Rex Willett, President of Northstar Campers, announces the Northstar 12STC, a 12-foot, non-slide, non-basement, side-entry, dry bath truck camper. Here’s how large truck camper design gets back to its roots.
Before everyone had computers in their pants, humans designed and manufactured some of the highest quality, best thought out, and most complex products and machines mankind has ever conceived.
No one needed an iPad to design a Chris Craft powerboat in the 1930s. No one required a desktop PC to design the 1955 Mercedes-Benx 300SL Gullwing, or the 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO. NASA didn’t have SolidWorks when it designed the Mercury space capsule or the Saturn V rocket system. These were products designed by the best and the brightest, working together with the tools they had or invented, and plenty of determination, blood, sweat, and tears. No MacBook Pro necessary.
As designers, is it possible that we have become too enamored with the capabilities offered by the metal and glass objects in our pockets, on our laps, or staring back at us at on our desks? Put another way, might some products – including truck campers – work better, offer more functionality, and give us more overall satisfaction if they were designed and developed the old fashioned way; teamwork, physical mock-ups, and real-world trial and error?
Rex Willett, President of Northstar Campers, sure thinks so. Rex also believes the industry has moved too far from the time-tested and proven pre-slide-out truck camper designs of the late 1980s and 1990s. In response, Northstar has developed the 12STC, a 12-foot, non-slide, side-entry, dry bath model set to put the entire truck camper industry on its ear. If this camper sells, it will call into question much of what the industry has been pushing towards for the past fifteen years; basements, slide-outs, floor plans, and beyond.
To get the back story on this unique truck camper, we talked to Rex.
Above: Floorplan of the Northstar 12STC – click to enlarge
2016 Northstar 12STC Specifications:
The 2016 Northstar 12STC is a hard side, non-slide, dry bath camper made for long bed trucks. The interior floor length of the Northstar 12STC is 12’0” and the interior height is 6’8″. The Northstar 12STC has a 41 gallon fresh tank, 6 gallon hot water heater, 20 gallon grey tank, 13 gallon black tank or 4.5 gallon cassette tank with its own reservoir. It can accommodate two group 31 batteries and has two twenty-pound exchangeable propane tanks. The base weight of the Northstar 12STC is 3,176 pounds and the MSRP is $37,745.
Above: The interior of the Northstar 12STC from the cabover back
TCM: The prevailing wisdom within the truck camper industry is that truck campers beyond 10-feet in floor length don’t sell without a slide. We have heard this from dozens of truck camper manufacturers and dealers over the years. That said, how is it that Northstar Campers is announcing a 12-foot non-slide truck camper?
Rex: Bill Penney, Owner of Truck Camper Warehouse, has been the main driver of this camper. He’s been telling me for a few years that there’s a need for a longer, side entry, non-slide truck camper; especially for the beach campers in the Northeast. For example, you can’t take a slide-out truck camper on the beach in Montauk, New York. These folks want a big camper with big capacities, but they can’t have a slide.
During design and development, I also sought out input from industry veterans who were active in the marketplace before slide-outs were introduced. Bill Durkee was especially helpful with his experience and feedback.
I keep a library of old truck camper brochures and remembered a 12-foot side-door Real Lite truck camper from the 1980s. At that time, the 12-foot non-slide Real Lite was the premier truck camper in the country. That floor plan and others from that time period were referenced while designing the 12STC.
The truck camper industry has gotten away from its no-basement, no slide-out, roots. With the 2016 Northstar 12STC, we’re getting back to those roots, with a refreshed and modern approach.
Above: The 12-foot floor length was needed for the side-entry and rear dry bath
TCM: How did the design and development phase progress with the 12STC?
Rex: The first prototype was 11-feet long. I had the 11-foot floor mocked up when the Midwest truck camper rally crowd came through our factory last summer. At that point, the bathroom just didn’t feel right. Bill Durkee told me that if it didn’t feel right, it probably isn’t right.
Lots of dollars went into the original 11-foot floor plan, but I took it out back with a forklift and burned it. What good was it if it didn’t feel right?
