Some of my fondest memories growing up were when my dad unlocked the door of the camper sitting alongside our driveway, pushed the garden hose into its water tank and unplugged the extension cord going to the camper’s battery. It was an early October ritual that marked the opening of Oregon’s rifle deer hunting season.
Dad slid that 10½-foot 1966 Travel Queen cab-over into the bed of his Chevy 1-ton pickup, filling the little fridge and cupboards with a week’s worth of food, stuffing the cramped closet with our hunting clothes, and storing the rifles under the dinette sofa/bed. With the truck filled with gas and the camper packed, we’d pile in for the 6-hour trek.
Those formative hunting years gave me a great appreciation for slide-in campers, as opposed to traditional travel trailers and “pop-up” tent trailers. No RV trailers for me—I’m a camper man.
Today’s full-size pickup campers have all the luxuries of a nice motel room—able to accommodate two or three hunters, and can keep them warm and dry in the worst winter weather, as well as cool and comfortable in the heat of summer. A big plus—especially for those who hunt during winter—is a slide-in affords you more flexibility and freedom than a tow-behind travel trailer. You can live comfortably in your truck bed, so to speak, and still tow a boat or ATVs.
The slide-in-equipped pickup is also far more maneuverable, allowing it to traverse those tight mountain roads or weave into a hunting camp where the road might not be suitable or passable with a travel trailer in tow. I also learned early on that just about any pullout or dead-end side road can be turned into a nice camping spot with a pickup/camper combo.
Need the truck for transportation while camping? Easy enough: just drop the camper jacks and drive out from under it. In fact, with today’s electric camper jacks, you never even break a sweat loading/unloading the unit from the pickup bed.
It’s very important that your pickup is rated to handle the weight of a fully loaded slide-in and is set up properly to maximize vehicle stability and handling. Slide-ins, unlike pull-behind trailers, significantly raise the truck’s center of gravity. So, for handling/safety sake, you want to be darn sure your pickup’s payload capacity is observed at all times. (This isn’t like ignoring tow ratings and trying to pull whatever it is down the road.)
I’ve hunted and fished out of pickup campers from Alaska to Florida, and vehicle handling is what determines whether the person behind the wheel is at ease or on edge while travelling. An overloaded pickup with a slide-in is no joy to drive. Slide-in campers might look light, but looks are deceiving. For example, your typical 10½-foot cab-over-style camper, say from Lance, might have a “dry” weight of 3,000 pounds. Fill the fresh water tank, load the propane tank, and gear and food—now the “wet” weight is closer to 3,600 pounds.
Even companies such as Camplight, which specialize in lightweight campers, quickly push load limits when cab-over-style slide-ins come into play. Their 8½-foot Ultra Lightweight models tip the scales at 1,800 pounds dry. Northstar’s Liberty, which is “built for ½-tons,” weighs 1,750 pounds dry.
So, in reality, it’s your pickup that’s going to determine which slide-in makes the most sense.
Let’s say you have a ½-ton Crew Cab and want a comfortable 8½-foot cabover, or have a ¾-ton diesel 4x4 crew cab and want an 11-foot unit with a slide-out. Unfortunately, it’s probably not going to happen on either count, because those trucks’ payload limitations can’t handle them. Most ½-ton 4x4 crew cab pickups have a maximum payload capacity of less than 2,000 pounds; ¾-tons, around 3,500 pounds.
Two-wheel-drive models gain a few hundred pounds because they’re lighter, so they can carry more payload. The same holds true for short beds being able to carry more than long beds. Duallys are by far the best camper packers because they have a wide stance and payload capacities of 6,000-7,000 pounds.
Don’t know your truck’s payload capacity? Read the metal tag on the driver’s door jam. Look for the GVWR: Gross Vehicle Weight Rating; that’s the maximum weight at which your truck can be safely driven. GVWR includes the weight of the truck and everything it’s carrying, from the passengers, the load in the bed, full fuel tank, to the tongue weight of the trailer it’s towing.
To find payload capacity, weigh the truck at a truck scale just as it would be driven on a hunting trip. Subtract that weight from the GVWR. The resulting figure is how much is left for “payload,” or in this case, the maximum weight of a fully loaded slide-in camper.
Any time you push a truck to its loadcarrying limits, it’s not going to handle as well as it does unloaded. Increase the center of gravity, and it handles even worse. Although you can’t legally increase any vehicle’s payload, GVWR or towing limits as set by the manufacturer, you can improve the handling and stability.
Installing cab-over shocks on the camper, high-pressure gas shocks on the truck, adjustable air-helper or “overload” springs, and heavy-duty sway bars front and rear can make a huge difference behind the wheel. Suspension companies such as Air Lift, Bilstein, Firestone Ride-Rite, Hellwig, Readylift, SuperSprings and other premium brands offer such upgrades.
Tires also play a big role in truck handing and stability. Make sure the air pressures of OEM/stock tires are adjusted according to the psi noted in the door jamb or vehicle owner’s manual. If you’re getting new tires and plan on using the camper a lot, I suggest switching up to E-rated LT tires; they have higher load-carrying capacity and stiffer sidewalls for better stability under heavy loads.