After decades of access to every RV type, celebrated RV journalist, Jeff Johnston, bought a truck camper. Here’s the story behind his decision, extensive modifications and where this camper will pop up on television.
I was exceptionally fortunate in the fledgling days of this electron enterprise to have a number of wise and experienced gurus from the RV industry reach out to offer their mentorship and support. One of those esteemed individuals was Jeff Johnston, the then Technical Director for Trailer Life and Motorhome Magazines. When Jeff first called, I honestly panicked. I was still as green as Kermit on a ten-speed and feared he might call me on it before my feet reached the pedals.
Jeff never said a word that wasn’t to help or advise. Now nearly 15 years later, Jeff and I still regularly discuss the rapidly evolving RV media landscape. Of course, we also talk shop, cameras, and ask each other for contacts to content perspectives. To say that Jeff’s counsel has been invaluable to the success of Truck Camper Magazine would be a gross understatement.
All of that aside, there is one part of Jeff’s story that always confounded me. After decades of product access and experience in the RV marketplace, he never had his own. Here’s a guy who spent 18-plus years taking out and reviewing every type of motorhome and towable imaginable, but there was never one in his driveway – until now.
You might think someone who enjoys that level of access and happens to be a Co-Host of a syndicated RV television show would get something big and grand, but no. In a delicious twist, Jeff has gone in the opposite direction choosing an RV that at once defies expectations and fulfills a long-awaited dream.
What follows is Jeff’s story and the exact reasons why he now has a Palomino pop-up truck camper in front of his garage. We also get details on the extensive modifications he’s made and when we’ll catch his new rig on television. Think truck campers always get the short stick by the RV media big wigs? Jeff is helping to change that, one RVing Today episode at a time.
Above: Jeff’s family at Bonneville Hot Springs
How did you get into the RV industry?
As a kid, my parents had what we now call a canned ham travel trailer. I think it was a 15-foot Red Dale. Mom, dad, and three kids would go camping in that. How five people didn’t kill each other in that tiny trailer is anyone’s guess.
My path to writing was accidental. It all started in the early 70s when the four wheel drive club I belonged to needed someone to write for their newsletter. I began freelance writing for four-wheel-drive enthusiast magazines and was first published in 1978.
Once I got published, the California-based Editors started calling me to cover local Oregon or Northwest events like Jeep races. It was a thrill to write for magazines that I had been following all that time. I was in a position where they would seek me out for group events and photoshoots.
Back then there were a half-dozen four wheel drive magazines. I would look at the newsstand, pass the cover with the bikini babe, and look at the authors. If there were writers I liked, I’d buy the magazine. To be rubbing shoulders with the people I had admired for years was unbelievable. More than once I looked around and thought, “How am I here?” That was great fun.
My first full-time job was with Truckin’ Magazine in 1982. From there I moved to Four Wheeler Magazine and then Trailer Life and MotorHome magazines in October of 1985. I was hired as a Technical Writer/Editor and eventually Technical Director. I was with Trailer Life and MotorHome Magazines for 18 years.
For the past 10 years you’ve been the Associate Producer and Co-Host of RVing Today (formally Rollin’ On TV). How did that come about?
RVing Today started in 2010 as Rollin’ On TV. Jose Moniz, my Producer, had a boating television show for years. The marine industry took a major hit during the Great Recession of 2008 and the show shut down. When the economy brightened again, he launched a new television show about RVs. When the press release went out, I contacted Joe about writing or content planning. I certainly didn’t have any intention to be in front of the camera.
I started shooting segments and, like it or not, became the Co-Host and the face of the show. It boiled down to Joe and I having two sides of the required experience. His background was in television production, distribution, and networks. I understood RVs, the RV industry, and the RV marketplace. It was a perfect match. Now Joe is up to speed on RVs and I’ve learned about the world of television.
You’re often a one-man band on location; camera, sound, lighting, and on-camera talent. How do you do that?
I’m not always a one-man band but that’s often the case. Two friends, Marv Leake and Walter King, help me with shoots now and then. And my wife, Pam, sometimes stands behind the camera and tells me if my hair is combed, my collar is turned up, or if there’s a tree coming out of my head. It’s good to have another person looking at things.
