One of the biggest hassles to camping (aside from skunks and mosquito bites) is having to set up and break down camp. Enter Andy Arthur, who told us a little bit about how he keeps things simple. If your idea of camping is getting away from it all, and enjoying the great outdoors as quickly as possible, this is a story you don’t want to miss.
What’s your name, location, and occupation?
My name is Andy Arthur, I live outside of Albany, and I do demographic analysis for the State of New York. It’s as exciting as it sounds. Work pays for the beer, gasoline, and hopefully a full-size 4×4 truck next year.
What’s your weapon (vehicle) of choice, how did you come to own it, and how do you use it?
I drive a 1998 Ford Ranger 4×4 XL Regular Cab. It’s a very basic truck, it doesn’t even have air conditioning or anything besides cheap vinyl seats. I wanted a pickup truck simple, cheap, and not so old to get me up into woods, when I was in college. I bought it 2004 used from a farm equipment dealer for $6,500 with 42,500 miles on it when I was in college, and now the odometer has 131,000 miles on it. It still runs decently, although it’s always had issues with the transfer case, brakes, hubs, springs, and suspension parts, in part due to the roughness of my play.
In early 2005 I bought a used Leer Fiberglass Cap that I found in the Want Ad Digest for $250. In 2010, I replaced the cap locks due to rust and broken keys, and then sealed the windows with silicone caulk due to leaking. I sleep under the cap on sleeping pads and sleeping bags, with a wooden shelf for my clock radio, desk lamp, fan, laptop computer, chargers, and other small appliances. I built the storage shelf and rails out of 2x4s and ¼ sheet of plywood I got at Lowes. I also hang a tarp up over the campsite if it seems like it’s going to rain, bring portable chair, a folding table, buckets to toss things in, cooler, disposable plates, Coleman Dual Fuel Camp Stove (runs on regular gasoline), plastic tubs with equipment, kayak, fishing gear, and a firearm for safety.
In 2005, I also bought a Vector 400-watt Inverter for $30 at Pepboys, and mounted it in cab, to provide regular 120-volt electricity for camping and inside the vehicle. My current setup has it running off the starting battery. I run extension cords and lead lamps wherever I need power. I upgraded it to a an Vector 800-watt inverter in 2008 ($70 at Pepboys), as I thought the 400-watt one had stopped working – found out later it was due to a bad grounding connection. Using energy efficient compact florescent light bulbs (CFL), and other small appliances, I have all the electricity and light I could use while doing camping – a set of two 60 or 100-watt equivalent CFL bulbs can really light up the dark woods! I also use LED Christmas lights to provide soft background light on camp site when I don’t need the extra lighting of CFL bulbs
While using the inverter, I turn the truck on every 1-2 hours in the evening for ten minutes to charge the battery, depending on my electricity use and the outdoors temperature. My current inverter has a built in volt meter in it, and when the battery drops below 12.0 volts, it’s time to start the engine, and let idle it for 10 minutes. I use about 1/10th gallon of gasoline per night under this routine. For emergencies, I also have an $30 Vector Emergency Jump-Start pack. I almost never use it, but I keep it ready, and fully charged in my truck, should I accidentally discharge the starting battery too much to turn over the engine.
I primarily “roadside” camp at primitive campsites in State and National Forests, between 30-40 nights a year. Many State and National Forests have primitive campsites along their truck trails, often with little more then a fire pit made of stones, and some gravel hardened area just off the road for camping. A few more of the more popular places have outhouses and picnic tables. I don’t like camping in campgrounds, as they tend to be noisy and crowded, can be expensive, and the enforcement presence can be obnoxious. Deep in the woods, I can do what I want, make as much noise as I want, drink as much beer as I want, shoot guns, and burn as much stuff as I want in the campfire. No checkout times! You don’t do that kind of stuff in a state campground without getting thrown out.
On most National Forests, you can roadside campsite off of any road that is not a designated “Scenic Byway”, preferably on an well-used site with a fire pit for two weeks. On NY State Forests you camp in any “Camp Here” designated site, or any well-used site not posted against use, for three nights without a permit. If you call ahead to the Regional Forest Ranger, you can get a free permit to camp up to two weeks almost anywhere on a truck trail, such as a pull-off, as many hunters do in the fall. In Pennsylvania State Forests, you can roadside camp in most state forests for one night without a permit, and up two weeks with a permit from the Regional Forest Ranger.
What are some of your primary concerns when preparing for a trip?
I like being able to set up and take down quickly, because I want to spend my time hiking, kayaking, fishing, or drinking beer next to the campfire, and not hauling gear back into the woods. I don’t like sleeping on the ground, as rocks and roots can make it uncomfortable, along with issues of moisture or water from rain. Lanterns can be somewhat unreliable, and their light is low quality compared to standard CFL bulbs. I do some back-country tent or lean-to camping a few times of year just remember what it’s like.
How does your setup address those concerns?
Truck bed is high off ground, stays dry under the cap, less cold, and is more protected from weather. I don’t have to worry about the weight of camping gear. Inverter provides electricity silently for high-quality lighting, for reading, whittling, or even cooking after dark. Being that I often travel alone, I don’t mind the limited space, although I eventually want a full-size extended cab truck with more bed and cab room. It can be a pain to have to move gear between the cab and bed in the evening, especially when I have a lot of gear in the back.
What are the benefits to this style of camping? The downsides?
