Cheap RV -How I Built my Camper

Cheap RV -How I Built my Camper


This is one of the few photos that show the “porch.” The rear overhang was long enough I could leave the door open in the rain and stay dry inside.

Recently I wrote about my desire to get further back and included pictures of my home-built camper. I’ve had requests for more information about that camper, so in today’s post I am going to tell you how I built it. This is basically a trimmed down version of this article

Pros and Cons

Before we begin, let me tell you how the homebuilt camper turned out for me. I built it in 2004 and had it on the truck until 2010 when I tore it apart (and threw it in the dumpster) because I switched to the cargo trailer. Of the 6 years I had it, I lived in it for 3 years and I loved it! I thought it was a perfect little home. In all that time I never had a problem with it. It was tough as nails and I after an initial problem never had a single leak! I drove it on some tremendously bad roads and it handled them all like a champ. I can promise you that the design and construction of this camper will last forever! However, I had two major problems because of the camper:

  • It was too heavy for my F150. By the time I loaded it up with everything I own, it weighed about 7400 pounds which was way over the 6200 pound Gross Weight of my 1993 4×4 F150. It would have been fine on a ¾ or 1 ton, but too much for a ½ ton.
  • I used the 2×4 walls of the camper as shelves and after 6 years the walls of the bed of the pickup collapsed from the weight. All the weight of the camper rests on the sidewalls of the bed of the truck and they simply broke and started to sag. By the time that happened I had already decided to get rid of it so I don’t know what it would cost to repair it. If I were to build another camper I would not use the walls for storage and I would probably build it with 2x2s and 3/8 inch plywood to greatly reduce its weight. Hopefully that would prevent the sagging bed wall problem.

Why build your own camper?


This is the opening into the cab-over that I used for storage. I built it for Alaska use so it has 2 inches of styrofoam insulation on walls and more in the roof. I used the walls as shelves: bad idea!

Cost: a good new camper is going to be thousands of dollars even for an empty shell. If you have the money, that’s fine, but if you don’t, what are you going to do? In some areas there is an abundance of older used campers for low prices. But they come with the all the problems associated with older RV’s such as water leaks, hidden water damage, appliances that don’t work, and things breaking at the worst possible time. By building your own, your cost is going to be much less and it won’t fail you in the middle of nowhere. If you go and buy everything you need at Home Depot and WalMart you can probably build a minimum plywood camper for $600. If you scrounge for used lumber and find deals you can build it for less. A few examples:

  • I bought my roof vent for $5 at a garage sale.
  • I got the ladder for free at another garage sale.
  • I bought the windows off Ebay for a fraction of their price new.
  • I got one window for free out of a wrecked shell.
  • All of the screws came from garage sales.
  • My Honda generator came from a classified ad.

As I had the money, I bought the lumber and supplies I needed. One paycheck bought the walls, another bought the roof, another bought the windows, and so on until it was done.

Customization: Most used campers I could afford had a full kitchen, bath and dinette and I didn’t want any of that. All I wanted was a big open space with just what I wanted and nothing more. Building my own allowed that.

Gas Mileage: The sheer weight and size of most used campers mean that they will drop you mpg a great deal. My homebuilt camper had surprisingly little impact on my mpg.

How to Build a Camper


My Ryobi tools from Home Depot. Highly recommended!!

Since you are considering building a camper, I assume you have basic carpentry skills and the tools to do the job. Essentially, what we are doing is building a small cabin, except it is on top of the bed of your truck instead of a foundation. If you have never done any house-framing, I recommend you go to the library and check out a few books on house-framing and study them before you start building. Because the camper will constantly be subjected to high winds and vibration, we aren’t going to use any nails, everything will be held together with 3 inch deck screws (not sheetrock screws, they will rust out). So our main tools will be a drill/driver and Skill saw. If you need tools, I highly recommend the Ryobi Cordless Kit at Home Depot. For $99.00 you get the drill, saw, 2 batteries and the charger. The batteries charge reasonable fast and last a long time. You can add tools as you need them. A square, tape measure and pencils are essential. Remember the old saying, “Measure twice, cut once.” If you don’t work with wood often, take your time and think everything through before you take the next step. “Dry Assemble” all the parts together every step of the way. This will help you to find your mistakes before you make them and visualize how everything fits together like a jig-saw puzzle.

Building the Walls:

There is a larger photo of this below the post with more explanation

There is a larger photo of this below the post with more explanation

The drawing to the right (and larger below) is a view of what your wall will look like. On the top is an exploded view of the pieces you will need to build the wall. On the bottom is a view of the wall assembled but without the plywood. I can’t give you lengths of the cuts because every pickup bed is different. While you will have to do the measuring for your truck, the basic ideas will be the same for every truck. I am assuming you will want an overhang over the cab with the very aerodynamic front “scoop”. I didn’t have a scoop when I first built this camper, and I regretted it the first time I drove it. The wind buffeted the truck so badly that I added a scoop within the week. One huge advantage of building your own camper is better gas mileage and this is one of the most important things you can do to get that better mileage.

The wall will be built in two parts. The lower part has a 2×4 the length of your bed on the bottom, and a longer 2×4 on top that is the length of the scoop. The height of the bottom half of the wall depends on the height of your pickup cab. You need the cabover to be at least 2 inches above your cab or they will rub each other when the frame flexes. For example, I have a 7 foot bed on my F150 so my bottom 2×4 is 7 foot long and the top is 8 foot long so I have a 1 foot cab-over. When I realized how badly I needed one, I added a scoop


Looking in from the back door at the right hand shelf-unit. The pickup bed was 7 feet long and I made the bed I slept on 4 feet wide. That left 3 feet at the end of the bed where I built a shelf unit. On the right side was the kitchen. On the floor was my cooler, above it was my stove, and above it was storage.

