Truck camping in style

KWorkingWhen 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.

The Truck

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.

Electrical System

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.

PositiveFirewall

CablePassengerCompartment

 

PositiveRouting

 

PositiveOut

 

CablesIn

 

BodyGround

 

BatteryCables

 

BatteryWired

 

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.

VSR

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.

Accessories

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.

Light

 

Fans

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.

SHook

 

UBolt

 

PlatformComplete

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.

PlatformMattress

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.

Homie

 

 

25 Responses to “Truck camping in style”

  1. Jeremy said:

    I am impressed, amazed, jubilant and falling ever deeper in love with you fantastic humans. Sighhhhhh of happy…..


    April 16th, 2011 at 8:02 am

  2. Andrew said:

    This is pretty incredible. See you guys in New York!


    May 4th, 2011 at 7:22 am

  3. Andy said:

    Looking good guys! One note, you don’t want to drain that house battery more than 12v, you will be buying a new one very shortly if you do that very often, see here for tons of info: http://www.marxrv.com/12volt/12volt.htm “If a battery is discharged to only 50% each cycle, it will last about twice as long as if it is cycled to 20%” Have fun!!


    May 4th, 2011 at 10:18 am

  4. Kyle said:

    Thanks for the advice Andy. With the cost of the battery it’s good to know what will extend it’s life. So far we’ve only had it sitting for about 36 hours without charging and it only drops the battery to about 12.2V. Knowing this we probably could have gone with a standard deep cycle battery rather than investing in the 4D. I suppose there is a bit of a trade off between a bigger battery that will enable you to stay off grid and above 12V versus a smaller one which is likely to discharge below 12V more rapidly and decrease its useful life.


    May 4th, 2011 at 3:32 pm

  5. Tom said:

    This is amazing. Thanks for all the ideas. I’m considering a new wagon/truck for just weekend trips and this really opens my eyes to the possibilities for cheap travel!


    September 14th, 2011 at 2:09 pm

  6. Ryan said:

    This is an awesomely detailed post, I’m glad I came across it. I’m looking at doing something similar to my Toyota PU for my upcoming trip. Any things you would change or do differently in retrospect? Thanks.


    October 18th, 2012 at 9:42 am

  7. Briana said:

    Hey Ryan,

    Glad you asked. After spending 6 plus months living in our truck we realized we do not need a 4D battery. A regular car battery should do just fine. We imagined we’d be spending 7 days straight without starting the car but in reality even when we were camped out for weeks at a time we would usually need to drive to the crag or somewhere to refill water. The longest we ended up parking our truck was 5 days in Brooklyn of all places. It was 100+ degree weather and the fridge kept purring like a champ. If you want to be extra sure you’ll have power get the extra battery, but if you want to save some money you could probably scale down. Other than that all I can say is that the fridge is the coolest thing we have. If you can afford it go for it!

    Good luck,
    Briana


    October 18th, 2012 at 10:51 am

  8. mike said:

    Very cool! Ingenious use of space and cost savings. How do you close/open the shell hatch when inside?


    December 24th, 2012 at 9:27 am

  9. Briana said:

    Thanks, Mike. We can open the camper shell from the inside but it doesn’t lock. It’s a little awkward to reach your hand out to close it, but it works.


    January 2nd, 2013 at 9:35 am

  10. Brian Kearsey said:

    Thanks for sharing all the great ideas! We modified an old VW van and spent 6 weeks every summer living on the road back in the 80′s when we lived in Thousand Oaks. We gave up the nomadic life to start a tiny (radical) school in NY after our daughter was born. That phase of life looks sweet in the rear view mirror, but we’re itchin’ to get mobile again. We’ll take the keys on a 2001 Taco in a few days, and I’m collecting ideas.

    Have you checked out the BajaTaco website? You folks are more than likely kindred spirits. Here’s their url: http://www.bajataco.com/index.html

    Next time you’re in NY, give us a shout and stop by for a shower, home cooked meal, a bed for the night. I’m sure the stories will flow… We’re about an hour north of the city, near Bear Mountain. If you never hiked the Breakneck Ridge trail, that alone will be worth the detour. Who knows, maybe the BajaTaco couple will be visiting at the same time!!
    (I sent them the same invite.)

    Brian Kearsey
    Kent Cliffs, NY


    January 17th, 2013 at 2:01 pm

  11. Lin said:

    I have thought about doing something like this to my 2006 tacoma. I would like to be able to pass through from the cab to the bed, and be locked in, with screens for fresh air (the topper I have has side flap/windows.


