If there’s anything truck campers often like more than their campers, it’s their pets. Stephn Lewis and his wife, Lee, give us their pointers on truck camping with pets.
When we hit the road in 2007 with our cat Harley, we were not sure how it was going to work out. After a rough beginning, everything went well and Harley turned into the international truck camping cat he is today. To be honest, Harley seems to be much happier on the road than at home. Go figure.
Take a look around any truck camper rally and you quickly realize that we’re not the only folks truck camping with pets. Sometimes we wonder if there are more pets truck camping than people. We even see a few other truck camping cats now and then, but somehow there never seems to be a cutest cat contest. Clearly, there’s a dog bias among the truck camping elite.
Speaking of truck camping with pets, Stephn Lewis and his wife, Lee, have been truck camping with their cats for many years. In the following article, the Lewis’s share their pet camping pointers including many tips that would be relevant to both dog and cat owners.
Above: Stephn and Lee’s beginning days of camping with truck and shell
TCM: How did you get into camping and then into truck camping?
Stephn: I never camped as a kid, but thought the idea was good. My wife and I discovered each other and found we had a mutual interest in camping. I knew nothing about it, but she had camped for years. So we bought a truck and put a shell on it with a platform on the back and a futon. That’s how we started. We still have the same truck. It’s evolved with us as we’ve gone from a shell to a Four Wheel Camper. Camping is much more comfortable with the Four Wheel Camper.
TCM: Why do you have a pop-up camper?
Stephn: We actually got our pop-up camper from Linda, our cat breeder. There’s a short sad story there. Our cat breeder’s husband bought it as he was becoming ill. It fulfilled his dreams. He did the shopping, the research, bought it, and then passed. We did our best to be supportive through that sad process.
Two years later, Linda got in touch with us. She told us that she had this camper, had no use for it, knew that we went cat camping, and asked if we would like to have it. We arranged a price and payment schedule. We are using his camper, and that means a lot to us. It was also important to her that we have his camper.
TCM: If you got your camper from Linda, how do you know Stan Kennedy at Four Wheel?
Stephn: I got a hold of Stan when we lived in Oakland. The Four Wheel Camper factory was close. I went there and said, “Okay, I own this thing. Now how do I use it?” I needed to know how everything worked. He was really nice to us and we got to look in the factory. We’ve done some off-roading and I don’t worry about it. Four Wheel Campers are well-built campers.
Above: Their trip to Oregon in 2009
TCM: Where do you like to go camping in your Four Wheel Camper Hawk?
Stephn: We have a yearly family get-together on Trinity Lake in July. Other than that, there are road trips. We will choose a state on the West coast, pick an area, and head out. We usually only spend one night in a given place and drive the next day. While we’re on the road, we may hear about a museum, a car show, or a concert and go in that direction.
Above: Highway 447 in Nevada on the way to Burney Falls
I love the desolation of Nevada where I’m on a two-lane road and I don’t even know how far I’m looking. There is a good chance that I won’t see a car for forty-five minutes. It’s just magical. The Valley of Fire in Nevada is one of my favorite places. We also went to some of the ghost town areas; the views out there are incredible and the ghost town stories are great.
Above (left to right): Levi, Lily, and Swede
TCM: You mentioned your cats and cat camping. Tell us about your cats.
Stephn: Lily is a pure-bred Ayssinian Ruddy who is five years old. Swede is a pure bred Ayssinian Fawn who is one and a half years old. Both are from from Wildflower Abby. Ayssinians are the oldest stable breed there has ever been. Sculptures out of Egypt are of them. It looks like they are walking on stilts. They like to be in high places, have huge ears, are graceful, beautiful, and very active cats. They are a little too smart.
My wife had never been a cat person. I had gotten her a book that showed every cat breed. She liked the Ayssinians. I said to her, “You’re nuts. We can’t afford one.” So we reached out to breeders and met Linda. We hit it off, and she said that she had a six month old male that she couldn’t keep in her cattery. She brought in Levi, and he put his paw on my shoulder and snuggled into me. There was instant bonding.
Then, she called us and told us about a female cat that had some health problems. That was Lily. She is shy and very high-strung. She was placed unsuccessfully but took to us. She has become increasingly social as the years go on.
Now we have Swede. My wife fell in love with him. He fully demands your attention, and not passive attention. Swede is fun to be around. If I don’t get one good belly laugh with him, it’s a rare day.
TCM: How long have you been camping with cats?
Stephn: Within six months of having Levi we were camping with him. With Lily and Swede it was right away.
TCM: Was there a camping adaptation period for each cat?
Stephn: They don’t get to refuse. I had a Russian Blue and threw him in my sports car. He wouldn’t put up with it. He meowed from Oakland to Fresno. I just ignored him until he went hoarse. The lips were moving, but the voice was gone. Then, he rolled up on seat and that was it. He got so his rear feet would be on seat and eyes were looking out the window with his nose looking at the air conditioning vent.
Upgrading from the truck shell to the Four Wheel Camper was wonderful for all of us. We keep our cats in the cab while the truck is moving so we can keep an eye on them. We park, plug in if we have it available, pop up the top, set up the bed, open the window slider on the truck, and they’re in the camper. Their litter box is up front in the truck so they go back and forth. The camper gives them a lot of room.
