After 35 years of pitching tents, towing travel-trailers or curling up in the back seat of my Ford’s crew cab, I awoke while deer hunting last fall and realized I was back where I started: camping inside my pickup’s enclosed bed.
If I had realized 35 years ago that my truck bed was about as good as it gets for my camping needs, I would have spared myself much stress, time, money and hard work in trying to improve my mobile deer and fishing camp. Then again, it’s tough to appreciate what you have until you’ve auditioned and banged the gong on every possible upgrade. Those failures included cheap tents, cheaper motel rooms and, eventually, an aging 22-foot travel-trailer.
Make no mistake: I loved hunting from the travel-trailer. Its 6-foot-plus ceiling, and reliable furnace, oven, stove and refrigerator kept my crew warm, dry and comfortable no matter the weather. But I dreaded hitching up my “deer camp” and towing it through rain, mud, snow and ice across Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula each autumn and early winter. Two mortal scares on early December highways persuaded me to sell it after 15 years, despite its comforts.
After deciding not to tempt fate a third time, I reflected on my first rolling deer shack—a rusting 1977 Datsun pickup truck with a cheap, leaky, condensation-dripping aluminum cap over its bed. I built two slide-in bunks with storage beneath their tilt-up beds, fashioning them after the “racks” I slept on during my Navy days. By tying a tarp atop the cap and extending it to a nearby tent, I maintained cozy sleeping quarters in the truck; and a cooking, dining and dressing room in the tent. And for quick one- or two- person weekends, I didn’t bother with the tent or tarp.
TIME TO SIMPLIFY
The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea of resurrecting that simpler approach. In fact, my F-250 is far roomier and more seaworthy than the old Datsun ever was, and its wider cargo bed and a homemade cap would allow legroom and headroom when sitting up. So, after building that hardwood cap and tasking my local canvas craftsman to rig its roll-up roof, I pulled my old homemade bunks from our garage and reactivated their service.
This setup works well enough, but even with an overhead tarp joining the truck to my large dome tent, I was reminded that there’s still too much unzipping and re-zipping when moving between “rooms.” There are also the elements in between. The tarp doesn’t block wind and horizontal dust or precipitation.
Therefore, by the time hunting season ended in 2010, I was again trying to improve my mobile deer camp. This time I searched the Internet for possibilities. I soon discovered that the camping world had moved far beyond my old ideas, most likely while I was scaring myself to death during my many trailer-towing years. The man most responsible for that advancement in relaxation was Roman Napieraj, who created Napier Enterprises and the first “Sportz Original Truck Tent.”
Napieraj isn’t a hunter, but he is a motorsports enthusiast and spent many years camping at racetracks. Therefore, he knew something about mud, dust, rain, wind, bugs and irritating allergens. He also realized he wouldn’t find long-term happiness beneath a tarp pulled tautly over his pickup’s bed. After all, burrowing into a sleeping bag beneath a tarp offers little headspace, almost making it seem as if you’re cooling on a mortuary tray.
But Napieraj also knew he didn’t want to sleep on the ground, and he didn’t want to buy a camper trailer or high-end RV. That inspired him to build his first truck tent, which combines the luxury and comfort of sleeping off the ground with the protection and added space of the truck itself. He designed some excellent tent models to mount in the open bed of a pickup truck with the tailgate down, and still provide up to 5 feet, 8 inches of headspace.
These truck-mounted tents come with waterproof aprons to cover the truck bed’s side panels to keep water from pooling in the bed. They also have shields and window vestibules so you can run electrical cords into the truck’s interior through its rear sliding glass. Another nice feature is the Truck Tent’s sewn-in floor, so you don’t have to worry about sweeping out the truck’s bed before setting up camp.
Today, campers have more options than ever before for mobile camping. For instance, RightLine offers additional options for open-bed pickup tents. RightLine prefers to go without a floor in its truck tent, arguing that many users like setting up their tent without first removing all their gear from the cargo bed. It also includes a waterproof access sleeve for moving gear back and forth from the truck’s cab to the tent through the truck’s sliding rear window. And for those who like sleeping beneath the stars, this model has a sky-view vent that, when open, allows more light and ventilation while keeping fine mesh between you and bugs.
One caution when using any in-bed truck tent: Don’t drive off with it set up. These tents are made for shelter, not cruising. If they catch the wind just right, they could cause dangerous steering problems for any size truck.
After finding eager buyers for truck-mounted tents, designers like Napieraj began designing similar tents to accommodate SUVs, minivans, hatchbacks or crossover utility vehicles (CUVs). For these vehicles, however, a roomy ground tent fastens to the vehicle’s back end. Open the tailgate, doors or hatchback, and the tent serves as a roomy, practical extension of the vehicle. And if you need to run to town for supplies, or hunt or fish a few miles away, you simply disconnect the tent’s connecting sleeve from the vehicle, seal its opening, and drive off. With a little backing practice, you’ll quickly get your vehicle back into position when returning.
