Truck Camper Adventure is proud to present another interview with a truck camping couple, Pres and Janice Meyers. Pres retired last summer from the California Dept. of Corrections and Rehabilitation as the plant manager and worked as a stationary engineer, cowboy, and truck driver prior to that, while Janice did volunteer work for two non-profits and in their children’s schools. Janice is now into blogging at MakingTraxCamping.com, sharing trips and tips for dispersed camping and truck camping in general. This serves as an outlet for her hobbies of photography and writing, in hopes that one day it can provide some income to help pay for their camping addiction. The couple have been married for 43 years, meeting on a blind date. They have three children, and three grandchildren. Together, the two have over 107 years of experience hiking, horseback riding, and camping in the outdoors. Both are southpaws.
Thanks, Janice, for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk with us. How long have you been into truck camping?
Janice: We camp as often as we can from our home base in central California. I would not call us full-time, as our trips average seven to 10 days. Last August we traveled 3,000 miles in 18 days, camping in Washington, Oregon and California. We have two horses, two Saint Bernards, and two cats, with a home on 10 acres to care for, which keeps us tied down somewhat. We are looking for options so that we can travel for longer periods. Perhaps, we can rent out our place as an air-bnb.
Can you tell us about your truck camper and why you decided to go with that make and model?
Janice: I researched and dreamed of owning a truck camper for three years. Initially, I thought a camper van would best suit our needs. I liked the self-containment, but we did not like the beds or their toilet system, if they even had one. We visited a pop-up camper manufacturing plant, but did not like the “soft” top or lack of air conditioner for hot weather. We wanted the lower profile of a pop-up for fuel economy, as well as to keep from being top heavy and have enough overhead clearance for travel over the 4×4 roads we like to haunt.
Online I found the Alaskan telescoping camper, “It raises, it lowers.” I loved the hardtop for insulation, security and the roof mount air conditioner. The Thetford cassette toilet feature put this camper over the top for us.
I started looking for a place to see the real deal in person. However, the Alaskan Camper headquarters is located in Winlock, Washington, 900 miles from home. RV dealers seldom come across a used one. I found used Alaskans across the country, but none close by. The more I researched this camper, the more I wanted one. Our 1989 Ford pickup was only a half-ton, so we needed a new truck big enough to handle a heavy camper. We could not buy a truck until we could find a camper, to ensure the two would fit together. We ended up getting a used Alaskan 10-foot cabover model.
So how exactly did you get into it? Where did you find it?
Janice: I called Alaskan Camper, and Brian Wheat, the head honcho of the company. I drilled him with all kinds of questions about the camper, which only made me want one, of course. I looked at the price of a new camper, and I knew that in order to buy both a truck and camper, I needed to find a used model. The Alaskan website has a section for used campers. Alas, every time I found what we wanted, the camper had already sold. I checked the site regularly, as well as Craigslist and ad publications, in my hunt for an Alaskan. I soon discovered folks don’t let go of these campers!
One day, while discouraged looking for a used camper, I decided to call the Alaskan HQ, to see if they had any new listings—even though I had just checked their website ads. Brian answered my call and told me he had a brand new listing for a 10-foot cabover model that he was working on posting. My heart skipped a beat and I asked for the contact number. I immediately called the seller, who exclaimed that I was the first person to inquire and was amazed as they had only just given Brian the details of their ad. What?! I was the first to call? The price was right and they were selling their FWD Ford F-350 utility truck and Alaskan camper as a unit. The utility truck meant having the spare tire, tools and camping gear within easy access. This was just what we wanted. However, the truck and camper were in Missouri and we live in California. After the seller patiently answered our many questions and sent us more photos of their rig, we purchased it sight unseen. We had a tough adventure bringing it home, but that is another story, which I have posted on my blog.
Have you had a chance to visit the Alaskan factory yet?
Janice: Yes! A year later, we visited the Alaskan HQ for the urgent repair of the hydraulic system that had failed while we were on a camping trip. It’s very uncomfortable using the camper with the top down. We were already in Washington state and they graciously fit us in for the replacement of the hydraulic pump. They told us, that only two pumps have failed in the 60 years they have been installing them in their campers. We felt “special.” The Alaskan crew got us back on the road the same day. We enjoyed seeing the manufacturing process and fine workmanship of these campers, while we waited for the repair. Brian, Rick and Dorrie made us feel right at home, and even let us cook our breakfast on their showroom stove, as there were no cafés close by.
