If you’re reading this article you’re probably either a new truck camper owner or a person who is seriously thinking about buying one. Whatever your situation, the truck camper is a great choice with loads of benefits. The truck camper is easier to drive, offers better fuel economy, and can be taken further off the beaten path compared to other types of RVs. It can also tow things like boats and Jeeps, is easier to store and maintain, and in most states doesn’t require annual registration and title fees. But going with a truck camper also means you’ll need to buy the right truck and right truck camper equipment to safely haul it. This article addresses these and a host of other truck camper related topics to help make your transition to the truck camper world smoother and less difficult. Note that the info we provide is based on years of experience. You should know that the information found in this Truck Camper 101 article and other articles published by Truck Camper Adventure are used as a source in numerous truck camper articles found on the Internet by so-called experts. We are the go-to source for all things truck camper related.
Buying the Right Truck
We almost always recommend that you buy a one-ton truck to haul a truck camper. Why? Because one-ton trucks feature the largest payload ratings for non-commercial trucks and are equipped with the suspension and brakes required to safely haul a heavy load like a truck camper. The payload rating can either be found on a driver’s side door pillar placard or in the glove box on a payload certification form. You can also determine the payload rating by subtracting the curb weight of the truck (you’ll need to take it to the scales to get this figure) from the truck’s GVWR.
Why all this talk about payload? Because the rating tells you how much weight your truck can safely haul without overloading the frame, suspension, wheels, and tires. Basically, everything being carried in your truck, including all passengers, gear, and your “wet,” fully loaded truck camper, should be below your truck’s rated payload. Grossly exceeding the payload and GVWR is neither safe for your passengers nor for others who are sharing the road with you. And if you happen to get in an accident while overloaded, your insurance company can void out your coverage. For more information on buying the right truck, check out our article entitled buying the best truck for a truck camper.
Turnbuckles and Tie-Downs
Keeping your camper anchored to your pickup truck is obviously critical and is accomplished by using a combination of truck camper tie downs and turnbuckles. There are basically two tie down systems from which to choose: Torklift and Happijac. Both are fine systems with each offering several advantages and disadvantages over the other. The big advantage of the Torklift system is that it bolts to the truck’s frame underneath the truck bed and is a stronger more rugged design, while the Happijac system requires drilling into the truck’s bed and rear bumper to install. The Happijac system does prevent side-to-side movement better and is probably better for off-road use, but the Happijac rear bumper tie down mounts have been known to fail under stress. All things considered, we prefer the Torklift system, specifically their new aluminum Torklift Talons, but that’s my personal preference. Check with your truck camper manufacturer to see which system they recommend. Warranties may be voided if you choose the wrong one. Four tie downs, two in the front of the camper and two in the rear, are needed to secure your truck camper to your truck.
Turnbuckles are essential pieces of hardware in truck camper ownership. They act as the “middleman,” securing the truck camper to the tie-down system of your truck. Strong winds, rough roads, and driving at highway speeds will test the ability of your tie downs and turnbuckles to control the forces or stresses working against your camper. Proper tension and installation of your turnbuckles is critically important. Too much tension can over stress and damage your camper; too little tension can allow your camper to shift and slide around in your truck bed while you drive. Make sure you read and understand the installation instructions for your turnbuckles to make sure they work optimally. We use and highly recommend the Torklift FastGuns to secure our camper. For an in-depth review of the Torklift FastGun, check out our review here.
Truck Camper Towing
The ability to tow is one of the great things about owning a truck camper. An important thing to keep in mind when towing, however, is that the tongue weight of the trailer must be factored in against the truck’s rated payload. A boat, horse, or utility trailer will typically have a tongue weight anywhere between 200 and 500 pounds, depending on the size of the load (tongue weight, of course, will not be a factor when flat towing or towing a vehicle “four-down”). Moreover, if you want to tow, you’ll probably need a hitch box extension since many truck campers extend anywhere from 18 to 24 inches from the rear of the truck. Available in different lengths, a hitch box extension is simply a metal tube that fits into a standard hitch receiver.
