The Ultimate Truck Camping Guide For 2020

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Last Updated on January 2, 2021

COVID-19 isolated yet freed us at the same time. Before COVID, most Americans dreamed of traveling the world. But even after lockdowns, Americans are beginning to realize their travel dreams CAN still happen after remote work became mainstream. Why pay for expensive rent and be stuck in one place when you can live rent-free and travel anywhere?

That’s why van life is booming right now. But is van life the best solution?

If you’re like most people, you’ve probably chosen van life. But I have found a far better (but massively underhyped) option: truck life, made possible with creative truck camping. Here are 4 solid reasons why you should choose it…

Why I Chose Truck Life

It was this YouTube video that convinced me:

Simply put, a couple that’s tried everything from RV life to van life concluded truck life was best. Their reasoning? Mostly because…

Truck Life’s Affordability

The couple had both a:

  • $7,000 Vanagon
  • $12,500 Tacoma

Which do you think would be more expensive in a year’s time? The vanagon.

By how much? By more than $36,000!

Vanagon ownership costs. Something to consider with regards to truck camping.

(Source: Bound For Nowhere)

Why so much? Because the maintenance for the van was crazy expensive. In comparison, the Tacoma’s maintenance costed less than $400. Better yet, when they sold the Tacoma, they made 95% of the original cost back (12.5K).

This leads us to a big benefit of the truck camping life: it’s very affordable. Another Youtuber, The Homeless Firefighter, rocked a similar build for less than $10,000. This build saved him so much money that he can now pay off his house with cash. The best part?

When you come to sell your truck — especially if it’s a Tacoma — you’ll make most of what you spent back. This gives you the freedom to change your mind. However, that’s not the only reason why they went to truck life. They also liked how…

Trucks Are Beginner Friendly

To replicate the couple’s build…

Truck Camping sleeping and storage option.

(Source: Bound For Nowhere)

…you only need 3 things:

  • Camper Shell
  • Truck Bed Storage Drawers
  • Mattress

And you’ve got yourself a mobile home on wheels. No special skills, tools, or manual work needed. Even I could do it — and I barely know how to use a screwdriver. And that’s not all there is to like about truck life. There’s also…

Truck Life’s Expandability

Do you know of a vehicle that can go from a 2 person setup to a 6 person setup with minimal mods? Trucks. One Youtuber, Big Sexy Beast Adventures, does this all the time. Throughout the year, Beast Adventure lives out of his truck camper shell with his dog:

Throughout the year, Beast Adventure lives out of his truck camper shell with his dog

(Source: Big Sexy Adventure Beast’s Channel)

But when his kids come over, he attaches a small RV and comfortably houses his entire family:

Truck camping can be greatly extended by adding a towable camper

(Source: Big Sexy Adventure Beast’s Channel)

This is a great feature as family sizes tend to increase down the line. And as families grow, so do your destinations which leads us to another benefit…

Trucks Can Go Anywhere

So whether you want to visit national parks or drive to remote public land, trucks can get you there.

Not only that, but trucks can save you a TON of money on the #1 money sink: parking.

Truck Camping Saves On Parking

Parking eats a TON of money — sometimes costing well over $90 a night (the cost of a hotel). Why waste your money to park your vehicle?

With a truck camper shell build I’ll layout, you can ‘stealth park’ in any public place (like Walmart parking lots and neighborhoods) without spending a single cent. This will save you hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars on parking costs so you can spend more on fun. And that sums up 5 good reasons to choose truck life. Convinced? Read on to find out how I did it…

How To Start Truck Camping Step-By-Step

You need only 3 things to truck life:

  1. Reliable Truck
  2. Few Essential Off-Road Mods
  3. Truck Living Space

With these 3 things, you can be truck camping anywhere. Let’s start with the first:

Step #1: Get a Reliable Truck

If you already own a 4×4 truck, scroll down to step #2. However, if you don’t own a truck and don’t know which to get, read on…

#1: Set a truck camping budget

First, choose a budget range you can afford:

  • $10,000 – $15,000
  • $15,000 – $20,000
  • $20,000 – $30,000
  • $30,000+

I personally went with the last option as I’m truck camping full-time. However, the best rig for you ultimately boils down to your budget. Choose a budget range you can afford and move onto the next step…

#2: Select a Truck Size

There’s 2 truck sizes:

  • Compact Truck: Great for solo riders or couples
  • Full-Size Truck: Great for families

Choose a truck size that fits your family size then move onto…

#3: Choose a Reliable Truck

Your truck needs only 3 main features:

  • 4×4 capability: Makes your truck off-road capable.
  • V6 (or higher) engine: This gives you the power to take on any trail.
  • Locking rear differential: Helps you get out of tight spots off-road.