Above: Lily saying, “Hi”!
TCM: What recommendations do you have for our readers who travel with cats?
Stephn: Here are some recommendations.
Schedule – Cats are independent creatures, but they find comfort and adapt well to ritual. We impose feeding times on our cats. They get fed twice a day on a set time. They can also count on their litter box being cleaned at about the same time each day. We do our best to hold that schedule while on the road. Often times they insist on it.
Water – I have heard from vets that many people do not put water out for their cats. These owners seem to think cats get enough fluid from wet food. They do not. So they rely on dripping faucets and open commodes. We have a small ceramic water bowl bungeed to the bulk head of their platform. We also have a so called “spill proof” water bowl in the camper. The spill proof bowl is great. It is a bit difficult to empty and clean, but it tends not to spill.
Litter Box – Cats rely on us for their needs. They communicate as best they can without words. Access to the litter box at all times seems only fair. It’s far better then finding they have relived themselves some place in the cab.
Above: Levi and Lily on their cat bed that’s on a platform in the truck.
Bed or nest – We have a cat bed on a platform in the cab of the truck. It is their safety place, and the perch from which they can view their world. I have had cats that were more reclusive. They have free range as long as they stay in the house, cab, or camper. I think they have a better experience then being shut in a cat carrier.
Above: Lily hanging out on the Hawk’s overcab bed
Security – We were in a campground in Idaho. There were heartbreaking signs posted around the grounds for a lost cat, with a photo and description. I talked to a ranger. The cat had got loose from the camper and had not come back. The family stayed two extra days searching. They finally had to pack up and drive home. They’d called each day from the San Francisco peninsula. The situation gave me chills. I have read numerous times that a lost cat tends not to go far. They are often times found on the near side of a neighbor’s yard or in a dark snug place. Of course, this means nothing when you are taking the long drive home with a empty cat bed. We don’t let our cats outside at home. We do not let our cats out when on the road. This is how it’s always been, and they don’t expect anything else.
Parking – When you’re tooling down the road with the air conditioning blasting, there is little to worry about. But, when you park to fill the tank, or do a bit of exploring, don’t forget the needs of your cats. In many communities it’s illegal to leave a pet unattended in a car. These laws seem a bit heavy handed, but they are in place because there have been tragedies. If it is very hot, we park in the shade and leave the engine running with the air conditioning running, locking the truck up with the second set of keys. That is rare. More often times we leave a bit of a gap in the windows, and make sure there is water in the bowl.
Ventilation – When in a campground we have ventilation in the camper, but we also leave a gap in the cab windows. We unfortunately do not have a screen door on the camper. That would be a wonderful upgrade.
Car Sick – I’ve had a cat react in an unfortunate way to the undulations of a mountain road. He tossed his cookies on my brother-in-law’s lap. At that point I thought my brother-in-law would lose his lunch as well. Oh boy. Fortunately we keep small white utility towels in each door pocket and in the console. These are mainly to clean up coffee when poured from the vacuum flask, or to sop up mustard from a burger. We have been very lucky with cats and motion sickness.
Campsites – We select our campsite so we will have shade. It’s good for us, and the cats. We tend to enjoy preparing our meals and eating outside. We love the option of cooking inside, should the weather turn sour. Cooking inside gives us the option of winter camping. We set up the camper and table so the cats can watch us. We also bring them their toys. If they are feeling playful, they are gong to play with something, better it be theirs. Swede has a wire toy, and a small stuffed puppy. They both spend their non-sleeping time walking the parameter, like good guard cats, looking out each window.
TCM: Do you worry with having a pop-up camper that animals may try to get them?
Stephn: It’s not anything I’ve ever thought of. When the camper is in the back of the truck, it’s high up and it’s got the coated canvas. We’re not generally not far away from the truck when we’re camping. I worry more about them getting outside at home.
TCM: Can they go back and forth between the camper and the truck or do you physically pick them up and bring them back to the camper each time?
Stephn: They go back and forth using the pass-through/window slider I was talking about before. I made a five to seven-centimeter foam gasket that I’ve put in between the camper and the truck. Our cats can step on the foam gasket as they go back and forth. There’s an additional platform in the truck with a bed and some food and water. I also keep my camera up there so I can grab it at all times.
TCM: You said in your email that you have some fun stories of the cats on the road.
Stephn: Mike’s Roadhouse is a dive; a quirky off-the-beaten-path roadhouse/cafe. We were walking out to our truck and I passed a van where I caught these yellow eyes looking back at me. I went to our truck and alerted my wife.
I went back to the van and a guy was walking out. I asked him about the cats in his van. He scooped out a beautiful Ayssinian. He had three of them and we had our two cats. We swapped stories and talked about his travels with his cats internationally.
Once while we were on the road I attempted to acclimate Levi to a harness. He didn’t like it. When he gets on the ground, he starts rolling. He took two steps and rolled. I picked him back on his feet. He took two steps and fell down. It took him ten minutes to cross the road to get from one campsite to another. He wasn’t too happy about going outside.
TCM: We tried Harley on a leash once. He just sat there. What Levi did would be major progress for Harley. As they say, “Dogs have owners. Cats have servants”. Thanks for the interview, Stephn.
Stephn: So true. And you’re welcome.
Above: Titus Canyon Narrows, California