The umbilical connection or “pigtail” provides your truck camper with the running, brake, and turn signal lights needed to be legal on the road. It also provides an important connection to your truck’s alternator to charge your camper’s battery while driving. The six-pin receptacle for this connection is usually on the driver’s side front of the camper (though many pop-up truck camper manufacturers place the six-pin receptacle in the back). Due to this placement, truck camper owners will often install a standard seven-pin electrical RV receptacle on the driver’s side, front of the truck bed. But another perfectly acceptable option is to simply run an extra-long umbilical from the front of the camper to the seven-pin receptacle at the rear of the truck. Remember, only six wires are needed for a truck camper since the truck camper doesn’t have its own brakes (the brakes run on the blue wire). For a more detailed look at the pigtail wiring for truck campers, please click here.
Wheels and Tires
Nothing is more important to the handling and safety of your truck than your wheels and tires. Together, they bear the entire weight of your truck and truck camper combo. If you plan on hauling a 2,000 or 3,000 pound truck camper, you’ll generally want a light truck (LT) tire with at least a load range rating of E. However, not all Load Range E tires are created equal. Sizes and weight ratings differ, so you’ll want to make sure that the tires you’re looking at can handle not only the weight of your truck, but also the weight of your truck camper. The same applies to your wheels. And if you’re upgrading your tires, you should also seek additional load capacity over the OEM ratings. Keep in mind that the weight on the rear axle is evenly divided by each tire, so an axle with a GVWR of 6,200 pounds will come with tires rated for 3,100 pounds. The largest inflation value for Load Range E tires is 80 psi.
Proper inflation of your tires is vital—check them regularly. Refer to your truck’s documentation and the door jamb sticker to determine the correct inflation rating for your tires. For example, the door jamb sticker for a 2013 Ram 3500 truck with LT275/70R18E tires calls for 60 psi for the front tires and 80 psi for the rear. These values are for hauling the maximum payload of the truck, so the tire pressure in the rear can be lowered if you’re hauling less that the maximum payload or nothing at all. Make sure you check your tires regularly for abnormal wear and proper inflation, especially before leaving on each trip. As for the size of the tires, that’s a personal choice. Those who haul around long-bed truck campers, the heaviest campers on the market, swear by 19.5 inch tires (load range H) because of the stiffer side walls and how well they handle with the extra weight.
As for the type of tires to put on your pickup truck, it depends on where you live, the kind of roads on which you travel, and where you like to camp. If you live in an area where winter ice and snow are the norm and you like to winter camp, you’ll want to have a good set of stud-less snow tires to offer the traction you’ll need. For those who plan on doing primarily highway driving and who live in a temperate climate, then a good set of all-season highway tires will be more than sufficient. My preference is for a quality set of all-terrain (AT) tires. These work well for highway driving in all conditions as well as off-road travel and are an excellent alternative for those who don’t want to bother with a specialized tire. As for our favorite brands, we really don’t have one. Over the years we have purchased AT tires from several manufacturers, including BF Goodrich, Firestone, Nitto, and Michelin, and have liked them all and got excellent service out of each.
Suspension Mods for Trucks
Most people know how critical wheels and tires are to truck handling and safety, but the rest of the truck’s suspension system is important, too. In addition to the wheels and tires, the suspension system consists not only of springs and shocks, but also of steering components and linkages. All combined these components directly contribute to a truck’s handling and braking and play a major role in your driving pleasure and comfort.
Our philosophy on suspension upgrades is simple. It’s best to drive your truck with your camper mounted first to see how it handles before spending any money on upgrades. Otherwise, you may waste a lot of money on hardware you really don’t need. We see this happen all the time. Based upon the opinion of friends and what they’ve read on Internet forums, new truck owners will immediately shell out big bucks on new shocks, air bags, and Stableloads before even buying or taking a test drive with their truck camper. This is putting the cart before the horse. It’s best to first see how your truck handles under load and treat each symptom that you encounter with the correct suspension modification. Moreover, only one modification should be made at a time to determine its true effectiveness.
