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Beating the Over-priced Pickup Cap Syndrome

Every now and then I like to give the readers a good laugh as I scheme against the pickup truck bubble. If it weren't for the weaknesses of the newer vans [1], I wouldn't even be tempted to think about pickup trucks as tow vehicles for (non-fifth-wheel) travel trailers.

We are probably down to the last couple years of availability of basic, regular cab, low trim level pickups, aimed at farmers, ranchers, or the city water department. I want to avail myself of that opportunity before it disappears from the automobile industry, as so many other choices have disappeared.

One of the great weaknesses of the pickup truck as a tow vehicle for a full-time RVer is that the silly thing is semi-useless unless you put a cap/topper/shell on it. [2] The typical installed price of a fiberglass cap is well over $2000. Even worse, it is 75% glass. [3]

A semi-tall driver who likes to store his bicycle inside will not enjoy getting into the back of the pickup truck, compared to a van. The van is three times more convenient. The best you can do with a pickup cap is get one that is tall or flared at the back of the truck. Now we are talking a $3000 installed price.

I am open to the idea of building a home-made cap out of plywood and wood/aluminum framing. But today, let's consider another possibility: a simple wooden spacer between the pickup's bed rails and an inexpensive cap, perhaps purchased used, from Craigslist or the local newspaper.

Here is an example seen on the streets of Moab, where you should see many good ideas for vehicles that actually get used outdoors. (Oddly, you mostly just see standard vehicles with bicycles dangling away on external racks.)

The pickup cap in the photo is just a standard, potentially low cost cap, from the used marketplace. But it sits on a 2X8 or 2X6 wood spacer. There are no fancy angles or cuts in this wooden spacer; everything is 90 degrees. I would use lighter wood, such as 1X6 or 2X2.

This design is not perfect, but it would get a person on the road in a hurry. Eventually you could add some kind of aerodynamic wedge at the top-front of the cap, to smooth out the air flow. Also, this fellow did not close off the 8" gap between the top of the tailgate and the rear door/window of the cap. I would probably do so by getting rid of the glass rear door/window, by replacing it with a plywood one that extends down to the top of the tailgate.

The result might be a not-so-great-looking, inexpensive pickup cap that can be finished quickly, and which lets you store tall things without ducking and groveling.

[1] Higher prices, few used ones available, fewer options with four wheel drive or locking differentials, tighter wheel-wells and smaller tires, uni-body frames that can't twist, cramped engine compartments, and low ground clearance. 

[2] We are not talking about slide-in campers.

[3]  Lots of glass might be desirable to people who take the cap off when they don't need it, and who never get used to driving with the outside mirrors alone. But a full-time RVer or a long-term driver of a cargo van is used to driving with the outside mirrors.  


John V said…
Not so great looking is an understatement. Your entering white trash territory (or college kid) with that look. But hey, it would definitely be functional and inexpensive. Then again, the white cargo van look screams serial killer. :-)

Maybe you could buy one of those Border Patrol pick ups. They hold a lot of people!
I think the cap would have looked better if the wood was painted the same color as the pickup. And everything should be white. White is white. I don't think it makes one look like an Okie on his way to a fruit-picking job in California in the 1937. Pickup trucks are working tools for working men.

I would rather see it look utilitarian than like something that belongs to a suburban cowboy.
Ed said…
I wrote a brilliant Comment and when I tried to post it Verizon died. I'll try an recreate it.

I don't think painting the wood the same color as the truck would help that much even if it were white. Now if it, and the truck, were painted cameo or a lot of flower power vinyl stickers were added THAT would give it a 'look'.

The Okie look would need a #10 wash tub hanging from one side of the cap and a steel bed headboard from the other side. You are correct that the cap pictured does not look like something that belongs to a suburban cowboy - more like one that rides the rodeo circuit. Utilitarian, maybe?
Sometimes the flower-power decals work, but only for Volkswagen. They would be kaBLOOnieshly-incorrect. I prefer vehicles that would be approved of by Cato the Censor: manly, austere, no-nonsense.
Bob Giddings said…
Boonie, I know why you think you need a cap. It's to hold your bike. But you really cripple the rough and ready native utility of a pickup by putting a cap on it. Click on the picture at this url to see a large pic of how a pickup ought to be used:

There's a medium sized plastic tool box to contain stuff you don't want stolen or in the weather, like a small generator or air compressor, water pumps and hoses, comealongs, or even (gasp!) tools. The 26 gallon plastic potable water tank saves me from dragging the trailer to town every few days for a fillup. And it weighs almost nothing when empty. The open bed is easy to climb up into to move things around. No crawling around and bumping your head. And yes, that is a bicycle under the cover to the left. The rest of the space hauls whatever I want: propane bottles, gas cans, folding chairs, even the occasional hitchhiker.