Setup is easy, you can go anywheres passable by a 4×4 pickup truck, and it doesn’t require a specialized vehicle or a large campsite. Pull-offs on truck trails are usually sufficient. No facilities required! You wouldn’t necessarily want to tow a camper trailer or drive a non 4×4 truck up a muddy or rough state truck trail. Plus, I can use the pickup truck for hauling stuff or toys when I’m not camping.
Roadside camping doesn’t always offer the privacy or as many scenic vistas as back country camping, although in many places you can go and never see another person as long as you stay. Most city folk stay out of the back country! Once snow comes, it becomes impractical to drive back into the woods for camping. Any time I am planning a longer road trip, I throw in a hiking backpack and a tent, should I want to hike or paddle into a campsite. For a good non-winter adventure, with minimal fuss or work, truck camping rocks.
If you were to start all over from scratch, what would you do differently?
When I get my next truck, I plan to install deep-cycle marine battery on a battery isolator, in addition to the truck’s starting battery.
Starting batteries used in cars and trucks are designed to turn over the engine and not power electrical appliances. They are designed to put out a large amount of amperage over a small period of time. They discharge relatively quickly on a slow discharge, as they are not designed to be drained down over time. Moreover, starting batteries’ thin plates are easily damaged should the voltage drop too low in the battery. I find with my use of the inverter on the starting battery, I only get two or three years out of a starting battery before it has too little charge in the winter to turn over the engine.
Marine batteries do not have that problem, as they are designed to power electric trolling motors on boats. Marine batteries can be safely discharged to low levels, and then fully recharged without risk of warping or sulfuring their plates. A battery isolator would keep the inverter from discharging the starter battery, while allowing the alternator to charge both the starting battery and the marine battery. The inverter automatically turns off when the battery gets too low. If I am not relying on starting battery, I can safely ignore the charge level until the inverter automatically shuts off to protect the battery, and then start the truck up to recharge the batteries.
Can you share any resources for gearheads who might want to learn more about this type of camping?
Truck Camping with Jack
Truck Camping 101: A short course on tent-free camping by Branden Johnson
My Wonderful Toyota Truck (Camping)
Truck Bed Sleeping Platform
American Hunter Magazine: Camp in Your Truck for Turkeys
Backwoods Home Magazine: Add solar power to your truck camper.
Petersen’s 4 Wheel & Off-Road: Dual Batteries for Any Vehicle: The Real Way to Be Safe in the Boonies.
GM Truck Club: Adding A Second Battery to Your Truck
Share a cool story from your past and a goal for the future.
Last fall, coming back through the Finger Lakes, I camped at Sugar Hill State Horse Camp’s Lower Assembly-area on a Friday night. At 5 PM, I saw one equestrian with a horse trailer/camping unit. By morning, I was surrounded by horse trailers and horses. I grew up in the middle of country, but waking up surrounded by horses was a little bit too strange to me.
This summer I want to camp in as many areas of the Adirondack Park as possible, along with seeing more of Pennsylvania and Vermont. Next fall I will probably be replacing my 13-year old Ford Ranger with a couple year old ½ ton Ford F150 FX4 or Chevy Silverado Z71 with the off-road 4×4 package and an extended cab. I always worry that the Ford Ranger will leave me stranded in wilderness, and it’s getting more expensive to fix. Been saving for four years now, and I want something with more room and toys as I am a big guy at 6’5” and 265 lbs. Not having air conditioning or cruise control sucks.
Share one of your favorite tips/tricks/ideas.
Electric inverters are really underused for motor vehicle camping – be it in an RV, pickup truck, or even in a tent near a car. Inverters are really inexpensive, and can produce a lot of electricity and light silently and without pollution. Even when idling a pickup’s engine, it is quiet compared to a gasoline generator. If you need a lot of energy to power an electric heater or cooking appliance, then you have to use a gasoline generator. But for lighting and small appliances, nothing beats a 400 or 800 watt inverter, hooked to energy efficient light bulbs. Once you use household 120 volt lighting when camping in the wilderness, you’ll never want to use anything battery powered or a Coleman lantern.
What does being a gearhead mean to you?
Individually cars and trucks are beautiful machines. While my primary specialty as it relates to cars is stripping bolts, I love studying their remarkable technologies, and doing basic maintenance on my truck. I also love playing in the mud, driving on truck trails in woods, and exploring the countryside. I really hate driving anywheres where there are traffic lights or even traffic, and indeed in city I try to use mass transit as much as possible.
How do you define ‘high performance machine?’
I don’t think a 1998 Ford Ranger XL counts as a high performance, even when you hit the rev limiter merging onto the freeway, although I like it far better then my first car, a 1994 Plymouth Sundance, that I quickly beat up and never put maintenance into it. Took it off the road, when I wore the brakes down to the point a shoe was dropped and they failed. As much as it is I gawk at my friend’s jacked up trucks, I think I’d rather spend my money on more practical things, like a snowmobile or and some land of my own out in the country, before I think about spending big bucks just making my truck look more impressive then it really is.
How do you define ‘high performance life?’
Getting out and exploring things. Playing in the mud, snow, and with fire. Going places. Sure I’d like to own more toys and even bigger truck, like my neighbor’s jacked up Ford F-350 Powerstroke, but I am on a budget and rather focus on more practical toys. There are a lot of free places to get out and explore on our public lands … just please don’t make a mess and pack out any trash you don’t burn!!
Where can people find & connect with you?
My blog is a mix of things – experiences, photos, maps, and other things from my trips – you can check it out at www.andyarthur.org Thanks!
Thank you, Andy! Lots of good ideas shared today! Now, let’s see what the readers have to say.
Where do you like to go camping?
Have you ever gone truck camping before? How’d it go?
We’d love to hear from you!