In More Detail #2: Loading a Camper onto a Truck (2011)


Loading Can Be A Deal-Breaker

   Being new truck/camper owners, we quickly learned that we were in an elite class: we actually were willing to unload our camper at campgrounds. About a month into our travels with our new rigs, men starting coming out of the woodwork at Death Valley to complement us on our skill. After only our 3rd unload, a fellow RV park guest said “I used to own a camper and I was never able to unload as easily as you just did.” Two days later another former camper owner was drawn to us by the sight of our off-loaded camper and wanted to discuss our experience with unloading--he had also given up and bought a trailer. And a friend of his was so frustrated with the difficulty of loading his camper onto this truck that he resolved to never again remove the camper--defeating the advantages of owning a camper over an RV.

An object of envy: our off-loaded camper.

    It’s no wonder so many camper owners are frustrated. When we bought ours, the dealer coached Bill on loading the camper and then sent us on our way.

    I was given no instruction on what to do as the spotter and being a foot shorter than the dealership guy, I couldn’t sight down the top of the truck box as he had done to assist. We were left to our own to figure it out all of the nuances ourselves, of which there are many.

    Surprisingly, the online advise and YouTube videos we found were useless. (One video showed a guy tugging on the jacks to move a light weight camper in line with the truck instead of repositioning the truck as we must do with our heavy unit.)

    In hindsight, we understood that we had a leg-up on many camper owners even though we were new to the big-truck world. For starters, Bill has an excellent understanding of what all the wheels are doing when backing a vehicle and he can quickly sort out how to make needed corrections. In addition, we are both good problem solvers, so we each came up with several of our own strategies for solving the various problems created by the loading and unloading operations and now use the best of our ideas. And finally, we have a good rapport when in aggravating situations: we keep focused on finding a solution and avoid short-cutting to blaming and becoming angry. What follows is what we’ve learned by doing over the course of 3 load/unload events. We’ll continue to revise this information as our understanding evolves.

Poised for a Good Start

Before you load your camper:

    -sweep the truck bed clear of debris

    -consider putting down a protective rubber bed mat to help keep the camper stationary

    -plug the 12 volt cable into the truck box and leave the camper end of it hanging over the side panel

    -lower the truck windows so the driver and the spotter can communicate easily

Loading a camper onto the bed of a truck is made vastly easier with:

    -a straight stretch of level, smooth ground equal to about 1 truck-length between the camper and the truck

    -2 people: a driver and a spotter

    -automatic air bag compressor for truck suspension air bags with controls inside the truck

    -remote controller for the camper screw jacks

    -practice with backing and learning what it takes to both straighten and reposition the truck (tips follow)

    -allowing at least an hour in full daylight conditions to complete the job the first few times

Another welcoming off-load site: relatively flat with a good approach.

    Loading a camper back onto your truck is much easier if you are very selective about where you deposit your camper. Having relatively smooth, level ground for both the camper on jacks and for the approach of the truck when you reload is a huge help, if not essential. When given a choice of campsites, we scrutinize each site with reloading the camper in mind. Having a straight shot about 1 truck-length between the truck and the camper long helps, as does having the approach be on the same level as the camper. If the surface is overly rutted or choppy or steeply sloped, we keep the camper on the truck.

    One person can do the whole job but it is definitely faster if the driver can stay in the truck for most of the process. Otherwise, the driver may have to hop out each time the truck as been moved a few inches to check that the truck is continuing to track as intended. In order to retain your spotter, the spotter should only be expected to report observations like “The rear of the truck is too far to the left” or “You’re about to hit on the passenger side” and not what needs to be done to make the correction. The driver that takes responsibility for determining what needs to be done with the truck to make the corrections is more likely to continue enjoying the help of a spotter than the driver who shifts too much responsibility to the spotter. (If it isn’t going well, take a break instead of taking it out on your spotter.)

    An automatic compressor for truck air bags that can be adjusted from the driver’s seat speeds the whole loading process but is not essential. Manual air bags require adjusting the pressure from the outside of the truck instead of the driver’s seat.  If 2 people are available for the loading job, the spotter could also adjust the pressure in the air bags when needed. If your truck isn’t outfitted with air bags, all of the adjustments needed to match the side to side tilt of the camper with that of the truck bed will be made with the camper jacks instead of using both the jacks and the truck air bags. (When we bought our truck and camper, we thought air bags were only for improving performance while driving but we adjust the air bags to level the camper each night, in addition to or instead of blocks, and use the air bags for adjusting the tilt of the truck bed when loading the camper.)

    Having a remote controller for the camper screw jacks also simplifies the leveling process, whether the camper tilt is corrected by the driver or the spotter.

