Grand Teton National Park: Top 15 Bucket List
- - By Angela White
We are launching a new “bucket list” series highlighting the best truck camping destinations. These articles will be sourced directly from experienced truck camper owners who have researched, explored, and camped at these must-see hot spots.
What are we looking for?
That hidden fishing hole. The boondocking bonanza around the bend. A picturesque sunset location no photographer could resist. The tucked away bar and grille with a buffalo burger you won’t forget. In short, the kind of tips that can make the difference between a good truck camping trip, and a great one.
The first bucket list article is on Grand Teton National Park. We contacted five truck camper owners with five different truck camper rigs, perspectives, and recommendations. Put together with their jaw-dropping photographs, we now have a fantastic truck camping bucket list for this unforgettable destination.
Next, we will be featuring Alabama Hills for our bucket list destination series. If you have been to Alabama Hills, have lots of fantastic photographs and tips for fellow truck campers, and would like to share, click here to participate.
Mike and Lisa Johnson
2008 Chevrolet 3500
2008 Eagle Cap 1160
Above: A moose feeding in Gros Ventre Campground, Grand Teton National Park
Above: This photo was taken on Mormon Row on the south end of the Tetons. Click to enlarge.
1. Gros Ventre Road
Gros Ventre Road (pronounced Grow Vont) is incredibly beautiful in the fall. One of my goals is to make it all the way to the end of Gros Ventre Road, but I have not been able to take the time to do so yet.
Above: View just west of Lower Slide Lake down Gros Ventre Road - Click to enlarge
I have made it to another campground way up the road heading east. The whole road is awesomely beautiful. There is a small but great off-grid campground just down Gros Ventre Road on Lower Slide Lake.
Above: I found this Teton National Park spot on Google maps, and went there to take the Truck Camper Magazine calendar photo. I literally found this spot from thousands of miles away! It isn’t the best of my photos, but it is my favorite because of that. Click to enlarge.
2. Gros Ventre Campground
Gros Ventre Campground is one of my favorite places, anywhere. It’s a long, quiet campground on the south end of the Tetons.
Above: Wildlife spotted in Grand Teton National Park. Left: Bison taking a dirt bath on Antelope Flats, Middle: Moose feeding in Gros Ventre Campground, Right: Antelope near Antelope Flats, how appropriate - click to enlarge
There are always some moose around the campground. In the morning there are normally some moose on the road/flats just east of the campground heading towards Kelly.
3. Blacktail Butte and Oxbow Bend
At the south end of Antelope Flats road (just south of Mormon Row) is Blacktail Butte. It is an awesome, but very tough, hike to the top. The views are incredible! It does not take long to do. Oxbow Bend in the Tetons is a great place to be at sunset. It’s also incredible in the fall, but great in the spring, too.
Nearby Bonus: Merry Piglets in Jackson Hole
If you like Mexican food, Merry Piglets is awesome in Jackson Hole. There is a parking lot just north with room to park a truck camper and you can walk there. On the way be sure to stop at Mangelsen’s photography studio a couple doors down.
Above: View of the Tetons from Mormon Row - click to enlarge
Above: Mike''s Eagle Cap 1160 with the Tetons near the northern entrance - click to enlarge
If you come in, or go out of, the south of the Tetons do not discount the drive. We always leave out of the south and there is some incredible views along the rivers. We have never stopped at any of the campgrounds, but the drive is beautiful.
App Tip: The Photographer’s Ephemeris App
As a photographer, there is an app I use to help plan when to go to a particular place for the light. The Photographer’s Ephemeris app ($8.99) is helpful for taking pictures anywhere you travel.
2008 Chevrolet Silverado 3500HD
2006 Northstar TS1000
There are many ways to get to the Grand Tetons from the east. I highly recommend the route that takes you over Togwotee Pass in DuBois, Wyoming. Check out the Brooks Lake area near that pass. There are incredible vistas, fishing, and camping opportunities.
4. 287/89 Turnouts and T.A. Moulton Barn
Above: Great turnouts all along Highway 287/89, especially by Jackson Lake''s north end. Incredible photo-ops there. Click to enlarge.
I recommend that you stop at the great turn-outs all along Highway 287/89, especially by Jackson Lake''s north end. There are incredible photo opportunities there.
Above: The T.A. Moulton barn in Grand Teton National Park. Click to enlarge.
No visit to the Grand Tetons would be complete without a visit to the T.A. Moulton barn, which is probably the most photographed barn in the world. There are actually two barns. The more classic one is on the westerly one on Mormon Row. Access it from Highway 287/89, to the Antelope Flats Road, to Mormon Row Road.
5. Gros Ventre Slide Hike
Above: The Gros Ventre Slide Area - click to enlarge
The Gros Ventre Slide Area is a nice geological point of interest where the side of a mountain slid off and caused a lot of changes to a river corridor and damage to human habitation downstream. It's a short, easy hike to see a well documented historical event.
6. Moose Wilson Road and Pilgrim Creek for Wildlife
Above: A moose in Grand Teton National Park - click to enlarge
The Grand Tetons are an incredible sight and the visitor center at Moose, Wyoming is a great viewing place where the names of each tetonic peak are marked on a pointer along the floor. From there, take the Moose Wilson Road for an almost sure citing of wildlife from Grizzly and black bears, to moose, deer, Great Gray Owls, and beavers.
Above: Bears in the Pilgrim Creek area - click to enlarge
Definitely bring bear spray. The Grand Tetons are a good place to see Grizzly Bears, especially the Pilgrim Creek area. Binoculars and cameras are a must, too! I always bring a GPS, but the trails are well marked.
7. Boondocking at Pacific Creek and Gros Ventre Road
Above: Boondocking at the Pacific Creek area, about ten miles up Gros Ventre Road - click to enlarge
Campgrounds are highly reserved and can be tough to get into from June through September. Boondocking is a bit tough to find, but I have had good luck at the Pacific Creek area, and about ten miles up the Gros Ventre Road.
Above: Wade, swim and boat in Grand Teton National Park among beautiful backdrops. Click to enlarge.
For alternatives, there are some great city parks and hiking trails along String Lake, Leigh Lake, and Jenny Lake. String Lake is especially pretty and you can wade, swim, and boat there among some beautiful backdrops.
Nearby Bonus: Yellowstone National Park
Don't forget the world's first National Park and America's greatest treasure, Yellowstone National Park, adjoins the Grand Teton National Park on the north side.
Starting earlier this year they may have started requiring a separate entry fee for each park. If you plan to visit more than one national park in the next twelve months, I highly recommend getting an "America the Beautiful" annual park pass ($80).
Nearby Bonus: Jackson, Wyoming
The town of Jackson, Wyoming is a great place to visit. You can see the elk antler arches in the central city park. The National Elk Refuge is a sure thing for elk, but only in the late fall/winter timeframe. You may also get lucky and see the Pinnacle Peak Wolves in that area.
Nearby Bonus: Granite Falls in Bondurant, Wyoming
Granite Falls is a fantastic waterfall destination just south of the park on Highway 189/191 on the way to Bondurant, Wyoming. This waterfall is quite large, easily accessible, and there are places to camp nearby. It’s worth the trip!
2009 Ford F350
2006 Lance PC Sportsman
8. Must-See Photography Opportunities
Above: Jenny Lake, Grand Teton National Park - click to enlarge
Jenny Lake is very picturesque. The boat ride ($19 per adult) gives even more sights of the lake nestled in the mountains.
There is a pull-off on the south end of Highway 191 where you can see a reflection of Mt. Moran in the Snake River. Jackson Lake is equally beautiful.
At Teton Village, the tram ride will also give a glorious view of the countryside. Click to enlarge the photos above.
Be sure to drive up Signal Mountain to view the entire valley.
Above: Shelley found this couple riding horseback through Grand Teton National Park - click to enlarge
Above: A bison family, grizzly family, and pronghorn antelope - click to enlarge
9. Camping Opportunities for Teton National Park
We camped at Gros Ventre east of the park and Colter Bay just north of the park. There are limited electrical sites. I preferred Gros Ventre as it is more wooded and spacious.
We also camped at a Good Sam park in Jackson, Wyoming, The Virginian RV Park. It has very nice amenities, but pricey, which is no surprise given the location.
Steve and Elaine Bernier
2010 Ford F-350
2011 Arctic Fox 1140
10. Moose Wilson Road in Late Afternoon
We recommend taking a late afternoon drive down Moose Wilson Road, which is located just past the Visitor’s Center.
Drive about a mile and stop at the overlook on the left. Look for moose and elk in the marshy area on the left and bears eating huckleberries on the right. We were lucky to see all three on many forays down this road.
If you are not sure where to go, ask at the Visitor’s Center. Be aware that there is a travel restriction to continue on this road for oversized vehicles. We drove to the overlook with the camper on the truck, but could not proceed further from there.
2005 Chevy 2500 HD
2011 Northstar Adventurer 8.5
Above: Map of the boat ride across Jenny Lake, photo courtesy of the National Park Service
11. Take the Hike to Inspiration Point, and Into Cascade Canyon
We really enjoyed the boat ride across Jenny Lake, which was really beautiful. It's not a long boat ride at twelve minutes long. There is a fee to ride the boat, but it drops you off closer to Inspiration Point at the Cascade Canyon trailhead.
