The Woodsy Bit: Adventures of an '88 Phoenix


Howdy from down south!

A few years ago, I became enamored with having a small camper. After shopping around a bit I realized quickly that campers in general (IMHO) were too big, too cheaply built, too ill concieved, and FAR too expensive. So, I decided to build one myself by converting a 6 x 10 Cargo trailer. While that is really a tale for another forum, I did learn a few things while building it - about capabilities, solar, weight, comfort, usabilty... the list goes on.

One of the biggest things I learned was that the little trailer was not well suited for ALL of the locations we were interested in going. Tightly overgrown, poorly maintained forest roads with stream fords were not it's forte'. That said, the little trailer (I named her "La boîte de craquelins") does have it's uses, such as big events, toy hauling, food hauling (for big BBQ) and as a 'spare room' for certain vacay situations.

BUT - it still can't easily go some places - so the search continued. I posted a quick video of my tiny camper, and someone commented that I should check out the expedition portal:

I had known about Pop-up Truck Campers before, but they definately fell into the "too expensive" category for me. After reading many posts here, I began to hope - no dream - that I would find a used truck camper for reasonable coin, and that they could do much of what my little trailer could not.

After about a 4 month search, that camper came my way via Craigslist, and I welcomed a 1988 Phoenix Popup to the family. Pop-up truck campers are quite rare in the south, it seems. I don't really understand why, being a native myself, but it appears that 'camping' down here consists largely of giantic trailers or busses with slide-outs and central air, and RV park camping that is no different than suburban living - all packed in together. Not my idea of a get away by any stretch of the imagination.. And we have some great places to visit, too.

After I got the new pop-up, first thing was to test all of the systems. The camper had a leak of some type, with a little mildew here and there. The Propane 3 burner stove works OK (but not much BTU output for our taste, though), the 2-way, 12v (@ 7 amp!) and Propane Fridge worked well enough to make ice, and the little hand pump worked also. The furnace fires up and holds temperature... However, I soon discovered that the fridge had to be dead level to work at all, and the water pump would not hold prime. I also detest the inside appearance of panelling. To me it screams CHEAP.

So - a refurb is afoot. Here begins my journey... First things first - I'll need a working name for the camper - so I dub thee "Woody", as it's apparently one of Phoenix's earliest campers, and is all wooden.

ATC - Firestone.jpgATC - Firestone2.jpg
popup 1.jpgcamper2.jpg

First pix of the new camper
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Phase 2: Clean up the canvas, inside and out and seal the leaks

I started on the exterior, which is PVC coated vinyl fabic. I washed it down with Dr. Bronner's Sal Suds, a gentle non detergent wash that also happens to be biodegradable.


After it was spick and span and dry, I sprayed it down liberally with the very excellent 303 Aerospace Protectant. I know this stuff to be awesome for conditioning and UV protection for Royalex boats, and it did not disappoint on the camper canvas.


Inside, I wiped everything down with a strong bleach solution to kill off the mildew and remove the stains - it did a nice job and cleaned up well. There a a few pinholes here and there, but I have some vinyl patch I can use if I need to. For now, I don't think the canvas will leak. I then wiped on a coat of 303 inside to soften up the fabric, which was a little dry and brittle in the corners.

Now it was time to work on those leaks.. I inspected the top while I cleaned it a bit. While the top was generally in good shape, I found a few hail-damage type if dings, and one or two had pinholes in the aluminum. I used a brush, and applied White - colored Blackjack roof sealer. This stuff is awesome! With enough coats, you could seal almost anything! It goes on nice and thick, and remains a little flexable after drying. I used 2 coats, all the way around the aluminum on the sides, completely covering all of the screw heads, and I also sealed the center seam, just in case. No leaks any more! Negligable added weight to the top - very important with this camper as it's pretty heavy and difficult to pop-up. I discover that leaving the door open helps greatly, as the air displacement is impressive.


After I'm done, I stand back and look at the sealing job critically for "fugliness factor". You can see brush marks, and it's not perfectly smooth, but from several feet it blends pretty well with the mostly-white raw aluminum color. Not too bad.
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Congrates on camper.I know how you feel about finding a popup truck camper for smaller trucks .It took me 3 year of searching and going threw a popup camper,a rtt and then building a trailer for it.Then finally found one up here in northeast. The truck camper manufactures should have something on east coast .It would be great opportunity for them. Anyway way congrates and can't wait to see your build. Im slowly doing thing to mine also .Good luck happy camping


Thanks, Rangerdogg! I checked out your shadowcruiser. Nice rig you have there. I can't figure out why there are not more options for smaller pickups, especially in the east. Anyway - I gots mine, and you gots yours... We're livin the dream, right?


