I'd love to say that this idea just came to me, but it was really forced to come to me. My girlfriend got a job in Alaska and we only had a few months to prepare to move from New England to the Pacific Northwest. Since we're both new grads, we decided to do what ended up being the most cost effective option: make the drive and bring as much of our personal belongings with us as possible. Like heck we were going to move into our studio apartment and start from scratch.
I knew that I would somehow have to convert my 2011 Toyota Tacoma into a camper of sorts. Luckily, I had friends who had already put a lot of thought into their own campers and tiny living quarters and were able to offer their advice of do's and do-not's. Plus, I had plenty of YouTube and Instructables DIY experts who offered knowledge from their builds. Next, I had to figure out what our personal needs were for this trip and how could this build provide as much of it as possible (while being a reasonable novice carpenter). Finally, execute the build and hit the road.
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Step 1: The Shell
I found the perfect shell for the job and at a great price on Ebay (same color as my truck too)! It's a Leer 122--the biggest size Leer makes. The previous owner even installed bars for roof storage. It just needed a little bit of work from me on top of general cleaning:
1. New brake light: I originally thought I could get a new light and connect it to the tow electrical port to avoid drilling a hole to wire it to my brake lights. Such is not the case. You DO need to wire it into the brake lights, but it doesn't require drilling any holes. I admittedly don't know electrical at all, so I got help from a friendly employee at NAPA.
2. Adhesive LED lights: I got a pack of 12 battery-operated warm adhesive LED lights from Amazon. When I say warm, I mean I can hardly believe they're LED. I stuck two toward the front and two at the rear. Made it very homey.
3. New glass for the lift gate: The tempered glass was shattered and needed replacement. I decided to go with plexiglass for the new life of the shell, so I went to a glass store and ordered a section of 1/16" plexiglass. I saved a good chunk of money by cutting it and installing it myself. I had to figure out how to do it on my own since I couldn't find any internet tutorials on it. If anyone's interested, I could make a separate Instructable on how to cut plexiglass and install it into the lift gate.
Step 2: Personal Goals for the Build
This is the most important step of your build because it will be the determining factor of your living space. Let that sink in.
I have to live in this. I want it to be something I can be happy with. I want it to be the best it can be.
I knew that the final product was going to take the shape of a platform with space for storage underneath, but I needed to think about the end goals. What did I really want to see from this platform?
-Storage space: A must. We're brining our lives with us. We need space for food, potable water, utilities, etc that wouldn't be able to fit in the cab or rocket boxes.
-Accessibility: Suppose we need something that's buried deep in the platform. Will we be able to reach it?
-Comfort: This is something we're going to be sleeping on. It needs to have enough room so we can stretch out if we need to.
Great. I think I have an idea.
Step 3: Planning
The bed area on a 2011 Toyota Tacoma long bed is 73.88" x 56.25" (disregarding the wheel wells), which is roughly the area of a full-size mattress. Perfect! That solves the comfort issue. It can also act as a bed once we get to our apartment.
Storage space? We decided to go with 15 inches in depth. It clears the height of the wheel wells and also doesn't interfere with the Toyota bed track system. (My girlfriend was very happy with this since it meant we would be able to pack Itso storage cubes that convert into shelves. Those are 14.75 inch cubes.)
Accessibility? Easy. Add hatches.
I took to building this in three sections. (Wheel wells would get in the way of trying to slide a solid 73.88" x 56.25" x 16" platform in and out of the truck. This made moving in MUCH easier!)
The first section, closest to the cab and in front of the wheel wells, was going to act as a chest. It would have a frame around the top to keep the studs in line and a lid that sat snug within the frame.
The second section sat between the wheel wells. This section would have two hatches, left and right, that would have full access to the storage underneath.
The third section was rear of the wheel wells and up against the tailgate. Storage was accessible from this section by dropping the tailgate, no hatches necessary.
Step 4: Materials and Tools
2x4's - 22 pieces at 15 inches in length (for three of these pieces I used pressure treated wood on the rear section)
1/4 inch plywood - cut in pieces of 52x11 inches, 42.25x36 inches, and 52x25.5 inches
3/4 inch plywood - cut in pieces of 52x11 inches, 36x26 inches (two of these), and 52x25.5 inches
Stainless steel brace - Two pieces of 37.5 inches in length
Stainless steel right angle brace - One at 37.5 inches in length
Half inch thick board - Two pieces at 36 inches
Hinges - I got a pack of three with plates 3/4 inches wide (for the chest) and two packs of two with plates 1 inch wide (for the middle compartment access)
2.5 inch screws
Sander for smoothing out rough edges
Drill bit for pilot holes
Step 5: Mapping It Out
Another thing to note about accessibility and storage space with the three sections is that the end product should be free flowing. What I mean by that is that in each of those sections, storage is not confined to any one section. A pair of skis would not fit in any one section. It would have to flow into two, maybe three sections. The way to make this possible is with a framework of studs that use as few studs as possible while keeping in mind that the frame needs to be sturdy. I maintained the sturdiness by alternating the orientation of the studs systematically. (I've included diagrams of altering the orientation, including images from assembling the tail section.)
