Truck camping feels like the last frontier in adventure travel these days. With the prevalence of social media and a generation of travelers, it feels tougher and tougher to escape the feeling of being a tourist. Not to mention getting into the great outdoors is proven to be one best way to add years to your life.
That’s right when you’re stuck sweating your ass off in 100+ degree heat digging your truck out of the sand you’re adding years to your life. If you’re into mountain climbing, ski, hiking, photography, fishing, travel or wildlife the thought of camping in your truck has probably crossed your mind. We’re here to help!
In this post, we’re going to go over the styles of truck camping, vehicles used, gear you need to carry, and kitchen supplies to bring.
Best Truck Models For Camping
The argument over what makes the best truck for camping or overlanding is considered fighting words for most. Truth be told there are certainly winners and losers, but whatever truck gets you from A to B is the perfect vehicle. Let’s cover the basics and give you a general idea of what the most popular trucks are these days.
There is no vehicle more synonymous or better suited than the Toyota Landcruiser. The vehicle is iconic for rugged travel and truck camping around the world. If you’ve been reading our blog for a while you know that the vehicle we drive is a Toyota Landcruiser. It was the only make and model unanimously recommended to us for travel in Africa. After all, Toyotas and off-road go hand and hand due to their prevalence and reliability. Meaning that even when things go wrong there is always a knowing mechanic within reach.
Our ride to be exact is a 1989 FJ62. The engine on board is a Toyota 2F engine (yes, it’s not the original for any gearheads out there) an inline six-cylinder famous for its torque output, and a five-speed transmission to help out on highways. The truck kicks ass. And we found it all by chance sitting on a lot we had overlooked in Cape Town. It had been sitting there for two weeks – too big and heavy on fuel for any practical city driver.
I’m a minimalist so an old-school Land Cruiser like the 60 or 70 series is the way to go in my opinion. In recent years Toyota has moved into the luxury vehicle market adding all sorts of bells and whistles to the Land Cruiser.
Land Rover Defender
This is where it gets heated, the Defender vs. the Land Cruiser. The Defender is known for its tough utilitarian design. Its classic look is beloved by those around the world. Despite being a big fan of the Land Cruiser I can’t lie and say I don’t have some envy for the Defender.
For gearheads and those who know how to work on a vehicle, it is almost impossible to beat the Defender. It’s known for being tough as nails and damn tough to get stuck with a capable driver behind the wheel. The Land Rover is synonymous with off road travel but it does have two glaring drawbacks. First is the vehicles high demand, it retains value which is great for current owners, but those in the market may have a tough time finding a Defender for a reasonable price. The second drawback is the reliability of a Land Rover. They are well known for breaking down frequently but loved by the mechanically inclined who can get it back on the road.
They don’t make them like they used to do they? The Pajero is another classic overland vehicle that can go just about anywhere and hold up to the test of time. It’s a classic overland vehicle prized for its reliability, toughness, and affordability.
The early 90s are the most prized of these models and they’re my vote for 3rd best overland truck behind the Land Cruiser and Defender. I doubt there are many who would argue otherwise. Pajero can often be found for an affordable price and their tough vehicles that can go just about anywhere.
Suzuki Samurai/ Jimny
It’s not sexy or makes any cool car lists, but Suzuki has been making a pretty awesome off-road truck. It’s economical, reliable, has a short wheelbase, and lightweight. They can go many places the bigs boys can only dream to go and maneuver around.
With the high prices and luxury feel of Defenders and Land Cruisers, these days a new favorite has been rising through the ranks. The Hilux and Tacoma are fairly comparable vehicles, although the Hilux does nudge the Tacoma out in terms of payload and engine size. However, Americans will have a tough time getting their hands on the Hilux which is primarily found overseas and vice-versa.
The trucks were made to be used and abused, capable of driving around the world and back. They’re effective at getting you around and provide excellent value to those looking to go truck camping or on an awesome adventure. We’re big into safariing around Africa and have seen an increasing number of safari providers switch to the Hilux. You’ve never seen a job more demanding on a vehicle than the ones kicking around the bush in Africa.