Cascade Canyon trail is a nice hike. It's pretty crowded with people during the summer months up to Inspiration Point. That seems to be the turn around spot for 99% of the hikers. The view is truly inspirational. From there we kept hiking up into Cascade Canyon. We stopped to eat lunch on top of a massive boulder beside the creek. Then we played in the creek, which was really cold, before hiking up even further into the canyon. It''s really a nice trail.
2005 GMC Sierra 2500HD
2005 Northstar Arrow
12. Float Trip on the Snake River
Above: The float trip on the Snake River - click to enlarge
Grand Teton is full of surreal vistas everywhere you look, and people too! For a good escape from the crowds, try an evening dinner/float trip on the Snake River with Grand Teton Lodging Company. The guides are great, full of stories, and seeing the park from the water gives one a new perspective on the landscape.
13. Horseback Ride in the High Country
Above: Horse back riding through the high country - click to enlarge
For those who are adventurous and can handle the physical aspect, go on a horseback ride in the high country of the Tetons. You will not be sorry. There are several outfitters that will be glad to arrange a trip for you, but Linn Canyon Outfitters does an excellent job. Be ready for a full day in the saddle and some of the most spectacular scenery you will ever see anywhere - guaranteed!
14. Scenic Drive along the Gros Ventre Road
Above: Driving Gros Ventre Road - click to enlarge
My last suggestion would be a scenic drive along the Gros Ventre Road just east of the park. This gravel/dirt road runs deep into the Bridger Teton National Forest and offers fantastic opportunities for fishing, ATV riding, boondock camping, and just getting away from the crowds.
Above: ATVing in the Gros Ventre wilderness - click to enlarge
There are even two campgrounds along the road to enjoy; Atherton Creek about five miles in on the shore of beautiful Slide Lake, and Crystal Creek 9 about ten to twelve miles in.
15. Gros Ventre Campground Rarely Fills, Even in the Summer
My favorite campground in the world is Gros Ventre Campground in the southern part of the park. It rarely fills but, if it does, it will be late afternoon. I have camped in every campground in the park but Gros Ventre is by far the best!
Gros Ventre Campground has nearly 375 sites. The sites are not stacked on top of each other as in other campgrounds in the park. Some sites have views of the mountains and a few have views of the Grand Teton itself.
The hosts here are mostly long time hosts and they really enjoy what they do. That makes for a pleasant stay. As an added bonus this year they have some sites with electric and sewer. They are a bit pricey but, hey, if that’s your thing. The whole campground is covered by cell service.
Map Tip: I’m a map fanatic. The best map of the park by far is the National Geographic #202 topo map. For those that have any of these, you know why. They are plastic coated and resist water, tearing, mud, and fading. They have a GPS grid, full UTM grid, etc. They are awesome maps that have the most detail.
Gear Tips: I recommend that you take a small pair of field binoculars. A small pair that slips in your pack or your truck console works. You never know what you might see while riding around. The place is chock full of wildlife. You will see it.
And lastly, if you plan on walking/hiking, a good pair of boots and some bear spray are must haves. Also, a good lightweight packable rain jacket. Don''t leave your camper without it! Trust me on this one.
For more information on Grand Teton National Park, visit the National Park website at http://www.nps.gov/grte/index.htm.
Participate in our Next Bucket List Article: Our next Bucket List article will be on Alabama Hills in California. If you have been to Alabama Hills, and would like to share your fantastic photographs and tips with your fellow truck campers, click here to participate.
Just Another Knucklehead Enjoying Nature
- - By Angela White
When Suni Williams finds a road into the wilderness, he takes it. Where does it go? He has no idea. What obstacles may present themselves? He hasn’t a clue. Is he afraid to drive off a cliff or get hopelessly stuck out of cell range? Yes, but he takes the road anyway. In fact, he absolutely loves these mystery road opportunities.
Suni isn’t reckless. As he explains it, he was born exploring and has decades of off-road experience. He even tells us about times when the hair stands up on the back of his neck and he turns around, but that’s not the point.
The point is that he is fearless to take the unknown road. He’s not blind to the fact that there may be dangerous conditions ahead, but he’s not going to let that stop him. He trusts his preparation, equipment, and knowledge to get him out, and takes the leap.
Suni’s story was very inspiring for us at Truck Camper Magazine. We have seen many roads to somewhere during our travels, and kept going. Next time we see one of these roads, we’re going to say, “Suni would go there”. Given our relative lack of off-road experience, I’m fairly sure that’s all we’ll do, but maybe we’ll take one more look down that mysterious road. If it looks like it’s within our skill level, or maybe one step beyond, Suni’s inspiration may just take us forward.
Above back: Ben and Jessica, Above front: Ethan and Suni
TCM: How did you get into camping?
Suni: I grew up camping literally since birth. Some of my earliest memories are of camping with my parents. These early outdoor experiences ultimately led to me to becoming an avid backpacker in my early teens and into my twenties.
Once I began my career, I would mostly camp out of my truck and a camper shell on the weekends. Not long after, I started venturing to Baja for extended surf trips. I discovered pop-up truck campers after a friend acquired one. It became obvious that this was the only choice for me and my style of camping. And it was certainly more appealing to my wife.
Above: Onion Valley, Eastern Sierras, California
TCM: So, how did you get your current truck camper?
Suni: My friend had a very old Four Wheel Camper Fleet from the 1980s, but I had never seen it popped up and didn’t really understand what pop up truck campers were all about.
Pop up campers are popular in Baja. I saw quite a few truck camper rigs down there and began to understand what my friend had. That’s when the light went on. It sucks it to be out in the wind, and it’s notoriously windy there. When you’re wet and cold, having shelter from the wind and weather is great.
I scoured Craigslist for well over a year. In November of 2007, I found a good camper at an affordable price and drove six hours to get it.
Above: Coyote Flats, Eastern Sierra, California
TCM: Why did you want a Four Wheel Camper?
Suni: Once I became intrigued with truck campers, I learned about Four Wheel Campers. They are designed and built for off-road use. I didn’t want a full-size hard side unit because of weight. I would be four wheeling and in the sand. As a family, we’re into remote places. Having done my research and learning about campers, I wanted something that could be abused and take the abuse.
We don’t hang out in the camper unless the weather is bad. We cook outside. Should the weather turn, it’s nice to duck inside, read a book, and not get sand blasted. Having the camper is so easy. Release the four roof buckles, pop it up, and we’re ready to go.
Above: Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve, California
TCM: What’s your truck camping lifestyle like?
Suni: It varies. We mostly go out on weekends. We try to get out at least once a month. We recently bought a house, which has taken up most of my spare time, so we have not been out as much as usual this year. But, even with that, we still try to get out once a month.
We generally take a couple of week long trips each year but I’m mostly a weekend warrior for sure. I can’t really go to Mexico for the weekend. That’s at least a one week trip.
We live an hour north of Los Angeles. Anywhere we want to go is within a few hours. Our local mountains are a half hour away, so a lot of what we do is spur of the moment trips.
Above: Goler Wash, Death Valley, California
Some of the most famous national parks are in California. We’ve got Yosemite, Death Valley, the Sequoias, and Redwoods. For me, the parks are too crowded and the Sierras are about as good as it gets. There are lots of options in the Sierras, and it is there that we can get away from people.
Above: Camping in Big Sur, California (click to enlarge)
Big Sur is a favorite of mine even though there are not a lot of remote camping opportunities. We have to camp in a campground, but it’s beautiful there, so it’s worth it. The Mojave desert in general has a lot of great camping. I’ve also still got the desert in Anza Borrego to explore.
Above: Suni and his family go see the whales in Baja during the Spring
We don’t get out as much in the summer. We usually go see the whales in Baja during the Spring. Right now, during the winter, is prime camping season for us. We love Death Valley, and try for a Baja trip during the holidays. Winter is go time!
Above: Off-the-Grid in Striped Butte, Death Valley, California
TCM: How do you find places to explore off-road?
Suni: I find most of the places through serendipity. I just find places. I use a Benchmark map as my go-to guide. Most of the roads we travel are in there. I also have the GPS. Typically we decide on a trip, like Death Valley, where there are lots of back roads. We’ll just see one, and try it.
Above: White Mountains, California
I’m not generally worried about the roads I take. I know what my truck is capable of. There are plenty of times I’ll take a trail and say no. When my hair stands up on the back of my neck, I turn around.
I always carry a Hi-Lift jack and a recovery shovel. I bought the jack before I had the camper for trips to Baja. I have never used it. When I have been stuck, I’ve been able to get out with the shovel and by airing down. I worry more about catastrophic vehicle failure. I am always prepared with more than I need.
I’m in my truck now with my camper. If I were to go out now, I could eat for a week. We always have provisions in the camper.
Since I was a backpacker, I’ve always had the mindset to have the proper gear. I always know where I’m at, and what the odds are. I also know that usually I’ll see someone by days’ end. Situational awareness is key. I ask myself, “What if?”, every time. If I’m camping with another vehicle, I might try more.
Above: Winning TCM calendar photos Big Sur, California, Alabama Hills, California, and Punta Canoas, Central Baja or Baja California Norte (click to enlarge)
TCM: You won on the 2010 Truck Camper Magazine calendar cover and the month of June in 2010 and 2011. Is photography a passion of yours?
