Ted and Jan Werner have a Ford F-550 with a custom bed, a Northstar 12STC truck camper, and two fifth-wheels. Guess which RV is their go anywhere, camp anywhere solution? Guess which RVs mostly stay put? After 11-years as full-time RVers, the Werners have created a compelling solution to life on the road.
The Werners were surprised that we wanted to interview them. You see, they own a fantastic Ford F-550 with a custom bed and Northstar 12STC, but they also own two fifth-wheels. Not exactly truck camper exclusive, Ted and Jan thought they couldn’t be down with the de-mountables. As if we were going to say, “What? You own two fifth-wheels? Get-outta-here!”
Ironically, the fact that they owned two fifth wheels and a truck camper is what interested us. The fact that they use the same Class 5 truck for all three, RV full-time, and have a very specific reason for their truck camper had us leaning in even further. “What? Ted also wrote a book on ATV trails and has made some serious mods to his camper? Get over here!”
When it gets right down to it, Ted and Jan really only have one traveling RV. The two fifth-wheels are stationary as their summer and winter homes, and the truck camper is their, “go anywhere, camp anywhere” recreational vehicle. Why would owning a stationary fifth wheel or two jeopardize one’s truck camper cred any more than owning a house or two? It doesn’t.
What follows is the story behind how Ted and Jan became full-time RVers, how they ended up with two fifth-wheels and a truck camper, and the modifications needed to make their Ford F-550 work for all three. Along the way, we learn about the circumstances that led to their decisions. If it wasn’t for a certain tire failure, they may have never discovered the freedoms of truck camping.
Above: Jan and Ted and borrowed Buddy, BMG Range, Arizona
Why did you decide to sell your house and go full-time on the road?
Jan and I kind of started out as nomads. We’ve been married for 51 years, but in the first nine, we moved fifteen times coast-to-coast. Only three of them were military related. The tape on our moving boxes had multiple layers. We knew how to pack for a trip.
Then, two things happened. First, in 1996 we met a Workamping couple in Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area. His job was to cruise the reservoir in a boat cleaning campsites, if needed, and assisted stranded boaters. Her job was as a site interpreter for a homestead. This was our first encounter with the concept of full-time RVing.
Second, we became the Director and Treasurer of The Museum of Family Camping (now closed) in New Hampshire. We contracted with couples to camp out behind the museum in exchange for two days on and four days off acting as docents and doing light maintenance for the museum and the CCC museum. Both were in a former CCC building.
As for the house, we had no family in the central Connecticut area and the taxes were close to $10,000 per year. We figured we could more than pay for our fuel, maintenance, and camping fees for that amount. It has worked out that way for us. My pension and our Social Security has sustained us easily.
The house sold quickly (coincidentally, to two former students of mine) and what we couldn’t give away to relatives we donated to a local historical society for their tag sale. They netted $3,000 from our stuff.
In 2010, Jan and I embarked on our full-time RVing adventure. I retired from teaching high school Technology Education (shop) and Jan retired from her work as a piano technician (tuning and repairing pianos). We’ve been full-time RVers ever since.
After leaving Connecticut, how did you decide where to establish residency?
We chose South Dakota over Texas and Florida. Florida has a personal property tax and a 6-percent sales tax. It’s also out of the way for our purposes of traveling from New Hampshire to Arizona, but there are a few places we would like to visit in the panhandle.
Texas has no personal property tax and a 6.25 to 8.25-percent sales tax. It also has an annual vehicle inspection (not a bad thing, really) if you are going to be staying for a period of time.
South Dakota has no personal property tax and a 4-percent sales tax. Some counties have a wheel tax. Every ten years we have to go in person for a driver’s license renewal. At five years we can do it by mail with a local eye examination.
It was kind of a toss-up between South Dakota and Texas. We ended up with South Dakota because of the sales tax for purchasing a new vehicle and the insurance rates seemed to be better. Our mail service is in Emery, South Dakota. Many South Dakota towns and cities offer this service.
