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Build Your Own Camper
Why a camper instead of a van or RV?
RV’s offer more space and luxury, and vans have more room and great stealth, so why would you want a camper instead? I believe there is only one reason to choose a camper over a van and that is their off-road ability. If you want to get into the back-country, sometimes you have to have a high clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicle. Utah is a terrific example of this. There are some really amazing sights that a 4X4 truck camper can drive to that can’t be reached by any standard van (even minivans with all-wheel drive) or RV. The guide books and websites are full of warnings about the need for high clearance or 4X4. There are places like that in every state. If you don’t think you will want to go to those places, then I think you are better off with a high-top van or RV.
Why build your own camper?
Wouldn’t it be easier to just buy a new or used camper? Of course it would, but there are several good reasons why you may want to build your own instead of buying one already made:
Off-Road Ability: If you want to get further into the back-country, a homemade camper is a huge advantage. It will weigh much less, making it easier to climb and go down hills. It will not be as top-heavy for off-camber and sideways stretches of “road.” And it will not be as wide for those tight areas. My truck will never be as nimble as a Jeep, but it can go a lot of places a full-size camper can’t.
Cost: a good new camper is going to be a lot of money. If you have the money, that’s fine, but if you don’t, what are you going to do? In some areas there is an abundance of older used campers for low prices. But they come with the all the problems associated with older RV’s such as water leaks, hidden water damage, appliances that don’t work, and things breaking at the worst possible time. By building your own, your cost is going to be much less and it won’t fail you in the middle of nowhere. If you go and buy everything you need at Home Depot and WalMart you can probably build a minimum plywood camper for $600. If you scrounge for used lumber and find deals you can build it for less. A few examples:
- I bought my vent for $5 at a garage sale.
- I got the ladder for free at another garage sale.
- I bought the windows off eBay for a fraction of their price new.
- I got one window for free out of a wrecked shell.
- All of the screws came from garage sales.
- My Honda generator came from a classified ad.
I didn’t have the cash needed to buy a new or used camper so I built my own. As I had the money, I bought the lumber and supplies I needed. One paycheck bought the walls, another bought the roof, another bought the windows, and so on until it was done.
Space: Slide-in campers are much larger on the outside than most home-built campers. They extend out on both sides about a foot, over the cab 4 to 6 feet, and sometimes several feet past the end of the bed. However, all that space is taken up by the many systems it offers. For a kitchen you get a refrigerator, oven/stove and overhead fan to cook, a sink to clean the dishes, and a dinette to eat at. Usually there is a closet or pantry somewhere. Then there is a bathroom with shower, toilet, and vanity . The cab-over is the bed and may be some storage space. My problem was I didn’t need any of that stuff. If you read the how-to articles on this site you will see how to get by very comfortably without any of these things. By building my own camper, I don’t have to spend my money on all those things I don’t need. Nor do I have to give up the space they require or carry around all their weight.
Weight: Commercial campers are very heavy because they offer so many features. Their weight means that they require at least a 3/4 ton pickup. You can risk it and put one on a smaller pick-up, but in the long run it isn’t worth the risk. Those trucks weren’t designed to carry that extra weight and the best you can hope for is that everything will wear out faster and eat you up in repair costs. The worst you can expect is a catastrophic failure leading to a severe accident and even death. If your insurance company finds out you were overloaded at the time of an accident, they may refuse to pay. Let me give you one example. My 1993 Ford F150 came equipped from the factory with tires rated at 2,000 pounds each. So I can put 4,000 pounds on my rear tires. Most full-size campers will weigh that much when filled with water, propane and all the things I need to live in them full-time. That means my tires would be very dangerously overloaded! That is just one example. The brakes, axle, suspension, cooling system and engine weren’t designed to carry the weight either and all can fail at any time. Some people do it and get away with it for years. If you are willing to take that chance that is for you to decide but I am not.
