In today’s age, a lot of people are looking to reconnect with nature. A great way to do that is to go camping in an RV or camper. Of course, these cost a lot of money and can’t be used too often. As a means to improve the camping experience, many people convert their pickup truck beds into campers. How? I’ll cover that and much more in this ultimate guide all about converting pickup trucks to campers.
It’s all a matter of design and fabrication. You’ll be using plywood, 2x4s, 4x4s, and metal support materials. Start with taking measurements, then design the full enclosure (or buy pieces that hook right into your truck). Finally, install the camper conversion and hit the road. I talk through this process in-depth later in this guide.
What Is a Camper?
A camper is another name for an RV. This is a vehicle that has plenty of space in the rear for you to comfortably live away from your house.
People will typically take their RV to a campsite, park, or scenic area and put it in Park. From there, they’ll live out of the RV for a certain amount of time before going to the next destination.
It’s a hotel on wheels. It will have a sleeping area, a little kitchen, and plenty of storage. Outdoorsy people usually use RVs to get closer to nature and improve their camping experience.
A traditional camper can either be an independent vehicle or something that gets pulled behind your truck. A modern-day camper could be the bed of your truck.
Benefits of Converting a Truck Bed into a Camper
Before learning how to do the conversion, I should talk about why you might want to convert your truck bed into a camper in the first place. There are a number of major benefits that people cite after doing the conversion.
More than anything, this is convenient. Having a camper built into your truck means that you can kick back and enjoy nature wherever the trail leads you. You can still use the truck as your daily driver, but now you have the convenience of a camper in your bed.
You can utilize the seats and storage within your truck to keep all your camping, hunting, and fishing gear. When you need anything, you can just reach in the truck and get it.
Having a camper in the back of your truck keeps you safe in two different ways.
For one, it protects you from animals and the environment while you’re camping. If you use a tent instead, your trip can quickly turn into a nightmare.
The other way is that you can keep all your camping equipment locked in your truck. Again, if you were just using a tent, someone could rip into the tent and steal your gear. Your truck bed will probably also be able to lock, making you even safer.
If you have a busy schedule, it might be hard to plan a camping trip ahead of time. Instead, you can let the flexibility of a truck-based camper do all the work.
When you have a free night or even a few hours to spare, you can just drive your truck to any location. If you use an RV or camper instead, there’s a lot of extra prep work that you don’t have to worry about with your truck.
Since you’re building and customizing this yourself, you can make it as comfortable as you’d like. For taller campers, this could mean raising the ceiling and giving you extra elbow room.
You can install a fancy mattress and topper to get the most comfortable camping experience. It definitely beats a sleeping bag on the ground in a tent.
Saves You Money
Finally, this truck bed camper is going to save you a lot of money over a regular camper or RV. It’s not hard to spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on a nice camper. You’ll spend a fraction of that if you convert your truck to a camper, instead.
Since you’re doing this project yourself, there are plenty of ways to control the cost and make sure it’s within your budget.
Another place that you’re saving money is on camping fees. A lot of campgrounds will make you pay money to park your RV and hook up to their utilities. With a converted pickup, you typically don’t have to worry about that.
How Much Do You Want to DIY?
Another thing to consider is how much of this project you want to do yourself. There are options on the market for camper shells, platforms, frameworks, and supports for turning a truck into a camper.
If you’re a handyman with some creativity, you can do this project from scratch. If you want to save some time, you’ll need to spend money on it, but you’ll be able to skip to the finished product quicker. It’s all up to you.
What Goes into a Camper?
Campers are great because they have a lot of extra creature comforts in the vehicle. A good camper will have things like beds, storage, carpeting, a cooler, stove, and lights.
Before starting the process, you should jot down some things that you’d like to have in your truck camper. This could completely change your designs.
If you can, try to use a real camper for a weekend in order to understand some of the important pieces. Otherwise, just brainstorm this list on your own.