Lay out your 1/4" plywood in the truck to ensure the fit. Now is the best time to make sure it fits right!
Step 6: Section 1 - the Chest
The chest section was fairly simple since it's the smallest and not the most weight-bearing. For the chest, I used six studs and a 3/4" thick frame around the top for the studs to be held together. (The materials section says to have this top board cut to a piece of 52x11 inches. You can use this piece to make the frame and the lid. Just be careful about cutting your 3/4" strips.) Drill the studs into the 1/4" ply following the orientation on the included image. Make sure all the studs are right up against the edge and/or exactly in the corners of the plywood. Drill the 3/4" plywood frame into the outer edge of the top of the studs. Set the 3/4" ply lid inside and ensure a good fit (it should fit nicely if you carefully cut pieces from the 52x11 inch piece). Once you believe you have a good fit, add three hinges.
Finally, drill some holes in the lid and slip some paracord through it. This is your handy-dandy handle!
Step 7: Section 2 - the Middle
This was by far the hardest section to plan for (as a novice carpenter). I had to ensure maximum storage space and maximum accessibility while keeping in mind that hatches would have to clear wheel wells AND the shell above. Additionally, the studs would have to remain stable in place somehow. The framework I made for the chest was not going to be sufficient for this heavily load-bearing section. This is what I came up with:
I took the total bed area allotted for this middle section for the wheel wells and split it down the middle into left and right. These would be the hatches that would swing on a fulcrum on the underside.
But you have to set up your studs and supports first. Again, keeping free flowing and alternating framework in mind, set up your studs and drill them into the 1/4" ply. I recessed the studs on the side 4 inches (on center) toward the midline of the section. (Doing this gave a little more aid on the fulcrum when opening the hatch.) For the remainder of the studs, again keep in mind that they need to sit right up against the edges of the 1/4" ply. The stud that sits in the middle of the ply should be set on center, length and width. Once the studs are screwed into place, you can screw in the braces. On the front and back, I used flat metal braces. (Wood would take up more space than a flat metal brace.) In the middle, I used a right angle brace. This helped keep the studs aligned and gave the hatch doors a little extra something to rest on. On the sides, I used wood to stabilize the studs since I had room to spare from clearance over the wheel wells. This allowed the hinges to drill in nicely. Add the two hatch lids (make sure they're centered!) and screw them into place on the hinges.
Now drill some holes and add more p-cord.
Step 8: Section 3 - the Rear
By far, the easiest section to build. No hatches, no hinges. Just sandwich the seven studs between the two sections of plywood. Those three pressure treated lengths are used for the portion that comes in contact with the tailgate. Remember to alternate the studs and keep them flush against edges and corners!
Step 9: Load Up
Now that you're done, you can pack up and move across the country or take that road trip you've always wanted to. Stick a foam mattress pad on top (we did fine with a three inch pad) with some sheets, blankets, and comfy pillows.
Your packing procedure is entirely up to you. We put clothes for the trip in the chest section, apartment amenities in the Itso storage cubes in the hatch access section, and food and drink in the tailgate section.
The last picture shows just how accessible this platform is with all of the pieces put together.
Step 10: Documentation
While you're on the road, get some pretty pictures and let your friend know how you're doing. These ones were taken in North Dakota. We made the vast majority of our meals on an MSR Whisperlite camp stove and made sure to abide by LNT principles.
Step 11: The Apartment Conversion...
Congrats on your new place! Unpack the platform and unload it section by section. Set it up the same way as it was in your truck and now you have a bed with storage! Optional but recommended is taking the two sections of p-cord from the middle and tying them into a knot so the hatches don't open up accidentally if your misplace your weight. Again, this platform is the area of a full sized mattress, so you can settle into your new place with something much more comfortable than a 3" foam pad. Thankfully, we had arrangements with a friend in the area to have her mattress.
The Itso cubes became compact dressers and the foam mattress pad was folded up and fashioned into a couch. I'll admit, I did a fair amount of whining about the storage cubes, but they turned out to be quite the worthy investment.
Congrats on your build! I hope that it's everything you wanted it to be and more.
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