Summer has finally arrived, and millions of Americans are choosing to sleep outdoors for a much-needed vacation. With many hotels, amusement parks and tourist destinations closed to the public, many people have had to rearrange their travel plans. Instead of jetting off to a distant location, more people are spending time in nature, taking road trips and going camping than ever before. Since 2014, there has been a 72 percent increase in the number of campers who camp three or more times a year.
Clearly, camping is catching on with Americans in more ways than one. This is one of the best ways to have a low-cost vacation without putting yourself in harm’s way.
No tent? No problem. You can always sleep out of your car or even in the bed of your pickup truck, but it’s best to make a few modifications first. If you’re looking to get out of the house and enjoy a fabulous vacation, learn the ins and outs of truck bed camping with this in-depth guide.
Building Your New Home Away from Home
Let’s start with the sleeping area. If you don’t have a tent or you’re planning on buying one, we’ll walk you through several options so you can choose the best setup for your next trip.
One of the first decisions you’ll have to make is whether you’ll need shelter. Sleeping under the stars has its benefits, but an unexpected rainstorm could easily foil your plans, especially if you don’t have enough room to sleep inside your truck.
- Canopy or Shell
If you’re feeling ambitious, you can always build or install a little shell or canopy around your truck bed to stay dry. They’re usually made of aluminum, fiberglass or composite plastic. Aluminum is usually the cheapest option. They tend to go for $900 or less, but it might start to show some wear and tear over time. The sides are usually thin, which can be helpful in the summer, but a problem in the winter.
Fiberglass canopies usually go for a little more–around $1,200 to $1,500. They are built to last and are generally much thicker than those made with aluminum. This is a great choice if you plan on camping on a regular basis or in the off-season.
Lightweight and easy to handle, plastic canopies usually lie somewhere in between those made with fiberglass and aluminum–at least in terms of price. They’re not as fragile as other canopies, but they aren’t as durable as glass enclosures.
When looking for a canopy, make sure you have enough space to sleep in the back. Some are built for storage, so think about the headroom and whether you plan on sitting up in bed. Having shelter is one thing, but cutting yourself off from the outdoors is usually a step too far. It’s best to keep the windows open and get some air flowing so you can still hear the pitter-patter of rain.
- Truck Tent
If you don’t feel like buying a canopy, you can always install a tent over the back of your truck bed.
There are two ways of going about this. You can either buy a tent that’s specifically designed for truck beds or you can engineer a way to use your existing tent on the back of your truck, MacGyver-style.
The former is certainly easier to install. Truck bed tents fit onto the back of your truck, creating a warm, dry space for you and your guests to rest your heads. These tents usually go for just $100 or more, depending on your preference. They usually come with straps that wrap around the bottom of the vehicle. Metal rods and stands support the roof of the tent, giving you more headroom.
If you’re really looking to save money and you already have a tent, you can try attaching it to the back of your truck for some temporary shelter. Test out this method before hitting the road to make sure you know how to set up your tent over the bed.
This YouTube video shows you how to install PVC pipes in your truck bed. You can then clamp a piece of tarp over the structure to create a little home away from home in your vehicle.
- Open Air Truck Bed Camping
If you really feel like becoming one with the natural world, throw caution to the wind and leave your tent at home. Truck bed camping makes it easy to sleep under the stars. If it starts to pour down rain, you can always sit in your truck until the storm passes.
However, if you don’t have any shelter, you need to protect your sleeping area from moisture and debris–or you will have to wipe down the truck bed every night before bed.
It’s best to use a truck bed liner when sleeping out of the back of your vehicle. The cover is easy to remove so you can easily wipe it down before you go to bed. Just pull out the cover, shake it out and hit the hay. If it rains during your trip, you can always lay down a second liner to get rid of moisture.
Installing a truck bed liner will also help you shield your vehicle from spills, leaks and other common accidents, especially if you plan on eating or drinking in bed.
- Sleeping on the Ground
Of course, you can always sleep on the ground like a traditional camper. This means you’ll need a regular tent and all the fixings you would normally need to sleep outside. This might not technically count as truck bed camping, but your secret is safe with us.
- Choosing the Right Bed
Regardless of what type of setup you choose, don’t forget about the bed. It’s best to put something between you and the bed of the truck so you don’t spend the entire trip complaining your back hurts.