What features does your Alaskan 10 cabover camper have and what do you like best about it?
Janice: Everything! The unit has a stove with oven, a double stainless sink, a three-way refrigerator, propane space heater, propane water heater, two 7 gallon propane tanks, a Thetford cassette toilet cabinet, and an outside shower. We like the light wood paneling and craftsmanship on the inside of the camper. The hard top gives us extra insulation and protection from harsh weather. We have camped in 80 mile-an-hour winds, rain, hail and snow, while being snug as bugs. The metal roof gets noisy in hard rain or hail, but that’s just part of the experience.
What mods, if any, have you made to your camper?
Janice: My husband upgraded the stove burners. He replaced the Fan-tastic Vent Fan (the cover broke on our trek bringing it home from Missouri), with a unit that has a remote and rain sensor. He also replaced the blinds with cordless ones. During raising and lowering of the camper top, the cords sometimes got caught. After numerous times of the drawers violently falling out and spilling its contents, while going over rough roads, Pres found a way to keep them locked closed. He installed child proof magnetic locks. These handy locks stay open while we camp, and we only lock them during travel. Thus, no fumbling with a safety latch all the time.
Do you use solar power or a generator to keep your truck camper’s batteries topped off?
Janice: Both! We carry a Honda EU2000i generator as well as a portable Zamp 40 watt solar panel. The solar is used to help charge our AGM deep cycle battery. If money was no object, a lithium battery is top of the line, as recommended by TCA. The generator is used when we need more than battery power while boondocking, such as running our roof top A/C unit or microwave if we bring it.
Can you tell us about more about your truck?
Janice: Sure, this is like pulling out photos of your grandkids, right? The truck is a 2004 Ford F-350 6.0L Power Stroke Turbo Diesel 4×4. It is the Lariat Super Duty model in white with a crew cab. We enjoy plenty of power driving over the mountains and it’s a smooth ride. It has a tow package, but we are thinking of removing the hitch for off-roading, as it can drag going through deep dips, due to our length. The 10-foot camper has an over the cab bed, which is queen size. We also have a dinette area that can make into a full size bed.
Did you need to make any modifications to your truck’s suspension to carry your camper?
Janice: Yes. The rig steered like a boat when we bought it. Pres investigated upgrading the shocks, springs and sway bar. Our local mechanic installed a Hellwig Big Wig rear sway bar, Bilstein HD shocks, heavy duty front springs, which raised the front end slightly for better clearance, without sacrificing steering. To even the stance, front to back, a 3-inch lift was installed on the rear. Now our rig handles like a race car on curvy back roads and is a lot more fun to drive.
That’s great to hear. Can you tell us about your utility bed?
Janice: Our camper is mounted on a Knapheide utility bed with tool boxes on both sides. It is so handy to have access and storage from the outside. The first time we had a flat tire, we discovered it was very difficult to get the spare tire out of its cabinet when it was fully inflated. From this experience, we learned to carry an air pump with us, while keeping the tire underinflated, for easy removal from the box. The original owners ordered the Ford F-350 “unfinished” and took it to Alaskan Camper HQ to mount the camper. Technically, the camper can be removed. However, it would involve removing the base mounts and disconnecting the wiring from the alternator charging circuit. We are very happy with it being “permanent.”
Do you have any regrets in your choice of truck and camper? Anything you wished that you had done differently?
Janice: Our rig has a longer wheel base than we originally were looking for. It measures 22 feet stem to stern (including a 2-foot grate platform off the back end). We had wanted a truck with an extended cab, for a shorter wheelbase, but our rig is a crew cab with four doors. The extra room is nice for taking the grandchildren or having gear close while traveling, but the length makes turning around or maneuvering deep dips a bit more work driving off-road (12-point turns instead of six!).
We had to travel during harsh weather to pick up our camper. Even though the Alaskan camper is equipped to handle this, the truck initially was not. Unbeknownst to the sellers or us, the 40-gallon fuel tank lining was disintegrating. The freezing temperature of a blizzard caused the fuel to become more viscous. That, combined with the fragments of the tank lining, contaminated the entire fuel system including our fuel injectors. We came close to being stranded and perhaps dying on a mountain pass buried in snow in the dark of night. Our rig is all white and would have blended right in with a snowdrift.
