Introduction: Making a Flatbed Off Grid Camper.
In ~8 months we went from having no truck to building a complete off road camper for a family of 3. This will be a high level article about what and how we decided to build the camper. If you want to build your own camper this is not directions on how to build one just at best some suggestions from a guy that bumbled through building their own. As I write up more detailed sub subjects I'll link them to this article. When I decided to start on this project we chose to video most of it. This means though I have fairly little in the ways of stills. Many of the photos will be screen grabs of the videos, its something different and I hope it works out.
I hope everyone enjoys.
There is also a YouTube series I made on this build that is mostly complete. I will add some relevant videos to some steps but they will be supplemental to what I write. Life gets in the way and its honestly taking me longer to do the videos than the build itself. The channel is a combo of the build and trips.
A lot of hand tools.
- Welder with a spool gun
- Table top mill
- Portable band saw (grinders can be dangerous with aluminum.)
- Finger belt sander
- Air rivet gun
- Lots of aluminum
Step 1: Decide to Build
No option is cheap. You have to choose what you want to do there is a balance of time, money and demands on what you want to do. Many people are happy with pop up tents. Van life style builds with integrated pop up roofs or slide in campers like 4wheelCampers. These can vary from 800 dollars to a complete custom build over 100k dollars.
We had a very specific set of wants along with a believed set of skills and finally lots of time. We did the
'responsible' thing when Covid lock downs happened and spent a lot of money buying a building our dream truck.
We wanted these specific things:
- A truck
- 4x4, with a rear locker
- Flat bed truck
- Able to stand up in the camper.
- Power for a fridge but not a built in kitchen.
- Lots of storage space
This put us in a fairly expensive category for a bought out option or a heck of a lot of work to referb a very out of shape camper. Also if you have ever looked at a camper most of them are built just good enough, not necessarily good. Combine this with the lots of time we had on our hands due to all of our trips canceled. It was go time. We figured we could buy a used truck and build a camper on it for less than buying a new F-250 and have exactly what we want.
Step 2: Plan Plan Plan, When Your Done Plan Some More.
We are a Toyota family, for good bad or different. We have 2 Toyotas that we love to wheel. Our first option would be a Tacoma, small truck we can take it anywhere. Then we checked planning layouts with a flip up camper. Hold on, how much weight can a Tacoma carry. Short answer not that much, so once you have a camper on the back the weight is capped out, not including things like recovery gear or off road armor.
Lets take a look at Tundra, its full size. It has more room, more capacity, well not that much only ~300 lbs more capacity. This drove us to a 250/2500 sized vehicle. Even then we go right up to the limit.
Choices to make:
- Vehicle size:
- We chose full size. People can get away with mid sized if 1 or 2 people. Our capacity needs of 3 people drove us to 250/2500 series trucks.
- We chose no kitchen. We have camp kitchen kit and would like to keep cooking smells out of the camper. If in bad bad weather we can still cook in the camper.
- We chose no bathroom. This takes up a lot of space and weight. Along with potential black water tank. We have a tripod toilet with a bag. You can go in the bag or dig a hole and put the seat on top of it. We also have a small toilet tent.
- We chose no shower. Same reason for no bathroom. We have a 3 shower options, solar bag, small 12v pump and a hot sponge style shower.
- We chose to prioritize storage. We have more storage in this camper that we did in the trailer. We also have all the storage less than 24" deep so it is easy to access.
- We choose to have 2 beds. We have 1 large bed over the cab and a secondary bed for the kiddo.
- Camper type
- Fixed roof size: These are normally the best insulated but they can be very tall while driving or you have to crawl around because the roof isn't tall enough to stand in.
- Soft top tent stye: These are often light but can be noisy in wind and offer some of the least insulation.
- Hard top with soft sides: One of the most common. While driving the roof is lower to clear obstacles but when at camp you can walk around inside.
- Hard side pop up: Normally the heaviest and more complex to make. This makes it the most expensive option. We chose this option because because it has good insulation, good weather resistance and in campsites that don't allow soft side tents and campers we can still go with the roof popped up.
