As a rite of passage for transitioning from your 20s and into your 30s, you start re-evaluating your life and planning for your future. This leads most people to settle down, buy houses, invest assets, and plan for a family. If you’re Patrick and me, it leads you toward the decision to turn your Tacoma into a truck camper (or ‘Tramper,’ as I call it).
This post is the first of many to come in the ‘Tramper Chronicle’ series, which will cover everything from planning for the tramper, to buying a camper, to testing it, to following our excursions around the US and beyond. To any fellow would-be nomads out there, we hope this series is entertaining, but also informative in helping you find the right truck camper and plan the perfect adventure.
How to Find the Perfect Truck Camper…
First, evaluate your goals and needs. The type, dimensions, and price of the camper will depend a lot on what you want to use it for, and where you want to use it. For example, we want to take ours into the backcountry and on long-haul drives, so it needs to be as lite and flexible (i.e. It needs to not crack) as possible. Because of this, ours needs an aluminum frame, which makes it more expensive. Since we’re going to live out of it longer term, we need a number of amenities, such as stove, fridge, heat, air conditioning, comfortable seats to work remotely from, and possibly a bathroom and shower. We also want solar optional power on as many appliances as possible. Again, all these items make the camper more expensive. Point is – if you want to live out of your camper for longer periods, and/or take it into the backcountry, you will need to expect to either (a) spend more money (think $10,000 range) on a new or well-equipped gently used aluminum frame camper, or (b) buy a used aluminum frame camper that needs a lot of repairs and expect to spend a good bit of time and money repairing it.
Second, determine what camper works with your truck (or what truck you need to buy). After evaluating your goals, it’s important to determine what camper dimensions and weight your type of truck can support. We have a 95 (Gen 1) Tacoma with a 6 foot bed. Tacomas, especially our model of Tacoma, don’t support as much weight as some larger trucks without beefing up the suspension. So, if you already have a truck, determine how heavy of a camper (plus extra amenities) the truck can support without adding extra suspension, and what dimensions the camper must be based upon your truck bed size. For ours, we want a camper that weighs no more than 800 pounds (even after adding suspension) and that fits a 6 foot truck bed. If you’re planning to buy a truck, make sure to buy one with 4-wheel drive, and beefed up suspension. You also will have more choices in in your campers if you buy a truck with a longer bed (6 foot or larger). There are truck campers made for short bed trucks, but not as many.
Third, make any required repairs to your truck. There are a number of critical items to have checked out or enhanced prior to purchasing the camper. I’ve listed them along with the modifications we made below…
- Frame – Due to the age of our Taco, this was our biggest concern. However, for newer trucks, this likely won’t be much of an issue. First, Patrick cleaned the rust off of the frame and coated it with fluid film himself. Then we took it to a car shop in Chicago. We told them what we planned to do with the truck, and they checked the frame to ensure it could handle it.
- Suspension – As I’ve said before, you may want to beef up your back and possibly front suspension. We first only enhanced the back, but then added extra front suspension after buying the bumper and wench (see below), which added extra weight. Thom’s Four Wheel Drive shop in Chicago took care of our front and back suspension enhancements.
- 4-wheel drive – Obviously make sure this is working well. We have to repair ours.
- Bull Bar – We bought an ARB Bull Bar. It’s definitely not necessary, but we thought it was smart when driving in isolated areas where wildlife or debris could run into the road. If you’re living out of your truck camper for even weeks at a time, it’s worth protecting it from any sort of accident damage.
- Winch – A winch is smart if you’re going into the backcountry on your own. It will allow you to pull yourself out of any situation. It’s a worthwhile investment if you’re off-roading or camping without another vehicle that can tow you.
Next, research trampers for sale. Now you’re finally ready to settle in and research… A lot. This is the stage we’re still in, and likely will be for awhile. Below are tips and considerations we’ve pulled together after a few months of heavy research. We will continue to update this list as we progress further and come closer to buying.
- Used Trampers – The best place to research used trampers is Craigslist. It’s a pain because you have to continually check numerous cities, but we haven’t found a better alternative. The areas where we’ve had the most luck finding good used campers are: Wisconsin; Colorado; Washington (the state); Oregon; and Sacramento, CA. We’ve also found a few campers on eBay, so it’s worth checking there too.
- New Trampers – There are a number of truck camper brands, but we’ve found that these three best meet our needs: All Terrain Campers (ATC); and Four Wheel Campers. We’re constantly performing cost – benefit analyses to determine whether we buy used, new, or buy a new shell that we build out.
- Wander the West – This is a forum dedicated to discussing and exploring the mountains, deserts, and forests of the western US. It also has a forum dedicated to discussing truck campers. We check this frequently to find information on truck campers for sale, and tips on trips and adventures to try out in truck campers.
Update as of 12/2016 – We found our Tramper! We finally found our Tramper on Boulder, Colorado’s Craigslist! It’s a 1999 Four Wheel Camper, Eagle model with queen mattress, awning, large side windows, steps in and out, plus a couch that pulls out into a bed (or an optional table). Our next step is getting it shipped to Chicago. Check it out aboe! It’s hanging with my brother and his dog at their house in Denver until we figure out how / when to get it.