    April 1st, 2013 at 7:31 pm

  12. Andy said:

    How did you guys handle the AC issue in hot climates?
    I’m interested in doing the same thing but I spend all of my time in Florida and I’m looking for a way to combat the heat?

    Thanks


    April 29th, 2013 at 9:04 am

  13. Briana said:

    Andy, it’s a challenge. We can get by pretty well with the shell windows open and the fans circulating air but if it rains we need to close up and it turns into a steam room really fast. If you plan to do all of your camping where it is hot and muggy you may want to devise a way to have your windows open even in the rain. Good luck!


    April 29th, 2013 at 9:45 am

  14. Al said:

    Hi guys great site!
    I was curious… What are you using to keep the vertical support upright? Also.. Do you know how much clearance you have under the wood to slide containers etc? I’m trying to get 13.5 at least. Also,.. with the hook and loop mounting system, do you find the bed moves and squeaks a lot or feels like you are suspended ? Also…I have noticed that most places to park/camp are not level. How did you deal with this? Did you get used to sleeping on a slant?
    Thanks,
    Al


    May 6th, 2013 at 11:54 pm

  15. Briana said:

    The vertical support is positioned within one of the bed liners ridges. It is thick enough to be stable when the platform is in place, we don’t have an issue with it moving left to right at all. I am not sure exactly what the clearance is, I think it is about 14 inches. We built it to accommodate what we needed to stash underneath so if you need 13.5″ I am sure you could build to accommodate. The hook and loop works surprisingly well. I expected it to shift and squeak but it doesn’t at all. This is probably in part because of the thick foam mattress that dampens a lot of the movement. A smaller sleeping pad may change things. Finally, looking for a level spot is the fun challenge of truck camping! When you can’t find one just find some rocks to put under a tire or two. It’s an art you’ll learn well!


    May 7th, 2013 at 7:47 am

  16. Al said:

    What’s the longest you guys went without a shower?


    May 7th, 2013 at 9:16 am

  17. Al said:

    Oh yah… I also had a question about the front window of the camper shell. I see in the photos that it is solid. Did you opt NOT to get a sliding window on purpose? Did you ever wish you had one so that you could “connect” the cab to the back for easier fridge access etc?
    Thanks.
    -Al


    May 7th, 2013 at 9:28 am

  18. Peter said:

    Awesome! My wife and I are gearing up to do the same thing, live out of our truck and climb.
    What brand was the camper, I did a search and couldn’t find a vision 100 anywhere?
    Also, was the fridge size you had enough space for you guys?
    Thanks,
    Peter


    August 26th, 2013 at 10:55 am

  19. Briana said:

    Hi Peter,

    It’s definitely the Vision 100. You have to get it through a dealer, so try contacting someone local who caries the Vision line of shells. ARE makes a similar one with the high-rise back as well. As for the fridge, sometimes it was a challenge to fit everything we wanted if we were going to be away from services for a while but we managed fine.

    Have fun outfitting your rig and living the dream!

    Briana


    August 26th, 2013 at 11:17 am

  20. brayden said:

    i don’t know if you’re still updating this site, but i’ve begun building a similar type of setup, and i’m wondering about your mattress? what kind of foam, how thick, and where did you get it from? great work!


    January 20th, 2014 at 12:40 pm

  21. Briana said:

    Hi Brayden. We got the mattress from a friend so we’re not much help as to where to purchase but it is about 3in of high density foam with an inch of memory foam on top and is full size. Hope that helps! If you go through all the trouble with a camping setup it’s really nice to have a comfortable mattress!


    January 20th, 2014 at 6:46 pm

  22. brayden said:

    thanks for the quick response– and yes i’ve come this far to get the truck the topper and the build it would be a shame not to do the mattress right. one last question– i’ve heard the memory foam can be quite hard when it gets cold (i want to do some winter ski camping here in colorado), did you guys ever find that to be a problem?


    January 21st, 2014 at 5:54 pm

  23. Richard Smith said:

    Hi, I love your idea, but am wondering how you installed the “S” hooks? Did you drill into the lip that holds the shell on?
    Thanks, happy motoring!


    April 17th, 2014 at 1:09 pm

  24. Briana said:

    Hi Richard,

    No drilling was necessary. The holes were in the tracks on the top of the truck bed and the S-hooks fit right in.

    Briana


    April 17th, 2014 at 5:11 pm

  25. TW said:

    The side hook support/retainer system for the deck is just so Einstein awesome! I’ve not seen that option yet. It saves and creates more space beneath. Brilliant…love it… I’m steal in it. Done.


    April 17th, 2014 at 7:56 pm

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