Subterran, yes we finally are! Know like you said time to make it our own.I don't understand why that a west camper manufacture doesn't set up over on east side.Its easy to find big popups up here.I did find a hallmark which are rare around here but it need a lot of work and guy wanted more then I was willing to pay .Now so it for sale from new owner and worst shape and hes trying to get more then he paid .Some people are crazy. I have been doing a few small things to mine .I have to rebuild door during winter and would like to buy new canvas by next year. Would love to see inside pic and its true interriors are more toward womans taste, I think the should offer a mans style .Cant wait to see what you do.Im leaving mine like that for a little while then maybe ina year or two will do it over.Took me awhile to find and just want to enjoy for awhile.Put some interior pics up for us to see.Is your 6' 0r bigger and ho wide is your ?


Mine is 79" wide and 121" long, total. The bed portion alone is 91" or 7.5 feet. It fits almost perfectly flush with my open tailgate. It was actually set in about an inch, and my external water spigot / tank drain was pouring onto (and into!) the tailgate, so I got some heavy duty rubber bumpers, and screwed them into the camper at just the right places to push it back from the cab about an inch. Now it's nice and flush with the tailgate, and I can use the rear spigot perfectly.bump stop.JPGspigot.JPG
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Phase 3: Tie Down Solution

The camper came with some turnbuckles, and apparently the PO used an external tie-down system with his old truck. I
see evidence that Phoenix probably had another (concealed) mounting solution, simular to the ones used elsewhere on
this site. It looks like it involved eye-bolts.There are a hatches inside that give access to the two front corners,
which I presume was to get in there to engage the anchors. If anyone has any photos of a Phoenix concealed tie-down,
I'd like to see it.

Anyway - the PO installed 4 titan jacks, and the mount point for the jacks do double duty as the external tie-down
anchor points. It's a bit fugly, for sure, but it does have some advantages - I can check on the tightness easily and
often, and I intend to remove this camper frequently, so it's fast and easy to do that. I ordered 4 HappiJac bumper
tie down anchors, after writing them to figure out how the front ones work. I drilled holes in the corners of the rear
bumper for the back two. They are just big bolts with fender washers. Then I summoned all of my courage, measured 50
times, gritted my teeth, and drilled holes into my truck body for the front anchors. My old'98 Tacoma is very
stalwart, mechanically speaking, but the body has seen better days so I was not too freaky about it. I did paint the
front ones with black enamel to blend them in a little better. So far, I have logged about 500 miles with the camper,
on a few bumpy 4x4 roads and the anchors seem to be holding up fine. I only wish the quality of the chrome plating
from HapiJac was better - they are already rusting...


Another note about the mount - several of the manufacturers recommend against keeping your plastic add-on bedliner in
place while carrying a camper. Since I use my truck without the camper quite a bit, and I need the bedliner intact,
obviously I needed to come up with a solution. It so happens that my old toyota truck ('87 4x4 Panzer "Smokey"- Sniff!
I miss her muchly..)


had a 1/2 thick heavy rubber mat in it, which I had rolled up and stored for a rainy day. It works perfectly. It's a bit heavy,
and is made from the same rubber and structure as a tire, but I have experienced no slip with it, so I'll call that problem solved.
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Phase 4: Air Bags for the Stock Springs

The camper is heavy. How heavy I'm not sure yet, but I'm going to guess 800 and some change. There is just no carrying it on old stock springs. It bottoms out like a flat tire. So - the first thing I did was ordered some Airlift Helper Springs. My thinking was that this way I could maintain the soft stock ride, but get the extra carrying capacity I needed for the camper. It took about 2 hours to put them on. After the install, I coated everything with a coat of spray-on bedliner in a rattlecan I got at Lowes. I wove the airlines through existing holes in the frame, and replaced the bolts holding on my license tag with the air valves, as I have read others doing. The install looks pretty slick.

I have to say I don't really like several things about them: You have to drill 3 holes in your frame in a structurally bad spot, the passenger side bag has interference problems with the shock on that side, and they just don't work that well. Our first campout with the new camper, the driver's side bag failed, leaving me bottomed out for most of the trip. I was pissed off to say the least.

For thier part, Airlift was great. They have a lifetime warranty, and were happy to replace the failed bag. By the way, the bag failed because it's u-bolted to the spring, and I guess I didn't get it tight enough, because when we hit the rough roads, it 'walked' along the spring until it got too far away from the base, and popped.

In retrospect, I can say this: I would not rely on this system for any load above a few hundred pounds. I have since replaced the failed bag, and I intend to use it for levelling purposes only. I don't do much really serious offroading / rock crawling, but if I do I'll take them off. Thankfully, that's simple enough to do.