Research as much as you can, join Facebook groups, expedition overland website, go to expos and events. Ask people who have campers. Ask them one thing they do like and then what they DON'T like. Doing this drove us to a 4wheel style camper but they are known for not having much storage due to being mostly kitchen. That helped drive us away from kitchens.
We drew up plans, taped out layouts in the garage basically everything short of 3d printing a model to see what we wanted in a camper. Before we had the truck we had an very good idea of what we wanted. Once we got the truck we adjusted the plans slightly to fit the final vehicle. Even the design of the camper is made with mostly 2" x 1" x 1/8" rectangular tubing, we chose this because we want the walls thin but still want rigidity and we wanted a large surface area to apply glue and rivets.
I attached the plans that I started with in this step. Note this will only get you an idea of what I did since I deviated and I didn't bother updating the plan since, well its a camper for me, not for production. But you can see where my plan and reality met.
Step 3: Buy As Much As You Can at Once
Volume purchasing can hurt the wallet to but it you can commonly save 25% and some times up to 50% if you buy enough from a metal supplier to make it worth the large bill at once. It will save you in the overall project.
If you really did step 2, you can plan what you need to complete your project. Some items like major electrical components this doesn't really apply but if you know what you need you can keep a eye on them and maybe buy them when their is a sale. For the raw materials commonly you can get a volume discount. Things like wire and fasteners add up fast and if you know your going to need a lot you can save if you buy in one order. While amazon is great for a lot of things I do not trust a lot of amazon for my technical parts of my build due to us being days away from civilization by vehicle little lone the distance if the things burn down, I could die or worse my wife and kid. Places like McMaster are great but you pay for shipping every time.
If you notice the price for 2x1x1/8" aluminum is $3.19 a foot in my estimate, when I placed my order I had so much they dropped it to $2.43. Saving nearly 25% just by volume. I also bought at a time where there was no demand so I snagged up as much as I could. I bought up nearly 1,000 linear feet of square, rectangle, angle and flat bar. I had to order some 1x1 square tube 3 months later and it went from $1.50 to $3.00 dollars due to demand and lack of volume discount.
Step 4: Prepare the Vehicle
Very few vehicles are designed to have a constant heavy load on them. If the vehicle designed for this, they are commonly not designed to take the vehicle off road, especially under load. Take for example our F-250 has nearly no up travel in the front suspension from factory. This is fine for a road truck but not one that will spend a significant part of its life in the dirt.
When we got the vehicle it already had the flat bed and the bumper. Two things we wanted to add anyway. It had small worn tires on it and while ok rims were not great. We choose to fix these issues with an off road quality suspension from Carli. We went for the shortest lift possible to fit a 35" tire. Suspension doesn't really give you ground clearance in a solid front and rear axeled vehicle, the tires do. The carli lift was a 3" suspension but unlike a lot of other lifts it offers a lot of suspension travel nearly the same as other brands 5 and 6" lifts. Remember this is going off road and off camber (side slope) is part of off road. Off camber leads to roll overs. The rear also has to take a large constant load. We opted for a complete leaf replacement for a constant 1k load. We also chose better rims and mud terrain tires. This thing is going to be every bit of 10,000 lbs. We don't want it getting stuck, we would rather take a cost and mileage hit from going to mud terrain from all terrain tires. Method rims has documents stating their rims take 30% more force to de rim their rim combined with Nitto mud terrains.
Step 5: Electrical Box Build Sub Project
Before I started on this project I had never welded aluminum and had only a slight idea on how to actually assemble this project. We wanted the electrical box to be a separate compartment, we have a 8 1/2' long flat bed so having a 14" deep box we still have plenty of room for a camper.
Why make this box? This box contains an electrical hub of the house battery, manger 30 power controller, air compressor jack, recovery gear and two 5 gallon fuel cans. It also minimized the electrical rat's nest that can happen with making a new wire loom. There is one main power in and a few electrical outputs.
Being a separate sub project I was able to wire the truck and actually camp with it while were building the camper.
Advantages of a separate electrical box:
- Doesn't take room in the camper.
- Allows power for the truck even if the camper is removed.
