What makes a 4x4 an Expedition vehicle? Can’t we call any 4x4 that is prepped for off-roading also “expedition ready”? For the sake of definition, let’s say an expedition vehicle is something that is advantageous to driving off-road and, once off-road, is prepared to be lived out of. This may be your rock buggy with a sleeping bag stuffed behind the seat, or a Range Rover with a rooftop tent, three electric coolers, an onboard espresso machine, a stove, and long-range fuel tanks. Like one friend said, if you own a Land Rover or Land Cruiser it’s called overlanding; if you own a Ford or Chevy it’s called truck camping.
No matter your definition, we’ve thrown together some cool upgrades to make any 4x4 a little more backcountry-camping friendly. Whether you’re crossing the Amazon, in the deep woods of Wyoming on a hunting trip, or just taking the kids to the back forty on the farm for a night under the stars, something here may help you have an even better time.
Truck Camping Checklist
A good place to sleep is very important when camping, and we’ve tried a bunch of options. Rooftop tents are extremely comfortable and keep you up off the ground. However, they also impede aerodynamics and can hurt fuel economy. Some are not the easiest for setting up or down, so test out a few before buying. One solution we’ve found it mounting them in the bed of a truck on the rails so they don’t stick up above the cab roof line.
A ground tent is always a good place to sleep, and when matched with a small camping mattress like a Therm-a-rest (thermarest.com), a ground tent can be simple and easy to pack in a small vehicle. They are available at just about any sporting goods store. One favorite we have come across is the Tent Cot by Kamp-rite. This is an all-in-one tent and cot that keeps you up off the ground, and the included rain-fly keeps you dry in foul weather. Plus, you can fold up the Tent Cot with your sleeping bag inside and it measures about 3 feet by 3 feet by 6 inches thick. Tent Cots are a favored sleeping system for our Ultimate Adventure.
If you’re truck camping, then one inexpensive option we’d recommend is a simple futon mattress. We ordered a 6-inch-thick futon mattress, size Full, from Overstock.com (product 11202636), and not only was it made in America, it was only $99. It made for a perfect bed mattress, though it is a bit hard to roll up and store if you want to use the truck to haul anything other than a mattress.
When camping and cooking outdoors, a flat surface is useful for making a sandwich or chopping up broccoli. Some vehicles have a tailgate or a flat fender, but others aren’t so lucky. Rock-Slide Engineering has a folding table that attaches to a swing-out gate or door. Designed for Jeep JKs that don’t have a fold-down tailgate, this dual-level aluminum shelf gives you a place to brew coffee or make a bowl of fruity-Os for breakfast. The table attaches with three screws. We mounted ours on the swing-out doors of our truck camper for easy access.
Water is as important to humans as fuel is to 4x4s, so you should probably bring some along. Small water bottles are handy but pretty wasteful. Instead, get a good double-walled stainless steel water bottle. We prefer the Thermos and Hydro Flask brands because they keep cold water cold and hot water hot all day long.
Instead of bottles of water, consider a big plastic water cooler. These are available at many sporting goods and hardware stores and can carry up to 10 gallons depending on the design. We recommend one with a screw top so you don’t lose your H2O when wild wheeling.
In addition to water for drinking, some for cleaning up while camping isn’t a bad idea. Check out the Synergy Sit Shower Shave kit. This uses a small electric pump, a heat exchanger fed by engine coolant, and a shower head to take abundant stream or lake water and heat it up for use as a camping shower. It sure beats climbing in your sleeping bag dirty after a dusty day on the trail.
When man discovered fire he figured out that it was pretty good. Imagine you’re a caveman and every day you wake up to cold coffee, and one day you discover fire and can have hot coffee! That was probably the start of the Industrial Revolution right there.
The same goes for camping. Cold cereal isn’t bad, but eggs and bacon are better, especially if they are cooked. Building a fire and cooking over an iron skillet is hard to beat, but not always legal or possible. At those times a camp stove is the next best thing.
The old standby and still reigning champ for truck camping has got to be the Coleman grill. We have an old green one that runs off of white gas, and it works great for cooking, especially when we have more than one mouth to feed.
