The pop-up truck camper offers numerous advantages over the hard-side. The pop-up is not only lighter, thus allowing lower-rated trucks to carry it, but is also more nimble off-road. Couple these capabilities with a quality camper, a capable truck, and a flatbed tray outfitted with storage boxes and other accessories, and you’ve got yourself a rig that can go practically anywhere for extended periods of time. The Hallmark Ute 8.5 is a quality camper with a very functional floorplan. It’s also one of the few pop-ups offering a quality bunk bed option. Mark Lachica and his wife, Trish, who live in southern California, need the bunk beds because they have three boys. In this interview, Mark explains why they chose a Hallmark Ute 8.5 and how they built it out.
TCA: How long have you owned your Hallmark Ute 8.5 truck camper?
Mark Lachica: We picked up our Hallmark Ute in August of 2020, so it’s been just six months. Prior to this set up we had a 2017 Four Wheel Camper Hawk Flatbed.
TCA: The Flatbed Hawk is a pretty great camper, why did you switch to the Hallmark Ute 8.5?
Mark Lachica: There are a number of features that led us to choosing this model. We are an active family that likes our outdoor activities such as biking, paddle boarding, fishing, hiking etc. To accommodate these activities means bringing gear that’s normally stored in the garage at home. Well, I wanted the same concept with our truck camper. I like to keep things neat and organized, so naturally, I like my camper without an aisle pile and to keep all our dirty gear in the “garage.” The overall concept of our build is to use a slide-in camper on a flatbed truck, and fill all the empty voids on the sides with storage boxes, effectively creating a home with a garage. This way I can put our sandy, salty, inflatable stand-up paddle boards in our outside storage and not in our tiny home. And when we pull over, there is much less shuffling and rearranging things to spend time in the camper. With a family of five, efficiency is key.
Since this is a rear entry camper, we have a long walkway that gives us more standing room to share and maneuver about, versus a side entry. The long walkway feels spacious and allows multiple people to stand at one time. We could comfortably have up to four people using the walkway at once; brewing coffee, getting dressed for the day, brushing their teeth, and one eating cereal over the counter (while the dinette was configured into a bed). Our previous camper configuration was a side-entry camper, which provided a smaller, central place to stand. This spot to stand was needed for the sink, stove and toilet, and it allowed two people to operate comfortably at once. The rear entry feels bigger and means we don’t need to take turns for floorspace, equating to convenience and efficiency.
Who wants to share a bed with their teenage sons? If I can avoid it, I will, ha ha. One feature that drew us towards Hallmark is their bunk bed option. Our layout offers a dinette bed that is wider than our last camper and it has a bunk bed. This gives our two older sons their own bed. With the extended north-south cabover bed, we can easily sleep three adults up there. My wife and I share this bed with our eight-year-old. Along my wife’s side of the bed we incorporated cabinet style storage for easy access and storage, just like having a nightstand next to your bed at home. All five of us agree that sleeping in the Ute is comfy.
This camper also has a dedicated wet bath, where we can use the toilet or shower without having to convert anything. Simplicity.
Among other things, we enjoy all the large windows that are easy to see out of, more fresh water, air conditioning (with a generator/shore power only), superior insulation in the hard and soft sides of the camper and a walk-on roof with a 400-pound load capacity while raising and lowering. Hallmark is willing to work with their customers to customize their build and tailor to their desires, which was a huge plus for us.
TCA: How do you like your Hallmark Ute 8.5 camper? What are your favorite features?
Mark Lachica: We love our camper! There are so many things we appreciate about our camper. The layout is fantastic for us. The infrastructure is well thought out. Our electrical system is robust, which I get into later. Our water system is well designed, having two sinks, dedicated inside and outside shower and our Truma AquaGo on-demand water heater. We designed it with a 30-gallon main fresh water tank and an auxiliary 14-gallon tank that can be used by turning two valves. And after a frigid week long trip in Utah where we consistently had lows in the teens, I love the insulation and heating! Meaning it expands our possibilities of where we can go and stay.
