Truck Camper Adventure is proud to present this interview with Eagle Cap 850 owner, Anne Lewis. Anne was born and raised in Massachusetts and still makes that state her home. She started tent camping when she was less than a year old, so her love for the outdoors goes way back! She holds a bachelor of science degree in nursing and works as a nurse at a local hospital, but also holds a baccalaureate in anthropology and a master’s in archaeology. Anne and her sister, Barbara, have traveled to all 50 states and across Canada, in addition to exploring over 40 other countries from the Arctic to Antarctica and from Kalimantan (Borneo) to Egypt. So far, the only time they’ve camped outside of North America is when they went on safari in Kenya, Tanzania, and Botswana.
Thanks, Anne, for taking the time to talk with us. You’ve done a lot of traveling and exploring. How long have you been interested in truck campers?
Anne: Like many people, we started out tent camping. When I was in college, we bought our first tent camper and replaced it with two more over the years. Although several years ago we had to stop camping for a while, I longed to get back into it. But we had spent more than one night in below freezing weather after which I could not feel my lower legs. My sister, Barbara, was adamant that we needed something that had a furnace. I did not object. We also really weren’t interested in towing anymore. Even with a tent camper, it could be a hassle trying to find a big enough space to pull into at overlooks, and hitching and unhitching the camper was more effort than we felt like expending in the morning or at the end of a long day of traveling and hiking.
I looked at more than a dozen makes and models of Class B motorhomes, but since neither one of us is retired, it didn’t seem practical; I still needed a vehicle to drive to work. One night I was surfing the Internet and I came upon a site about truck campers. It was like an epiphany! The campers I saw online that night were luxurious in comparison to the simple truck campers that were around when we were kids. I went to bed, but stayed awake for hours, thinking about the possibilities. Mind you, I neither owned a truck nor had I ever driven one before, but I considered that a minor detail.
This was in August of 2013. By Labor Day of that year, Barbara and I and our little dog, Maya, a Malagasy Coton de Tulear, were at Truck Camper Warehouse in West Chesterfield, New Hampshire, talking to the owner, Bill Penney. He has over 100 truck campers on site, so we had plenty to look at. Bill spent a long time with us, answered many, many questions with the utmost patience, while providing us with an incredible education on truck campers.
We are seeing more and more women truck camping and full-timing solo in truck campers. Why do you think that is?
Anne: I would presume it’s because women have become more independent, starting with baby boomers. Many if not most women of working age work outside of the home and are quite accustomed to and skilled at managing their lives, homes, and businesses. I’ve read that women are responsible for up to 80 percent of all purchases—either by making the purchases or holding sway over those who do. It’s not too much of a stretch to see women buying truck campers and taking the lead in enjoying the same freedoms in the outdoors that men do.
Can you tell us about your truck camper and why you chose that particular make and model?
Anne: After seeing all the truck campers at Truck Camper Warehouse, I researched truck campers literally every day. I looked up every truck camper on the market and reviewed all the models. I e-mailed Bill Penney countless times with more questions. I finally boiled it down to an Arctic Fox 811 or an Eagle Cap 850. Fortunately, Bill Penney sold both and he had them side-by-side so a comparison was easy.
There were several “must haves” for us. Barbara really wanted a Heki skylight so the camper interior would be brighter, even on dark days. It wasn’t a deal breaker, but Arctic Fox doesn’t have Heki skylights so we had to think hard about that one. And I really wanted one slide-out to give us more room.
Also, we wanted to be able to go off-road, so we didn’t want a camper that was really long or exceptionally heavy. Nevertheless, Barbara was going to be sleeping on the queen bed with our dog and I was going to sleep on the dinette bed. I’m 5-7, so I needed the longest dinette bed I could find.
After that our must-haves were a furnace, an AC (that we added), a well-insulated frame, two propane tanks so we didn’t have to worry about running out when we were boondocking, two batteries so we would have more power for boondocking, and a “pass through” window so that I could see through the camper to the road behind. We also had to have a backup camera. That camera has proven invaluable for not backing into people, rocks, or trees!
As far as the bathroom, we wanted a wet bath (so that it wouldn’t take up too much interior space) with a sink. We knew that we wouldn’t be able to lift a full cassette from a cassette toilet, so we wanted a black tank. And we wanted to be able to get into the bathroom with the slide-out in.
By January of 2014 we settled on and bought our 2013 Eagle Cap 850 from Truck Camper Warehouse.
What modifications have you made to your camper?
Anne: We’re not wood-workers or electricians. We can’t change the plumbing in the camper or remove and build new storage areas. Consequently, we had to find a camper that was just what we wanted and didn’t require any of that kind of work.