    Being skilled at maneuvering in reverse is essential for successfully loading a camper onto a truck. If your skills are lacking like mine are, check-out “Fine Points of Backing” that follows for step-by-step instructions in the needed skills.

    Take the pressure off of your initial loading efforts by allowing at least an hour to complete the task. And if at all possible, load the camper in the daylight. Everyone’s vision is better in full daylight than in dim light and both the driver and the spotter need to be noting very small changes in distances during the process. At times, the spotter is also likely to be looking directly into the back brake lights when judging the clearance between the inside edge of the truck and the camper belly and that effort will be less distracting in good daylight than at dusk or in darkness.

Lining Up the Truck with the Camper

    The loading process begins with the driver backing towards the camper, striving to be centered right to left with the camper and having the truck tracking in a straight line. Stop when there is roughly 4’ between the front edge of the camper overhang and the back bumper of the truck. While still sitting in the cab, look over your right shoulder to confirm that the truck is about centered with the camper. If you are not satisfied with the positioning, then maneuver the truck until you are.

  Next, get out of the truck and stand at the center point of the front bumper, perhaps lining up with the manufacturer’s name plate on the grill. From this centered position, sight down the middle of the truck to determine if it lines up with the middle of the camper. In addition to checking for side to side centering from this position, confirm that the truck is square with the camper and not approaching the camper at a slight angle.

      Another good technic for checking your starting position is to stand 5-10’ in front of the truck on the right side. Position yourself so the front jack is perfectly blocking your view of the back jack. Then note the distance between the rear bumper of the truck and the jacks as well if the truck looks square or at an angle to the camper.  Move to the other side of the truck, again positioning yourself so the front jack on the left side perfectly blocks your view of the rear jack. Compare your assessments from the 2 positions, both for the centering of the truck with the camper and whether the truck is square with the camper or at an angle. If the truck is out of alignment by a small amount, the needed fine-tuning can be made while backing closer to the camper; if it is way-off, pull forward and try it again. This stage of aligning can be done by the driver alone though is faster with a helper.   

      If you have a helper, ask the helper to stand with his/her back against the front wall of the camper under the cab-over overhang. The helper then uses their arms outstretched at shoulder height to help position themselves in the midline of the camper.  The helper remains in this spot while the driver begins backing the truck towards the camper and sighting the helper’s nose as the center point of the camper. While the driver backs slowly, the helper uses a trailer hitch or marking on the center-rear of the truck to advise the driver if the truck is centered with the camper.

Matching the Tilts

    Once satisfied that the truck is centered and square with the camper, then it is time to match the side to side tilt of the camper bottom and truck bed. The tilts are adjusted using the screw jacks on the camper and air bags on the truck, if available. Sitting in the cab, look over your right shoulder and move your head up and down so as to see the narrowest gap possible between the end of the truck bed and the bottom of the camper (the truck may need to be considerably closer to the camper to make this judgment accurately, but do it as early as possible).  Once you’ve determined where to to sight to see the narrowest gap, then proceed to make the needed adjustment with the jacks and perhaps air bags to make the gap the same width all the way across of the bottom edge of the camper and truck bed. If you have both a remote controller for the jacks and an automatic air bag compressor, then this matching of tilts can all be done by the driver from inside the cab.

The truck is well centered with the camper & the tilts of both beds are matched.

    Leveling at this point is critical to your successful loading of the camper. When you adjust the tilt of the camper, the camper will move to the right or to the left and if you wait until later to make this adjustment, the truck will be too close to the camper to successfully correct the truck’s position. It’s the tight clearance between the camper and the truck bed sides that make matching the tilts critical at this point.

Backing Under the Camper

    The driver can safely monitor the positioning of the truck with the camper from inside the truck until the truck bed is about 1’ from the camper. At that point, it’s time to either get help from your spotter or begin getting in and out of the truck after every few inches of backing to avoid scraping. Now is also a good time for either the driver or spotter to confirm that the camper has been raised high enough to clear the truck bed, allowing for irregularities in the driving surface.

    Success now requires patience and the combined skills of the driver in making fine corrections in direction while the truck progresses backwards and of the spotter in clearly communicating impending problems. The spotter will be constantly moving from side to side, both from behind the camper and from underneath it, while the driver creeps back inches at a time. The driver will need to completely stop frequently to give the spotter time to safely make clearance assessments--assessments that will have the driver making a series of small corrections with the truck wheels.

Easy does it or the driver will squish the spotter.

