“Adventure” means different things to different people. Free-climbing a rock face, going to war, riding the big wave, seeing the country, visiting other countries, placing your hand-tied fly perfectly, or even walking that empty trail or abandoned road in a seldom-visited plot of public land. These days it’s that last one that works for me.
There are about 1,500 miles of established trails in the Black Hills of South Dakota, where I live. My dog and I are familiar with about 500 of those miles, having rejected the balance for reasons ranging from too much foot or bicycle traffic to being open to motorized vehicles. Looking outward from here we see the Bighorn Range and its Cloud Peak Wilderness, the Buffalo Gap, Thunder Basin, and Pawnee National Grasslands, Lewis and Clark, Shoshone, Uinta, Ashley, and another half-dozen National Forests just down the road in Colorado. The Bighorn National Forest is the next place for us to explore, specifically some trails in the wilderness area.
That would have meant reserving a room in Ten Sleep or Buffalo, or hauling around the old Springbar tent, camp cot, etc., but now with this minimal Capri Cowboy truck camper it means negotiating the jeep trail the day before, relaxing overnight, and setting out early for an easy day hike.
Let me tell you about the Cowboy. It’s my first truck camper, so this won’t include comparisons, but will include some of my reasons for choosing it, along with how well it lives up to those expectations.
The Cowboy is a retro, non-cabover, wood-framed, aluminum-skinned camper, very popular with rodeo cowboys and others who travel a lot, tow trailers, and need a simple, low maintenance place to sleep. They are available from bare shells to fully equipped micro-mansions (excluding a bathroom). I’ve seen two-bed versions and would bet they could make a three-bed setup if that’s what you need. All are built to order in Bluff Dale, Texas, with only a few pre-built units in stock at one or two dealers in the northwest.
All Capri campers are available to fit long- and short-bed full-size pickups, and for Tacoma-sized trucks as well. Mine is the 8-foot full-size version. The interior height of the Cowboy is 5 feet, though Capri will build them taller if you ask nicely. Standard outside width is 84 inches, allowing the use of pretty much any stock truck mirrors. The estimated weight of a bare unit is only 750 pounds making it well suited to half-ton trucks.
This Cowboy was ordered with a single narrow 39 x 80 inch bed, the roof fan and propane catalytic heater only. While it’s wired for both 110 volt and 12 volt power, I don’t expect to ever use 110 volt and with the maximum draw of the fan and all lighting being about 4 amps, decided to keep it simple with just truck battery power. I deleted the standard front window as unnecessary, and to avoid the possibility of leaks and subsequent repairs. No rear window is offered, so I installed a back-up camera to compensate.
Retro styling is less “styling” than simply the way Capri has been making them since 1969. The exterior quilted aluminum skin is available in several primary colors plus black, white, gray, silver, and the chrome that I chose to contrast with the dark gray truck. They can’t always match automotive colors, but they can certainly contrast with them. All colors and combinations are included in the base price, and I spent more time pondering how the outside should look than all other options combined.
Also included in the base price is a choice of simulated wood-grain interior paneling. Here it’s knotty pine, the lightest tone available, to make the camper feel as roomy as possible. Genuine aromatic cedar is an extra cost option that I considered, and in retrospect probably should have chosen.
As the Capri campers are all made to order, usually in about four weeks, and as the prices are reasonable, one wonders how they do it. I was a little nervous, ordering the camper without first examining one. Having now carried it in the truck for 5,000 to 6,000 miles and having used it frequently for up to five nights straight, I’ve found no major issues. Structurally, it’s very sound – having seen it being built via the photos Capri sent during that process there wasn’t any real cause for concern. My biggest gripe is the hold-open device for the door. It sometimes blows shut. Ten dollars at a camper supply and ten minutes with a socket wrench will fix it, but it’s not enough of a PITA to motivate me yet.
