We picked up our Northstar 12STC long-bed camper, SN#2 of the model, in February 2015. This is a “user perspective” review, four years and well more than 60,000 miles later, along with the backstory of how we lucked into the second unit, some modifications made along the way, and some thoughts about the future of the model.
My wife and I made our second foray to Alaska in early July 2014. She only had three weeks of vacation so she flew up and I drove our previous camper from Maryland to Fairbanks, which would be our staging point for driving the Dalton Highway (aka “Haul Road”) to Prudhoe Bay and subsequent travels. After a delightful time my wife flew back from Anchorage, and I did the “man on a trip” towards home. Given I was without responsible adult supervision, clocking 700+ miles per day as on the way up, I “had time” to stop at the Northstar factory in Cedar Falls, Iowa. There was also an element of urgency for the stop—our camper had become annoyingly remiss in its task of keeping water out of the people tank, and the several thousand miles of bumping about both en route and in Alaska had definitely aggravated the issues. Let’s just say I always carried a ladder, well-worn caulking gun, a good supply of Eternabond patches, fresh SikaFlex and Dicor, and kept an eye on the local weather for staging pre-emptive caulking sessions between hikes.
Northstar campers are manufactured by the R. C. Willett company, a family-owned and operated camper-only business established in 1961. Rex Willett, current owner and president, is something of a fixture in the industry. The company is well known for both camper quality and outstanding customer service, as I can attest; more about that later. I’d met Rex at a February 2014 RV show in Massachusetts at the Truck Camper Warehouse booth where he was working the show with TC Warehouse owner Bill Penney, and Keith Donkin, who runs the Northern Lite camper company. Ironically I was at the show to see Northern Lite units and inquire about customization. As it turned out their clam shell molds didn’t allow what I wanted, one item being a compressor refrigerator, so Bill introduced me to Rex. I left the show torn between what Rex could do for me in a short floor plan and the longer Northern Lite—this was well before the Northstar 12STC existed. As I was about to place an order for a Northern Lite model, their factory burned to the ground. Back to the caulking gun and the forthcoming Alaska trip.
So, in Iowa, August 2014, I showed up unannounced early one morning with the proverbial two pages, single-spaced both sides, listing what I was looking for in a large camper. I asked Rex’s secretary to tell him there was an old, gray geezer in the foyer who wanted to “tell him how to build a camper.” Rex took the bait and we ended up talking for about four hours before he shooed me out so he could get back to work. He and Bill Penney had already been collaborating about camper features for a good ten years, Bill along the way pushing for a long bed, non-slide, dry bath, side entrance camper that could go on a single rear wheel one-ton truck. That would make it “legal” for East coast beach camping/fishing (duallys generally not allowed). When I happened by there was a preliminary 12STC floor plan mock-up out in a corner of the factory. A lot of discussion ensued while we paced in and around it, and I kept kept annoying Rex with assorted whining emails about it well after I got home. Rex managed to convince Bill to take my frequently-recaulked camper (equipped with a nice StableLift) in trade, something Bill had been perhaps somewhat loath to do. Think Bill’s son Ryan saying in effect, “Dad, you’re not really going to take that pipe kludge in trade?!” I think it took Bill around two years to resell that beast, but he managed to find it a home. Nothing like the factory maybe leaning a little on a dealer when there’s a “live one” who might help wring-out a new model they both want to see in production.
Along the way to purchase and delivery I got lots of emailed pics of the construction of 12STC SN#1, which eventually sold to a John Deere engineer down the road in Iowa. Between those pictures, my rig build pictures, the video walk throughs of the 12STC on the TC Warehouse site, and current model pictures on the Northstar website you can trace quite a bit of both the early and ongoing design evolution. Each production run has benefited from a continuous stream of improvements, some small, some major—factory, dealer, and customer feedback.
Once we got the first set of our “sneak peek” first-item 12STC pictures my wife had some “words” regarding counter space, like “where is it?!” followed by mine, “how can she possibly cook?!” Given that sentiment coming from she who feeds me it got passed along ASAP to Rex. So we ended up, in our SN#2, with a second cabover wardrobe in place of TV shelf, which eliminated the large double-door cabinet taking up most of the counter to the left of the stove. Standard models after ours have one cabinet with deep drawer on the left end of the counter and a normal TV shelf, which for many would be a decent compromise. We, however, have a lot more counter space than a Host Mammoth.
