As a former Marine I take a lot of pride in getting by with the bare necessities. We’re known for a lot of things in the Marine Corps, but having an abundance of gear is not one of them.
So when I began to consider the options for an overland setup for my 2017 Tacoma TRD Off Road, I was able to talk myself out of just about every option on the market. I had a ground tent and a nice camp mattress, what else did I need?
Yet my mind wandered… I couldn’t help myself. I spent more time than I’d care to admit on Instagram mindlessly swiping through images of low profile camper setups from GoFast Campers, AT Overland, Alu-Cab, and of course Four Wheel Campers. I liked the simplicity of the GoFast design but the size of the bed and wedge style made me wonder if my fiancé and our two dogs would actually be comfortable up there. The AT Overland came a little closer, but again the wedge-style of their Summit model through me off. Then Alu-Cab introduced their newest slide-in camper model, the Canopy Camper, and I thought I’d found it. It still has a wedge-style top, but the wider footprint seemed to offer more sleeping space than the other models on the market. But then I noticed what I consider its fatal flaw: the sacrifice of my beloved tailgate.
This was a deal breaker for me. I spend a lot of time on the road as an author and public speaker, exploring the backcountry between events, but when I’m home I need my truck to be a truck, hauling everything from groceries to firewood. The Alu-Cab model retains use of the bed, but swapping my tailgate for a door would turn my truck into too much of a dedicated camper. What if I needed to haul something that stuck out past the end of the truck bed? A very real concern given the 5-foot bed on my Tacoma. Above all else, the tailgate is my favorite piece of furniture, it’s where I do my best thinking. I just couldn’t justify getting rid of it. I convinced myself again that my ground tent was all I needed.
It seemed the minimalist Marine in me was winning the war with my civilian side that was dreaming of a simple, but versatile camper.
Then in the summer of 2019 I saw it. My answer. The Project M. Four Wheel Campers teased their newest model on their social media pages. I took a screenshot and zoomed in closely to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating. The Project M is a combination of their legendary low profile full pop-top camper, with a minimalist topper that attaches to the factory bed rail system of mid-size and full-size trucks. It offers plenty of space to sprawl without sacrificing the tailgate. The Marine in me loosened its choke hold on my civilian dreams, and I immediately reached out for more information.
The friendly and responsive staff at their headquarters in Woodland, California confirmed what I’d seen and I placed a deposit on my Project M right away. In the spring of 2020, I made the short drive from my home in Maine to one of their authorized dealerships, Maine Line Overland in Bow New Hampshire. My search was over, but the adventures were just beginning.
That summer we spent our first night in our camper deep in Vermont’s Green Mountain National Forest. As my fiancé and our two dogs slept I lay awake, too excited to sleep.
The bed in our model is the smallest one available for the Project M. The dimensions feel similar to a long, queen-size bed. My fiancé is about 5-7 and I’m 5-11, our two dogs are 40 and 11 pounds respectively. They are both, however, more than capable of occupying bed space of dogs twice their size. The four of us each have more than enough room to spread out and claim a slice of the mattress. In the cargo area we have a Dometic CFX3-75 fridge, a footlocker containing our Tembo Tusk Skottle and other campsite related gear. Resting on the 12-inch-wide shelves, I’ve attached via Velcro strips three tactically acquired milk crates to store our hiking boots, Jetboil stove for morning coffee, dog food bowls, leashes, and other essentials for quick access. I eventually drifted off to sleep, enraptured by my new piece of gear.
As a camper, the Project M lacks the creature comforts of the typical Four Wheel Camper slide-in model. At only 410 pounds, it is a blank slate, a locker room with a loft bed. So there isn’t much to offer in the form of a review of features and accoutrements. On our first trip in Vermont we spent our days hiking the various summits around the Mount Holly and Ludlow area. Later on that summer, when we moved into a new home, I was able to pack a small U-Haul truck’s worth of our belongings into the Tacoma, thanks to the enhanced cargo area the Project M provides.
After unpacking and getting settled, I spent a few nights in the Carrabassett Valley of Maine with just my dog Fred and I. The first two days were spent claiming a couple peaks in the Bigelow Mountain Preserve before returning to our campsite for a quick dinner around a small fire. I smiled each night when Fred made his way to the back of the truck after the sun went down. His not so subtle way of letting me know he approved of our new setup. The third day was cool enough for me to leave him resting in the cab of the Tacoma, while I tackled some of the mountain bike trails around the Sugarloaf resort area. The Project M allowed me to store my mountain bike securely in the camper, while we hiked during the first two days of the trip. I have a hitch rack for my bike, but leaving it exposed at a trail head parking lot is risky. I was impressed when the big 29er fit perfectly upright in the bed after I removed the front wheel.
Our work related travel has been limited due to the pandemic. But in October we made a trip to speak at a college in Georgia and I was able to really test the utility of the Project M. For our work trips we need to be able to pack merchandise related to my writing and clothing for everything from black tie to mountain chic. On the trip to Georgia we camped in the Blue Ridge Mountains and Grayson Highlands areas of Virginia. It was great to minimize our hotel stays and take the opportunity to explore one of my favorite areas in the east. Despite having to add an additional footlocker for our merchandise and more luggage to accommodate the clothing we’d need for our events, we were able to comfortably camp without tripping over everything we’d packed. Within a few months of adding the Project M to our family, it had surpassed my expectations. The only downsides I’ve experienced, thus far, have been a dip in fuel economy on the highway due to the drag and lost time chatting with people admiring our setup in parking lots and gas stations. Both are drawbacks I’m happy to absorb.
While what attracted me to the Project M was it’s lack of features, it didn’t keep me from adding on from an enticing list of options available from Four Wheel Campers. In our model we decided to go with black diamond plate exterior, slider windows on both sides, ARB 6-foot awning with sidewalls, tracks on both sides for mounting our Rotopax, Maxtrax and eventually an outdoor shower. Inside I added the thermal layer for increased insulation during cold weather camping, LED-strip lighting, a vent with powered fan and a modular mattress. I also had it pre-wired for solar and power, so it would be easier to connect everything in the future. On the roof I decided to have the Yakima tracks installed as well for future mounting of a rack system.
For those who need a camper that offers the comforts of a living room, the Project M will likely prove too spartan. But for those who just need a mobile base camp with a place to crash after a day of exploring, hiking, camping, fishing, paddling, hunting, surfing, biking, spelunking… or just about anything you can do in the great outdoors. The Project M truck topper and its minimalist design offers the maximum potential without sacrificing the utility of your truck. In the end, just like a day in the woods, the Project M is defined by its simplicity and the purpose we pour into it.