North, South, East, West – Which Way for Your Truck Camper is Best?

North, South, East, West, which way for your truck camper is best? You might be asking this question if you woke up last January in International Falls, Minnesota. It was a -3 degrees Fahrenheit. No wind, so the wind chill wasn’t a factor, but it was still miserable. Like many snowbirds, we found ourselves planning an escape, and for us this time of year the direction was definitely south. Planning such a trip or getaway is the topic of this article and one which we’ll examine in closer detail. We’ll even provide some ideas where you can go in your truck camper that perhaps you’ve never thought of.

Navigation Apps or Paper?

When planning a trip, nothing beats a good road atlas. This isn’t to say that navigation apps aren’t useful, they are, but the detail found in an 21 x 15-inch atlas is hard to beat. Mountains, rivers, forests, roads, and seashores are illustrated in marvelous detail, places where you might want to do some hiking, fishing, hunting, skiing, and rock climbing.

Navigation apps have improved greatly over the years, but still have their limitations. Years ago, I was on my way to a meeting with a work associate. My associate, who was driving, insisted on following the GPS. I said, “that will not work for us, we’ll be late to the meeting.” Sure enough we needed to re-route ourselves using my original directions. We got to the meeting on time, but from that point on I realized GPS wasn’t perfect and had its limitations.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not anti-technology. I worked as a software engineer for 15 years, so I know the benefits. But navigation apps sometimes require cell phone coverage to download maps, which can either be spotty or even non-existent, while paper maps can be used at any time and any place. Still, navigational apps are useful and provide a treasure trove of mapping and data, while a comparable library of atlases and paper maps could easily fill your truck and camper. It’s best to have access to both.

Road Atlas showing hand-written notes.

After you have a rough idea on where you’d like to go, it’s time to pull out your atlas. If you are limited in time, your atlas will give you a good idea of distances to help keep any time constraints under control. Traveling off-road adds considerable time, something important to keep in mind, and speed limits must be observed. What looks like a more direct route on a map might take longer due to the speed limit and terrain. Of course, influencing any plan will be the weather, wildfires, and road conditions. Even road construction and repairs can you slow you down considerably.

With regards to weather, be prepared for anything. The photo below was taken in the morning in mid-Northern Nevada in March after a stretch of beautiful 80 degree days near Lake Mead and at this site.

The typical road atlas is divided into two sections: recreation and landscape. The recreation section has a page and a map for each section of the state. In the recreation section the main headings are:

  • Parks, Forests, Wilderness Areas
  • Natural Wonders
  • Museums
  • Other Attractions
  • Campgrounds, and RV Parks (yeah, I know, but sometimes you need to stay at one)

Depending on the state and section shown on the map there can be headings for Bird Watching, Fishing, Beaches and such.

Nevada in March

What to Look For?

The Landscape maps found in every atlas have been invaluable to our trips. They are detailed enough, so we have a pretty good idea where possible dispersed camp areas are, which back-roads we can drive, and best of all, provide tiny markers for historic sites, special points of interest, natural wonders and a treasure trove of other bits of information.

The first thing we look for are the off-road/4WD/high clearance roads. It’s possible to drive across entire states on such roads. With regards to road type, make sure you look at the atlas key to know the difference between an unpaved road, a high clearance road, or a 4WD road only. Ignoring these can get you into big trouble.

While the atlas is our number one source for travel, it can still get you int0 trouble. We sometimes find ourselves back tracking, and in one case, literally turning around on a dime with a cliff on one side of the road. In Colorado, we drove a gorgeous unpaved road, going over Wolf Creek Pass quite a ways until it got narrower and narrower. Finally, with tree limbs hanging low over the road, there was only one thing to do—turn around. Similarly, north of Jacob’s Lake, Arizona we were on an unpaved road that required some chopping and sawing of growth right in the middle of the road. We had planned on traveling about 30 miles down this road, but after about 3 miles and one hour of wasted time, it was clear this route was a mistake and we turned around. One thing is certain, we avoid Interstates like the plague, but sometimes they’re unavoidable.

Furthermore, the atlas, despite being indispensable, doesn’t show current road conditions, so what might look like a cool road to travel on may not be the way to go after a flood. Contact ranger stations, the DOT and US Forest Service when in doubt. It is far cheaper, easier and faster to call in advance then need a tow 100 miles down the gravel mountain road.

One of the better forest roads in northern Arizona.

Specific Recommendations for Your Next Trip

So far, we’ve discussed general planning. How about some specifics related to music, history, and natural wonders, or just good ole’ peace and quiet?

