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 a great proverb, especially when it comes to owning a truck camper. Without its own chassis and running gear, the truck camper is unique in the RV marketplace and must be hauled by a truck like regular 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 on our top 10 truck camper mistakes and pitfalls, 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 several hours. Sure, his rig was a lot larger than a truck camper, but this should’ve given him even more reason to pause. Truck camper owners can also get into trouble as well. What causes truck camper owners and truck camper newbies the most trouble? Here’s our top 10 list:
1. Exceeding Your Truck’s GVWR and Payload
A truck camper pitfall too many truck camper owners are guilty of. The common refrain we 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, we know all of the tricks to “raise” the GVWR/Payload of a truck, like buying larger wheels and tires with higher load ratings and installing helper springs to support the rear suspension, but none of these things will technically increase your truck’s GVWR/payload. Only the manufacturer and a few select shops can do that. That’s what the GVWR/payload sticker located on the door jamb is for. If you’re way overweight and you get in an accident and injure or kill somebody, you’ll be screwed by the insurance companies. If you need to, and you have the means, buy a better truck with a higher GVWR/payload. Even if that means having to buy a F450/4500 or F550/5500 truck.
2. Buying Suspension Mods That Aren’t Needed
A truck camper mistake we see all of the time. 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. We’ve lost count how many times we’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 like putting the cart before the horse. See how your truck handles with your truck camper first 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 suspension modification.
3. Over Tightening Turnbuckles
Without a doubt one of the top 10 truck camper mistakes and pitfalls. We 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! Overtightening them can rip the anchor bolts and the mounting plate out from underneath the wings of your camper. Instead, 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 could end up with damage when you hit a pothole or a bump as shown in this photo.
4. Buying a Diesel-Equipped 3/4-Ton Truck
Another major truck camper gaffe made by both newbies and pros alike. Hey, we 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 both overweight and unsafe.
5. Failure to Swing-Out “Dually” Front Jacks
The first of two mistakes 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 the 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.
6. “Bad” Center of Gravity
Overloading your truck is bad enough. Couple that truck camper mistake with a “bad” center of gravity and you have a recipe for disaster. What is the center of gravity (COG)? It’s simply the balance point or where most of the truck camper’s weight sits. Typically, the COG is marked with a sticker that has been affixed to both the driver and passenger sides of the camper. Ideally, the camper’s COG of gravity should be located in front of your truck’s rear axle—in most cases 10 to 20 percent of the weight will be on the front axle and 80-90 percent on the rear axle. Doing this ensures a safer driving experience and less wear and tear on the frame of your truck. Furthermore, placing the COG behind the rear axle should be avoided at all costs because it does two things. First, it takes weight off of the front axle, creating “drivability” issues with steering and braking. Second, tension is created in the center of the frame that can result in a catastrophic frame failure like the Ram 3500 shown in the photo above. For more about how to correct a “bad” COG, click here.
7. Taking Turns Too Fast
Without a doubt one of the top 10 truck camper mistakes and pitfalls. 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 like the Hellwig Big Wig 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.
8. Driving Excessively Fast on Freeways
“I feel the need, the need for speed!” This is fine if you’re Tom Cruise flying an F-14 Tomcat 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).
9. Failure to Observe Low Overhangs and Low Bridges
One of the most devastating mistakes that you can make with your truck camper. 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 like the air conditioner and any vent covers you might have mounted on the roof. 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 that we never drive when we’re tired or fatigued. Doing so can create a recipe for disaster. It’s for this reason that we usually limit our travels to six hours a day.
10. Lax Propane Safety
Propane must ALWAYS be used with caution and respect. Fortunately, propane companies add a harmless chemical called mercaptan to give propane gas a distinctive, “rotten egg” smell to allow easy detection in the event of a leak. NEVER ignite an appliance or use an open flame with the smell of propane in the air. Doing so can result is a catastrophic explosion. If you suspect a propane leak anywhere in your RV’s propane system, close the valve to your propane tank, vacate the RV, and have a qualified technician perform a propane leak test. Of course, an important part of propane safety either at home or in an RV is to have a working gas and CO alarm. The Department of Transportation (DOT) also requires that propane cylinders used in RVs be recertified for use every 12 years? However, very few RV owners do it let alone even know that this requirement exists. What do technicians look for during the recertification process? That the valve guards are in place and in proper working order and that the container hasn’t been subjected to physical damage, such as scraping, denting, and gouging. Dents in containers are allowed, but must be limited in size and must not exceed the sizes specified in the propane recertification charts. The tank’s fittings are also checked to make sure they are in proper working order and do not leak. Failure to recertify can result in a nasty surprise on your next outing as many propane stations will not refill “expired” propane tanks.