You Can Easily Make a Minimalist Camper in Your Truck’s Bed
If you want to keep things really simple, you could have the project done in a night. All you’ll need to do is source a mattress that fits in your truck’s bed and a truck tent. Just like that, you have a truck bed camper.
A vast majority of people don’t want to settle for just that. For an in-depth guide, keep reading.
Should You Use Metal or Wood for This Conversion?
As you probably know, metal is a lot stronger but harder to fabricate. Wood is the go-to material for most DIYers, and it works in this project as well. There’s nothing wrong with using wood to convert your truck bed into a camper.
However, you need to be careful. If you’re building a tall and elaborate camper addition, you need to make sure your supports are strong enough. Don’t be afraid to use metal angle iron or corner joints to make your design sturdier.
If you want to make the design out of metal, be sure to calculate the weight. Your truck has a specified payload capacity. This refers to how much weight you can add to your truck before the long-term damages start.
For an F-150, your payload capacity might only be 1,600. This seems like a lot, but the weight of the metal structure for your camper will add up pretty quickly. I’m not saying that it can’t be done, I’m just urging you to double-check the weight before buying material and starting the project.
How Long Does it Take to Convert a Truck to a Camper?
The total length is going to depend on the complexity of your build, your handyman skills, and your ability to design your way through the project.
If you have a lot of experience fabricating things, then you could have the whole project done in a weekend.
If you’re a first-timer learning the ropes, it could take weeks or even months to get it perfect.
The good news? There’s nothing wrong with taking your time on this project. If anything, it gives you more time to think through the design and make sure every part is perfect before finally assembling it.
If you make a mistake, so what? You can just make a new piece and fix your mistake along the way.
You should approach this project with a lot of optimism and curiosity. This is your opportunity to build something unique that meets your needs. Have some fun with it and take your time.
For people in a time-crunch, buying a camper conversion will be the better solution.
How to Convert a Truck Bed into a One-Story Camper
I want to start with a quick piece of clarification. This project is going to vary drastically from one person to another. It all depends on what you’re looking for, your level of fabrication skills, and your truck.
Due to that fact, feel free to skip pieces in this section. I’m going to lay out the general structure for how to convert a truck bed into a camper. You can take this information and use it however you’d like, in order to get the best results for you, personally.
Find the Right Area to Work In
A lot of this work is going to involve using power tools that are notoriously loud. It’d be a good idea to find a secluded area to do this work in. If your truck is in your driveway or parking lot while you’re doing this work, your neighbors will probably get tired of it pretty quickly.
Plus, this project could take you a while depending on how much you’re going to do. Rather than trying to deal with upset neighbors, it’d be easier to find a quiet place to work.
Measure the Bed’s Footprint
Before even starting the design portion, you need to take some measurements. Grab a tape measure and get a footprint of your truck’s bed.
Remember to factor in the recesses for your wheel wells and any cutouts in your bed. It’s also a good idea to take some height measurements so you know how tall to build the structure.
In the world of fabrication, they always say “measure twice and cut once”. Run through your dimensions a few times and ensure they’re all accurate before going any further. If your measurements are off, you could be wasting a lot of time and money putting together a camper that doesn’t even fit.
Make/ Buy the Camper Design
This is where you have to make your first decision: do you want to buy the plans for your camper or make them yourself?
For popular trucks, I’d be willing to bet you can find full plans to a camper conversion online. Some of them might even be free, but for others, you’ll have to pay for the schematics.
If you have the heart of an engineer, you can make the designs yourself. You don’t need any fancy computer program, you can do all the work on a napkin with a pen.
By making your own designs, you can customize how the final camper will look and work.
Do the Fabrication Outside of Your Truck
In the following steps, you’ll be doing some fabrication and construction. It’s probably a good idea to do it outside of your truck.
You’ll be limiting your range of motion if you do all the work within the bed of your truck. As long as you have your measurements, it doesn’t matter where you cut and assemble pieces.