    Several times during the loading process, the driver or spotter needs to check for brewing clearance problems. Someone needs to confirm that the camper bottom continues to be high enough above the truck bed to clear. If the truck has approached from a slightly lower position than the camper, the previous comfortable clearance may be gone. Likewise, any other obstacles higher up on the camper may be at risk of damage as the loading proceeds, like a short length of plastic tubing on the underside of one of the upper surfaces on our Arctic Fox.

        And this is a good time for the driver to remember that loading a camper is an endurance event--for your patience. Go slowly and don’t hesitate to turn off the engine and take a break from the building stress of this very tedious task--rushing to the finish line will likely be disastrous.

    Below are the specifics of what our driver and spotter are monitoring and doing during this tricky process.

The Fine Points of Backing

Getting Clear About the Direction and Degree of Change

    Some of us have managed just fine for decades by fumbling around when backing a vehicle, which works even better if you have owned small cars. But loading a camper onto a truck in which there is a little over an inch of clearance on each side goes much, much better if you know exactly what to do and why when in reverse. If your backward-motion skills come up short, here are some very specific tips to advance your understanding of what-to-do-when anytime you are backing.

The scraped paint (R) highlights the narrowest point of the box.

     First off, note that when you turn the steering wheel counterclockwise or to the left, your front wheels point to the left and the rear end of the truck behind the rear wheels goes to the left when backing. But also take notice that the midsection of truck initially goes to the right--which may make the difference between grazing the camper or not.

    Make it a habit to back-in anytime you park and each time you do, think through what the front wheels, the midsection of the truck, and the rear end of the truck are doing as you turn the steering wheel. Take the movement off of auto pilot and get it into your conscious mind so these basic points are well anchored. Start thinking in terms of the truck pivoting on the rear wheels when backing. Note that you get big right to left changes in the position of the rear end of the truck with small changes in the steering wheel though the changes in the angles are small.

    Set exact targets for yourself when backing into parking places (or parking for the night in front of your camper) so as to gain confidence in knowing what adjustments with the steering wheel are needed to shift the position of the truck to the left and to the right. Experiment with large and small changes in the steering wheel rotation and note how much change that makes in the position of the rear wheels when backing. Also practice staying in the groove by tracking a perfectly straight line for the full length of the truck. Seek out gravel or other rough surfaces to anchor your straight tracking skills in reverse even with the distractions of the extra bouncing.

Being Both Centered & Square

     Note that there are 2 issues when adjusting the truck position relative to the camper when loading a camper onto the truck bed: one issue is whether the truck is centered (right to left) with the camper at the back end of the truck; the second issue is whether the entire length of the truck is square with the camper (perfectly parallel). If the truck is misaligned with the camper, you’ll need to determine which of the 3 possible misalignment combinations you need to correct. Determine if, relative to the camper, the truck is: shifted to the right or left of the camper but square with the camper; centered right to left but not square, or shifted to the right or left but not square.

    If the truck is to the right or left of the camper but square with the camper, then turn the steering wheel in the direction that you want to move the rear end of the truck while backing a few inches at a time (Ex: steering wheel to the left to move the truck to the left). After turning the wheel and backing a few inches, then straighten the steering wheel and continuing backing, asking for feedback from your spotter as to whether the correction is going in the right direction. If the correction is in the right direction, then turn the steering wheel the opposite direction to re-square with the camper, then back up a few more inches and straighten the wheel out. Then assume you are square with the camper and both straighten the wheels and again get feedback from your spotter as you creep backwards a few more inches. You’ll need the spotter’s feed back to tell you if you are square with the camper (or get out of the truck to look if you are loading without help).

    The second possibility is that the truck is centered right to left with the camper but it is not square with the camper, which is most easily seen by looking at the front end of the truck (more about sighting the front end of the truck later.) To square the truck with the camper, back-up with the wheels straight until the back end is moving closer to 1 side and then turn wheels to that side to get the truck squared with the camper and at the same time the end that is too close to the camper to move slightly away.  remember to straighten the wheels again as soon as you are square with the camper.

    The third possibility is that the truck not centered and not squared with the camper. If you can get square and centered by turning your wheels while backing, then do it. But if turning the wheels to get square makes the centering worse, then you may need to pull forward to gain more room to realign. You may need to turn the wheels in the opposite direction that you want the rear of the truck to go and pull forward until you gain enough clearance between the camper and truck so that one of the 2 maneuvers described above will work.

