Take It Off-Road

Truck Camping on the Edge

TCM Calendar Winners, Scott Zeitler and Lora Sholes, manage two successful careers and went truck camping 97 days last year.  How do they do it?  It’s a cliff hanger.

Truck Camping On The Edge

In college, students are often given the option to stack their classes on certain days to create more days off.  For example, they can take all of their classes Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, and have four day weekends every week.  This means having three very full days of classes and sometimes taking back-to-back exams, but the obvious time-off benefit is hard to refuse.

In the working world, such a schedule is practically impossible to find.  Most professions require no less than 8 hours a day and five days a week.  In reality, many jobs demand more than 8 hours a day, plus the daily to and from commute to the required work site.  If you want a work-life balance resembling what’s possible in college, you either have to create it, or purposefully target a profession with this extraordinary perk.

Which brings us to Scott Zeitler and Lora Sholes.  This amazing couple managed to carve out work schedules that allowed them to go truck camping 97 days last year while maintaining two successful careers.  As a corporate pilot, Scott alternates work weeks and can get three weeks off in a row by only taking one week off.  Lora has a career with seven weeks of vacation a year and a weekly schedule that gives her Fridays off, and Mondays until noon.

This isn’t luck folks, it’s careful planning and hard work.  It’s also Scott and Lora prioritizing adventure, fun, and relaxation as an important part of their lives.  When the work-life balance doesn’t satisfy most people until after retirement, Scott and Lora’s story is both a lesson, and an inspiration.  Not to mention that their Ram Power Wagon and Hallmark pop-up is one of the coolest-looking truck camper rigs ever to leave pavement.

Scott and Lora in Velocity Basin, Colorado

Above: Scott and Lora in Velocity Basin, Colorado

How did you and Lora get into RVing?

Scott: When I was growing up in Pennsylvania, my family had an Airstream travel trailer.  We spent our family vacations using the Airstream to explore the East Coast from Florida to the Carolinas.

My wife, Lora, also from Pennsylvania, never camped.  Instead, she and her family spent the summers at their cabin on a lake in the mountains of Pennsylvania.  This gave each of us a chance to experience the beauty of the outdoors and planted the seed for exploration.

After college, the mountains were calling Lora.  She packed up her worldlies into her Mazda 323 and moved west to live in the beautiful Rocky Mountains.  Lora quickly took on the lifestyle of a Colorado girl with interests in climbing, camping, hiking the fourteeners, biking, and backpacking.  She has never looked back.

My career after college took me to North Carolina and that’s when I started tent camping.  For about ten years, tent camping was a great way to enjoy the beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the great mountain biking, kayaking, and hiking offered there.

Then I realized that I really wanted to see and explore the Southwest.  I sold my house and most of my belongings and bought a 38-foot toy hauler.  This RV was not that much smaller than my home, which was ideal for my needs at the time.

From North Carolina I drove west and lived for two years in several states before finally settling on Durango, Colorado.  RVing was great and provided me the opportunity to experience many wonderful places, but I fell in love with Durango and felt it time to sell my home on wheels for one on a permanent foundation.

Hanging out at Alstrom Point

How did you then get into truck camping?

Scott: Over many years living in Durango, Lora and I packed our SUV, loaded the bikes, backpacks, and gear and went tent camping.  We loved the remoteness and solitude tent camping gave us and enjoyed sleeping under the stars.  Then we went on a vacation to Oregon.

This was the turning point when we realized there may be a better way.  Our SUV was too small to fit all the gear, toys and stuff, so we towed a utility trailer for added space.  While camping in Oregon we met a very nice older couple en route to Alaska.  They had a Toyota Tacoma with a Four Wheel Camper.

It was spacious inside and got us thinking about a truck camper.  I was originally leaning towards a hard side truck camper.  For about the same money, I could get either type.  Then I was thinking about the slide-outs and size.  Lora wanted to take our rig off-road, and not stay at campgrounds.  That brought us to pop-up campers.

We learned a lot about truck campers from the couple in the Four Wheel Camper, and then started our own research.  We wanted to have the ability to go off-road and explore the more remote areas of the backcountry, so we knew a truck camper would be the perfect set up for us.

“Hallmark is a family run business and they made us feel like part of the Hallmark family. We have never experienced a company that delivered this kind of five star service.”