Lagun dinette tables are standard in most if not all Northstar camper models, whereas we have a traditional style full-size table since I needed a spot to install my Efoy fuel cell and the only place it could possibly go was against the outer dinette wall. The full table hides it, maximizes table space, and if I removed the fuel cell we could make up a bed, although that’s something we’ve never done. A full table remains a possible option on the Northstar website. For more than just two people the Lagun might be preferable since you’d have an extra seating side and you can order an optional fold-down bunk above. Ours is fine for two laptops and we like the 7-cubic feet of cabinets above.
Another change we kinda/sorta forced on Rex— think maybe shamed into it— also came from my 5-foot 3.5-inch-tall wife. If you look at my kitchen area upper cabinets, the microwave is mounted at the ceiling, putting its inside floor just under 6-feet high. Figuratively speaking, my wife stood on the toes of Rex’s work boots, grabbed his flannel shirt, slapped him a couple of times, and asked whether he realized that the average North American female is 5-feet 4-inches tall—possibly less if almost-elderly-and-in-denial like us. In any case “not a one” would want to deal with a footstool and not all would have tall hubby to load and unload the microwave by her command. There “may” have been some other not-quite-muttered words about getting women to review all camper designs before making sawdust. So, we suggested that he consider lowering the 6-foot 8-inch ceiling height by say 2 inches, which would also solve the problem that usual countertop appliance power cord lengths are about 24 inches, so maybe just an inch or so shy of reaching the outlets on the bottom of the cabinets. Dropping the ceiling wasn’t realistic given entrance door height, optional fold-down bunk with window (above the dinette table), and full-length side awning above the entrance door. But, I think sometime after SN#5, the over-counter cabinets came down those 2 inches, microwave included. That kind of change has since been made in several other models as well.
Current models have additional, optimized interior storage. The original “umbrella box,” which I modified for power cord storage, is gone from the doorway so appliances can be removed without taking out the door frame. There’s a deeper generator storage compartment, which holds a beefy MORryde slide, letting you extend and run a portable generator without horsing it out onto the ground. (I ended up building my own slide to fit a propane-converted Honda EU2000i). The rear counter is wider because of that larger compartment. There’s a customer-requested folding foot-stool option for the dinette, a larger under-counter silverware drawer, improved dinette upholstery, and significantly upgraded sealing and weather protection (think fiberglass) on the camper underside. The bathroom heat vent has been relocated so you no longer “bake” while sitting on the toilet; in any case the bathroom can get warmer than any other I’ve experienced. There are additional AC outlets and USB charging ports at the rear shelf, new exterior tail lights on the back, a relocated gray tank dump valve, and more.
Northstar has definitely remained responsive to change requests, but I’ll confess to (at least) one unreasonable change suggestion—this paraphrased from an email I sent to Rex, while we were on the road last year:
“This relates to the screen door. We were dry camped in a northern California National Forest alongside a large fallen tree that turned out to have a pretty robust chipmunk colony. We’d been hiking, we’re back at the camper, my better-half sitting barefoot at the dinette. All the windows were open, screen door in place. There was a loud noise at the door, I got up to look and saw the granddaddy of all chipmunks up on its hind legs, trying frantically to break back out of the camper through the screen. My wife stood up and saw the critter just as I reached to open the screen door. The chipmunk made a loud ‘chirp’ and bolted back into the camper, where a millisecond or so later the ‘chirp’ harmonized with a high-pitched ‘eeep!’ when the better-half launched vertically as it scampered across the top of her bare feet. So, poor ol’ chipmunk continued on, scaled the forward dinette seat, reversed course back to the door, right on/over those same bare feet, which were still ascending to the still-echoing ‘eeep!’ By this time, maybe 1.5 critter-seconds later, the door was open, the chipmunk had escaped with tales of terror for its grandchildren, and better-half had finally landed. For the record, at her apogee she for once didn’t need a step stool to reach into the microwave on this high-up cabinet rig. All this obviously points to the need for some further camper parts R&D, as the nice bug brush at the bottom of the screen door is clearly not chipmunk-proof.”
