Truck Camper

What is a Truck Camper and How to Build a Lightweight One

Do you need an inexpensive way to camp but want more protection than a tent? A versatile, custom-built truck camper may be the perfect solution! 

Truck campers have been around since the mid-1950s and are a type of RV you carry in a pickup truck bed. This feature makes it possible to take them just about anywhere. 

In this guide I’ll discuss truck camper types, and the steps to build one. 

Truck Camper Types

Truck campers are popular due to how easy they are to transport and park. These campers are also known as a slide-in or cab-over. 

Here is a picture of a standard truck camper: 

truck

There are two main types of truck campers: stationary and removable. 

Some people choose to make a permanent, or stationary, attachment on their truck bed camper. Stationary campers eliminate the hassle of loading and unloading the camper, but also prevent you from using the truck bed for other uses during camping trips. 

More typical are removable truck campers. These use manual or hydraulic jacks and stabilizers to lift the camper so you can drive your truck under the camper portion for installation and removal at home or at the campsite. You secure this style camper to the truck using tie-downs. Removable truck campers allow full use of your truck while camping, and are more stable when moving about inside. 

You can find many commercial-made RV truck campers made to fit on full-size trucks with sufficient payload capabilities. These can be very fancy, with a lot of amenities found in typical RVs. They also can be just as expensive. 

I found that if you have a fair amount of carpentry skills, or know someone who does, you can build a custom truck camper for a fraction of the cost. 

What to Know Before You Build

It is important to know your particular truck’s gross vehicle weight rating before you build. Staying safe during travel to and from your campsite is critical. Overbuilding for your truck framing can be disastrous. 

Gross Vehicle Weight Parameters

Your truck’s gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) will be the starting figure you’ll use to determine what size camper you can build. The GVWR, minus the weight of your truck fully loaded with passengers and fuel is the total payload the truck can safely carry. 

You must take all this into account when determining the maximum size camper truck you can build. Tires and braking capacity are also two important factors when determining maximum payload. A proper payload will not stress your truck’s brake system or axles. 

Not sure where to begin when determining size and weight? 

One way to gain an understanding of what you can build is to take your truck and visit a dealership that sells truck campers. A knowledgeable dealer can assess your truck GVWR and show you campers that will work. This way you can get actual measurements of length and height, and see what amenities are inside. 

Another way to determine your camper’s weight is by using this handy tip. Generally, you can expect your camper filled with camping supplies and water to weigh about 250 pounds per foot. For example, if you’re building a 10-foot camper, you can expect it to weigh around 2,500 pounds when finished and loaded. 

Steps to Build a Truck Camper

There are many steps in building your truck camper. You must determine the overall design, materials used, possible internal electrical and plumbing systems, roofing and siding choices, and internal layout must be determined before you can begin. 

Watching videos online about building a truck camper from scratch is also helpful in understanding the process. I will go over each step of a basic camper build. How you choose to customize it will be up to you. 

#1 – Design

The first step is deciding what amenities you need in your new space. Most desire a bed that is of a comfortable size and storage for camping gear. Others may want a TV, mini-fridge, toilet or more. 

Everyone wants a solid roof for protection from rain or sun, but many like to include windows for ventilation or even a sunroof. Choosing a design that will provide the ability to stand up fully is a nice touch, but not always needed. 

Plan your space according to your wishes, but keep in mind the need to eliminate extra weight wherever you can. Keeping the camper light is the number one priority. Also decide on which type of electrical system you want, if any. There is more on camper electrical systems in that section below. 

The final decision in the design step is to choose whether the camper will fit entirely inside the walls of your truck bed, or if you will be adding lift jacks. Lifts will entail making the sides overhang enough to drive your truck underneath with ease. 

#2 – Framing

Once you have your design plan, you must build your frame to suit. Many people choose to build the frame out of 2×2 or 2×4 lumber. If money is no object, you can choose aluminum framing, which is sturdy yet very lightweight. 