If your truck has these 3 features, go ahead and buy it. Which probably makes you wonder: what truck did I choose?

My personal choice: 2020 Tacoma TRD Off-Road
Toyota Tacoma's are often chosen for their truck camping capabilities.

My reasoning is simple: I needed a reliable compact truck that can fit 2 people and hold its resale value well.  Tacomas were the natural choice. After all, Tacomas are:

  • Highly Reliable: This is a given.
  • Amazing Resale: Tacomas have the lowest depreciation rate on the market and are highly sought out. This makes it easy to sell.

But honestly…Tacomas are SUPER overhyped. Truth is, any reliable truck will serve you well without a super expensive price tag. You can find reliable truck recommendations on Dashboard Light. This site uses data from over 2 million cars to gauge reliability. Here are the models sorted by truck size:

Simply choose a truck model you like and buy it. But how should you buy? Let’s break your options…

#4: Lease Vs. New Vs. Used

I’ve sorted the 3 buying options by budget:

  • Lease: 10-15K Budget or Short-Term (<2 years)
  • Buying Used: 20-30K Budget or Serious Modding
  • Buying New: $30,000+ or Long-Term Use

Let’s start with the first…

Leasing Your Truck: 10-15K Budget or Short-Term (<2 years)

For 10-15K, the only truck you’ll be able to afford is an older truck.

The problem with older trucks?

[Image]

Older trucks will cost less to purchase but more in maintenance and do not have modern conveniences.
Maybe not this bad, but you will have more maintenance costs to offset the cash outlay reduction.

They can be unreliable.

At higher mileages, you’re much more likely to run into serious issues. If you’re a beginner like me, this is the LAST thing you want (as we have 0 handyman skills). Instead, go with a lease. You get a new, reliable truck that won’t break. This saves you from expensive repair disasters and possibly getting stranded mid-road. Not fun. That’s why I recommend leases for low budgets: it’s low risk, inexpensive and safe. But what if you have a little more money? Then I recommend…

Buying Used: 20-30K Budget or Serious Modding

You’ll be able to snag a reliable, used truck at this price. This gives you free rein to do serious mods.

Truck camping usually requires a vehicle that can leave the pavement easily.

The only question is:

How do you find a reliable used truck?

How I Found My First Used Truck

First, use Autotrader.com. From extensive research and testing, Autotrader is hands down the best website for finding used cars (at least in Texas).

Next, set up filters based on your wants (budget, model, features). This helps you find truck deals fast.

The Ultimate Truck Camping Guide For 2020 - The Prepper Journal
Sample Autotrader search.

After you set the filters, favorite this link for easy access later.

Save your truck camping vehicle search.

Finally, look at trucks daily. It took me about a month of twice-a-day search (once in morning and evening) to find a used Tacoma at a reasonable price. But truth be told, you will likely buy a rotten truck full of problems if you don’t follow these tips:

  • Buy from a brand dealership: (Toyota, Ford, GMC, etc.).
    • Pro Tip: If you’re going to buy private, bring a mechanic with you to check the car.
  • Read the Carfax: Aim for less than 3 owners, no accidents, and consistent vehicle maintenance every 5,000 miles. Never buy a car without a Carfax history.
  • Get a prepurchase car inspection: Google ‘prepurchase car inspection’ and you’ll find a local service. This saves you thousands of dollars in hidden damage and can be used in price negotiation. 

Follow these tips and you’ll score an awesome used truck. Don’t have the time to do this? Then buy new. 

Buying New: $30,000+ or Long-Term Use

New gives you peace of mind.

What is the best choice for truck camping?

