Truck Camper Adventure is proud to present this interview with fellow truck camper owner, David Kiel. Dave hails from Ohio, but due to his father’s work when he was a kid, he grew up overseas in such neat places as Germany, Northern Ireland, Turkey and Peru. This instilled him with a passion for exploring, travel, conservation, and photography. Dave met Jennifer, a native from Colorado, in college in Boulder. With 29 years in the Navy they lived, camped and explored many parts of the country along with their kids. They now live in Washington DC where Dave continues to work for the Navy. Time off is spent truck camping, exploring, photography and traveling. Near term plans are to continue exploring while “working down” to increase exploring and camping, and start promoting conservation issues.
Thanks for taking the time to talk, Dave. How long have you been interested in truck camping?
David Kiel: We’ve always been interested in camping, hiking and occasional short backpacking trips. But as we got older, the ground got harder, so we kept graduating, first from tents, to tent campers and finally to travel trailers. Our last trailer was a 25-footer. In late 2011, I “transitioned” from the Navy after 29 years and we took a month-long vacation to southern Utah. There the limitations of travel trailers quickly became obvious. We missed a lot of great locations due to the constraints of trailers. The end of Hole-in-the-Rock Road was never reached. The great hikes and boondock sites out the road could only be explored in the day since we had to drive back to Escalante to camp at the state park. Our original perception of truck campers was the large top-heavy behemoths. But then we began to see these neat little pop-up truck campers going everywhere. That hooked us. When we got back, we sold our travel trailer, did our research, and bought a custom-made Phoenix pop-up truck camper we call the “Kiel Hauler.” We never looked back and still love it and the freedom it affords us.
Can you tell us about your Phoenix Pop-up Camper and why you chose that particular make and model?
David Kiel: We visited the three major manufactures of quality built small pop-ups that would fit on our standard bed Tundra: Outfitter, Hallmark and Phoenix in Denver, and the closest dealer of Four Wheel Campers in North Carolina. We live in the heart of Washington DC. The real deciding factor was the total customization that Robby and Cari provide at Phoenix. After a lot of consultation, they made exactly what we asked for.
Our only beef was we didn’t listen to a few of Robby’s suggestions on using a compression refrigerator and not adding a few inches of length to the camper and have it hang over the end of the truck’s bed. Living in the city, we thought it would be important to keep the truck camper inside the truck bed so we could leave the tailgate on for extra security. Also not having the camper hang out over the bed would protect it from the poor parallel parkers. It turns out, we’ve never had an issue, and the tailgate has never been put back on. The extra 5-6 inches of length would make taking a shower in the bathroom a lot easier.
I agree. Rob and Cari are terrific folks to work with. I’ve heard nothing but good things about them. What kind of tie-down system does Phoenix Campers use?
David Kiel: Phoenix Campers uses a simple internal tie down system that uses ratcheted nylon tie down straps. Though it is a bit harder to secure the camper with the internal ratchets, we like this approach since we very seldom ever take the camper off.
Have you made any modifications yet to your truck camper?
David Kiel: Why, of course! I love to tinker and Jenney is never out of ideas. We quickly ripped out the under bed storage to provide more head room in the cab over. It wasn’t easy storage to use. Then we added a small “basement” to make up for some of that storage.
We decided Robby’s suggestion of a DC compression refrigerator was a good idea, so we ripped out the cheap 3-way Dometic, and added a National Luna Weekender with a homemade slide out. Being an electric refrigerator we wanted more DC energy storage, so when our 100 amp hour AGM battery died, we upgraded with a very expensive 100 amp hour Lithium Iron Phosphate (LFP) drop in replacement battery. A 100 amp hour LFP is probably pretty close to a 160 amp hour AGM since LFP can support a deeper discharge! Also, if properly used, it should last longer than 10 years probably giving us a better than break even lifecycle cost compared to AGM. But, despite the sales claims, a drop in replacement LFP battery isn’t truly a drop in replacement. LFP batteries can be killed pretty quickly if they are charged when frozen. So I added some cut out switches that allow me to pull power from the battery cold, but not charge it. While adding those switches, I re-ran some of the wiring that carried higher currents to a lower gauge wire to prevent voltage drop and keep charging efficiency up.