If music is your passion you might want to swing by New Orleans, Memphis, Nashville or Virginia’s Crooked Road, especially if Bluegrass and Country music are your interests. On the Crooked Road you can visit the Carter Family Fold, Ralph Stanley Museum and the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol. More on the Crooked Road here. Another music destination is Florence, Alabama. If that doesn’t ring a bell it’s where the Mussel Shoals studios such as FAME are. FAME was host to artists such as Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Duane Allman, Otis Redding, the Osmonds, and Paul Anka. There are a number of tours in Florence. The FAME studio has a tour and it is still a working studio.

Pike’s Peak in Colorado.
View from the Pike’s Peak.

Maybe following paths the Civil War took is what you are looking for. You can start with Fort Sumter and finish at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia, maybe checking out Gettysburg and Manassas National Battlefield Parks, too, while you are at it. A guidebook, like The Complete Civil War Road Trip Guide, can be an invaluable resource. Visiting Presidents homes is another way to live and learn some American history. George Washington’s Mount Vernon home is highly recommended.

If you’re an angler looking to reel in some Coho salmon. Here are five places where you can head to:

Or perhaps you’re in the mood for a famous road or drive? The Lincoln Highway, which is 3,389 miles long, is the first transcontinental auto road in the country. Known as the loneliest road in America and dedicated in 1913, exploring the well-marked sections of this old road are a real treat. Or how about Route 66? Even though it was decommissioned in the mid-1980s, there are still some fascinating stretches of the “Mother Road” that can still be traveled on in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Oklahoma. Looking for some adventure and thin air? How about Colorado’s Pike’s Peak Drive which tops out at 14,115 feet. Another favorite is the gorgeous Blue Ridge Parkway, a 469-mile drive connecting two national parks—Shenandoah in Virginia and the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina.

Of course, other roads and destinations specifically for truck campers can be found here in Truck Camper Adventure.

Williams, Arizona

Flexibility

Be flexible when traveling. Give yourself some extra time and flexibility for an extra stop along the way that you didn’t plan for. That extra stop or turn might take you miles out of your way, but it may be the best detour you’ve ever made. One example is a detour we made to Butch Cassidy’s childhood home in Circleville, Utah. Be spontaneous, give yourself time to enjoy stops along the way, don’t make the main destination your only focus so everything along the way just becomes a blur. Photographs, of course, are a great way to capture these moments.

Butch Cassidy’s childhood home in Circleville, Utah
Another view of Butch Cassidy’s childhood home.

There’s also the possibility that you’ll barely need to start your engine depending on where you live. In Arizona, for example, you can find terrific destinations as well as excellent camping spots everywhere in the state. And if you happen to be in Arizona in February, the Truck Camper Adventure Quartzsite Rally is always a treat and highly recommended. Sometimes a three-day get away can feel like a couple of weeks out, just getting the truck camper loaded on the truck, packed and rolling down the driveway can bring a lot of joy.

All in all, the key to planning is not over doing it—have some flexibility. Maybe you won’t see exactly what you set out to see, but hopefully that is because other wonderful alternatives turned up as you turned a corner, passed a mile marker or headed down Rt. 108 in California from Modesto to Bridgeport where the steepest grade is, fasten your seat belts, 26 percent. One way of adding some cool stuff to your trip is stopping at historic markers. There’s lots so obviously pick out some once in a while. What happens doing this is you get tipped off to possible places to visit in the area of the marker.

Finally a terrific help for future trip plans are the notes and markings you make in the atlas. With these you can return to the places that were perfect for a night, a week’s camping, a hike or just a lunch stop. Or, at the very least, you’ll know that you’ve been there and done that.

Tuweep near the Grand Canyon
About Harvey Shaw 2 Articles
Harvey Shaw is an accomplished semi driver, photographer, and software developer and currently holds a BS degree in computer science. His photo gallery can be seen online at sevencontinentphoto.com with photographs taken around the world. His gallery includes new photos of his truck camper rig, consisting of a Ford F250 and a Northstar Laredo SC.

2 Comments

  1. Great article. And while I too use paper maps extensively, I’ve found that, as I age, using Gaia, OnX or Google Maps (which are all updated frequently), great offroad resources. Downloading the maps ahead of time when you have wifi provides a very powerful tool for map guidance a,nd they all have places to add notes.

    Either way, I never venture off road without both downloaded and paper maps. Paper may not be as accurate but it never needs charging.

    Cheers

    • Thanks Kevin. No question map apps are useful and in particular like you say they are regularly updated, can’t say that about paper. I find for the places we go little changes over time in regard to the roads anyway. Occasionally a road does get permanently closed or a new one not on map turns up. Same for various points of interest.

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