TCA: What mods have you made to your camper to personalize it?
Mark Lachica: We haven’t done any major modifications just a few things to keep things tidy such as adding a second counter soap dispenser. So there’s one for hand soap and one for dish soap. Secondly, I added some extruded aluminum to mount our Maxtrax on our roof where it’s out of the way and still easily accessible.
TCA: Can you tell us about the flatbed tray you chose to go with?
Mark Lachica: After a lot of research we decided to go with Highway Products for our flatbed and storage boxes. They tout a lifetime warranty on their products, emphasize engineering, and the customer service was huge in my eyes. The other important factors for me was to be able to incorporate the Ram factory backup sensors and backup camera. I bought the truck with these features to help maneuver this pig, so I didn’t want to remove them with the install of my flatbed. The storage boxes are Weathertite with a nice thick, soft, bulb gasket to seal the door so I don’t have to worry about my gear getting wet.
TCA: Do you use solar power or a generator to keep your truck camper’s batteries topped off?
Mark Lachica: Glad you asked! Working in the electrical field professionally, I wanted a robust electrical system in the camper. So, I’ll elaborate beyond your question since this stuff gets my electrons going. We have two 100 amp hour LifeBlue low-temp LiFePO4 batteries with Bluetooth/app for battery monitoring from our phones. The app allows us to view each battery’s voltage, current, temperature, cycles and faults. These batteries have a battery management system (BMS) that allows for charging at temps as low as -20 degrees Celsius. I also asked Hallmark to duct our Truma heater to the battery compartment to further mitigate any cold weather issues. Which worked amazingly well on our last trip, the batteries consistently displayed temps in the 60’s and 70’s despite the lows in the teens.
These batteries can be charged multiple ways. There are two 200w solar panels managed by a Victron solar 100 volt/50 amp MPPT controller with an external plug for an auxiliary portable solar panel. Aside from solar charging, we have two Victron Orion TR-Smart 30 amp DC to DC chargers in parallel from the truck batteries/alternator. Lastly, we have a Victron Multiplus 3000 Inverter-Charger that we can charge from shore power or a 2,200 watt Honda generator. We don’t have that generator yet, but at some point we will, so we can also use the air conditioner in remote places. The nice thing about this battery technology is the spec sheet on these batteries state I can charge them at 60 amps each. That’s 120 amps total, which is why I went with dual DC to DC chargers. This means I can bulk charge these batteries really quick to be ready for our next stop.
TCA: Can you tell us more about your truck? Are you over or under your truck’s GVWR?
Mark Lachica: The base of our build is around a 2020 Ram 3500 High Output Cummin crew cab long-bed Laramie 4×4. This gives us an additional 100 pound-feet of torque compared to the non-HO, for a total of 1,000 pound-feet from the 6.7L Cummins mated to a 6-speed Aisin Transmission. Our last build was a 2017 Ram diesel in the Bighorn trim. We were very satisfied with our ‘17 but it didn’t have some creature comforts that Ram offers, so when we ordered our ‘20 we checked the boxes to get the truck the way we wanted. Vehicle-dependent travel means we have to drive and I really enjoy driving. So long driving days are not out of the question. Many of the things we chose increase safety, reduce driver fatigue and increase comfort. So our 2020 features, LED lighting, forward collision warning, adaptive cruise control, LaneSense, front-rear ParkSense, surround view cameras, heated/ventilated front seats, heated rear seats, heated steering wheel, navigation, 12 volt/120 volt/USB chargers in front and rear, and power folding mirrors.
