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Downsizing from a Fifth Wheel to a Truck Camper

Downsizing from a Fifth Wheel to a Truck Camper

by Rene Agredano

“RVers are supposed to go up in size, not down!” our friends told us when we announced our decision to downsize from a fifth-wheel to a pop-up truck camper. But after 16 years of full-time RVing in a trailer, this radical change was a long time coming.

Trading a fifth-wheel for a pop-up truck camper is allowing us to dive even deeper into the RV camping lifestyle we love so much. Today we enjoy a greater sense of ease on the road, and at a much lower cost of ownership. We think this decision is proving to be one of our best moves yet, and here’s why.

Five years ago if you told us we would be living in a truck camper, we would have said you were nuts.

Our affordable and paid-for Arctic Fox fifth-wheel was serving us well. We put over 100,000 miles under its wheels while working and full-time RVing across the country. Our rig was off-grid capable, customized and comfortable.

But during the last few years, we realized that our camping style was getting a little too comfortable.

Do All Full-time RVers Slow Down? Apparently We Did!
Our travels had slowed down considerably since we started this full-timing lifestyle in 2007. We could see that our long cross-country RV adventures and boondocking experiences were becoming more infrequent.

Like many long-term full-timers, we opted to relax and enjoy longer stints at favorite destinations instead of always being on the go. As working-age full-timers, we made the most of our off-hours by enjoying RV park amenities like spas and fitness centers. We hung out with seasonal regulars who became like family to us. At our favorite winter resort in Southern California, we joined a community of like-minded nomads. Our new style felt so refreshing after the turmoil of the pandemic years.

But maybe it was because Jim got his AARP Card, or perhaps were were just bored after a while. Eventually, the lack of adventure started getting to us. We clearly saw that our daily life had morphed back into the type of stagnation that ignited our full-time RVing lifestyle in the first place.

In 2023 we took a good look at how our full-timing style had changed. And after 16 years chasing the sun in our fifth-wheel, we traded the comforts of a fully equipped RV for a bare-bones Project M truck topper by Four Wheel Campers.

Downsizing from a Fifth-Wheel to a Pop-Up Truck Camper Was a Long Time Coming

The idea of truck camper life first appealed to us during a 2018 road trip to Alaska. We spent three months on the Alaska Highway. In that time we beat up our Arctic Fox worse than we did in the previous seven years towing it.

From a broken leaf spring and beat up suspension, to three flat tires and deep window pockmarks caused by flying road gravel, driving our only home on the Alcan felt like a bad idea from the get-go.

During that trip, we also had to skip many backcountry roads and gorgeous campgrounds that were too challenging for our 27-foot fifth-wheel. We watched smaller truck campers and Class B vans go into those places where we couldn’t. It was all we needed to know that someday we would return in a smaller, different RV. And last year, that’s exactly what we did when downsizing from a fifth-wheel to a pop-up truck camper.

A Welcome Return to Our Camping Roots

During our time on the road we had seen Four Wheel Campers’ full-loaded, ultralight pop-up truck campers, and knew firsthand how these rigs can take you deep into faraway places where no typical RV can travel. Designed and built with as much space and gear as a hard-sided truck camper, but with a lighter weight and lower profile that enables better off-road travel than a van or other small RV, these truck campers are true adventure vehicles.

“It’s like ‘Geezer Backpacking!’ our friend Larry Chiuppi told us many years ago when he gave us a tour of his Hawk camper. He loved towing it behind his Class A motorhome. Larry would park it at a resort, then take the Hawk onto crazy dirt roads and insanely beautiful camp spots. His Geezer Backpacking concept intrigued us. Years later when we intentionally re-designed our RV lifestyle, we went straight to Four Wheel Campers.

Why the Project M Pop-Up Truck Camper?

The Project M is a customizable and very affordable alternative to a fully loaded pop-up truck camper. It’s an ultralight shell weighing in at just over 400 pounds without a load of gear. Unlike a slide-in truck camper, you keep the tailgate on the truck since the topper is bolted to the bedrails.

Surprisingly spacious inside once the top is up, the M is a blank slate with optional equipment. It has a footprint that allows you to design and build on-board facilities best suited to your camping style and outdoor toys.

Once we knew it was what we wanted, we began working with the Four Wheel Campers family to get the word out about their customizable pop-up truck camper topper. We also decided to keep our battle-tested 2006 Dodge RAM 2500 diesel pickup truck. To tailor the Project M to our needs, we added upgrades like solar power, exterior lighting, gear mounting rails, and an awning.

Inside the truck bed, Jim repurposed recycled plastic panels into a small kitchen galley. The sink and water pump are plumbed into a freshwater RotoPax container attached to the interior mounting rails. As you’ll see in the video below, he used the same panels to construct cabinets for a Dometic refrigerator, removable propane stove, and storage space for camping gear like a collapsible port-a-potty and personal belongings.

The Project M became our perfect vehicle for a downsizing transition out of the full-time RVing comfort zone. Along with it came the promise of more exciting travels reminiscent of our adventurous backpacking days so long ago.

North, To Alaska in the Best RV for Us

Within weeks of installing our Project M at the Four Wheel Campers factory in Northern California, we sold our fifth-wheel. Most of our possessions also got sold, and we moved into the rig. Then we headed north on the Alaska Highway. The purpose? To spend one year in a little rented cabin in the community of Willow. The town is starting line of the famous Iditarod Sled Dog Race. And It’s a place where we are learning the ropes of a real winter, complete with sled dogs and the crazy mushers who love them.

This time, the drive to Alaska was relaxing, fun, and shockingly inexpensive. We also enjoyed an MPG that I’m almost embarrassed to tell you about.

 We knew the Project M was a good choice the moment we hit the Alaska Highway.

Navigating over the road’s endless frost heaves, potholed gravel roads, and close wildlife encounters with our nimble rig invigorated us with a sense of freedom that had disappeared from our fifth-wheel life.

Gone were the worries about tight curves and finding a place to camp. With our smaller RV, we pulled into back country campsites with anticipation instead of fear. Boondocking became easier than ever.

Don’t let the small size of the Project M fool you. There’s plenty of room for our essentials. 

Downsizing from a fifth-wheel was the best thing we could have done. We have everything we need inside. From a king-sized bed to a kitchen, mobile internet, and ample interior space, it comfortably houses all three of us. No, it doesn’t have a bathroom, entertainment center, or electric fireplace. But we get to spend more time outside in incredible places out of reach for typical RVs. We also save so much money on fuel and campsite fees. The switch is well worth the trade-off for us.

Today as I write this from our Alaska cabin, we are in the depths of our first snowy winter.  Unfortunately, even the best four-season RV is no match for the sub-zero temperatures of this land. Every day we step outside we are reminded of the true meaning of “rugged,” “cold,” and “adventure.” So for now, our Project M is parked just outside our cabin. It’s patiently waiting to ferry us into the Alaska and Canada back country come spring. That’s when our new lighter, more nimble RV will help us write the next chapter in our off-road ready, full-time RVing lifestyle.

How we built our Project M

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