Finally, our combined, single unit, sink/stove died, so we replaced the whole counter top with a personalized counter top, a new sink, and stove. Never buy a combined stove and sink combo. The space isn’t that efficiently used, and when the stove dies, you have to replace both and a make a new counter. The new counter top has pictures of our truck camper’s first five years embedded in a thick acrylic covering for decoration. While the counter top was off, we added a small inline grey water tank for beach camping when we can’t have a grey water bucket outside. We also removed the forced air furnace that was loud and cycled between too hot and too cold and replaced it with a quiet Wave 3 catalytic heater that maintains even heat.
Do you use solar power or a generator to keep your truck camper’s batteries topped off?
David Kiel: We can’t stand the noise of generators and Jenney claims she’s morally opposed to them! We believe it kind of defeats the purpose of going camping to have to run a TV, AC, and microwave.
Solar, yes. We have two 80 watt panels in parallel and use a special PMW charge controller that is optimized for LFP batteries’ unique charging needs. The charge controller was actually cheaper than most 30 amp charge controllers but it won’t support lead acid chemistry batteries. Bioenne doesn’t make it any more, but they have a new 20-amp MPPT controller, for LFP batteries only, that is only about $90. I may upgrade to extract a bit more charging efficiency.
Can you tell us about more about your truck?
David Kiel: It is a 2007 Toyota Tundra, four-wheel drive we bought new to pull our last travel trailer. Every thing was stock when we bought it.
Have you made any modifications to your truck to carry your camper?
David Kiel: The only mods we made were adding some Timbren SES suspension upgrades, then an additional rear leaf spring since the suspension was still a little too soft after adding the SES.
Do you have any regrets in your choices? Anything you wished that you had done differently?
David Kiel: Absolutely. We wish we would have listened to Robby at Phoenix and let him make the truck camper extend beyond the tailgate. That would have added 5 to 6 inches to the bed that would have made the bathroom easier to use. We really regret that. Our bathroom is totally usable, but it is a tight fit. The weight delta and shift in the center of gravity would have been negligible in extending the bed.
Have you made any mistakes relating to truck camper that would help our readers?
David Kiel: Other than what we talked about above, no. But, I’ve become a fan of no wood in any exterior wall. Even with all our caulking…we’ve had leaks with resultant wood rot. Unless you are a caulking fanatic, water will eventually find a path inside with current RV construction standards and all the seams they use. I know there were not a lot of campers with no wood in exterior walls in 2012, but now days I will never buy a camper that has any wood in any exterior wall. Modern composites are too good and cheap to skimp and use wood in an exterior wall. We also have a manual lift, which works right now for us. But I can see down the road where we might have issues raising it…an electric lift mod is in our future.
Which engine type do you prefer diesel or gas?
David Kiel: We have never seen, nor ever been able to come up with our own analysis that says a diesel will ever pay for itself over its life compared to a gas engine. I guess if you don’t drive more than a 100,000 miles a year, plan on keeping a truck for more than 15 years, or need enormous amounts of torque, a diesel is not for you nor will it pay for itself. We don’t tow so we don’t need hundreds of foot pounds of torque. I guess a diesel isn’t in our future.
What kind of mileage do you get with your Tundra when hauling your camper?
David Kiel: One of the few times we kept detailed records was when we drove from Washington DC to Denver on interstates at very high highway speeds to pick up our truck camper from Phoenix. We averaged a bit over 15 mpg on the way out. On the way back on our week-long “maiden voyage” with many back roads through Wyoming and South Dakota, we averaged about 14 mpg. I feel we are still close to that average.
Wow, that’s pretty good. Do you tow anything like a Jeep or boat?
David Kiel: We haven’t yet! We occasionally put a hitch rack on to add a bit of cargo capacity when we camp with family since they don’t have much camping equipment and we end up carrying it all.
What tires do you have on your truck and what inflation values do you typically run when driving off-road?
David Kiel: We use Cooper Discoverer AT3-XLT tires at about 42 psi most of the time. I do carry a small compressor for airing down on rough roads and the beach—to about 18-20 psi. They had a great review in Expedition Portal several years ago, so during our last tire upgrade I bought them. I’ve been very happy with them since they are a good overall tire with all-terrain capabilities. Remember, most truck campers still spend more than 95 percent of their time on paved roads.
