Truck Camping 101: Everything You Need To Know

Truck camping is not your average pitch-a-tent camping experience. If done right, it can be a lot more comfortable than sleeping on the ground and it can take you to some pretty epic places! Austin and I recently bought a truck and immediately started researching how to camp in the bed of the truck – then we tried it! Here’s what we learned, what we did right, and the mistakes we made along the way.

Disclaimer: There are affiliate links in this blog post. All that means is that I’ll make a small commission if you choose to buy a product on this page by clicking my link. Rest assured that I won’t ever recommend products I don’t own and love!

What is Truck Camping

First things first. What the heck is truck camping? Well, camping in the bed of your truck! Instead of pitching a tent on the ground, you’ll be stepping up on your tailgate and sleeping in your truck bed.

If you haven’t guessed yet, the most obvious requirement here is that you own a truck. You can also rent a truck to do this if you’re traveling. If you do this, make sure you also have the necessary gear I talk about later on in this post.

What sparked our interest in truck camping is the fact that we’re obsessed with watching van life videos on YouTube. We love the idea of van life, but probably won’t ever actually do that (unless we rent a van for a road trip or something). BUT, we did just buy a truck, so why not try “truck life” for a night?

We also wanted to try camping together and I was personally terrified of a bear coming into our campsite, so being off the ground felt just a little more safe.

Truck camping in Montana with a RAM 3500

Where to go Truck Camping

This was a touch one to figure out.

I had driven around the Gallatin National Forest the weekend before we decided to go camping, so we knew about where we wanted to go. We also knew that the Gallatin National Forest is government-owned land. This means we can park and camp as long as there weren’t any “no overnight parking” signs around.

We ended up driving around the area until we found designated camping that consisted of some grass and a fire pit.

If you’re starting from scratch or visiting somewhere new, you need to figure out what kind of camping you want to do. If you want to have amenities like a fire pit or maybe even public restrooms, you’ll want to find a designated campground. Sites like The Dyrt can help with that.

However, if you want to simply find a good spot and sleep, away from anyone else, that’s called dispersed camping. Dispersed camping can be done on pretty much any public land (unless otherwise noted) or BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land.

You can legally camp for up to 14 days in one public land area. Once those 14 days are up, if you want to keep camping, you have to move at least 25 miles away.

Personally, I could never see myself camping for more than two weeks at a time, but I thought I’d add that in case there are any extreme campers reading this. If that’s you, let me know in the comments how long your longest camping trip was. I’ll be impressed if it’s more than even 2 or 3 nights!

cowboy coffee made while truck camping in Montana

Truck Bed “Tent” Options

This is where things get interesting.

There are SO MANY OPTIONS for sleeping arrangements within truck camping. On our first camping trip, we decided to buy the least amount of gear possible. We put an inflatable mattress (which we already owned) in the bed of the truck and had planned to just use blankets and pillows. However, we then found out it would get down to about 30 degrees fahrenheit overnight, so we bought a couple of inexpensive, cold-weather sleeping bags instead. Then to shield us from dew, we slept with a tarp on top of us.

This would have been a good set up if it were warmer, but we woke up to a not-so-fun surprise at 4am. Watch the video embedded above to see what that was.

Here are the most common options for truck camping:

1. Air Mattress Under the Stars

Like I mentioned above, this is best for camping in warmer weather because

  1. The air mattress won’t deflate as much in warmer temperatures than it does in cold weather, and
  2. You don’t have any protection against wind, snow, rain, etc.

If you end up using this option, I’d highly recommend checking the weather religiously before you go. Learn from my mistakes!

Click on the image below for my air mattress recommendation:

If you get an air mattress that includes an internal pump (like the one above and that I use in the video at the top), you’ll also need a power converter as well as an extension cord in order to plug it in and blow it up directly in the bed of the truck.