Or even the occasional free firewood you might come across, as in this case.

Bed caps just make an incredibly useful vehicle not-so-useful.

I like how you carried the water in the pickup truck, in your photo link. That seems safer and more convenient than adding all that water weight to the trailer.

I have loved having a cargo van. My interest in a pickup cap is just my effort to continue with what I like, and then add the four wheel drive or locking differential or higher ground clearance of the pickup truck. You can't blame me for trying to get the best of both worlds.
Bob, but you have done me some good. I am going to consider a tonneau cover, with the bike laying horizontal.
Bob Giddings said…
Boonie, I tried laying a bike flat, but it took up too much room, and all that bouncing around didn't do the bike much good. What worked for me was a regular rigid fork mount, with the front wheel removed via quick release and strapped to the rear wheel. This lowered the carrying height of the bike. The seat was also on a quick release, and I carried it behind the seat in the cab. The bike was loosely padlocked down to the bed, and a cover thrown over the bike with a couple of small bungees to keep it from flapping at speed.

It sounds complicated, but it was truly not much trouble to put the bike back together, maybe 3 or 4 minutes. And anyone trying to steal it would have more trouble than they would breaking into your van. As a matter of fact I carried it this way around the West for several years, and nobody ever messed with it that I could tell.

Bob, locking the bicycle down to the pickup bed is a good idea. Of course, that means something better than a easily snippable cable. It should be a U-Lock or one of the hardened chains that must be cut with a ceramic wheel.

Consider buying a chain at the hardware store. Before doing so, ask them how they are going to cut it to your length. If they say they are using a bolt-cutter, choose a hardened chain.
Bob Giddings said…
The stowage method I used was for frequent travel, every couple of days. And only occasional riding. If you ride your bike often, every other day or so, dismantling it for travel like I did might be a nuisance, even with quick disconnects. A dismantled bike is more a psychological barrier to riding than a physical one. Once i had the routine down, it didn't take much time.

You could probably manufacture a clamp stand of some sort inside the rails that would be more convenient to you. But definitely upright. Lying it down would take up half your truck bed. A tonneau cover is worse than a cap in limiting the wonderfully casual versatility of a truck bed.

You've still got your rose colored van glasses on. You need to start thinking of the possibilities of a pickup as a whole 'nuther thing with its own virtues. For instance, the tailgate of a pickup makes a very good workbench, especially if you cover it with a rubber liner. You can hammer on that all day, or spill stuff on it, without doing much damage. And it makes a great fold-down bench to sit on, have lunch, and enjoy the view.

As for how to lock the bike down, that just depends on the level of your paranoia. The cable I used was 3/8 inch, not exactly "easily snippable". I used that instead of chain because I thought the vinyl coating on it would be less likely to fibrate against and mar the finish on my bike, and it was loose enough that I could move the bike, or at least the rear of it, around a bit without unlocking it, and work the cable around the frame and both wheels. Hard to do that with a rigid U-lock. I suppose you could use one if you fixed an anchor in just exactly the right place in the bed.

I also thought that removing the seat and covering the frame made it less noticeable and less attractive to steal, but that may have been just me talking my game. With enough luck you don't need smarts.
Yes, Bob, much of taking a bicycle "down" is psychological. Remember that I bicycle every other day. My bicycle is not from Walmart.

But this brainstorming is doing me some good. For instance, I found that tonneau covers are available in different designs: the standard one just raises up at the back of the truck at, say, a 25 or 30 degree angle. This makes for poor access to the cargo bed of the truck.

But some tonneau covers have a split that runs down the longitudinal axis of the pickup truck. The left and right halves are both hinged from the middle. I sorta' like this design.

It would be easy to build a split/hinged tonneau cover like this in one weekend perhaps. Making it waterproof would take a little work, though.

Also, I started thinking about moving one of my bikes to the inside of my cargo trailer. It would work. The ramp at the back would provide easy access and mounting.
Bob Giddings said…
Here's a thought. No doubt your dog just scampers in and out of the van. Jumping up into a pickup bed might be a stretch for her. Oooooo. Guilt trip incoming! ;o)
I would not dishonor my dog anymore than my bike. She will not ride in the cargo bed. She will ride in the passenger seat.