The Basics of How To Camp in Your Truck
Do trucks make good tents? Depends on your equipment.
During part of my 20s, I worked at a summer camp in Colorado. I didn’t have a permanent home outside the camp, and I didn’t know anyone in the area, so any rare days off presented a choice. I could stay on the property, where I’d been surrounded by kids for the past six weeks, or I could take off on a solo adventure in my truck. Naturally, I grabbed my sleeping bag, hit the gas station for soda and snacks, and headed out into the Colorado wilderness. In my solitude, I learned about myself and embraced my adventurous side.
Venturing into the sticks is hugely popular these days, and there are a lot of opinions floating around about how it should be done. Many of those who enjoy spending time outdoors have become insulated from the experience by creature comforts, but setting up camp doesn’t have to be complicated or plush. Yes, you can spend lots of dollars, pounds, and bits of bitcoins to outfit the perfect rig, but the cheaper and easier route is to use your trusty pickup to get out into the country for some quiet time by yourself — or even with friends and family.
There are a number of ways to go camping with your pickup. Whether you prefer to sleep in a tent, in the cab of your truck, in the truck bed, with a trailer, or glamping with a slide-in camper, the editors of Guides & Gear are here to walk you through some of the basics to get you started.
Why Use a Truck for Camping?
The best-selling vehicle type in the United States is a great camping rig. A truck can help you get farther into the woods, up the mountains, or along the trail due to its rugged build, tall clearance height, and its versatility. It’s a go-anywhere vehicle — pretty much — that you can sleep in, too. We mention size because those massive 2500, HDs, and Super Duty models can run into environments that are too small for them. A mid-size or half-ton truck are better options for reuniting with nature.
Truck Camping Safety
Safety is important while camping, and there are multiple aspects to consider. Use this as a basic checklist to make sure you’re prepared for emergencies.
- First-aid kit and fire extinguisher. Campsites are typically far from medical services. A first-aid kit with a fire extinguisher should be a part of any trip you take in your vehicle.
- Jump starter. Backup plans are the name of the game when you go camping, and that includes preparing for a dead car battery.
- Tools. We take tool sets with us pretty much every time we take a trip. You might not need it most of the time, but those few times when you do, you’ll be extremely thankful you thought ahead.
- Spare tire and 12-volt tire inflator. If you’re traveling off normal roads, the likelihood of a flat tire or damaged tire increases exponentially. A fully inflated spare tire and a backup tire inflator will prevent you from getting stuck.
- Map and compass. You never know when your electronics will fail you, so a backup map and compass are great tools to have when you’re out in the woods.
- Lighting and batteries. You might see it in commercials or other advertisements, but do not use your headlights as a method for lighting up your campground. Not only does it waste gas, it could kill your battery if it’s done without the car running. Get a proper lantern and a headlamp for the campsite and make sure you have spare batteries in the case of dead lights.
- Bucket. Fire safety should always be at the top of your mind when camping. What goes in the fire stays in the fire. That’s a great mantra to have to help keep the flames where they belong: in the fire ring. Double checking that all fires are extinguished before going to sleep is important as well. A bucket for sand, dirt, and/or water can help make sure that when everyone is headed to bed, the fire is out.
- Wheel chocks. Vehicle safety when camping means making sure your vehicle isn’t moving when it’s not supposed to be. Adding wheel chocks, rocks, and/or planks of wood after setting the parking brake helps to guarantee that your vehicle will be in the same spot in the morning as to where it was when you nodded off.
- Sun protection. Get yourself some sunscreen. Your future self will be thankful.
- Animal control. Camping where bears live is fun. Bears searching your campground for food is not fun, so you’ll need to take food storage seriously. Never leave food out in the open and do not keep it in any unlocked storage container. If your site has one, use a food locker away from where you sleep. Without a food locker, the U.S. Forest Service advises campers to purchase a bear canister before heading out. If possible, try to eliminate smells that could attract dangerous critters.
