Dirtbagging 101

Hi Steph,
I checked out your slideshow that you presented in portland oregon a few months ago and was totally inspired. I had just returned from yosemite, where i was introduced to climbing and its history there. I read about harding and robins and seen clips of potters insane ascent of el cap and half dome, but just gazing at those walls was like nothing els. Anyway, I’ve been climbing since. the great climbs out in utah and colorado have brought me, my dog, and my toyota pickup out to rockies to stay for longer than i can afford to check in, rent out, or camp (commercially). So im living out of the back of my pickup now and i figured, with all your experience in this field, you’ve probably picked up a few good thoughts on truck living. would you mind giving some advice on the art of 4 wheel livin?

Dear Patrick,
Well, you have already figured out the first tip: don’t try to live in your truck in Yosemite! Utah and Colorado are where it’s at, you can camp free and mind your own business and climb and climb and climb…. And you have already figured out the second tip: you need a dog!

Preferably one that is 40 pounds or less and fits nicely in the passenger seat. I got my first truck (a 2wd Ford Ranger) about nine years ago. I was living in an Oldsmobile before that. Which actually works pretty well, if you take out all the extra seats and put a piece of plywood down where the passenger seat used to be, for your bed.
But when I finally got a pickup, my friend Elaine gave me a great layout suggestion. I’m on my third Ranger now, and I’ve got it set up the same way, and I’m just as happy in the truck as in a house. The tip is not to do the traditional, full length platform build-in that most people do, where you have a truck topper, and then you build a big platform all the way inside the truck bed. Because then you are sleeping in a very coffin-like space, and have to tunnel in and out all the time. And then it’s hard to get things that have been stowed way under the platform, deep towards the truck back window side. You can’t really hang out in there, just sleep, which is crucial for cold or rainy times. You start wishing you had a van, which you don’t!! You want a truck! So you can four wheel and stuff! I mean, this is Utah after all!
So Elaine’s tip, which changed my life forever, was to keep it simple. She had a piece of 3/8” plywood which she had set over the truck bed rails, inside the canopy. But it just made a shelf starting from the far back inside of the truck bed (behind the pickup back window), and coming out about halfway across. And that’s it. You can put a normal sized crash pad in the bottom of the truck bed, and it fits perfectly between the wheel wells. So you keep your stuff organized in big bags or bins, and then at night, you make sure there’s some extra padding way under there for your feet, and you sleep with your head towards the tailgate and your feet under the shelf. This is perfect for many reasons. First, you have full headroom, because the shelf only comes up to about waist level when you have your legs under it. Second, you have a shelf in there, and you can put your stove in there if you want to cook inside. Third, you have a shelf in there, and if it’s a sketchy camp situation (or raining), you can stack all the bags and bins up on the shelf, and no one will know you’re sleeping in a truck. Fourth, you have a shelf in there, and if it’s cold or rainy, you can prop your back against one side of the truck and stretch your legs out crosswise and cook on the shelf, or read, or whatever, and have a full-on sofa/lounge chair setup inside there. Fifth, if you happen to find a stray dog one day (which happened to me last summer in Rifle, a too-big husky dog) who needs to bivy with you for a while, you can let that one sleep on the shelf, while Dog Number One sleeps on the crash pad with you.
I did have the normal platform setup in one of my Rangers for a while, because it came with the truck when I bought it from a friend. I tried it for a while, and it was terrible. A total space waster, and so much less comfortable when you can’t hang out inside there with full head room. I tore it out and used one of the pieces of plywood for my shelf, and life got good again.
Also, when you’re not living in your truck, the shelf makes the truck bed more useful too. It helps for hauling around lumber, furniture, whatever. You still have a full-size space in front of the shelf, but it’s more efficient when you can stack things in the back half of the truck bed.
Right now you’re probably laughing, thinking, “I know! I already have the shelf!”
Okay, here’s tip number four: tape a lighter to a piece of string, and tie that around the knob on your propane stove. That one changed my life forever too.

  • Christian Robinson

    Hey Steph,

    That shelf idea is brilliant! Thank you so much! I currently own a Toyota 4runner with the rear seats completely removed. I built a platform in the back using a 4′ x 8′ sheet of 3/4″ plywood cut to fit flat on the floor of the vehicle with a small storage area underneath the platform where the rear seats used to be. This gives me plenty of living space and headroom, but very limited storage space. I have a huge storage box attatched to the roof rack, but it’s a bit of a hassle to get stuff when it’s raining outside or cold out. With your shelf idea, I can keep my clothes, food, books, stove, and cookware within easy reach and still have plenty of headroom and living space.

    Thanks Steph!