That night I thought about the camper. It had to be longer. People want more room in the bathroom, and they want the bathroom to be more functional. We mocked up the bathroom cabinets about twenty times and kept making little changes. All that work paid off.
Above: The interior from the side-entry door looking toward the overcab
TCM: You did the cabinet mock-ups with wood, or on a computer?
Rex: With real wood. I understand using computer aided design when developing a camper, but you need to see a camper, and sit in a camper, to truly design it right.
Having that real world, and real life tactile experience, you can immediately see that a cabinet needs to be an inch further back to get the right amount of cabinet space. And so we build it again, see it again, and sit in it again, until it feels right.
That’s the problem with relying too much on CAD. You need that trial and error, and real world experience, to get a camper that truly works.
During the design phase, we get input from the people who work here. We also have a few visits every week from potential customers who want a factory tour. We get their input too.
Northstar customer, Duncan Crawford, had some excellent input. He’s very practical and has an exceptional amount of experience as a long-time truck camper owner. His feedback on the 12STC was very helpful.
Above: The Northstar 12STC on a Ford F-350; only 10’3″ total height
Above: The 12STC shown was set back a few inches to accommodate a retractable tonneau cover. TCM recommends setting the camper further forward to maximize center of gravity.
TCM: How was the floor length, total exterior length, and overhang length determined during the design phase?
Rex: The bathroom and overall camper height were the two main things that influenced the design of this camper. The final floor length was determined by the necessary dimensions of the bathroom. When the bathroom was right, the floor length of the 12STC was 12-feet.
I sent TCM some photos of a 12STC on a truck. From the ground to the highest point on the body of the camper is 10’ 3”. That’s on one of the tallest trucks available; a Ford F-350 with four-wheel drive. That truck is 44” from the ground to the wheel well. I find it amazing that a camper of this size is only 10’ 3” when you’re going down the road.
Adding the optional low-profile air conditioner we install will only add an additional eight inches. That puts the total rig height under 11-feet. The resulting lower center of gravity, less wind, and better maneuverability should be very appealing.
Above: Torklift International’s Upper Stable-Loads were the only suspension modification to the Ford F-350 truck pictured above
TCM: A 12-foot truck camper will have approximately four feet of overhang on a 8-foot long bed truck. How did you design the 12STC to ensure the center of gravity is forward of the rear axle?
Rex: We designed the center of gravity to be as forward as possible, and then measured it with the final floor plan at the factory. The center of gravity sits at 54” from front to back, which is ahead of the rear axle.
Above: No boot boxes (sub-wings), water lines, or gas lines are exposed under the 12STC
We were also able to make the 12STC easy to back under and load by not having any boot boxes – sub-wings as TCM calls them – on the underside of the camper. In fact, there is nothing exposed on the outside of the camper on either side. All water lines, gas lines and everything is concealed. I was very happy with how easy it was to load onto the Ford F-350 in the photos. It also sat well, and handled beautifully.
TCM: With the 12STC, are you targeting folks who would otherwise consider a slide-out truck camper?
Rex: If you don’t want the extra weight of slide-outs, the high side-walls of slide-outs, or the top-heavy center of gravity of slide-outs, the 12STC is a new option. The dry bath 12STC gives you a big coach with lots of room and lots of storage at a significantly lower weight and height.
Some customers also want to avoid the potential structural and mechanical problems of slide-outs. By not having slide-outs, you completely avoid slide-out problems. Non-slides are also warmer because there’s no seepage around the slide-out openings.
Above: On the scale with optional air conditioner, awning, and battery, the 2016 Northstar STC weighs in at 3,418 pounds dry
TCM: What is the dry weight of the 2015 Northstar 12STC?
Rex: We put the first 12STC on the scale at the end of our production line. With the optional air conditioner, 13-foot side awning, and the one group 31 AGM battery, the 12STC weighed 3,418 pounds dry.
I then took the battery, awning, and air conditioner and put them on a scale to see what the true dry weight with all standard equipment and the camper weights 3,176 pounds dry.
I believe almost every one will have those options, and two AGM batteries. With the second AGM added at 67 pounds, the camper is 3,486 pounds. I am pleased with the weight of the 12STC.
