Last Updated: May 6, 2019
Have pickup truck, will travel! At least, that’s what many of us tell ourselves after buying a pickup truck. And it’s easy to see why: with just a little bit of preparation, and maybe a few thousand dollars in extras, a pickup truck can be converted into a wonderful camping rig.
But it isn’t without its compromises, so it helps to know what you’ll need, and how to get the most out of your pickup. Here are some tips for truck bed camping.
Buy A Camper Shell
Add a camper shell to your pickup truck, and you’ve just converted it into a bona fide RV in one fell swoop – albeit a small one. It’s that easy. True, camper shells can be expensive.
The trick is knowing what to look for, and choosing one based on your budget. Companies like SnugTop, Leer, and A.R.E. have a wide number of camper shells to choose from, thankfully, so you should be able to find something that meets your needs.
When shopping for a camper shell, the first thing to remember is to buy a truck-specific application. Not all camper shells fit all vehicles, of course.
You can then go about picking a shell. If you intend to do some camping with it, windows and bubble tops (shells with extended roof lines) are great options, as they’ll make your experience more comfortable and enjoyable. Don’t lock yourself into a windowless coffin all night long. Once your shell is chosen, the rest is coasting!
Consider Building a Bed Frame
Buying an air mattress or futon and placing it directly on the bed of the truck is a rookie mistake. One, you’re not providing for any insulation space; you are literally sleeping directly on the cold metal bed of the truck with nothing but a thin mattress between your body and it.
Two, you will find that you can’t use the space above you for storage – but you can use the space below you. Finally, if you place your mattress directly on the bed, you will likely find that the wheel wells intrude on your available space. This is why you should build a bed frame.
Using some 2×4” boards and plywood, construct a simple frame that extends over the wheel wells. This will not only widen the space available to you for a bed while elevating you above the cold hard metal, but it will create some much-needed storage space in the bed for your various accessories as well (which we’ll be going into below).
If you’re feeling industrious, you could even build some slide-out drawers so that you don’t have to go digging underneath your mattress with a large hook for items that have shifted.
Barring that, invest in some plastic tubs that fit in the storage space you’ve created.
Accessories, Accessories, Accessories
Anyone who has ever been to a Bass Pro Shop knows how quickly camping accessories can add up! Propane stoves, LED flashlights, portable toilets, outdoor showers, lawn chairs, generators, mini fridges, pots and pans, and any number of other camping accessories might serve a purpose on your next camping trip.
The key is to prioritize what you need and don’t need, take a measurement of the available space, and then buy accordingly. Otherwise, you could go bankrupt on all the camping accessories that are available!
Items that you certainly will want to buy include a small stove, camp chairs, sleeping bags or heavy blankets, dishware, a cooler, a mattress, an ample supply of water, and a flashlight (or two or three). Consider these your truck camping essentials. Once these are covered, you can dive into the more user-specific items.
Perhaps you’re a photographer. Or perhaps you’re a hunter. Put a list together and check them off one-by-one so that you’re not missing anything when you get to the campsite.
Bigger Isn’t Always Better
Believe it or not, a full-size truck isn’t a prerequisite for truck camping. In fact, with a suitable camper shell and a well-constructed bed frame, a medium-sized truck like the Chevy Colorado is more than ample for most, if not all, truck camping purposes.
Plus, you will likely find that many larger pickup trucks actually give you less mobility; their large size and extra weight often leaves them a bit out of place on smaller trails, fire roads, and other off-road routes. You will also spend less on gasoline with a smaller truck, which is always a good thing.
Take this into consideration if you are looking for a pickup truck to serve double duty – both for personal use and the occasional camping – but are hesitant to commit to the full-size model.
Keep Things Clean
If you intend to use your truck bed for camping, then you must treat it like you would your own home (or tent). Keep things clean and organized. Don’t simply throw items in the bed and forget about them.
A camper shell with a bed frame is better than any tent you will ever find, but only if you treat it with respect and keep things tidy. To ensure that no dust or water makes its way into the truck bed, make certain that the camper shell is properly sealed against the elements.
If your shell is professionally installed, then this should be a non-issue, but if you are installing the shell yourself, make certain that you are using proper weather stripping, seals, and gaskets where the manufacturer recommends.
A mild winter’s evening can feel like a night on Hoth when your only shelter is your truck bed. In fact, even if you are camping in the desert in a relatively warm climate, it’s still recommended that you bring plenty of blankets (or suitable sleeping bags) and extra clothing, as overnight temperatures can get surprisingly low.
When it comes to staying warm, it’s definitely better to be safe than sorry. If you find that you don’t need all of the blankets and clothing that you’ve brought along, simply store them beneath the mattress or throw them in the cab. It’s no big deal.
Remember, it’s better to bring materials and not need them than to need materials and not have them.