We purchased the rig sight unseen. Perhaps we should have paid for a mechanic to thoroughly inspect it first, although the fuel tank issue still could have been missed. Time of purchase was critical as the sellers were being bombarded with other offers to buy their rig.
Have you made any mistakes relating to truck camper life that would help our readers?
Janice: One mistake we learned quickly from, was not taking each piece of functional equipment out to test to make sure it is working before a big trip. Forgetting to do something “small” in the raising or lowering of the camper can cause big consequences. The folks who sold us the rig created a checklist for us newbie truck camper owners. This has proved invaluable and with experience, we have added to the list. A case in point was forgetting to turn on the refrigerator fan. One night we were awakened out of a sound sleep, to our propane sensor alarm. We could smell the gas and quickly opened all windows and the door. We waited for the camper to air out in the cold night before turning on anything electrical.
What kind of mileage are you getting with your rig?
Janice: Our truck uses diesel fuel. We average 13 mpg city/ highway, which is actually better than when we drove our Ford F-150, half-ton pickup with a camper shell on the back.
What tires do you have on your truck and what inflation values do you typically run?
Janice: We are running Cooper Discoverer AT3-XLT tires mounted on 16-inch rims. They are six-ply with two sidewall and four on the tread. Being that we travel thousands of miles to get to some of our destinations, it is a good compromise of off-road and highway. We keep 80 psi in the rear tires (to carry more weight) and 70 psi in the front. When off-road, we adjust (air down).
Do you have any favorite places or trails you like to explore? What was the most difficult and challenging?
Janice: We enjoy exploring the desert, especially Death Valley National Monument. The park has over 3 million acres to explore, with a huge diversity of geology and terrain. We have been camping there for 30 years and still always find something new to enjoy.
In February 2019, we were in Death Valley on our way to Chloride Cliffs, an historic mining district. We have been over this narrow jeep road, along steep cliffs several times. However, road conditions were more challenging on our last trip, after recent rains. After many miles, the rough, rocky road became slick clay. Our rig began sliding sideways towards a 150 foot drop off. We crawled slowly up the steep grade, with our rig holding to the road. Relieved to reach the top, Pres stopped our rig to walk the road and appraise the conditions of the upcoming adventure. Thankfully, we only had a little ways further to reach a wider trail with more secure footing. We found a great campsite out of the howling wind, near a cousin Jack style shelter with an entrance to a mine shaft.
I made the mistake of suggesting that we sit and BBQ inside the little rock and tin shelter. Despite the many holes and open-air “windows,” the windy conditions caused the smoke to fill our small quarters, forcing us to move outside next to the camper.
One of the most challenging routes was driving through the Old Dale Mining District, just outside the northeast corner of Joshua Tree National Park. This rough 4WD trail was rocky and narrow, challenging both the truck and the driver. At one time, the camper was tilting so far, that the cab over blocked my passenger door from opening.
What are the challenges living in a truck camper for several weeks at a time?
Janice: The tight quarters can sometimes be difficult. We are both tall people and at first bonked our heads quite a bit where the cabinets or ceiling are closer. Our dining table is mounted on the ceiling where we climb into the cabover bed. Pres solved this by having 3/4-inch steel collars fabricated by a friend of ours who owns a machine shop. The collars drop and sit over the hydraulic posts, to add just enough height that Pres can stand up without hunching over, (except for where the A/C unit drops down). He then had to reposition the front window panel latches. He is 6 feet 2 inches tall.
The sleeping arrangement can sometimes be a challenge if one of us needs to climb over the other, answering the call of nature in the night. Our queen foam mattress fits over the cab and is not tall enough to sit up in bed.
Conserving both water and use of the toilet is important for longer camping trips. We try to plan for refilling and dumping every five days or so. Showering has to be fast and less often as well as outside, brrr! We use a MountRhino pop-up tent when we want privacy.
Leveling the rig can present a challenge at times as well. Sometimes, we just move on to a better spot to avoid having to use a lot of blocks. Sleeping with your head above or level with your feet makes for a better night’s rest. Cooking pancakes or an omelet on the stove works better when level too. Maintenance is ongoing with equipment failure as part of the experience.
You’ve boondocked in a lot of really cool places. How do you find them?
