You can tell a lot about a company by not only meeting and talking with the people who own it, but also by meeting and talking with those who work for it. We met Rex Willett, the owner of Northstar Campers, seven months ago and you can tell that Rex loves his job and loves his company. He has a passion for what he does. Not only that, but you can tell that those who build campers for Rex take great pride in the quality of their work. When we toured the factory last September we were amazed at how skilled and efficient the workers were in building a camper and how clean and organized the factory was. The Willett family has been building truck campers since 1961. You don’t get that kind of longevity in the RV industry by building a substandard product. If you build junk, people won’t buy it. It’s that simple. Remember the popular one-liner “build it, and he will come” from the 1989 Hollywood classic “Field of Dreams”? It’s true. Build it, and he (or she) will come. In droves. It worked for Shoeless Joe Jackson and works when you build a quality truck camper that people want. This is a review of the Northstar Laredo SC.
We’ve owned our Northstar Laredo SC truck camper now for seven months (for an in-depth followup review on a few problems we found with the camper after five years of ownership, click here). We’ve taken it to some pretty spectacular locations on some pretty rough roads, places that most folks wouldn’t typically go in a truck camper. We’ve traveled over 4,000 miles in 10 states and used all of the camper’s appliances and equipment numerous times in all kinds of temperatures and weather. Based upon our needs, I’ve made several modifications to the camper, and through my negligence, I’ve even had to make a repair or two. We purchased a Laredo SC truck camper because we were looking for a modest hard-side that we could take off-road that still had all of the basic features, capacities, and storage that we considered essential for an overland expedition rig. We based our decision on not only owner feedback, but also on the reputation and longevity of the company. Customer support was also important. If problems or questions ever arise, and they usually do, its important to have a support system in place to get the help and answers that you need.
The Northstar Laredo SC is a hard-side truck camper made for short-bed and long-bed trucks. The camper was designed by Rory Willett, Rex’s brother, and has been a steady seller for the company since it first appeared in 2002. With a dry weight of only 2,090 pounds (fully loaded the camper weighs 2,980 pounds), an interior floor length of 8 feet, 6 inches, and a width of 7 feet, the Laredo matches well with most three-quarter-ton and all one-ton SRW pickup trucks. Key features of the all-wood Laredo SC include a 60×80-inch full-size queen bed oriented north-south, a well-apportioned kitchen, and a spacious U-shaped dinette. These figures and features, though revealing, don’t tell the entire story about this rugged, well-made camper. It’s said that imitation is the highest form of flattery. It’s no different in the truck camper industry. Rex Willett told me that the Lance 825, Lance’s second best-selling truck camper, is actually a direct copy of the Northstar Laredo SC. When you look at the floorplans for both campers, its pretty obvious to anyone with eyes that Rex is telling the truth.
A good number of the truck campers rolling off of today’s assembly lines are big and bulky, but not the Laredo. The aerodynamic Laredo falls into a category of what I would call a low-profile camper, meaning it has neither a large basement nor a tall cabover. Indeed, the exterior height of the Laredo SC mounted on my 2013 Ram 3500 is only 9 feet 8 inches high (this figure doesn’t include the air conditioner). You’d be hard pressed to find a hard-side truck camper equal to or lower than that number, most are well over 10 feet high and some are as high as 12 feet from the ground. The benefits of having a low profile camper are numerous, the most important of which are less wind resistance and better fuel mileage. On level highways we’ve seen mileage figures as high as 15.5 mpg’s. Try getting these numbers with a motorhome or a 4,000-pound camper with two slide-outs. The other benefit of having a lower profile truck camper is, of course, the ability to go where few RV’s (and truck campers) have gone before like on the recently explored White Rim Trail.
How well does the camper fit my Ram 3500 pickup truck? Very well, almost too well. Only a 1/2-inch gap exists between the bed rails and the camper wings and about 3 inches between cabover and cab of the truck. The side-to-side tolerances between the wheel wells and bottom of the camper are small, too, with only about 1.5 inches on either side. It’s true that having a narrow, low profile camper with tiny gaps between the camper and truck creates a more aerodynamic rig, but it also means that with so little side-to-side play, loading the camper can take longer to get just right (not getting the camper perfectly centered results in the turnbuckles on one side being too close to the bed of the truck). Based upon the recommendation of Rex Willett, I had 2-inch extender brackets installed on the front jacks at the factory. This does make loading the camper easier, but loading can still be a chore with so little side-to-side play (having another person spot for you as you drive makes loading much easier). I wouldn’t consider this a deal breaker in any way, but it is something you need to be aware of if you decide to buy a Laredo or any other 7-foot-wide truck camper.
