How to build a lightweight truck camper

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

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Do you own a truck, want to camp, but don’t like tent camping and can’t afford an RV?

No worries! You can build a truck camper that’s lightweight and custom-finished to your needs.

Making a truck camper isn’t as difficult as you imagine, and it’s an affordable option for camping enthusiasts on a budget.

Stay here to learn all about truck campers, then follow the tutorial on how to build a lightweight truck camper that will fit your camping style!

What Is a Truck Camper?

A lightweight truck camper

Back in the 1950s, the idea to add an enclosed camper to the bed of a pickup truck became a reality.

Since then, truck campers have become a highly-popular segment of the RV industry. Owners love the simplicity and lower cost of a truck camper versus a motorhome or travel trailer.

Truck campers are one of the smaller recreational vehicle choices being only eight to 12-feet in length.

Most truck campers detach from the truck bed and stand on legs, freeing the truck for other uses during camping trips.

A truck camper’s benefit is that it’s a step up from tent camping without the hassles you have with standard RV fuel expenses, parking, or maneuvering in tight spaces.

Most states don’t consider a truck camper an RV that needs a license plate, registration, or other documentation except:

  • Idaho
  • Indiana
  • Mississippi
  • Montana
  • Oregon
  • Rhode Island
  • Tennessee
  • Utah
  • Washington

The remaining states consider a truck camper as cargo.

The only real downfall of a truck camper is that many private RV parks don’t allow them due to insurance reasons, as once the unit detaches from the truck, it can be unstable.

Is It Legal for Passengers to Ride in a Truck Camper While Driving?

It’s legal for passengers to travel inside a truck camper in most states.

Some states have age restrictions on passengers or other rules. If you plan cross-country travel, do your homework on state laws to stay legal as you traverse your route.

Types of Truck Campers

The two main types of truck campers are:

STATIONARY TRUCK CAMPER

Some people prefer to keep their camper permanently attached inside the truck bed and either build it that way or bolt a pre-made unit down and remove the jacks and stabilizers to free up weight and space.

Not having to set up and remove the camper at each stop saves time and stress but prevents using the truck bed for any other purpose.

REMOVABLE TRUCK CAMPER

A truck camper in a desert

Removable truck campers are much more prevalent. This type of camper shell has manual or hydraulic-powered jacks and stabilizers.

Removable truck campers use the jacks to lift the truck camper high enough to let you drive your truck bed under or out from under the unit so you can load or unload it.

When off the truck, the camper relies on the jacks and stabilizers to hold the unit level and prevent swaying, so they need to be very durable.

The use of extra tie-downs or strapping during driving provides additional security against bumps or sharp turns that could dislodge the camper from the truck.

Cost to Buy vs. Build a Truck Camper

New truck campers start around $12,000 and go as high as $48,000 for a deluxe model with slideouts. Used truck campers are selling for $3,000-$10,000.

A DIY truck camper will cost between $300-$6,000 depending on your choices of size, material, amenities, and finishes. Lift kits add a good deal of expense to the overall build.

Starting from scratch allows you to create the camper of your dreams and control the overall budget.

Low-cost Truck Camper Build Options

Suppose you’re on a tight budget and only want protection from the elements while camping.

You might be able to spend $300 for framing, siding, and roofing to create the box. You can opt to leave the interior wood unfinished and forgo anything aside from a mattress.

Even if you design an interior with cabinetry or other amenities, you can still keep costs low by not installing plumbing or electrical systems.

Instead, go with a portable or composting toilet if you want that convenience and utilize an RV portable power station you can plug into for lights or charge devices.

The best part about a DIY truck camper is that you can complete the bare minimum to create a haven to start camping and add other features as time and budget allow.

Luxury Truck Camper Build Options

It’s easy to trick out your DIY truck camper build with the latest gadgets and luxury materials, but you’ll quickly reach the $5,000 mark or more.

Complete plumbing systems, skylights, and kitchen areas with fancy fixtures can set your camper apart from all others, but it comes with a hefty price tag.

