Important Truck Camping Tips

Off-Road Truck and Camper Trip Preparation

Steven Merrill reveals his extensive preparations for a long-term, off-road, and off-the-grid truck camping experience.  Step one, serious preventative rig maintenance.

Long term road trip preparations

Have you dreamed of taking your truck camper rig out for a long term adventure including off-pavement travel?  Do you know how to prepare for a multi-week or even multi-month trip that goes beyond the asphalt?  Here’s a hint: there’s a lot more to it than weekend campground stays.  A lot more.

Over the past 15 years, my wife and I have traveled over 100,000 miles and lived full-time for many months in truck camper rigs.  Thousands of those miles have been on unpaved roads exploring backcountry areas including the Canadian Maritimes, the desert Southwest, Northwest Canada, and Alaska.  During these experiences, I have made my share of mistakes and learned some very important lessons.

There is an old saying that goes, “When you go on a trip; you either have great times or great stories”.  While breakdowns and disasters may make for an entertaining stories for friends when you return home, they are not fun when you are in the midst of them.

With this article, my goal is to help you keep your stories about the great adventures you had rather than the calamities you survived.  If you’re well prepared, you’ll have the confidence to not only enjoy the backcountry with confidence, but return safely.  Let’s get prepared.

Step 1: Preventative Truck Maintenance

You need to go through your truck thoroughly before you leave on your extended trip.  Start by looking at your preventative maintenance schedule including engine oil and filters, transmission fluid, power steering fluid, tire wear, tire pressure, tire rotations, and brake system inspection (hoses, pads, fluids).

Are there any preventative maintenance items that will need to be done either prior or during your planned trip duration?  For example, if you are near a service interval for your transmission fluid, change it ahead of time.  This is better than attempting to find a service center on the road, or neglecting to get this important service done on time.

My most recent trip was over 17,000 miles.  Before the trip, I checked my preventative maintenance schedule and changed the transmission fluid, transfer case fluid, fuel filter, air filter, and serpentine belt.  I also greased the chassis and U-joints and checked all other fluid levels.

The only maintenance items my truck required during the trip were tire rotations and oil changes.  I usually rotate tires and change the oil at home, but I didn’t want to carry the messy equipment with me.

Change Your Serpentine Belt

You can have all of the above preventative maintenance items done by a local mechanic, but I strongly recommend folks change their serpentine belt themselves no matter what the age of the serpentine belt.  The serpentine belt drives your water pump and alternator and you will not get far without one.

The difficulty of changing serpentine belts varies by vehicle but pickup truck serpentine belts are easier than most.  My advice is to change your serpentine belt at home so you’re not doing it for the first time on a dirt two-track in the mud.  I then recommend bringing the old serpentine belt (or a new replacement) with you.

I don’t carry many spare filters and other things for my pickup, but I always carry a spare serpentine belt.  Other items, like a fuel filter, are not likely to break while you are out, but even the toughest belt may fail at an unexpected time.

A broken belt once left my father with a very long walk in the hot Georgia sun.  I have also seen a new pickup break a serpentine belt in the Arizona desert 90 miles from any kind of service.  Knowing how to replace your serpentine belt and having a spare serpentine belt ready is a simple and essential way to be prepared to take your pickup into the backcountry.

Don’t Leave Home Without Checking Your Hoses

You should also take a close look at your coolant hoses.  Are any of the hoses swollen or soft to the touch?  Are they more than five years old?  If so, you should change these hoses before your trip.  If you are not sure how to do this, Gates has an excellent online resource to help you with this.

A broken coolant hose will strand you as surely as a broken serpentine belt.  Changing coolant hoses ahead of time will help prevent a breakdown, and give you an opportunity to check out the rest of your cooling system, and refill the system with fresh coolant.

If your radiator is marginal, this is also a good time to replace it or have it flushed.  You will be traveling with a heavy load and may be going up long steep grades.  This will challenge your cooling system to the max.  I have been fortunate to not lose a hose in the backcountry, but I have changed them on the roadside a few times.

Loctite Go2 Rescue WrapRadiator hose repair kit

It doesn’t make sense to bring a spare for every hose with you, but you should carry coolant hose repair tape or a radiator hose repair kit, and required tools.  If you don’t have radiator hose repair tape, duct tape will work in a pinch.

