An enlightened man once said that, “only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others.” This is great counsel indeed, especially when it comes to owning a truck camper. Face it, the truck camper is an oddity in the RV marketplace. Without its own running gear, the truck camper has to be hauled in the back of a truck like cargo. This difference brings with it numerous benefits, but also some disadvantages. Because of this, there are several mistakes and pitfalls that truck camper owners make on a regular basis. These errors can be caused by a lack of knowledge, a careless moment, inattention, or a simple case of driver’s fatigue. Fortunately, you don’t have to follow in the footsteps of others. By reading this article you can avoid the most common gaffes, thereby saving you aggravation, time, money, and embarrassment.
Speaking of embarrassment, I remember watching a YouTube video of a guy who tried to take his fifth wheel through a small tunnel on the Needles Highway in South Dakota. It wasn’t pretty. He underestimated the height of his rig and lost his air conditioner, among other things. Not only did this error in judgement cause thousands of dollars in damage to his fifth wheel, but also stopped traffic, both ways, on the busy two-lane highway for over an hour. His rig was a massive, 40-foot fifth wheel, which should’ve given him reason to pause. It’s true our truck camper rigs are much smaller and more maneuverable, but we can still get into trouble if we’re not careful. What causes truck camper owners and truck camper newbies the most trouble? Here’s my top 10 list:
1. Over Tightening Turnbuckles
I don’t know why, but some truck camper owners feel like they need to go “medieval” on their turnbuckles when tightening them. Don’t do that! Over tightening them can rip the anchor bolts and the mounting plate out from underneath the wings of your camper. Tighten your turnbuckles using the manufacturer’s instructions. A good example of this are the Torklift FastGuns, which have a patented, built-in feature called the tension indicator to help get things right. This indicator consists of a rubber “O” ring that you cinch up to the bottom of the FastGun’s housing before locking the lever down. A gap of 1/4-inch between the “O” ring and housing after clamping the lever down indicates the correct amount of tension. Oh, and make sure the turnbuckles you use are spring-loaded. Otherwise, you’ll be sure to end up with damage like in this photo when you hit a pothole or a bump.
2. Forgetting to Retract Jacks Before Hitting the Road
A serious mistake that can cause significant damage to your camper. Some owners like to extend their jacks when camping to keep the camper firm during windy weather or to level it. That’s fine. Just remember to retract them before you leave the next morning. Forgetting to do this can rip the jacks away from your camper’s frame when you drive away, creating thousands of dollars of damage to your camper. When I first got my truck camper, I used to extend my jacks while camping all of the time, but with time I found the process too time consuming, especially for stays involving a single night. The thought of what might happen if I forgot to pull up my jacks prompted me to stop doing this. It’s up to you if you think doing this is worth the time, effort, and risk.
3. Exceeding Your Truck’s GVWR and Payload
A pitfall many truck camper owners are guilty of. The common refrain I hear is that most truck camper owners are overweight, meaning they’re over their truck’s payload rating and GVWR. Doing this is neither safe nor smart. Why not just buy the right truck to begin with? Yes, I know all of the tricks to “raise” the GVWR/Payload like buying larger wheels and tires with higher load ratings and installing helper springs to support the rear suspension. The thing is, none of these will technically increase your truck’s GVWR/payload. Only the manufacturer can do that. That’s what the GVWR/payload sticker located on the door jamb is for. If you’re way over weight and you get in an accident, you’ll get screwed by the insurance companies. If you need to, and you have the means, buy a larger truck with a higher GVWR/payload. Even if that means having to buy a 4500 or 5500 pickup truck.
4. Failure to Swing-Out “Dually” Front Jacks
Another mistake relating to your lift jacks. If you don’t have a “dually” or dual rear wheel (DRW) truck, this isn’t applicable, of course, but if you drive one then this is something that you’ll need to be careful about. These special, extendable jacks provide needed clearance between the jacks and the wheel flares of your truck. As you know, dually wheel flares extend several inches beyond the sides of the truck. Forgetting to swing out your jacks can ultimately cause damage to the jack mounting brackets and to the frame of your camper, to say nothing about the damage to the wheel flares. If you need to do so, get a checklist so that this vital step isn’t overlooked.