Well I have to tell ya I use air shocks I have had for 6 years on my ranger. Im a home improvement contractor and use them for carrying my 5x10 enclosed trailer and also carrying waste about 1000 lbs in bed.I have had great luck with mine. I know a lot of people and truck manufactures say not to use them but I have had them for awhile and it holds the camper great .I have 50lbs when truck camper is on and leave it at 30lbs when off. I also have 4 leaf strips on mine so it holds the weight well.When I hit bumps it doesn't bottom out .You could try those and rear timbrens bump stops .The shock aren't too expensive .Well good luck and keep posting.It sounds like more people use firestone airlift


Rangerdogg, I hear you. I think you're right about the firestone springs. When I was shopping for these air springs, I read all of the installation manuals, and the firestones require you to cut off the factory bumpstops, which seemed like a VERY bad idea to me. after the fact, someone told me that the firestones have an integrated bumpstop inside the airbag. I wish I had known that before, it would have definately affected my choice. I think my problem has more to do with how these Airlifts are made. There is no reinforement band on these, like you see on models for larger trucks. When you put a good load on them, the bags 'balloon' severly, which means they grow 'out' and not 'up' if you get what I mean. Because of that, they never actually were able to get the camper level enough - it was still squatting to the rear. On the passenger side, that means that the bag gets fat enough to rub on the shock, which was rubbing a hole in the bag. I hope it doesn't sound like I am trying to badmouth all air springs as a solution for truck campers, especially the lighter aluminum models or Flip Packs that do pretty well on stock springs, and maybe just need a little levelling help. Maybe just not Airlift brand springs... Although they would probably do fine on a 2wd truck (that wont do any offroad flexing) with a lighter load than mine. And again, Airlift has been great about responding and replacing these. Maybe just beware the one's they sell for the Toyota Tacoma.
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Phase 5: New Rear Springs - Northwest Offroad 2-stage Springs

After the air-bag fiasco, I was becoming concerned about how I was going to solve the how-to-carry-this-damned-camper dilemma. I knew the truck could handle it - there's plenty of power while it's on, I just needed a stronger suspension. I started a serious google-**** session, reading entries here, wander the west, etc. I finally settled on Northwest offroad, because after talking to them, they seemed confident that their springs could handle it. I ordered them up, and a friend and I put them on in an afternoon. The good news: They can easily handle the camper, staying pretty level and ride like a high-dolla cadillac when the camper is on.. but the bad news is when the camper is off, it rides like a mine cart, and has a 2.5" inch lift that gives my wife a hard time getting into the back, bless her heart. LOL! Can you believe I'm complaining about a 2.5" lift?!? Anyhoo - problem "solved" - on to the next one...

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Phase 6: New Compressor Fridge

I wanted to believe in the propane fridge. Really I did. Not only from a financial standpoint (I didn't start this project because I've got a money bush out back. After all, It's just "fancy car camping"...), but also an efficiency one. I have experience with solar-powered 12v compressor fridges from my other camper. In my initial testing of this new popup, the fridge seemed too good to be true. It would make ice in the ice tray, had a huge interior (albeit with spotty cooling down lower in the box). It was amazingly efficient with Propane. I would guess that 10 lbs would run it for more that a month straight. AND it was absolutely silent... pretty amazing, right? Then, I realized it had to be kept level. Really level, or it didn't work at all. I also read that if you burn it out of level, it will ruin it (by cracking the tip of the closed pipe) and then the kicker - you shouldn't run it while under way, as it's a fire hazard. Dammit! all those great ideas right out the window - null and void! I think that this would be a grand solution for a cabin situation, where the fridge could be level all the time. It could save a bundle on your cabin's solar system, not having to run a fridge on DC... anyhow - I digress.


I am fascinated with portable small refrigerators for some reason. I could just get ice, as I have done for so many many years, but for some reason it's part of the camper experience I am not willing to be without. No fridge is roughing it in my book, right along with frame backpacks and therm-a-rest pads. Don't get me wrong, they all have their place, time and use. But I'm not going to have to screw with ice any more in my campers.

This time I decided to go with a smaller fridge than in the crackerbox - in the form of a Norcold 0040 1.7 CF side opener. It's a bit smaller footprint than the propane fridge I replaced, both in depth and width (but not height) so it gave me a little extra space in a few places.

new fridge open.JPG

The install was pretty simple - I screwed it into the existing woodwork on one side, and used a small aluminum angle on the other to span the extra cabinet opening and hold it fast - leaving a wee bit of extra space along the side for tall, flat object storage, like a cutting board, grill grate, small table, etc.


Around back of the fridge, on the exterior, there is a hatch to access the back of the old fridge for lighting it, gas shutoff, etc. There is actually a lot of space to be used here for outside tool access, etc. I have cut foam insulation board to fit the gaps behind the new fridge, and now I have a ventalated external storage locker for small 1lb propane bottles, my Russian Fighting Shovel (indispensable tool #1, trust me - there's nothing it can't do, from machete work to fire tending to digging out a stuck truck..)


Next, I will replace all of the cabinet doors, including making an extra one for the new-found space, and paint this gawd-awful panneling...stay tuned!
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North Carolina / East Tennesee Fall Leaves Camping 'Teaser'. Unfortunately, this is a poor year for leaf color. This series was taken on the eastern (Robbinsville, NC) end of the Cherohala Skyway. The Tellico River basin is one of the most beautiful places I've ever been.
And yes, that's a wee bit of snow here in October...
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