Truck Camper Adventure is proud to present this interview with Nolan Sturgeon. Known on the truck camper forums as “Anutami,” Nolan works as a regional sales manager for a plumbing manufacturer and currently makes San Diego, California his home. Married 14 years to his wife, Kelly, together they have two children, Brenna, age 11, and Brett, age eight. A graduate of UC Davis in Northern California, Nolan developed his love for the great outdoors during the time he was in college and is an avid truck camper devotee, having owned four in his life. He’s also one of the few people I know who has filed a full insurance claim for the total loss of one of his campers. The details of how that process went for Nolan can be found below.
Thanks, Nolan, for taking the time to talk. How long have you been into camping and RV’ing?
Nolan: I have been RV’ing since some of my first childhood memories. I remember riding in the back of my grandpa’s truck camper at night looking out of the cabover window wondering why the reflectors on the road where all lit up. I thought the road had lights with sensors. Gosh, I must have been four or five years old. One trip in particular I remember going on was to Sequoia National Park riding in the cabover and getting a “feeling”‘ to talk to grandpa while he drove. I imagined going through the pass-through window to find him asleep at the wheel with a 1,000 foot drop off and yelling, “grandpa, wake up!” I always wanted to be in that truck camper. My dad then got a motorhome and he would take us out to the desert, so many great memories. Once I was married, Kelly and I started camping out of the back of our small pickup truck with a cheap tent and soon we realized we wanted the comfort that an RV offers.
Can you tell us about your truck camper and why you choose it over other makes and models?
Nolan: This is a great topic of discussion where each individual needs to find their optimum choice. We currently own a 2015 Northwood Wolf Creek 850, and I consider this to be the largest truck camper I would ever want to own to take off-road. I primarily chose this model because we are a family of four and need the large space and large holding tanks. Each of us having our own comfortable space is key. The dinette in the Wolf Creek 850 is huge, and I can’t find a camper that compares. The overhead bunk is also a full 6 feet long so I don’t see us outgrowing the camper anytime soon. Many think we are crazy in camp in such a confined space, but to us it’s perfect. This wasn’t always the case and took some convincing of my wife. In order to win my wife over and have her completely relaxed, I did mostly everything starting off. I wanted to show her how nice it is to camp with no one around for miles. The only thing she had to pack was a bag and we were off. I did all the shopping, loading, driving, cooking, dishes, camp set up, cleaning, etc. She is now hooked and when we find ourselves camping in a traditional campground with neighbors we feel like we are in downtown Los Angeles.
Do you remember the first time you went off-road?
Nolan: Oh, yes. It was in our Northstar Laredo. To give my wife a break with the kids, I took them out to Anza Borrego Desert State Park, which is only about one hour from my house. We headed out on a Jeep trail for about six miles and found ourselves totally isolated. We camped in a picturesque area among some huge boulders. The kids were in heaven playing around on them. We went for a hike the next day, and I remember returning to the camper so thankful for all the amenities. We had all the comforts of home, yet we were away from it all. No sounds, nothing, just absolute bliss. As difficult as it is raising young children, the quality time I experienced with my kids was something I crave more of. From that point on it was game on.
What tie down system do you use?
Nolan: I currently use Torklift tie downs and Torklift FastGuns. I’ve also used Happijac tie downs in the past with spring-loaded turnbuckles. I’m so happy with my Torklift system or should I say ecstatic. I never thought about how important tie downs would be until I had issues with my Happijacs. Not only are the Torklift tie downs superior to any other tie downs on the market, the company has also provided the best customer service I’ve ever seen. The only change I see myself making is with the new Torklift Talon tie downs. Since these are made of aluminum, I’m waiting to see how they perform in the field from others.
Have you made any significant modifications to your Wolf Creek camper?
Nolan: I learned pretty quick in life that a happy wife makes a happy life. If she knows the kids are warm and toasty, she’s even happier, so I try to make the camper as comfortable as I can. First, I ordered my camper from the factory the way I wanted it, but I went through several truck campers to know exactly what I wanted and needed and would use. The most important factory options were the 9,000 BTU air conditioner, thermal pane windows, Torklift bumper, stereo system, and oven. Here are the mods if made to my camper so far:
- A pair of 8-foot Maggie Racks
- Two 100 watt Solar Panels and an MPPT Solar Charger
- Xantrex Link Plus Battery Monitor
- Wave-3 Catalytic Header with a 6 foot Quick Disconnect Hose
- Three Dual USB Chargers
- Carpet Kit
- Flat-Screen 22-inch TV
- Oxygenics Shower Head
- Inside/Outside Digital Temperature Guage
- Dual Pane Fan-tastic Vent Fan Cover
- Various 3M Hooks and a 3M shower tray
- Cell Phone Range Extender
- Single handle pull out kitchen faucet and soap dispenser
My to do list for my camper includes a pure sine wave inverter, upgrading the bathroom faucet, upgrading the mattress and insulating under it, going with AGM batteries…the list goes on.