Suni: I took the cover photo and the other calendar winners with my crappy three-megapixel Canon camera. I do enjoy photography, but I wouldn’t call photography a hobby since my camera is on automatic. I really do want to get a SLR, and learn a bit more about it. There are a lot of places I’ve gone to because I was inspired by other people’s photos.
TCM: What does your wife think about off-road travel?
Suni: When I met my wife, she hadn’t really experienced camping much. When we first got the camper, it was funny because I’d be driving down the road, and she’d say, “You can’t go there!” or “You can’t go over that!” Sure, I could. I’d put the truck into four-wheel drive low and get through. Now she’s usually reading a book and not worried at all.
Above: Monument Valley, Utah
TCM: Tell us about your southern Utah trip. From your pictures it looks like you covered a lot of ground.
Suni: We completed a nine day trip to Southern Utah which absolutely blew our minds.
That trip was inspired by Expedition Portal and Wander the West trip reports. I was getting sick and tired of looking at the southern Utah pictures on the web. I had to go there and see it for myself.
Above: Suni's Four Wheel Camper Hawk on the White Rim Trail
We did a big loop traveling to Arches, Valley of the Gods, Monument Valley, Bryce, Zion, and the White Rim trail, which was the main point of the trip. We did the White Rim trail in two days and should have done it in three. I want to do it again. It’s spectacular.
Above: The opportunities to drive on dirt roads are endless in Utah (click to enlarge)
The great thing about Utah is that I’d see dirt roads on the map that were twenty-five miles long, and then they’d link up with other roads; the opportunities seem endless. We went through Waterpocket Fold and then came up the Burr Trail into Escalante and out to Kodachrome. I’d be driving, and constantly wondering, where does that road go? It was wonderful!
That area is pretty much the pinnacle of off-road camping and we intend to continue to explore it. We really wish it was closer to home.
Above: Camping right next to the water in Cuchillo, Baja California Norte
TCM: You said in your email that Baja is your favorite truck camping destination. What makes Baja special?
Suni: I’m a surfer. My life revolves around catching waves. Baja is great because I can camp and surf. That’s why I initially bought the camper. My camper is the perfect surf platform. In Baja, there are loads and loads of places to surf with quality waves. Most of the places I go are remote, with no facilities, which is why having a camper is so nice.
Everyone thinks if you go to Baja you will die. The border towns are what you generally have to be concerned with. When I cross into Mexico, I leave my house the night before, stay in San Diego, and cross the border first thing in the morning at daylight, after all the bad guys hopefully have gone to bed. Once you are past the border towns, you will meet nothing but the kindest people in the world. Most of them have nothing and are happy to share what they have to you.
I go to some of Baja’s most remote beaches and all I ever run into are fisherman and fish camps, not the criminal element. That’s not to say they can’t or won’t be there. You’ve got to keep your head on a swivel, but, just like other places, you learn and get that sixth sense.
Above: Camping in Baja (click to enlarge)
TCM: How is cell phone service in Baja?
Suni: I’m on AT&T. They offer a Mexico plan. Your phone will work, you will just pay more to use it. In most of the places I travel in Baja, I don’t have coverage anyway.
TCM: How about language issues?
Suni: My Spanish has gotten better over the years. It may not always be grammatically correct, but I get my point across. I do admit that speaking a little Spanish has given me an element of security.
Above: Baja California Norte
TCM: How about insurance in Mexico?
Suni: Knock on wood, I have never been in a traffic incident there. Everyone is presumed guilty immediately until insurance investigators sort it out. If you’re in a wreck, you need insurance. With that insurance comes a lawyer if you need it. You can buy insurance by the day, but I buy annual insurance. I think I pay 300 dollars for my annual policy. That is generally the smart way to go about it if you plan on spending more than week or two.
When I have this conversation about traveling to Mexico with people, some say I’m crazy. But right this second there are loads of snowbirds driving monstrous RVs in Mexico who speak no Spanish. And they are having a blast. It’s really not that big of a deal.
Follow the Golden Rule and don’t drive at night and don’t put yourself in bad positions. There are people out there who will rip you off, but that’s true anywhere. Make sure you secure your rig. The biggest risk is petty theft.
TCM: Other than surfing, what do you like to do while you’re out truck camping?
Suni: I love to fish. I often bring a kayak. We like to go see something different. When it’s normal California camping, we’ll go hiking and exploring. Death Valley is great for that. We like to see waterfalls, cave paintings, old cabins, and mines. Generally, we’re just exploring the area. I mountain bike some, but rarely bring a bike on a truck camping trip.
Above: Ethan and Ben at Lippincott Pass, Death Valley, California
TCM: Do you take your kids truck camping?
Suni: The kids go with us a lot. Now that they’ve grown - one is sixteen and one is fourteen - they have branched out into a tent. When they were younger, we’d put them on the lower couch. After a couple years, they were outside in a tent. They love the freedom. Each year the tent gets further and further away. They are outdoor maniacs.
I am teaching them how to drive off-road. Depending on the road, I’ll usually drive in and let one of them drive out. As I’m driving these tough roads, I explain what I’m doing. I tell them why I’m taking a certain line. I want to pass this knowledge down to them.
Above: Gunner in Big Sur, California
TCM: They are so lucky! Tell us about your dog and what he thinks of truck camping.
Suni: Gunner is our trusty hound. He’s a seven year old lab, and he goes with us everywhere. He is one lucky animal; he’s been to a lot of neat places.
It is good thing to have a dog when we’re in Mexico. Most animals aren’t cared for as pets down there, so dogs in Mexico can be unfriendly. As a result, Mexican people are generally leery of dogs. When I go to Mexico alone, he’s good security.
TCM: Is it tricky to get him across the border, and back?
Suni: Going in to Mexico is not an issue with Gunner. It’s coming back to the USA that can be tricky. There’s an international health certificate from vet that you should carry with you, although I have never been asked for paperwork.
Above: White Mountains, California
TCM: Thanks for the interview Suni. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Suni: I’m just another knucklehead out there, trying to enjoy nature.
Truck: 2006 Toyota Tundra TRD Limited, crew cab, single rear wheel, gas, 4x4
Camper: 2003 Four Wheel Camper Hawk
Tie-downs/Turnbuckles: Four Wheel’s system
Suspension: Rancho RS9000 shocks, Firestone Ride-Rite air bags, American Mojave wheels
Gear: 2" leveling kit/lift, KC Daylighters, which are the lights in the front
How To Build A World Ready Rig: Part 1
- - By Angela White
The Heimbigners prepare a Ford F550, Phoenix Custom Camper, 100 gallons of water, 130 gallons of diesel, and 8,000 pounds of toys and equipment for a shipping container.
Most of us remember touching a classroom globe and excitedly spinning it round and round. As the Earth spun, we imagined traveling to the places our finger traced. When the globe wound down and stopped, we imagined visiting strange new places. That is unless you ended up in midway into the Pacific Ocean, as I often did.
In those tender childhood moments, we’re not worried about time or money. We’re not thinking about our security, health, or a need to stay connected with family. We’re totally free, and charging forward to explore the world literally turning before us. Perhaps it’s these moments in which we all begin to dream of seeing Africa, Asia, Antarctica, Alaska - or Arkansas for that matter.
What would happen if we all went back to that spinning globe? This time, through the powers vested in Truck Camper Magazine, you were actually going where your finger landed. If you hit water, you are allowed another turn, but you’re going somewhere. And yes, a truck camper is your vehicle, traveling home, and support system.
The globe stops turning. You’re pointing at the center of Africa.
Exactly what truck and camper combination will you choose? How will you design that rig to handle the African terrain ahead of you? And how will you train for this exciting globe trotting adventure?
Meet Bruce and Laurie Heimbigner.
Their fingers landed on Mexico, Central America, Australia, Asia, India, and Africa. They’re preparing their custom truck camper rig right now. A shipping container is waiting. Are you ready for this? It’s time to take the world for a real spin.
Above: Bruce and Laurie Heimbigner
TCM: What led you to ordering a pop-up truck camper from Phoenix Custom Campers?
Laurie: In June of 2012, we had to take a 2,500 mile round trip to the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona. We threw a double bed mattress into the back of our fifteen passenger van so we wouldn’t have stay in hotels. Two nights of being able to stop wherever we wanted and sleep in relative comfort started us thinking the unthinkable. Maybe it would be really nice to have a camper instead of pitching a tent and sleeping on the ground.
We have friends serving in difficult to reach areas overseas that we’d love to visit, so we wanted a high clearance vehicle that would allow us to travel over rough narrow roads in those remote areas. Bruce also wanted something narrow and low enough to ship overseas inside a shipping container. Those requirements excluded traditional RVs, as well as hard sided truck campers.
Above: Bull Lake Creek Road, one mile off US287 in Wyoming
Bruce: Most people taking this type of adventure would acquire a purpose built expedition vehicle, however, that didn’t fit our plans, and especially our budget. Since we had a pretty good idea what sort of bad roads we would be traveling, we knew we needed as much ground clearance as possible. We also required something that wasn’t too tall. Tall vehicles are less stable both on the highway and on the trail. We needed to be able ship our rig via a standard shipping container. That meant our rig width couldn’t exceed seven feet wide.
Because we plan to be overseas for six to nine years, we needed something relatively compact but with lots of storage for tools, equipment, and stuff. We considered EarthRoamer, GXV, and Sportsmobile, but they were either way out of our price range, or didn’t meet many of our requirements.
