Inspired by a nearby bear while tent camping, Brian Aberle stepped up to a custom Phoenix truck camper. It’s Plan B, Brian’s working vacation escape vehicle.
Imagine if the truck camper industry hired bears to make regular late evening appearances near tent sites in national and state parks. The bears would have the words, “Try A Truck Camper” shaved on their sides. Sure, the animal rights folks might get upset, but the bears would work for fish, and love it. All the bears would have to do is show up, and a truck camper sale would be in the making. Laugh if you will, but bears sell campers.
Brian Aberle’s bear inspired custom Phoenix pop-up truck camper has been just the ticket to explore the abundance of outdoor opportunities in his home state of Colorado. He named his camper Plan B, but it turns out the B doesn’t stand for Bear.
TCM: How did you get into truck camping?
Brian: As a couple, we were mostly Holiday Inn travelers. When we got married, we received camping gear as a wedding gift and started tent camping together. My wife had grown up tent camping.
We are originally from Illinois, but moved to Colorado in 2003. During one tent camping experience we were in Aspen, Colorado and a German couple pulled up in a self-contained four wheel drive car looking rig. It was a pop-up, but it was not a truck camper. They had an outdoor shower and kitchen area, and we were camping nearby in our tent.
That night a gigantic bear was across the creek. I remember looking at their rig thinking that it would be nice to be in a camper and not this flimsy tent. The camper idea evolved from this for sure.
Shortly after that experience, I rigged up my truck with a shell and a bed. We used that set-up for awhile, and then I decided to get a full blown truck camper.
Above: Buffalo Pass near Steamboat Springs, Colorado
TCM: Why did you choose a truck camper and not another type of RV?
Brian: After using the truck shell, I wanted something that I could stand up in and make lunch.
I checked around and looked at different pop-up truck camper companies and designs. I went to the truck camper show in Ogallala, Nebraska for a day, talked to people, and got an understanding of the different makes and models.
At the time, Phoenix Campers was experimenting with new designs and materials. Even better, they were located in our backyard here in Colorado. I worked with them to design something to my specifications. It was a nice benefit to have them here in Denver to talk to, review their floor plans, and see their work.
Above: Jalama Beach, California
TCM: Phoenix Campers makes custom truck campers. Tell us about your custom Phoenix Camper.
Brian: Robby Rowe, Co-Owner of Phoenix Campers, was really flexible about what I wanted in my camper. That was key for me.
I had Robby build my camper with a low profile. There is hardly any gap between the cab of truck and the overcab of the camper, which makes the rig more aerodynamic. I wanted my camper to look like it was part of my truck. People I’ve met on the road have commented on how nice it looks which is great and all, but many have also been surprised when they realize it on Tacoma.
I got many of the standard features along with the optional hot water heater and outdoor shower. The outside shower allows us to rinse off when we’re camping in dusty conditions. Robby also added two additional aluminum supports within the roof to support equipment and to allow me to stand on top.
TCM: You matched your Phoenix Camper to a Toyota Tacoma. Why did you choose the Tacoma?
Brian: I actually bought the Tacoma first with the idea that we’d be putting a truck camper on it. I didn’t want a full size rig. I use my truck for everyday purposes and I didn’t want to be driving around a larger truck all the time.
When I sat down with Robby, I wanted to make sure the truck and camper rig would be as aerodynamic and lightweight as possible. For my camper, Robby used a much lighter material on the inside, instead of standard particle board. That shaved off significant weight. We built the camper completely custom to be light and did not sacrifice strength or stiffness.
Above: Moab, Utah
TCM: What’s your truck camping lifestyle like?
Brian: We live three hours from Moab and anywhere in Colorado is fairly close. Most everything we do with the camper is close by. We don’t need something that’s big and self contained since we don’t travel that far.
Above: Kayaking on the Arkansas River, Colorado
We go out on most weekends plus two to three longer trips each year. I like to go whitewater kayak pretty much every weekend during the spring runoff and the Phoenix Camper is our base camp. When my wife joins me, it is far more comfortable for her to hang out in the camper than to roast in a tent during trips to the high desert terrain such as the Arkansas River valley.
At least once each year we will also go on longer trips to California to go surfing. For the California trips we’ll often stay at the state beach campgrounds. It’s a bit more close quarters, however we’re fifty steps from the surf. The camper gives us the feeling of home or at least a hotel room on wheels, which helps us to stay for much longer periods. Two weeks in a tent just isn’t happening.
Above: Plan B in Sequoia National Park
We’ve taken a huge road trip to Sequoia, Yosemite, and Big Sur which included a drive down the California coast. That was a ten day road trip from our house. We prefer not to fly. I am the son of a truck driver, so it’s in my DNA to drive for a long time. We’re only fourteen hours from California and leaving after work gets us to the coast for a morning surf.
Above: Jackson, Colorado snowboarding
TCM: From your pictures it looks like you have a lot of hobbies/sports that you like to do while you’re on the road. You already told us about your kayaking.
Brian: We go mountain biking, rock climbing, kayaking, hiking, surfing, and skiing. Our toy collection is quite impressive. We have both long board and short board surf boards, trekking gear, four snow boards and more. We’ve got so much stuff. We’re sort of the Beverly Hillbillies of weekend warriors. We take lots of toys with us.
We never were outdoorsy people until we moved to Colorado. Living here, it’s like I’m a kid in a candy store. In many respects I’m younger in my late 30s than I was in my late 20s. There are all these new things I need to be introduced to. We’ve been here for about nine years and feel like we’ve just scratched the surface.
TCM: How is your truck camper beneficial for mountain biking, rock climbing, kayaking, hiking, surfing, and skiing?
