One task that’s never mentioned with pop-up truck campers is cleaning the flexible fabric walls. That’s probably because there’s no glamor in it. But, it has to be done, and sooner rather than later. Today’s little exercise shows what happens when you don’t or can’t keep up with it. See, weekending with a Four Wheel tends to create minimal soiling issues with the fabric walls, and cleanup is easy using only a rag, water, and perhaps a very mild cleaning agent. A quick once-over does the trick.
In the case of a Four Wheel camper, a lower shroud on the roof closes over the structure below in the same way that a lid sleeves over a box. Thing is, such a large structure is not going to be able to fit the box tightly, or you’d have trouble seating the roof all the way down. The Four Wheel has a gasket along the front edges, but this provides a fit that can only discourage dirt from getting up into the folded polyester fabric. It can’t truly seal and prevent it. Result: protracted travel on dusty dirt roads is going to soil the fabric, and vibration from such roads will tend to grind the dirt into folds of the fabric that contact each other. Most of the soiling my camper shows is from dust collected during travel on such roads. This is unmistakable when you begin a day’s travel with a relatively clean top, and raise it at the end of a day to find it remarkably filthy.
If cleaned on a regular basis, such soiling does not present much of a problem. It’s quite quick and easy to remove with either water, or water and a mild bleach-free dish detergent. Detergent should be avoided if it isn’t required. If you’re on the road for months on end as I am, things get more difficult. Since most do-it-yourself car washes do not have the vertical space to allow washing with the camper top raised (and the use of pressure washers on the camper is a Bad Idea anyway), you’ll likely be left to using precious on-board water to clean and rinse. (In no case can you ever fold the top back down with wet fabric, unless it’s for just long enough for daily travel, or mildew may result.) Plus, you really need a five-foot (minimum) stepladder or, at the very least, an extendable wand with a suitable cloth tip.
My particular sin was to leave my winter lair with a clean, UV-protected new rig, and arrive back seriously gimped up and unable to raise the roof, which led to ignoring the fabric the next tour as well. That’s two full 7-8 month tours over two years until now. The dirt collection process didn’t stop, however. That’s a long time and a lot of dirt-grinding vibration, with the result being that the fabric is irredeemably soiled. As is frequently the case, this post is a “don’t do what I did” warning away. Here’s a handy video posted by Four Wheel, detailing the most aggressive way to clean the fabric walls.
The thing about the polyester fabric is that while it is quite tough for its job of hanging in there for many years of service, it also needs to be dealt with gently as far as cleaning goes, or it will become damaged. It’s fairly easy to wear through the outer coating in the long run if you get too aggressive with it, and you can’t just go all medieval with it as you might with a counter top or sink. The fabric is fully adhered and sealed top and bottom at the factory so that it doesn’t leak or get pulled loose in high winds, so replacing it can only really be done at the factory, which is an arduous and expensive affair. The above video describes a cleaning process which is quite effective for mild soiling, and which probably exceeds what the material manufacturer would recommend – using an abrasive “no scratch” pad with plenty of a gentle cleaning agent that also acts as a lubricant.
Only recently have I finally felt up to the task of dealing with the results of my negligence, and the results tell a tale. I felt like I should be sneaking around as kind of an underground, anti-establishment regimen, because of zoning laws. Yes, zoning laws. Like many areas, my RV park’s local town/county ordinances allow just one RV per space in the park. Other hardside truck campers here have been required to move their rigs into storage, since they already have a TT or fifth wheel in their slot. They do their errands in cars or ATVs they also have, so it’s not much of an imposition. Of some 300+ spaces, I apparently have the only pop-up. For me, it’s a fairly big deal because, although I can get to town on the Evelo e-bike, the Mighty Furd is the only way to get the 17-30 miles to Yuma for true resupply. The park owner has graciously allowed me to keep the Four Wheel rig in my slot, as long as I keep the top down. That keeps it pretty much uninhabitable and unusable as an RV. What you don’t want is to be “caught” by some roving bureaucrat with the left roof raised, which would potentially create problems for both me and the park owner, and cast my rig into storage land. So I furtively raised it on a Sunday, cleaned what I could manage, and lowered it when done. Not having finished, Monday was a repeat. I must say, lifting the roof with one less 60W solar panel makes a small but very noticeable difference in lifting ease.
Naturally, I was paranoid about scrubbing through the outer polyester layer, often referred to as vinyl for simplicity’s sake. I need the fabric to last more than I need it to to look sparkly clean, so I did no more than necessary to get it clean enough to avoid utter embarrassment as a glamping fashionista. It cleans up to a point, and further time and effort makes no particular difference in results. The video shows but does not show exactly which scrubbing pad to use, so by appearance I tracked it down to being a Scotch-brand dishwand refill. I had tried a similar dish sponge with abrasive pad and, when the results were no all that good, I hunted down the real thing to see if it could work any better. It did. Slightly but noticeably. I already had on hand a generous spray bottle of 303 Multi-Surface Cleaner, and used that first, following it up with 303 Protectant, which is purported to protect the flexwall against UV deterioration as well as to discourage dirt from sticking as easily. Four Wheel mentions once a year treatment, but the manufacturer recommends 30-day applications for the sake of effective UV protection. You do what you can. Both are sprayed on and then removed with a dry rag, which in the case of the protectant should be kept as dry as practical because the protectant does not evaporate, and works best when buffed to where it looks like it’s no longer there. That’s where a tall ladder comes in, because a rag over a mop head on a stick just really isn’t going to cut it. My five-foot stepladder (which I don’t currently have the space to pack for travel) isn’t really tall enough for either safety or reach. Fortunately, I keep a collapsible, telescoping ladder at Rancho Begley that can rest against the edge of the roof, and that works well until you get to the front, over the truck’s cab. Then, it’s a step ladder and wand to fight out that front panel. In total, I went through four old T-shirts to both clean and then rub off the protectant. The only notable thing I found is that the protectant seems just as effective in cleaning as the multi-surface cleaner, so there’s no particular need to double up. Lightly soiled areas cleaned up well with practically no effort, while bad areas never did get acceptably clean. Keeping at them, however, may put the fabric at risk.
What did I learn from all this? Sacrifice some water and wipe down the fabric whenever the situation warrants/allows it. It’s better for the pop-up, more effective, and less work overall than having to get intense with it once a year. This preference isn’t so easy in the morning when the trail back down to the paved road is a long, slow dusty one and there’s a day’s travel to reckon with, but if you’re adverse to permanent stains, quickly wiping down the fabric at the next camp setup would help quite a bit. Second, if you can help it, don’t let anyone take a SawsAll to your rib cage and follow it up with energy-sapping drugs. Like getting a tattoo, you don’t want to do that on a whim or while you’re drunk. While it’s notably better to live with a dirty Four Wheel than it is to die with a pristine one, such butchery is not something you want to do unless you must. True, the next owner may not share that sentiment in regard to you, but once again, it all comes down to personal priorities and risk management. For now at least, it’s your rig! 🙂