Earlier I mentioned customer service as a Northstar strength. A year ago we “lost” a cabover window while in heavy traffic on I-205 in Oregon. We’d been visiting daughter and family in Portland, leaving dark-something early to head home. To this day I don’t know whether we had a window latch failure or half-asleep-geezer failure to hear the “click” when closing (window on my side). About an hour down the road I heard an unusual noise, looked around and in the mirrors, saw some minor maneuvering well back behind me, no accident nor problems, no horns or truck warning lights, so—traffic—we kept on trucking. After stopping for lunch we discovered that the driver-side cabover window was gone, with just a couple of gas strut pieces left swinging in the breeze and a whole lot of itty-bitty white and silver mylar privacy shade pieces all over the inside of the camper. At least it hadn’t been raining.
An earlier article here in Truck Camper Adventure about Seitz windows had a picture of my blue tarp and cardboard repair job, meaning me dumpster-diving for the cardboard at our lunch stop and using up about a roll of duct tape. That repair lasted about 2,000 miles, to our previously unplanned destination, the Northstar factory. We’d emailed en route once we regained cell service and were told that a new batch of windows had just come in—so come on by, earlier the better. We hit Cedar Falls late one afternoon a few days later, camped/hiked in a nearby state park, and showed up next day just after the factory opened. A couple of hours later, after receiving a proper greeting for the “Chipmunkmobile People,” not to mention a bit of ragging about me being maybe too dumb to close a window properly, we left with a new one, having been scrunched into the very hectic production schedule. Two thumbs up to Northstar.
So, you might ask, what have we done to our rig and why, and how do we like it? Given my induced paranoia about previous camper brand leaks—think a front window seal failure with wet mattress, drainage into a side marker light from a roof gutter spout directly above and resulting front cap delamination, or the snipped/wrapped edges of the roof membrane leading to door well flooding and other delamination—I opted for the preemptive nuclear option with the 12STC. I’ve not heard of leak issues from other Northstar owners on forums, the factory, or dealers—Northstar campers generally just don’t leak—but, paranoia. Two months after delivery I had a commercial two-part, spray-on polyurea coating applied to the roof, overlapped down to the rain gutters. Dicor or other sealants around vents, skylight, and mounting brackets as for Maggie racks is first removed. Screwed-on mounts for solar panels and similar are replaced by an embedded stud design, then everything is sealed in by the coating. Mounted items drop back onto the studs. Think 20-year no-leak warranty, a feature to gladden an old geezer’s heart. Ten years on, when the reflective white overcoat paint may have worn down, you just roll on a new coat. Roof flanges, mounting hardware and edge seals have literally become a non-issue. Inspect and verify, sure—reseal, nope.
Other mods—an article here in Truck Camper Adventure mentioned refrigerator compartment sealing to mitigate bug/insect ingress, another about building a supplemental camper battery charging system. Other tweaks have been less intensive— table and countertop storage, the usual stuff like paper towel holders, another 12 volt DC/USB charging outlet at the rear shelf. I’ve insulated and enclosed the gray tank bay so its heater can do a better job in zero-degree weather, changed out the bathroom sink faucet to one with a swiveling head, and made the home-made generator slide mentioned earlier. As part of that slide project I also added 3mm-thick mass-loaded vinyl to the entire inner wall surface of the generator compartment for additional sound damping. It cuts the perceived noise inside by more than half. Cut pieces to fit, apply with fast-grab construction adhesive, sleep a bit quieter.
Do we like our Northstar 12STC? Absolutely, best camper of the four we’ve owned in the past 20 years. My wife calls it our “final camper,” something of an ominous accolade in my mind, given our ages. We currently have it on an F-350 dually— more truck than needed is always good— and apart from a 4-mpg drop we really don’t notice the weight. The camper has survived a tree strike at a canoe put-in that bent one Maggie rack side bar down to the roof and another that dented the cabover front Lamilux—both with no camper structural damage and no leaks. Three years ago I inadvertently used the driver’s side rear corner just in front of the jack as a full-length truck-plus-camper lever on an icy banking when maneuvering out of a very snowed-in camping spot. The camper was on a F-450 at the time and the right side top lip of the truck bed rail bent enough as the camper skewed in the bed that I had to re-enforce it with heavy aluminum angle. The camper? A small dent in the rear skirt base angle steel molding, which the factory fixed gratis on an unannounced visit when we stopped by just to say, hello, a few months later. That freebie, however, was before we became the ‘Chipmunkmobile” so it’s possible I may now have worn out my welcome a bit.