Framing will typically look like this: 

Framing

You can directly frame your structure inside your truck bed, or build it free-standing in a garage. If going with a free-stand build, you may have to use props to stabilize the structure until you can install your lift and stabilization jacks. 

Make sure you use plenty of quality screws and adhesive when joining your framing so it can withstand the bumps and vibration caused by driving. 

This video will give you an excellent visual of how the framing should appear. You can follow the rest of the series to see the entire process, which will provide you with a good overview of what to expect during your build. 

#3 – Plywood Siding

Once you have finished your framing, you will need to side the structure using plywood. Plywood is durable and will take your somewhat wobbly frame and turn it into a rigid box. This is not the final exterior finish, but what forms the solid structural base of your camper. 

Here is an example of plywood siding installed on a truck camper frame: 

Camper

As with the framing, use plenty of adhesive and screws to hold the plywood securely to the frame. The more secure the structure, the longer your camper will last. 

Once the siding is complete, you’ll cut out any window and door openings as per your initial design. The interior studs are now open for any wiring or plumbing additions before you insert the insulation. 

# 4 – Electrical

Truck camper electrical systems can be non-existent, solar-powered, 12-volt using batteries, or employ a 110-volt system. If you choose to have power, now is the time you will need to run your wiring. 

Most RVs of any sort run on a combination of 12-volt and 110-volt power. When not plugged into a 110-volt power plug outside the camper, the 12-volt system will run lights until the batteries lose power. 

Your battery bank can be charged by your truck engine while traveling, or via a converter while parked and plugged into an external 110-volt power source. Some campers use a bank of batteries and an inverter to change 12-volt battery power into 110-volt power to run standard items like a phone charger or coffee maker. 

If you’re camping exclusively at places you know have an external power source, you can wire your camper like a house with a breaker box and other components and plug in when you reach the campsite. If a campsite only offers 30-amp outlets, you can purchase adapters to convert it into a standard plug. 

Off-grid campers rely on solar-power for any power needs they may have. Installing solar-power system components also must be done before finishing off the inside of your camper walls, unless you don’t mind the look of exposed wiring. 

You can read more about what is available for truck camper electrical systems and how to do it yourself here

#5 – Plumbing

Adding plumbing to your truck camper can be as difficult or easy as you wish. 

Space limitations have most people opting out of a toilet when they choose to build the camper themselves. A small sink can be handy. You’ll have to use precious space to install a water heater and have the power to run it if you absolutely must have hot water. 

Camper sinks can use pumps, either electric or manual, to move water to a faucet. Or you can pour water into the basin directly from a bucket or jug. Water from sinks is considered “grey water” and can dispose of it safely just about anywhere. 

You can have the sink water drain directly into a five-gallon bucket that you can dump outside or have it drain into a special container specific for camping use like this one: 

under

PEX is the plumbing pipe material of choice for most recreational vehicles. PEX is easy to work with and can withstand extreme temperature fluctuations and the vibrations from travel. 

If you must have a toilet, a composting toilet doesn’t need any plumbing, but they are expensive. 

A standard RV toilet needs a black tank to hold wastewater. You’ll have to incorporate space for this tank during your design and have proper fittings attached so you can dump the tank at approved dump stations. 

#6 – Insulation

Insulation is an important aspect of your camper. Keeping out the cold or heat will make your camping experience more enjoyable. Using foam panel boards is common, but you can also use traditional fiberglass insulation if your walls are thick enough. 

Run any wiring (or conduit), if needed, then install your insulation material within the studs, leaving open the spaces you will be installing windows or a door. Do not forget to insulate the floor and cab-over section as shown here. 

Insulating cab-over floor

At this point, you can either panel the inside walls and floor completely or leave areas open until you install the framing for storage or seating. 

#7 – Exterior Finish

Putting on the roof and final siding materials are the next steps you need to finish before you can move on with your truck camper build. 