Styles of Truck Camping
Once you have your truck it’s time to decide your camping style. You have three basics variations of sleeping arrangements and travel styles. Each one comes with its own set of challenges and strengths. Unless you have experience in truck camping or overlanding previously I wouldn’t be quick to rule out any option until you’ve thought it out. Or you could always opt for multiples options. Personally, I’d combine and go with a rooftop tent, but keep a ground tent packed away for when it’s best suited.
Traditional Tent Camping
This is your back to basics style of camping. It involves no retrofitting of the truck other than perhaps some organization in the rear or trunk. On our first overlanding adventure, we chose to go with the classic tent for a number of reasons, the main being the low cost. That being said, a traditional tent does have advantages.
A classic tent offers plenty of flexibility and can be moved from one vehicle to another. You can pitch them away from the vehicle, like by a river bank or under a low hanging tree for shade. They’re also at the ground level which means you get the insulation from the ground and makes entering and exiting the tent much easier. Ground tents can usually house more than two people and are spacious. They make for the roomiest of living quarters capable of holding cots, chairs, tables, or any other comfort you could want.
To top it off ground tents often take up the least amount of room when moving from location to location and stay easily organized. If you’re tight on space or more than two people a ground tent may be the only option. The last plus and this is a big one is the ability to leave camp without having to break down and pack up your gear. This is a huge bonus if you plan on exploring the area for a few days with your vehicle. On the flip side, a traditional tent takes the most time to set up camp.
As far as tent selection I suggest purchasing a quality tent rather than some generic or Coleman brand tent. If you plan to spend more than a few days camping it’s very likely you will face inclement weather. For our year in Africa, we saw all of their seasons including the rainy season in the jungle. Thanks to a quality tent we were dry every night. I’ve purchased my backpacking tent from REI and would highly recommend purchasing one of the tents they carry online or in the store. Also, when it comes to truck camping, size and weight aren’t a large factor so opt for one of their larger roomier multi-person tents. Our four person tent is spacious enough to eat, work, and play card games on those rainy or cold nights. Another great company to check out is Black Diamond for some high quality tents.
Rooftop tents are becoming more and more commonplace in North America, but they originally gained popularity in Australia and Africa. These tents can be worth their weight in gold and one of the most comfortable ways to travel.
They’re great for covering lots of ground and their quick pitch set up. With the added elevation from the ground, it does give the added advantage of being away from lions and hyenas or bears in North America. There is a lot more to love about rooftop tents other than not being eaten by a pride of lions. Their easy setup means you drive into a campground, park on level ground, and pop your tent up in a matter of minutes. The largest advantage comes in the form of comfort, most rooftop tents come with real beds that can be combined with quality bedding. In addition, they have the tendency to feel like a real room with heavy canvas siding, unlike a lightweight tent. Their elevation above the ground also allows for them to catch a nice breeze in the heat.
The downside of rooftop tents is that they’re on the roof of your truck. With heavy duty off-road vehicles that can make them top heavy and prone to tipping. They’re also not as easy to set-up as everyone thinks. With some experience between the rooftop vs traditional tent, the time difference is only matter of minutes. We spent six months living out of our tent and could set up camp in less time than less-experienced rooftop campers. Lastly, rooftop tents tend to be a covered bed which means you don’t have much room to hang out in the tent. This can be a drag when the weather takes a turn for the worst.
Conversion camping is the broadest form of camping because of the styles, methods, and custom builds. A quick search on the internet will turn up all sorts of converted vans, buses, and trucks. For the sake of this post length, we’ll stick with the truck element.
These outfitted trucks are the fastest to set up camp as there is zero set up. They are more or less a mini RV or camper van and can be built to your expectations. The great advantages of them are a comfortable bed, the security of a locked car, and when the weather takes a turn for the worse you have solid walls and a roof. You can also stealth camp and park in residential areas where camping is not permitted if that’s your cup of tea. They’re pretty cheap to set up but that depends on your vehicle and type of setup. The largest cost comes in the form of purchasing a bed canopy if your vehicle is a pickup, bakkie, or utility truck.