Above: European-style acrylic thermal pane insulated windows are used in the entire Northstar truck camper line
TCM: Did you make any unique choices about what type and size of windows are in the 12STC?
Rex: For the 12STC, we are using the same European-style acrylic thermal pane insulated windows that we use for the rest of the Northstar truck camper line. We have the same long cabover window that’s standard in the Igloo and Arrow. Our kitchen has that same long window and we have the long dinette window in the dinette and the rear of the camper. The only one particular to this camper is the bathroom window.
Above: The dry bath in the Northstar 12STC influenced the design of the camper. Notice the window in the bathroom with the built-in screen and black out shade
Above: Extend-a-shower curtain and toilet in the Northstar 12STC – click to enlarge
TCM: For the past decade or so, Northstar has exclusively built its truck campers with cassette toilets. Why is Northstar offering a traditional flush toilet for the 12STC?
Rex: You can actually have either a cassette toilet or a traditional flush toilet and black tank in the 12STC. Some folks are not convinced about the efficiency of a cassette toilet, or want to be able to use full hook-ups at a campground. For them, the black tank is preferable.
We’re going to let the customers decide what type of toilet they want. It will be an interesting thing to see how this goes. We can do a cassette or a holding tank on a 12STC without changing our manufacturing process.
Above: The optional Thetford C200 cassette toilet has its own reservoir
TCM: Which cassette system is available in the 12STC?
Rex: The 12STC is available with a Thetford C200 cassette toilet. The C200 is fully self-contained with its own reservoir. That is good for colder weather because you can put windshield washer fluid in the cassette in the winter and not have it freeze.
If you go off-the-grid, you may want the cassette for the ability to dump it when dump stations are closed, or unavailable. If you go to campgrounds more often, or need more capacity, you may want a holding tank.
TCM: What are the tank capacities of the 2015 Northstar 12STC?
Rex: There is a 41 gallon fresh tank, a 20 gallon grey tank, and a 13 black tank or C200 4.5 gallon cassette with its own reservoir.
TCM: Are the holding tanks heated?
Rex: 12-volt heating elements are now standard on Northstar holding tanks. There are three automatic settings – low, medium, and high – on both the grey and black tanks.
We do not build basement campers. When you put cold water into a holding tank inside a basement, and then introduce warm air, that holding tank is going to sweat. That sweat can create mold. We are against that design approach.
Above: The U-shape dinette and standard Lagun dinette table
Above: A face-to-face dinette table is optional
TCM: Tell us about the seating in this camper.
Rex: The 12STC has a conventional U-shaped dinette. The versatile Lagun table is standard, or customers can get the more traditional face-to-face dinette table like the one TCM had in their Arrow U. You have two choices. You can even switch table types after you get your camper.
Above: The entry way into the side door entry
TCM: With a 12-foot camper, was it necessary to adjust Northstar’s wood-frame, hung-wall build approach?
Rex: No, it’s manufactured with the same exact Northstar philosophy; screwed, wood-frame, and hung-wall built. This camper is a tank and ready to take a lot of miles.
The biggest difference to our build was how we mounted the steps. That was the only concern I had. We put steel on the top and bottom to support the steps.
Above: The triple step Lippert Tread Lite system
TCM: Tell us about the step system itself.
Rex: It’s a triple step Lippert Tread Lite system. It’s easy to operate; just pull it out and all the steps come out. You flip the last step over. The camper will be easy to get into when people want to get in quickly.
Above: The Tread Lite step system in travel mode
We opted for the Tread Lite system because it was lighter than the competition, and had a smooth aluminum extruded top. Other step systems had punched-up steel, which would not work for bare feet on the beach. We wanted it to be comfortable. The Tread Lite system is a well made step, and good for long term use.
Above: There is room for two group 31 AGM batteries under the dinette bench of the 12STC. One AGM is pictured above with access to the electric Happijac jack controller
TCM: Where most truck campers are built 8’ wide, Northstar has built all of their campers 7’6” wide to reduce weight, improve aerodynamics, and make the campers more export friendly. Is the 12STC a 7’6” wide camper, like your other hard side models?