Next we considered traditional truck campers, but concluded they were generally too wide or too tall for our needs. Then we thought about building our own, but decided we didn’t have enough time or a place to build it. We eventually concluded that having a custom pop-up flatbed truck camper with storage boxes underneath built by experts would best meet our criteria.
With an early estimate of 8,000 pounds of stuff, we needed something bigger than a pickup truck to haul the camper along with 130 gallons of diesel, 100 gallons of water, 10 gallons of gasoline, a motorcycle, two bicycles, two inflatable kayaks, two spare tires, two winches, dual air compressors, and a generator. It also needed to be reliable or have readily available parts overseas. We decided we wanted a new vehicle for reliability and safety. We also wanted a vehicle that we could continue to use after we get back. The Ford 550 met those criteria.
Above: The Heimbigner rig has 130 gallons of diesel capacity
TCM: Why do you need 130 gallons of diesel?
Bruce: We have four fuel tanks. A thirty gallon tank can be used for either diesel or gasoline. We need 130 gallons of diesel because we will be traveling overseas in areas where it could be difficult to find diesel fuel. With our 130 gallon tanks, we have driven from eastern Washington to Santa Fe without refilling. In the United States, the larger tank means we can buy the cheapest fuel. Overseas is will be more about finding the fuel, not buying the cheapest fuel.
TCM: Is the 10 gallons of gasoline for your generator?
Bruce: Yes, for the generator and the motorcycle.
Laurie: The gasoline has been great with locals in Mexico. We had over thirty gallons on our Mexico trip and we helped people by giving gas away.
Bruce: We’ve given away more gas than we use on our own. It’s been best for people in remote areas who don’t have gas.
TCM: You’re a traveling fuel station. How did you go about designing your Phoenix Custom Camper?
Laurie: In October of 2012 we took a trip to Denver where we were able to visit three different camper manufacturers. When we described what we wanted to Robby at Phoenix Custom Campers, he kept saying, “Yes, we can do that” and “Yes, that wouldn’t be any problem”. Then we started sketching out a rough plan. We were extremely excited to find a solution that was in our price range.
Above: Livingstone (center left) at Mt. Rainier
The tradition at Phoenix is to refer to each camper by name. We named our camper Livingstone after the famous British missionary, explorer, and anti-slave activist, David Livingstone.
Above: Their floor plan - click to enlarge
TCM: That’s a neat name, and an appropriate one. Tell us what you were asking for when Robby said, “Yes, we can do that.”
Bruce: A 7’ wide, 10’ long, side entry, flatbed camper was a big ask. Our final design list for Phoenix was 67 items long. I kept changing and updating items while the camper was being built. Robby is very patient and accommodating.
Propane tank exchange, with different propane tank sizes, is the only viable option when traveling globally. For this purpose, we needed a custom-sized propane tank locker that would fit any global tank size.
We didn’t want a traditional camper stove top. Instead we have a two-burner household unit which produces much higher BTU. It also does require a bit of extra preparation to secure the gas grills when breaking camp.
We wanted at least 100 gallons of fresh water. Robby worked that into the design so the water is in the camper, but out of the way. A six-step water purification system was also built into the design.
Above: The interior of Bruce and Laurie's rig - click to enlarge
TCM: How did you go about designing a camper for global travel?
Bruce: We got a lot of information from different people who are traveling globally with vehicles. We talked with people on the Expedition Portal website, and emailed a bunch of people who own Phoenix Custom Campers. We also talked with people who took Ford vehicles overseas and people who built custom rigs who traveled around the world. Everyone was extremely helpful.
We had our ideas, and Phoenix helped us build a better, safer, and easier to build camper. They were very practical in coming up with solutions that fit our requirements.
Specifically, we wanted the sink certain way, and the stove in certain location. Laurie wanted solid walls in the shower, and not soft walls. Robby did a design and we went back and forth with more ideas.
Laurie: Robby was able to visualize and conceptualize what we wanted. We wanted a north-south bed so that we didn’t need to crawl over each other. We wanted great deal of storage because we have to have everything with us. There are dressers on each side of the bed and the bed lifts up for additional storage. What Robby was able to design and build is simply awesome.
Above: Xantrex 60 amp inverter
We want to bake bread as we travel and opted for a convection microwave. That kind of oven uses a lot of power so we needed a 2,000 watt (3,000 watt peak) inverter, which meant we needed a large AGM battery bank.
In the USA our power works with 110 volt or 220 volt. Overseas we can use the 220 volt, 50hz power, but inside it is always 120 volt, 60hz. The charging system is global and uses any kind of power.
We replaced the standard camper shower heads with kitchen sink sprayers to conserve water, yet they produce a good, satisfying spray. They don’t leak under pressure and you to have to press and hold the button to get any water.
We needed to avoid potential problems with an electric roof lift system. Fortunately, the Phoenix roof lift system doesn’t need power or complex mechanics.
Due to our being active photographers we needed to be able to walk on the roof and access the roof from inside the camper. We have roof stabilizers we can place in the corners and an egress hatch over our bed.
For emergencies and travel in African national parks, we need the ability to go directly from camper to truck, so have communicating windows that open between the truck and camper.
TCM: With this communicating window, can you can crawl through from the camper to the truck?
Bruce: It’s like the old campers. The rear window of the truck aligns to the front of camper. I can barely squeeze through, but I can. It’s an emergency thing. We want to be able to get through if we don't want to go outside. We can get into the truck and take off. In some of the national parks in Africa, people are not allowed out of the vehicle for their own safety, like if there’s a lion around. We would have to go directly back and forth. It’s an opening, but it’s not to be used every day.
Laurie: It’s a good diet plan!
TCM: That’s funny. You better not eat too much on your trip. It’s the Lion Diet. What modifications have you made to your truck?
Bruce: Our truck was purchased new as a cab and chassis, and we added a flatbed. To maintain our overall width at a container-friendly seven feet, the eight foot wide stock dual rear wheels had to go.
If you look at some of our four wheel drive road photos it looks like the camper is floating off the truck. That is because the flatbed is not directly bolted to the truck frame but only attached by two hinge points at rear of the truck, allowing the bed to lift more than one foot above the chassis.
We had Les Schwab build custom wheels for 295/60R22.5 semi-truck tires (effectively lifting the truck two and a half inches higher than factory). That meant enlarging the factory wheel wells by cutting into them and creating a larger opening. That was a very nerve wracking procedure.
TCM: Tell us about the rear garage. That’s something we’ve never seen before on a truck camper rig.
Bruce: We wanted equipment and gear we carry to be hidden from view. We also didn’t want a place for someone to jump on our rig and steal a ride.
These stipulations necessitated a garage built into the back of the camper. The garage encloses our motorcycle, kayaks, spare tires, and bikes. The retractable Rock Slide Engineering step replaced the stock running boards. The garage, in turn, created the need for a side entry into the camper.
Above: Close-ups of the rear garage - click to enlarge
The things we are most likely to need are by the garage door and easiest to remove, like our bicycles, camp chairs and table. If I need the spare tires, I’d have to empty the entire garage. Adjustable metal strap tie-downs inside the garage secure everything.
Laurie: There was no way to design it perfectly, but the garage gives us flexibility. It’s not really compartmentalized. It’s an empty box.
Bruce: The funny thing is that we never had a garage with our house, but now have one with our camper.
TCM: Tell us about your motorcycle, and what you use it for.
Bruce: We have a 2013 Honda CRF250L. We wanted something big enough for the both of us to take trips around camp, and be fun enough for riding off-road. We wanted a dual sport on or off road capable and licensed motorcycle. We'd prefer a more powerful bike, but they are too to tall to sit on and wouldn't fit in our camper’s garage.
We have made a bunch of modifications to it including: a small cargo rack, skid plate, Rotopax (extra gallon of fuel and water), bar end protection, eliminated the blinker bars, and replaced the massive Honda rear fender.
Above: The crane system that moves the motorcycle in and out of the garage
Above: The motorcycle being lifted into the garage
TCM: How do you get the motorcycle in and out?
Bruce: We had All-Fabrication in Pullman, Washington design and build a crane winch with a swing out arm. It makes getting the motorcycle in and out of the garage very easy.
The motorcycle is 320 pounds, and the back of garage is three feet off the ground. A ramp would not be possible. There’s no way I could lift 320 pounds of motorcycle. I knew we needed some kind of motor to get it up there. So, we came up with this custom solution. It works great!
Above: The outside storage boxes hold fuel, a generator, compressor, and lots of extra supplies - click to enlarge
TCM: What do you keep in the outside storage boxes?
Bruce: The truck bed, garage, fuel tanks, under bed boxes, and motorcycle lift were all built by All-Fabrication in Pullman, Washington.
We left the exact design to All-Fabrication. We wanted to maximize space, and have the boxes bolted on to bottom of the bed. Each box has specific uses and that use was designed in. Instead of painted, they are bed lined inside and out. That gives them protection because they’re low and going to get rocks.
One small box houses switches and controls for fuel, the factory fuel tank filler, as well as spare parts, hydraulic jack, come-along, oils, other fluids. The second small box contains electrical components, the scissor stairs, and leveling ramps. One of the two large boxes holds the generator (which can be run in the box), extraction gear, compressed air ports, and tools. The other large box holds our free standing shade, extraction gear, and other camp supplies.
