David and Molly Niven take their Hallmark Milner, raft, and instruments off-road to tackle the white water rivers of Oregon and Montana and play music deep into the BLM wilderness. Here’s proof that truck campers can be magic.
Above: Camping at the National Forest Campground near Blue Mesa Reservoir, Colorado
A truck camper can be a typical RV that goes from campground to campground with tourist traps in between. A truck camper can be a rock climbing wilderness crossing overland vehicle that only touches pavement for food and fuel. A truck camper can be a beach bum that lives in the sand and casts its summers away fishing with friends.
In Truck Camper Magazine, we often state that a truck camper can, “Go Anywhere, Camp Anywhere, and Tow Anything”, but that merely hints at the possibilities. This point is important enough for a fancy magazine-style pull-out:
“A truck camper is an almost magical tool and a blank canvas of potential that allows its owners to create the mobile lifestyle they want.”
Think about what’s important to you in your life. For many of us, that means family, friends, our health, hobbies, traveling, adventure, and doing everything we can to live our lives to the fullest.
Now look at that list through the lens of truck camping. There is no better way to visit friends and family than in a truck camper. The act of going truck camping gets you off the couch, away from the television, and into a more active and healthy lifestyle.
On the road, hobbies take on new and exciting dimensions from fishing to hunting, to stopping in that antique store you just saw, to meeting others who share your passion from coast to coast. Traveling and adventure are built into truck camping. Everything important is on the menu. You just need the vision and courage to order it, and go.
The Niven’s story is a direct reflection of the almost endless possibilities of truck camping. Just when you think you have David and Molly pegged with one interest or hobby, they surprise you with another. From fly fishing to the Civil War to playing the cello, the Nivens are realizing the potential of truck camping and living a life without boundaries.
A truck camper is what you make of it. Go big.
How did you get into truck camping?
We have always been campers, running rivers, and backpacking. We car camped a lot with a tent on the ground or a shell on the back of a pick-up. As we got up in age, it was less and less attractive to sleep on the ground, especially if we went places with inclement weather.
I started looking for a truck camper, and knew I wanted a pop-up. We shopped around, went to RV shows, visited dealers in the area, and stumbled upon Hallmark by luck. It was an instant connection after seeing the quality of Hallmark campers, and the compact size of their Milner model.
Above: Playing Go Fish in the camper
Low wind resistance is a big deal for us. We were so used to crawling back into a non insulated shell, so moving to a small pop-up camper with heat and insulation was a big deal. It felt like a palace compared to what we had been doing.
We really didn’t want anything bigger. We definitely didn’t want the higher center of gravity of a hard side camper to cause sway or give us trouble on steep mountain roads. A small pop-up is perfect for us.
Above: Sunset on BLM land near the Flat Top Mountains, Colorado with their Hallmark
We don’t do aggressive four-wheel driving, but we want to be able to travel off-road. We also wanted the ability to tow a trailer for our white water raft. Our truck and Hallmark pop-up gives us all the versatility we need.
Above: Camping on National Forest land in southeast Oregon
It’s so important to know what you want to do with a truck and camper. Then you can assemble a rig that gives you that capability. What led you to Hallmark?
Their superior quality and finish. When it pops up, the soft wall panels are thick with a layer of insulation. It can’t stop the really cold weather, but it certainly helps. Hallmark campers also have great windows with a lot of light.
We live west of Golden, Colorado, which is about an hour and a half from Hallmark. Whenever we’ve had something we wanted to address on the camper, we’ve stopped by the factory and Hallmark has helped us right away. Hallmark’s level of support is phenomenal.
One example of us just stopping by was when one of the airbags on our truck had a valve that was bad. They fixed that. Another time we had weather stripping along the top of the camper and, with high wind conditions in the winter, it came loose. They replaced it for us. All of this was at no charge. They won’t let you pay them.
We had a minor problem on the road in Montana. We called Hallmark and they helped us over the phone. We went to a nearby ACE hardware store and were able to fix the problem in half an hour.
Above: Cataraft in tow on BLM land north of Mount Shasta in California
We have met dozens of Hallmark owners over the years and they all rave about their quality and customer service. Tell us about your trailer and towed boat.
We have a raft trailer and put bikes on the raft. Our boat is called a Cataraft. It’s like a catamaran. It has two tubes, like pontoons that are held together by the rowing frame. These big pontoons are 16-feet long and 2-feet in diameter with an aluminum rowing frame.
We go to Oregon and Montana in the summer with our Cataraft. We’ve been on many of the major rivers in the west, which are the popular white water rivers in the states. There are published white water rafting guides and more websites than you can count. We used to actually take groups of family and friends. Typically now it’s just the two of us, and sometimes another couple. We don’t cater to big groups anymore.
There’s a white water classification system that tells you a river’s degree of difficulty. Class II and Class III are sort of intermediate, which means exciting and fun. Many of the rivers have pools and then drop through another rapid followed by pools and then drops through successive rapids. That’s normally the type of thing we do. We have done more difficult rivers.