If you’re looking for a robust, non-slide, non-basement, wood-framed camper with large dry bath and cassette toilet, four-season, plenty of storage, light enough for a single rear wheel one-ton truck (but maybe gas, not diesel 4×4), the Northstar 12STC long-bed camper is well worth considering. The design and execution has continued to evolve for the better with each production run and that shows no indication of stopping. We’re happy campers.
Duncan, can I ask a favor. Can you post what you know about that 12 volt refrigerator. Power consumption is what I am interested in. Lets say I run two Life Line battery’s. The size might be 6 volt, size 24. This choice would be an attempt to save weight. How long and how well would the compressor fridge work on this set up. I have a Honda 2000K that I always bring so charging would not be a problem, I’m just wondering how often it would be necessary. I will not be running any solar at this time. Thanks in advance for your time addressing this subject.
Duncan, I forgot to ask you about your refrigerator of choice. Did Northstar offer the electric model as they do now or just the standard 2 way. I have have always owned the standard 2 way units with never an issue, but after reading several articles on that electric unit I have become interested. The benefits pointed out by Mike provide strong arguments for the change especially when mounted in a TC.
We went with the Norcold DE/EV 0061 7.0 cu ft compressor refrigerator– just asked Rex to change out the standard propane unit. His willingness to do that and the other mods was a major reason to buy Northstar. Our previous camper had a compressor unit as well– not Norcold, and a true PIA in terms of reliability– I had to pull the camper door twice for replacements. Manufacturing defect for the first unit (freon leak), hidden shipping damage for its first replacement. Sigh. That said, the power usage tradeoff (for us) has been well worth the lack of need to level the rig, or worry about altitude, the annual flue cleaning to maintain warranty, etc. Your beer is always cold, just need to be level enough for it to say on the table. The Norcold has been trouble-free. Rex had a tip about checking the various coolant line penetrations into the box, making sure they were properly sealed, and I added more insulation all around. That helped lower the duty cycle and hence power consumption, but if for some reason you need to pull the unit out to get at the back of the controller you’ll have a bit of a mess.
As for the dinette, a non-basement design can be pretty constraining– a lot less foot room than in a basement model. I just replaced our ‘traditional’ table with a Lagun, making room for adding Japanese floor recliners this Fall, and just that change really does open up things a lot. I saved the original table– it’s large enough iI could use it as a counter replacement left of the stove should the need arise.
I hear you re the roof coating, but our previous camper turned out to have a hidden nick in the liner at the passenger rear corner, and that was just a snowballing nightmare once discovered. Belt and suspenders time for sure for this unit.
Thanks Duncan for your contribution to TCA. I was hoping to be the first to offer a review on the STC but you beat me. I have followed your input ever since you took delivery of your camper. The extension of the upper cabinet in the kitchen and the second apparel cabinet in the bed room are smart changes and would be a must for my needs. I would love to see Rex embrace a traditional dinette but to be honest I don’t expect him to make major changes like building an opposing dinette. The roof topping sounds like good insurance but I would prefer to use the camper a few years before I sprung for 3 gee’s to cover less than 100 square feet of roof. The choice of power is well beyond my needs, I’m thinking about a couple of 6 volt 300 amp units but the cost and weight are both something to be carefully considered. Overall payload continues to be my arch enemy. I wish I had waited on my 350 and bought a 550 after retirement and out of Cali.
Great article. Thank you for taking the time to share. Since I first saw this camper, it’s been on my short list.
Thanks -:) The coating was from rvroof.com in Florida, now with some other locations. I have some 18 linear feet of roof, so the final cost was about $3K. Dry camped in their lot the night before, with an extension cord into their shop, spent next night in a local hotel, then took delivery and headed home. Camper stayed on the truck so they could move it as needed. Nice folks, robust product that seems tougher than a LineX bed liner. Good investment assuming you want to keep a camper a long time, especially nice as one gets older and not so willing to bake and re-bake in the sun recaulking all the roof stuff :-). Also a good option if you’re recovering from a roof failure, as insurance might then cover the cost of the repairs.
Thank you for the information.
A very enjoyable article. How much did the roof coating cost and where did you get it done?