After 11-years of being a full-time RVer, do you see yourself ever going back to a regular house?
No. If needed, we’ll choose one of our RVs, plunk it someplace and be cozy. Maintenance is maintenance wherever you live. We are used to less than 400 square feet to maintain.
Your Ford F-550 is certainly way more truck than you need for your Northstar 12STC. What led you to get a F-550?
We purchased the F-550 years before we had a truck camper. After we sold the house in Connecticut, we loaded our 2008 Mobile Suites fifth-wheel trailer, hooked it up to our 2006 Ford F-350 dually diesel, and started down the road squatting and straining under the load. Jan looked at me and said, “We need a bigger truck!”.
After running the numbers we ordered a 2011 Ford F-550 dually diesel from Hillsboro Ford in Hillsboro, New Hampshire.
Then we contracted with New England Truck Design in Sterling, Massachusetts to fabricate an aluminum bed and install a Link UltraRide air bag suspension to replace the leaf springs. My requirements were to be able to haul an 18,500 pound GVWR fifth wheel, my tool boxes, and the spare tire. They came up with the design.
The fifth wheel’s hitch rails are located under a hatch in the bed. The Husky 25,000-pound hitch is removable. The receiver is a Class IV hitch.
Our F-550 has a GVWR of 19,500 pounds and a GCWR of 31,800 pounds. We average 7 to 8 mpg towing and 15 to 16 mpg empty. In July of 2010, the truck cost $56,525.80. The air bag suspension cost $6,190.00. The fifth wheel’s hauler body cost $20,187.50. We have plenty of pulling and hauling power and have not regretted the purchase.
There’s a picture of your fifth wheel on the side of the road. What happened?
That picture was taken after a wheel bearing on my ATV trailer was smoking. The ATV trailer was being towed behind the fifth wheel in a double tow setup. The sand at the side of the road was too soft for traction, even with the truck’s four-wheel drive engaged.
Another time we lost a wheel with a Nev-R-Lube axle and had to limp 25-miles to a repair facility. We spent three weeks there waiting for a warranty replacement axle.
How can you lose a wheel and still limp along?
Picture this. It’s Friday afternoon. We are heading southbound on Ohio Route 7 (a divided highway) when the tire pressure monitor alerted. We pulled over to the breakdown lane to check it out and a trucker pulled over ahead of us. He told us we lost the front left wheel about two-miles back and that it headed up the hill to the right of the road.
Without the wheel, the axle was held off the pavement by the spring. Roadside assistance was about three-hours out. I called a truck shop and they suggested an RV repair shop about 20-miles away. I was comfortable at 15-mph with the axle hanging there. The police officer that stopped me wasn’t. We agreed that I would head off onto the next two-lane road and leave his town.
When we arrived at the RV shop they wanted me to park on a concrete pad, but rather than back it in I needed to go out and around the parked trailers and pull up onto the pad.
The rain had softened the ground. The heavy side of the trailer was being supported by one wheel. A rut was dug. My four-wheel drive with road tires couldn’t move any further. He hooked up his four-wheel drive truck with snow tires and he started going sideways. We linked my truck on the concrete pad to his truck in the churned-up turf and were able to pull out of the former lawn.
That was the moment we started to really question our twice-a-year house moving. We had three-weeks sitting there to discuss alternatives.
Above: Truck bed before truck camper fitment modification
Is this where a truck camper comes into the picture?
Yes. We considered small a Class B or C motorhome but decided that there would be another engine to maintain if we were towing a car behind us. Then we stopped in at Truck Camper Warehouse in West Chesterfield, New Hampshire. Charlie, Bill, and Ryan said yes, our truck could easily carry any of the campers on the lot.
However, the spare tire box at the front of the bed would have to be removed to get the camper all the way forward. I contracted with a local welder to cut out the box and finish the sides of the outside storage lockers. The storage at the sides are still usable, but more shallow. My tool box barely fit back in.
What led you to choose the Northstar 12STC?