I did have one basic need after we bought our Eagle Cap, however. I didn’t want to carry laundry out to the truck every morning to store it there until wash day. And I didn’t want to use a drawer or cabinet inside the camper. We have outside storage cabinets under the dinette, so I decided that I wanted a “camper hamper.” By cutting the wood under the dinette seat so that we could have access to the outside compartment from inside the camper, and putting a frame under the open area so that we could replace the square piece of wood like a little hatch door, we could put our laundry in a heavyweight black trash bag in the outside compartment without having to walk outside with it. I don’t have the guts to take a saw to my camper, so I had my brother do it. It came out great and we use it all the time.
To make my dinette bed a bit easier to use, I removed the small wooden overhangs that held the dinette cushions in place when the table is set up. After that I upholstered the bare, wooden ends. This way I don’t bump my head or my feet on them.
After that it was just a matter of a few upgrades. I changed the shower head to an Oxygenics head so that we would use less water and have better water pressure. I added gauges to the propane tanks to get a better idea of the gas levels. I had Bill Penney upgrade our Fan-tastic fan to one that pulls air in as well as venting it out. It also has a rain sensor that will automatically close the vent when it starts to rain. Bill also added a charging station for us. I changed all the outside compartment locks to ones that are more secure, based on an article that you wrote about locks from Industrial Lock and Hardware. It’s a great company to work with!
After our group 27 batteries died, we bought group 31 batteries. They’re the biggest ones that will fit in our battery compartment. Next time I’ll probably go with AGMs so I don’t have to add water to them. It’s impossible to see the water levels in the tiny battery compartment and the batteries are very heavy so I can’t lift them out by myself.
We use Andersen levelers to level the camper. We didn’t want to have to carry 2x4s or to drive on and off leveling blocks. The Andersen levelers require just driving forward on them until we reach the correct height, anywhere between 1/2-inch to 4 inches.
We also removed the rock-hard queen mattress and replaced it with an air mattress and I use an air mattress on the dinette. They’re comfortable, inexpensive, easy to replace, and lightweight.
The Eagle Cap 850 is a great camper. Have you had any regrets with your choice like going with a camper that big?
Anne: As much as I love having more room with the slide-out, we’ve had a few problems with it. Regardless, we went into plenty of campers without slide-outs and the difference in space is remarkable. At this point, I can’t imagine not having it. So there’s really nothing that I wish I had done differently.
There’s one thing on the camper that is more of a dissatisfaction than a regret. We have a ladder on the back of our camper (that overlies a window!), supposedly to gain access to the roof. But to use it, I would have to climb up the ladder and somehow swing myself backwards over the rear awning and leap onto the roof! It’s impossible. If they had just put a couple small grab bars on the roof, it would be possible to use the ladder. Instead, I have to climb carefully through the skylight to get onto the roof.
Do you have any lessons learned relating to use of your truck camper that would help our readers who are just starting out?
Anne: Oh, sure. I should have checked the water levels in the batteries sooner. That certainly led to their untimely demise.
We thought we could conserve propane in cold weather by pulling in the slide-out for the night. It seems that that blocked the air intake for the furnace somewhat, so our limit switch in the furnace got fried, leaving us in the cold!
We followed apparently erroneous instructions in the owner’s manual the first time we winterized the camper. We ended up putting about a gallon of human grade antifreeze into our fresh water tank in addition to filling our plumbing lines. That took an awful lot of flushing in the spring to get it all out.
Our gray and black (holding) tanks are close to the same size. The gray always filled faster than the black, which sent us to dump stations more frequently to empty the gray. Now we wash dishes in a basin and pour our dishwater (using Dawn detergent) in the black tank, which helps to keep that tank cleaner and fills both tanks at a fairly equal rate.
During the second week of our first trip, we parked for several minutes in a sandy area while I got out to take pictures. When I tried to drive off, the truck wheels kept spinning and the truck wouldn’t move. Of course, I had had no experience with trucks before that trip, but fortunately Barbara thought to suggest, “How about four-wheel drive?” (Duh!) We were out in seconds.
Can you tell us a little bit about your truck?
Anne: It was January 2014 when we bought our camper. At the time, Truck Camper Warehouse didn’t have the interior, heated showroom that it has now. We spent a couple of hours there in January and by the end of it, we were cold. Before we left, Bill Penney said, “I have a truck. Do you want to buy it?” Bill buys trucks to use to display his campers at shows and then sells them. We still had a 100-mile trip home and we just wanted to get into our warm car, but I figured, what would it hurt to look at the truck? I called Barbara over and we climbed into a 2013 silver GMC Sierra 3500 4×4 SRW. It had only 3,400 miles on it and seemed very nice, but we spent less than 10 minutes looking at it.
