Introduction: Out West Truck Camper With VW Camper Van Inspired Roof
Wanting to take a longer road trips to Western US from Holland Michigan my wife has always been interested in VW camper vans but with a family of 4 I found it hard to find a camper van that works for our family. Not to mention my concerns with an aging van driving 2000 miles from home. We also considered road treks and newer campers only to find major sticker shock. You can buy a much bigger rv for less than many we looked at. The goal of this instructable is to make a Truck Camper as inexpensive but professional looking as possible using my existing 2012 Ford F-150 extended cab pickup truck however you could follow steps for any pickup. I was planning on building my own frame when I found a universal roof rack from Harbor freight carries a load of 800lbs and would make for a unique off-road rack/camper look for my truck. The rack is adjustable in assembly so it works for most any full size pickup and I found that many modify it slightly to work with smaller trucks as well. This Instructable focuses on the shell only however I will update with interior floor plan along with future ideas. You will most likely want your own interior floor plan and there are a ton of options and instructables on this already.
I found that some VW camper vans open on top strictly for standing room in the camper and others open for extra sleeping space. I decided to design mine to do both so that the back half of the truck would be open to stand up and the front half would still be long and wide enough for 2 adults to sleep in.
This is my 1st instructable so feel free to comment on improvements or suggestions to either the design or to clarify the instructions. I used Autodesk Inventor for the design concept using a great feature called Make Components which allows you to design an assembly much quicker in a part environment and push it out to an assembly later. You don’t necessarily need design software for this project but it is a really helpful for communicating your idea to a spouse that has a hard time visualizing things. I have also been playing around with Fusion 360 for design which works well for hobby market especially since it includes a full cam built in that I use to drive my homemade cnc mill. This project I did not use the mill due to scale of parts but I plan to use it more for the interior cabinets of this build.
Step 1: Supplies
I will give a general list of tools and parts needed however since you may be building to a different truck your needs may change slightly. =
Universal Truck Roof Rack from Harbor Freight or other ($250 with 20% off coupon).
5-Sheets of 1/2" plywood treated or non depending on exterior coating. ($12- $25 each)
(8) 2 x4x8 Treated boards ($4 each)
(2) 2x4x12 Treated boards ($6 each)
Sheets of styrofoam insulation (free to me I had leftover from insulating my barn)
(4) 2" u-bolts ($2 each)
(2) Camper windows 15" x36" ($150 for both ebay)
(1) 26x36 Teardrop trailer door ($300 ebay)
(8) 3/8" x 2 Carriage bolts ($2)
(8) 3/8-16 Nuts ($1)
(8) 3/8 washers ($1)
Box of 2-1/2" Deck Screws ($4)
Box 1" exterior screws ($4)
18x24 plexiglass (optional for upstairs window $12)
1 gallon Titebond 2 Wood Glue (qty depends on exterior coating $17)
(2) gallons exterior paint ($25)
(3) tube of black exterior caulk ($4 each)
(4)panel foam adhesive ($4 each)
(1) tube of liquid nails ($2)
6 Yards of ripstop nylon or duck canvas ($30)
(1) can great stuff spray foam ($4)
(4-5) twin or full size bed sheets ($5 used Goodwill)
(4) 1/4 x 4x8 sheet of osb or paneling ($7.50 each)
Small 5000 Window A/C (optional) ($120 walmart)
Spray waterproof ($9)
roughly $1200-1400 total
Tablesaw and/or circular saw
Sander (hand or power)
2 Hoist points to lift camper on to truck (I have hoist in my barn and I used a cherry picker)
While it would be very handy to have a 2nd person to help with most steps of this project I did entire thing by myself as I refuse to ask for help even when I desperately need it. My wife says I have pride issues but I hate putting people out.
Step 2: Assemble Roof Rack
I won't go into a ton of details as the roof rack comes with instructions but a couple of comments. The rack is easy to assemble but I found it a challenge to assemble and get things into position without them moving on me. This is one area it would be nice to have a second hand. I ended up tightening everything in a best guess position and then raised the rack to my truck to re position everything. I also wish I would have welded the two halves in the center together so that they didn’t slide out. This was a challenge multiple times for me during assembly where I did not realize the center was separating slightly on me which threw dimensions off. Or the 2 halves slid apart fully making the rack come crashing down (fortunately no scratches or broken window). Another idea instead of welding 2 halves is to use a rachet strap pulling 2 halves of rack together till roof of camper is assembled or simply drill through the seam and add a bolt which is probably what manufacturer should have done. Note that I left off a bracket that would have eliminated this problem. the bracket intention is to sandwich and clamp the front half of the rack with the back. You could use this bracket but it would required a large notch in the roof that would have to be sealed later.
In my case I have a Bak Flip Tonneau cover that removes easy minus the track it snaps into. In order to keep the track installed on my truck I decided to position the rack so it fits in the track but this requires me to use larger -c clamps to hold the rack down versus the clamps that come with the rack. I would guess most installs would not need this and you could use the intended rack manufacturer provided clamps to bolt to your truck.