The most common setup for this style of truck camping is a roll-out drawer system with a bed frame on top. This allows for the storage of the truck camping supplies underneath the bed. Our vehicle build did not rely on sleeping in the vehicle, but we did have drawer system which is great for organization.
The downside is the limited space if you’re more than one. It’s also pretty tough to remove if you’re truck is your everyday vehicle.
Truck Camping Kitchen Supplies
Once you get the basics down, like your vehicle and how you’re going to sleep at night next you decide on your cooking setup. You can go as big or as small as you’d like. There are some basic necessities you will need to cover after all.
Fridge vs. Cooler
Whether to invest in a fridge system or opt for the more traditional cooler is a serious debate for campers. Fridges are great and many camping fridges are efficient and have divided sections with different temps. Their biggest downfall is the price and it extends beyond just the cost of the fridge. With increased power consumption you must install a dual battery system in which the fridge runs off of its own dedicated battery.
We’re not meat eaters and the need to freeze and keep our meat wasn’t there to justify the thousand dollars it would cost to place one in the vehicle. We went with a heavy duty cooler meant to last, like the Yeti Tundra. Cooler systems are certainly the cheapest and easiest form of truck camping, but if you’re looking at a long-term trip a fridge will go a long way.
However, if you love milk in your coffee and steak it’s certainly worth the investment. Another consideration is the length of camping trips. If you’re going for weekend trips to National and State Parks a heavy duty cooler should be fine, but on an extended camping trip over a week the fridge will come in handy.
There are a number of different styles and sizes of fridge/freezer options. A good place to start is to look at the offerings from Engel or ARB. They’ve been building these fridges for years and deliver top quality products.
You have several options when it comes to how you’d like to cook your food. The largest consideration is where you will travel and camp. For camping trips around North America, Europe, and Australia you will have no problem finding bottles for most burner systems. However, in South America and Africa, you will be hard-pressed to find many of the bottle systems.
The best option would be a dual fuel system. Coleman has made a dual fuel system called the 424. While it’s not my favorite product on the market the multi-fuel system is for those who need a multitude of options when camping around the world. Our overland trip in Africa hit a snag when we found ourselves unable to restock the butane can system (hello open fire cooking).
This depends again on where you travel and camp. In more remote locations you may need to carry an ample supply of water. Most designated campsites have a source of water, but there is always the times when you may need your own source. There are systems that mount to a roof rack and can double as a hot water source for showers. We opted for a 25L tank that could last a few days if we were sparing and could save our lives if we were stuck in the desert (like this one). Coming up with a water solution isn’t rocket science.
This is a basic checklist of what we travel with for cooking when camping.
- Backpacking Stove
- Cast Iron Skillet
- Dutch Oven
- Reusable cups
- Enamel coffee mugs
- AeroPress for Coffee
- Pairing Knife
- Butcher Knife
- Vegetable peeler
- Kettle with a foldable handle: the foldable handle is a must!
- Steel Plates
- Steel Bowls
- Oven Mitten
- Egg Holder
- Dish Soap and sponge
Gear for Truck Camping
When it comes to gear you need everything to be self-sufficient. At least that’s the premise of truck camping – to tackle some remote destination.
All of this is intended to aid and support your vehicle in the event of a flat tire, getting stuck, or facing unforeseen circumstances. There are a number of things that I would say are an absolute must, others depend on where you’re intended travel destination.
- Spare Tires – Most roads will not be smooth highways, this is meant to be an adventure vehicle. You’ll face every type of road from dirt to mud, sand, gravel, and even worse crumbling roads. We’ve seen potholes that could swallow a truck whole, or bust your tire at the very least. We carry two spare tires We opted for heavy mud tires. With one spare wheel and a spare tire to save on weight/cost of another rim. Granted many opt for two full tires.
- HiLift Jack – Those little wimpy jacks they include with most vehicles ain’t going to cut it when your vehicle is in soft sand, mud, or a shoulder. The Hi-lift Jack is an invention from 1900’s and it’s an overlander’s saving grace. It can be used to recover the vehicle, replace the tire, pull apart, and clamp together. Hilift Jack I can speak for its life-saving benefits first hand after resurrecting Charlie (that’s what our car is named) out of the deep sands of the Okavango Delta.