We essentially have a flatbed truck, so we wanted to keep our total height as low as possible. The size of our truck with an 8-foot bed allowed us to look at 12-foot campers. We didn’t think slides were necessary. Basements would push up our height, which we did not want to do.
At Truck Camper Warehouse we looked at, measured, and considered campers from Arctic Fox, Lance, Northern Lite, and Northstar. The Northstar 12STC is a 12-foot, non-slide, non-basement, dry bath floor plan. It fit our criteria better than any of the other units.
Once we decided on the Northstar 12STC, our grandson used pressure-treated plywood to bridge over irregularities in the bed. Then we covered the completed deck with rubber stall mats.
We added four centering blocks to help locate the camper in the bed, but they ended up being too exacting and frustrating during loading. They have since been repurposed as wheel chocks.
What is the height of the 12STC when loaded?
Our total height with the camper loaded on the truck is 11-feet, 7-inches.
The 12STC is a large truck camper, but it’s a lot smaller than a fifth wheel. Were you able to adapt quickly?
Our house in Connecticut was 2,100 square feet. The fifth wheel is 370 square feet with three slides. The Northstar camper is 140 square feet. Yes, the truck camper is small, but we like each other’s company and we know how and when to “go play outside”. Our mothers had the right idea with that.
Have you made any modifications to your camper or truck?
I added a 10-gallon grey water tank to bump up our capacity to 25-gallons when we need it. The 41-gallon fresh water tank is quite usable.
I installed a Progressive Industries 30-amp Electrical Management surge suppressor.
Then, I removed the automatic transfer switch and replaced it with a 30-amp manual one to toggle between shore power, off, and generator.
I placed two 140-watt solar panels on the roof and hinged them so I could raise them when needed.
Last, I designed and constructed a two-foot tall sawhorse system to support the front of the camper when we’re staying somewhere for an extended time. Using it, the camper is low to the ground and has no wiggle.
The legs can be adjusted for ground irregularities using turnbuckles at the base. The sawhorse can be easily dismantled for storage in the bed alongside the camper.
Have you weighed your rig to see how much extra payload you have?
Yes. The GVWR of the F-550 is 19,500-pounds. With the camper loaded, the rig weighs 16,260-pounds. That’s 5,460 pounds on the front axle (7,000 pounds GAWR), and 10,800 pounds on the rear axle (14,600 pounds GAWR). The fully wet, with options and cargo weight of the camper is 5,320-pounds.
Above: Ford F550 weight without camper
Above: F550 and Northstar together
What is it like driving the truck camper versus a fifth wheel?
The main difference is fuel economy. Going from 65-feet in total length to 25-feet, our mileage increased from 7 to 8 mpg to 10 to 11 mpg. With both rigs, I keep my speed to 65 mph.
Towing a fifth-wheel trailer is more stable. The trailer’s pin weight is centered in the truck bed just forward of the truck’s axle. Around corners, I’m often not aware the trailer is there. Of course, there is the need to swing wider (sometimes into the opposing lane) around tight, right-hand turns.
My truck camper rig has some lean around turns. This can be addressed by installing or upgrading the front and rear sway bars. Both set-ups drive well once you get comfortable with them.
You have a fifth wheel in New Hampshire at a campground, another fifth wheel at a campground in Arizona, and travel between them in your truck camper, right?
That’s correct. We bought the Northstar in August of 2019. We spent two months in New Hampshire fitting it out. I modified the electrical system and Jan organized and reorganized the configuration of the cupboards.
Above: Overnight on Forest Service Road 535 South Of Lizard Head Pass, Colorado
When we left New Hampshire in October, we stopped in Charlestown, South Carolina to see the Hunley (Civil War submarine), Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie. In Atlanta, Georgia we went through the Delta Airlines Museum and the Jimmy Carter Library. North of El Paso, Texas we stayed a few nights in Guadalupe Mountains National Park. We spent 18-days traveling and visiting to get to Gila Bend, Arizona, which is our winter camping spot.