With Rack assembled mount the rack on the truck to make sure everything is in correct position and tighten all bolts down. Since the rack is adjustable to multiple trucks even bolted down I found it easy to bump a leg and move it. I strongly considered welding frame in place but did not because I did not want to repaint the rack. Carefully remove from truck and try not to bump posts to re position the legs of the rack. Again a helper could be used in this case as my attach points to the hoist caused the rack to tweak a bit each time I lifted it.
Step 3: Cut Out Sides and Roof
Next I used cardboard to create templates of each exterior side piece I wanted to fit within the sides of the roof rack (4 sides total). I then traced the templates on 1/2" plywood and cut out with my portable jigsaw. The pieces did not fit perfectly tight to the bars there was roughly 1/8" around all sides which will be caulked later on. Using the trim pieces included with the windows and doors I also traced and cut out the openings and test fit them in place. I cut an additional opening just a bit larger than my rear window opening on my truck in case kids wanted to crawl through from the cab of my truck. I also drilled holes where I decided to put a bolt through the gusset mounts of the roof rack. For the roof I cut out notches to fit around the rack and also an opening to get into the loft area. I basically glued and pieced 4x8 sheets to cover entire rack. Unfortunately I needed a seem along the length of the roof so I glued with titebond II. I was able to make the seem under the final roof cap so even if it is not perfect water tight it should be ok.
On the sides I then sanded and filled in with wood filler some of the highs and lows of the panels. I did not go crazy here just knocking out some of the roughness. This is so that when I used the poor mans fiberglass it would have a smoother surface. Note, I was wishing I would have purchased sanded plywood as that would probably make for a nicer surface but overall I am happy with the smoothness of the fiberglass.
Step 4: Fiberglass
There are some good instructables on this subject already. Thanks to rowerwet for his instructable which I followed much of what I saw https://www.instructables.com/id/Poor-Mans-Fibergla... . Check out the video on his instructable for a very nice tear drop trailer built this way.
This was my first time and I was pretty happy with the results. I bought some bed sheets from goodwill and cut them to just a bit bigger than each sidewall piece. I found a gallon of dark gray exterior oops paint at home depot and purchased another gallon mixed in the finished coloar I wanted charcoal grey. I chose to mix titebond II with the paint and water to thin the mix down. I then roller painted the plywood and the backside of the sheet, I then placed the sheet in place and rollered more on top to get a good wet finish. I continued to do this till the sheet was well saturated pulling to stretch the sheet a bit. I then folded over the ends and rollered the backside as well. I did not do the best job on the backside as I had some areas peel away however a few placed staples held it in place. I then gave a week to dry while I was on vacation but it was pretty dry in 24 hours. Overall I am happy with the results.
Windows and doors were roughly placed at this time for fit check and to get idea of look.
Step 5: Roof Top
For some reason I did not get a good picture of the roof piece that hinges open before I fiberglassed it but it was really simple construction with treated 12' 2x4' sides and 48" 2x4 ends with plywood accross the top. I did put one brace offset from middle where an 8' sheet of plywood ended. I then used the same steps to poor mans fiberglass but this time I did not have one sheet for whole thing I broke it into smaller manageable sections. You can see the seems but not as noticeable on roof.
Step 6: Bolt Down Roof, Brace Sides and Insulate
I found at home depot in the drywall section some galvanized channel. I spray painted it black and pressed on the edges of my roof plywood sheets for a nicer look. Note that wherever it interfered I had to trim it with tin snips.
I used 2" U-bolts (pictured) to drill through the roof to hold down to the roof rack cross bars. The roof is technically trapped inside the roof rack so it will not lift off but a few bolts really help secure it down. I also glued and screwed corner braces out of 2x4s on the inside. The back wall flexed a bit till I did this.
Before insulation I stapled some wire for a future light on the ceiling. I thought about wiring for outlets as well but decided to make outlet plugs later on the lower half. I did run an extension cord as well to give power to upstairs after walls are completed.
I had some 5/8" styrofoam insulation left over when I insulated my pole barn but you can use whatever size you want. Keep in mind that it changes the thickness of your walls which might help or hurt your windows and door installation. I roughly cut the Styrofoam and used panelfoam glue to glue in place (you can find this adhesive in the same isle as insulation at home depot). Once that set up I used some great stuff foam can insulation to fill in cracks and gaps on end. This leads to the outside in some places so be ready to cleanup the exterior in places that are needed.
Once the spray foam insulation is dry I cut it back a little for room for exterior calk. I calked all the remaining joints for a water tight seal.
Step 7: Interior Walls
I decided to go for a unique look on the interior where I purchased 1/4" osb 4x8 panels to be the interior surface. The price is good and I have seen cases where people stained and clear these for a nice look. I made new templates similar to the outside panels to cut out the shape needed. 1 side of the osb is smoother than the other so I made sure the smooth side was the facing wall and not the rough. I purposefully used long bolts for the outside panels which protruded inside so that I could bolt this interior panel in place at least till glue set up. I plan to use what is left of these bolts for strong TV and other appliance mounts. Once I test fit all the pieces I decided it might be easier to stain and clear with panels removed. I lightly sanded everything before staining and clear.
Once the clear dried I used more panel foam glue to glue the osb to the now glued in place stryofoam. I then bolted in place with the long exterior bolts that protruded inward from the outside.