The upper part of the wall has a 2×4 the length of the scoop on the bottom, and a 2×4 on top determined by the rear angle of the scoop. The height of the upper part determines the inside height of your camper. I wanted to make construction easier and keep the total height of the camper low so I designed my camper to be 48 inches high. That way I didn’t have to cut a sheet of plywood except for the cutout for the cab-over. However, I can’t stand upright inside my camper, I have to stoop slightly. If you don’t want to stoop, you may need to make your walls higher.

Once built, screw the two halves of the wall on top of each other. Once you have the walls framed, lay them on top of the plywood and trace around them to know where to cut. The easiest way to cut plywood is to lay some 2×4’s on the ground, drop the plywood on top of the 2×4’s, get down on your knees on top of it and make your cuts. Raise the blade so it just barely cuts through the plywood. When the blade pulls through it will splinter the wood, so put the good side down so the framing will cover the splintered cuts and the outside will look nice. If your wall is longer than 8 feet you will have to have a joint. Make sure there is a 2×4 centered below the joint to screw into. If there is a joint, put it at the back so that the piece covering the cabover is solid, that will add to it’s strength. I find it easier to paint the plywood before I mount it on the wall. Use 1 5/8 inch deck screws to attach the plywood.

The Front Wall:

Here is a drawing of my front wall (larger photo below the post). The top is an exploded drawing of all the components. I have included the plywood on the outside to show why you have to add an inch to the plywood. The heavy black lines with the 3 1/2 below it is the two outside walls. The front wall (the one behind the cab) on my camper was 72 inches wide. But I built the framing 64 inches wide to fit between the two outside walls and cut the plywood for the front wall 72 inches wide to cover the two side walls and their plywood sheathing. The height of the plywood is only high enough to cover where the two 2×4’s Camper-Frontextend out over the cab. The reason we are not covering the whole front is because we want to reach into the cabover from the camper. We will need to cut a piece of plywood as a bottom of the cabover. You may be wondering why there is 2×4 across the middle of the wall. That is so you will have something to screw the top of the plywood into. To mount it, screw a short (6 inch) piece of scrap 2×4 into the frame at the right height and screw the cross 2×4 down into it.

You are going to need some help to assemble the side and front walls. They will each be done and painted by now. If you are going to have a window in the front wall, you will have already mounted it (if it extends out, you planned ahead to leave room for it didn’t you?). Lift each side wall up onto the bed, a few feet from the front, and screw the pre-measured and cut 2×6’s that run across for the roof. The 2×6’s lay flat on their side. With friends holding each wall in place up on the bed of the truck, screw the front wall into both side walls. Using 1 5/8 deck screws, screw the overlapping plywood into each side wall. Next, slide the whole unit forward into it’s final position. Be very careful in all this as it is pretty easy to have it slide off.

Once in position, drill a 3/8 inch hole down through the plywood and through the top of the bed rails. Use 3/8 by 2 1/2 inch grade 8 bolts with nuts and lock washers to attach the camper to the truck. Three on each side wall and 2 on the fro

The left  hand shelf unit at the back of the truck used for storage.

The left hand shelf unit at the back of the truck used for storage.

nt wall will make it very secure.

The Roof:

Most roof joists stand on their end for greater strength. I decided to lay mine flat for simplicity of attachment and to keep overall height as low as possible. I made up for that by adding more joists running across. The joints of the plywood should run across with the 2×6’s so you can screw down into them, which means you need a 2×6 centered every 4 foot. I cut the plywood so it over-hung over each side 1 inch. Caulk the joint underneath all around. You will probably want at least one vent which is standardized at 14 inches by 14 inches. So plan on having 14 and 1/8 inches between at least one set of joists. Put the vent in before you waterproof if possible.

To waterproof the roof:

First, I used a good latex caulk on all the joints. Next I applied Henry’s Roof Patch (from Home Depot, looks like black tar) and slathered it liberally over the joints and around the vent. After the Henry’s, I painted the roof with the blue paint I had used to paint the walls (exterior latex I bought at Walmart). Over that I put down 3 coats of the white, elastic Snow Seal for RV’s. It has worked perfectly, never had any leaks, not a drop. Shows no sign of wear even now. Surprisingly, the joints at the corners of the walls were troublesome for me. So I caulked them with silicon and got a roll of putty tape from the RV store and put that on. Then I screwed a 1×3 board over the tape as a decorative cover. Looks good and really seals them. No more leaks. I left the tailgate down and a 3 foot overhang over the roof making it a porch.

The Back Wall:

The back wall is pretty straight forward. First, measure the inside distance between the two side walls. Mine was 64 inches. I wanted my door to be 36 inches wide. So I needed to build two 14 inch walls to screw into the end of the two side walls. Then you use hinges to attach the door to one side and a padlock and hasp on the other wall. For added strength I made the walls about 5 inches shorter than the side wall and put a 2×4 across between the walls and screwed into it from the side walls an the two 14 inch back walls.

The side-walls are actually two walls built separately and then stacked on top of each other and screwed together. I never had any sagging of the overhang.

The side-walls are actually two walls built separately and then stacked on top of each other and screwed together. The plywood then goes over it and adds even more strength. I never had any sagging of the overhang. The top view is an exploded view with just it’s component parts. Because every pickup is different, you will have to do your own measuring for your truck..

The front wall in an exploded diagram.

The front wall in an exploded diagram.

The back porch. I hadn't added the roof yet in this photo.

The back porch. I hadn’t added the roof yet in this photo.


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