Roof

You can think outside the box and go with a design like this one that uses a corrugated tin for an arched roof: 

Curved tin roof

As unique as that is, you can rest assure that most truck campers have a plywood roof, with solid rubber or aluminum sheeting material on top for weather-proofing. 

A weather-proof tape will seal roof edges, with several brands made for this purpose. Roofing materials and weather-proof tape should hold up for years and are readily available through camping supply stores or online. 

Siding

The siding finish you choose can show off your personality. I have seen wood, metal, and even split logs as a siding choice. 

Most people choose fiberglass panels (sometimes called Filon) that attach with a strong adhesive to the plywood. This siding is usually sold by the foot from rolls like this: 

siding

Another popular option is aluminum panels that can be flat or textured. 

Depending on the siding material you use to finish off the exterior of your truck camper will determine the installation procedure. Follow directions from the manufacturer of the product you choose for the best results. 

Bestseller No. 1
Arctic White RV Fiberglass/Filon Siding (10ft)
  • Fiberglass is 102" Wide and gauge: 0.045
  • Has a protective film that must be removed after installation

A good fit and complete attachment are crucial. You want your siding to have no bubbles and withstand high wind forces from highway travel or severe storms. Seal every visible seam with quality silicone caulk to stop water and wind penetration. 

#8 – Window/Door Installation

Windows and doors made for recreational vehicles are a must for your truck camper. These are made to withstand the beating they will take while driving. They also fit nicely in thin walls formed when framing is done using 2x2s. 

RV windows are thin, lightweight and install from the outside like this: 

window

Some people choose to use standard windows if they did their frame-out using 2x4s, but most camper builders do not suggest it. Doors should be of a high-quality exterior variety to hold-up to the elements. 

Fasten your windows and door securely into the frame with screws. Caulk liberally inside and out around the edges to prevent leaks. 

#9 – Interior Space Amenities

The amenities you wish to add to your interior space need to be built or installed. You can use standard cabinetry for storage, or build custom items that can do double duty, like a bench with flip-up tops for added storage underneath. Top it off with a cushion, and you have comfortable seating. 

Making every inch of space useful will be a fun challenge. Toilets or sinks are not impossible to install, but do your research on what is available for campers and which route you want to go. 

#10 – Interior Finishes and Lift Jack Installation

Whew! Your custom truck camper is nearly complete. Now you have to finish off the interior walls and floors and install lift jacks if necessary. 

Use thin panelling and standard trims to finish off the interior space and paint or stain if desired. Add in any additional shelving, hooks, and latches to keep all your gear secure. 

Now is the time to lay flooring like carpet, laminate or hardwood over your plywood floor. 

If you are using lift jacks, install the equipment per manufacturers instructions to the outside and test for functionality. 

Conclusion

Now you know more about what a truck camper is and how to build one. I hope this information and basic steps on what it takes to make a truck camper will encourage you to create your very own custom version. Being able to experience new places and enjoy the great outdoors is what camping is all about. 

Did you build a truck camper and have great tips or ideas? Share your project with us and help inspire others!

Last update on 2019-06-25 at 21:56

1 thought on “What is a Truck Camper and How to Build a Lightweight One”

  1. Hi there, nice write-up! I recognize the picture you’re using as an example of using plywood siding. I actually built a similar looking camper! Sadly, I never finished it, traded what I did for something else. I thought I should point out that the ‘siding’ is actually the structure. The 2×2 you see were only used in corners as joining surfaces. If you look closely, you can see there’s a third bulkhead in there that was going to be an extension of the bed and a storage area under. It was exceptionally strong and not too heavy, and I was going to lighten it with holes similar to a Glen L design. This was several years ago. I’m working on another now that is 2×2 framing sheathed in lauan for shaping. Strength will come from several layers of fiberglass, which will double as ultimate waterproofing as well, much like Bigfoot or Northern Lite.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.