In fact, most SUV tents work just as well on pickup trucks with caps. Unless you’ve equipped your truck with oversize tires and lift suspension, you shouldn’t have a problem fitting them with an SUV tent. Napier’s connecting sleeve, for example, fits around any truck and cap with a total circumference of 24 feet and smaller.
The tent’s connecting sleeve has an elastic portion, and it slides over, above and around the truck and cap’s rear cargo areas, and seals tightly without having to crawl around on the ground to fasten it securely. An adjustable strap pulls the sleeve tightly around the exterior. When fastened properly—which isn’t difficult—the connection keeps bugs and rain from entering the vehicle or tent. For further protection from bugs and the elements the sleeve has fabric flaps that seal minor gaps in a vehicle’s shape or curves.
Truck and SUV tents by Napier and RightLine come in several models to fit most makes and models of pickups, SUVs and other versatile vehicles. Some models also feature sturdy awnings that extend their functional area, whether for shade or additional shelter. Napier’s Truck Tent model, for example, requires no guide ropes because its poles secure to the truck’s lowered tailgate.
For my purposes, I’d go with the SUV Tent because it functions well as an independent tent, with or without the vehicle attached. One Napier model features a 9-by-9-foot floor (81 square feet) that’s rated for four to five people, and the other model features a 10-by-10-foot floor (100 square feet) that’s rated for five to six people. Both offer more than 7 feet of headroom in the middle and 6 feet in the corners.
Napier’s 10-by-10 model also features a 6-by-7-foot floorless screen room, which works great for relaxing at night in buggy weather, and for storing weatherproof gear like coolers, cargo bags and water jugs during cold weather. Both Napier models (9×9 and 10×10) also provide a lantern holder and gear loft in their ceilings for convenient lighting and easy gear organization.
RightLine Gear offers yet more full-size options in SUV and truck tents. The main room in RightLine’s SUV tent measures 9 feet long by 8 feet wide, and offers 6.7 feet of headroom. It connects to a 6-by-8-foot screen room for an overall 8-by-15-foot floor area. Its screen room has no floor, so you don’t have to worry about damage when moving coolers, chairs or tables. The main tent also features a PE Bathtub floor, so no ground tarp is needed. RightLine’s glow-in-the-dark zipper pulls make it so you don’t have to risk blinding your spouse or hunting partners with your flashlight or headlamp while searching for the tent’s door at midnight.
This tent attaches to SUVs and truck/cap combos with an “alligator-clamping sleeve” that seals tightly around the vehicle’s rear. As with the Napier tents, RightLine’s tents attach to vehicles with or without roof-rack crossbars, and vehicles with rear hatch “barn doors.”
The beauty of all these tents is their versatility. Personally, I’ll always use the truck’s rear cargo area as the main sleeping quarters because you don’t have to worry about stowing pillows, sleeping bags, mattresses or slide-in-bunks when driving into town. In my case, I simply unhook our lantern from its ceiling holder inside the cap, put it inside the main tent, unfasten the attachment sleeve and drive away.
Whenever possible, though, I keep the truck parked and connected. That way, when rising in the morning, it’s easy to push the sleeping bags away from the back end, and use the truck’s tailgate as a sheltered tabletop for cooking breakfast and brewing coffee. The tailgate can also double as a workbench for filleting fish or as extra seating if you forgot to bring chairs.
If you hunt, fish or camp with your spouse or another couple, you’ll also appreciate that SUV tents are roomy enough for four, and offer enough privacy for changing clothes or spending time alone. It’s easy enough to rig a lightweight blanket between the tent and the vehicle’s back entrance. Come autumn, you’ll be impressed how easily you can evict chilly air from the tent’s interior with a Mr. Buddy heater.
If your hunting vehicle also doubles as the family’s CUV, minivan or station wagon, check out Napier’s “Sportz Dome-To-Go Tent. Although its 8.5 by 8.5 foot floor (72.25 square feet) isn’t as roomy as Napier’s SUV tents, nor as tall at the center (6.5 feet), it can still sleep four people and two more in the vehicle’s storage area.
READY FOR THE WILD
No matter the model or size, setting up these tents is fast and simple. Typically, it takes people 15 to 20 minutes the first time they try, and then 10 to 15 minutes with practice. The instructions are good, and the support poles are color-coded to reduce confusion. After you’ve set these up a few times, it’s possible to put them up alone. However, it’s always easier with help.
What should you expect to pay for a truck, SUV or CUV tent? Their prices vary by model and manufacturer, but be assured they cost a fraction of what you’d pay for any kind of camper trailer, travel-trailer or full-size motorized RV. Truck-bed tent models average in the $250 range while SUV models are about $75 more. In contrast, even if you buy a used pop-up trailer camper, it’s tough to find one in really fine-working shape for less than $1,500.
If you’re looking for ways to reduce the stress and irritations of camping, what better place to start than price? After that, every other choice you make in a truck or SUV tent makes you look smarter and more relaxed than ever before.
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