From the factory our truck has a payload of 4,007 pounds and a GVWR of 12,300 pounds. On our way home from the Hallmark factory we weighed in at 12,000 pounds. So we’re hovering right around our GVWR, and I’m sure depending on what we bring, we could surpass 12,300 pounds, but not by much. Considering we’re a family of five and the quality materials used to construct the camper, I’m stoked at our weight. When choosing our rims and tires, we considered their load ratings as well. The front GAWR is 6,000 pounds and the rear GAWR is 7,000 pounds. The method 701HD are rated at 4,500 pounds each and Nitto’s are rated at 3,970 pounds each. All of these factors were considered when designing our build, the safety of my family and those around us is important to us.
TCA: Did you need to make any modifications to your truck’s suspension?
Mark Lachica: Need to? Maybe not. But as I shared earlier, I really enjoy driving. So how the truck handles and responds really makes a difference to me. I need the truck to handle safely, so emergency maneuvers can be done confidently and staying in my lane at highway speeds in major metropolitan areas is equally important. Beyond that, if the truck handles well off-road and has more sporty characteristics, then I’ll most definitely enjoy driving it more, all without getting worn out from fighting to keep the truck in my lane. To be able to take a 6-ton truck camper off-road and to drive like I’m late for work is tons of fun, no pun intended, but only when it handles well. With my 2017, I had a successful recipe for this, so I knew I’d duplicate it for the 2020 and even improve on it.
I went with the Carli Dominator system, which includes massive Carli-valved 3-inch King shocks. I opted to also include the Carli radius arms and limit straps. CJC Off-Road took care of the install, they are the best the business for this. Out of the box, this kit can handle it all, especially mashing through whoops in the desert. While my intentions with my truck are slightly different knowing I’ll be fully loaded all the time, I’ll make a few tweaks to this kit to suit my specific needs. The progressive rear leaf springs Carli offers reduce the payload to a “light,” 3/4-ton capacity, so I knew that wouldn’t work for me. Once the truck, flatbed and camper are fully assembled, and the Carli Dominator kit installed, I now have an accurate measurement for the axle weights as well as the rear ride height. With this information I took my truck to Jeff at Deaver Springs for him to make leaf springs to handle the added weight and sit at the appropriate ride height. So now I have a Carli Dominator kit, mated to Deaver springs rated for more weight.
In a nutshell, the shocks in a suspension system are tuned to the springs installed (front and rear) and dialed in to work in harmony with the weight of your truck to give you a safe, sporty ride. In other words, the guru’s at Carli valved their 3-inch Kings to work to it’s greatest potential using Carli’s springs. Now that I’ve mixed in custom Deavers, I’ll take the truck back to Dan at Carli and ask them to custom valve their shocks to the greatest potential for my truck. I did this with my 2017 and it was amazing. I’m currently dialing it all in and hope to bring it back to Carli in the next few weeks for the final tweaking. Then I can really get down and boogie with this big boy.
TCA: We noticed you have an En-Suite Shower Enclosure. How do you like it?
Mark Lachica: We like it a lot! The ease of use and function it provides is awesome. Nothing like an outside shower when camping. We also use it as a changing room to track-less dirt inside the camper. To be upfront and honest, we did have a problem with it. One of the arms bent causing issues closing. I really don’t know how it happened as we’re pretty thoughtful when using our gear. The arms are made of aluminum and the end of it bent, likely while opening or closing. Fortunately, the US-based dealer, BundutecUSA, was great with their customer service in getting it replaced. The South Africa-side of the customer service took a while, but they came through. After replacing the arm, I know to be extra cautious when stowing and deploying. And if the manufacturer is listening, use less straps, it will be aesthetically cleaner. Otherwise, it is very easy to use, meaning we’ll use it often, and it makes outdoor living much nicer.
TCA: With a family of five, do you have any tips on how you stay organized?
Mark Lachica: Less is more. The less you bring the less you have to organize. I can’t emphasize this enough. With the things we do bring, we try to pack very methodically, keeping things together based on purpose. The items used frequently are easily accessible. To make use of every nook and cranny, we store less used items in harder to reach places. Trish found various bins and utensil dividers that fit well, and if they didn’t fit well, we trimmed them so they did. Try places like Dollar Tree, Walmart or Target. They don’t have to be fancy, but they need to organize your stuff without wasting space, and they cant make reaching your items more difficult. Some of the bins are not clear so we drilled 1-inch holes in them so you can see what’s stored inside without pulling each bin out.
