For years, Truck Camper Adventure readers have been enthralled with the off-road exploits of Jeff Reynolds. Also known as El Jefe (The Boss) on Internet forums, he’s been off-roading since the 1960s in just about every type of 4WD vehicle you can imagine, including Jeeps, Toyota Land Cruisers, and 4×4 truck campers. Those who were privileged to attend Jeff’s class at the 2020 Truck Camper Adventure Rally were able to learn from a master and inspect his truck camper rig up close. Since then some major changes have been made. Here’s Jeff’s update.
If you are in the truck camper mode for any length of time, sooner or later you get the itch to upgrade either the truck or the camper, or both, for a newer model. This is what happened to Jeanie and I starting about 18 months ago.
Old Truck, Old Camper
The stage was set 20 years ago with our then new 2001 Dodge 2500 Cummins HO 4WD 6-speed manual, now with 190,000 miles on it—just getting warmed up—as the Cummins aficionados would say. Of the 40 or so vehicles we’ve owned of all stripes, including six other diesel conveyances, the ’01, 24-valve Cummins and bulletproof drivetrain has been the most reliable and trouble free of all.
Shortly after purchasing the new Dodge, we bought a used 1998 Lance Lite 165-s truck camper. Used three times by the former owner, the fully self-contained Lance was the “stripped” model at 86 inches wide and 1,842 pounds wet. It did include the always preferred north-south bed, but the tanks were very small and the optional equipment list was even smaller. Unfortunately, the camper is no longer being offered by Lance.
The Lance lived mostly on the back of our Dodge, so the mechanical jacks were never on board or needed. Over the years, I upgraded the converter, the water pump, and the hot water heater. I added 200 watts of solar, performed by obligatory bi-annual caulking, replacing parts that were scrapped-off, and installed a lot of insulation. We loved that old box and spent over 225 nights camping and traveling in it. It was so simple and relatively problem free, like an old shoe…until the projected life expectancy gave out and whole systems began to fail. It was time for a new camper.
New Camper, Old Truck
We searched for a replacement and ordered a 2020 Northstar Laredo SC with the wrap around storage cabinets for short-beds. From our experience with the Lance, we ordered only the options we thought were worthy. The amount of storage alone beats all the competition by a mile.
The Northstar Laredo SC has proven to be a wonderful camper—one that we would buy again. We picked it up at the factory in September 2019 and continued on a five-week trip as card carrying “leaf peepers” to revel in the fall colors of the northeast.
The 2001-2002 Cummins High Output 24-valve turbo diesel engine—which was such a testosterone booster when new—is the noisiest engine of the pack because of metal caps on the injectors and a higher compression ratio. It makes a mighty racket. During this past years’ travels, the engine noise became unbearable. We’re in our mid-70’s now and with slowly fading hearing have come to the point where we could not carry on a conversation while traveling. This was the last straw for Jeanie. For me, not so much. The other negative was that Jeanie did not feel comfortable driving the 6-speed manual anymore—easy as it is—so I had to do all the driving, easy as it is. What to do?
New Truck, New Camper
We shopped for new trucks, which was an ordeal in itself as many of the negative aspects about new emissions technology—especially with new diesels—are not apparent. Most important was buying a truck that would serve our current requirements. That means quietness and an automatic transmission with enough power to move our 2,350-pound wet Northstar smartly down the highway and over any poor road or trail during any season or weather.
Investigating each of GM, Ram, and Ford offerings that fit our needs, we finally settled upon a 2020 Ford F-350 XLT short-bed, super cab 4WD with the new 7.3L Godzilla V8 gas truck engine with a 10 speed automatic; 4.30 gears; and a rear e-locker. I’ll save my comparo of gas vs. diesel for another time.
Now the problem involved moving the Northstar from the Dodge onto the bed of the Ford. Both the Dodge and the Ford are both super cab/extended cab short-bed models with suicide doors. That’s where the similarity ends. The Ford short-bed is 105 inches long, 3-inches longer than the Dodge at 102 inches. With time in the saddle and experience with truck campers on our side, I first set out to find the right tie-downs and turnbuckles to affect the swap. I only have experience with tie-downs and turnbuckles from HappiJac.
After a 45-minute conversation with the mechanical tech guy at HappiJac, he admitted it was no longer possible to use their parts on a post 2017 F-Series Ford pickup. Why? Aluminum body and bed with less shear or tear value, plus a change in the way the sub frame connection under the bed renders Ford truck specific HappiJac tie down parts unusable. I suspect there was also some litigation involved somewhere along the line here. HappiJac is a tiny drop of spittle to the larger parent corporation with a world-wide reach.
I looked at the Brophy Heavy-Duty Tie-Down. Uhh, no. I don’t want to take our lives into my hands.
I perused e-trailer to see about Torklift Tie-Downs and turnbuckles. They have a LOT of different applications for their frame mounted hardware. I called around, but because of COVID-19 and the subsequent 300 percent increase in sales of RV’s and RV parts, no one had any of these in stock. I called Torklift to find out when the new parts would be rolled out and they hoped for a distribution date of early November.