- Small test bed for figuring out to build the camper.
- External storage
- Centralized location of all electrical.
- Lithium battery doesn't have heat (can have issues in cold weather)
Step 6: Build From the Ground Up
The floor is designed to not lay directly on to the camper. Instead is it built with a combination of 2x1x1/8" rectangular tubes and 1x1/8" square tubes that set the floor 1" above the deck on a series of rails.
We chose this for a few reasons.
- It helps with sliding the camper on the bed of the truck since its on rails.
- This gives us an air gap. Airgaps equals insulation.
- Drainage, if water does get under the camper it can drain out.
- Insulation sits 1" off the deck, we are going to use closed cell insulation, but keeping the insulation elevated lessens the ability to capture moisture the better.
Step 7: Framing the First Wall, and Second
This is going to sound odd, the first wall being exact doesn't really matter. Wait before you get the rope, hear me out. If it fits the floor correctly and you build the second wall directly off the first you should be fine. Yes the whole project could be crooked but if you have 2 of the same rhombus you have a project square to itself.
Now did I do that. NO! No, I didn't but being square is not as critical as being the same. Take your time building it as best as you can within reason. We planned a trip that this had to be built by so we had a deadline that made me progress on the project. I highly recommend a good hard end date to keep large projects moving. I used some fireball tool squares that made this work easier but you can do this if you know how to check square with a tape measure and check twist with masonry string.
To make the second wall exact I built it directly off the first. I used some 1/8" spacers so I didn't weld them to each other but the second wall is clamped to the first so they are the same as I can make them. The only difference at this point of the project was one wall had a large hole where the door is going to go.
How much structure do you need? That is honestly a tough question, you want to frame your doors and windows. If what your are making is going to sit in relative safety it doesn't have to be massively reinforced. Our walls frames aren't much more than just outlines with some interconnecting members. It being made out of welded aluminum helps, but it is also getting skinned in aluminum when we are done too to help with triangulation. This also isn't the end of the wall work just getting them framed up. Weight adds up fast so before you just add support see if they are really needed and if there are lighter solutions.
Step 8: Framing the Front and Rear Walls
The front wall is a plain wall, I cut a series of beams the right length, set them, checked square and burned them in. The rear wall I deviated from my plan and decided to have a large cut out in the back to contain my spare tire. I hate spare tires under the frame of the vehicle. They are a pain to get to while off-road and I just wanted to avoid that completely. Also its cooler to have them up.
In one of the pictures you can see a ratchet strap, these can be used to square up the frame if you don't have it fully welded out by then.
Step 9: Framing Over the Cab
One of the beds we planed on is a roughly queen-sized bed over the cab of the truck. This bed will overhang into the camper 'main room' 24" and be the main storage area for the camper. This overhang also allows for 2 more members to support the bed area that don't stop at the front wall. The reason why this is important is you want to spread out the load as much as possible, we didn't want most of the weight of the overhang pivoting on one member. Instead we have it spread out on the sides all the way down the wall and the center over 24". We also doubled all 4 members, this obviously makes the beams themselves stronger but it also helps spread the load on the front wall down off just the top beam. The outer members were doubled the whole distance while the inners were doubled for half.
Originally I was hoping to have rec tube with rounded corners. I couldn't get that so I ended up with square. I spaced them 1/8" apart from each other and stitched welded them together. The outer ones even got a 1x1 square to help support the sheet of plywood that will be the bed platform. `
Step 10: Making a Hinging Wall
The driver and passenger side walls fold. We choose to have a solid wall pop up camper and these walls are the simpler ones that nest under the front and rear walls. They are rectangles with a 12' long piano hinge each on them. In the first photo you can see they are shimmed to they don't quite touch each other, this is so gasketing can be installed later to have a weather tight seal.
Step 11: Prepping the Other Walls
This being a folding solid walled camper we needed to have the walls designed to nest. This is a fairly easy step that could be easily missed. To do this we folded down the side walls and clamped them in the 'stowed' position. Then we took measurements and notched the top rail of the front and real walls and welded them in. This sets the front and rear folding walls at the correct elevation. The front and rear walls both got the same treatment as the side walls but now about 1" higher to nest.