- Parking near water. If you’re at the beach, make sure you are parked far above the high-tide mark and off sand that could leave you stranded. If you don’t know where that is, don’t camp on the beach. Next to streams or lakes, the likelihood of the water washing your vehicle away is not as high, but it should still be considered when setting up camp. Checking local weather reports before heading out for the chance of heavy rain is a very good idea to avoid flash floods. Given that they’re called flash floods because you’ll likely get little warning of one, caution should always be used when camping near water. Always be cautious and set up camp farther away and uphill.
- Alert a friend or family member. Whether you’re camping alone or with others, make sure people not at the campsite know what you’re doing and where you’re going. It could become a matter of life and death if anything goes wrong.
Everything You’ll Need To Go Truck Camping
The camping expo scene would have you believe that you need to include all kinds of extra cooking, organizational, and armored accessories for your truck. In reality, a night spent in the woods can be a much leaner trip. Here are our expert recommendations.
Camping Gear List
Truck Gear List
- Truck bed shell (not required)
- Blocks, rocks, or traction boards to help level the truck
- Extra gas (Just don’t keep it where you sleep.)
- Tool kit
Personal Items List
- Toiletries, especially deodorant
- Pain killers, anti-inflammatories
- Smartphone and chargers
- Clothing for all weather types
- Raincoat or poncho
- Water shoes to use for checking water crossings
Here Are the Basics for Camping in Your Truck
Let’s do this!
Before you head out, think about packing the items you will need immediate access to or will need access to first when traveling and setting up.
- Check your tire pressure and top off all fluids, including oil, coolant, brake fluid, clutch fluid, power-steering fluid, and windshield-wiper fluid.
- Pack your necessary personal items. Keep weight and volume in mind if you plan to hike to any campsites.
- Secure the cargo, especially coolers, water, propane canisters, and other heavy items.
- Alert someone where you are planning to go.
Setting Up Camp
Once you’ve found your slice of heaven, or the nearest campsite:
- If planning on using a tent, it’s helpful to set it up in the daylight. The truck headlights can help if you are forced to do this at night, but keep the truck running so you won’t drain the battery.
- Locate your bathroom, any food-storage boxes, water sources, and trash disposal.
- If you’re sleeping in the bed of the truck, it’s important to find a close-to-level place to park your vehicle. You can use rocks, logs, and traction boards to raise the front or back of your vehicle to level it.
- Get a fire going, if allowed. Respect fire restrictions and follow the local guidance. Cookstoves are safer to use than an open fire. Make sure all fires are extinguished before going to bed.
Cleaning Up Camp
When you’re ready to leave, there's but one rule to follow:
- Leave no trace. Clean up all trash or remnants of your campsite. If it is a prepared campsite, dispose of your trash in the appropriate places.
If it’s a dispersed campsite, do your best to leave the space as before you found it. Tread Lightly has amazing resources for respectful and sustainable camping.
Types of Camping Options for Your Truck
There is more than one way to go camping with your pickup. Depending on how comfortable you want to be, there are a few options.
Ground Tent/Truck-Bed Tent
Utilizing a ground tent is a straightforward option for sleeping accommodations while camping with your truck. A wide variety of shapes, sizes, and weights exists, so you can pick exactly what you need. Other than sleeping in your vehicle’s cabin, a tent is one of the cheapest ways to camp.
For a slightly different and more expensive type of tent experience, you can also buy a truck-bed tent. An in-bed tent straps to the bedsides and uses tent poles to reinforce the rest of the tent body. These are very similar to ground tents, but they are specifically constructed for the truck bed. Many are universal to truck beds and not always created for a specific model. That is something to take into account when looking for a tent for your truck bed.
Rooftop tents don’t sound like they would work with a pickup truck, but they still do. All that is needed is a rack system, and they’re available from a number of companies. The rack attaches to the bedsides and extends across the bed. The rooftop tents then attach to those cross bars, so you can still use your truck bed for gear. The racks are available at varying heights. You can choose one that keeps the tent below the roofline of the truck, while still keeping the bed functional or one that raises the floor of the tent and provides more space in the truck bed.
Some truck-bed shells have a weight rating that can allow you to attach the rooftop tent to the bed shell, but those options are going to be more expensive. They do look great when outfitted properly.