In the end, you’ll start bringing pieces to your truck to assemble them. Until then, keep the pieces in a workshop.
Start with the Base
The best place to start is with the base. I’d suggest building a base that covers the entire floor of your truck’s bed.
The base is the foundation of this project. The rest of your pieces will likely sit on top of it or screw into the base.
Typically, people just use a sheet of plywood cut to size.
Build the Sleeping Platform
The sleeping platform is one of the most important components of your truck-based camper. This can come in different shapes and sizes, but the idea is the same — this is where your bed will go and where you’ll sleep at night.
There’s nothing wrong with throwing a mattress on the base you just built, but you can get creative with this too. Some campers built a drawer that extended into a long sleeping platform in the back of their truck.
Most people like to build a raised platform. This gives you extra room underneath for storage.
Whenever you add a component, you should be adding supports as well. Supports are there to distribute the load and ensure things don’t fall apart as you use them. If the construction doesn’t have supports and it’s too flimsy, you might wake up to a sleeping platform that broke around you.
Some of the best supports are 2×4 or 4×4 beams. At the corners, you can use metal angle iron or corner joints to fasten the two pieces together. These fabricated metal pieces are very sturdy and will help support your wooden pieces.
Don’t Forget Room for Storage
Storage can also be included in creative ways. I mentioned that people like to build storage under their sleeping platforms, but it doesn’t end there. You can hide cabinets and drawers under anything you’re putting in your truck bed camper.
Depending on the style of truck cab you have, room for storage could be a premium. Regular cabs only have two seats, so there’s very little room to add extra camping, fishing, and hunting equipment.
By adding a lot of storage in your truck bed, you don’t have to worry about forgetting something at home and turning around once you get to the site.
Carpeting is something that you might not have thought of. It will make the camper feel homier but also more comfortable. Laying on a piece of wood is rarely comfortable, especially with the risks of splinters.
I would probably opt for a sturdier carpet as opposed to a more plush option. Since you’ll be interacting with the Great Outdoors so often, plush carpets will wear down quickly and trap any dirt.
Sturdier carpets are less comfortable, but they will last longer and they’re easier to clean.
You can use a pneumatic staple gun to fasten the carpet to your DIY camper. Use duct tape on the corners so they don’t lift and fray.
Optional: Build the Roof
If you’re going to buy a truck bed cover or camper shell, then you don’t have to worry about this. However, there’s nothing stopping you from building your own walls and roof for your truck bed camper.
A high-quality camper shell is going to cost a few thousand dollars. If you use 2x4s and plywood instead, you’ll build one for a fraction of the price.
For this step, you need to carefully design the supports and anchors. This needs to firmly fasten to your truck bed without any risk of falling off. Otherwise, your camper could be ruined as you drive highway speeds.
If you have an engineer in your family that you can talk to, this might be a good idea. You want it to be sturdy enough to withstand your daily drives.
For the design, I would also suggest building hinged flaps or windows along the side. It allows you to open the camper up when you’re parked, and appreciate the nature around you.
Sand Everything, Then Sand it Again
Sanding is going to be a critical task for this project. A splinter in your back will quickly ruin whatever camping trip you were planning.
Every single surface needs to be thoroughly sanded, then sanded again. You should be able to quickly wipe your hand across any surface without feeling any splintered wood.
If there are exposed corners, you might consider routing them down. Adding a nice chamfer or bevel will reduce the risk of splinters. It will also make the assembly look neater.
Optional: Paint or Stain Your Wood
If you want to add another nice touch to your project, you can spend some time staining or painting the wood in your camper. Having the raw wood is definitely a viable option, but you might like the look of a dark stained camper interior, instead.
With all the time you’re already investing in this project, I think it’s a good idea to spend more time to get the aesthetic looking perfect. After all, the interior is what you’ll be staring at for a lot of your camping trip.
Install it into Your Truck
Now you can start putting things in your truck bed. At this point, you have enough to install to make the bed look like a real camper. All the next steps are little extras that will help make it even comfier.