Do you have any favorite places or trails you like to explore?
David Kiel: Yes! In the mid-Atlantic region we have two favorite areas. First, is the Mount Rogers National Recreational area in southwest Virginia. It is too far from DC for anything but a three-day weekend, but has outstanding hiking, stunning “Southern Balds” with their naturally treeless mountain vistas, and areas that are hard to get too unless you have a truck camper. We go there about twice a year. To avoid the crowds around the Appalachian Trail and the stunning views along it, we boondock up a long rough high clearance road at a trail head called “Scales.” No passenger cars can make it, so the crowds don’t exist. Even on one Labor Day weekend, we had one night to ourselves.
The second area is closer to home, so we go four to five times a year including winter. It is the entire area around the Dolly Sods, Roaring Plains, and Otter Creek Wilderness areas. This region contains the three wilderness areas, two down hill and two cross-country ski areas as well as back country cross-country skiing, two major West Virginia state parks, a huge wildlife refuge, and it is all surrounded by the Monongahela National Forrest. The trails for these two areas are fantastic by east coast standards, but are too numerous to describe here. In addition we go to George Washington National Forest, Shenandoah National Park, or one of the state parks/forests in western Maryland nearly every other weekend during the peak camping months of April through October.
We also like to go out to Assateague National Seashore. If you are completely self-contained you are allowed to drive out and camp on the beach in a dispersed spot. Since you must have four-wheel drive and you’re not allowed to tow anything—pretty much the only rig allowed is a truck camper. Air down a bit and you’ve got a private beach at certain times of year—but not summer! They limit the number of vehicles allowed to 145 on a 15Km beach, so it’s always less crowded than the beaches around the park campground. We’ve woken up to the ponies walking past our windows—and we’ve spent nights where we’re the only ones out there. This is where I got the shot for your photo contest last year.
Out west our favorite areas is the desert southwest, specifically southern Utah. Unfortunately, we are still working full-time, so we can’t get out west more than every other year. We really want to explore the White Pockets in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and all the remote Grand Canyon overlooks along the North Rim outside the park. These are great areas for truck campers. We’ve sworn we will never again go to Rocky Mountain National Park in the summer due to the crowds—so even though Jenney’s family lives out there we avoid it when we visit.
Despite all that about Utah, we want to get back to Anza Borrego in southern California where we lived early in our Navy career. We also want to explore a lot more of the Pacific North West. We just haven’t had a chance yet.
What has been the most difficult and challenging drive you’ve been on in your rig?
David Kiel: Our hairiest drive yet was on a trip to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. It was before we learned of the combined joys of electronic maps, GPS and off the grid electronic navigation. We were using the small-scale Kaibab National Forest service map and missed a turn on our way to Crazy Jug Point resulting in a steep, four-wheel low climb up a road that we had no idea where it went. After about a mile, everything improved and we made it to Crazy Jug Point only to find several passenger cars that made it the easy way. It was still worth it! The North Rim in the Kaibab National Forest is a great area for truck camper boondocking away from the hordes in the Grand Canyon National Park.
I agree with you about boondocking in the Kaibab National Forest. We’ve been there a couple of times and love it there. What are your favorite states where you like to explore?
David Kiel: Locally it’s Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland. Finger Lakes area in New York is also good … what can be bad about an area dedicated to wineries? When we have four or more days, North Carolina in the Pisgah and Nantahala National forest. They are great too with their own southern balds and the wide-open vistas they afford, great white water, mountain biking, and hiking. We just returned from a trip to Nantahala to watch the eclipse. Out west, southern Utah! No question about it for me.
Are there any areas or trails that you think are overlooked?
David Kiel: Many many many! We don’t know where to begin. Maybe South Eastern Oregon, Northern Nevada? We definitely want to do some overseas trips and rent a truck camper. Iceland’s ring road is well discovered, but it is on our bucket list. Also we want to truck camp in Patagonia in southern Chile. I lived in Peru for a while when I was in high school, and want to go back. In addition to some of the standard tourist areas, I want to show Jenney the stunning beauty of the Cordillera Blanca and Huayhuash with their 20,000-foot mountains.