Truck-Bed Camping With a Shell
Camping in your truck bed can be improved with the addition of a bed shell and a sleeping platform. The shells are usually made out of fiberglass and fit over the entire bed. Sleeping platforms create cargo and storage space underneath and can fit up to a queen-size space for sleeping.
One downside is height. Although the camper shell provides shelter from the elements, it also cuts down on headspace. This is a personal preference; some like the coziness of the bed shells while others feel cramped by them. Camper shells can be reasonably priced when compared to the other truck-bed camping options like slide-in campers.
Now we are getting expensive. Slide-in campers, which essentially fit into a truck bed like a Tetris piece, come in a variety of sizes and living standards. Some offer basic amenities, and others are essentially studio apartments in the back of your truck. They also offer the option of popouts for more space.
One benefit to many slide-ins is that once you’ve reached your preferred campsite, the camper’s legs can be extended and the truck can be pulled out from under the camper. Now the camper is a tiny cabin and you are able to drive the truck without taking your home with you.
Trucks are known for their hauling prowess, and manufacturers continue to raise the abilities of their pickups when it comes to towing and gross-vehicle-weight ratings. Half-ton (F-150s, Silverados, Sierras, Titans, and Tundras) pickups are very capable when it comes to towing an adventure trailer, while heavy-duty and super-duty models are needed for larger trailers like fifth wheels. Trailer options range from a couple-thousand-dollar sleeping quarters to full mobile homes for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Then again, using trailers goes a bit beyond regular truck camping.
Pro Tips for Truck Camping
Over the years, we’ve done our share of truck camping, including a night spent locked out of an apartment waiting for roommates to return (in my early 20s). To prevent negative experiences, here are some tips to help you have a better experience in your truck.
- If you have decided to sleep in the bed of your truck, place your head toward the tailgate. Unless your suspension is shot, the rear of almost all trucks is a bit higher than the front, and your head pointed toward the engine will cause all the blood to go to your head. That is not an enjoyable night's sleep. The same advice goes for SUVs.
- When thinking about how much room you have in the back for sleeping space, measure between the tightest space across, probably between the wheel wells. You might not have as much room back there as you think. Building a sleeping platform out of wood can raise the sleeping area above the wheel wells and give you more space and room for cargo storage below the platform.
- Taking extra clothes is always a good idea. If the weather changes and it gets colder, you can add layers of extra clothes to help keep you warm. If it rains, a dry set of clothes is always welcome.
- Always have extra water and extra fuel. A general rule of thumb is a gallon of water per person per day. While camping/traveling, we rarely pass a gas station without stopping when we are near a half tank.
- The cab of your truck feels like it should be the best place for a good night’s sleep, but that isn’t always the case. My 1997 Sierra had a bench seat that was the best possible situation for sleeping in the cab, but my height — I’m six-foot-four — made that an uncomfortable position most of the night. Bucket seats make this even more complicated. The 2021 Ford F-150s do, however, have Max Recline seats. I’m skeptical about how comfortable a night in those would be, but a night in the cab of the truck can be better than sleeping out with bears, thunderstorms, hail, mosquitoes, or snow.
FAQs About Truck Camping
You’ve got questions. The Drive has answers.
Q: Do I have to have four-wheel drive?
A: To go camping in your truck, you do not need four-wheel drive. It is helpful when you’re off-roading, but it’s not a requirement. You also don’t necessarily need a truck. You could use a car or a motorcycle.
Q: Where can I camp with my truck?
A: This answer varies by state and region. Some states have just a small amount of public land. The state of Kansas has only about 2 percent of public land, for example. Other states like Nevada are more than 85 percent public land. If you are on public land, you can camp there, but there are limitations for how long you can stay. The term is dispersed camping. Once you are west of Denver, camping on public land becomes more or less acceptable.
Q: How long can you stay on public land?
A: The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has a policy for how long you can stay in a single location on public land. The general policy is that you can camp in any single spot for 14 days on BLM land. Once you move from that spot, you can not return there for 28 days. As long as there are enough campsites that you like, you could conceivably keep moving every 14 days and live on BLM land indefinitely.
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