Rex: I went to 7’9” wide for the 12STC. At 7’9” wide, there’s more room in the bath and a deeper seating area for the table. I also wanted to be able to hold AGM batteries under the rear seat of the dinette. That area can hold two group 31 AGM batteries. I wanted to stay narrower, but the 12STC is a bigger class of camper and requires the additional width.
At 7’9”, we still have ample visibility for seeing around the camper. That’s very important for people who are going to tow. Northstar recommends the SuperHitch double-receiver hitches from Torklift International. I don’t want to see folks towing fiberglass boats with single hitch receivers.
Above: Upgraded fabrics are in the overcab, dinette, and throughout the 12STC
TCM: Other than the entry steps, were there any new materials, components, appliances, or processes used in the development of the Northstar 12STC?
Rex: As far as materials go, we upgraded the fabric to make the 12STC more upscale. We invested more money in comfort and overall appearance on the inside.
Above: The storage in the kitchen
Above: Stainless steel microwave, stove, and oven in the 12STC
For 2015, I changed all the Northstar hard side campers to stainless steel microwaves, ovens, and range hoods. It is more money, but who wouldn’t want it? We also have a thermostat that runs both the furnace and air conditioner.
Above: The Coleman Mach thermostat that runs both the furnace and air conditioner
The generator storage on the back is framed and insulated with Celotex. Unlike plastic compartments commonly used on campers, our framed and insulated compartments are not going to radiate a lot of cold.
The propane bottle compartment is also framed and insulated. With this approach, there is no cold infiltration on the inside of your camper. You will have a more even temperature throughout the camper, making it more comfortable. We are not sliding in plastic framed equipment storage boxes at Northstar. Every storage or equipment box is framed and insulated right.
Above: Wheel well storage is accessible on the driver and passenger sides of the camper
TCM: As a non-basement camper, does the 12STC have wheel well access and storage from inside the unit?
Rex: Yes, it does. And that’s another thing good about our non-basement campers is that they have storage in wheel well areas. That’s where people often store dirty clothes, water jugs, and shoes. It’s valuable storage space that basement models waste.
We also have a pop-out front-wall window that is lined up with the window of the truck. I know Harley, your cat, digs the ability to go back and forth from the truck to the camper.
We kept the width where you can parallel park in a city and still be able to get out. We also include a back-up camera as a standard feature on the 12STC and optional on the rest of our campers.
TCM: Harley loved the boot when we had the Northstar. That particular boot was really well made. How do folks get that boot?
Rex: Northstar dealers have them. We have a company here in Iowa that has made it for us for years. It’s a heavy vinyl compression boot with foam inside, so there is not too much movement in between the truck and the camper. When it’s installed, the boot makes you feel like you are more connected with the truck and camper.
TCM: Does the 12STC have a holding tank monitor?
Rex: No, but if a person wants a holding tank monitor, we can add one. I don’t like them personally, especially for the tanks we have. Our grey and black tanks are only about four or five inches tall and forty-five inches long. I have never found the tank monitors to be accurate, so I don’t install them as standard on Northstar campers. Besides, you can visually see the fresh tank under the sink in our campers. You can see exactly how much water you have used.
Above: A 13-foot crank-out awning on the passenger’s side
TCM: I see from the photos that the 12STC has a large awning. Tell us about that.
Rex: With the side door, we were able to put a 13-foot crank-out Carefree of Colorado awning on the entry-door side of the 12STC. The large awning over the entry-door side gives the 12STC more of a travel trailer feel. People want to cover the entrance way keep it protected and dry.
Above: The generator compartment fits a Honda EU2000i
TCM: What are the generator options for the 12STC?
Rex: There is a lighted generator compartment with a propane quick connect to either convert a portable Honda EU2000i generator over to propane, or for grilling. It costs about $400 to convert the Honda from gas to propane.
The optional air conditioner is a Coleman-Mach 8, 9200 BTU unit. The Mach-8 is not only low profile, but it’s efficient enough to run on a Honda EU2000i.