Hallmark Ute XS camper interior

Above: The interior of Scott and Lora’s Hallmark Ute XS

It’s interesting how many tent campers discover truck campers by camping next to one, usually in bad weather.  How did you then decide on a Hallmark?

Scott: We found two production truck camper manufacturers in our home state of Colorado.  We live in Durango, so it’s about an eight hour drive to get to the camper factories.  We wanted to support a local Colorado factory.

After touring the factories of each, we were extremely impressed with the quality of the Hallmark truck camper and the professionalism and knowledge displayed by the Hallmark team.  We felt confident that this was the camper for us.

Hallmark Camper with cassette toilet and shower

Above: The Hallmark Ute XS, short bed pop-up camper, can come with a shower and toilet

During our visit to Hallmark, we noticed that there were a few production units on the lot that hadn’t sold yet.  They were basically shells.  One of the units was a Ute XS with a black tank.  Andy Ward of Hallmark explained that most of their customers preferred a cassette toilet, and that’s why this particular unit had not sold.

Short bed bathroom in popup camper

Above: The wet bath is on the left and the refrigerator and countertop

The Hallmark Ute XS typically comes with a wet bath and a cassette toilet.  Our wet bath has a regular flush toilet, sink, countertop, and a flexible shower head.  The Ute XS  also has an outside shower that we use 99% of the time.  We have a square curtain stall that expands to make an outside shower.

Fox Wing Awning on pop-up truck camper

Above: Laura and Scott under the Fox Wing awning

Sounds perfect for you guys.  What options did you select?

Scott: Since the Ute XS at Hallmark was essentially a shell, we got to choose the options we wanted.  Matt Ward of Hallmark was instrumental in helping us with our selections.  We were able to pick the wood cabinets, fabric colors, and accessories including a mounted shovel and ax, Fox Wing awning, and graphics.

We knew that we wanting the Fox Wing awning.  It attaches to the camper and pulls out 270 degrees to cover the rear entry way.  It takes some time to set up because you have to put guides in the ground, but it was a lot better option than two Carefree awnings that just pull out.  We really like it.

Fox Wing Awning on Hallmark Pop-Up Camper

Above: The Fox Wing awning on the Ute XS

For the model we got, there is no place to put a generator other than the cab of the truck.  For power, we got a 150-watt solar panel.  In the Southwest it’s rare to get three or four days of cloud cover in a row.  We love having solar instead of a generator.

When we picked it up, we couldn’t tell the difference between a brand new Hallmark and ours.  It was a win-win for us.  The Ute XS was still a brand new unit, and it was customized exactly the way we wanted it.

Hallmark is a family run business and they made us feel like part of the Hallmark family.  Bill, Matt, and Andy Ward were so patient and were willing to work with us to be sure our camper fit our needs.  We have never experienced a company that delivered this kind of five star service.  They bend over backwards to help you.

Hallmark Ute XS interior camper

Lora: We wanted a larger short bed camper, so we would have chosen this model any way.  It has an oven, stove, refrigerator, freezer, toilet, and shower.  It’s really quite comfortable – a match made in heaven for us.

We spent 97 nights in our camper the first year alone and I would not have traded one of these nights for a night in a five star hotel.  You can’t beat the views from our back door or our dining room.

You certainly can’t.  How do you manage work if you’re camping almost 100 nights a year?

Scott: I am a corporate pilot, so I work a week on and a week off.  I go off on a Tuesday and come back on a Monday.  When I take a vacation week, I actually get three consecutive weeks off.  So I get 12 weeks a year of vacation.

Lora gets seven weeks of vacation a year.  Her weekly work schedule gives her Friday to Monday at noon off, so we almost always have a four day weekend.  95-percent of our trips are long weekends.

Gemini Bridges Road near Moab, Utah

Above: Gemini Bridges Road near Moab, Utah

You’re certainly based in a fantastic location for nearby truck camping opportunities.

Scott: Durango is great for truck camping!  Three hours in any direction gives us something different from the Rocky Mountains to the red rocks of southern Utah.

For weekend trips, we often go to Silverton or Telluride since they are only a couple hours away.  We’ll take our mountain bikes or go hiking.  On my vacations, when Lora can get off, we’ll go on bigger trips.  We’ll take a week or two to go to Crested Butte or Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.