(Image by Dusty Barnes)

You’ll have 0 mechanical issues and you’re backed with the original manufacturer’s warranty. If the truck ever malfunctions (it won’t), they’ll most likely fix it free of charge. That said, I only recommend new if you’ve got the money OR you intend to truck life long-term (like me). Otherwise stick with used. And that’s all there is to buying your first used truck. So to recap, you should have:

  • A reliable truck model (use Dashboard Light)
  • Bought (or make plans) to buy it

After you’ve done these things, it’s time for the next step…

Step #2: Make Your Truck Off-Road Ready

These are the 3 core things needed for off-roading:

  1. Off-Road Tires: I recommend all-terrain tires for better off-road grip (traction). Most recommend General Grabber AT2 or BFGoodrich K02s.
    1. Skid Plates: Most expensive off-road damage occurs at the bottom of your truck. Skid plates protect from this. Only necessary for more serious off-roading.
    1. Recovery Gear: When you’re stuck, this gear is your ‘get out of jail free’ card. Here are the 5 essentials:
  1. Tire Deflator: Deflating tires make it easier to drive over hard terrain (sand, mud) and get out when you’re stuck.
  2. Air Compressor (ARB On-Board): Refills deflated tires with air. This allows you to drive comfortably on cement roads again.
  3. Recovery Boards: When stuck, put these under your tires to get unstuck. I like ARB recovery boards.
  4. Tire Repair Kit(Boulder Tools Kit): If punctured, this kit temporarily patches your tires so you can drive back to safety for serious repairs.
  5. Warn Medium-Duty Epic Recovery Kit: When you’re stuck deep, a tow strap will allow another truck to pull you out. No help around? Use a winch.

With these 3 things, you can pretty much off-road anywhere.

The other mods people usually buy — fancy bar lights, lifts, stickers — are solely for Instagram. In general, the more things you add to your truck, the more you’ll spend. That’s why I highly recommend keeping your truck as close to stock as possible and upgrade only when necessary. Your pocket and truck will thank you down the line. Saving on mods will allow you to spend more on a killer living space.

Step #3: Make Your Truck Livable

These are the 5 best truck life builds.

I’ve sorted each build by use. So whether you’re looking for a budget build or an overlander build, you’ll find it here. Let’s begin!

Best Overall: Truck Camping Shell

What is it?

Camper Shell + Drawers =

Truck Camping sleeping and storage option.

(Source: Bound For Nowhere)

Why go a Truck Camper Shell build?
  • Simple: Only need a camper shell + drawers to make this work.
  • Saves You Money: You can park anywhere. Whether that’s a Walmart parking lot or a neighborhood, this ‘stealth parking’ feature will save you a TON of cash.
  • Compact: There’s 0 wasted space. You’ve got a bed and all your camping gear efficiently stored below in the drawer.
  • Upgradable: Need to camp more people? Add a rooftop tent or attach an RV.
Examples of Build
  • Bound To Nowhere: A couple rocked this build for 9 months with no issues. They highly recommend it for beginners.
  • Big Sexy Beast Adventures: A solo overlander that’s contributed to this guide. Patrick has been rocking a camper shell build for years.
Who is it for?

Couples or solo adventurers. This is the option I’ve personally chosen.

Best Budget: Truck Camping Tents

What is it?

Truck + Truck Tent =

Why go for it?

It’s dirt cheap, easy, and fast. Here’s a quick comparison between camper shells (or toppers) and truck tents:

Simply put:

Truck tents are cheap and fast while camper shells are more of a permanent solution. Camper shells also have better rain proofing and insulation ability than truck tents.

Examples of Build
  • NBedits: A recreational fisher that camps out of his truck tent.
Who is it for?

The complete beginner with a tight budget. It’s also a great way to ‘test drive’ truck life without sinking a ton of money. Just get a truck rental, truck bed tent, sleeping bag and you can truck camp anywhere without investing much time or money!

Best for Overlanding: Rooftop Tent

What is it?

Truck storage + Roof Top Tent =

Why go for it?

Roof top tents are lightweight, compact, and very comfortable. Very popular in the overlanding community.

Examples of Build
  • DavidJenk253: A huge collaborator on this guide. He mostly overlands solo but sometimes brings his wife.
  • Down2Mob Overland: The adventures of a bearded man living in a rooftop tent.
Who is it for?

A solo adventurer or couple that loves overlanding (driving to remote places & camping). I’ve personally combined this build with the Camper Shell build for maximum space.

Best for Families: RVs

What is it?

Truck + RV =

RV's offer the most luxury of the truck camping options but there are serious drawbacks to mobility.
Easily fit an entire family without losing the comfort of home.

(Source: Fate Unbound)

Why go for it?

It’s the most comfortable build. It can also easily fit an entire family without losing the comfort of home. The only problem? It can get quite expensive. You’ve got to buy the RV, storage, parking, and maintenance. Not recommended for beginners.

