Since most of our camping is done in the Pacific Northwest, off season is rainy and somewhat cold, so a tent isn’t the most fun way to travel. We love to travel outside of peak season though, and it starts to get expensive spending money on lodging. AirBnB is a great alternative to hotels ($40 off your first night if you haven’t used them before) but we like to travel often, so we wanted a cheaper option. Tent camping can be free or almost free, but I’m not so hardcore as to enjoy it in a downpour, so we looked to other options. We had originally been toying with the idea of a small trailer for off season camping for this reason since my husband already drives a truck, and it is used for construction so it couldn’t have a permanent camper attached to the bed itself.
We went camping back in June and my husband had thrown together a wood frame and tarp over the truck bed for us to try out instead of our tent, and we found we enjoyed that way more than we would have expected. While it had no ventilation, insulation, or latching mechanism, it gave us a sense of what it would be like to camp in the bed of his truck.
After that camping trip, we realized that a truck canopy would likely do everything we wanted out of a trailer for a fraction of the cost, and it would be much more maneuverable. The truck bed gives us a warm(er) and dry place to sleep, and we may eventually attach an awning to the side for cooking, but that is really all we were looking for out of a trailer. We found a great used canopy for $1100 including taxes and install (would have been $2000+tax and install new) and bought a truck bed air mattress that covers the wheel wells for $200. For $1300, we have basically what we want for off season camping, instead of thousands of dollars more for a small trailer. I expect the canopy will pay for itself in the first year or two by giving us an option for off season camping instead of renting a room or cabin like we have in the past. While the canopy is most important to us for off season, it’s also a great way to camp comfortably in the summer as well.
My husband is currently in charge of a custom home build, and so at this point in the construction cycle, he has a hard time taking very much time off as he needs to be around for inspections and day to day questions. Since a week off is pretty much out of the question at this point and I don’t generally like to travel without him, we have been taking more long weekend trips instead of longer vacations. Three day weekends like Labor Day are great since no one is working anyway and we can tack on an extra day or two to make a bit longer of a trip out of it. This Labor Day weekend we took the Friday before off work and packed up the truck and headed out Thursday afternoon. Our final destination was an hour up rough gravel and dirt forest roads, we we decided to stay the first night at a KOA instead of attempting the rough roads after dark. Traffic wasn’t terrible except for some construction that meant we had to sit for twenty minutes at a time waiting for the pilot car to return, and we got into town a little after 7pm. We grabbed a quick bite to eat then set up the truck and crashed for the night.
The KOA was entirely worth the $39 tent site fee and it meant we got one extra shower Friday morning before heading out to the dry dusty mountain camp – though I didn’t pack any shampoo so it was water only. This was our first trip with the trunk canopy and truck bed air mattress, and the first night made it clear that we were happy with our choice. The air mattress covers the wheel wells in the truck bed so we had plenty of room for the three of us side by side. This will obviously change once our son is older and bigger, but for now, it was plenty of space.
First thing Friday morning after we packed up at the KOA, we headed off to the grocery store for a few final supplies and then drove to the camp site where we would spend the next 4 days. My husband’s godfather had gotten to the area a few days before us and had scouted out the best spot on the mountain (he retired early at 56 and is a huge motivator for me – he lives well on a small income and enjoys life to the fullest). We spent the rest of the day setting up camp and exploring the area and generally enjoying time out away from any other people. That afternoon, we went up to the fire watch tower a couple of miles away and got a stunning view of the area. Unfortunately there are a ton of wild fires raging right now, and the watch tower gave us a great view of all the smoke that surrounded us in all directions. We lucked out though and stayed above the hazy air at 5000′ and were rewarded with some absolutely insane sunsets.
We had some friends join us on Saturday, and we all hung out, hiked, and generally enjoyed the weekend. My husband and the other guys went out hunting in the early mornings and late evenings but otherwise we all spent time around the very large camp area. Camping with other families is fantastic – my son got to play with his friend who is only 15 months older than he is while I got to chat with his mom. We packed a ton of food with us and ate extremely well the whole trip (fancy ramen, tacos, frittatas, etc) but otherwise spent no money.
Dispersed camping is allowed for free in national forests and bureau of land management land for up to two weeks at a time, so we paid no fee to camp for the weekend. While this means that there are no toilets, showers, or other amenities, dispersed camping often means you’re far enough off the grid to see few other people, and it is our preferred method of camping. While the shower at the KOA the first night was much appreciated, we would pick dispersed camping up a dirt forest road every time. For the four days we camped out, the only money we spent was the gas to get up there and the food we ate. While we did spend a little money when we were in town at either ends of the trip before heading home, we spent very little overall. Our very favorite vacations are spent outdoors with our favorite people, and this trip was exactly perfect. As my son said again last night – “Idea! Idea! Another adventure!” we are all ready to go out again, and now that we have the truck canopy set up, I see us camping happily year round regardless of the weather. And now I’m off to plan our next adventure.