Step 12: Roof Time
I had a rough idea on how to make the roof and walls work. The problem is I only had a rough idea on how it would work but I was confident in my ability to figure out some way to make it work. To test out a idea I needed a roof first.
Things that we knew. The roof had to span the whole top of the camper. We needed to have the roof over hang the walls by enough to seal the system both on the move and at camp. Finally we needed to have the roof with an opening for a roof vent.
The best way I figured to do this was build it in 3 sections then put it upside down my camper as a table to finish since its the only area I have. Once its built, take the roof outside, flip and re install it.
Step 13: Tying the Walls to the Roof
Way back in step 2 I had a render of the camper 'deploying' this is done with some linkages and well magic. These flat bar linkages just won't work for what I wanted them to do. After a few days thought we came up with the idea of using machine guide rails. The same ones I used on my laser table project. |here| The guides would slide front to back as the roof went up allowing the end walls to arc. The top of each of the end walls would have 2 turn buckles screwed in to blocks connected to the walls that connect to pivots that attach to the slides. Complex, actually not horrible complex just not really common. I used the mill a lot in this step making the blocks.
Step 14: Floors?
Yep floor time. The walls were figured out and we needed to be walking in and out of the camper frame to work on the raising and lowering of the walls. This isn't the time to be tripping on the beams. We installed solid insulation between the frame members and then silkaflex (glue) and riveted 1/8" aluminum sheet as the floor. The 1/8" aluminum with a relatively short span makes a very solid floor. Being glued kills all the creaking you can hear with floors in houses. The floor will get a puzzle foam floor on top so we weren't worried about rivets poking our feet.
Step 15: Walls Skinned
The lifting mechanism in our design has to be external due to how the side walls fold. This means we have to skin the whole project before we start mounting any lifting mechanisms. All the sheet metal is cut rough with a circular saw on a sacrificial board then moved inside, then silkaflex and rivets hold the sheet in place. We then come back with a router with a flush cut bit and cut off the excess.
If you have your saw blade just barely far enough out to cut your metal your board can easily last you a whole project. I still have my 4x8 board that I use.
Step 16: Lift Assist
The roof weighs 100+ lbs. At this time there is going to be 1/16" sheet of aluminum across the whole top its framed and is just large 7 by 12 feet in size. We were hoping that gas struts would be all we would need to do this. In the long run struts alone would not do it. I also choose too strong of strut for our initial design. The anchors for the struts are located so they will actually push the lid closed in the down position.
Step 17: Insulation and Interior Prep
At this time of the build we didn't realize the foley of our ways on the gas strut assist so we decided to move on to insulating and getting the interior celling ready. Insulation was cut to match and spray adhesive used. The interior will get the same covering as the celling did. Fiber reinforced plastic (FRP), it is a tough waterproof material commonly used in commercial restrooms. The FRP is riveted in place.
Step 18: A Handle for All Directions
This oddity was thought up because the roof is designed to be raised and lowered manually. The ability to have a dedicated location to push or pull on and control where the roof goes was essential. Each anchor plate is held on by 4 rivets each with a shear rating of 100 lbs. It is also positioned in a place that assists in getting in and out of the over cab bed.
Step 19: Tiding Up to Get Outside
We need to have this in a place that is ready to go as soon as it rolls out the garage. I still live in suburbia with an HOA I can't have a camper shell sitting in my driveway for 3 weeks. The goal is to have this roll out and on. I then finish the camper with it on the truck.
Pull down clamps are milled along with roof top stops. The sides of the roof are skinned and the doors and windows are installed. The roof is cut to size and ready to install. It will be installed as soon as it gets outside and the next day it will go on the back of the truck.
Step 20: Go on GET!
We used a few cheap furniture dollies to roll the camper out into the garage. Glued and riveted on the roof, installed the camper jacks and waited for the next day.