When we got home, I thought about that truck and e-mailed Bill to ask him for the spec sheet. When I looked at the sheet, I realized that it had everything I wanted except for heated seats and it was a long-bed instead of the short-bed that I thought I wanted. Bill was selling it for a great price and threw in a rubber mat for under the camper as well as Torklift tie-downs and Torklift FastGun turnbuckles! It was too good a deal to pass up. I emailed him back and said I would take it. The first time I drove it was in April 2014 when it had our camper on it and we were heading home. It was no problem to drive and the long-bed really carries the camper well. In all of our dealings with Bill Penney and his son, Ryan, we have been treated incredibly well. When I commended Bill for treating us so well every time, he said, “I treat people the way I would like to be treated.” That pretty much sums up our experiences at Truck Camper Warehouse.
What kind of mileage are you getting?
Anne: I was surprised that the mileage doesn’t differ much when I’m carrying the camper or when I’m not carrying it! We’ve gotten as few as 7.4 mpg (rarely) and as many as 12.4 mpg, but it’s usually around 9.5 to 10.5.
You’ve been to all 50 states, which is quite an accomplishment. Which states have been your favorites?
Anne: I think Utah is our favorite, but any in the Four Corners region—Utah, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico—are filled with exceptional scenery and ancient cultural areas. Of course, Wyoming and Montana are gorgeous, too. We have flown out to the far western states, but haven’t had enough time to take our truck camper out there. Hopefully we will in the next few years.
Do you have any favorite places where you like to explore?
Anne: We love the national parks in the U.S. but they don’t like dogs. That limits our hiking mostly to national forests, state parks, and some national monuments, historic sites, and state conservation areas. A favorite of ours is definitely the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah. The 67-mile long Burr Trail winds through the park from Boulder, Utah to Bullfrog, Utah—a little more than half is unpaved. It’s a beautiful, scenic drive with great boondocking opportunities. Nearby is the Cedar Mesa region of Utah with ancient Native American sites to hike to on short, 1-mile trails or others requiring multi-day hikes. The only requirement is that visitors are respectful of these sites and do not harm them by climbing in or on the structures or carving names on them, etc.
I think Route 12 in Utah and the Beartooth Highway in Wyoming and Montana are two of the most spectacular paved routes in the country.
Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming is one of my favorite spots in the country. With no foothills, the mountains just spring up from the flat valley floor. They have several campgrounds, but the park abuts a national forest where boondocking is allowed. We love Yellowstone National Park, too, but the crowds there are just out of control. We still visit all the sites on each visit, but we try to go in the early morning. It’s impossible to get near them later in the day.
The national parks in Canada are awesome, less crowded, AND dog-friendly with just the usual requirements of keeping the dog on a leash and cleaning up after him or her. We usually hike every trail in the Canadian parks we visit.
A hike in the United States that was challenging for us was the 4-mile hike to the “Hat Shop” in Bryce Canyon National Park. It starts at 8,309 feet elevation and descends more than 1,400 feet almost straight down to a collection of weirdly eroded stone hoodoos. Since we live at around 100 feet above sea level, the return trip was tough for us!
It sounds like you do a lot of boondocking. What safety precautions do you take to protect yourself and your property when you camp in the wilderness?
Anne: When we tell people at work that we’re going to boondock out west, they insist that we’re going to be killed, as if serial killers lurk around every Ponderosa pine! Of course, there are risks no matter where you go, and perhaps, as women traveling together, we may be more vulnerable, but we don’t feel that way. Many if not most criminals are opportunists. They’re not going to hang around a remote boondocking location just hoping that someone camps there some day! Of course, we do lock our door when we’re in the camper and we always have bear spray or even a fire extinguisher for some quick self-defense!
Do you have any safety advice or tips for women who might be traveling alone?
Anne: The Internet is ripe with suggestions for safety on the road. Here are just a few tips that I think are most relevant for truck campers:
- Make sure to let a family member or friend know where you’re heading. Check in with that person on a regular basis so they will know something is wrong if they don’t hear from you at a predetermined time.
- Don’t leave expensive items outside your camper when you’re away or even when you’re asleep inside.
- Of course, don’t drink and drive, but also don’t drink heavily when you’re outside your camper. You need to keep your wits about you and be alert to potential dangers.
- Although most people you encounter will be kind people with lots of stories to share, don’t be too trusting too quickly.