Most of the time it’s just me standing out there and hoping for the best. If I’m on camera, I set up the camera, lights, and sound and use a monitor so I can see the shot. Then I move until I’m framed right. I use a light stand to mark my standing location and set focus. Then I start with a simple introduction to start the segment. If I’m behind the camera, things are much easier.
The RV industry and marketplace are huge. Does RVing Today have a focus?
We focus on RVs that are accessible to real-world people; lightweight trailers, family-friendly travel trailers, small motorhomes, and truck campers. We will cover larger or more expensive RVs, but we focus on the real-world part of the business. A two-million dollar rockstar bus might be fun to dream about, but we want to feature RVs that people can afford.
We showcase interesting new RVs and new RV products, review RVs, perform installations, feature destinations, interview leaders in the RV industry, tour factories, and more. Apparently, even the one-man band approach works out well, although we have other video production teams nationwide that also shoot for us. Our television stations like what we do.
The show is syndicated on a wide variety of broadcast outlets and reaches 42-million homes nationwide. We’re on Direct RV, Dish, Roku and other streaming outlets. We have the outlets and channels listed on our website, rvingtoday.tv. If you can’t find the show, a search on your smart TV usually pulls it up. We also have a superb Marketing Director and Co-Host, Michelle Fontaine, who keeps our Facebook fans current.
Let’s talk about your new truck camper. Is this your first RV?
Yes. This is the first RV we’ve ever owned.
How is it possible, after decades in the industry, that this is your first RV?
For a long time, we really didn’t need to own an RV. A big part of my job at Trailer Life and MotorHome Magazine was road testing, writing about, and photographing new RVs. For 18 years, I sometimes took out two or even three RVs a month. When you have that many RVs available, there’s no need to own one. I was even able to arrange family vacations around road tests.
The RV business is different today and we’re not able to do that anymore. Now we have our own truck and camper, and we can go out anytime we want. Although we still get in new RV road tests now and then for the show.
Was getting an RV a personal or professional decision?
It was both. It is personal because Pam and I have been camping and outdoor people all of our lives. And professional because I now have an RV to shoot for the show instead of always having to bug the local RV dealer. We will be using the camper for destination stories as well.
Why not a travel trailer or a motorhome?
We have known for a long time that a truck camper is what we wanted, even before I met you guys. Trailer Life didn’t feature truck campers as much as it should, but we did enjoy testing truck campers when we did get one. It was always great fun to be out in a truck camper; easy to drive, compact to park, and not restricted in where we can go. It was always a matter of what truck and camper we were getting someday.
One of the first truck campers I encountered was a Lance Camper when I was working at Four Wheeler Magazine. I did an article about the camper and a pickup to haul a camper in 1984. From that point on, there was never a question of what type of RV we’d like to own one day.
Why did you choose a Palomino pop-up camper?
We prefer pop-up campers for strictly mechanical reasons. They’re lighter weight, easier to drive, and less affected by crosswinds on Interstate 80 in Nebraska. Having already taken this camper cross-country and back, those benefits have proven accurate.
Forest River is a major sponsor of RVing Today and Palomino is one of their brands. It made sense for our television show to have one of their products. That’s why we selected a Palomino.
We chose the Palomino SS-1240 because we wanted an 8-foot floor plan. I think long beds are the way to go with a truck camper because it gives you the most space and floor plan options. The SS-1240 also doesn’t have a wet bath, has a fixed toilet, and a north-south cabover bed area that was long enough for my 6’6” height. It was the floor plan that would work best for us.
You didn’t want a wet bath?
No. Wet baths take up space and require a grey tank. We had Palomino delete the flush toilet and five-gallon black tank that comes standard on the 1240. We just have a porta-potty that we can dump in any pit or residential toilet. When we’re in a campground, we use their showers and hot water. We prefer that approach to showering in a little wet bath. In a boondocking situation, we can also use the Truma AquaGo and the camper’s external shower.
How did you go about matching your new camper to a truck?
The camper was stated to be well under 2,000 pounds dry. We chose a new 2021 Ram 2500 6.4L HEMI (gas) Tradesman single rear wheel. The GVWR of the Ram would be a reasonable match with payload to spare. When we stopped a scale with the camper loaded and wet, we were under by 200-pounds. It worked out.
Were any truck suspension modifications needed?
Our Ram 2500 has the rear coil springs instead of traditional leaf springs. Before we picked up the camper, we installed Bilstein shocks. In my experience, Bilstein shocks are a no-brainer and the easiest thing to improve ride and handling.
