we asked the ranger about a backroad on our map that would take us across into Utah. The ranger never knew there was that road! We always use a map by the way, so much great information to get from those pieces of ancient history and they will always turn on and work. We took the back road which we almost had for ourselves except for an 18-wheeler at one point. This was a rough road but he was going to a ranch that apparently was out there somewhere.
The major trip, so far, was up to the Arctic Ocean. We saw the Dempster Highway sign years ago when we had a rented RV in Alaska and were not allowed to make the trip. Now with our own rig, it was up to us. We were also inspired by a song to make the trip to the Beaufort Sea. The song recorded years ago by the Canadian folk singer Stan Rogers was The Northwest Passage on YouTube. He was an amazing talent that left this life way too soon due an aircraft fire.
So what’s the bottom line? After 4.5 years of ownership and travel, we love our Northstar Laredo SC truck camper. Yes, we have had to make some minor repairs to the camper, build a riser for our truck bed, and install remote HappiJacs, but it’s all been worth it. We’ve been to some terrific places in the camper and have traveled in comfort. Yes, there have been a few minor bumps in the road, but this has all made us better truck camper owners. We feel like we’ve graduated the 4.5-year course and have earned our truck camper diploma! See you out there.