Hunting whitetails in the backyard is so much fun, and going to family deer camp is great. But my absolute favorite place to return to after a long day of hunting public lands is a DIY truck camp. The combination of sleeping quarters, gear storage, and hauling capacity make this the best lodging for public land hunters.
The benefits of truck camping
With the right equipment and organization, your truck can become a comfortable yet versatile base camp from which to hunt. By camping out of your truck, you can venture out and stay almost anywhere. There is never an exit too narrow or a road too rough, as can happen with a trailer. Even better, you can park directly on the public lands you want to hunt, and sometimes even position yourself to watch potential hunting spots from camp.
By sleeping in the back of your truck, you also get the benefit of being able to leave home without a bulky tent and eliminate additional setup and teardown time. This is especially valuable on rainy or snowy days. Best of all, if things don’t work out at your first stop, you can throw a few items in your vehicle and quickly relocate.
This is my take on the perfect truck camping setup for backcountry hunters. Adjust according to your circumstances and preferences.
Ideal truck configuration
In my opinion, the best choice for a truck camping rig is a full-size 4WD pickup with a rear topper. Obviously smaller trucks work too, but I like the extra storage space in a big truck. An SUV or pickup truck may suffice for a similar style of camping setup, but I think the pickup truck works for a more varied set of uses.
For example, when I have a deer on the ground, I feel much more comfortable dumping a bloody carcass on the bed of my truck than on the carpeted floor inside a vehicle. A full-size bed is preferable, providing enough length for most people to sleep comfortably without their feet hitting the back door. A short bed can also work, it may just require sleeping at an angle.
When it comes to a truck cap, I’ve used both Leer and ARE, but regardless of brand, a couple of features seem to be the most important. Ventilation is key to sleeping comfortably, so I would recommend a cap with drop down or slider windows, mosquito netting, or windows that open fully. I also like the carpeted interior, which seems to insulate the lid a bit better during the cooler times of the year and absorb condensation in the warmer months.
I would also recommend attaching a roof rack to the cap. These allow you to mount various storage boxes or gear racks on your truck. I have personally used Yakima Skyline Towers and round and square bars. For extended trips, I almost always use a roof box like the Yakima Skybox 16, which holds gear like camp chairs, backpacks, archery targets, and various other large gear. Bike and canoe racks can also be mounted on a rack like this, important tools for accessing certain areas.
Finally, I highly suggest using some sort of built-in storage drawer. You can build your own or install something like a DECKED system, which is what I use. By having two sturdy truck bed-length pull-out drawers, I can keep all my camping and hunting gear neatly organized and easily accessible at all times, while keeping the truck bed clear for sleeping and living. I can usually fit all my hunting gear and clothing in one drawer and all my camping, sleeping, and cooking accessories in the other.
truck camping equipment
Turning your truck into a comfortable campground starts with your sleeping arrangements. I like to use a high-quality inflatable mat for a mattress, such as Thermarest NeoAir XLite. These are surprisingly convenient and can stay neat and ready in your truck bed, but can also be quickly shrunk down to the size of a Nalgene water bottle when you need more storage space. A comfortable and properly insulated sleeping bag is also a must. Finally, you need to decide whether you want to bring a regular pillow or an inflatable camping variety. I usually have enough room to bring the real deal and I can attest that it’s a simple convenience that makes a real difference.
My recommended camp kitchen consists of a large cooler like a Yeti Tundra 75, a portable grill like the Coleman 2-Burner Grill-Stove combination, a folding camp chair, and a portable camp table like the REI Camp Roll Table. A small LED flashlight like the ones from Black Diamond can also be a nice addition.
If inclement weather is expected, consider bringing a tarp, two adjustable poles, and paracord to create an awning on the back of your truck. With this setup, you can grill out the tailgate, sit in your camp chair, or change while standing and stay dry in rainy or snowy conditions.
Truck Camp Hygiene
Whitetail hunters often ask me how I manage showers and stay odor free on trips like this. My solution is to keep it simple. I just pour a pitcher of water over my head every few days and quickly work up a lather with soap in key areas. On days off, I clean myself with scent-free wipes and keep my clothes airing in the branches when I’m not hunting. The portable gravity showers on the market could be an interesting option for those looking for a slightly more traditional cleaning experience.
In all honesty, none of these solutions is perfect. Playing with the wind and thermals is more important than ever when living off the grid like this, as any elk or mule deer hunter can tell you.
choose your own adventure
This may not be the exact setup you want, but here’s what has worked for me over the past decade of camping, fishing, and hunting in our nation’s wild public places. Use this as a starting point, customize your truck’s camping setup as you see fit, and choose your own adventure. The road is calling.