Can you tell us about your pickup truck?
Nolan: I currently have a 2001 Ford SRW, four-wheel drive, F-350 long-bed. It has a manual transmission with the legendary 7.3L Power Stroke turbo diesel. We named her “Frosty” and it has been a great platform for a lightweight hard-side truck camper. My brother owns the same truck and always said I should get one. It was first used by my customer as a plumbing truck and I saw it parked outside his shop with a for sale sign. It had 200,000 miles, plumbing racks on it, a large diesel auxiliary tank in the back with a bunch of storage boxes. He made me a great deal on it. The first time driving it home was pretty intimidating with the stick shift, and I thought I had made a mistake. It has been nothing but awesome. We have put 50,000 miles on it so far with 95 percent of that with a truck camper in the bed. The only issue is my kids hate the smell of diesel.
Have you made any off-road modifications to your truck?
Nolan: Not much, but on the road to the race track in Death Valley I blew out the front OEM shocks so I replaced all the shocks with a complete set of Bilsteins. I also added Torklift lower and upper Stableloads. For the tires I went with BFG All-Terrains. I also recently removed the rear bumper to save on weight.
Which engine type do you prefer, diesel or gas?
Nolan: I don’t have much experience with a gas engine off-roading except for our daily drivers, which have included an Xterra, Tahoe and 4Runner, but the 7.3L Power Stroke diesel engine loaded with a truck camper will climb just about anything. One can usually walk just as fast as the road will allow, but knowing we will be able to be out of the elements in the camper makes it worth it. It’s slow going, and once I put it in 4×4 low, I have confidence that power won’t be a problem.
What tools and recovery gear do you consider essential when going off-road?
Nolan: I always make sure to keep an air compressor, tool box with basic tools, oversized tow strap, shovel, machete, hatchet, and a saw-zaw with me at all times.
Do you have any favorite trails you like to explore?
Nolan: I tend to enjoy the Jeep trails of the desert. My wife teases me about the word “volcanic.” I Have said it so many times, she just gives me a look. When I get that look I know we are in our happy place. Finding new trails where a stock SUV can handle in the desert is the best. Usually desert washes are ideal for our truck and camper combo. Winding trails, with some soft sand and occasional protruding boulders is ideal. The more pin striping from bushes, the better.
Which state is your favorite to explore?
Nolan: Like most truck camper enthusiasts, we’ve found southwestern Utah to be our favorite area. We also enjoy exploring Northern California.
Are there any areas or trails that you think are overlooked by most overlanders?
Nolan: I would have to put Anza Borrego State Park on that list. There are so many cool places to get to before you reach Anza Borrego many don’t put it on their list as a destination.
You’ve been to Anza Borrego countless times, and I consider you an expert on that park. What are some of the best areas to explore there?
Nolan: I guess that all depends on what you’re looking to find. The hard part is deciding on where to go because Anza Borrego is so large and vast and there’s so much to explore. If you’re searching for the longest curved wooden railroad trestle in the world, along with numerous native American village sites that include rock art, morteros, cupules, and pottery sherds, the southwest area of the park is a must see. If you’re searching for the most extensive mud caves in the world, ancient sea fossils, an incredible slot canyon, check out the southeast part of the park. If you want to relax at a nice campground and enjoy a hike up a year round stream to an amazing palm grove, with your best chance of seeing bighorn sheep, then check out the main park headquarters.
Can you tell us about other areas at Anza Borrego worth checking out?
Nolan: Sure! The northeast part of the park is pretty neat, too. It has one of the best views of the entire park at Fonts Point. There is also an extensive maze of slot canyons to explore in the calcite mine area. You can also check out the Coyote Canyon area where you can find amazing wild flowers in the spring. There are numerous abandoned homestead sites, various plane/jet crash sites, and enough peaks around for you to bag. Heading up Fish Creek Wash in a truck camper is just amazing, and that would be my first recommendation. The terrain varies so much and there are treasures around almost every corner.
It does sound vast and it’s on my bucket list. What was the most difficult trail that you tackled in a truck camper?
