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Mark Hellwig: One Truck, Two Choices

Mark Hellwig, President of Hellwig Products, compares and contrasts the capabilities and ownership experiences between his truck camper and fifth wheel toy hauler.

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Whenever we meet someone who is considering the purchase of a motorhome or towable, we present the many economic and lifestyle benefits of owning a truck camper.    We tell personal truck camping stories of how you can go anywhere and camp anywhere.  We explain how you can do more, and spend less with a truck camper.  Then we’ll talk about how wonderful the truck camping community is and invite them to a truck camper rally or two.  By the time we’re done, some folks can’t believe they ever considered anything but a truck camper.

In 2010, we went on a cross country tour of every truck camper and truck camper gear factory.  When we visited Hellwig Products in Visalia, California, Mark Hellwig, President of Hellwig Products, showed us his fifth wheel toy hauler.  While we admired his rig, we couldn’t help ourselves to pitch the advantages of a truck camper.  In all honesty, we didn’t think we had made much of an impression on Mark’s fifth wheel preference.  It turns out we may have had more influence than we thought.

Rosemary and Mark Hellwig

Above: Rosemary and Mark Hellwig in Monterey Bay

TCM: Your daughter Melanie likes to say that it was our visit in 2010 that had you considering a truck camper.  How would you tell the story?

Mark: As with everything in life, family activities change and needs change.  As our family got older, our kids went in different directions and have their own RVs.  From an empty nester’s perspective, we made a choice to look at the slide-in camper market.

Two years ago we ended up with a ten and a half foot camper that we can haul with the same vehicle that we tow the fifth wheel with.  In the last two years we’ve used it more than the fifth wheel, and it has shifted the way we travel.

Your influence has also had an impact on us.  When you two were here, it was really neat to see you back your truck camper rig into our driveway.  Your home was right there.  With a truck camper, you had a lot of mobility, and we picked up on that.  A truck camper is so much easier than manipulating a big RV or fifth wheel.

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Above: Mark’s fifth wheel toy hauler and Dodge truck

TCM: Very true.  Do you still have the fifth wheel?

Mark: Yes, I still have the fifth wheel.  It serves the purpose for certain types of travel; mainly family events in the desert where we use our motorcycle.  The fifth wheel accommodates a lot of people and allows for inside gatherings in inclement weather.  If it’s just Rosemary and I, we look to the camper.  If we have a larger group, we shift over to the fifth wheel.

TCM: Are you able to use the same truck that you use with your fifth wheel?

Mark: Yes, the truck worked out well.  The fifth wheel tongue weight is not as heavy as the slide-in camper.  Based on the truck’s capacity, I had to make a decision on the size of the camper I purchased.

When I bought the truck, I had a long term plan that we would wind up with a slide-in camper.  I did extra homework on what this truck would accommodate in gross towing capacity and the weight of the camper I could end up with.

TCM: Has your fuel economy changed with your truck camper compared to the fifth wheel?

Mark: Yes, there is a considerable difference.  I’m running about thirty percent better with the truck camper than the fifth wheel.

I’ve never really put too much weight on the added cost of fuel.  My view is that I have a large investment in the truck, the fifth wheel, and the camper.  I don’t let one hundred or two hundred dollars in fuel stop me from using my sizable investments.  Fuel economy doesn’t cause me to make a decision to use the camper or fifth wheel.  That’s my way of thinking and others may have a different outlook or budget.

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TCM: Talk to us about the experience of going to a gas station with the fifth wheel compared to going to a gas station with your truck camper.

Mark: Getting fuel is not a simple thing when you’re pulling a thirty-nine foot fifth wheel.  You have to be thinking several steps ahead on what you’re about to do, starting with the freeway off-ramp to the situation at the fuel station itself.  Is it wide open or tight?  Do we have to back up?   Do we have to turn into the pump?  It’s a huge difference.

It’s the same with a supermarket parking lot.  With a fifth wheel you need a lot of planning and forethought.  Even campgrounds can be challenging.

A camper is no different than driving a pickup.  There’s more height and a little extra width, but I hardly pay attention to where I go with the truck and camper.  That’s a huge difference.  It makes the driving experience much more relaxing.

With the fifth wheel, there is a responsibly of a huge piece of equipment behind you, and how much space you take up.  With the camper, I don’t have much concern at all.  The difference is stark.

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TCM: Did you need to change any of the suspension enhancement products when you changed to a truck camper?

Mark: I had the standard Hellwig sway bar on my truck for fifth wheel towing.  When I put the camper on, there was a greater degree of sway.  So, I put our Hellwig Big Wig on and had much improved results.  I also have the Big Wig air suspension kit on my truck.

mark-camper-mealTCM: Taking any suspension enhancement changes into account, does your truck handle differently than it did with the fifth wheel?  For example, does it accelerate, break, corner, or ride differently?

Mark: Braking is good with the fifth wheel because I have two more axles with brakes helping me stop.  The fifth wheel is also very stable at sixty miles per hour.

I think more about braking with the camper and there is a little more sway with the camper.  It’s the way the camper is placed in the truck with the higher center of gravity.  That said, there is a more relaxed driving attitude with the truck camper.

TCM: Did you have the change the quantity of clothing, food, and stuff you take with you in the truck camper?

Mark: I think that was one of the hardest adjustments; the sheer volume that we could accommodate in the fifth wheel versus the camper.

With the camper, we pack like we’re taking a vacation by air travel in terms of clothes and things we’re going to need or things we know we’re going to need.  It’s a whole different mindset.  It did not change the quality of camping.  It’s amazing how much you think you need, but can live without.