The main reason we went with a slide in camper on a flatbed is for organization. The entire cab of the truck is full of us so the flatbed boxes give us the added storage we need. The outside bins store our camp chairs, leveling blocks, water hose, recovery gear and whatever items needed to support our outdoor activities. Ideally, anytime I open the camper door, I don’t want to shuffle anything around or have to climb over anything to get inside.
TCA: What kind of mileage are you getting with your setup?
Mark Lachica: I’m averaging 11.5 mpg in it’s current configuration. Not bad for it’s profile, weight and tire size. The best part is the available power.
TCA: What wheel and tires do you have on your truck and what inflation values do you typically run?
Mark Lachica: I’m running Method 701HD’s in an 18×9, which are rated at 4500 pounds per rim. I had Nitto Ridgegrapplers on my last rig and was impressed with their quietness and performance so we have them again but in 35×12.50R18. These tires are rated at 3,970 pounds each at 80 psi. I currently run 56 psi in the front and 62 psi in the rear. This is based on the chalk method. I haven’t had to air down yet off-road. Once I get the suspension dialed in for the rig, I’ll start experimenting with that. As of right now, the tires have provided great manners on- and off-road, and are quiet while providing aggressive styling.
TCA: What emergency prep gear do you typically take with you?
Mark Lachica: I think my personality type tends to be over-prepared. Over the past 16 years of vehicle dependent travel, I think I have a reasonable selection of gear for those times of excitement. I carry a variety of hand tools, wiring tools, multimeter, spare fuses, duct tape, zip ties, hose clamps, axe and shovel. We also make sure we’re prepared to plug or change out a flat tire, so an appropriate jack and a cheap torque wrench to fasten those lug nuts appropriately. There is so much electronics on newer vehicles that we carry a lithium jump pack to jump start the ram if needed. I understand this is safer for the vehicle than using another car to jump start, it’s also self sufficient. For those times my overconfidence gets me stuck, we carry Maxtrax, a Bubba Rope snatch strap and soft shackles. Injuries are bound to happen when you’re having fun, so a variety of first aid gear, ice packs and pharmaceuticals will be onboard as well. For communications we have a Yaesu FT-70DR and repeater guide. Maybe at some point, if our travels are super remote or if our activities pose a great risk for severe injury, we’ll look into getting a Garmin InReach.
TCA: What’s the most worrisome or scariest moment you’ve experienced during your travels?
Mark Lachica: We once found this beautiful spot to camp high on a ridge in Utah. The view was spectacular from this summit and so was the wind! We set up camp late afternoon and enjoyed a great sunset with only a slight breeze. By nightfall, it was absolutely crazy. I’m sure we experienced gusts at 75 plus mph. Trish and I couldn’t sleep at all as the truck violently tossed around. Concerned for the structural integrity of our Four Wheel Camper, we attempted to close the top and sleep with it closed. We moved our little guy, who was asleep like a rock, to the bottom and I lowered the top. Well, I attempted to, I struggled to lower the front, and struggled to lower the rear. I almost got the rear down and a gust picked up that popped the camper right back up. Thinking it through, there was no way Trish and I could close the top. We would have needed multiple people holding the top down while we latched it. We ended up conceding and tried to go back to sleep. In the morning, we found our aluminum step ladder, which was secured beneath our door, was blown several feet away. Crazy. Equally crazy was the Four Wheel Camper wasn’t phased a bit while popped up in this wind.
TCA: Do you have a website and/or social media channels that our readers can follow?
Mark Lachica: So far, we’re only on Instagram as @theRAMadaINN. Who knows, maybe we’ll venture into YouTube but for now you guys can follow along on Instagram.