Truck camping in style
When we decided to road trip around the U.S. we got really excited about outfitting our road trip vehicle. We started to scour the internet for ideas and found a lot of information about converting a truck with a camper shell to a fuel-efficient, low profile mobile home.
As we found different websites with conversion examples we started to make a list of all the things we wanted; lights, fans, refrigerator, lots of storage etc. We wanted to keep it low budget and use as many recycled materials as possible. Some things we had to buy new, but that was the nature of the components we wanted. For example hi-top shells were hard to come by on the used market as was a used DC fridge.
We bought a 2005 Toyota Tacoma to turn into our ultimate camping vehicle. What we liked about the Tacoma was that it was a small-size pickup with a decent sized extended cab and a full size bed. We were also able to find a 4 cylinder 2 wheel drive which will save on gas. Fully loaded the truck gets the same gas mileage as when it had an open unloaded bed, about 24 mpg on the highway which isn’t bad for a mobile home.
Choosing a Shell
The first step in setting up a truck camping system is getting a camper shell. We had the original goal of getting one used off of craigslist, but we were in a hurry to get set up and couldn’t find one to match our truck.
Despite what some people on craigslist may say, you really want a shell that is built for your make and model of truck. Every cab has a different shape and the shell manufacturers will make one to your specifications. Most shell orders include color matching as well. We got the Vision 100, which was the tallest shell we could find and has a 9 inch rise above the cab. Because the tall shells need special ordering this usually takes 2-3 weeks so plan ahead.
The biggest step in our conversion was the electrical system. We wanted to install a battery to run our accessories that would charge from the car’s alternator yet be kept completely separate from the starting battery.
Figuring how to do this presented a lot of challenges. At first it seemed that you would need to have a battery similar to the starting battery so the alternator could handle the charging task. Additionally you would need a battery isolator to ensure you don’t discharge the starting battery while running your accessories.
After searching I found that you could install this little magic box called a voltage sensitive relay which acts like an isolator and allows you to charge essentially any size 12V battery from the alternator. The voltage sensitive relay acts as a switch that monitors the charge of each battery separately and routes power from the alternator when the battery discharges below 12.2V and stopping when it hits 13.2V.
We installed a 140 amp hour 4D Deep Cycle Marine/RV battery which should enable us to run all of our accessories (two laptops, refrigerator, lights, and fans) for 3-5 days without turning on the truck. We haven’t discharged the battery below 12V yet so we will report back to let you know if we burn up the alternator charging the second battery.
We put the second battery in the truck bed right behind the driver’s side of the cab and routed wires through the door jam and under the hood. Conveniently, this required only a few permanent alterations to the body of the truck.
In order to do the wiring we made some permanent changes to the truck like drilling through the body and truck bed to route the electrical cables. But that was a small cost considering the huge benefit we got from the added battery.There was a hole in the firewall right where we needed it, but the hole in the body required widening as did the hole in the truck bed. The entire setup required 18 feet of one gauge battery cable for the positive and 3ft for the body ground.
If you aren’t familiar with electrical systems this might seem like overkill. But given the size of the alternator (80amp) and the 4D battery, I wanted to limit the resistance as much as possible. We put the battery in a battery box and anchored it to the bed. I placed the voltage sensitive relay on the fuse box and wired everything up.
I wired a DC cigarette lighter outlet directly to the auxiliary battery and routed it into the cab behind the driver’s seat for the refrigerator and wired up the lights and fans and a port for a small inverter in the bed.
We got an RV light fixture with a low amp LED bulb for the back to provide us with light for reading and such when we’re in there. We also got 4 three inch PC fans for additional airflow on hot nights. We mounted them on the window frame where the windows slide open. They aren’t particularly fast but they are wired to use DC so it was easy to integrate them into the system.
We also picked up a small 400 watt inverter that has two AC outlets and a USB outlet. We plan to use this both in the bed at night and in the cab while we drive.
The highlight of the conversion for us was definitely the fridge. There are a lot of portable fridges on the market but we found that the majority were either ridiculously expensive, didn’t work well enough, or were complete energy hogs.
Then we found the Dometic Waeco CF-018DC . At $300 it isn’t cheap and for some budgets a fridge will definitely be a luxury item, but for us it was worth it. Our little fridge now sits behind the driver’s seat for easy access from the passenger seat while on the road. It also keeps things very cool—our first time using it we accidentally froze everything!
Platform and storage
Figuring out how to get the most headspace while maximizing storage was our biggest challenge. Many conversions build sleeping platforms with complex support structures which limit the size of items you can fit. In the end how you build it is contingent on your shell size and willingness to be cramped.
With the tall shell we were able to keep our platform a little higher and still be comfortable in bed. We wanted our platform to be removable so we can still use our truck for hauling if necessary.
We got a sheet of 3/4in cabinet plywood from a friend who used it for a sleeping platform in a 4Runner. It was already cut into two pieces measuring 3’X4’ so we decided to utilize this for the platform. Many designs we saw built platforms the full width of the bed incorporating compartments for accessing the hard to reach places from the tailgate.
The width of the bed is about 53” so using the 48” wide plywood left us with about 6” of space running the length of the bed. Rather than covering it up with another piece of wood, we decided to leave it open and use it as clothes storage.
The vertical support acts to isolate our clothes from the rest of our stuff and enables us to access them without opening up the tailgate. We added another piece of plywood to keep our clothes off the bed level just in case anything spills.
Supporting the platform required some creativity. Many designs make the platform to the precise dimensions of the bed and use a post support type system on the corners with a piece of plywood vertically down middle.
This design limits the size of things we can put in. Instead we used “S” hooks and “U” bolts to hang one side of the plywood from tracks pre-installed on the bed and the vertical plywood toward the edge of the platform.
I was worried it might flex too much, but the thick high quality plywood we got doesn’t flex enough to concern me. Additionally, once we put the foam mattress on top it distributes our weight enough to barely dip when we are on it.
With the platform built it was time to pack. We have erred on the side of having too much stuff since we have the space for it. But packing it in tight ensures nothing is going to slide around while driving.
The Final Product
We were very happy with the way our conversion came out. The fridge is great to have, the lights and fans work well, and most importantly it is very comfortable to sleep in.