Sighting Both Centered & Square
    Our camper dealer instructed Bill to do the sighting himself for backing the truck under the camper by looking over his left shoulder while in the driver’s seat and then sighting along the top edge of the side panel of the truck box and along the bottom edge of the camper. The dealer assisted him by hanging his head over the panel edge while standing immediately behind the cab. Unfortunately, I’m about a foot too short to do that maneuver and while it made sense for Bill, it seemed vague to me. Though Bill could do the sighting as instructed, the process would clearly go faster if I could find a way to help.

Sighting between the jacks: the same-sized sliver of front wheel showing on each side suggests the truck is square with the camper.

    After a bit of floundering by sighting the bed of the truck from under the belly of the camper and other awkward places, I hit upon a dignified and certain sighting technic. I discovered that by standing at either back corner of the camper that I could barely sight between the outside edge of the rear camper jack, along the side of the camper, and on the inside edge of the forward jack. With this technic, I could very precisely judge if the front of the truck and the front tire on that side was perfectly straight (inline with the camper) by comparing how much of the front of the truck or front tire I could see on each side.

    If the tire was angled even a little to either side, or if the front fender showed more on one side than the other it was obvious to me and tragic for his loading effort. It only took Bill getting out of the truck once to look at what I was seeing to settle the argument when he thought the truck was properly aligned and I reported that it was not.

   Sighting between the jacks is my only tool for judging if the truck is centered and square at the beginning and very end of the backing operation. Luckily, sighting between the jacks is so effective that it alone is sufficient for reporting to Bill the squareness of truck-camper alignment at any given moment. But once the camper belly begins moving over the truck bed, I can supplement my feedback with my other fine-tuning gauge, my “2 finger ruler”.

    I quickly gave up on judging fractions of an inch when the camper began approaching the widest bulge of the inside of the truck panel and instead physically measured the gap with the width of 2 of my fingers. There is just slightly less than the width of 2 of my fingers between the narrowest point of the inside of the truck panel and the camper on each side when the camper is centered on the truck bed. Bill literally moves the truck backwards in inches at this critical step and then stops. I step under the camper and stick my fingers in the gap between the 2 rigs and give him the report. This too is precise enough that I really only need to make the measurement on one side though I periodically will check the opposite side to reassure us both.

Too much fender & wheel visible on this side--the truck isn’t square.

    Like with the sighting between the jacks, my “2 finger ruler” is reliable enough that Bill doesn’t question my assessment, regardless of what he is expecting to hear. He knows exactly what the margin of error is when I say “There is less than 1 finger of clearance,” which is much more concrete than “You’re getting too close.” Gauging by this finger width measurement only works during the middle phase of the loading or unloading process but it’s an invaluable tool in the stressful process of tracking the truck a true line for 8’, often in gravel. Note however that the driver must come to a complete stop and remain stopped while the spotter steps in and then out to make the measurement, otherwise it is at times too dangerous for the spotter.


   With our Arctic Fox camper, the truck is backed towards the camper until the rubber bumpers on front edge of the camper just make contact with the lip of the upper edge of the interior of the truck box under the back window. (See photos at the end of the file.)

A little close: 1+ finger width of clearance instead of 2.

   Once contact is made, stop the engine. Either the driver or the spotter stands with the rubber bumpers in sight and uses the remote jack controller to lower the front end only of the camper until the bumpers slide off the truck lip and slip under that metal lip of the front of the truck box. Once these bumpers have tucked under the truck box lip, we continue lowering the camper but with all 4 jacks simultaneously so the camper goes straight down. We were told to pause periodically when running the jacks rather than running them continuously to improve their longevity.  Also pause at some point so as to check your air bag gauges to make sure that the pressure doesn’t exceed the upper limit (on ours, it’s about 100 lbs.)

    Now it’s time for the finishing details: completely raise the jacks; plug in the power cord from the truck into the camper, check all the back lights to make sure you are legal for driving; attach tie downs to secure the camper to the truck; and adjust and balance the pressure in the air bags as you’ve been instructed.


    The most important element of unloading a camper is choosing a location from which the camper can easily be re-loaded, which was covered in the beginning. A level surface with a long, straight approach makes all the difference. Then it’s reversing the loading details by removing the tie-downs, unplugging the power cord connecting the truck and the camper, and lowering the jacks to raise the camper off the truck bed and support it on the ground. Driving the truck forward requires meticulous care to keep the truck tracking perfectly straight. As the spotter, I use my same 2 technics of sighting between the jacks and measuring the distance between the bulge on the inside of the truck box and the camper box. Bill creeps the truck forward, pausing every few inches while I recheck how square the truck is with the camper until the truck clears the camper.


Photos below: 1 of 2 rubber bumpers on the front face of the camper box; the lip of the upper edge of the truck box just below the rear window; 1 of the camper rubber bumpers in contact with the truck lip.