- Jumper Cables – Every car should have these.
- Shovel – No secrets here! A shovel to get out of any sticky situations, both literally and figuratively. Check out this Recovery Shovel, that you can mount on a roof rack.
- Gloves – To protect your fingers! These are great work gloves.
- Recovery Strap – In case you need that extra pull to get the vehicle rolling on the road again. Ensure that it is a heavy duty recovery strap, a heavy truck will easily snap a lightweight tow strap designed for sedans. I also recommend you pick up some D shackles for proper attachment. It’s important to understand how to properly use a recovery strap.
- Tool Kit – This goes without saying. A proper toolkit will give the ability to replace fuses, tubes, basic wiring, fan belts, or clean the carb. Here is a mixed tool set.
- Jerry Cans – Gas may be difficult at times and not having some petrol on reserve would be a serious, if not life threatening mistake. We suggest a pair of classic jerry cans. When it comes to a list of overland vehicle equipment these or an extended tank rank pretty high.
- Bushbar – Animal strikes in remote areas are a serious hazard. Hitting an animal or tree while in the bush could cripple the vehicle. The bush bar gives us an added level of protection. It is there to keep you up and running.
- Navigation – We carry a handful of navigation items to stay on course. A compass, GPS, cell phone, and multiple paper maps. A nice blend of the old and new.
- Spot/Fog lights – Dirt roads do not have much in the form of reflective paint or a clear path. Any serious off-road vehicle should have a pair of fog lights. Of course, you should avoid driving at night by all means, but you never know what can happen.
Make Your Truck Camping Like Home
Comfort can make or break your camping experience. There are a lot of ways that can make your experience more comfortable and it comes down to living space. The conversion and rooftop camping options often opt for an awning as there is very limited “living space.” The awning can provide shade, coverage from rain, or walls for a true at home feeling. They’re really common in Africa and Australia, so I’d suggest checking out ARB an Aussie manufacturer.
Of course, you’re going to want to carry the basics like camp chairs, a table, and lights and anything that you personally love while camping.
Truck Camping Tips
Organization is key
You are living out of a truck. Space is limited and if you’re not well-organized things can and will quickly dissolve into chaos. I recommend picking up some ammo boxes that lock together.
Plot Fuel Points
In high school I used to ride my 1998 4Runner until it was on fumes, to avoid having to pay for fuel – don’t be teenager me. Sometimes fuel stations are few and far between so planning a route with plans for fuel is important. Always ensure that you have enough fuel to reach your destination. Before any long-term trip, it pays to have a familiarity with your truck to understand its fuel economy in different environments. When in remote areas I am always plotting distances between fuel points and what we estimate to burn. When it comes to an overland equipment list, jerry cans are one of the best investments. This is really important when you’re traveling through remote areas!
Leave No Trace
These are words to live by for anyone camping. It was a campaign originally started by the National Park Service, US Forest Service, and Bureau of Land Management in the 1970s. It encourages the act of all to leave no trace of their presence in the wilderness. For the sake of truck camping, this means sticking to trails and roads while driving. You should also practice good camping ethics like removing trash and clearing campfires. We like to pick up all little we see along the way and make it better than when we arrived.
Anyone who regularly goes camping in their truck or has done an overland trip can attest to this. When you’re off road your truck rattles around a lot and glass does not cope well. It took one busted peanut butter and olive oil for us to learn our lesson. Trust me and find reusable plastic containers for these things.
Cash is King
In Europe, Australia, and North America we rely on our credit cards for everything. However, we wouldn’t dare go anywhere semi-rural Africa, South America, or Asia without cash on hand. When possible pick up the local currency from ATM’s, but we would recommend always having USD on hand. Generally, we find the most secure place we can to stash $1,000 away in the vehicle. As a recommendation, it’s best to have it on your person when crossing a border.
Know How To Drive
This should go without saying but have a good understanding of offroad driving before you leave on a long trip. A lot of the skills come with time, but you should know how to negotiate a successful water crossing. You need to know how to drive in mud. Effectively drive up an incline. And definitely how to drive a stick shift.