What advice would you offer to those who are considering buying a truck camper to take off-road?
David Kiel: KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) and keep it small. Adventure is the goal. Excessive home creature comforts are just a distraction to the adventure. Jenney spent more than a month on the road with my two sisters and niece and even with four adults they were perfectly comfortable … well until she broke her leg at the Grand Canyon. We’ve spent many nights in sub-zero temperatures in our camper and never felt cramped or uncomfortable. If you want a huge truck camper, get a Class-C motorhome, or just stay in a hotel. We’ve been converted. Thank you, Mike!
It’s my pleasure. If you were to buy a brand new truck camper or overland rig, and price wasn’t an issue, what would it be?
David Kiel: We’re thinking about this right now. Our Tundra has been a great truck with very few problems, but it is near its GVWR with the camper. It also doesn’t have enough clearance. So we are looking for a one-ton, single rear wheel, 4×4, Ford or Ram with better approach and departure angles. Now that we been truck camping for five years, we better understand our needs and the wasted space that exists in the wheel wells of a slide in and conventional pickup. So we’re looking to flat-bed the new truck with storage that could be used to carry our equipment more efficiently. That will let us keep our slide-in until it dies. Then we will probably upgrade to slightly longer true flat-bed camper. Anyone have any recommendations for someone to do our custom tray and storage? We’ll probably also let Phoenix do a custom build for us again. To support this increased cargo capacity is why we are going to go with a one-ton.
What’s the most worrisome or scariest moment you’ve experienced during your travels?
David Kiel: Nothing really pops out. We were caught in a very bad thunder and hail storm in the Badlands and had to literally slide down the trail on our butts when the trail turned into incredibly slippery mud as it descended the cliffs. It was more annoying and dirty than scary, and made us realize one of the advantages of a truck camper at the trailhead—a clean dry place to change out of our mud caked clothes.
Have you had any notable run-ins with wildlife on your travels?
David Kiel: We routinely see black bears in Shenandoah National Park and West Virginia. Actually, they have been getting more numerous over the years—and more aggressive at searching campgrounds for food. But they are only black bears and more afraid of us, than us of them, at least as long as you aren’t between a mom and her cubs. We tell other hikers that the only picture of a black bear you’re going to get on the trail is usually their butt as they are running from you.
What foods do you like to eat when you’re out exploring?
David Kiel: Since we’re out almost every weekend in the spring/summer/fall we’ve expanded well past the hamburger/hotdogs. Jenney grew up camping with her family and learned to cook in a dutch oven from her eagle scout Dad. We inherited their dutch ovens—seasoned for probably close to 75 years! So Jenney will sometimes go all out and we’ll have a meal of carnitas and cornbread, or a pork roast and Irish soda bread. If you can find it, buy a bottle of ramp wine…we know a good winery in West Virginia. You haven’t lived till you’ve used ramp wine instead of chicken broth to make a pot of chicken dumplings in a dutch oven! We do lots of breads and stews. Jenney always try’s to make anything we cook serve for a couple of meals—leftover bread makes a good bread pudding for breakfast. I, however, am in charge of desserts. Try white-chocolate macadamia nut cookies cooked over the fire in a dutch oven—still warm and gooey—with ice cream melted into them. Oh, and popcorn works well, too. By the way, we don’t need a generator to live like this.
Do you have any other hobbies as they relate to the great outdoors?
David Kiel: Hiking, truck camping and photography followed by a good meal and beer around a campfire. What else can be better?
I actually take my photography pretty seriously. My passion is landscape photography to capture the beauty of America. I fell for Ansel Adams’ work as a seventh grader during a school field trip to see his work. I never heard of him or of Yosemite until then, but from then on, I knew what and why I wanted to photograph. For years I did my own black and white in a home darkroom, graduated to a large 4×5 view camera with the cloth you draped over it to see the ground glass viewfinder. But the flexibility of digital finally won me over. I still love the grandeur of the “big expansive” landscape. Even with the ease of digital color, I still do some black and white printing.
Your photography is pretty impressive. It’s some of the best work I’ve ever seen.
David Kiel: Thanks, Mike.
Thanks again, David. It’s been great talking with you.
David Kiel: It’s been my pleasure.