Gas Mileage: This is where you really pay for all those extra luxury features. A 3/4 ton truck with a large camper is going to need a big gas or diesel engine. If you have the money to buy a newer diesel rig (or even some very new gas engines do okay) you can get some pretty good mileage. If not, then you are going to get very poor mileage. Older diesel engines can also give you good mileage but with much greater risk of putting money into them. While it’s true diesel engines last much longer, when something does break it is going to cost much more than a gas engine. I believe they are going to nickel- and-dime you much more than a gas engine. The best compromise is a home-built camper on a mini-truck (I prefer Toyota and Nissan, but that is a personal preference). You can get an affordable older pick-up with a large 4 cylinder engine and build your own camper for a reasonable amount of money and get pretty good gas mileage as well. The long-term cost of depreciation, gas, repairs, and maintenance will be much less than any full-size truck/camper. The trade-off is a smaller pickup bed and less living space. Only you can decide if it is worth it to you
So you have decided to build a camper
Since you are reading this, I assume you have basic carpentry skills and the tools to do the job. Essentially, what we are doing is building a small house, except it is on top of the bed of your truck instead of a foundation.If you have never done any house-framing, I recommend you go to the library and check out a few books on house-framing and study them before you start building. Because the camper will constantly be subjected to high winds and vibration, we aren’t going to use any nails, everything will be held together with 3 inch deck screws (not sheet rock screws, they will rust out). So our main tools will be a drill/driver and Skill saw. If you need tools, I highly recommend the Ryobi Cordless Kit at Home Depot. For $99.00 on sale you get the drill, saw, 2 batteries and the charger. The batteries charge reasonably fast and last a long time. You can add tools as you need them. The light is very handy as is the jigsaw. A square, tape measure, and pencils are essential. Remember the old saying, “Measure twice, cut once.” If you don’t work with wood often, take your time and think everything through before you take the next step. “Dry Assemble” all the parts together every step of the way. This will help you to find your mistakes before you make them and visualize how everything fits together like a jig-saw puzzle.
This article assumes you are building with 2×4 lumber and plywood sheathing. Why wood? First and foremost I know how to work with wood and have no knowledge of working with aluminum or fiberglass so I have no choice. But, it’s so easy to work with wood that I have no regrets about using it. Some advantages with wood:
- Wood doesn’t transmit heat and cold the way metal does. When the summer sun is making the inside of an aluminum camper miserable, it has no effect on wood.
- Wood is easy to maintain. Every few years you may have to put another coat of paint on it but that is about it. That will only take you an afternoon and a gallon of paint.
- It’s easy to modify wood. A drill, jigsaw and caulk is all that is necessary to add a window or vent. If you want to add a cup hook all you need to do is screw it in. If you want more insulation, just nail up another sheet of styrofoam insulation.
Why are we using 2×4’s instead of 2×2’s? While it is true that the 2×2 is strong enough and is lighter, there are many more reasons not to use it.
- 2×4’s don’t cost more, and may even cost less.
- It is becoming harder all the time to find quality wood without warps or twists. And this is very important to us otherwise the camper won’t be square. It is much more likely that a 2×2 will be warped or will warp after you use it.
- It is much harder to drive two 3 inch screws into the end of a2x2 without splitting it. With all the wind and vibration our camper will face we want as many screws as possible.
- 2×4 walls make good shelves. If you don’t insulate or put up paneling, you can turn your walls into 3 1/2 inch wide shelves.
Building The Walls:
The drawing below is a view of what your wall will look like. On the top is an exploded view of the pieces you will need to build the wall. On the bottom is a view of the wall assembled but without the plywood. I can’t give you lengths of the cuts because every pickup bed is different. While you will have to do the measuring for your truck, the basic ideas will be the same for every truck. I am assuming you will want an overhang over the cab with the very aerodynamic front “scoop.” I didn’t have a scoop when I first built this camper, and I regretted it the first time I drove it. The wind buffeted the truck so badly that I added a scoop within the week. One huge advantage of building your own camper is better gas mileage and this is one of the most important things you can do to get that better mileage.
The wall will be built in two parts. The lower part has a 2×4 the length of your bed on the bottom, and a longer 2×4 on top that is the length of the scoop. The height of the bottom half of the wall depends on the height of your pickup cab. You need the cab-over to be at least 2 inches above your cab or they will rub each other when the frame flexes. For example, I have a 7 foot bed on my F150 so my bottom 2×4 is 7 foot long and the top is 8 foot long so I have a 1 foot cab-over. When I realized how badly I needed one, I added a scoop
The upper part of the wall has a 2×4 the length of the scoop on the bottom, and a 2×4 on top determined by the rear angle of the scoop. The height of the upper part determines the inside height of your camper. I wanted to make construction easier and keep the total height of the camper low so I designed my camper to be 48 inches high. That way I didn’t have to cut a sheet of plywood except for the cutout for the cab-over. However, I can’t stand upright inside my camper, I have to stoop slightly. If you don’t want to stoop, you may need to make your walls higher.
Once built, screw the two halves of the wall on top of each other. Once you have the walls framed, lay them on top of the plywood and trace around them to know where to cut. The easiest way to cut plywood is to lay some 2×4’s on the ground, drop the plywood on top of the 2×4’s, get down on your knees on top of it and make your cuts. Raise the blade so it just barely cuts through the plywood. When the blade pulls through it will splinter the wood, so put the good side down so the framing will cover the splintered cuts and the outside will look nice. If your wall is longer than 8 feet you will have to have a joint. Make sure there is a 2×4 centered below the joint to screw into. If there is a joint, put it at the back so that the piece covering the cab-over is solid, which will add to it’s strength. I find it easier to paint the plywood before I mount it on the wall. Use 1 5/8 inch deck screws to attach the plywood.