- Have a good GPS and/or maps so you don’t need to stop for directions at some isolated spot. If you do need to ask for directions, it’s often safer to ask other women or families with children.
- Fill up your gas/diesel tank when it’s half full to avoid running out of fuel in the middle of nowhere.
- Try to avoid using rest rooms in rest areas at night.
- If a place doesn’t feel safe, go with your gut and move on!
That’s great advice. What’s the most worrisome or scariest moment you’ve experienced during your travels?
Anne: We were in Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area earlier this year and were planning on staying for at least a couple of nights so we could do some hiking. At around 0500 on our first morning, it started sprinkling. By 0630 it was pouring. Sleet was coming down by 0650 and by 0700 it was snowing.
A ranger stopped by and told us that it was supposed to snow for two days in Flaming Gorge. We cancelled our hiking plans and decided to head out. It was 28 degrees at the time and quickly dropped to 24 degrees. Within an hour the snow had accumulated to more than an inch and was coming down pretty hard—much harder than we expected—and was starting to stick to the road. We still had about 44 miles to go to get to Vernal, Utah where the temperature was supposed to hit 50 degrees. But between us and Vernal were some pretty high mountains, the highest being over 8,000 feet in elevation.
I tried to drive in the tire tracks of some vehicle that had passed ahead of us, but over time those tracks were obscured. We started gaining elevation as the snow got heavier on the road. A semi and another large truck were stuck off on the side of the road and two state police cars were parked in the road in front and behind them so no one would crash into them. I switched to four-wheel drive.
After we reached the first summit, I was relieved that we were descending, only to discover that we were soon beginning our next ascent. A couple of times I could feel our tires lose traction; even four-wheel drive doesn’t help on ice. As I tried to slow down, the brakes refused to catch. This was not good.
We passed a car that had gone off the steep road, but didn’t hit anything. The snow was around 4 inches deep at this point so I kept the truck in low gear in addition to four-wheel drive. Just when I thought we must be coming out of the worst of it, a sign indicated 8 percent grades for 9 miles with 10 switchbacks. It was white-knuckle driving for the entire 44 miles, but we finally got out intact with the truck and camper encased in ice.
Have you had any notable encounters with wildlife on your travels?
Anne: We’ve encountered black bears, grizzlies, mountain goats and bighorn sheep, bison, alligators, and even an aggressive and probably rabid skunk, but those experiences paled in comparison to our encounter in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. In Long Canyon there’s a short slot canyon that extends only a third of a mile before it dead ends. When we got to the opening of the slot, our little dog, Maya, hesitated to go inside. She didn’t make a sound, but she was sniffing the ground and pulling backwards on her leash—not necessarily abnormal for her since she likes to explore—so we didn’t think anything of it. Near the end of the slot we were admiring the towering walls when a man in a Utah State Parks uniform ran up to us holding a gun. “An hour ago there was a sighting of a mountain lion in this canyon,” he said, “so I grabbed my gun and came down to check it out. Then I saw there was a family in here with a dog and I rushed in.” He went on ahead to the end of the little canyon and returned, reporting that the lion was gone. Barbara and I hiked on ahead with Maya.
Suddenly one of the hikers that we had met in the canyon returned and told us to pick up Maya because the lion was at the mouth of the slot canyon. The state park guy told us that we needed to leave immediately. “You need to go out single file and walk straight to your cars. I’ll put myself between you and the lion.”
We moved quickly and quietly. The ranger had his gun drawn. We scanned the ledges along the canyon walls and peered under the tiny cottonwoods and scrub brush on the ground. At the mouth of the slot, a set of huge eyes stared back at us from under a low ledge. As we looked more closely, we could see his head, and muscular chest, and front legs. We pressed ourselves against the opposite wall, 20 to 30 feet away from him and squeezed through some bushes. I bent low and clicked off a few pictures as we passed. Barbara gripped Maya with both hands. I don’t know if Maya saw the lion, but she didn’t make a sound. We cleared the area fast. Later we realized that when we entered the slot, we had walked within 10 feet of the lion and never saw it. but clearly Maya knew it was there.
We like to stress emergency preparedness here at Truck Camper Adventure. What preparations do you like to make before embarking on a trip?
Anne: Since we have a hard-sided truck camper and we don’t know how to repair a truck, we don’t travel over very rough, long, four-wheel drive roads. But even on the roads that we travel on, we’re a long walk from any town if we should run into trouble. With some pre-planning, we do our best to avoid getting stuck. By carrying extra brake fluid, antifreeze, power steering fluid, and oil, (and a full tank of gas) we hope that we could limp back to civilization where we would find someone to make repairs.