We didn’t want a large attached awning on our camper, so we bought a free standing shade with solid and mosquito screen sides. Having large storage boxes helped with this decision and it worked great in Mexico.
Above: The scissor steps can be attached to the garage or the camper
Laurie: Bruce also brings his chainsaw. We are prepared! Our scissor stairs, for entering the camper, also hook to the back of the garage for Bruce to use when working in the garage.
TCM: What kind of locks are you using on your rig?
Bruce: Currently, we are using trucker locks on the boxes and garage. Trucker locks are much heavier duty than standard RV locks. In the future I will probably add additional locks for even more security.
Above: The fuel fill is hidden in the storage area of the truck and has a heavy duty lock
TCM: Do you have any security cameras?
Bruce: Not yet, but I do have four cameras for off-road use - to be installed soon. I’ll have one in the front looking forward and one in the garage looking down, as well as two under the truck. The video is seen in the cab.
Laurie: We’ll use the camera to see big rocks and the wheels in the relation to a cliff. If I’m outside marshaling our progress and I ask for my purse, it’s a bad sign, things are too squirrelly for me.
On the White Rim Trail we had a situation where the camper was smashed against a cliff and there wasn’t any room for me to get out. And one time in Baja I almost asked for my purse, but I didn’t. I pressed through. Bruce takes us on interesting adventures.
TCM: We’ve never quite been that freaked out, but we haven’t been off-road quite like you have either. How long did it take for you to put the entire rig together?
Laurie: Amazingly fast! Every evening Bruce would be planning, thinking, and communicating with people. It was about six months from time we planned it until we got our truck. We ordered our camper in October and got it in March.
Bruce: Part of my research was when we were sailing and I wanted to sail around world. So, the research had been going on for a long time.
Above: Laurie driving the course at Overland Expo West
Laurie: We got the garage done last. We took it in, and got it back the day before the Overland Expo. It wasn’t painted when you saw it, but now it is.
Bruce: We have had the rig two years and I’m still making modifications. Hopefully we’ll have it the way we want it before we leave on our big trip.
TCM: What modifications have you added in the past two years?
Bruce: Many of the smaller additions I installed myself like the TrailReady full-coverage bumper, front and rear SuperWinch-Talon 18.0 SR winches, two VaiAir 480C compressors, Steadymate 15546 series L track mounting hardware in the garage, eight Rigid Industries LED lights, as well as most of the special electrical equipment.
There is additional discussion about camper specs, wheels, tires, electrical issues and additional modifications I’ve made detailed in my Expedition Portal build blog.
Stay tuned for How To Build A World Ready Rig: Part 2. The Heimbigners dive deeper into their incredible rig build, explore its capabilities and limitations, attempt to break it on the dirt roads of Utah and Mexico, and reveal the personal reasons for their multi-year continent-crossing itinerary.
Truck: 2013 Ford F-550, Lariat, Crew Cab, Long Bed, Dual Rear Wheel to Single Rear Wheel, 4x4, Diesel
Camper: 2013 Phoenix pop-up, all custom
Tie-Downs and Turnbuckles: Direct bolt to bed's frame
Suspension: Air Lift - Air boost springs front and rear, Hellwig sway bars front and rear
How To Build A World Ready Rig: Part 2
- - By Angela White
It’s probably safe to say that no one seeks out a compost toilet as their first choice. No one decides to give up the flush-it-and-forget-it luxury of modern household plumbing and choose to go on coconut husk instead. After all, coconuts make for delicious candy bars and interesting tribal swimwear, but why would anyone put them in a potty on purpose?
Then life presents an amazing opportunity. Travel the globe in a four-wheel drive truck with a fully-self-contained truck camper. You’ll have everything you need with you, but nothing more. Food, water, and life’s basics could be hard to come by, so you’ll need to use them sparingly. Do this, and you can see the world.
As you think this over, you look for new ways to conserve in every way possible. Water is your ultimate concern. Without it, your trip is immediately over. With it, and you can go further, for longer, and experience everything you’ve ever dreamed of. How can you save water?
That’s when you hear about this new compost toilet. It separates number one from number two. The number one can be disposed almost anywhere. Number two gets enmeshed with - yes - coconut husk! Here’s the best part; composting toilets use no water. Suddenly you can’t wait to go number two on coconut husk. Bring on the compost toilet!
Bruce and Laurie Heimbigner just read that introduction and thought, “That’s about right.” I know this because they’re (a) about to see the world, (b) in a truck camper, and (c) with a compost toilet that uses coconut husk (aka coconut coir fiber). Fortunately, the compost toilet is not the only interesting solution they’ve found for the multi-year world-wide adventure before them.
This article picks up from How To Build a World Ready Rig Part 1. For Part 2, the Heimbigners dive deeper into their incredible rig build, explore its capabilities and limitations, attempt to break it on the dirt roads of Utah and Mexico, and reveal the personal reasons for their multi-year continent-crossing itinerary. Tip 1: Look out for piranhas!
Above: First night on the White Rim Trail, Utah
TCM: Did either of you go tent camping or RVing when you were growing up?
Laurie: As kids both our families did a lot of camping in tents or small trailers and typically visited national parks or went fishing. As adults, we've always loved getting out in nature and away from the crowds. Before building this rig, we were primarily backpackers with occasional tent camping trips with the kids.
Bruce: For years I had the dream of sailing around the world. After the kids left home, we took sailing lessons and bought a small sailboat that we could camp out with. As we took sailing trips on bigger boats and explored farther from the coast, it became obvious that our opinions diverged about the sailing around the world. That spawned the discussion about how we would both enjoy traveling around the world.
Above: South of San Ignacio, Baja
TCM: What is it that has you taking to the sea and wanting to travel the world?
Laurie: We both really enjoy being well off the beaten path, taking photographs, biking, kayaking, walking, and writing. Our travel goals right now probably sound a little crazy. We’re attempting to test our limits, and break anything that is going to break.
TCM: You’re trying to break your rig?
Laurie: Yes. Since we plan to leave the country in the next two years, we figure that we need to find out where our weak points are so we break them where we can still easily replace them with something sturdier. That way we’ll learn what kind of places we can safely take Livingstone and what kind of places we should avoid.
TCM: How are you preparing to leave the country?
Bruce: Once we leave North America, we will be trying to avoid taking chances. Our camper will be our home. We are not going to want it compromised or damaged. We will be cautious.
Laurie: A year ago I saw a picture on the internet of a family traveling across the world that impacted me. It was of a large overland vehicle in Mongolia. They were traveling on a hand built road in the mountains. The locals used hand-made bricks to make the roads, and the vehicle crumbled the road to the village and destroyed it.
We know that our rig is long and heavy. We want to be respectful of the people who are creating the roads. It only took a moment for that rig to demolish it. There will be situations in which we could go certain places, but should we? We don’t want to put ourselves in that kind of situation. We don’t know how it will play out, but that picture was a wakeup call.
TCM: The Tread Lightly campaign comes to mind. How do you learn where you can safely take your truck camper rig?
Bruce: We have taken the rig to Baja Mexico and Utah to travel dirt roads. In Baja we were stuck in one spot for twenty-four hours. We were on a steep mountain road and couldn’t go around a sharp corner due to a curved rock wall on the uphill side and a huge rock on the inside of the corner of the downhill side. I could have easily winched the rock, but it was the size of a small car, so that could have damaged the road and risked truck. I had to figure out how to swing the rear of truck sideways so we could clear it.
Above: The rock is in the way of the rig, so they're stuck - front view
Above: The rock is in the way of the rig, so they're stuck - back view
Above: Using the jack to move the truck a matter of inches
Above: After Bruce had jacked the rig around the rock
We ended up spending the night there. In the morning I got us lined up, placed the jack at an angle against the axle, and then pushed the rear of the truck sideways a foot and a half (a quarter of an inch at a time).
Laurie: He’s very clever. It’s also great that we have our motorcycle. We can scout ahead to see if it’s okay for us to take the rig, or not.
Above: The White Rim Trail, along the Green River, Utah
Bruce: We now have an idea of what we want to do, what we can do, and where we can go. We want to support the people where we’re visiting. We have contacts in almost every country in the world. We are going to evaluate local needs and determine whether we might be able to help.
Our service work has directly affected the design of the rig. For example, our garage and camper can come off our truck as well as a hitch for a trailer. We can use the truck to haul stuff for disaster relief or whatever need might come up.
Laurie: We’re both working on our Emergency First Responder, ham radio operator, and English as a second language certifications. That will help to keep us safe, and help others.
I am nurse and Bruce is a computer guy with an agricultural background. We both are experienced teachers. I will be working on the Livingstone Project. I love to write and take photos. In all of the different cultures and places we visit, I am going to ask people the same three questions. One question I am considering is, “If you could do anything, what would it be?” And I still need two more questions. I’ll also photograph him/her with something that is important to him/her. The answers and photos will go into a book sharing what’s important to different people and different cultures from all around the world.
TCM: How long will this trip be?
Laurie: We were thinking five to seven years, but it may take ten years. We’ll see. I have an agreement to come home twice a year because of our grandchildren. That was part of the family negotiations. We’ll retire in March of 2017 and then we’ll see how ready we are to leave.