Here’s a pro tip: don’t fasten any parts to the bed itself. If you start drilling holes and putting in fasteners, you could do lasting damage to your truck bed. In addition, it will really hurt the resale of your truck.
Instead, design the pieces so that they fasten into one another. Once installed in the truck, the design should ensure the pieces stay still while you drive your truck around.
Doing it this way also means that you can remove your camper addition if you ever need to use your truck’s bed to haul anything.
With the bed’s gate up, things shouldn’t slide around.
Install the Mattress
If everything looks good, throw the mattress in there. The mattress should be one that you tried out at a local store and bought (in other words, don’t try to DIY a mattress, your back will thank me later).
The mattress doesn’t need to be fastened down or altered at all. It can just sit on top of the sleeping platform.
Add the Extras
Here is where you add any extra creature comforts that you want your camper to have. You can fabricate an arm that swings out with your camping stove on it. Install LED string lights on the ceiling to give you extra lighting.
You might also make an area for your cooler to go, and a portable source of water.
If you add everything you wanted to and notice you still have a lot of space left over, consider building more storage. Again, you can’t have too much storage in your truck bed camper.
How to Convert a Truck Bed into a Two-Story Camper
For this, you’ll go through all the same steps as with the one-story camper. After you get through those steps, you can move to this section. Again, none of these suggestions are set in stone — I’m just making them so you have a better idea of how to do this project.
For a two-story camper, there is a second area on the roof of your truck. Most people will dedicate this second story to a sleeping area that’s separate from the storage area and a little higher up.
Build the Framework
Since you’ll be building vertically, the framework is really important. These are the uprights that will tie into the base of your camper’s platform. The framework will ensure the top level isn’t super shaky and can withstand the weight of someone sleeping up there.
Reinforce the Structure
Reinforcement is arguably the most important part of this project. If it feels wobbly at all, you’ll need to add extra supports.
Going the extra mile in this step will make sure no accidents happen when you finally start using the camper.
Consider Purchasing the Top Story
There are a lot of popup tents that can be repurposed to be the top level of your camper. I prefer going with a bought option here because you can fold the tent up when you want to move to another site.
You should start by sourcing the top story that you want to use. From there, you’ll need to design an interface to fasten it to your truck bed camper that you built. This could mean installing arms with holes that tie into the tent or using a box tube to fasten everything.
One of the best designs I’ve seen is a metal platform that folds in half. The guy who built it installed a folding tent on the top and a ladder on the side. When they’re ready to sleep, they unfold the platform, opening it and raising the tent. They lock it open, anchor it, then climb up the ladder and go to sleep.
Otherwise, Build it Yourself
Building the top space on your own isn’t going to be tough, either. It’s just a miniature version of what you did for the first story. The only difference is that you need to design a way to fasten it to the roof of the first story safely.
You also need to find a way to cut down the top level’s weight. You want it to be very lightweight so that it doesn’t fail and come crashing down.
Allow the Top Story to Be Disassembled for Travel
There are laws that dictate how tall your pickup truck can be. When you have the second floor on your camper, you could easily be above these height restrictions. Once you park and start camping, then you can go above that height (since you’re not driving on the road).
For that reason, you need to ensure that your top-level can be quickly disassembled and reassembled later. It’s a good idea to build pieces that can fold up and be stored in the bed of your truck.
When you’re driving around, you shouldn’t have the second story installed. Even if you’re below the 13.5-foot limit, you’ll be dramatically hurting your fuel efficiency. You also run the risk of the wind tearing apart your camper as you drive on the highway.
Converting your pickup truck bed into a camper is more than just a fun thing to do. You’ll be able to enjoy camping more conveniently, at a lower cost, and almost any time you want to. Personally, I think it’s a fun and exciting project. If you’re curious about this or tried it yourself, drop a comment below. Check out other guides I have to transform your driving experience on my blog. Finally, take a look at my list of suggested products for your car to make your life a little easier.