As attractive as the Northstar Laredo is, what really sets off the Lamilux 1000 fiberglass exterior are the Dometic Seitz thermal pane windows. Imported from Europe and made of acrylic, these cool-looking “Euro” windows not only insulate better than regular RV windows, but they’re also easier to open–the windows push open rather than slide, and can be left open in the rain. Furthermore, the windows feature a built-in roller screen on top and a built-in roller shade on the bottom. The screen and shade can be operated independently or connected to allow in any amount of light into in the interior of the camper. The exterior side of the shade even has a reflective surface that keeps the heat out of your camper better than regular blinds. We ordered larger kitchen and cabover windows to let in even more light into the interior than the standard size Dometic windows. Are there any negatives with the Dometic Seitz windows? Only one. Being made of plastic they do have a tendency to scratch easily. Fortunately, scuffs and scratches can easily be buffed out using acrylic polishes that can be purchased at any auto parts store.
One aspect that really separates the Northstar Laredo from the competition are the camper’s tank capacities. The Laredo offers a large 39 gallon fresh water holding tank. Very few campers in this weight class come close to matching or exceeding this amount of fresh water, most tanks offered in other campers are around 20 or 30 gallons. When you couple this impressive 39 gallon figure with a 6-gallon water heater, you get an eye-popping 45 gallons of fresh water in the Laredo. Not only that, but the Laredo SC provides not one but two 5-gallon, 20-pound propane tanks. Having an extra 5 gallons of propane is a real bonus for those who like to boondock and explore in the winter. It’s true that there’s nothing particularly special about the size of the Laredo’s 13 gallon gray water tank, it pretty standard in that regard. But having a 5-gallon cassette toilet rather than a standard black tank gives the Laredo all kinds of options where one can dump black water, including campground pit toilets and rest area bathrooms, and that’s always a plus, especially when dumping is free.
A good boondocking and overland expedition rig requires a good amount of 12 volt power to keep everything powered up. Fortunately, Northstar delivers the goods in this important area as well. The standard, exterior battery compartment holds just a single Group 27 battery, but prospective buyers can upgrade this at the factory to a dual battery compartment. This dual battery compartment can be mounted either on the driver side exterior or placed inside the coach underneath the dinette seat. We chose the latter since this keeps the batteries warmer in the winter. We found the dinette battery compartment more than large enough to house two 6 volt Lifeline AGM batteries. Together the batteries provide our camper with 220 amp hours of capacity. At some point in the future, we may increase this capacity by installing a Torklift Hidden Power Battery unit for an additional 110 amp hours of power.
One thing we learned after owning our last truck camper, is that it shouldn’t be a chore to get in and out of the camper. This is especially true when nature is calling. Our last truck camper had scissor steps and we hated them. It wasn’t so much the quality of the steps, the quality was fine, it was the fact that they had to be stored away for travel. Each and every time we wanted to get in the camper, we had to deploy them. When we ordered our Laredo from the factory we decided to ditch the scissor steps and get the optional Torklift rear bumper with the single, pull-down step. Coupled with the pull-out grab handle and 26-inch-wide door, getting in and out of the Laredo is a real joy and literally takes just a few seconds. Oh, and for those who are wondering, despite having just a single step, we are able to get in and out of the camper with no problems (having a very small basement means less height to the camper). The bumper also provides very valuable storage for things like hoses, electrical cords, and fishing poles. When it comes to a owning a truck camper you’ll come to realize that storage is often hard to come by. You can never have enough.
The floorplan of the Northstar Laredo is spacious and roomy and well laid out. We’ve found the bathroom to be a bit narrow, but the layout works and works well for us. We do miss having a bathroom sink, but again, this is a fair trade-off for having a narrow, low profile camper. Like most truck campers, the dinette is where most of the activity takes place during the day. It can seat two adults with room to spare and up to four adults in a pinch. We ordered the optional Lagun swing away table for our Laredo. What’s great about the Lagun table is that both the table and the mount of this Swedish-made table system can rotate 360 degrees, providing owners with an almost unlimited number of options for positioning the table. The table can even be moved out-of-the-way to create even more floor space and to provide easier access to the overhead storage lockers. Overall, we’ve found that the Laredo SC floorplan provides plenty of room for two adults to move about comfortably.
The Laredo lacks much of the “foo-foo” found in today’s RV’s, yet the interior is still warm and inviting. The vinyl wood grain flooring looks terrific and compliments the laminate of the oak cabinets in a big way. We ordered the sage green fabric for the dinette and window valance and like how the color contrasts with the rest of the Laredo’s interior. We’ve been pleasantly surprised by the amount of storage in the Laredo. Storage nooks can be found underneath the refrigerator, in the water heater compartment, underneath the bathroom, and below the step going to the cabover. There are even outside access doors so you can access the storage areas in front of each wheel well of the truck. The roof lockers in the camper are large and spacious and hold a tremendous amount of gear, clothing, and food. The size of the wardrobe is a huge plus. Like I said before, it’s massive. It’s large enough to fit all of my flannel shirts and my wife’s blouses, our toiletries, and even our winter jackets. One word of advice, if you like to camp off-grid or overland for any length of time, forget about the microwave. Use that valuable storage space instead for kitchen items and dry goods.