  • steph

    You’re so welcome Christian! But we must always remember to give all the credit to Elaine, who was the original shelf genius!
    Think of us on your next rainy day, when you are lounging in the 4runner, cooking on the shelf 🙂 If you have small friends, you can even have a dinner party.

  • Elaine

    Steph! Beautiful website, beautiful pictures, and this whole shelf thing is making me laugh hysterically. My truck got traded in for a Subaru station wagon, then a brand new black sports car (which an ex bought me and I sold after we broke up), and now finally a tiny Honda civic which actually has a tailgate, so it’s kind of like having a truck again.

    I don’t do long roadtrips anymore (thus, the microcar) although I dream about them all the time and think about my friends, like you, that are still living the life. But Rhonda Honda has her back seat permanently flopped down with layers of foam and comforters to make a Taj mahal for Toby who’s getting older (and cuter, I must say). Once in a while I’ll take a crazy day trip out somewhere to climb and when I need to pull over for a nap I crawl into the back, flip the top glass up like I used to with the pickup, and fall asleep breathing the familiar night air, remembering and dreaming.

    Thanks for continuing to inspire me with your writing and your adventures. Perhaps one day I’ll meet you in Rifle again.


  • steph

    Elaine! Please! Come to Rifle RIGHT NOW! I miss you and Toby! And I desperately want a Honda Civic hatchback, as a matter of fact, because I desperately want fuel efficiency, but just can’t give up the 4wd for winter stuff…. So. As always, you are way ahead of the game on the vehicle situation. The sports car sounds pretty wild too.
    Lots of love! I miss you! Tell Toby Fletch says hi. She is older and cuter too. xxx Steph

  • Max

    Inspired from over here in Australia..totally

  • Elaine

    How I wish I COULD come to Rifle!! What a grandiose chosspile to fall in love with…watching you climb there that first year (you sniffed out the only crack climb in Rifle and proceeded to redpoint it with some kind of unholy glee) was nonstop fun being around one of my favorite people in one of my favorite places. If I were to go right now comic relief would abound as I’d most likely be projecting the warmups and screaming bloody mary if the bolt passed below my waist.

    I will however be in Squamish for the FIRST TIME EVER from August 20-Sept 2nd. And Tuolomne during the second week of August, too. So when you need a break from knee-bars, gastons, and those god-awful route names, come find me on the west coast. I’ll show you Rhonda Honda, who has in fact made it in and out of the camping at Indian Creek, in a snowstorm, without so much as a scratch on her bottom. She’s a rockstar with 210K miles and still going strong. Dean, however, would be folded up like an origami action figure in the front seat. Other than that, I’d say DEFINITELY get a Honda civic.

    Give Fletch a big kiss on the muzzle for me. She’s the only dog that rivals Toby in cuteness and all around perfection. I miss you and can’t wait to see you again!


  • Grant Walker

    Hey Steph,

    Good to see you in Rifle…. No time to share life and the deep. 10 yrs changes people and it is fun to listen to what we have learned in that time. Perhaps next trip will provide such opportunity….

    JJ will try to get a hold of you soon.

    Jesus always,

    Grant Walker

  • anon

    Hi steph

    This might be a stupid question, but I was just wondering, how do you get ventilation at night in your car? Do you ahve a problem with bugs coming in through the windows?
    Thanks so much!

  • Steph Davis

    Funny you ask that, bugs drive me crazy! I have screens on my truck camper windows 🙂 Usually I sleep with the back window propped open, but if there are mosquitoes, screens are the best!

  • Dave King

    Hey Steph,

    Having a blast reading through your site here, I’m a fellow Portlander as well, although I became absolutely engrossed in Overland travel since living in Australia for a year and a half working as a Rach hand on a Cattle station. I’m a climber, rafter and what I call a “severe” outdoorsman.

    I run an old 89 (1st Gen) 4Runner with the rear seat bottoms removed and an old futon inside for a bed. We (the GF and I also have a 116lb Bernese Mt. Dog and actually with the awning I made for the back end, Lou Dog sleeps on the open tailgate and we sleep like babies in the truck. I run a basket rack with a 10gal “boat” (read: flat) gas tank so I can fill in emergencies or in remote areas. It also provides a great place to store my Roll-Tables and camp chairs as well as my Hi-Lift and Shovel and Axe.

    Your shelveing ideas are really great and I’ll be definatly “stealing” (no offence intended to your intelectual property eh.) some ideas to clean up the back of my rig. Currently I use a set of “Action Packers” to store clothes and gear so it can be left outside while we sleep inside.

    An idea I had and am putting into place is mounting a sort of mesh “hammock” inside the cab so when sleeping we can just stuff our clothes or added blankets up above us and stow them.

    Anyhow, I have what you’d call a “gift for gab” so I’ll stop rattling on now eh. Great blog and keep it coming eh.

    Cheers and No Worries


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