The truck appropriate Torklift parts finally arrived. The tie-downs that fit our truck were Torklift:
- F2022 (front, gas engine, 6-3/4 foot short bed, super cab, side steps are not past cab) and
- F3008 (rear, gas engine, 6-3/4 foot short bed, super cab, factory trailer hitch)
and four Torklift turnbuckles:
- S9050A (spring loaded XL gun-free turnbuckles)
Ford pickups from virtually any era have a taller cab than either GM or Ram, and need a 2- to 4-inch riser in the bed under the camper to clear the cab of the truck. There are many ways to accomplish this. Some use 2×4-inch lumber “stick” framing with a 1/2-inch to 5/8-inch plywood cover screwed on top making a low box and spreading the load. But it’s a little heavy and prone to weather. Some use pressure treated lumber and exterior rated plywood. Those who build their riser this way can use the rubber bed mat over the plywood.
Our 2020 Ford has a pair of stumpy outboard fin-like antennas at the rear of the cab roof further reducing the clearance by a couple inches. To have at least 2 inches of clearance over our Ford’s cab, I used Dow Styrofoam Blue Board rigid XPS insulation in a 4-inch-thick x 4-foot x 8-foot block. It has a “non-compressibility” of 25 pounds per square inch. This is important. It is also very hard to find.
Another product is Foamular 250 by Owens Corning which also comes in sheets of various thickness. It has a bit less non-compressibility but has been used successfully by many folks with Fords.
Another option is to place a 1/2-inch or even 3/8-inch plywood sheet over the Blue Board to retard end rolling compression caused by camper porpoising.
Do not use a foam base or bead board that compresses easily. My brother, John, has used a 3-inch blue board riser between his palatial Outfitter Apex 9.5 and a 1999 Ford F-250 with camper package for 18 years with no deleterious effect.
After removing the tailgate and using the delete plugs supplied by Ford, we positioned the Blue Board tight against the bulkhead and sawed off the Blue Board excess to fit the end of the bed. I used the trimmed extra piece as a block glued to the riser against the bulkhead of the bed to space the camper back, so as not to crush the taillight assembly when loading. I used foam board construction adhesive specifically for Styrofoam and derivatives.
With the removal of the tailgate, the backup camera went with it, so the truck end plug gets a “fooler” plug so as not to set off a warning or alarm. We’re looking at a factory replacement backup camera that attaches through a hole in the bumper.
To control any lateral motion of the Blue Board and the camper, I cut keyway slots into the edges of the Blue Board long enough to put treated 2×4’s on end as the keys on either side tight against the fender wells. Just remember, our Northstar camper base is wider than 4 feet, so the keys must not be higher than the depth of the surface you put down. Blue Board has the added benefit of contributing an R-19 insulation value to the floor of the Northstar. Your bare feet will be happy feet in the dead of winter.
The LED lights in the camper with their low amp draw need to be ‘read’ through the truck’s pigtail in order to work. The solution is to add a 7-way/7-way Wiring Adapter that bypasses the truck’s lamp-out sensor and does not trigger any warnings or hyper flashing.
With the empty Ford, I sought out expert help to attach the front tie-downs to the truck’s frame. You really need the truck to be on a hoist to work on the front tie-downs. The rear tie-downs were much simpler and accessible, so I did the install.
Before starting the move, I disconnected the HappiJac tie downs, turnbuckles, and wiring plug from the Dodge/Northstar leaving no connections. With all the parts on-hand, we were ready for the big swap—moving the camper from one truck to another.
Final swap-out from the 2001 Dodge to the 2020 Ford F-350.
With electric jacks reinstalled on the Northstar, it was easy to lift the camper up to clear. The Dodge is so tall in the saddle we had to use small blocks under the jack pads to gain enough altitude.
Out with the Old and in With the New
With the truck swap completed, we lowered the Northstar onto the Blue Board and backed the truck until the camper met the bulkhead foam block. We connected the four turnbuckles to the tie-downs per instructions. The Torklift tie-downs and outriggers each have a pair of holes for the lynch pins for fine tuning the turnbuckle side exposure to the width of your camper. Unfortunately, we have the narrowest of campers at 84 inches, so a new pair of holes were needed in the outriggers.
The fronts were pushed all the way in until they stopped, and the rears were drilled to allow the outriggers to move 4 inches deeper into the trailer hitch. See pic below. The goal was to have a 1-1/2 inch minimum clearance between the sheet metal and the turnbuckles for extra wiggle room.
Another obvious problem was the position of the front driver’s side turnbuckle. There is no way to access the fuel tank door with the turnbuckle in position. If you have Torklift FastGuns, you can just remove them for the moment. We have the sleek Torklift XL Turnbuckles which take a while to remove; a good thing in view of potential theft.
Since we travel without jacks, I hogged out the lower jack bracket hole with a rat tail file on the driver’s side up at a 45 degree angle to the right to keep as much meat on the bracket as possible and allow the hook to fit.
With the addition of Super Springs Sway-Stops onto the upper overloads I’m getting closer in my quest to merge a lack of sway with the best loaded ride.
I suspect there will be further fine tuning of both the suspension and the tie downs for off-road travel. I have Rancho 9000XL shocks on the way. I’m very happy with the way the transfer and Torklift tie downs and turnbuckles worked out. For 2017 and up Ford owners with truck campers needing tie downs, there is no other choice. Fortunately, it’s a good choice.