Setting up a power bank for solar or engine charging alone can cost $2,000 for the batteries and components. Unique exterior siding, such as faux split logs, can also boost the final price tag.

WARNING: Keep in mind your exterior design choices may come back to haunt you, especially if you plan to stay at RV campgrounds that allow truck campers.

Some parks are very picky about a campers’ appearance and may forbid your unusual choice of siding or color scheme once you arrive for check-in.

Things to Know Before Your Truck Camper Build

A truck camper in a parking lot

Weight Capacity of Your Truck Model

Before you start your truck camper project, you’ll need to know your truck’s GVWR (gross vehicle weight rating) so you can build a safe unit for travel.

While this project focuses on a lightweight truck camper build, you’ll still need to keep the overall weight of these items in mind:

  • Framing, siding, and lift jacks
  • Interior buit-in amenities (cabinets/bed frame)
  • Appliances
  • Battery bank (if installing power)
  • Furniture/decor
  • Food, clothing, camping supplies
  • Weight of passengers and fuel

If combining all of the above exceeds the weight of your truck’s rating, it can lead to damage to the tires, axles, and framing or end up causing a disastrous failure.

Truck Camper Size and Truck Compatibility

Overbuilding your truck camper’s height can lead to it becoming top-heavy, especially if you build upper cabinets to hold camping supplies.

Driving at highway speeds on windy days, quick lane changes, or making sharp turns can create so much force against your truck camper that it can tip over unexpectedly.

Also, take into consideration if your truck has lifted tires. The higher the truck bed, the more top-heavy your truck camper will be, and you may want to shorten your truck camper’s ceiling height to offset the difference.

Lastly, take good measurements of your truck’s bed. Every make and model of a pickup truck can have different bed widths and lengths, especially around the wheel wells.

TIP: If a DIY truck camper build is on the horizon, take the truck you plan to use to an RV dealership that sells truck campers.

Let the salespeople show you models your truck can support. This “trick” allows you to visualize what size camper shell you can build and what amenities you can expect to install inside.

Steps to Build a Lightweight Truck Camper

A hard-shell truck camper

Truck Camper Build Supply List

You’ll need these materials to build a basic truck camper frame:

  • Wood 2×4 or 2×2 or Aluminum framing
  • Plywood
  • Foamboard or batting insulation
  • Metal foil or rubber sheeting for roof
  • Exterior siding (Vinyl or PVC is lightest)
  • Trim to finish off siding and roof junctures
  • RV specific door and windows
  • Nails, screws, brackets, construction adhesive, silicone caulk

Additional materials to finish off the truck camper will be up to you and your budget.

Step 1. Create the Truck Camper Design

Draw out the dimensions of your truck bed and the size and shape of the truck camper shell you want to create.

Use this sketch to build your framing plan so you can count up how much lumber you’ll require and where you need to increase support at points of stress.

Don’t forget to add windows to allow for light and cross ventilation, but a camper with only a door will have fewer leak issues.

Will the camper be removable? If so, the framing must extend over the truck bed to leave room to install lift jacks.

If you plan to add electrical wiring or plumbing, sketch out where they go within the framing.

Here are some great DIY truck camper inspirations from It’s Overflowing to get you started.

Step 2. Cut and Build the Truck Camper Frame

Most people build the truck camper frame out of 2×2 or 2×4 lumber since it’s readily available and less expensive. Aluminum framing is strong, lightweight, and won’t rot but cost more.

Using 2x4s adds weight but gives you more room for insulation which comes in handy if you plan to camp in cooler weather.

If you construct your frame inside the truck bed, you can eliminate any mistakes with an improper fit that could happen if you build it free-standing.

Start building the frame around your truck bed, and use clamps to hold studs securely until you have a chance to screw them together. Don’t forget to add framing to support the door and any window openings.

TIP: Road vibrations are way more damaging than you think to recreational vehicle structures. Add construction adhesive between joints wherever possible to create an even stronger bond over screws or nails alone.