The heart of any home or RV is the kitchen and the Northstar Laredo SC delivers the goods in this important area, too. The kitchen provides lots of storage and features an attractive Atwood stainless steel, three burner cook top and range hood. The three pull-out drawers are deep and wide, well-constructed, and easy to operate. The high-quality, push-button airline latches keep the drawers locked in place during travel even on very rough roads. The wife loves the single-handle residential-style faucet with pull-out sprayer. It saves on water and is much easier to activate compared to standard faucets with old-fashioned knobs. We ordered our Laredo with the Dometic CR-1110 compressor refrigerator. I went in great detail about the pros and cons of this refrigerator in a previous article, so I won’t say much about the refrigerator here. Suffice it to say that the CR-1110’s amp draw is pretty high–around 50 to 60 amp hours a day–and requires a large solar power system to keep the batteries charged. Unless you live in an area that gets lots of sun, I wouldn’t recommend getting this type of refrigerator. You’d be better off getting the standard Dometic three-way refrigerator instead.
The Laredo’s cabover is narrower and less tall, but the larger Dometic bedroom windows and Midi-Heki Skylight make the cabover seem bigger and less claustrophobic. It’s true that having a low profile camper means that you can’t sit up straight on the end of the bed without hitting your head on the ceiling, but by the same token we found that getting in and out of the cabover is much easier because of the camper’s low profile, a pleasant surprise. The small wardrobe on the passenger side as well as the coffin lockers that flank either side of the bed help keep clothing, books, and laptops tidy and organized. Like most truck camper owners, we elected to have a flat screen TV mounted at the end of the bed. The swivel mount allows us to watch TV either in bed or while sitting at the dinette. Unfortunately, we found the OEM 6 inch spring mattress to be both thin and lumpy and one of the worst mattresses we’ve ever slept on in an RV. One of the first mods we made to the camper was to order a Sleep Master 6-inch memory foam mattress.
How well insulated is the Northstar Laredo? How well does it stay warm during the cold winter months? Honestly, we’ve found our winter nights to be pretty toasty inside the camper. Indeed, the extra insulation package that we ordered from the factory coupled with the aforementioned Dometic thermal pane windows produce a camper that stays amazingly warm during the winter. Of course, all of this extra insulation wouldn’t mean much without a good furnace and the Atwood 12,000 BTU auto ignition furnace works flawlessly to keep our camper warm on cold winter nights. We also ordered the electric heat strip with the Coleman Polar Cub air conditioner. While this gives us another option to keep the camper warm in the winter, we’ve found it to be pretty noisy. One might be better served buying a small electric space heater to use during those times when you’re plugged into shore power.
Are there any negatives with the Northstar Laredo? Not many. We do wish that the bathroom was 2 to 3 inches wider, and I already mentioned the lumpy mattress that came with the camper (to his credit, Rex Willett had already started a search for a better mattress to place in his campers before we bought our Laredo). Other than that we’ve had a few minor issues come up, including a bad TV power cord and a button mount for the back cushion to the dinette that had pulled out of the wall, but neither is what I would consider a show stopper. The interior of the camper does have a few eye sores that could use correcting in future builds, the biggest being the black conduit for the front passenger side Happijac that can be seen coming out of the wall (Northstar should construct some kind of faux cover or larger cushion to keep the conduit hidden and out of view). I also wish the battery cutoff switch had been installed in a less conspicuous location, like underneath the kitchen sink.
What modifications have I made to the camper? Aside from the aforementioned mattress, not much, really. I had the camper built with the things I wanted like a 240-watt solar power system. I installed a dual USB charge port at the dinette (you can never have enough of these) and wired an exterior battery charging station on the rear of the camper to plug-in my portable 100-watt solar suitcase. Besides the Ecocamel shower head and the upgraded stereo deck with bluetooth, the only other mods I made to the camper was to install a bluetooth transmitter to my flat screen TV (this allows me to play the TV over the four speaker stereo system) and a neat toilet paper shroud in the wet bath (one of these should have come with the camper). I’ll soon be upgrading the Fan-tastic Vent fan with a two-way, three-speed remote-controlled unit. Aside from upgrading the PWM solar charge controller to a MPPT unit, I can’t think of anything else I’d want to have done to the camper. It’s pretty much decked out.
What are my final thoughts? Simply put, the Northstar Laredo SC been a great truck camper for us. The camper is rugged, well-built, and excels in extreme off-road environments, a rarity for a hard side truck camper. Moreover, the Northstar Laredo SC is loaded with the features and capabilities that are typically found in a larger truck camper. Not many 2,000-pound truck campers have 45 gallons of fresh water, a massive wardrobe, a north-south queen size bed, two 20-pound propane tanks, and a large battery compartment. Indeed, how Northstar is able to cram all of these features into such a “small” camper is a testament to Northstar’s truck camper prowess. The Northstar Laredo SC has been everything we had hoped for in a great four season truck camper rig and more. Rex’s brother, Rory, designed a great one. The Northstar Laredo SC is a winner!
For an in-depth followup review on a few problems we found with the camper after five years of ownership, click here.