Bruce: It will be 50-50 as far as helping out and exploring the countries we visit. We have the basic route of where we want to go.
Laurie: We also want to figure out what needs to be strengthened before we go, and how to get ourselves out of the trouble that we get ourselves into. So far we’ve been very successful in meeting that goal.
Above: The White Rim Trail, Utah - click to enlarge
TCM: Are there examples other than the rock you needed to get around?
Laurie: On our way to the Overland Expo in 2013, our inaugural voyage, we took a three day side trip on the White Rim Trail through Canyonlands National Park. The scenery was stunning, but the road was misnamed. “White Knuckle Road” describes it better.
We have taken many short trips to the mountains of eastern Washington and northern Idaho to relax, kayak, motorcycle, hike, and bike.
In June 2014 we drove to Baja for three weeks to further test our bad road readiness. That involved crossing the peninsula from sea to sea, not once but twice, using dirt and rock ranch roads, and the added twist of unreliable maps and a foreign language.
TCM: Any valuable lessons from that trip?
Bruce: Directions given by well-meaning people can be wrong. Very, very wrong.
If you start getting stuck, it’s better to stop and back out instead of trying to power forward.
Laurie: Maxtrax recovery devices are your friend! I’m probably the only woman who would want more Maxtrax for Mother’s day. You put one Maxtrax in front of the other to get out of sand, mud, lack of a road, or a wash out. We used Maxtrax a lot in Baja.
Sharp rocks hidden under the sand are a problem. We’ve named them “piranhas”. The truck has a lot of power and it’s heavy. When you combine those two things, and your tires are spinning, you might come across a rock that you don’t see, and it can damage the tires. I keep a sharp eye. I tell Bruce to slow down and to look carefully. If we see a piranha, we avoid it. We’re getting better at communicating.
Bruce: Our camper length and the sharpness of bends in the road need to be taken into very serious consideration when determining our route. Our rig is 19,000 pounds fully loaded and 27-feet long, which is pretty long for a camper. But the biggest problem is the 200-inch long wheel base. In Mexico, Thailand and Africa people are driving around in terrible pickups that are two wheel drive. Our rig is intended to go in places those trucks go. I call them old beater pickup roads which are a little worse than the commonly referred to market town roads.
It’s really important to double check that you latched all your latches before driving off.
If the ride is really bumpy for the driver and passenger, it’s getting ready to break or smash something somewhere in the truck, camper, or garage.
Above: The table mount broke on a bumpy road
This leads to our “Items broken and replaced” list: OEM running boards, table mount, refrigerator door, fridge mount, bed platform hinges, potable water hose (many leaks), compressed air line leaks.
All of these items broke in off-road situations. I’m very pleased with our Phoenix Camper. We have put ten to fifteen years of ordinary use into it in two years. We have taken two big trips and lots of little trips.
Being able to use the motorcycle to scout ahead is huge benefit especially since most people familiar with a four-wheel drive roads think of short narrow Jeeps and motorcycles, not big long trucks.
Above: Camping in Baja near Catavina
TCM: Where have you been with your truck camper that you would recommend to other truck campers?
Bruce: Baja is amazing, safe, and a boondocker’s dream. Popular beach camping locations during the winter high season cost around $10 a day. For the rest of the year, and for areas that are off the beaten track, many of the most beautiful locations with warm tropical water right outside your door are free.
Above: Camping at Agua Verde Beach, Baja
TCM: That sounds incredible. Do you only dry camp with your camper?
Bruce: Almost exclusively. Besides beaches in Mexico, we generally look for BLM land, pull off the highway, drive a couple miles down a gravel road, find a wide spot, and set up in instant paradise!
Above: They have Lifeline AGM batteries installed in their rig
Our plan when we go overseas is to be able to live off-the-grid for three weeks at a time. Besides the large batteries, the camper has solar panels, a gasoline generator, high output truck alternators, and an inverter.
The entire back wall of the camper is storage. We can boondock until we run out of fuel, water, or food. If we have a fresh water source, even from a stream, we can stay out for a very long time.
TCM: Tell us about your water purification system.
Bruce: We have a six step water purification system. Theoretically you can place the intake hose in any fresh water source no matter how contaminated and have safe drinking water come out of the tap. That said, you’re not going to want to use it with super polluted water, or salt water.
We have a long electrical cord, and a 12-volt water pump which also serves as a spare for the camper. We can pump water to the first two steps which are filters mounted in the side of the camper. Those pre-filters remove dirt, sand, and algae, and empty directly into the standard filler bib typical of campers and into the 100 gallon tank. Those two filters are cleanable.
Above: Purified water and soap dispenser next to the regular faucet
At that point it is not potable, so we chlorinate it as a third step, which makes it shower and cooking safe. There are three more filtration stages that remove the chlorine, biological, and other chemical impurities before it becomes drinking water. We have a separate drinking water spigot. The final three filters are disposable.
Laurie: When it comes time to test, I will have some fresh water nearby for me and let Bruce try it first.
TCM: Good idea. Tell us about your composting toilet.
Bruce: The toilet is a Nature’s Head composting toilet. It separates liquid waste from solids. We empty the liquids about every two days, while the solids mix with shredded coconut fiber to break down into compost that can be safely buried about once per month.
The primary benefit of the composting toilet is that it doesn’t use any water. We want to be in remote places and use as little water as possible – and there won’t be any dump stations. I don’t know where I came across the concept of a composting toilet, but I thought it was fantastic. I emailed a couple of people on Expedition Portal, and read reviews. There is a good explanation on Amazon’s reviews.
It might not be for everybody because dumping it is different than a regular RV toilet. There’s no black tank. It has a gross factor because the clean out is inside the camper not from the outside.
Urine can be dumped anywhere, it doesn’t spread disease, and doesn’t require composting. You can dump urine in a remote area. If you are camping where someone else might camp before the next rain, dig a hole and cover it, that’s what we do.
Laurie: The toilet holds two gallons of urine, which takes about two days to fill depending on how much you use it. The composting part is when you use toilet and there’s solid waste. You mix your waste with the shredded coconut husk by turning a knob on the side.
Solid waste today is not dirt tomorrow. It’s still human waste. It’s a biohazard, so you have to put it in a real toilet or bury it. The solid waste has the texture of damp compost and is in the bottom section of the toilet. You have to remove the toilet and dump it out. Some people may not like it. A cassette toilet stays outside camper, but our composting toilet is inside. You clean it by taking the toilet out and dumping the solid waste.
We have been out on three week trips and haven’t had to dump the solid waste, so it lasts a long time and we haven’t had to worry about it. It has a 12-volt fan that pulls the exhaust outside so the bathroom doesn’t stink. Even without the fan, it smells somewhat earthy. You can also use sawdust on the solid side instead of coconut fiber. Anything with cellulose will work.
Bruce: We think it’s a great choice. That was one of the things that we changed in the design after it was built. Robby was building the camper and we changed our mind when it was almost done.
TCM: I know a few readers are thinking, “That’s really neat” while others are thinking, “No way.” We get the same reaction when we talk about cassette toilet systems. Does anyone travel with you?
Bruce: So far we haven’t found anyone crazy enough, but we do have room for five in the cab and a 12’x12’ shelter/tent for guests, or us. The camper sleeps two comfortably, or four if two people are very friendly.
Above: Camping in Baja near Catavina
TCM: You have assembled a fascinating and unique rig for a fascinating and unique purpose. Is there anything else you would like to add?
Laurie: We’re continuing to discuss route options for our world trip. A lot will depend on what is happening on the political front as we enter each region of the planet, and what transoceanic shipping ports are most cost effective.
We want to drive through Mexico, Central America, Australia, Asia, India, and Africa. But then New Zealand, South America, and Europe sound too good to miss as well.
Bruce: I’m a remodeler, so I have a lot of plans for improvements before we leave North America - we’ll have to put up with any shortcomings for a long time.
TCM: We’d love to follow up with you during your trip. Please keep in touch as you travel overseas.
Laurie: We will!
Truck: 2013 Ford F-550, Lariat, Crew Cab, Long Bed, Dual Rear Wheel to Single Rear Wheel, 4x4, Diesel
Camper: 2013 Phoenix pop-up, all custom
Tie-Downs and Turnbuckles: Direct bolt to bed's frame
Suspension: Air Lift - Air boost springs front and rear, Hellwig sway bars front and rear
How To Truck Camp On the Beach
- - By Bob Gray
Bob Gray on required beach equipment, beach driving, beach protocols, beach fishing, beach friends, and recommended post beach rig cleaning. First tip: Zip Wax everything.
We have always been beach people. We go boating, fishing, and take vacations up and down the coast. We even owned a house by the sea.
Bob Gray on required beach equipment, beach driving, beach protocols, beach fishing, beach friends, and recommended post beach rig cleaning. First tip: Zip Wax everything.
We’ve long been sea loving people who boat, fish, and take vacations up and down the Mid-Atlantic coast. We even owned a beach house. So it’s no surprise that when my wife and I spotted truck campers on a misty fall Cape Cod beach several years ago, we knew immediately it was something we just had to try. Already shopping for a new pick up for plowing snow, I added truck camper research to my quest and was off and running.