Building your camper is a lot like chess, you have to think 2-3 steps ahead all the time. The height of the side walls is a good example. I wanted my wall to be 48 inches high so I didn’t have to cut a sheet of plywood. But, what would have happened if I had failed to leave room for the cross pieces for the roof? I used 2×6’s to go across the roof from wall to wall and they are 1 1/2 inches thick. If I built the framing for the wall 48 inches high, the plywood would not have covered the 1 1/2 inch gap for the cross-pieces. So I built the wall frame to be 46 1/2 inches high and it worked perfectly. Another chess move is the length of the side wall. You have to think ahead and leave room for the plywood on both the front and back walls of the camper. If you are using 1/2 inch plywood, you have to reduce the length of the wall 1 inch to leave room for the front and back plywood. The plywood has to overlap to give the camper it’s strength. Another consideration for the length of the wall is do you want to be able to close your tailgate? If so, you will probably have to shorten the wall even further.
The Front Wall:
Below is a drawing of my front wall. The top is an exploded drawing of all the components. I have included the plywood on the outside to show why you have to add an inch to the plywood. The heavy black lines with the 3 1/2 below it is the two outside walls.
The front wall (the one behind the cab) on my camper needed to be 72 inches wide. But I built the framing 64 inches wide to fit between the two outside walls and cut the plywood for the front wall 72 inches wide to cover the two side walls and their plywood sheathing. The height of the plywood is only high enough to cover where the two 2×4’s extend out over the cab. The reason we are not covering the whole front is because we want to reach into the cab-over from the camper. We will need to cut a piece of plywood as a bottom of the cab-over. You may be wondering why there is 2×4 across the middle of the wall. That is so you will have something to screw the top of the plywood into. To mount it, screw a short (6 inch) piece of scrap 2×4 into the frame at the right height and screw the cross 2×4 down into it.
You are going to need some help to assemble the side and front walls. They will each be done and painted by now. If you are going to have a window in the front wall, you will have already mounted it (you planned ahead to leave room for it if it extends out didn’t you?). Lift each side wall up onto the bed, a few feet from the front, and screw the pre-measured and cut 2×6’s that run across for the roof. The 2×6’s lay flat on their side. With friends holding each wall in place up on the bed of the truck, screw the front wall into both side walls. Using 1 5/8 deck screws, screw the overlapping plywood into each side wall. Next, slide the whole unit forward into it’s final position. Be very careful in all this as it is pretty easy to have it slide off.
Once in position, drill a 3/8 inch hole down through the plywood and through the top of the bed rails. Use 1/4 by 2 1/2 inch bolts with nuts and lock washers to attach the camper to the truck. Three on each side wall and 2 on the front wall will make it very secure.
Most roof joists stand on their end for greater strength. I decided to lay mine flat for simplicity of attachment and to keep overall height as low as possible. I made up for that by adding more joists running across. The joints of the plywood should run across with the 2×6’s so you can screw down into them, which means you need a 2×6 centered every 4 foot. I cut the plywood so it hung over each side 1 inch. Caulk the joint underneath all around. You will probably want at least one vent which are standardized at 14 inches by 14 inches. So plan on having 14 and 1/8 inches between at least one set of joists. Put the vent in before you waterproof if possible.
To waterproof the roof, first I used a good latex caulk on all the joints. Next I applied Henry’s Roof Patch (from Home Depot, looks like black tar) and slathered it liberally over the joints and around the vent. After the Henry’s, I painted the roof with the blue paint I had used to paint the walls (exterior latex I bought at WalMart). Over that I put down 3 coats of the white, elastic Snow Seal for RVs. It has worked perfectly, never had any leaks, not a drop. It shows no sign of wear even now. Surprisingly, the joints at the corners of the walls were troublesome for me. So I caulked them with silicon and got a roll of putty tape from the RV store and put that on. Then I screwed a 1×3 board over the tape as a decorative cover. Looks good and really seals them. No more leaks.
I left about a 6 inch overhang over the back. I considered leaving a 2 foot overhang off the roof, leaving the tailgate down, and making it a porch. However, I wanted a ladder to get up on top and couldn’t figure a way around a 2 foot overhand, so I ended up with just 6 inches.
The Back Wall:
The back wall is pretty straight forward. First, measure the inside distance between the two side walls. Mine was 64 inches. I wanted my door to be 36 inches wide. So I needed to build two 14 inch walls to screw into the end of the two side walls. Then you use hinges to attach the door to one side and a padlock and hasp on the other wall. For added strength I made the walls about 5 inches shorter than the side wall and put a 2×4 across.
Well, that’s about it, I hope I have inspired you to build your own camper and given you enough information to be able to do so, or decide against it if it is not for you. There are a lot of details that you are going to come across that I haven’t covered because they are just too hard to explain in an article this short. Be sure you are able to cope with the unexpected carpentry details before you decide to build your own camper. Thanks for reading, and good luck.