This is the big issue. In summary, it’s a great tent. I’m pretty sure the Ex would have left me even sooner if I’d gotten it twenty years ago and expected her approval, but for me and the dog it’s camper heaven.
The East-West bed, even in the narrower-than-standard version, is roomy and very comfortable. The thick closed-cel foam mattress feels just like my way-too-expensive bed at home. Headroom is not an issue, so sitting up to get a book or map (or Snickers Bar) from the overhead cabinet or to open the vent/fan doesn’t involve contortions. Initially I used conventional bedding with a colorful Pendleton blanket, but dog hair and a heater issue I’ll describe later led me to get a Teton XL 0-degree rated sleeping bag instead.
The side benches are bare paneling over plywood so cabinets can be added later if desired. So far the benches work fine as delivered, acting as night stand, work table, storage for a camp chair, etc. The heater cabinet does take up eighteen inches or so of the bench top at the rear wall on the right, but that structure has a countertop where I conveniently bungee a 5-gallon water can.
Primary storage is under the bed, which can be lifted for access to the forward bins. The volume there is 44 inches wide by 40 inches deep by about 18 inches high. The more accessible stuff includes bedding and clothes, food, camp stove and cooking utensils, and the mandatory Porta-Potti.
The less accessible row next to the front bulkhead includes recovery equipment (winch accessories, jumper cables, tow chains and straps, tire chains), hand tools, a spade (for when I can avoid using the aforementioned Porta-Potti), and a couple of empty Rubbermade Roughneck bins for later use.
Strip lighting above the bed is controlled by the switch on the passenger side wall. Two 12 volt outlets are opposite on the driver’s side. You can probably see some of the 110 volt outlets distributed throughout.
The back wall mounts a smoke/CO detector, 110 volt power switch, inside 12 volt strip-light switch, 12 volt porch light switch, a mount for the bear rifle, and it will also be where the hard-sided first aid kit lives, once it’s delivered. There’s also a standard fire extinguisher mounted in a recess under the driver’s side bench, across from the stowed scissoring aluminum stairs which are seldom used.
Let’s get back to the heater. It’s too efficient for the camper volume. My first night in the Pawnee National Grasslands, the outside temperature was about 15 degrees F, and I had the bed made up with standard bedding. The Wave-6 catalytic heater, an industry standard, pumped so much heat at its lowest setting that no amount of window cracking worked. It was too hot and too humid. Without the heater it was too cold. An old military sleeping bag saved the day. I need more experience in sub-zero weather to decide whether the heater is ever useful, but for now I’ll just save on propane and leave it off.
When considering off-road travel, it’s a good idea to see what the pros use. Up here the ranchers, loggers and U.S. Forest Service all use solid front axle, four-wheel drive, one- or three quarter-ton trucks with standard wheel and tire sizes, upgraded most often to “severe duty” rated tires to handle ice and snow. For towing, the pros use diesels – for moderate bed loads, they mostly drive gassers. The ’16 RAM 3500 four-wheel drive regular cab long bed has a 6.4L gasoline Hemi V8, which is more than enough engine for the Cowboy alone, though at some point I’m sure I’ll be asked to pull a horse trailer. The effect of the camper on gas mileage is a reduction of about one mpg up to 70 mph. In town, there doesn’t seem to be any change. Above 80 mph, mileage drops precipitously. The truck with permanent camper is my daily driver.
Conclusions and Recommendations
The Capri Cowboy is a well-made, very comfortable, hard-sided alternative to a tent. For those accustomed to larger units, those who live inside and visit outside, for claustrophobes, and even for folks who want to give truck camping a try without a massive initial investment, the Cowboy isn’t the right rig. But for those moving up from dirt-bagging under a pickup shell or tent-camping, for adventurous young couples who mostly want to climb rocks, kayak, or bike, the Cowboy will keep you dry and let you carry your gear with a minimum of hassles or maintenance. And of course, it’s also good for cowboys who make a living on the rodeo circuit or just need a place to sleep while out mending fence.