Radiator hoses seem to break most often near the junction with the radiator or engine.  Sometimes you can cut the hose a little shorter and then re-install it.

Bars Leaks Cooling System Repair liquid

Another item to carry is a small container of radiator leak sealant.  You don’t need to carry coolant unless you will be traveling in below-freezing weather.  Water will get you by until you refill the system with a proper mixture.

All of these field repairs are short term fixes to allow you to get to a parts store and repair the system properly.  With a little preparation, you’ll be able to drive yourself to the closest parts store or service center without waiting for an expensive tow.  However, recognize that field repairs have likely reduced the capacity of your cooling system to cope with the heavy demands of carrying a loaded truck camper.  Drive moderately and watch your temperature gauge until you can repair the system properly.

Recommended Field Repair Tools

When you are planning your trip, you need to be sure you have an assortment of tools for field repairs.  In addition to things like socket wrenches and screwdrivers, be sure to have any unique tools you might need for your specific vehicle.

For example, my Chevrolet pickup requires a special wrench to change the fuel filter.  Even though I have changed the filter before the trip, the wrench goes into my truck toolbox.  Similarly, my former Dodge pickup required an Allen socket to check or change the transfer case fluid.  Again, that tool went in the toolbox.

When I changed the serpentine belt on my current pickup, I ended up using a bent coat hanger to help position the belt at one point in the process.  Again, this crude and improvised tool goes in the truck tool box.


Above: If your truck needs some specialty tools, be sure to bring them along.  Pictured above are the wrench for the fuel filter on a GM Duramax, an Allen socket for the transfer-case oil fill & drain plugs on Dodge 2500, and a spare serpentine belt – notice it is kept in the sleeve for the replacement belt so the part number is handy if you need to buy another one while you are on the road.  Also included is a section of bent coat hanger to ease the installation of the belt and a home-made breaker bar for tough nuts.

You may need to carry both SAE and metric size sockets for your truck and camper.  My truck seems to be a mix.   Also, remember the above mentioned hose-repair kits and duct tape.  Never leave home without duct tape.

GMC Truck Tools

Above: These are the tools I carry in my pickup when we are camping.

A cheap plastic tarp and a disposable coverall are handy if you need to work under the truck or camper in the mud.  The tarp also helps to prevent the loss of small tools or parts that might otherwise disappear into the dirt and leaves on the ground.  I also carry a rechargeable drill and seem to find some use for it during every trip.  Rounding this out, I always have a tow strap and some ratchet straps in my truck.

One additional tool I bring is a portable air compressor.  This allows me to refill the truck air springs (aka air bags) when necessary.  I check the air springs weekly.  This also allows me to add air to a tire that might be getting low.  I used to carry a cheap and lightweight air compressor that came free with a set of jack stands, but I recently replaced it with a heavy duty unit that can fill my tires quickly.

When we were driving up the Dempster Highway toward Inuvik this past summer, I managed to pick up a screw in one of my tires resulting in a slow leak.  This is a road where you can be hundreds of miles from any help or service.  We were about 100 miles from Fort McPherson and there were no other settlements or services on that stretch of road, not even homes or cabins.

I had to watch it carefully, but the damaged tire held enough pressure to last through the drive.  My previous cheap air compressor would not have been much help with 110 pounds of pressure I keep in my truck tires.  The more powerful air compressor was able to add air quickly enough to maintain the necessary air pressure.

Slime Tire Sealant

You may want to consider bringing Slime tire sealant and a tire plug repair kit.   These products won’t help with sidewall tears, but they would have worked in my situation.  Lesson learned.

You may also want to consider bringing a Haynes or Chilton service manual with you.  I haven’t carried these with my newer trucks, but I went across the country with a 15-year-old Bronco once and brought one with me then.  I also carry one in my 1961 Willys pickup.  Even if you personally can’t do all of the repairs outlined in the manual, it might serve as a reference for a mechanic, especially if you have an older truck.