Janice: Researching guide books, maps, websites and word of mouth. Investing in good area maps are a must for off-road camping. Guide books help us to find things of interest such as old mines, points of interest or hiking trails that we otherwise would have missed.
We especially enjoy exploring lighthouses along the Pacific coastline. Finding dispersed camping nearby was simply driving nearby back roads or perhaps discovering a wide turn out near the main road. We passed several campgrounds on the Oregon coastline and utilized their services for refilling our water tank and dumping our cassette toilet.
Striking a friendly relationship with an authority who works in the area is a great way to find some of the best places to explore and find places to camp. Federal/state forest rangers, fire officials, Conservation Corps Leaders and Bureau of Land Management staff have been wonderful resources of rare information (depending on the mood of who you talk to).
Fellow campers on the TCA Forum, shared their many resources both online and off. Several suggested the CalTopo and Gaia map apps that work with the cell phone’s GPS. Your forum is a great way to share resources and where to camp, thanks.
Thanks, we appreciate the shout-out. Where do you typically get your potable water?
Janice: We have a 28 gallon tank we fill before leaving home. This generally lasts us five days for washing, etc. Taking showers may decrease the water supply by a day. We have found a KOA or place that offers paid showers when closer to civilization. When we need to refill, we typically find a campground that offers potable water as well as a dump station. Sometimes there is a fee or donation. Only once did we get water that tasted bad. We carry bottled water for drinking and have found specialty water fountains for refilling water bottles, such as at Crater Lake National Park. We also use a PUR pump filter for drinking water for longer trips. We also use paid water dispensers outside of markets for refilling gallon bottles.
Have you done any off-roading with your Alaskan truck camper rig?
Janice: Oh, yes! The majority of our camping is off-road. Exploring the back country in our 4WD truck camper is my favorite mode of reaching remote areas to boondock. I don’t find camping in a developed campground, parked next to a huge RV with its generator growling, as my style of enjoying the backcountry.
Amen, to that! What emergency preparedness gear do you have with you?
Janice: We carry a first aid kit with a snake bite kit and epi-pen. Pres likes to hike farther than me so sometimes I come back to “base camp” and we use two-way radios to keep in contact. Radios have worked well when camping with another couple too. If we have cell reception, our phones are even better. It’s a good idea to know where the closest medical treatment is—we have made an unexpected trip to the emergency room and finding it in the dark was not much fun. For the rig, we keep an air pump, shovel, basic tools for minor repairs, duct tape and zip ties in the toolboxes and a fire extinguisher inside the cab. Pres likes to have an electric impact wrench for easier tire changes. We find taking a little extra time to stop and look has saved us from many hazards. When hiking I carry a whistle, bandana and pepper spray.
What’s the most worrisome or scariest moment you’ve experienced during your travels?
Janice: We have had several close calls. These are times of testing my faith and our relationship. My defining, scariest moment during our outdoor travels was while tubing the Kern River in the Sierra Nevadas. I am a decent swimmer, but proved no match for the underwater hydraulics of this river. I became separated from Pres while paddling along the current and was pulled into an eddy where I became stuck. I made the terrible mistake of letting myself be pulled over some small waterfalls where I thought I could rejoin Pres downstream.
The force of the falls crushed my inner tube. Sucked underwater, I could not get my face out of the roiling water to breathe. I could raise my arm out of the water, but not my face.
Miraculously I found a toe-hold on an underwater ledge that allowed me to push my face the last few inches to air. However, I could not maintain my position and was pulled down underwater over and over again. My dear man made his way up the boulders and waterfalls to find me. He made the classic rescuers’ mistake and dove into the pool to save me. His effort put me in a position where I could stay with my head above water, but was I still pinned by the waterfall roaring behind me.
Helpless, I soon discovered that Pres had disappeared and I wondered if this is how we would die together. He was pulled to the bottom of the river where it was dark and silent. He quit fighting to swim up and relaxed with a prayer of surrender. As Pres readied himself to inhale water, he could see light and felt himself rising to the top. Encouraged, he continued to hold his breath and popped up behind me. He knows this was a miracle!
There, the two of us fought to climb out on a boulder with each other’s help. We both suffered some injuries, but thanked God to be alive! My husband is my hero! God must have some special plans for us.
Wow, what a terrifying experience. I’m glad you two came out of that ordeal alive. Besides this experience, have you had any concerns for safety while on any of your trips?