Click on the images below for the ones we used:

2. Truck Bed Tent

In my opinion, this is the way to do it. These truck bed tents were made to fit specifically in a truck bed. You also don’t have to worry as much about rain, wind, and other unavoidable weather conditions.

If you click on the photo above, it’ll take you to the truck tent that had the most positive reviews and seems to be the most versatile. They have several different sizes you can order depending on what size your truck bed is.

This is what we wanted to get, but if we ordered one before we went camping, it wouldn’t have gotten to us in time. I think we are going to order one for the next time we go.

With this setup, you might still want to use an air mattress or foam pad to sleep on since truck beds aren’t exactly the most comfortable to lay on.

3. Truck Cab or Canvas Supertop

I would really only recommend these options if you’re using them for other purposes and happen to already have them or are planning to buy them. You can simply use a truck cab on the bed of your truck for great protection from the weather and even wildlife.

You can also opt for a less durable (and likely less expensive) version made of canvas like the photo below shows.

Even though this is less expensive than a regular truck cab, it’s still one of the most expensive options on this list, so like I mentioned above, I’d only recommend it if you have other purposes for it.

Just like the truck tent, You’ll probably want to bring an air mattress or foam pad along with you.

4. Overlander Tent

Speaking of expensive options, I’ve got one more for you. I really only added this because I want to give you all the options here. I will probably never be into truck camping enough to justify spending this much money, BUT if you are, it is an option out there.

This option is actually available for any vehicle and seem to be commonly used with SUVs and Jeeps, but they can also work with trucks as you can see in the photo above.

It requires a roof rack (or in this case, a bed rack) that either came with the car/truck, or was installed afterward.

The listing linked in the photo above comes with pillows, a lap table, and a broom and dustpan. My guess is that you’ll at least want a foam pad or sleeping bags in there with you to sleep on.

5. DIY Truck Bed Camper

I came across a YouTube video that intrigued me so much that I have to share it here! Mav shows us how he transformed the bed of his truck into a mini camper in this video and it’s pretty epic!

Click the photo below to watch:

This is definitely an option if you’re going to be camping a lot and looks like the most comfortable, cozy, little nook to crawl into at the end of the day!

Our dog loving truck camping

Other Truck Camping Gear

Since you’re camping in your truck, you likely have room for more gear than if you were backpacking to your camping spot, so take advantage of that extra space!

1. Camping Stove

One thing we were VERY glad we bought was a portable double burner camp stove. It can connect to a propane tank to power it with a propane hose and adapter.

We have a little 5lb propane tank that we took with us, so we bought the exact stove and propane hose pictured below. Click the links to take you to the listings.

If you don’t have a small propane tank to take with you, you can also use these smaller 1lb propane canisters instead of buying a larger tank.

2. Coffee Kettle

In the video embedded above, you’ll see that we made cowboy coffee for the first time! We used this kettle on the camp stove to do that:

Cowboy coffee doesn’t require a french press, electricity, or anything else besides hot water – AND it comes out very smooth! Watch the video to find out how to make it!

This kettle technically comes with a percolator which can also be used to make coffee, but we just didn’t use that part.

3. Cast Iron Pan

It took some effort on Austin’s part, but I’ve officially converted to only using our cast iron pan for cooking just about anything. So, of course we took it camping with us!

This is actually great for camping because you can cook anything in it. You’re also only supposed to wash it with water, so you don’t need to worry about bringing soap with you.

4. Water Jug

I recently wrote an entire blog post about how to travel more sustainably and this was one way we chose to make this camping trip just a TAD more eco-friendly.

Instead of buying a bunch of plastic water bottles, this jug holds 7 gallons of water that can be used for drinking, water for your dog, washing dishes, etc.

5. Camping Chairs

Oftentimes, there aren’t any benches or picnic tables at dispersed camping sites. Luckily, the site we found had a fire ring, but still nothing to sit on. You can opt to sit on your tailgate, but your bum will thank you for getting a couple of nice camping chairs instead.