Hartman Rocks in Gunnison, Colorado

Above: Hartman Rocks in Gunnison, Colorado

This September we’re going to the Grand Teton National Park.  Lora has never been to Grand Teton National Park or Yellowstone National Park.  We’ll also go to the west side to Driggs, Idaho.  Hopefully we’ll get to climb the Tetons.

We just went on a nice trip in February to California.  We left the winter snow in Durango and went to California where it was in the 80s to warm up.  We traveled to Flagstaff, Santa Barbara, Morro Bay, Big Sur, and then on to wine country.  We also went to Yosemite National Park for three or four days, to Death Valley National Park for the super bloom, and then finished the trip off in Zion National Park.

Death Valley National Park, California

Above: Death Valley National Park, California

Lora: The super bloom in Death Valley was amazing.  We saw thousands of flowers and they hadn’t seen flowers in a decade there.

West Brush Creek Road, Crested Butte, Colorado

Above: West Brush Creek Road near Crested Butte, Colorado

How do you find your boondocking sites?

Scott: A lot of the photos I sent from are from Silverton and the surrounding area.  When we get to a place, I can take the dirt bike and find boondocking sites without having to drive the truck down some unknown four-wheel drive road.  I’ll take the bike with me for reconnaissance missions and scope places out.  I’d rather not stay in a campground.

When go to Crested Butte we find a good campsite and stay for three to four days.  If we stay more than two days, we take the camper off the truck.  In Crested Butte we have a favorite restaurant and the mountain bike trails are scattered around, so it’s not practical to take the camper with us.

We also look at Google Earth, online maps, Gazetteer, and Benchmark maps.  We look for BLM land where we can safely camp and not break the rules.

Alstrom Point Utah with a camper

Above: Camping at Alstrom Point in Utah

Do you unload your camper in the field often?

Scott: Yes, we do.  When loading, you learn after a few times to use the side mirrors to guide you.  I don’t have too much room in between the jacks and my tires because my tires are oversized.

If we’re on grass I typically try to find as level of a place as possible.  Last week I took it to a friend’s house and I was on a slant.  It was more difficult to load.  If you find a flat surface, your life will be a lot easier.  Sometimes I load in five minutes and sometimes thirty.

“Lora also has a goal to try to do all 54 fourteeners by time she is 54.”

Via Ferrata in Telluride, Colorado

Above: Via Ferrata in Telluride, Colorado

Our load times vary in much the same way, and for much of the same reasons.  Tell us your climbing passion and the picture of you on the side of a cliff.

Lora: That’s in Telluride and it’s called Via Ferrata.  It means “iron way”.  There are cables there, so I’m holding on and I am in steel steps.  It’s not as challenging as it might look.  I was clipped in the whole time and walking along the face of a cliff.

In the picture you can see that there are foot holes that have been drilled in.  It’s an amazing trail to have in Telluride.  These types of trails are popular in Europe, but not that popular here.  It’s European expedition style hiking.  Chuck Kroger decided put it in Telluride in 2006.  It’s not that difficult, as long as you’re not afraid of heights.

Scott: You can go with a guide.  It is just a normal climbing harness and special lobster claw.  A couple lines come off the climbing harness, and that allows you to clip into the cable that’s on the side of the trail.  You are only going to fall two feet if you are going to fall.  Lora also has a goal to try to do all 54 fourteeners by time she’s 54.

Lora: I’m at 25 so far.

Scott: In Buena Vista, Colorado there’s the collegiate mountain range, where 16 fourteeners are located.  It’s great to have a truck camper to park at the trailhead and get an early start.  We sometimes start at five in the morning because we want to be at the peak by 9:00am at the latest.

Sometimes there are afternoon thunderstorms around 1:00pm and we don’t want to be at the peak at that point.  Some of the hikes are 6 to 8 miles, and some are 16 miles each way.  We determine what time we start by how long it will take us to get to the top.

We also pay attention to the forecast for that day.  We get out super early if there’s a chance of rain, wearing headlamps and doing the trails in the dark.  It would be a bad experience at 14,000 feet with lightening bolts.  We also make noise and talk a lot while hiking.  We have never seen any bears while hiking the fourteeners.