Professional Truck Inspection

Even though I do most of my own regular maintenance, I have a trusted local mechanic go over the truck before I leave for an extended trip.  His eyes are more trained than mine and he works on many similar trucks, so he knows trouble spots to check.  Expect to pay about $100 for this inspection in addition to any service or repairs that you might need.

Finally, before you leave, you should go over your pickup thoroughly from front to back and bottom to top.  Crawl under the truck and check every single nut and bolt you can reach.  I once found a loose bolt on my stabilizer bar during such an inspection and was glad I did.

Also, as you are traveling, make a habit of regularly checking out the truck in a systematic way on a regular basis.  Parts can come loose or crack.  Finding these problems early will allow you to repair them before they become a calamity.

A Quick Note About Filters

While some may advocate carrying spares of every filter on your truck, unless you own an unusual truck, I don’t recommend this.  These have a predictable service life and are readily available in parts stores and most big box stores.  Space in a truck camper is at a premium, so it doesn’t make sense to carry these for maintenance.

However, there is a situation where you might consider bringing one or more of these.  While you are under your truck, take a look at the location of your filters – are they in a vulnerable spot where they might be punctured by a rock?  Then, these may be worth bringing.  A hole in a fuel, oil, or transmission filter will stop you dead and I don’t know of any effective field repair.


Above: The fuel filter on a GM Duramax engine is much easier to change in your driveway at home

My truck, for example, is a 2009 Chevrolet Silverado 3500 with the Duramax engine.  The fuel filter is tucked up high in the engine compartment and the truck would need to be otherwise damaged beyond repair to injure it.

My oil filter is similarly protected, so is unlikely to be pierced by an errant boulder.  However, my Allison transmission has an external filter which is in a vulnerable spot (it hangs right down in the middle of nowhere), so a spare of that is worth bringing along.

Transmission filter

Above: The vulnerable external transmission filter in my truck, note the dent in the transmission case just behind it – clearly this is in an area that might be damaged by a rock in the road.

However, there is a situation where you might consider bringing one or more of these.  While you are under your truck, take a look at the location of your filters – are they in a vulnerable spot where they might be punctured by a rock?  Then, these may be worth bringing.  A hole in a fuel, oil, or transmission filter will stop you dead and I don’t know of any effective field repair.

Enhance the Stock Suspension

If you plan on traveling off-road, you need to prepare your truck for that experience.  Driving down a rough two-track is much more challenging for your vehicle than going down a paved highway.

First, upgrade your wheels and tires for durability and traction.  There are too many important variables with selecting wheels and tires for this article, but carefully consider what will fit your truck, and what type of travel you’re interested in.  You want the wheels you select to offer right traction for where you are going.

Truck suspension Torklift StableLoads

After upgrading your wheels and tires, consider heavy-duty shocks, air springs, and a rear stabilizer bar.  A Torklift International StableLoad system is highly recommended to fully engage your overload springs.  When you are installing these items, use a product like Locktite to ensure that the connections don’t loosen while you are driving.

Step 2: Preventive Truck Camper Maintenance

As with preparing your truck, it is much easier to fix things at home than on the road.  Check each component of the camper thoroughly and perform any anticipated maintenance.  This includes your refrigerator, water heater, water pump, furnace, and battery system.

Safe-T-Alert CO detector 65-541

Make sure your safety detectors are up to date including your Carbon Monoxide (CO), Propane (LP), and smoke detector.  If any of these detectors are out of date, replace them immediately.  Truck Camper Magazine published an article on this subject titled, “Replacing RV LP, CO, and Smoke Detectors”.

fire extinguisher current

Also check your fire extinguisher to make sure it has sufficient charge.  You may never need it, but you want to be sure it works if you do.

In addition to the toolbox in my pickup, I have a small toolbox in the camper with specific tools that may be needed for camper repairs.  For example, nut drivers to fit the components of both the refrigerator and the water heater can be very handy.  Additional camper preventative maintenance tools include screw drivers, pliers, RV fuses, an adjustable wrench, and a socket that fits the spark plug on my generator.

Camper Tools

Above: These tools are kept in the camper when we are traveling to supplement the ones in the pickup cab.  The nut drivers are handy for the water heater and refrigerator, the spark plug wrench is specific for our generator, the others have been added as they have been used.  Essentially, if I use a tool for camper maintenance or repair, it goes in the toolbox.