TCM: Most fresh, grey, and black holding tanks are smaller in truck campers compared to most fifth wheels.  Have the smaller tanks been a limiting factor, or was it just something you adapted to?

Mark: Our experience over the years with RVing gave us an education on how to conserve water on the road.  A motorhome we had years ago had less water capacity than our truck camper has today.  At that time, it was my wife, myself, our four young daughters, and their friends.  We all learned how to use a sip of water to brush our teeth and we reused water to wash dishes.  Our family has a long RVing history, so it is not a big deal for us to have smaller water capacities.

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Above: Mark’s truck camper and cargo trailer for hauling his bikes

TCM: Are you using your truck camper to tow toys?

Mark: Yes.  I purchased a Featherlight cargo type trailer designed for hauling toys.  It’s sixteen feet long.  I bought the Torklift SuperHitch and SuperTruss.  I can pull 12,000 pounds.  I have toyed with the idea of not having the fifth wheel and just using the Featherlight.

TCM: How would you compare loading and unloading a truck camper to loading and unloading a fifth wheel or trailer?

Mark: I think it’s easier to back under a fifth wheel than to back under a camper and take off.  With the fifth wheel, I back in, plug-in the lights, make sure the king pin is safe, and pull away.  With the camper, the logistics of raising and loading the truck camper takes more time.  You also need to aim the truck correctly, which takes practice.

TCM: When we talk to truck camper newbies we always recommend allowing for about an hour for the first truck camper loading experience.  Each load gets easier and faster, but there’s a learning curve.  Now we can load or unload a camper in about ten minutes.  How would you compare the required maintenance between a fifth wheel and a truck camper?

Mark: Our truck camper is much easier to maintain and clean.  I waxed it the other day, and it didn’t take me nearly as long as the fifth wheel.  There are no axles or brakes to maintain.  There are no tires or a spare to keep track of.  It is much, much simpler.  You also have less leak possibilities and less seals to maintain.

TCM: Have you been tempted to go off road more with your truck camper rig?

Mark: Yes.  Last weekend’s trip was not severe off road, but there were dirt roads for about seven or eight miles.  The last mile or so was a pretty rough road into the staging area in the Mojave desert.  I am more inclined to go off road with the truck camper.

TCM: Do you find yourself thinking, “I could not have done this with our fifth wheel?” when you’re traveling and camping with a truck camper?

Mark: We are really restricted with places we can go with the bigger fifth wheel.  There are a lot of state and public campgrounds are not designed to accommodate large RVs.

In the camper, it’s easy to go and see what a camping situation looks like.  Small spaces are fine.  I just like the freedom to make a pass in a campground.  In the fifth wheel, I wouldn’t even enter a tight campground.

We took a trip to Seattle this summer via the coastline and ended up in Kirkland.  We went out to Whidbey Island by ferry.  I would not have put the thirty-nine foot fifth wheel on the ferry.  It would have been an opportunity lost if I had been with the fifth wheel.

There was also no way the campground we stayed in could have accommodated the fifth wheel.  That trip was nice because of that aspect of it.  I didn’t have any reservations about what we did as far as space.  There were also a couple of gas stations we went in with the truck camper on this last trip that would have been impossible with the fifth wheel.

TCM: Let’s set the odometer to zero on your truck camper and fifth wheel.  In two years, which one do you think you will use more?

Mark: The more we get used to the camper, the more we are traveling with it.  I think in the future we will be more inclined to take the camper.

Mark-Big-Wig-Dodge mark-lance mark-cooking

TCM: Any plans to upgrade either your truck or your camper?

Mark: Yes.  I made the mistake of taking the 2012 Lance 950-S to Monterey.  We were able to experience all the nice features on the Lance that our other camper does not have.  My wife really liked it, so I think there may be a Lance or other large camper with slides in my future.  I may also be going to a dually 3500, 4500, or F-450 truck to accommodate a larger camper.

My truck is a daily driver.  I wouldn’t want to drive a truck of that size every day, so it may be a dedicated truck and camper combination.

TCM: Where are you going truck camping next?

Mark: I think we’re going to head to the desert, with the family, and attempt a full blown desert trip.  We are going to attempt a fifth wheel style trip, but using the Featherlight trailer and the truck camper.  That will be after SEMA in late November or early December.  We are expanding our Big Wig line and we’re going to promote that.

On a different topic, you mention using a truck camper as a Family Emergency Vehicle in your magazine.  Another option is placing the camper at someone’s home and letting them use it in an emergency situation.

We have done that with our fifth wheel.  A friend on a bicycle got hit by a car.  He’s about fifty miles away.  I towed the fifth wheel up there and they hooked it up at the hospital (the hospital had hook-ups).  They took up residence in the fifth wheel for about a month.  We did the same thing with another friend who had a girl born with a heart problem.  They also lived in it for awhile at the hospital.

TCM: That’s a wonderful idea, and a great extension of the truck camper as a Family Emergency Vehicle concept.  Is there anything else that you would like to share?

Mark: When my wife and I first got married, my granddad had an eight foot Holiday truck camper.  It only had a hand pump and no bathroom.  It was essentially a dinette and a bed with a sink.  That was my first truck camper experience.  I will never forgot going to the sand dunes with the dune buggies and going to the desert all the time.  I never really forgot that and that’s why I embrace the truck camper lifestyle.  It goes clear back to my roots.

I enjoy camping in any form of RV.  I have a Jeep and I’ll go to the mountains, pitch a tent, and climb over boulders to get to the high lakes.  I like the tent, the truck camper, and the fifth wheel.  It’s in my nature to get outdoors.

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