Finally I caulked the corners to trim corners. I wish I would have done this on the outside but I put painters tape down first to caulk the corners and then before the caulk setup I removed the tape for a nicer look.
Step 8: Lid Extended Sides
I decided to go with a hard end that hinges down and then have 2 soft sides. This serves 2 purposes in 1 in that it provides 1 of 3 needed walls but also provides support to hold the lid up. I thought hard about which way to hinge up or down. In other words hinging to the roof rack so the wall flips up, or hinging to the upper lid so the wall swings down. You could go either way but couple things to consider. The lid is a bit heavier to initially lift with the wall hinging off of it however I felt it was worth the extra weight in that as you lift gravity pulls the wall down automatically and helps for 1 person setup. Otherwise it is a bit tricky to hold the lid up while you swing the wall in place unless you have a temp leg etc to prop it up.
For me air conditioning is a must. I find I sleep a lot better if it is cool and since I was going to be driving long distances sleep is a big deal. Unfortunately I could not find a small enough air conditioner that fit downstairs without me offsetting the entry door to one side. This hurt my bed placement so I decided to make a cut out in the upper hinged hard side wall to manually set an air conditioner in place each night. I thought about portable air conditioner but I did not want to loose interior space. This isn't ideal because I need to store the window unit as I travel and then lift in place each time we stop to camp. I am curious of your ideas on a better solution to this?
Update: Now that I have opened the lid a couple times I switched the hinge to the bottom so that the hard wall opens the other way and is not connected to the lid. I am finding the easiest way to open the lid is from inside the cab and just pushing up. It is a bit of a juggle to push up on lid and at same time let the wall swing down. It was not bad before but I think with the wall swinging up into place works better with one push in one motion. I also found that my placement of air conditioner is not ideal in the center where the condensate drain drips on your back as you are entering the camper door. Additional pictures show the re-made wall where I added a window versus the air conditioner opening. I made a simple 2x4 spacer ledge for the window air conditioner to sit through the side soft wall opening.
I bought duck canvas for the soft sides of the roof and folded diagonally and cut the canvas in half to make 2 triangle shaped sides of the loft area. I then folded a small 1" seem and stapled through the fold to the inside face of the 2x4's on the lid. For the bottom I decided that it would be nice to get a bit wider than the lid so I glued magnets to the canvas and notched it to hold tight to the rack. This means you need to pull the canvas up and tuck inside before closing the lid but I figured there would be some tucking either way. I plan on in the future to make some tie off points in the canvas to further secure it in case we hit high winds and need to make sure canvas stays put.
Step 9: Gap Seal for Truck Window to Camper Opening
I decided to close the gap between the truck center window and the camper by tracing out on cardboard the rough opening size for the sides. I then cut some osb to match the opening with about a 3/8" gap so the wood is not rubbing on the window. I then glued and used small screws to hold the gap filler pieces in place. Finally using foam I cut pieces that were slightly larger than the 3/8" gap so that it would press against the window. Using panel foam adhesive I glued these pieces of foam to the wood osb. I know this is cheap but I got this foam from the packaging that the door came shipped with. It seemed perfect in that it was a good mix of pliable and stiff and the packaging came with plenty of it.
I started the interior but it will be a work in progress as we camp to make more changes. I started with plywood cut to shape of the front of the bed of my truck with short vertical 2x4 pieces. I also added short vertical 2x4 pieces for the backside connected to the topper. I then cut 2x4's to span accross that are bolted in place so they can be removed. This way there is no center legs to hang up on for storage. I then used deck joist hangers for pieces that can rest in between. I then cut osb pieces for 2 benches. I also made a simple ladder that hooks on top for easy access to loft.
Step 11: Final Steps/ Future Plans
. I also have some finishing calking and trim work on inside. Lighting will be needed soon as the dark stain and dark canvas makes for a dark room (you might consider going lighter colors for this reason). I also need to do some waterproof testing to make sure all my exterior joints are sealed well.
Here are some Future Plans that I thought I would share. Please comment if you have suggestions for interior or anything that will make a long trip more comfortable.
-Vinyl windows in soft sides to let in more light or plexiglass in hard side above a/c
-Simple ladder to get into upstairs loft
-TV Mount in the forward section of the camper
-Downstairs bed that converts to 2 benches
-Seal between cab of pickup and topper
-Simple sink and drain
-Cabinets and storage below downstairs bed
-Solar Panel on the roof that recharges deep cycle batteries for power (enough to do air conditioning ??)
-Tailgate shelf for additional supplies and storage as well as a possible outdoor kitchen
-Roof solar water tube for hot/warm water supply
-Ski bag for extra storage for the small gap between lid and roof rack.
-Grab handles for easy entry
-Trailer hitch rack for additional supply storage
-Roof or lid ventilation
-Small refrigerator or electric cooler
-Lift struts to help ease the weight of the lid when opening
-Kayak racks over lid
-Roll up Awning out back
Overall this was a blast project to build. I dislike projects that have long tedious steps (like re-roofing my house) and this project did not have any. Took me about 3 weeks to complete the shell.