If you find that your truck sags too much in the rear with your camper mounted you’ll need to correct this since running nose high can impair how your truck handles. The most common remedies for trucks with leaf spring suspensions include adding either another leaf spring or a set of Torklift Stableloads. If your pickup truck is a half-ton or a three-quarter-ton, adding another leaf spring will probably serve you better as they provide more support, provide a much better ride, and provide much improved spring travel compared to a truck with just a large overload spring. Stableloads, however, are an effective suspension modification, too. By engaging the overload spring sooner, they not only prevent rear sag, but can correct sway and improve control. If you decide on a set of Stableloads, we recommend the quick disconnect version as they can be engaged or disengaged in a matter of seconds.
Hellwig’s superb Big Wig Air Springs (aka air bags) and Timbren’s Suspension Enhancement System (SES) are two more options to correct rear sag. Unlike the Stableloads, however, these can be used on trucks with either coil spring or leaf spring suspensions. Each product is engineered differently. Air bags eliminate rear sag through the use of compressed air while the Timbren SES accomplishes this through the use of progressive rubber springs that work in place of the jounce stops. There are pros and cons with each approach. Timbrens cost less, are more durable, and require zero maintenance and adjustments, while air bags can be manually adjusted based upon the weight of the load (up to 5,000 pounds) and can be used for campsite leveling, a big bonus. If you decide to go with Timbrens, make sure you get the Severe Service SES kit to haul a truck camper. For a detailed review of the Timbren SES, click here. For a detailed review of the Big Wig Air Springs, click here.
The shock absorbers that came with your truck may or may not be up to the task of carrying the extra weight of a truck camper. The dampening effect of your shocks is important in how well your truck and camper rides when going over rough and uneven roads and terrain. Shock absorbers come in two basic forms: self-adjusting or manual. Self-adjusting shocks, like the Bilstein 4600 or KYBs, do exactly that, they adjust based upon the force asserted each time they’re depressed. Manually adjusted shocks, such as the popular Rancho RS9000xl, allow you to change how much dampening is applied based upon the weight you are carrying. The pros and cons of each are pretty obvious, it comes down to personal preference and cost.
For those who are experiencing excessive sway or roll on sharp turns you can try the aforementioned Timbren SES and Torklift Stableloads or a rear sway bar like the Hellwig Big Wig. All three are excellent products, but work differently. Timbrens reduce sway through the use of progressive rubber springs, which are mounted above the axle, while Stableloads work with the leaf springs to engage the overload springs sooner. The sway bar works with the axle and frame of the truck to keep the truck level. Most of 3/4-ton and one-ton trucks rolling off of today’s assembly lines come with a front sway bar only, but many owners find that a rear sway bar is also needed for added stability and handling when hauling a truck camper. The big negative with the sway bar, of course, is going off-road. The end link on one end needs to be disengaged to allow the axles to freely articulate. For an in-depth review of the Hellwig Big Wig Sway Bar, click here.
Loading Your Truck Camper
Loading a truck camper is the one topic that probably causes the most angst for truck camper owners. Like hitching a trailer, perfectly backing your truck underneath your camper takes a little practice. When backing in it’s best to align the camper with some reference point in the truck bed. We like to use blue painter’s tape placed in the center of the camper and in the center of the truck bed as reference points. It doesn’t matter what you use as long as it works for you. For the process, it’s best to have another person spot for you as you back in your truck. This way you can make sure that the yaw of your camper is straight and is perfectly aligned in the middle of your truck bed. Still, if loading a camper seems daunting, we recommend investing in the Camper Cradle, which is a brand-new truck camper loading product. Check out this recent story on the Camper Cradle to learn more.
Remote controlled electric jacks—like those made by Rieco-Titan—make all the difference in the world when raising and lowering your truck camper and makes the process of loading and unloading your camper easier and quicker. Yes, manual jacks work just fine, but if you’re using them during inclement weather or in extreme heat, they can really be a drag due to the length of time it takes to raise or lower your camper. If you don’t have remote controlled electric jacks, we strongly recommend that you get them. You won’t regret it.