We have been snowbirds at Sonoran Desert RV Park in Gila Bend (pictured above) since 2010. We planned to stay for three days while we researched campgrounds in southwest Arizona. We are now in our 11th season.
Once we got to Arizona, we had plans to find a second fifth wheel to leave in Arizona and use the truck camper to travel between the two points. At that time, we couldn’t find a fifth wheel we liked, so we lived in the Northstar for a while. There was a pool started in November as to how long we would last together in 140 square feet.
Above: Ted and Jan at Dripping Springs in Arizona
One month became two, and then it was four. When Covid-19 became an issue, we decided to stay put in Arizona until April. That rounded out to six months full-time in the Northstar.
After getting the Northstar, we participated in a “Newlywed Game” for RVers at the Sonoran Desert RV Park last season (2019-20). One of the questions for me was, “Would your wife (Jan) say she was looking for a renovation of the kitchen, the bathroom, or a closet?” I answered that they were all the same room! When it was Jan’s turn to answer, she said the same thing.
So when did you get your second fifth wheel?
Upon returning to Arizona this past November we found an ideal winter home. It’s a 2007 Excel fifth wheel that was hardly used. The oven still had the original oil coating from the factory and smoked a bit when it was first lit. The cook top and convection/microwave looked brand new. The carpet shows no wear. Someone must have bought it 13-years ago, and never really used it.
Now we need to learn how to ready it for storage in the 120-degree Arizona summer.
You have written a book about ATV riding. Tell us about it.
I have published a book of my maps for ATV riding in the desert around Gila Bend, Arizona. So far I have sold 85 of them and I am working on Volume 2.
That sounds like a wonderful resource for others! How did you get into ATVing?
When we first arrived in the southwest we were hikers and didn’t think highly of the motorized crowd. Our first trek was to the site of a water stop on the Butterfield Overland Mail Route. We hiked for two hours and only saw desert and cactus. We never did arrive at the water station.
An ATV would have gotten us there in fifteen minutes and given us time to explore and photograph the area. That’s why we bought a Polaris RZR side-by-side; to explore the backcountry.
There are at least 200-miles of trails accessible right from the campground. The desert southwest holds many historical and natural secrets that you can discover when you can get out there.
Above: Trail through the pass of the Bender Springs ride
Could you could share a favorite ATV trail or two?
The prettiest ride is to the Bender Springs Recreational Area. It is a part of the Barry Goldwater Bombing Range. They fly over but do not drop bombs there. Anyway, you pass through a Teddybear Cholla (pronounced, “choy-ya”) forest, up and down a rugged pass with stunning rock formations, and then through an old homestead/ranch area called Johnson Well. I also shared some trails in the January 2018 edition of Trailer Life magazine.
Above: Lunch Stop, Bender Springs
I did not include some locations in my book so that they don’t get overused. I have shown folks trails, graves, and encampments of the emigrants of the 1850s and their wagon ruts in the volcanic rock. I have taken them to 800 to 1,000 year old fortifications, irrigation canals, ball courts, and dwelling sites. I will lead rides out to these places, but I won’t map them.
Does your Polaris RZR stay in Arizona?
Yes, the RZR is placed in an enclosed storage locker during the summer months. When I tow it with the truck and camper I have constructed and secured a three-foot tow bar extension for the RZR trailer.
How do you see using your truck camper in the future?
We like to see things off the beaten path. The BLM has a lot of areas to camp in and explore. We would like to see The Wave in the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument. Alaska is still there for a return visit. We’d like to see the Grand Canyon in the winter. My still camera and my drone’s camera can record our travels for others. I send out 120 WernerTrails updates for friends every four or five months.
We enjoy the opportunity to not only wonder but to turn around and take that interesting road and not have to be concerned about our length. For us, that’s what having a truck camper is all about.
Like the Werners, do you have an interesting truck camper rig that you’d like to share? CLICK HERE to tell us your truck camping story.