Janice: Yes, we have had a couple of encounters with other travelers in the remote backcountry that caused us to be wary and to be prepared to protect ourselves. I carry pepper spray.
One time a group of four young men drove into our remote campsite after dark, while we were in bed. We both got up to see what was up. These guys were lost and a long ways still from their camp where others were expecting their return. They were ill-prepared for the falling temps and all riding in an open jeep. My husband got out a paper map, while the men surrounded him to look at it with a flashlight. I was wearing a heavy jacket with a weapon in my pocket and hung back, out of the light to simply watch and have his back. After we thought we got these boys all squared away and went back to bed, the fellas drove around in circles and again came back into our camp. This time, we got in our truck and led them out to where we knew the intersection of the dirt road should lead them to their camp. I prayed for their safe arrival and we discussed what to do, in case we had another encounter with travelers who may have had ill intentions.
Tell us about some of your favorite places you’ve visited so far?
Janice: A favorite haunt year around is the Big Sur Ventana Wilderness only a few hours from home. Big Sur offers fantastic views of the rugged California coast with rocky cliffs, and towering redwoods. This vast area is next door to the Fort Hunter Liggett military base and Mission San Antonio. There are great camping and hiking trails at The Indians, where the wildflowers and streams were plentiful this spring.
We want to go back to Crater Lake National Park, as our visit was during the terrible fires that raged through the western states, so smoke inhibited views of the pristine lake. We found dispersed camping outside of the park (none is allowed inside) and loved this mountainous area of pines and lakes. You can reserve camping in the park’s two designated campgrounds.
Lassen Volcanic National Park is very interesting with volcanic formations and hot bubbling mud pots. Within a few hours’ drive from there, is the Lake Shasta Caverns National Landmark. We took a ferry boat to do the beautiful underground cavern tour.
Last summer we drove the Oregon coastline and had a blast exploring so many places there, from the Tillamook cheese factory to sand dunes and the many lighthouses that guard our shore. We did a lot of tourist type activities by day, and camped off the road to cook our dinners in the evenings.
Tillamook cheese is the best. Speaking of food. What type of foods do you like to eat when you’re out exploring in your camper?
Janice: We keep our meals simple. My hubby likes to cook and does most of it when we camp. I plan the menu and prep the food before the trip. Breakfasts are a priority, with coffee perking first thing on the stove. Eggs, bacon or sausage, and toast are a mainstay. Waffles can be made ahead, as well as pancake batter. My favorite is French toast made with cinnamon raisin bread with icing. We use a portable Weber Smokey Joe BBQ that is perfect for grilling for the two of us, though we have used it to cook for as many as four people. We use the Match Light briquettes to make it easy.
A favorite recipe to make ahead is for Camp Potatoes—split the potato lengthwise and fill with sliced onion, then wrap in bacon. Wrap the potatoes with foil to cook on the BBQ for half an hour, then turn and cook for another 30 minutes, depending upon the size of the taters. Steak, pork chops, ribs or hamburger can be added to the grill—even veggies like corn on the cob or portabella mushrooms. During the cook time we sit in our camp chairs taking in the view, sip on a cocktail and smoke a cigar. Such are the joys of camping!
Do you have any other hobbies as they relate to the great outdoors?
Janice: Photography, hiking, bicycling and fly fishing. I am not great at any of them, but I have fun trying.
Do you have any advice for those thinking about getting into truck camping and boondocking?
Janice: Do your research and find what suits your character and what you enjoy, (or don’t) about camping. Talk to others who own a truck camper and find out what they recommend. I am a list person. Having a checklist for setting up and breaking down the camper has saved us countless times from an expensive mistake. Get to know your camper at home. Camp a night in the driveway and you may be surprised at what you learn! Boondocking means self-sufficiency. Be prepared as best you can and be willing to improvise. Test your equipment beforehand so you know it is in working order.
Pres, being a backpacker for 60 years and 5th class rock climber for many of those, has had valuable experience in making a habit of checking and securing equipment.
Make a tentative itinerary (dates and locations), with your rig’s license plate number and description. Give this to a trusted friend or family member and check in occasionally. Being in the backcountry can mean no cell reception and if you get stranded, at least someone will have a clue where to look for you.
I once saw this on a camper’s T-shirt and it has stuck with me. “The difference between an adventure or an ordeal is ATTITUDE.“