For those on a budget, you can always put down an old mattress or some pieces of foam to give yourself some extra support. This makes it easy to customize your setup. You can reposition pillows and pads as you see fit; however, this isn’t usually the most comfortable option.
If you’re using a spring mattress, measure the bed beforehand to make sure it fits. Truck beds tend to vary in size based on the make and model. Measure the length of the inside front to the inside rear with the tailgate up.
Air mattresses are also a great choice. You can easily deflate them and pack them away when they are not in use to make extra room in the truck bed. It’s still important to measure the dimensions of the bed, but an air mattress can also contour to the shape of your vehicle.
Experiment with different setups until you find the best choice for you and your guests. If it’s not comfortable, it’s probably not worth it.
Making the Most of Your Space
Once you have a place to rest your head, it’s time to focus on other aspects of your truck. You can get by with just a mattress, but, if you want to stay outside for days or weeks at a time, we recommend bringing along some additional equipment.
- Cooking on the Go
For starters, what are you going to do about food? You can always bring along a portable grill or stove and some cooking supplies if you want to make your own meals. Many people find that the tailgate doubles as a kitchen shelf or cooking station. You can use this area to lay out and organize your supplies until it’s time to eat.
If the truck bed becomes your permanent sleeping area, you may not like the idea of preparing your food on top of the bed. Bring along a foldable shelf or table instead so you can make some food without staining the sheets.
Cooking all depends on what you want to eat and how long you plan on sleeping under the stars. It’s usually best to bring more than enough food, as you’re bound to burn plenty of calories on your trip.
It’s best to stay organized when taking off on a long camping trip. You can easily run out of storage space when the truck bed is reserved for sleeping. To make extra room, many people will build a set of drawers under the sleeping area. However, this is usually for people who go camping on a regular basis. This creates more room for storage under the mattress, but you will have less headroom as a result.
You can also store equipment on top of your vehicle using ratchet straps or a rooftop storage unit. This will help you get some gear out of the way so you have more room to relax and hang out.
If you fill up the back of your truck with food, water and supplies, make sure you have a safe place to store it when unloading your vehicle. For example, where are you going to store all these items when you’re sleeping in the back of your truck?
Use waterproof storage bags and containers whenever possible so your food and equipment don’t turn into a soggy mess. Wrap your food in a smell-proof container to avoid coming in contact with bears and other pesky critters.
When it comes to storing meat and other perishable items, use two coolers instead of one. Keep beverages in one container and food in the other to keep these items the perfect temperature as long as possible.
- Safety and Hygiene
Staying clean isn’t always easy when you’re on the road. Bring along plenty of water for hygiene purposes as well as staying hydrated. Use sanitary wipes and portable dispensers to wash your hands if you don’t have access to running water.
Mud, dirt and debris can easily get the better of you when camping, especially if you plan on taking your truck off-road. No one wants to go to bed in a dirty, wet vehicle.
Use mud flaps to keep the dirt on the ground where it belongs. If you drive on a dirt road or through a muddy bog, you won’t have to worry as much about soiling your sleeping area.
The same is true of food and beverages. A spill or leak can easily ruin your trip if you’re not careful. One mistake and the entire bed of your truck could end up smelling like lemonade or BBQ sauce.
Keep strong odors and stains at bay with truck seat covers. If you’re lathering up a piece of meat before tossing it on the grill or guzzling a pitcher of lemonade, these covers will protect the inside of your truck from everyday stains and spills so you can celebrate with more peace of mind.
If you drop a glass of lemonade on the floor, just pull out the plastic cover, rinse it off with water, let it dry in the sun and you’ll be good to go. It’s like the stain never happened.
There are so many ways to customize your pickup truck before taking off on an adventure. Some people like to go the extra mile and install a wireless router so they can connect to the internet during their trip. Others will strap a portable solar panel generator to the back of their truck for an extra dose of electricity.
Truck bed camping can easily get expensive if you add on all these extra amenities, but they’re not essential. You can always throw a mattress in the back of your truck and call it a day. Keep these ideas in mind to make the most of your summer. Having the right piece of gear can make all the difference in the world, especially if you’re hundreds of miles from home.
Stay safe and enjoy the natural world!