If you’re a light eater or alone, then check out the Jetboil. This is a gas-powered stove that boils water in a minute. It’s perfect for making oatmeal and coffee on a cold morning on the trail.
It’s great when you can get to your location and set up camp before the sun sets. It’s also great if you can bring along a chef to cook you meals, a masseuse to rub your back, and a horticulturist to find you some free-range lettuce for your dinner salad, but that’s about as likely as getting to camp before dark. So you might want to consider some lighting for your camp.
An option we recommend are truck-mounted lights that you can use for setting up camp, such as the Truck Lite LED work lamps attached to your roof rack. Wire them in so you can flood your camp with the flick of a switch.
Another idea is a 12-volt work lamp like the ARB Adventure light. This plugs into a 12-volt outlet and allows you to hang the light from a rear hatch or under the hood while you set up your tent or check on your manifold burritos.
If you’re looking for a simple light, a headlamp can’t be beat. We’ve seen some inexpensive versions at local hardware stores. If you want a top-of-the-line headlamp check out the new SureFire Maximus, which is adjustable from 1 lumen (lasting 70 hours) to 500 lumens (lasting 1 hour), and it’s rechargeable via a 110- or 12-volt outlet.
A Place for Everything
One way overlanding is like racing is the need for organization. When racing, you may have a chase truck with all your gear perfectly packed, but when exploring off-road this isn’t usually the case. But like a chase truck, it’s important to have everything in an assigned place. This makes it easier to find stuff quickly in case of an emergency, or just when setting up camp in the dark and rain. Sliding drawer systems, strong tie-down points, and locking storage bins are all great upgrades for the weekend or lifelong camping truck.
Ammo cans bolted to the floor are a great option. We also found that the Artec fluid racks are excellent way to secure drivetrain fluids in your 4x4. We added one to a pickup. It holds a gallon of coolant and 6 quarts of oil, ATF, and power steering fluid for quick trailside top-offs.
A bed-mounted drawer system such as those made by ARB, TruckVault, and Tuffy Security are an excellent option for storing items that you want bolted down but easily accessible. Having tools and heavy spare parts in a drawer keeps them from flying around in the unfortunate case of a rollover. Plus, you can put lightweight objects like sleeping bags on top of them but still gain access quickly if needed.
Explorers like to explore, it’s pretty obvious, but this can also mean they like getting lost in uncharted territory. Not a big deal until you end up stuck in the muck a long way from home all alone. There are two tools you’ll be glad you brought along, a winch and a Pull-Pal.
A winch is an obvious choice. By having a strong motor attached to a drum of your favorite cable or rope, you can always push your exploring a little further because you have an escape plan for getting out of trouble. However, if you haven’t anything to hook said cable or rope to, you might as well leave that winch at home. One option is to bring your own attachment point with a Pull-Pal Winch Anchor. This folding steel tool digs into the ground when you hook your winch to it and gives you a solid point to pull from just in case there are no trees, rocks, or other trucks nearby.
If you’re going to drive around the world then you’re going to want tires you can depend on. But you also want tires you can find replacements for if all goes bad. For these reasons we would steer clear of massive diameters and rim sizes. A 30 or 33 on a 16-inch rim will probably be pretty easy to track down in a foreign land. A 44 on a 20? Not so much. We are always fans of a mud-terrain tread pattern, but in reality a good all-terrain will probably serve you best when exploring long miles of tarmac and gravel roads. For example, the Falken tires we just bolted onto our Ram camping truck are not so extreme that they make a lot of noise on the freeway, but they still have some tread for in the dirt. We are also big fans of the Cooper Discoverer AT3 all-terrain tires. And when it comes to a good all-around mud tire, we’ve had great results from BFGoodrich KM2 muds, Mickey Thompson MTZs, and Nitto Trail Grapplers.
In addition to a good tire we recommend a good tire plug kit. A stick in your tire can ruin your trip fast, but a tire plug kit within easy reach of the driver can get you patched up and back on the trail quickly. Power Tank has a variety of tire plug kits that are easy to use for getting back to civilization.