Another consideration in loading your truck camper is whether or not to use a bed mat underneath. Personally, we think they’re a must. The rubber mat not only protects your bed or spray-on bed liner from being scratched, but also prevents your truck camper from sliding around while driving your truck. You can buy specially made mats for the specific make and model of your truck or you can buy a couple of horse stall mats and piece them together to fit the bed of your truck. Both options work great, but the specially made mats are easier to use and remove. However, we now use a combination of a Dee Zee Heavy Duty Bed Mat and horse stall to give our camper the needed clearance above the bed rails of our truck.
Should the tailgate be left on or removed from your truck before loading your camper? It depends on the length and model of the truck camper, but in many cases, the camper won’t load properly with the tailgate on, so it needs to be removed. Even if your camper does load with the tailgate down, you should still remove it. When it comes to truck campers every pound matters, especially when that weight is behind the rear axle. Why haul an 80-pound tailgate when you don’t need to? It only takes a few minutes to remove and with it off you don’t have to worry about the paint getting damaged by stones being kicked up from underneath. The only exceptions to this rule are small pop-up truck campers and truck toppers like AT Overland Summit and Atlas.
Can truck campers be used off of the truck? In most cases yes with pop-up campers, like those made by Four Wheel Campers, being the main exception. All hard-side truck campers and many pop-up campers, like those made by Bundutec and Lance, are made to be used both on and off the truck. However, doing this over time can stress the jack connections making them weaker over time. The camper also has a tendency to “wobble” as well when used off the truck. A new company, named StableCamper, has addressed both concerns with a revolutionary new product called the StableCamper. Introduced in 2018, the StableCamper is the ONLY truck camper stabilization product that addresses both side-to-side and front-to-back stability when unloaded from the truck. Constructed of aircraft-grade aluminum, this cutting-edge product totally eliminates wobble, is easy to install, and stores on the outside of the camper using exterior mounting brackets. It can be used when camping or when stored at home and works with all jacks including the excellent Rieco-Titan. If you intend to use your camper off-loaded when you camp or if you tow and need to unload a boat, we highly recommend purchasing this product. It’s a great product.
Riding in the Camper
Can you ride in a truck camper while driving the truck? Every truck camper owner has wondered about this at one time or another. Unfortunately, you can’t. We aren’t aware of any law that allows doing it in a truck camper. Why? It all really comes down to seat belts and the truck camper doesn’t have any. Not only that, but the slide-in truck camper doesn’t have a pass-through like a class C motorhome that accomplishes another requirement, the ability of the driver to communicate with the passengers riding in the back. Besides, even if riding in the back of the camper was allowed by law, we wouldn’t recommend doing it in a truck camper. It simply wouldn’t be very safe.
Mismatched Truck Campers
Can you mount a long-bed truck camper on a short-bed truck? In most cases you can’t. The camper’s center of gravity will be too far behind the truck’s rear axle. However, some manufacturers produce both short and long-bed versions of the same model camper like Northwood Manufacturing’s Wolf Creek 850. In this case, you could put a long-bed model on the short-bed truck, but you lose the benefits of the side storage boxes found on the short-bed models. Can you put a short-bed truck camper on a long-bed truck? Yes. This is usually done by truck camper owners so that the front of the truck bed can be used for storage.
Leveling your camper is critical whether you enjoy boondocking or staying at campgrounds. A level camper is needed to operate your absorption refrigerator, for proper water draining, and for basic equilibrium inside your camper. It also makes cooking inside easier. There are several ways you can level your truck camper—by using air bags, lift jacks, or leveling blocks. We prefer using leveling blocks because they are versatile, easier to use, and can be used underneath the front tires or underneath the back. We always travel with a set of Lynx Levelers in our truck camper rig. Sure, these lightweight, plastic leveling blocks take up valuable storage space, but they’re worth it. Just don’t forget to pull them up after you’re done camping. Yes, some truck camper owners like to use the lift jacks instead, but we found these to be cumbersome. The only time we use our lift jacks now is to stabilize the camper in heavy winds.
For more information about truck campers in general check out our Truck Camper FAQ page.