The generator compartment has 8 to 9-inches of extra room when the Honda is inside. Sealable gas containers can also fit in there. If you don’t need a generator, you can use the generator compartment as storage.
TCM: You were an early advocate for the energy savings offered by LED lighting. Is the 12STC all-LED inside and out, and how did you go about selecting the physical fixtures and lights?
Rex: The stove’s hood light and the license plate lights are incandescent bulbs. Everything else is LED including the exterior clearance lights, patio lights, ambient exterior lighting under the wing walls, interior wardrobe lights, interior ceiling lights.
As you know, I like lots of lights in Northstar campers. For awhile we were getting some groans and moans about it being too bright in our campers. It’s nice to have bright lights, but there are times when we didn’t want it all that bright. I changed to a different slim line interior LED light fixture. It’s half as deep. We’ve got the right amount of lumens now.
Above: A 12-volt and USB charging area in the 12STC
We also have electrical 110 outlets, USB outlets, and 12 volt outlets all over the camper. I know how important it is to have outlets in the right places in a truck camper. You’ll find them, right where you need them, in the 12STC.
TCM: What are the propane tank sizes?
Rex: There are two 20-pound propane tanks.
Above: The interior switches, battery disconnect, and umbrella/walking stick area is next to the entry door
TCM: Is there a battery disconnect switch?
Rex: Yes, there is a battery shut off with a red handled key on the other side of the entry switches. Battery disconnect switches are available on all Northstar campers.
There is an interior light switch as soon as you get inside the entry door. You can turn on that light as soon as you get into the camper. You don’t have to walk into a dark camper.
We also have an umbrella and walking stick storage and a coat rack by the entry way. And the 12STC features Northstar’s heavy insulation package, a R20-rated ceiling, and holding tanks with heat strips. This is truly a four-season truck camper.
Above: On the left side of the entry way there is more storage and the fire extinguisher
TCM: Do you see the 12STC as a strictly domestic model?
Rex: If somebody outside of the United States and Canada wants a 12STC, we’ll ship it. This would need to be roll on, roll off, just because of the size of the unit, and the necessary truck. This camper is really produced for North America. We have the expertise to ship it around the world, but I don’t see much demand outside of the domestic market.
Above: The windows have black out shades for privacy
TCM: What is the MSRP for the Northstar 12STC, with standard build features?
Rex: $37,745 for a base camper. There are only five to six options even available for a 12STC. Everything is basically standard. Check our website to see the long list of standard equipment on this coach.
TCM: What is the warranty for the Northstar 12STC?
Rex: There is a 24-four month warranty on the body, and then other items will carry the manufacturer warranties. If it’s four years old and develops a structural problem, I will help out my customers. Right is right and wrong is wrong. We will help face problems and work with people to make things right.
TCM: When will the Northstar 12STC be available?
Rex: The first 12STC units have already been shipped to Truck Camper Warehouse in New Hampshire.
I will be at Truck Camper Warehouse this weekend, February 13-15th showing the 12STC for an open house. Truck Camper Warehouse has built a fantastic new showroom which will have dozens of truck campers inside, many more than what you’ll see at the Springfield show. If you’re in the area and want to see truck campers, Truck Camper Warehouse is the place to go, and it’s free.
The next production run of 12STC campers will be in March. Truck Camper Warehouse, Pine Tree RV, SCATT Recreation, A&M Services will have some of the first units. They’ll start showing up at dealerships across the United States in April.
TCM: Are there any other new model announcements coming from Northstar in 2015?
Rex: I have another unit in my mind that I want to build in 2015. It will probably be in production within six weeks. This unit will be on the opposite end of spectrum from the 12STC. After that, I have a different pop-up camper to produce.
The Northstar 12STC is a from scratch camper. It’s not a redo or a copy from another manufacturer. This is the re-introduction of a side-entry, dry-bath, non-slide, with all the right ingredients. I’m kind of proud of that. I believe the 12STC will hit a niche and do well in the marketplace. It’s fun to offer something fresh.
For more information on the 2016 Northstar 12STC, please visit Northstar’s website at www.northstarcampers.com.