This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.
During the pandemic, lots of people ventured into the backcountry.
And in those moments of woodsy respite, some were struck with ideas for improving the backwoods experience. Those “there’s gotta be a better way” epiphanies have yielded all sorts of upgrades to how we camp and the vans and trailers we use to get away.
The van life explosion has yielded $250,000 Sprinters and $50,000 off-road trailers that unfurl like campsite Transformers. Now come much more affordable truck toppers. A trio of Colorado innovators is forging new designs — born in the COVID lockdown — with backcountry-ready camper shells that fit on the beds of pickup trucks.
“We are selling something that gives you freedom to go out and have fun,” said Ken Hoeve, a longtime Colorado waterman who joined his pals in creating burly, inflatable toppers, decks and rooftop carriers that can roll up into duffels after a weekend on the road. “We let you go on adventures and become van lifers instantly but then return to the mom van on Monday.”
Hoeve’s Flated plan started with an idea for inflatable fly-rod carriers that expanded into toppers and decks for trucks, which use the same drop-stitch construction that has transformed the stand-up paddling industry. The inflatable truck toppers hit shelves in November 2021 and have been wildly popular, with millions watching Hoeve’s fun Instagram videos of him installing, removing and camping in the topper. When a commenter called the Flated products “pool toys,” Hoeve paddled one of the toppers down the Colorado River in Glenwood Canyon.
Hoeve, who serves as the marketing boss of Flated, and his partners will be on Shark Tank on March 10. He can’t share how the episode went, but he said sales “have been amazing” for the Flated Air-Toppers that run from $1,400 to $1,900 and Air Carriers that cost $629.
“These things have just gone crazy and it’s been so fun to see people showing their own vision for how these fit into their lifestyle,” he said as he navigated Southern California traffic en route to a camping surf holiday with his teenage sons in their Flated-equipped truck.
Luke Bushek was running operations for a Colorado-based billboard maker during the pandemic. He and his girlfriend were spending their weekends exploring the mountains and camping out of the back of his Ford Ranger pickup. He was not fond of the slide-in camper “that sloshed around in the truck bed,” he said. The bulky pop-up camper with canvas walls was cold and drafty. He replaced it with a traditional fiberglass shell and built a bed with storage beneath but “it was a bit claustrophobic in there,” he said.
So he started tinkering in his Denver garage. He wanted more space and an ability to reach stowed gear without moving his bed. And he wanted to keep his truck as a truck, able to haul dirt bikes when needed.
He spent a year in the garage, creating what would become the MoonLander, the debut offering of his nascent company Radica Products. With extrusions that allow for a bed sideways across the truck bed, the lightweight aluminum shell drew gawkers on a camping trip to Wyoming in 2021. He put the prototype on Craigslist when he got back home and had three orders in the first 24 hours.
Those three sales pushed him into 1,500 square feet of production space in early 2022 and by the end of the year he moved his four-employee production facility into 3,000 square feet that will eventually enable his crew to work on three campers a week, with models for a growing number of trucks starting at $5,500.
“This is a wide open market, especially when we are one of the most affordable truck bed campers on the market,” said Bushek, who is 30. “It’s fully customizable, too, so you can trick it out anyway you want. Right now we are 100% focused on MoonLander, but the plan is to have all sorts of Radica products for overlanding.”
The newest arrival in the Colorado-born topper market is Tune. Led by Sean Kepler, an outdoor industry veteran who has worked with The North Face, VF Corp and Crocs, the Tune M1 camper shell has sides that extend 5 inches on each side of the truck bed, so mattresses can fit sideways.
Tune’s toppers use injection-molded plastic brackets and panels on an aluminum frame, which means they are sturdy and lightweight. (Think Yeti coolers, minus the insulating foam. The Tune toppers check-in around 360 pounds to 450 pounds, which compares to traditional topper weights between 1,500 pounds and 3,500 pounds.) The rooftop pops up on the M1, which allows for standing room inside the camper. Kepler and his design partners — all avid skiers, climbers, hunters and snowmobilers — built a prototype with a 3D printer. They installed it on a Toyota Tacoma and traveled 10,000 miles.
The team, which also includes Bruce McGowan, co-founder of Boulder’s Backcountry Access avalanche gear brand, invested in molds to form the shells and raised $1.5 million from private investors in Colorado.
Tune went live with the M1 campers — they start at $13,000 — in early February and by the end of the month buyers had claimed 10 of the shells, which are assembled in a 56,000-square-foot warehouse in northeast Denver.
“We are very serious outdoor enthusiasts and we wanted a product that could get into the places we wanted to go. That was our primary driving force,” Kepler said. “We ran it through focus groups and it was pretty clear there was a huge market for something that was light and comfortable.”