Nolan: The most difficult trail my family and I have done is the road going to Leavitt Lake in the Sierra Nevadas with our Wolf Creek. We were pretty much driving in four-wheel drive low for 1.5 hours.
What did you think about our recent trip to the White Rim Trail at Canyonlands National Park?
Nolan: We had a blast doing the White Rim Trail with you. Trails like this is why we own a truck camper. That said, this was the longest off-road trail we had attempted and found it to be a bit long for us to just drive through. Coupled with the fact it took two days to drive to Canyonlands from San Diego, and then a freak snowstorm keeping us inside for an additional day was a bit much for us to complete the trail. I felt bad keeping my kids in the truck for four days, but couldn’t bare the thought of keeping them cooped up for another two to three. It was a great way to get our feet wet and set up an expectation for next time. We’ll try again when they get a bit older and are able to mountain bike most of it.
What advice would you offer to those who are considering buying a truck camper to take off-road?
Nolan: For us it was all about trial and error. I would encourage those doing this to start small and work your way up. I would buy used. If it doesn’t work out you can always sell it. Don’t over think it. We started small with a pop-up camper, but soon realized this was limited with a growing family. The hard-side truck camper is our sweet spot. We started with a Northstar Laredo, moved on to an Eagle Cap Lite 800, then found the optimum combination to be a Northwood Wolf Creek 850.
What’s the most worrisome or scariest moment you’ve experienced during your travels?
Nolan: That would have to be when we lost our first Wolf Creek 850 camper. It was a 2012 model. It flew off of our truck during a freak wind storm at Anza Borrego State Park in 2014. Both passenger side anchor points had failed during one particularly strong gust, one on the truck and one on the camper. We were several miles from pavement and it was getting dark. Luckily no one was hurt and everything was fully insured.
I bet that was scary, losing your camper and all. Who was your insurance company at the time and how did the claim process go for you?
Nolan: That’s a great question. My first job out of college was as an insurance adjuster, so I learned to always have insurance and was very familiar with all of the ins and outs. I used to have Allstate insurance, but found a Canadian company that started doing business in San Diego called Wawanesa. They had great rates and great reviews with customer service. Since it was wind that caused the accident the claim was filed under my comprehensive coverage (I actually had let my insurance company know this because they first filed it under collision). I wanted to make sure it was coded correctly because in California using your comprehensive coverage will not affect your rates. I also learned while working insurance to carry a low deductible of $100.
I basically called and had the camper towed from the middle of the desert to a tow yard and never saw it again. Wawanesa insurance paid the $1,500 tow bill and the full market value for the Wolf Creek and I couldn’t have been happier with the process. My Truck was drive-able, so I drove it home. The adjuster came to my house and deemed the camper a total loss because the cost of repairs exceeded the value. I kept the truck registered as a salvage title, bought a new bed for it, and I was back in business. Northwood manufacturing and Apache Camping cut me a great deal to get me back in a brand new Wolf Creek with minimal out of pocket expenses. Many people claim to have negative experiences with their insurance companies, but for me it was all positive.
That’s some great advice and tips for us. Now lets get to the important stuff–food. What do you like to eat when you’re out exploring in your camper?
Nolan: We keep it pretty basic, but pretty much the same foods as when we are at home. My wife does all the cooking at home, but when camping I do everything to give her a break.
Do you have any other hobbies as they relate to the great outdoors?
Nolan: We are very active and consider the truck and camper a platform to get us outside to do the things we love. Hiking, mountain biking, skiing, kayaking, ATV riding, surfing are a few of the many things we love to do as a family. Having the truck and camper combo enables us to enjoy them even more. We also love baseball. We always bring the baseball gear along and will play a game or two when we can.
You’re doing it right, Nolan. Quality playtime with the family is important. These are times that your kids will never forget. Thanks again for taking the time to talk. Do you have any final advice, especially for those who are new to truck camping?
Nolan: First, I really enjoy reading your magazine and appreciate the time you spend on it. Several people have asked me about wanting to drive into secluded areas, but have reservations about safety. If you have similar concerns start with local places that you and your wife feel comfortable with, then go from there. Bring another vehicle with you if you can. Also, bring ample supplies of food and water and emergency preparedness items to get you out of a jam. Make sure your spare tire is in good working order. Get good maps and research Google Earth, if you can, and make sure you can read a topo map. I seldom worry about robbers and other people, but we do lock the camper door at night. My wife still gets worried when we are out, but she has gained confidence in my navigating skills and has loosened up over time.