Hallmark Pop-Up Utah

Above: Alstrom Point, Utah

With a pop-up truck camper, are you concerned about bears?  You do live and camp in bear country.

Scott: Don’t leave bacon out on the counter in your camper.  You are teasing the bears.  Use common sense and don’t leave things out with a scent.  We always cook on a Camp Chef cast iron grill outside our camper.  We clean up camp before we leave and don’t ever leave food out.  We are conscious of smells.  The worst case is bears, but you could also attract rodents, or other animals you don’t want.

Our Ram Power Wagon truck has 35-inch tires, so we sit up high.  To get into our camper, a bear would have to be huge.  I’m six feet tall and I can barely reach the bottom part of the camper’s soft wall.

Hallmark camper off the truck

Above: Scott and Lora use their Hallmark camper off their truck

I notice you take your camper off your truck while truck camping.  How do you feel using the camper off the truck?

Scott: We’re very comfortable using the camper off the truck.  Torklift makes a product called the Wobble-Stopper.  It’s a couple turnbuckles with brackets on the front of camper.  The turnbuckles go through a J-hook and plate on the front of camper.  The other side hooks to the front jack with a Fastgun type mechanism.  The Wobble-Stoppers stabilize the camper quite a bit.

The Wobble-Stopper also makes it almost impossible for anyone to steal your camper by making it impossible to back a truck underneath it.  I have locks on the Wobble-Stopper turnbuckles to make the demounted camper even more difficult to steal.

To further stabilize the demounted camper, I also lower the jacks to get the camper two to three feet off the ground.  I use plastic square landing pads to keep the camper from sinking into the soft ground.

“Take pictures during the golden hour. The golden hour is about a half hour before sunrise, and half hour before and after sunset.”

Last Dollar Road, Telluride, Colorado

Above: A photo from Last Dollar Road in Telluride taken during the golden hour

You have entered some beautiful photos for the annual TCM calendar contest.  What photography tips do you have for our readers who want to get great photos while they’re out camping?

Scott: Take pictures during the golden hour.  The golden hour is about a half hour before sunrise, and half hour before and after sunset.  Typically I get my best photos then because the light from the sun is not harsh.  It takes effort to get out of bed early.

Also, positioning the camper is important.  When I look for a campsite, I’m always looking for the best shot.  Besides it being a level campsite, I ask myself if there is a potential fantastic photograph there.

Velocity Basin Colorado

Above: Velocity Basin in Silverton, Colorado

In particular, the photo of the camper at Velocity Basin in Silverton was a grassy flat level area in the box canyon.  I was able to position the camper with the front of the truck towards the camera having the amphitheater in the background.  When you position the camper like that, it’s hard not to get a great shot.

Velocity Basin, Silverton, Colorado

Above: Velocity Basin in Silverton, Colorado

It also helps if there’s some cloud cover.  Blue skies don’t help in making a good photograph.  Big puffy clouds give you contrast and sometimes even storm clouds do well.

There are different weather apps that can tell you the exact time the sunset is going to happen.  It gives you both the direction and the time.  If there are peaks in front of you, it will tell you what time the sun will go behind the peaks.

What camera do you use?

Scott: I have a Canon 7D DSLR and just got a Sony Mirrorless Alpha a6300 which is a small compact camera that will accept Nikon, Canon, and Pentax lenses.  You also need a tripod, patience, and a willingness to get up early.

I use my iPhone to take photos all the time to see if a photo is worth taking.  The only downside to the phone is that you don’t have the choice of lenses.  You also can’t blow up your shot to a large picture later with a phone because the resolution is not good for that.

Even the Sony Alpha a6300 camera that I just got for $1,000 is capable of 24 megapixels and 4K video.  I rented the more expensive Sony a7R II while we were in Yosemite.  That is a big jump in price.

“The sunset lighted waterfall only happens for one week in February, and only if conditions are perfect.”

Horsetail Falls in Yosemite National Park, California

Above: The sunset lite waterfall in Yosemite National Park happens one week in February each year

Did you use the Sony a7R II for the stunning waterfall photographs in Yosemite National Park?

Scott: Yes, I did.  That’s the sunset lighted waterfall at Horsetail Falls.  The sunset lighted waterfall only happens for one week in February, and only if conditions are perfect.