Brian: Nothing beats backpacking when it comes to access. With our camper we can reach 99% of places that we would want to access and do so with comforts such as refrigerated food, heat, and a shower to rinse off the dirt. The camper is so amazing. I put most of my gear on the roof. I can stand on the camper with it popped up. When we need to get our toys down, I climb up on the roof and send the gear down to my wife. The camper is our base camp for our hobbies, a place to eat, sleep, and recharge.
Above: Sylvan Lake, Eagle, Colorado
TCM: Where have been some of the most amazing places that you have gone with your Phoenix camper?
Brian: Anywhere in the mountains of Colorado and the mountain west is awesome. When we moved here, we bought a book that tells us about really cool places to go. We’ve got it all marked up now. It’s got the best organized campground sites. It’s the 3rd edition of Colorado Campgrounds, The 100 Best and all the Rest by Gil Folsom. It’s a must. It’s thorough and it’s got pictures. It tells you where to go off the beaten path and whether or not to make a reservation. Other than that, we tend to head in a direction and see what happens.
Growing up in Illinois and then working on the 52nd floor of a high rise building in Chicago, I lived in a fishbowl during my 20s. It took one business trip to the mountains to wake up this kid that was inside of me. We were married and moved within a year. I love it here in Colorado because I can hop in the car and drive to whatever we going to do for the weekend. Living here and going out in the camper, I find myself lost in a good way. We’ll see pristine rivers and creeks, go on precarious roads with our four wheel drive vehicle, and then we’ll find ourselves near an alpine river where we can set up camp.
There is so much national forest and BLM land around here. West of continental divide there are big pockets of BLM land where you can boondock anywhere, if you’re just wanting to hang out. Virtually all of the national forest lands have non-designated camping areas, pull offs and nooks to hang out at for a weekend. With the camper, we leave virtually no footprint other than the tire treads on the dirt.
If you like kayaking, there are so many great rivers such as the Arkansas, Colorado, Crystal, Elk and Yampa Rivers not to mention the hundreds of excellent Class IV and V creek runs. Whitewater of the Southern Rockies by Stafford and McCutchen is the Bible for kayaking in Colorado and the surrounding states. It’s 636 pages worth of adventure right out our door.
Above: Maroon Bells, Colorado
The Crested Butte area is not off the beaten path, and it’s a beautiful area. On Kebler Pass, there is a spectacular alpine lake that’s accessible by camper. Steamboat Springs near the Elk River has some nice state parks.
For those spring and fall desert trips, a campground I recommend is Saddlehorn at the Colorado National Monument. That’s out by Fruita, Colorado. It’s probably five miles off the highway and it’s $15 a night. The campground is 2,000 feet above the valley and it just drops off. There’s a cliff with a 500 foot drop at end of the campsites. Who would have thought to put a campground there? I bet 99.99% of population wouldn’t know it was there. Just go south from highway, past the first state campground and then drive towards the rocks. Go in the Spring and late Fall. It’s just an awesome place to hang out, with short hikes from the campground. There’s also a state park right off highway, but that’s jammed with people. You’ve just got to drive down the road.
TCM: I saw you with a laptop in one of your photos. Do you work from your rig while you travel?
Brian: As a family, our master plan has been to find a way to incorporate our work lives into our active lives and not the other way around. My wife works year round at a ski resort so she can kind of have her cake and eat it too. It’s a ambitious goal but we’ve made some significant strides. When I go to California, to make it worth while, I’m going to stay for awhile. With the camper, I just take my laptop, portable printer and scanner with me. I’ll surf for four hours and then I can run my whole business for the remainder of the day from the camper. Long term if my wife chooses to work during the winter, we would enjoy taking off for a month or so to explore.
TCM: How does your dog, Otis, enjoy the camper?
Brian: He likes the camper and it works out great! The second we pop-up the camper, Otis hops onto the lower level that happens to be both a twin bed and our dining table area, and then hops up on the queen size bed above the cab of the truck. The extended cabover design allows the bed to be ready anytime without any need for set up. We have all these windows on the soft wall of the camper. Otis will sit up on the bed on his perch and scan the area. He goes pretty much everywhere with us.
TCM: Your camper is called “Plan B”. What does it mean?
Brian: It’s been a running joke between me and my wife. You hear in life there’s always Plan B if something doesn’t work out. Working in finance with the economic turmoil for the past five to six years, we feel we survived the chaos by saying we could just hop in the camper and take off if the floor fell out. We’d say, “Let’s go spend the next six months on the road. That is our Plan B.” We never resigned to our escape plan, but we still hold on to our plan B.
When we’re at a gas station folks would jokingly ask, “Whatever happened to Plan A?” Our answer is that, “Everyday is Plan A”. Plan B is our alternate life. It’s something that helps us escape.
TCM: Anything else that you’d like to share about your truck camping experiences?
Brian: Find a vehicle that supports your own escape plan. Few people dream of escaping their lives only to be shoulder to shoulder with an RV. When people dream up getting a truck camper, they are probably not thinking of hanging out with fifty foot RVs with generators. Folks daydream of getting away from it all. I strongly encourage people to do just that. Pick a place on a map and head there.
|BRIAN ABERLE’S TRUCK CAMPER RIG
|Truck: 2009 Toyota Tacoma, crew cab, single rear wheel, standard bed, 4×4, gas
|Camper: 2010 Phoenix custom camper
|Tie-downs and Turnbuckles: Phoenix tie-downs/turnbuckles
|Suspension Enhancements: Firestone Airbags
|Gear: Yakima track that runs the full length of the camper, can have 15 feet of gear on the roof, Yakima bars, cargo box for kayaks, bikes, etc., gas lifts on the inside for the pop-up to go up easily