Truck Camper Magazine and RV.net were terrific newbie resources where I read everything I could find about truck camping rigs. I directly credit seasoned and knowledgeable beach campers Mike Layton and Ron Humphress, and their Truck Camper Magazine articles, for helping usher us into the world of beach camping and enjoy it to the extent that we do today.
After narrowing our search to a new Ford F350 diesel, and determining that a Lance 950S fit our needs best (and was within truck payload), we inked a deal with Parkview RV in Smyrna, Delaware and began our new adventure. We used that great camper for two seasons, quickly realizing that our new beach camping hobby required extra space and, more importantly, additional fresh, grey, and black water capacity and upgraded to our current Lance 992.
Above: Deirdre and Bob Gray enjoying their time on the beach
Here are some beach camping basics that we’ve learned from advice, experience, and old fashioned trial-and-error!
Each Beach Has a Protocol
Every beach we’ve been to has different rules, different vehicle requirements, and definitely their own protocol. They also all have different fees and different limits on how many days you can stay out on the beach.
For any beach you plant to visit, check the beach website before you go for specific rules and regulations and possible closures. And don’t be afraid to talk to the people on the beach - they will help you out.
Our very first beach camping outing was to Assateague National Seashore a few years ago. As we pulled up and began to air down, fellow truck campers and friends Ron and Michelle Humphress pulled up right behind us. Realizing that we’re kind of new at this game, they cheerfully greeted us with “This is how it’s done,” and offered to lead us down the beach. We camped with them for the weekend, learning a lot about best beach camping practices for Assateague.
Essential Beach Equipment
Every beach camper will tell you, it’s not “if” you’ll get stuck in the sand, it’s “when” you’ll get stuck in the sand. Be prepared. The following equipment list is applicable to most beaches. Again, check with each beach website you plan of visiting before planning a trip, as they may have their own equipment requirements for their beach.
1. Heavy Duty Tow Strap - Go to an auto parts store (like Pep Boys) and buy a heavy duty wet tow strap. Try to get the longest one you can, 10-feet at a minimum. It’s easier for another vehicle to pull you from farther away. In most cases, if you can get moved five to six inches, you can climb out of hole.
2. Vehicle Jack - A regular car jack won’t do for a truck camper rig. A heavy duty jack is a smart investment. I carry a hydraulic 10-ton bottle jack.
3. Boards - The minimum requirement is usually a 12”x12”x 3/4-inch plywood board. I carry four 3-foot, 1” thick plywood boards on my cooler rack. I have used them only once to jack my vehicle up out of the sand without assistance. I dug out, put the boards in front of my wheels and drove right out. You can also use these boards under your camper jacks.
4. Shovel - I have a 4-foot short-handled hard metal shovel. I prefer a shovel with a handle and a spade blade. Having a handle makes reaching under the truck and pulling back much easier. I also carry a second military surplus folding shovel. Even if I don’t go to the beach, it’s a nice shovel to use for other camping purposes.
5. Air pressure gauge - Get a good air pressure gauge. I have a commercial duty truck air pressure gauge that’s very accurate. The dial type gauges are not as reliable, especially if dropped. I tried one and found it to be inaccurate.
6. Electric air compressor - Depending on which beach I’m visiting, if an air compressor is not available, I have a small compressor that runs off my generator. It’s a little cumbersome, but will do a good enough job to get me to the nearest service station.
7. Fire extinguisher - The one inside your camper will work just fine
8. First aid kit - I’m an Eagle Scout and live by the “Be Prepared” motto. We have an extensive first aid kit because we fish with sharp things like hooks and knives!
9. Miscellaneous items - Check with the specific beach you’ll be visiting as some also require you have at least half a tank of fuel, a spare tire, flashlight, trash bags, jumper cables, current tide chart, proof of insurance, license, and registration. Fines can be charged if you do not have the necessary equipment.
1. Keep your clean rig. It’s very important to keep your vehicle clean and protected from salt air exposure. I use Zip Wax, a one-step wash and wax that you can buy at any auto supply store, or online. I wash the whole truck with Zip Wax before going to any beach. I use a bug sprayer to apply a coating of Zip Wax on the entire underside. After five years of beach camping and faithful Zip Wax washing, my truck is very clean underneath and shows no signs of beach wear.
2. Practice good vehicle maintenance. Although trucks are built for this, driving the on sand strains the truck. Be sure to practice good vehicle maintenance, like checking your oil and coolant before each trip.
Above: Airing down before going on the beach
3. Proper tire pressure. To drive on the beach, you’ll need to air down your tires. Normal road driving specifications on my Continental truck tires are 65 psi in the front and 80 psi in the rear. No matter what beach I’m visiting, I typically lower the back wheels to 25 psi and the front to 20 psi. Depending on current sand conditions, I can air my particular tires down as far down as 17 or 18 psi.
On difficult soft sand beaches like Island Beach State Park, you need have to have a good “belly” (low psi) in the tire so that the truck will “float” across the sand, not sink into it. An inexpensive device like Tire Buddy III that screws onto the tire valve stems and lets a precise amount of air out of the tires makes the deflating job quick and easy. I personally have two labeled rear and front for obvious reasons and always double check the psi with my air gauge.
Beach Driving Tips
1. When you first pull out onto the sand, take your foot off the gas. If your truck doesn’t roll freely, you need to let more air out of the tires. Let more air out so your truck tires floating, not sinking. I rarely have problems running 20 psi in the front and 25 psi in the back.
2. Drive in four-wheel drive low range at ten to fifteen miles per hour. High range is hard on your transmission when you’re in four-wheel drive. Monitor your oil and transmission temperature gauges to become familiar with what normal is for your truck. Excessive heat can damage your transmission but taking it easy in low range will keep the temperature down.
3. Keep an eye out for boards with nails sticking out and other debris. Have a tire repair kit ready in case you need to shove a plug into your tire. I have never had a flat tire on the beach, but I have on the highway. A plug is simple and a quick solution and much easier than changing a tire on the sand.
4. As you drive down on the beach, stay in the tire ruts towards the dune side. When you are going up on the beach, stay on the ocean side. Protocol when coming up the beach is to yield to oncoming vehicles. It’s especially relevant for narrow beaches like Cape Lookout. Generally, there’s lots of room on Assateague between the dunes and the water.
5. Never drive on the tidal sand (sand inside the high tide water line). Avoid tidal sand at all costs because you can sink in air pockets. I’ve seen videos of the ocean taking people’s trucks, usually through carelessness. You don’t want your rig anywhere where the high tide comes in.
6. Find where the weed lines are, and where the soft sand meets the hard sand. When you’re camping, be aware of tide times and how high the tide comes up. In some places, the tide can almost come up to the dunes particularly if you have a full or new moon when the tidal range is greater.
Above: Stay in the tire ruts and stay in four wheel drive low
7. When driving on the beach, stay in the ruts left by other vehicles. On Assateague and Island Beach there is definitely a truck camper highway of ruts. It’s kind of like being on a railroad track line. Even if you take your hand off the steering wheel, your rig will stay in well-defined ruts.
8. Be prepared to change lanes if you run out of room against a dune or someone is coming the other way. If this happens, gradually start turning the wheel while going to the next lane. The key is to change lanes gradually, and without quick acceleration or steering changes.
9. Don’t make any sharp turns. When turning around, make a wide sweeping turn in a broad area. By turning with a larger radius, you have less chance of getting stuck. I use my brakes sparingly on the beach preferring to just and wait for my vehicle to stop.
Above: Turning parallel to the ocean when camping
10. When I’ve found a spot for the night, turn parallel to the ocean or put back door to the ocean depending on the breeze. I pull the truck up and then back up. That packs the sand so I’m not sitting in a low spot. Again, be careful not to touch the brake. When you touch the brake, your wheels sink down into the sand.
Above: Backing up to the ocean when camping
Getting Stuck and Unstuck
1. If you drive on the beach frequently enough, you will eventually get stuck. I go to beach ten times a year, and have spent twenty-five nights a year on the beach for the past five years. In all that time, I’ve been stuck fewer than five times. Through experience, you learn to read the beach and you avoid breaking out the shovel.
2. If I realize my rig is starting to get stuck or digging itself in, I just stop. I get out of the truck and evaluate the situation. You’re not really stuck until your axle or frame is touching the sand. If that happens, now you have a problem. Always stop before you get that deep, it will save you work.
3. If you do get stuck, don’t panic! Typically, all you’ve got to do to get unstuck is dig out some sand in the front or back of your tires and clear any sand from under your axles that might hang up your vehicle. There have been times where I’ve felt the rig getting stuck, stopped, gotten out, and fixed the situation as described. With experience, you will get a feel for driving on the beach, how your rig handles on sand, and what to do.
4. Try to avoid holes in the sand. You’ll occasionally see a hole where someone dug to get out, but left their hole behind. I got stuck in one of these holes once and had to get out. It is protocol to fill holes back in because people might not see them.
5. Be sure you’re actually engaged in four-wheel drive. It’s a rookie mistake, but it happens. To engage my truck in four-wheel drive it needs to be in neutral. This one neglected pre-trip check left me digging out. That taught me to make absolutely sure four-wheel drive is engaged by checking one last time before entering the sand.
