People make funny faces when we tell them we sleep in our truck. To clear up the confusion, here’s everything you ever wanted to know about truck camping (or ‘tramping’ as my wife likes to call it), including why we do it.
Truck camping is simply camping inside your vehicle instead of in a tent, be it a pickup truck with a topper or a simple SUV like ours. I’ve heard of plenty of people who car camp as well. Usually, they just sleep in the back seat or drop the back seats flat if in a hatchback style car. While car camping could work, it would be very cramped with more than one person.
A quick search for the term truck camping will show you examples of people who completely trick out their vehicles for truck camping. I’m a firm believer in the KISS (keep it simple stupid) principle and so I haven’t modified anything. We still use our SUV as a primary vehicle and only camp in it a few nights a year so it doesn’t make sense to do too much. That and I’m lazy.
Truck Camping 101 – The Why
My interest in truck camping began when I was trying to figure out how to long-term travel the U.S. affordably. Staying in hotels every night would add up to some serious cash. After considering all of the options available including camping trailers, Class A and B motorhomes, and pop-up campers, I determined the best option would be to buy a large van and put a bed in the back to turn it into a makeshift camper.
It would allow us to have a vehicle that’s easy to drive and that could be parked anywhere while giving us the option of camping when hotels were not affordable or readily available. The only problem is that we do not currently own a van, and since we’re not traveling long-term at this time, it doesn’t make financial sense to buy one… yet.
Determined to have the camping option available to us, I dropped the back seats down on the old Hyundai Santa Fe and laid in the back. As long as I moved the front seats forward, I found that I could lay flat with my legs fully extended. It became obvious that, until we purchased a van, our little SUV was going to be my viable alternative.
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I considered all the possible obstacles: What if it is hot or cold out? How do I let fresh air in without letting bugs or rain in? If we’re sleeping in the back, where do we put all of our stuff? What kind of bedding could we use? And most difficult of all, how would I get Angela to agree to it?
Fresh Air, Rain and Bugs
Two bodies in a vehicle can get pretty warm when the windows are fully closed. If it’s already warm out, the added heat will make it too hot to sleep in. Two people breathing creates lots of moisture as well. If you’ve ever napped or made out with someone in your car when it’s not running, you may have noticed the windows fogging up. The only way around this is to let fresh air in by having a window open, even if it’s just an inch. The problem is that an inch is a lot when it’s raining, and it’s enough to let bugs of all sizes in as well.
I was able to solve these problems by adding a few things to our vehicle. I started with an Auto Vent Shade. This allows us to leave the windows cracked without worrying about rain getting in, and also has the added benefit of keeping the car cooler when parked on hot days, since it allows the hot air to escape the vehicle. The windows look fully closed because the vent shade hides the fact that they are open at the top. Bugs don’t seem to find their way in with the windows cracked, but if you’re particularly worried about mosquitos or spiders, you can’t go wrong with a Window Bug Screen.
Hot and Cold Temps
Hot and cold issues are something that the modern camping trailer has eliminated. Tent and truck campers still have to deal with this. I like colder temperatures as I’m a naturally warm person, and it’s always easy to add layers to stay warm if necessary. Being cold is less common when camping, because many campgrounds that are located where you have true winter weather only have an open season from spring to fall, eliminating the coldest months of the year.
That being said, we always have a down comforter that we sleep on top of for additional padding, which can be used as a very warm cover if it gets too cold. I’ve already pointed out that having two people generating body heat in an enclosed space keeps the inside temperature quite a bit warmer than the outside as it is. All this to say that between residual engine heat, body heat, and a warm comforter, you are much more likely to be hot than cold.
Let me begin by saying that if the temperature at night is forecast to be really warm, I wouldn’t plan on camping in a tent or a truck. I can’t sleep when it’s hot out and I’m pretty much guaranteeing a night of torture for myself if I attempt it. If it’s going to be hot, I’m going to plan on having air conditioning and staying in a hotel. That being said, if the low temperature for the night is between 35 and 75, I’m good to go.
Even temps in upper 60s can feel slightly warm to me when sleeping in the truck, however, and for those times I bring a DC Powered Fan. I simply plug the fan into my Jump Starter with Built in Compressor , which can power the fan for two nights straight without being recharged. The fan keeps me cool, while providing the white noise I like to fall asleep to. It also eliminates what little outside noise is left, since being in the truck blocks out most of it. The noise I’m referring to is usually occurring on the weekends when most people are staying up late to party or when you are at a campground within earshot of a major highway.
The Jump Starter with Built in Compressor is extremely useful to have in your vehicle at all times. I not only use it to run my fan, but I also use it as a light when camping, to fill up my bicycle tires at home and on the road, and to charge our cell phones when the truck is not running. It also works as another power source to jump your own vehicle battery should it die on you.
Amazingly, if you plug the jump starter into one of the DC outlets in the vehicle while driving, it will be back to fully charged in just 15 minutes. Since we are usually driving around during the day, I can count on a fully charged jump-start battery to power us through another night of fan running, cell phone charging bliss.
Managing all this Stuff with so Little Room
With the back seat down for sleeping, there’s not much room for extra stuff. We keep the bikes on a hitch rack bike carrier, so that keeps them out of the vehicle, but what about our clothes, cooler and folding beach chairs? When we initially set up camp, we slide the front seats fully forward. Then we move our backpacks containing our clothes and put those in the front seats. The folding chairs come out and are put near the campfire.
We use a smaller cooler that fits behind the front seat and we are able to keep it there, although we have to slide it forward after the front seats are moved forward in order to get the back seats down all the way. Now that everything is moved to the front seats, we can then drop the back seats down and pull the padding and sleeping bags up from the back of the vehicle. It really just takes a few minutes to set up.