First, there has to be enough rain so there is water going over the falls.  Second, the skies need to be clear so the sun hits the falls causing it to glow like it’s on fire.

Yosemite National Park waterfalls

Above: Waterfalls in Yosemite National Park, California

We were there for three nights.  The first night we got skunked with cloud cover.  The second night, with persistence and patience, we saw the glow of Horsetail Falls.

There were a couple thousand photographers camped out trying to get this shot.  All of a sudden you hear shouting and excitement as the sun set hits the falls.  You basically have to get in line and claim your spot four to five hours before the sun sets.  It’s a bummer when, in the critical last ten minutes, you get cloud cover and waited for nothing.

That would be a bummer.  You certainly go to great lengths to get a photograph.

Scott: Sometimes it’s just road magic and good timing.  One of the pictures I sent you was at Fisher Towers near Moab.  That was our maiden voyage in our camper after we bought it.  It was Thanksgiving day weekend and the weather was not as it was forecasted.  It was pretty much overcast and misting.

Fisher Towers Utah with a Hallmark pop-up camper

Above: Driving on Onion Creek Road with Fisher Towers in the background

We ended up venturing down this road called Onion Creek Road with 27 stream crossings.  I had ridden down it before on my dirt bike years earlier, but we didn’t go mountain biking on that day because the weather wasn’t good.  Instead, we explored and were bummed out because of the weather.

The next morning was overcast when we drove out, and I got this amazing photo of Fisher Towers.  It was by sheer luck that we happened to be there.

Yakima Sky Box, Alstrom Point, Utah

Above: Yakima Sky Box stores helmets, shoes, climbing gear, and hiking gear

That is an incredible shot.  Had it been horizontal, it might have been another TCM Calendar Winner.  In the pictures of your rig there’s a roof pod mounted on your camper.  What do you store there?

Scott: That’s a Yakima Sky Box.  Lora and I like to do different activities that are gear intensive.  We’ll take our mountain bikes and road bikes with us.  We use a hitch mount bike carrier, but the road bikes might be on top of the camper.  We put our helmets, shoes, climbing gear, and hiking gear in the Sky Box.  The Sky Box is definitely a nice addition because we are always putting something in it to keep the rear truck seats less packed.

Colorado, Upper Blue Lake near Mount Sneffels

Above: Upper Blue Lake near Mount Sneffels, Colorado

What are your truck camping plans for the future?

Lora: There is not a day that goes by when we are not engaged in conversation about upcoming adventures.  Our many adventures over the past three years have gotten us into some great locations for biking, photography, and hiking.

We always plan our trips around mountains because we like to hike, climb, and mountain bike.  We always look for the most beautiful scenery.  That guides us.

Biking at Puragtory Ski Resort in Colorado

Above: Scott on Old Lime Creek Road near Puragtory Ski Resort, Colorado

We have not yet planned to visit the Midwest or East Coast because we still want to explore Idaho, Wyoming, and Washington.  Wyoming is a fifteen hour drive, so that’s not bad.

Beyond that, one of my dreams is to take our truck camper to another country.  That would be super amazing to me.  And I don’t want to fly over and rent a different truck and camper.  I want our rig.

Overland Expo in Flagstaff, Arizona, off-road course

Above: Their Dodge Powerwagon and Hallmark Ute XS on the Overland Expo off-road course

Scott: I have been to three Overland Expos and am so inspired by the international travel adventures I learn about there.  People are doing some amazing things in their truck campers.  I hope to one day share some of these experiences with travels to Patagonia, Chile, New Zealand and/or Australia.

Overland Expo off-road course with Hallmark Ute XS

Above: Their Dodge Powerwagon and Hallmark Ute XS on the Overland Expo off-road course

Until then, we are looking forward to our trip to Wyoming in the fall.

Scott and Lora’s Rig
Truck: 2013 Ram Power Wagon, Crew Cab, 4×4, Gas, SRW, Short Bed
Camper: 2011 Hallmark Ute XS
Tie-Downs/Turnbuckles: Combo of Happijacs in the front and Torklift in the rear
Suspension: Firestone Ride Right airbags and Hellwig rear anti-sway bar
Gear: Yakima Sky Box and Kuat hitch mount bike rack


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