6. Join a beach fishing association. We joined a couple of beach fishing associations (New Jersey Beach Buggy Association NJBBA and the Assateague Mobile Sports Fishermen AMSA) for two reasons. First and foremost to support lobbying efforts to preserve access to these beaches we’ve come to love so much. And secondly, because most of the fellow members we have met down at the beach will stop and help you if you become stuck. Remember, it is a two way street. It’s nice if you stop and help a fellow camper with a pull if they get stuck as well.
Dually vs. Single Rear Wheels
For years, dual rear wheels were forbidden on Assateague Island National Seashore (I’ve never seen the dually rule for any other beach), which was one of the main reasons my first rig was a single rear wheel truck. But last year they changed that rule. I know many dually rig owners who do really well on the beach. In fact, I just bought a Ford F350 dually myself. I enjoy extended beach trips and no longer have to worry about being overweight when carrying extra water and ice.
Above: A one-inch dually spacer is inserted so the dually tires don't rub
One thing I did was put a 1-inch spacer in between my dual rear wheels to keep the dual rear tires from rubbing together. My friend and fellow truck camper whom I met on the beach in North Carolina highly recommended the spacer and he leaves his on all the time. A single beach camping trip to Cape Lookout racks up in excess of 100 over sand miles and I really don’t want my tire sidewalls rubbing together.
Fun on the Beach
Above: Camping with truck camper friends at Cape Lookout, North Carolina
I work for myself and find I have a hard time relaxing. When I get to the beach, I immediately unwind and disengage from the stresses at home. When I’m coastal, I feel so much more relaxed. Camping on the beach by ourselves is fun, but camping with another rig (or two or three or a hundred in the case of a beach camper rally) is even more fun.
Above: Eating really well on the beach with friends
We’re fortunate to have made really good friends beach camping. We fish, share stories around the fire, and play guitars and bocce ball. Cooking and eating are big beach camping rituals. We eat well, cooking in our Dutch oven right out on the beach. Our friends and fellow beach campers, the Ward family, create a seafood boil that rivals any five star restaurant at the shore.
Beach Camping Tips
1. Bring sunscreen and a straw hat to protect yourself from the sun. We also carry two umbrellas. One goes over our cooler to keep the ice cool, and one we sit under.
2. Bring insect repellant and a fly swatter for every person. If you go to Assateague, everyone has one. If you get a west wind at Assateague, the horse flies are brutal. They bite! Mosquitoes tend to only be a problem at dusk. When the wind comes off the ocean it keeps the bugs away. When the wind drops down to nothing, the bugs return. Sometimes it is best to leave if that is the case.
3. Pay attention to the weather. Review the weekend forecast. I have experienced the famous Assateague thunder and lightning storms. It is really something to watch, but can be a little frightening. If storms approach, we drive up to the dune line and wait it out. We have always felt reasonably safe in our camper.
We have added an Oregon Scientific weather station to our rig on a pole mount made by fabricator Mike Olesnevich. It measures wind speed and direction, barometric pressure, and temperature. Basically, a drop in barometric pressure indicates bad impending bad weather.
We also look down the beach, to see where it’s getting dark. All of this gives us a feel for the direction of the weather. Always be aware of your weather and, when in doubt, err on the side of caution and leave the beach. You can always go back when it clears.
4. If you’re swimming, learn about rip currents. Rip currents are dangerously strong localized currents of water that pull swimmers out to sea without warning, and exhaust swimmers attempting to return to the beach. Research how to identify rip currents (NOAA is a good source), and defeat a rip current if you become caught or how to help someone else. Every place we go, the beaches are unguarded. You are responsible for yourself. Use judgement, and be careful, especially in outgoing tides.
Above: A rear deck allows the sand to stay outside
5. Having a rear deck on your truck camper gives you a transition area. This transition area allows you to brush the sand off with a brush broom before entering camper. We have friends who keep a solar shower bag rigged with an extra-long hose attached to their ladder for even cleaner camper feet! The deck also has tie-downs. If we decide to move to a better fishing area, we just bungee the beach chairs and umbrella and drive down beach.
Post Beach Rig Maintenance
1. When you return from the beach, wash your truck and camper to remove the salt and sand. I slide a lawn sprinkler under my truck to rinse off the salt and sand pulling from the back to the front to rinse off the salt and sand under the carriage.
2. Give your entire rig a thorough interior cleaning and vacuuming. Sand in the camper is not a big deal to remove. It’s actually easier to camp at the beach than a campground where dirt is like clay. I clean everything on the exterior - including my fishing tackle - with Zip Wax. On the inside of the rig, I take a damp rag with Murphy’s oil soap and wipe things off.
3. Open up the whole camper and let it air out to dry. That goes for any camping trip. I also reorganize the storage compartments if I need to put in different gear. We have different gear for beach camping versus regular camping.
Truck Camper Friendly Beaches We Love
Only a short drive from home, Island Beach State Park is our go-to spot for a two-day weekend. If we have three days, it’s Assateague Island National Seashore in Maryland. If we have more time than that, we’ll go to North Carolina’s Outer Banks.
Island Beach State Park, Seaside Park, New Jersey
Above: Island Beach State Park, New Jersey at sunrise
Island Beach State Park is a New Jersey gem that stretches 10-miles from the Atlantic Ocean to the Barnegat Bay providing ample room for truck camping rigs. Island Beach offers excellent surf fishing for striped bass and bluefish, with 24-hour access.
A Mobile Sport Fishing Vehicle Permit runs $195 for New Jersey residents ($225 for non-residents) for a calendar year, January through December. Three-day permits are also available for $75 ($90 non-resident) at the park's Visitor Contact Station located at the entrance gate.
Above: Bob with a Striper Bass
Island Beach requires that every person twelve and older have a fishing pole, bait, and tackle. Island Beach allows overnight stay on the beach as long as you are engaged in a fishing activity.
Above: The view out the back of their camper at Island Beach State Park
There is also a designated lot for overnighting truck campers. We’ve done both and have never been bothered in either location. Free airing stations are located only a few hundred yards from the mobile vehicle access.
Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland
Assateague Island National Seashore features over 12-miles of beach for over sand vehicle use. Their off-road permit runs from $70 to $150, depending on the type of access desired, and is valid for twelve calendar months from the date of purchase. The rangers will give you a sticker to put on your windshield and be sure to put it on as they do regular checks. As you enter the sand, there is an electronic gate that keeps track of number of vehicles on the beach. If there are more than 145 vehicles, it’s one off, one on. There are free airing and dump stations on site.
Above: Camping in the bullpen at Assateague Island National Seashore
To camp on the beach you’ll need a $150 “bullpen” pass (link to application here) in addition to the national park admission fee. The bull pen is an expansive area covering several acres located behind the dune line (but without dunes in front of it) and is used mostly by truck campers. It’s large enough to park by yourself or camp with friends. Most rigs line up with the back of their camper toward the ocean.
While I recommend driving in the daylight the first time you drive on any beach to get the lay of the land, don’t be afraid to drive on the beach at night once you’ve become familiar with it. By arriving late, we avoid heavy shore traffic and have never waited in line (there’s almost always a line on Saturday morning). Once again, it’s always a good idea to be aware of the Assateague Island Over Sand Vehicle Use Regulations before you visit.
Freeman Park, Carolina Beach, North Carolina
Above: Carolina Beach, North Carolina
Freeman Park is a beautiful and wildly popular beach situated in Carolina Beach’s undeveloped north end. It’s so popular in fact that they changed their rules beginning this camping season in an effort to preserve the park’s natural resource. What used to be pretty much a freestyle mix of day trippers, tents, and over sand vehicles is now limited to a designated area by pre-paid and limited permit.
We typically go with ten to twelve other campers, and spend a long weekend there. It’s a different type of camping that’s crowded, fun, and borderline out of control. But the view and fishing are both spectacular. We plan to take future trips in the fall when the camping rules are more relaxed and the crowds thinner.
Cape Lookout National Seashore, Davis, North Carolina
Cape Lookout’s beautiful and remote camping is my favorite, but I definitely recommend that you have some beach camping experience first before making this trip. We generally spend five or six days on Cape Lookout which my Lance 992 handles with ease. The views and fishing are some the best I’ve experienced.
The camping itself is free, but the ferry ride to get you there is not. The rates vary by the length of your vehicle. You need to make advanced reservations for the Davis Ferry, which also offers ice, bait, tackle, and other supplies.
Montauk, Long Island, New York
Last year we discovered Hither Hills State Park in Montauk, on Long Island and are just learning that area now. It’s gorgeous, and I highly recommend it, but make reservations far in advance or visit off season if you want a spot in this popular park. We camped there to scope out the epic fall striper fishing, but don’t have a beach pass just yet.
Make sure you check out the 2015 Montauk beach fishing permit requirements and the Hither Hills Four-Wheel Drive Beach Vehicle Fishing Permit application before you visit. There is also four wheel drive beach in Montauk Point State Park. Our plan this year is to go in October and beach camp.
Truck Camper Rig
Truck: 2011 Ford F350, extended cab, 4x4, long bed, FX4, snow plow and camper package, diesel 6.7 liter engine (needs updating from Bob)
Camper: 2013 Lance 992
Suspension: Rancho Shocks, Skid Plates, Posi-traction - locks out axles direct drive all four wheels, Firestone airbags, Roadmaster sway bar
Gear: Deck by Xtreme Campers, weather station, 35 gallon tank that goes on the roof (for exterior showering), cooler and rod rack on front of truck, Lance centering guides in truck