Personal fact: I’m an Eagle Scout. Confession: I’m pretty sure I haven’t been camping since I earned my Eagle. I’ve slept in a few truck cabs and on more than a few floors, but I don’t think I’ve slept in a tent in close to 15 years.
Mostly, it was a busy schedule and travel aspirations beyond what I could practically drive to, but there was also a lack of discretionary income allocated toward investing in my own camping gear. Most of the stuff I used in the Scouts belonged to my parents or my troop.
My wife has been suggesting we go camping for years now, but we never made it a priority. She hasn’t been camping in at least as long and we’ve never gone together, so we were both nervous how it would go. Finally, I agreed to bite the bullet and spend our Fourth of July camping in the eastern Sierras just west of the Nevada border.
We borrowed a stove and lantern from friends and a truck bed tent from Napier Outdoors. I’d seen their Sportz Truck Tent 57 Series at 4Wheel Parts on a recent shopping trip to 4Wheel Parts, and by some strange working of the universe, Napier reached out to me just as I was planning my trip. As far as tents go, it’s a bit pricey at $270, but when it comes to truck bed tents, it’s actually on the affordable end of the spectrum. Just about every major outdoor retailer seems to carry it, as well as several major car parts companies.
Anyone who’s ever assembled a tent in the backyard for a sleepover (yours or the kids’) knows it can be a serious relationship test. We were fully prepared for this to be a similar experience, and I’m happy to report the Napier tent goes up surprisingly quickly and easily. It helps, of course, that they’ve sewn the fabric instruction sheets right to storage bag, so you can’t lose them. Still, the tent has a grand total of six poles that are color-coded to matching sleeves on the tent, so it’s hard to get wrong.
The only real issue we had setting up the tent was with the strength required to seat the poles in their pockets. It could be the brand-new tent was a bit tight and needed to stretch out, but it took a lot of pushing, pulling, and bending the poles farther than we wanted to in order to get them seated. It was almost as if they were all slightly too long, but it would appear Napier just likes a good, rigid tent.
Unfortunately, we did notice the strain on two seams, both near the top of the tent. One was stretched enough that dots of daylight were showing through the stitching holes. The other appeared not to have as much overlapping material as the rest of the seams and was straining because of it. Neither had any problem, even in light wind, but we’ll keep an eye on them down the line.
With the poles in, we tightened up the retaining straps. There were three on each side of the bed wrap around the bedside that hook to the bottom of the panel. An additional three loops are around the tailgate and require a bit of fiddling to get the buckles through the gap between the bed and tailgate.
Then, it was simply a matter of deciding whether or not to use the built-in awning and rainfly. Because it was July in California, we skipped the latter and went for the former. When not rolled up neatly above the door, the awning is supported by two poles and four guy wires you’ll need to stake down.
This illustrates one of the few drawbacks of a bed tent. Once it’s in, you’re not driving anywhere. Theoretically, you could take your stuff out, unstrap the tent, pull up the stakes, lift it out of the bed, and set it on the ground, but we didn’t try. At that point, you might as well get a regular tent and save yourself the trouble. If you want to be able to leave the campsite for a day trip, it better be walking distance. The other drawback: you’ll never sleep more than two people in the bed of a truck.
An additional consideration: truck beds, especially on heavy duties, are fairly high off the ground. If you don’t have a Ford with a Man Step, consider bringing a footstool to make getting in and out easier.
On the upshot, you don’t have to worry too much about cleaning out your truck bed beforehand. The tent includes a bottom designed to line the truck bed so your stuff won’t get dirty. It’ll even fit around bed boxes like those in our long-term Nissan Titan XD, which we learned on the spot when I ran out of time to remove them before the trip. Napier will even sell you an air mattress made to fit around the wheel well humps, but we just borrowed a queen size from a friend and made it fit. You’ll definitely want either an air mattress or a really thick sleeping pad because the ribbing in truck beds is not comfortable to lie on. Then again, you’ll never have to worry about setting up your tent right over a poorly located rock or in the path of a small stream should it rain (the tent extends slightly over the sides of the bed, so water will run off and not pool in the bed).
Once you’re set up and in, there are several useful features to take advantage of. At roughly 5 feet off the bed floor, the tent is nearly tall enough to stand in. A hook on a strap hangs from the ceiling for you to suspend a flashlight or lantern, and there’s a removable cargo net on the ceiling to stash small items. Vents near the top let air in and condensation out without sacrificing privacy, and a window facing the cab can be opened to pass power cords to the truck’s outlets for device charging. The side windows are divided vertically by zippers, which allow you to open only half the window at a time to manage privacy and airflow.
Napier doesn’t provide disassembly instructions, but it’s as simple as reversing the set-up process. Once you’ve got it down and rolled up, it ought to tuck back in the storage bag nicely. If it doesn’t, which isn’t uncommon with tents especially when you’re in a hurry, Napier has included a zipper below the carry handles which opens to expand the bag another inch or two like an overstuffed suitcase. Clearly, these people have camped before.
Between our long-dormant camping skills and the fresh challenge of erecting a truck bed tent for the first time, we went in prepared for what we call a “marriage-building moment.” Instead, we had a tall and reasonably roomy shelter set up in very little time with no arguing and no hunting for the perfect spot to put it, which was its own benefit in our tiny campsite. It’s got a few quirks compared to traditional tent camping, but they can also be advantages depending on your perspective. In all, it’s a space-efficient shelter that’s just a little more involved to assemble but lets you camp anywhere you stop your truck without worrying about anything more than whether it’s level.