Eternabond Roof Tape

You may also consider bringing along a product like EternaBond® Roof Tape.  Camper roofs can be punctured by errant branches and this will allow for a permanent repair.  It is also supposed to work on skylights, water tanks, vent covers, or waders.  A mini roll of their Emergency Sealing Tape (2” X 4’) is less than $12 and you can use it to make a quick permanent repair.

Like truck maintenance, camper maintenance is ongoing and requires frequent inspections.  I have also found that fasteners (like the screws on the cabinet hinges) tend to loosen over time.  I check these regularly while we are traveling.

Zep drain care for RV showers

Above: Regular use of an enzyme-based drain cleaner keeps our drains clear without needing to use a caustic product.  The bent piece of coat hanger is useful to clear hair from the shower drain.

One other quick hint for maintenance while you are traveling is to purchase an enzyme-based drain cleaner.  Unlike caustic cleaners, these don’t pose any hazard of chemical burns, but they will help keep your camper drains running clear.  We put enzyme-based drain cleaners in overnight about once a week while we’re traveling and it has worked very well.

RV Appliance Service Manuals

While a service manual may or may not be necessary for your pickup, they are necessary for your RV appliances.  RV appliance service manuals are often available online and I recommend that you take the time to download and print one for each appliance and bring these printed manuals with you when you travel.  Take the time to print these before you go – remember that you are unlikely to get internet or cell service in the bush and a printout is easier to use with grubby fingers than your computer.

I have made field repairs to my refrigerator, water heater, and furnace.  In my experience, the service manuals are essential because the manuals that come with the camper are very limited in the information that they provide.  As soon as you get past the “Make sure there is power coming to the unit” the next direction is “Take this appliance to your local RV dealer”.

If you are in a remote area, the nearest RV dealer can be hundreds of miles and several days away, and in a direction you don’t really want to drive.  Even worse, when I have checked about service when traveling, the usual answer seems to be, “We are booked up until next week.”  Therefore, you will want to be able to diagnose and fix common problems yourself whenever possible.

We were in northern British Columbia when the internal temperature sensor on my refrigerator failed.  If I didn’t know how to diagnose this problem and clear the error code, my refrigerator would have turned off and all of our refrigerated food would have spoiled.  The refrigerator manual that came with the camper was no help, but the refrigerator service manual included a simple diagnostic algorithm that let me figure out the problem in about five minutes.

By being prepared, I was able to keep the refrigerator running and then replace the part when I came to a dealer later in the trip.   Similarly, I have replaced the electronic ignition for my water heater (a recommended spare part to carry) as well as the high and low temperature sensors for the tank.

Consider Camper Upgrades

You may also want to upgrade the systems in your camper as part of your long-term trip preparations.  For example, our camper came with Group 24 batteries.  These were fine when we could plug-in regularly, but did not hold enough charge for backcountry use.  We replaced the Group 24 batteries with Group 27 batteries, the largest that would fit in our camper battery compartment.

The Group 27 batteries provided almost half again as much power storage.  In addition, we replaced all of the incandescent bulbs in the camper with LED bulbs.  This put our power storage/consumption systems in a better balance.  This past summer we went over three weeks without plugging in and could have continued indefinitely without any problems (we were driving almost every day).

Final Tip: Use A Standard Packing List

I highly recommend creating a standard packing list for your truck and camper.  Think about every aspect of your trip and what you believe you will need.  Then put these items on your standard packing list, and use it.  As you travel, adjust and pare the list.

On the one hand, you don’t want to carry something you don’t need and won’t ever use, but on the other hand you don’t want to be missing an essential item when you need it most.  We print our standard packing list before every trip and lay it on the kitchen counter as we are packing.  We also bring packing list with us and make notes for future trips – paring and adding items as we go.

Ready To Go

With preparation, your long-term, long-distance, off-road, and off-the-grid adventures will be full of fun and adventure, not breakdowns and disappointments.  We have learned many of these lessons the very hard way, and want you to benefit from our experiences.

With these pointers, you’ll feel 100-percent more confident in your ability to go long, go far, and stay safe.  Two-track road?  You are ready.


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