Are you a “do it yourself” kind of person? Does a complex project intrigue and fascinate you? Perhaps you love the idea of camping, but you find the experience…”in tents.”
All bad camping puns aside, there are plenty of reasons why you might be more interested in a truck bed camper. Sure, there are loads of options out there for keeping your head dry while camping, all of which have their pros and cons.
Let’s look at what it takes to build your own truck bed camper, and see if this kind of do it yourself project is right for you.
Why Do I Need a DIY Truck Camper?
“Need” is a very subjective word. We “need” shelter when we’re camping, but that can come in a lot of different varieties. Choosing the one that fits your lifestyle, camping style, and budget is all up to you.
Camper vans are very popular right now. #Vanlife is taking off like never before. But, you have to buy a van. Same with full-size motorhomes. Airstream trailers look super cool, and they come in a variety of sizes, but each one comes with a pretty big price tag. Teardrop campers generally have a smaller price tag, but there’s room to sleep, and that’s about it.
There’s nothing wrong with any of these options. Heck, you can throw a tiny house on a trailer and get going, if you feel like it.
One obvious advantage of a demountable truck camper — which means you can take it out of the truck bed and use it as a free-standing camper — is that you can set up camp, then use your pickup truck for whatever you like in the meantime. Even if you choose a permanent camper set up in your truck bed, you’re still going to spend less time setting up camp than anyone else.
But, if you have a pickup truck with a sufficient payload max, and you like the idea of creating a homemade truck camper that fits your needs exactly, then…why not?
Before You Start Constructing Your Homemade Truck Camper
Like all good DIY projects, there is math involved.
First, you’ll need to know the gross vehicle weight rating, or GVWR, of your truck. GVWR, minus the weight of all of your passengers, fuel, and supplies, is your payload maximum.
This is easy to find in the specs in the owner’s manual or via a quick internet search. Remember that different configurations of the same truck can have different specs, too, so if you have a short bed truck, don’t look at the long bed specs. This is extraordinarily important, because you’re not looking to exceed your truck’s braking and tire capacity, especially not on a road trip. Always respect the payload maximum.
One general tip is to plan for your filled camper — including all of your supplies — to weigh approximately 250 pounds per square foot of space. If your payload maximum is 2,500, then you can build a 10-foot camper.
How Do I Build a Truck Camper?
There are a lot of different types of truck campers, and you have the opportunity to customize every square inch of your particular version. From tricked-out woodworking to a full electrical system, you can do whatever you want to make your tiny home your own.
One very highly recommended option is to research as many different types of truck campers as possible before you start building. Watch videos. Read books. Amazon has a wealth of resources, from books and guides by those who have built their own truck camper in the past to supplies and accessories.
The first step is to design what you want your homemade truck camper to be, which is why research is so important. You’ll want to know what’s possible and what kind of effort it takes to make it. Anyone can draw out a small castle for their truck bed, but the top two important factors are “will it work?” and “can you build that?”
Do you want to be able to stand up inside? Do you want an indoor toilet? What about extra storage areas or a cab-over camper sleeping space? Take a look at existing truck camper plans online to explore possibilities. It’s not cheating if it ends up working, after all!
DIY Truck Camper Construction
The next step is framing your camper shell. Wood framing is typical, but if you can afford aluminum framing, it’s not a bad idea. Aluminum is more rigid and weighs less, which is important when keeping in that payload maximum range.
You can build your camper shell either in the truck bed, or in your garage/shed/man cave/indoor facility of your choice, using detailed measurements from your truck. If you’re creating a slide-in truck camper, make sure you’re going to have a way to actually slide it in when it’s ready to go, or you’re just building a pickup truck-shaped tiny house.
Next, add plywood siding to the framing. Remember, you’ll be taking this rig on the open road, so be aware of what adhesive and screws you’re using. Your camper will need to stand up to bumps on the road (and off road), stiff breezes, and the general wear and tear of being an object in motion.
Next is the electrical system, if you choose to add one. There are a lot of options at this point. Some trucks come with power sources in the truck bed, which can help you run some light, charge your phone, or power up your coffee maker in the morning. That might be all you need while camping. You might also be interested in adding solar panels for the same job. You can even wire your truck camper like your house and plug it in at an electrified campsite. This is your camper, so do what you want.
Insulation is what separates the truck camper from the tents. You can use lightweight foam board as insulation or traditional fiberglass insulation, if you have the room and budget for it.
The Exterior of Your DIY Truck Camper
The roof, the siding, and the doors and windows are some of the most important parts of your homemade truck camper.
The most commonly used roof is plywood, weather-proofed with rubber or aluminum and weatherproof sealing tape.
For the siding, fiberglass is a very popular choice, as it’s lightweight, weather proof, and can be stuck on with a very strong adhesive. Aluminum is also popular. Whatever siding you choose, be sure to follow directions, and finish by sealing every possible seam. Wind and water are real experiences, and whipping down the highway in all sorts of weather can easily expose any leaks you might not have attended to.
Last but not least for the exterior come the doors and windows. Select your doors and windows from the RVing section of your local hardware store, because these options are already designed to deal with the trials and tribulations of off-road road trips. These windows are more prepared for travel, and are far less likely to shatter as you cruise down the trails.
Your Truck Topper Interior
There are really just two major qualifications for a camper: Storage space and room to sleep. However, since you’re here, customizing this homemade truck camper anyway, you can throw whatever you need in there to make it your own.
From a full-on micro camper with cooking area, eating area, and sleeping area, to a glorified insulated truck bed, what you do at this point depends on how you plan to use your truck camper. If you plan to cook in it, make sure you’ve installed windows for ventilation. Make sure your storage areas have tie-downs or doors, so that your camping supplies don’t go tumbling all over the interior each time you tap the brakes of your truck.
With the right accessories, you can live in your truck camper full time, but this plan obviously isn’t for everyone. If your goal is to use your truck as a truck when you’re not camping in it, then be sure you’ve got all the right jacks, stabilizers, and tie-downs to keep the truck steady both on and off the bed.
A DIY truck camper isn’t the easiest project to take on, especially the first time. Research is definitely required. However, if you want to construct the perfect camping situation for you, your life, and your truck, a homemade truck camper might be exactly the right way to go.
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This post was originally published on April 30, 2021.