Examples of Build
  • Bound To Nowhere: A minimalist couple living out of their Tundra’s Four Wheel Camper.
  • Fate Unbound: A couple living out of their RV full-time.
Who is it for?

People that value the comfort of home on the road with plenty of space for a family. That sums up the top 5 truck camping builds. Choose a build that fits your intended use and get the recommended parts. Once you’re done, it’s time to buy the other remaining truck camping gear.

Essential Truck Camping Gear

This is my recommended list of truck camping gear. It took over 4 months of research, trial-and-error, and expensive mistakes to compile this list. I hope it helps you as much it’s helped me. Let’s get started!

Truck Camper Shell Build

The Ultimate Truck Camping Guide For 2020 - The Prepper Journal
DECKED Drawers are another choice for truck camping storage.
  • ARE MX: The MX has extra headroom and fits my 3rd gen Tacoma. Choose the options in this video.
  • DECKED Drawers: Waterproof, rugged truck drawers. You need to hire a professional handyman to install these.
    • Alternate Option: If you have woodworking skills, you can build sliding wooden drawers for cheap following this video.

Sleeping, Bathrooms, Showers

Sleeping

Bathroom

  • Pee Bottle: A wide mouth bottle for peeing on the road.
  • Privacy Tent: Need to poop or shower? Quickly pop this up and do it in peace.
  • Reliance Portable Toilet: A compact and affordable toilet.
  • Glock Folding Shovel: For digging your truck out of mud or digging cat holes for pooping. Just don’t tell anyone that.
  • Baby Wipes: Wipe your behind with this after finishing business. Faster and saves a ton of toilet paper.
  • Metamucil Drink: Dumps come out easier after drinking this. Must be the fiber.
  • Personal Mirror: A lightweight mirror for grooming.

Showers

Electricity

Cooking

Food/Water Storage

Kitchen

Wardrobe

Camping Clothing & Storage

Truck Camping Remote Workstation

Internet

Mobile Workspace

Security

Emergency Supplies

Extras

That’s all the gear I personally use. If you follow this list, you should have 95% of what you need to get started in your truck camping adventure. What’s next? Finding where to go.

Plan Your Road Trip

This is the method Luke Makris — a professional travel agent — used to plan an 80-day road trip to over 1,000 destinations and 35 states.

The best part? It cost him only $2,000 to pull it off. So if you want to save time and money while traveling, use Luke’s planning resources.

Step #1: Decide Where To Go?

This resource will help you decide where and when to go.

Step #2: Setup Google My Maps

This resource will give you a general overview of Google My Maps. For a visual version, watch this video.

Step #3: Find Exciting Activities

Luke Makris’s video on finding awesome activities quickly. Here’s a PDF version of the video. If you like his content, I highly recommend checking out his website and Instagram.

If you don’t feel like doing all this, Luke can do all the planning for you. But I personally recommend learning this yourself so you can plan future trips.

Conclusion

And that’s all there is to truck camping. Follow these tips and you’ll get an awesome adventure-ready truck. Here are some extra resources that might help:

I hope this truck camping guide helped you as much it did for me. If so, I’d appreciate if you could share it with your friends. Thanks and see you on the trail soon!

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About Author

Richard Douglas is a long time shooter, outdoor enthusiast and technologist. He is the founder and editor of Scopes Field. Columnist at The National Interest, Cheaper Than Dirt, Daily Caller and other publications.

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Bruce Smith

The freedom aspect of van / truck life is nice but there’s also a lot of limitations like living in a really confined space with everything on top of you and all your life being in that one space. In winter I imagine it gets very cold and therefore you’re confined to the van / truck rather that being able to go outside. Plus it kinda limits your ability to earn in many situations and plan for the future and you might end up spending your prime years building a life you realise you don’t want further down the road,… Read more »

Bill Masen

Nice pretty but VERY limited trucks pictured above which are fine for very short term two season survival. BUT if you family cannot rest, cook, wash, work comfortably INSIDE the vehicle in a Chicago winter its no bloody use for prepping. Far to many people confuse OVERLANDERs and EXPEDITION vehicles with BUG OUT VEHICLES of which their a two types (1) the ESCAPE vehicle designed to transport ones family to their collective safe space (BOL) using 4×4 trucks with winches and long range fuel tanks. BUT (2) the BOV is is meant to be a MOBILE home which can not… Read more »

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