6. Cooler

Since you don’t have a traditional camper in this scenario, you’ll want a way to keep your perishable food cold. I’d recommend Yeti – of course – or one of the knockoff brands that use the same kind of cooling technology to keep ice frozen for multiple days.

I also recommend storing the cooler inside your truck while your camping to avoid attracting any unwanted wildlife.

starting a fire while camping

Are you going to try it?

As you can imagine, there are a ton of other things you can bring camping with you to make life easier. This is what we got away with as a bare minimum.

Let me know in the comments if this inspired you to want to load up your truck and head into the mountains, or to the lake, or anywhere else to try your hand at truck camping!

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The Comments

  • Melissa Roos
    October 7, 2020

    I need to get back into camping!! I always camped as a kid but during the years went into other ways of travelling. Can’t wait to go travel around Europe in a van!!

    • saraharnstein
      > Melissa Roos
      October 7, 2020

      That sounds like a dream! I’m ready to get back to traveling Europe as well 🙂

  • Kate
    October 7, 2020

    Oh my goodness! I never knew you could get a tent to go over the bed of your truck! What a genius idea. All of a sudden traveling around in a truck and visiting the US seems a lot more feasible. Paired with that cute coffee kettle and you’ll be all set!

  • Monique
    October 7, 2020

    These pictures are amazing! And that’s so crazy that it started snowing! I have never been camping but when I do go, truck camping seems like a great option!

    • saraharnstein
      > Monique
      October 7, 2020

      Thank you so much! We were definitely unprepared for the snow 😅

  • Bright Nomad
    October 7, 2020

    What a great lifestyle 🙂 Truck camping sounds like quite an adventure. Thanks for the inspiring post 🙂

    • saraharnstein
      > Bright Nomad
      October 7, 2020

      It definitely was! We can’t wait to try it again

  • Portia
    October 10, 2020

    I would love to be camping right now but we are under local lockdown here in Wales. Will save your post ready for spring camping. 🙂

    • saraharnstein
      > Portia
      October 10, 2020

      Ah, bummer. I hope we can all travel again soon 😊

  • Megan
    October 10, 2020

    Who knew there were so many options for sleeping in a truck! 🙂 I also stress camping strictly because of bears. I do it anyway, but bears are always on my mind!

    • saraharnstein
      > Megan
      October 10, 2020

      Lol same! As you can probably tell from the video 😂

  • Krista
    October 11, 2020

    Can’t Say I’ve ever tried or thought about truck camping but it actually looks like a lot of fun. Great video too!

    • saraharnstein
      > Krista
      October 11, 2020

      Thank you! It was definitely a new experience, but I think we’re going to keep doing it (maybe just in warmer weather though 😂)

  • Charlena
    October 12, 2020

    Wow I’ve never been truck camping but as an Oregonian, this looks like something I definitely need to try! Thanks for an awesome informative post!

    • saraharnstein
      > Charlena
      October 12, 2020

      Yes you do! It would be so cool to camp in Oregon. We want to make our way over there soon!

  • Caitlin
    October 13, 2020

    OMG I’m so glad you guys woke up and didn’t end up buried beneath the snow! Kinda scary but great story to share!

    • saraharnstein
      > Caitlin
      October 13, 2020

      Same! We were sleeping so light because it was kinda uncomfy, but we will definitely be better prepared next time!

  • Hannah
    October 24, 2020

    This sounded like such a fun idea until it snowed! I’m definitely a ‘glamper’ rather than a ‘camper’! The scenery looks beautiful though and at least you’ve come back with some fun stories!

  • Andi
    October 24, 2020

    I truck camp all the time and love it. We have a GMC Canyon truck with a Tepui tent on a platform on top and it has changed camping for me forever!

    • saraharnstein
      > Andi
      October 24, 2020

      That’s awesome! We definitely have to get a better setup the next time we go!