Then we added SumoSpring Rebels (Blue-40, medium density, pictured above). When the camper is unloaded, the SumoSprings separate and disengage. When the camper is loaded, the SumoSprings help to make the ride very comfortable. It’s just what you would expect from a 2500-series pickup. We also have a Roadmaster sway bar (pictured below). It’s the smaller sway bar they offer, still a good step up from stock, but helps to eliminate body roll.
The factory coil springs have not been a problem for us, but we had the Bilstein shocks, SumoSprings, and Roadmaster sway bar before we loaded the camper. We’re also within the GVWR and payload capacity of the truck.
Tell us about some of your personal truck camping adventures so far.
We picked up our Palomino at the plant in Colon, Michigan. Then we went to Kettle Moraine State Forest in Wisconsin for a two-day shakedown before returning to Elkhart. When we left Elkhart, we stayed at a Corp of Engineers campground in Nebraska. I think we saw more bugs in one cubic yard of air than I’d ever seen before. We needed to kick June Bugs (beetles) away on the floor when showering. I don’t think Pam appreciated that. We also spent three nights at Belknap Hot Springs, Oregon, during my sister’s annual Pranger family group campout.
On another truck camping trip, we went to Mammoth, California for a wedding and camped at two Harvest Host locations on the way there. More recently we got back from a drive to Arnold, California in Gold Country. We stayed in the camper at Pam’s son’s house for a few nights and at Redwood National Park for a few more nights.
You have waited a long time to get a camper. Has it lived up to what you hoped for?
It’s very much the experience we wanted. Every new house, vehicle, and camper have a few bugs to work out and we’ve had a few glitches. That’s to be expected. The mechanical aspects are all working out to plan.
We have a good handle on the camper now and are getting it organized. It’s no longer like a tornado in a hamster cage. We’re both comfortable and sleep well. It’s been a tremendous asset for us.
You shared a story with us about your most recent incident involving your sink and pump. Would you share that story with our readership?
We had left the pump on as we drove over a rough railroad crossing in Napa Valley. The bumps caused a piece of cargo to come loose and turn on the sink faucet. There’s no grey tank in our camper and the outside drain plug was capped.
The fresh tank was full with 15 gallons of water. The sink filled and water spilled over the counter onto the floor. We carry food, clothing, and gear on our floor when we travel and then move it to the dinette and cabover when we stop. It was a real mess.
We reached the Redwoods and put things outside to dry as best we could. Thankfully, our bed was dry. That was the important thing. It was our mistake. We won’t be leaving the pump on and driving ever again.
We have definitely made mistakes like that, and then some. Did you have a modification wish list even before you got your camper?
Yes. From my involvement with the RV industry, I’m familiar with a variety of products. We also know what type of camping we like to do. As a necessity, we got a Go Power solar power charging system and inverter.
The flexible panel came with the camper and included a connection port that uses the same fittings as Go Power. We installed the Go Power hard panels and plugged them into the factory system. Our camper now has 380-watts of solar. That was a priority. I’ve been on many road tests when the battery is supposedly charged, but won’t last the night running the furnace.
What size and type of battery do you have in the camper?
It’s a standard Group 24 wet cell battery. We have the capability for a two battery system and that will be one of our next mods. I will probably go with AGM batteries.
That’s a big solar panel system for one Group 24 battery.
Once in a while here in Oregon, the sun gets blocked by clouds and trees. Having 380-watts allows us to absorb as much sunlight as possible, even in less than ideal conditions.
The small battery is fine for us right now. We’re not running electric drills or leaf blowers. I need to charge the batteries for my camera and power the lights and heat in the camper. I will be adding batteries because I want to have capacity to spare. It’s better to have more than not enough. The last thing I want is to wake up at 4:00am with a cold camper and a dead battery.
Been there and done that. Was there anything else you planned before you picked up your camper?
The first wish list items were a Truma AquaGo endless water heater and a Truma VarioHeat furnace system. Both are quieter than a traditional water heater and furnace, and considerably more efficient.
The water heater installs in the same place and same cabinet configuration as a regular water heater. No big deal. Truma had a couple of tech guys install the furnace at the Palomino factory, as a prototype install of sorts when the cabinetry was going together. That’s the easiest time. They did a clean installation and it works great.