The next morning, after we have showered and are ready to leave, we just throw our pillows to the back, roll the padding and sleeping bags towards the back, and lift the back seats to their upright position. Then we put the chairs, if we bothered to bring them, in the back and throw the backpacks onto the back seats where they originally were. I slide the cooler and front seats back to their regular positions and we are ready to drive off. Easy!
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I don’t want this to sound like the perfect solution for everyone. It’s not. If you hate camping, you should just stop reading now. For anyone else who has tent camped before, this is certainly an option for you if you can overcome the negatives.
Camping isn’t Free
I remember camping for under $10 a night as a kid. It seems like most campgrounds average around $25 a night these days. There are some that are cheaper, but then they may not provide showers or flushing toilets. There are also many that cost more, but usually you’ll be getting more for your money with very nice bathrooms and swimming pools.
While we haven’t done this, I’ve known people who have spent the night in rest areas or Walmart parking lots. This may make your night free, but it isn’t camping, and I need a shower to start my day, which neither of these options provide. They might not be a bad choice if you have a trailer and are just trying to put as many miles behind you as possible on your way to your planned destination, but it’s less than ideal for truck camping. My wife points out there is a high probability that people would mistake you for being homeless if you decided to truck camp in a Walmart parking lot.
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Most of the restrooms we’ve used have been well maintained and clean. Now that seemingly 90% of all campers use trailers and RVs, fewer people seem to use the provided facilities in favor of using their own. This is good news for truck campers. The showers and sinks are vacant most of the time, and my memories of waiting in line to access them no longer prove true.
While bathrooms are readily available, they’re still not always clean, and it remains inconvenient to have to bring everything with you from your campsite to the bathroom when showering in the morning. It’s definitely one of the biggest downsides of truck camping, or regular tent camping for that matter. Getting up to use the restroom in the middle of the night is also an inconvenience, made easier by the fact that I just leave flip-flops outside the door so I can slide my feet into them and walk to the restrooms when I inevitably have to go.
Even though I’ve got foam padding under the sleeping bags and a comforter to sleep on, it’s still not as good as a real bed. (Update: we now use a trifold mattress which is as comfortable as a bed. Read our review about the mattress here.) I don’t use an air mattress because our SUV isn’t large and I’m not willing to give up the headroom that using one would require, although it would certainly be more comfortable for those will full size SUVs or pickup trucks. Bringing a familiar pillow helps immensely whether camping or staying at a hotel, and I recommend it. I can’t promise you’ll get a good night’s sleep on the first night, but you’ll be snoring away by the second, even if it’s just because of your lack of sleep on the first night!
Three’s a Crowd
Unless the third person is a small child, two is the most you’ll comfortably fit in the back of your vehicle. This isn’t really a good option for larger families.
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There are many positives to truck camping, aside from spending more time in nature and enjoying smores by a camp fire.
It Beats Tent Camping
When compared with tent camping, truck camping has many advantages. One night we arrived at a campsite while it was raining and windy. Tent camping would have required us to position a light to see, so we could try to find a level and relatively high spot on the ground to set up a tent to avoid waking up in a puddle. We would have been drenched after setting up a tent in the rain, and the wind would have made that an even more difficult process. Instead of this nonsense, we stepped out of the truck and had it set up for sleeping in minutes.
The lighting was already provided by the interior lights in the truck. The inside remained dry. There are no worries of animals trying to get in your sleeping area. You’re off the ground so you don’t have to worry about sleeping on a rock, or setting up in a low or uneven spot. You’re protected from rain, hail and high winds. The vehicle keeps out most noises compared to a tent, and ultimately set up and take down are much faster when truck camping.
The only time I think tent camping might be better is if you plan to stay put at one place for a few days or more. This means that you set up just once, and can take the vehicle out during the day without undoing your sleeping arrangement. If you have a large enough tent, you can stand in it to change, which you certainly can’t do in a vehicle. Tent camping also allows you to pack your vehicle to the gills with camping equipment, which is something you can’t afford to do if you plan on sleeping in it. Since we’re usually on the move, most of these benefits are lost on us.
Inexpensive Compared to Hotels
This one really didn’t need to be pointed out, but camping is definitely cheaper than staying in hotels. I like to use the money we’ve saved on dinner and drinks later in the day.
Increased Flexibility when Traveling
Unless you’re traveling in a really popular area, there is almost always a tent or ‘primitive’ site available. Since you’re just staying in your vehicle and wanting access to the bathrooms and showers, you might be able to negotiate staying in an overflow parking lot if the campground is full. If that doesn’t work, a quick check on the cell phone should let you know if there is a hotel with vacancies in the area. For shorter trips within a days drive of home, we don’t bother reserving lodging anywhere. This lets us change our plans at the last second, based on what we’re doing and how the weather holds up.
It’s what the Cool Kids are Doing
We were truck camping this past weekend and just two sites down from us was a new BMW X5. I noticed they didn’t have a tent and they were sitting by their campfire enjoying a few drinks. Since I don’t see many car or truck campers, I assumed they simply hadn’t set up their tent yet. Imagine my surprise when we arrived later that night from our bike ride to see that they were laying inside the back of their BMW, reading to the glow of their vehicle’s dome light.
We like Truck Camping
The first time I suggested to Angela that we’d be sleeping in our SUV on a long weekend exploring Michigan, she was very hesitant and skeptical. I convinced her to give it a shot by saying that if she didn’t like it, she could just say the word and I’d book hotel stays for the remainder of the trip. We made it through all four nights and actually enjoyed staying in the different campgrounds.
I have one particularly fond memory of us drinking wine around the campfire on our last night during that trip. The fire was crackling as we sat under the light of a full moon. I leaned into Angela’s ear, and in my most romantic voice I whispered, “We just saved $300.”
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