5. Buying a Diesel-Equipped 3/4-Ton Truck
Another gaffe made by newbies. Hey, I get it. Diesels are cool. The fuel economy, resale value, and torque are terrific. But if you want a diesel engine, buy a one-ton truck instead. Why? Because most diesel-powered pickups weigh about 800 pounds more than a gasser. The payload capacity of most 3/4-ton trucks is limited enough. When you buy a diesel the weight of that engine is subtracted from the payload capacity of your truck. This can reduce your truck’s payload rating from 3,000 pounds to 2,200 pounds or from 2,000 pounds to 1,200 pounds. Ouch! If you’re interested in putting a pop-up truck camper on a diesel-powered 3/4-ton, you should be okay, but putting a large hard-side truck camper on it will leave you overweight and unsafe.
6. Buying Suspension Mods That Aren’t Needed
A mistake I see probably the most. Test drive your truck and camper to see how it handles first before rushing out to spend money on suspension modifications. Otherwise, you may waste a lot of money and time on hardware that you don’t really need. I’ve lost count how many times I’ve seen this happen on the truck camper forums. Prospective truck camper owners will rush out and install things like new shocks, air bags, and sway bars before even buying a truck camper or before taking their camper out on a test drive. This is putting the cart before the horse. First, see how your truck handles with your truck camper before spending money on any mods. If you’re truck is experiencing porpoising, rear sag, or sway with your camper mounted, then you can address each particular issue with the appropriate modification.
7. Failure to Connect/Disconnect the Pigtail
Forgetting to connect your camper’s pigtail to your truck can ultimately get you rear ended by another vehicle or get you pulled over by law enforcement. Obviously, neither is good, though the latter would be preferable. Similarly, forgetting to disconnect your pigtail before pulling your truck out from underneath your camper can destroy your camper’s pigtail wiring, not to mention act like a rope and pull on your camper causing stress and damage to your camper’s jacks and jack mounts. Hopefully, the wiring will pull apart before this happens, but you never know. I’ve seen stranger things happen. A word to the wise, don’t forget to connect and disconnect your pigtail before and after your travels.
8. Taking Turns Too Fast
You’d be surprised how often this happens even in urban areas. By their very nature, hard-side truck campers have a higher center of gravity. Put a hard-side camper on a lifted truck and this higher center of gravity is amplified even more. Lifted or not, sharp turns must be taken slower when hauling a hard-side truck camper. Failure to do so can result in a flip-over like the unfortunate driver pictured here. Sure a heavy-duty rear sway bar can help alleviate this issue, but it can’t correct it entirely. Better to be safe than sorry and take all turns slowly. Failure to do so can result in a very bad day.
9. Driving Excessively Fast on Freeways
“I feel the need, the need for speed!” This is fine if you’re Tom Cruise flying an F/A-18 Hornet or Craig Breedlove setting a world speed record on the Bonneville Salt Flats, but doing this in a truck camper on today’s freeways is just plain stupid. Exceeding the speed limit is dangerous not only for yourself, but also for others who are sharing the road with you. It doesn’t matter if you’re hauling a pop-up or hard-side, driving the same speed you normally would without a truck camper isn’t wise. Think about it. What if you need to stop in an emergency? All of that extra weight will make stopping your 12,000 pound rig harder and take valuable seconds of response time. It also makes emergency maneuvers that much harder without flipping over (see number 8 above).
10. Failure to Observe Low Overhangs and Low Bridges
One of the most devastating mistakes you can make. Tunnels, bridges, low hanging branches, and roof overhangs are just a few of the hazards to your truck camper rig. Know how tall your rig is before you take it out on the highway and on country roads. If you’re not sure how tall your rig is, measure it with a tape measure. And don’t forget to take into account fixtures mounted on your roof like your air conditioner and any vent covers you might have. When traveling under such obstacles, don’t forget to give yourself some leeway and don’t cut things too close. Avoid distractions when driving and pay attention to what you’re doing and where you’re going. It’s for this reason I never drive when I’m tired or fatigued. Doing so can create a recipe for disaster.