How to Pack Your Pickup for Camping
Ratchet straps, bungee cords, a tarp, and some organization required
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Pickup trucks are great for camping, given their ample cargo space. That said, packing one requires some unique considerations as, unlike an SUV or a wagon, the cargo area is open to the elements. Applying a thought-out method to your madness can pay big dividends down the road.
What You’ll Need
Before loading up your truck to head into the hills for the weekend, you’ll want to pick up a few basic items at your local hardware store. It’s pretty much a guarantee that anything not strapped down is going to shift around in the back of your truck once you’re on the road, especially when some of those roads are unpaved. Properly securing your gear requires a combination of ratchet straps, bungee cords, and a tarp. Conveniently, all of this stuff can be found at Home Depot for under $50.
Ratchet straps are your first line of defense. Since they don’t stretch, they’re great for securing large, heavy items, like coolers and gear trunks. For the past few years, I’ve used these 12-foot Husky ratchet straps, which have yet to let me down. And at $12 for four of them, you really can’t beat the price.
Bungee cords come next. Think of them as those few extra pieces of Scotch tape you might throw on a package before you drop it in the mail, securing smaller gear like tents, sleeping bags, and camp chairs for peace of mind as you’re cruising down the highway. I keep about six HDX 36-inch flat bungee cords ($3) in my truck at all times.
Just about any pickup comes with built-in tie-down points in the bed, to which you can attach your ratchet straps and bungee cords. Toyota’s Tacoma even comes standard with a deck rail system—two slidable, inward-facing cleats mounted to a track running along the upper rim of the bed.
Finally, if you don’t have a cap over your pickup, you’ll want to cover everything with a tarp before you set off on your journey. More than anything, the humble tarp keeps exhaust fumes, road debris, dust, and rain off your expensive gear. But it also acts as a fail-safe should any items jostle loose on the drive. The bonus is the element of privacy a tarp affords; no need to be flaunting that $200 Marmot sleeping bag around prying eyes at the gas station.
Additionally, a tarp can double as your tent footprint when it comes time to set up camp. This black and silver 10-by-12-foot option from Sigman ($23) does the trick.
Once you’ve got these items on hand, start by loading big, solid things into the pickup bed. This might include bins, coolers, a water jug, and any other clunky, hard items. Arrange them as densely as possible, and lock them firmly in place with two ratchet straps over the top. Next, take any soft, plush gear, like sleeping bags, duffle bags, and pillows, and wedge items between the big stuff to keep it all from rattling around. Finally, awkwardly shaped items like camp chairs, propane tanks, and blocks of firewood can be stashed against either side of the bed around the wheel wells.
After everything is in, secure the load further with any remaining ratchet straps, making sure that the ends are fixed to the mounting points before tightening. Then use the bungee cords to apply pressure to smaller items that aren’t held in place by the ratchet straps. There are really endless ways to do this; just be careful that each individual item not secured by a ratchet strap is held by a bungee cord, and that both ends of the bungee are safely secured to a tie-down point. Fold your tarp so that it fits over the bed, then secure your remaining bungee cords widthwise over the top of it. Remember that you’ll likely be traveling at highway speeds for most of the drive, so make sure the tarp is tucked in firmly at the corners and edges, and that those bungee cords are tight, to avoid a parachuting effect on the freeway.
And one final tip—make sure that cooler is in an accessible spot. The best campgrounds are the ones that are hard to get to, so by the time you arrive, chances are you’ll have earned a beverage.