Step 21: Load It Up
We had to raise the camper in 2 stages, the height of the flatbed was too high for the jacks to get it in pass. We were able to lift the camper high enough to set it on saw horses, reset the jacks to a lower point and jack again to finish raising the camper. The camper was secured to the bed with about 20 bolts on each side with 2" angle. At this time I realize with the roof fully assembled its too heavy to easily lift by hand and can be dangerous to bring down. Time for another plan. An electrical lift option.
Step 22: Test Trip
While electrical stuff was on order we had a quick trip across state to do and we just had to bring the camper. But before that we had to fix an issue with an exposed gap all the way around the roof. Our solution was to use RV seal. This product is used to seal RV pop outs and comes in 3", 4" and larger strips of rubber. We used it as a wiper gasket.
We also ordered a custom foam mattress from foam factory to fit our over cab platform.
Step 23: Electrical Time
So far this project as been completely manual for the camper it self. We need to bring in power for lights, fridge, charging and the lifts.
This box contains essentially 2 different tasks. The left side is the lifter controls, it has some safeties in it and a key that is removed when not in use. This prevents the linear actuator lifters that each have 300lb of force from crushing or tearing out the roof. The right side is the standard camper stuff. Power for all 4 walls, some charging, power for the fridge and out second switch pros panel. We have a matching switch pros in the cab. This lets us turn exterior lights on from either the cab or camper and turn off and on the main power to the camper from in the cab or camper while having lower voltage cuttoff to protect the battery.
Step 24: Actuators!
I wanted to avoid using actuators as much as possible. I am a fan of simplicity, but the actuators make raising and lowering the roof an easy and safer task. We choose some outdoor rated actuators from progressive automations. Added an anchor point to the roof and a sliding anchor point to the plates we used for the camper jacks. We had to slot the bottom supports due to the fact the actuators are 30" throw and our roof is only 28" tall.
Step 25: More Interior Work
Part 1) Lights, we used 2 strips of LED. One red and one white. The red helps if we are opening doors so all the bugs don't come in and if we have to get out at night the red helps keep your night vision. This is wired to a rocker switch on the main panel so only one can be on at a time.
Part 2) FRP, yes more of that wonderful itchy bathroom panel. It really does make for a nice interior.
Part 3) Conduit, we have flat conduit wrap all the way around the camper wall and a strip down the center of the roof.
Part 4) Logistics track, we are huge fans of the L track and it is used to anchor everything inside the camper. If we had to we could strip it all out with a 3/8" hardware and have a box truck.
Part 5) Flooring, we chose some wood patterned puzzle pieced foam it is half inch thick so it matches the hight of the logistics track, its easy on the knees and is added insulation.
Step 26: Come on Interior Is Important
Yes even more interior work.
Part 1) Main cargo shelf added. This bolts into the logistics track.
Part 2) Fridge shelf, yep this also bolts into the logistics track.
Part 3) Benches. You guessed it, logistics track.
Step 27: Dinette/Extra Bed
We installed a table that connects to the wall, in the down position it rests on both of the benches to become a bed for the kid. Its large enough for me to sleep on and I have on the occasion. It works well as you can sleep on it with the top down.
Step 28: SOLAR!
We unleashed the power of the SUN!
Admittingly we did this after our deadline. On our trip we were moving every day and the alternator will more than charge our batteries. We chose to add 400 watts of solar to our roof. It is way more than we need but the panels weren't that expensive and the solar controller in the manger 30 could easily take the power. We chose extra power anticipating 50% max actual use due to being in shade or non prime alignment. With this solar we do not need to plug into shore power if we are planning on being in one location for an extended time.
The panels were arranged in 2 rows on the driver side. We plan on adding a kayak rack on the passenger side and had to leave it open.
Step 29: We Went and Used It
The first year we got it done we spent over a month combined camping in the camper. We drove it all over the western US and took many weekend and long weekend trips in it.
Step 30: But What About the Other Stuff?
This is at 30 steps already. Yes we did things in the cab like radios and lights along with adding a 15,000lb winch to the bumper but I figured this would focus on the camper itself. I also didn't go in to great detail on the electrical box either but figured it deserved a step because you have to address it in the grand scheme of the project.
If you got this far thanks for reading. Heck if you just looked at the pictures thanks for looking even though you won't read this. :)