The wrap on your camper is from your own painting. Where did the idea to wrap the camper come from?
It started with us admiring the mountain graphics wrap on some Lance campers. From there it continued with us knowing the team and capabilities of Graphix Unlimited, the company that does our Care Camp trailers. I’ve done some acrylic painting and came up with the idea and artwork. Graphix Unlimited took my painting, transferred it to a wrap, and installed it on our camper. We’ve had a number of good responses at campgrounds.
It looks sharp. What is Care Camp?
RVing Today has partnered with Forest River to support Care Camp, an organization that helps children with cancer and their families. Care Camp raises funds so the children and families can enjoy special oncology summer camps.
With a donation to Care Camp, you are entered into a sweepstakes to win a customized, ‘Super NO BO’ trailer. Care Camp is an amazing organization and we’re proud to support them at RVing Today.
Tell us about the pinstriping on the back of the camper.
I’ve had a lot of time to think about our plan for the camper. One idea was to ask my friend, Herb Martinez, a professional pinstriper who I’ve known since 1982 to do his incredible artistry. Until now I really haven’t owned a vehicle nice enough to warrant pinstriping. It gives the camper a nice touch and something for the camera to capture.
Now that the truck and camper are sorted, what are your future truck camping plans? Do you have a truck camping bucket list?
We have a bunch of places that we want to go including the Oregon Coast, Olympic Peninsula, and the high desert. I’ve been wanting to go back to Alaska since making the drive in 1987 as part of a Trailer Life project. Now only if I could find a way to get away for three to four weeks. There are so many places we want to go including seeing family in California and the Sierra locations nearby.
Equipment-wise, we are dialed-in except for some sort of awning over the back door. There’s not a lot of wall space up there, so that is going to be a bit of a chore.
Will we be seeing more of your Palomino truck camper in future episodes of RVing Today?
Absolutely. We have a number of tech stories with the Palomino coming up. We did a complete feature on the solar panel installation that we did most of, except for final wiring. There’s also a feature on outfitting a truck for truck camping. And then there are smaller items like a lifter tube lubricant for zippered windows. There will also be destination stories including Redwood National Park and Oregon Coast.
Above: Burlington Campground, Humboldt Redwoods State Park, California
How do you separate personal truck camping from work?
I don’t think you do really. I can’t help but see a shot opportunity as the truck camper drives through the Redwoods. It’s not a big deal to jump out and use radios to tell Pam when to drive by. After I get the shot, I’m at peace. I can’t let that chance go to waste.
A fellow RV journalist once said, “This work spoils you.” He explained how even on non-work trips he would see a gorgeous scene with waterfalls and mountains and think, “I could park a camper there and it would be a great cover for the magazine.” Even on a family trip, I’m thinking about work. You can’t avoid it when it’s your career and a passion. I don’t mind.
Over the years I’ve known a few people in the automotive media business who I get the feeling should have retired years ago. They’re cynical. There’s no excitement about their work. I couldn’t imagine that. But there are times when I get tired of watching the proverbial wedding through a viewfinder. I’m getting better at putting the camera away and enjoying the moment.
Is there anything else you want folks to know about RVing Today or your truck camping adventures?
I’ve had a camping checklist since day one of my road test days. The list included things to throw into an RV on Thursday before leaving and take out on Sunday. Now that we own a camper, that list has become the items that stay in the camper all the time. From an axe to marshmallow sticks to cooking gear, it stays. There’s a new list of perishable foods and special equipment that needs to be packed; like a kayak. Having the truck and camper pretty much ready to go has been a delightful experience.
One of the reasons we were happy to get an entry-level Palomino was to showcase the affordability of RVing. We bought the Ram Tradesman version of our truck, which is the entry-level work truck. Both have all the features we want and the cost is approachable. You can buy an affordable RV and still go out and have fun. We need to keep that message alive, especially right now as the cost of things is going up.
Jeff and Pam Johnston’s Rig
Truck: 2021 Ram 2500 Tradesman, Crew Cab, 4×4 long bed, gas engine
Camper: 2021 Palomino SS-1240
Tie-Downs/Turnbuckles: Torklift Fastguns
Suspension: SuperSprings SumoSprings, Bilstein Shocks, Roadmaster Sway Bar
Steps: Torklift Glow Step