Molly also has an inflatable kayak. These are suitable for white water if the water is not too cold and the weather is favorable.
Above: Launching The Bluebell, their new 30 year old, 22-foot Catalina sailboat, on Lake Granby, Colorado
We also have a sailboat that we tow. Last summer the sailboat was on Lake Granby in Colorado. It stays there on the water and we stay in the camper. We sail during the day and return to the camper in the evening. Then we sail again the next day.
“She has fun playing Celtic music. It’s nice to hear that music out in the wilderness.”
That sounds fantastic. I see you both play musical instruments while you’re on the road. What instruments do you play?
My wife, Molly, plays the cello. Normally I’m not playing, but I have been known to play a guitar on the river. We always bring a cello or baritone ukulele. Molly has a good cello and has another cello she calls her river cello. That’s in a hard case and some plastic bags to keep it dry.
Above: Hot seat on the sink! Molly figures out how to play the cello inside the Hallmark Millner with full range of motion, Trinidad State Park, Colorado
Molly is always striving to be better, so she’s always practicing. She has fun playing celtic music. It’s nice to hear that music out in the wilderness. She started the cello three years ago. Molly is a retired vocal music teacher and has always played piano. She has also played guitar since she was a kid back in the old folk music days.
Above: David’s evening serenade with the baritone ukulele on the North Fork of the Flathead River west of Glacier National Park
Occasionally people will listen in at a campground, but many times we’re not in a campground. That’s one of the advantages of the truck camper. We can go on forest service land or on a BLM road and find a place to camp. We get the camper level and spend the night.
Above: National Forest Campground, Lake Superior, Michigan
Perhaps we should add, “Play Anywhere” to our Truck Camper Magazine tagline. Tell us about your trip back east.
Our longest trip was our trip to the southeast. We left around the beginning of October and got back in mid-November. We started here in Colorado and traveled through Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia, and then up the East Coast.
We went to Savannah, Charleston, and Wilmington, North Carolina and then drove across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. Then we went on to Annapolis, Maryland, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and eventually ended up on Long Island where our niece was married. At that point I had to fly back to Colorado to teach, but Molly and her brother drove to New York, Pennsylvania and the states coming back here to Colorado.
I lived in Texas when I worked for an oil company but never toured the South. The fall is a good time to be there because the weather is delightful. It was not hot. I have an interest in the Civil War, and had never been to any battlefields. We called the trip the Civil Wargasm.
“It was an overpowering experience. With the silence, the low afternoon sun, and the autumn leaves, it was breathtaking.”
That’s funny. Which battlegrounds did you visit?
The first battlefield we visited, and the most mind-boggling, was Shiloh. It was a beautiful autumn afternoon, and no one was there. All the fields were surrounded by cannons and historical markers indicating who had marched and who attacked whom.
Visiting Shiloh actually almost made us cry. It was an overpowering experience. With the silence, the low afternoon sun, and the autumn leaves, it was breathtaking. In the heat of the summer, with hundreds of other people, it might have been different.
Above: David and Molly’s log book of their adventures with their Hallmark
When did you start keeping a log book for your adventures?
We keep log books day by day when we travel. We have always done that. Our first entry was on July 19th, 2008 when we purchased the Hallmark.
In all honesty, we’ve been camping for so long that we tend to repeat visit our favorite spots. In Oregon this past summer, we went to the John Day River and camped in a few new places. Before that, we hadn’t explored Oregon much.
We really enjoy fly fishing when we go to Montana. I lived in Montana as a kid and fondly remember fishing a lot. Some of our favorite places to camp in Montana include the north fork of the Flat Head River, the Upper Madison River, and the Yellowstone River.
One of our favorite rivers is the North Fork of the Flathead which runs along the west boundary of Glacier National Park in Montana. It is a three or four day float, so we pay someone to shuttle our truck camper to the take out, about 50-miles down stream.
We also like the Smith River, but it’s hard to get on. Some of these rivers require a permit that limits the number of people on the river per day. The Smith River, in particular, it’s hard to get a permit.
Above: Camping on BLM land south of Cody, Wyoming
You call your camper the, “Tin Tent”. Your camper is made from fiberglass so it could also be called a, “Fiber Tent” or maybe a, “Glass Tent”. Where did the name come from?
Years and years ago, when people were sleeping in a truck shell, they called it camping in a tin tent. It’s just an old expression from years gone by.
“Our Milner fits our short bed truck perfectly. It has been a good decision for us.”
To keep the weight down, our camper does not have a bathroom. On many of our river trips, we are required to bring a porta potty with us. I don’t want to fool around with black water or finding a place to hook-up.
What’s important is that the camper doesn’t stick out past the truck’s bed. Our Milner fits our short bed truck perfectly. It’s been a good decision for us.
Above: Cruising through Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
David and Molly Niven’s Rig
Truck: 2008 Toyota Tundra, crew cab, single rear wheel, short bed, 4×4, gas
Camper: 2008 Hallmark Milner
Tie-downs and Turnbuckles: Chain turnbuckles
Suspension Enhancements: Air Bags