Camper Truck Build – 3 Frame (Video)

Step 3. Cover the Truck Camper Frame With Plywood

Next, you want to cover the framing with 1/4″ plywood to firm up the structure.

Thicker plywood is more durable, but you’ll need to be sure your truck can handle the extra weight.

For flooring, use a minimum of 3/4-inch plywood since it needs to withstand furniture and occupants’ weight when off the truck bed.

Use ample construction adhesive anywhere wood contacts wood to increase strength.

Step 4. Lay in Any Plumbing or Electrical Lines

If you’re adding power or water to your truck camper, now is the time to lay in your lines, terminations, or outlets.

You can drill through 2x4s to make room for PEX water lines and electrical wiring or opt instead to run them over 2×2 framing near the ceiling or floor and create safe covers to hide them later on.

You can opt to install a residential-style breaker box if you plan only to camp where there’s shore power and install an exterior power cord with a plug that’s adaptable to a standard 30-volt RV outlet.

Plumbing is possible as long as you plan your design accordingly. Think about how you’ll drain grey or even black tanks (by hose or by removal and manual dumping), so you can create accessibility.

Step 5. Insulate Truck Camper Ceiling and Walls

Insulation is an important addition for both climate and sound control.

Luckily, advances in insulation technology allow better R-value for even thin and lightweight foam boards perfect for truck camper builds.

You may need fiberglass batting insulation to go around pipes or stuff into odd corners.

Don’t forget to insulate the floor if you can. Keeping feet warm during cold weather is nice.

Step 6. Finish the Truck Camper Interior Walls

You can choose to leave the interior unfinished or clad the walls in a thin luan paneling or other lightweight material for a nice surface.

TIP: Diagram each wall with dimensions of the underlying studs and electric or plumbing lines. After you cover the walls, you’ll know exactly where it’s safe to secure nails or screws for hanging decor or attaching cabinets later on.

Step 7. Finish Interior Amenities

Attach or build cabinets, bed frames, lights, counters, or seating in your design plan.

After everything’s complete, seal up any cracks with super-flexible, paintable caulk. Paint the interior after the caulk is dry.

Your truck camper is now ready for a mattress and decorations of your choice.

Step 8. Finish Truck Camper Exterior

Cover the roof with aluminum or rubber sheeting. This material is standard and bends easily to any arches or angles on the roof profile.

Secure the siding to the plywood to prevent it from blowing off at highway speeds.

DIY truck camper builds often use sheets of gel coat fiberglass made for RV exteriors with a two-part glue that forms a tight bond.

Add RV-specific windows and doors, which are thinner in depth to fit inside slim walls and can handle the abuse of road bumps and vibrations.

Again, use plenty of adhesive for the roof and siding material, and finish using a high-quality weatherproof silicone sealant to stop water infiltration anywhere you see gaps.

DIY Truck Camper Build From Scratch – Exterior Siding (Video)

Step 9. Truck Camper Lift Jack Installation

For a removable truck camper, now’s the time to install the lift jack and accessories.

Rieco-Titan and Happijac Jacks both offer an array of manual or power jack systems for truck campers.

The Stable-Lift Two Jack System combines the tie-down, turnbuckle, and jack systems into one component. The convenience is great, but the design isn’t all that visually appealing.

Whatever brand and model you choose, carefully follow the manufacturer’s installation directions to avoid failure.

Give the lift jacks several test runs to ensure proper function before taking off on your first camping adventure in your new custom truck camper!

Final Thoughts

As a proud owner of an RV full of custom renovations, I know that having a recreational vehicle suited precisely to your needs enhances the camping experience.

Now that you know how to build a lightweight truck camper, you can create the ideal camping solution while saving thousands of dollars in the process.

Truck campers get high satisfaction ratings from owners, so don’t be afraid to give a DIY truck camper build a shot!

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Homemade Truck Camper Tour | Tips for a Lightweight Build on a Budget (Video)

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

  1. I am planning to build a truck camper. Of all the sites I have visited, yours is the most informative. In particular, your video on framing provides for a strong and long-lasting structure. However, I cannot find the detailed instructions. Please advise.

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