Last year we had a flat tire in a national park and couldn’t get the lug nuts off the tire. We had to call for road service. That really annoyed us since we know how to change a tire! And if we had been boondocking, we would have been stuck for a while. When we got home, I was determined to find something that would allow us to change the tire. We tried a couple of impact wrenches that plugged into an auxiliary power outlet in the truck, but neither had enough power. Then I found the Cheater Wrench torque multiplier. I had to buy a different impact socket to fit our lug nuts and I use our original lug wrench to brace it, but now I can remove the lug nuts with absolutely no effort.
If the truck battery dies, we have a Bolt Power jump starter—a small device that I can hold in one hand that has enough power to jump-start our truck. We charge it up before we leave home and it holds a charge for months.
Have you ever had to make an emergency repair to your camper on one of your trips?
Anne: Yes. A couple of years ago we were camped near Lake Powell. I popped my head up through the skylight and noticed that the vent cover to the refrigerator was missing! It was late afternoon, it was going to rain, there were no stores within several miles, and the ones that were miles away had already closed. I called Bill Penney and he told me that we needed to cover the top of the vent but leave the sides open for ventilation. He made a few suggestions and then it was our Apollo 13 moment: we had to figure out how to make a vent cover with just what we had on hand.
The wind was whipping up in fierce gusts. Barbara was afraid that I would get blown off the roof, so I put on a small knapsack, tied a sheet to it, and she wrapped the other end of the sheet around herself. If nothing else, she’d slow down my fall off the roof! I climbed up and took measurements. Then we cut up plastic container covers and duct taped them together. We made a passable cover, but then I had to fasten it to the vent so that it would be secure enough to withstand highway speeds. With our contraption in hand, I climbed out on the roof once again and attached it tightly. The next day we found an RV parts store, but they said they had sold their last three or four covers in the previous few days because the wind had been tearing covers off! We had to drive a couple hundred miles to a place in Colorado before we could buy a replacement, but our makeshift cover held on securely!
As a result, we try to carry a few replacement parts plus odds and ends to help us the next time we have to “MacGyver” something. We have another refrigerator vent cover, another handheld remote control for the slide-out with instructions on how to program it, a replacement for the plastic part the bathroom door slides on, spare fuses, extra air mattresses, a space heater in case the furnace dies, and a large, plastic Platypus container for water in case the water pump dies. I carry a square head screwdriver for the square-headed screws in our camper. We can manually crank in the slide-out (although it takes some muscle). We have tried to think of every moving part in the camper and come up with a backup plan in case it stops working—especially when we’re boondocking!
What foods do you like to eat when you’re out in your truck camper?
Anne: When we’re on the road, we spend all of our time traveling and hiking with a little relaxation in the evening. The last thing we’re interested in doing is cooking! Occasionally we’ll try some local specialty like Digby scallops in Digby, Nova Scotia but mostly we eat simple foods in camp. Although I didn’t want the oven when we bought the camper, it has proven to be quite convenient to toss in a frozen pizza or one that I make from French bread and have a meal in 15 minutes. We also eat a lot of salad with chicken and various soups and sandwiches and pasta. It really helps to have a 6-cubic foot refrigerator plus a freezer.
Do you have any other hobbies as they relate to the great outdoors?
Anne: Like many people, I really enjoy photography when we travel. But one of our favorite hobbies really dovetails with our love of hiking. Geocaching is an international “treasure” hunt. Using a handheld GPS or a free app on a smart phone, geocachers use GPS coordinates to locate containers (caches) that range from ones the size of your little fingernail to large storage bins. Most are the size of small Tupperware containers. Inside there are often small toys or trinkets and a log to sign. Then we log the find online on the geocaching app and it replaces the geocache dot on the map with a smiley face. There are more than 3 million caches hidden in more than 190 countries! We’ve only found just under 3,000 caches in the last two years, so we have a long way to go. Geocaching takes us to conservation areas and trails that otherwise we never would have known existed and we’ve visited some amazing places as a result. There’s plenty of information about the hobby at www.geocaching.com.
This has been great talking to you, Anne. Thanks again for taking the time to talk with us about your experiences. Do you have any final advice for our readers?
Anne: For any woman debating about getting a truck camper, we would suggest that if you’re in reasonably good health and you have a good mind for figuring a solution if something breaks, then go for it! You can always stay in campgrounds until you get the hang of it, but it’s really not that difficult. It has been a great joy for us! If we had known about truck campers years ago, we would have bought one back then!