Sunday, December 15, 2019

Creating functional art... building the camper of my dreams - anyone can do it!!!

First and foremost, I love sharing things like this with ya'll - my favorite joy in life is how we all create, invent then inspire each other!  This post is of my experience full-timing in an RV, learning what I thought was needed in a camper, then building my own small house that fits in the back of my truck.

Nelly, my 1989 Toyota 4x4 motorhome, was passed on to new owners in October of 2019.  It was a bittersweet day.  The new owners are fantastic folks, have owned several Toyota motorhomes, and are going to refurbish Nelly... so it was awesome seeing Nelly go to a good home.  Gotta say it was pretty emotional watching that camper drive away from my cabin... 7 years of full-timing in ole' Nelly completely changed my life for the better.  I met most of my best friends and was able to truly grow into myself during that time period, and for that I'm grateful.

Part of the inspiration behind selling Nelly was to free up some cash to help build my main cabin in Girdwood this coming summer (my old man, Erin, a couple of buddies and myself built the rental cabin last summer).  But perhaps the main inspiration in passing Nelly on was to design, build and create my own slide-in truck bed camper.  I knew it would be a ton of work to do it properly and to make it suit every need I desired in a camper... all while keeping the camper small enough to slide into the truck bed of a classic 1996 Ford F350 diesel pickup.

I spent about a month planning and sketching out the design.  I basically took the exact measurements of my truck bed and designed the frame to fit perfectly (within 1/2 an inch) within the bed.  I knew I did not want an overhead cab.  My experience with overhead cab versus non-overhead cab campers has been that:
1) They get horrible gas mileage.
2) The wind blows you around much worse.
3) Frost heaves/dips in the road cause the truck/camper to bounce hard.
4) They weight a lot more.

I figured the only thing I'll miss is just being able to "jump" into bed/not set a bed up.  Other than that, I was sold on the non-cab over for aerodynamics, lighter weight, better gas mileage, more maneuverability and better handling.

Here's a couple of pics of the final project after I finished, SUPER STOKED how it turned out and fits in the truck with 1/4 inch to spare on both sides, perfect:^)  The truck carries the weight easy and handles completely fine, I still have to weight the truck with and without the camper on, but I'm guessing it's around 1,800 to 2,000 pounds.  Even gas mileage is almost the same as before!  You can stand up inside (6'3 in the kitchen where you actually need to stand and 5' at the front of the house (where you're sitting anyways).

Once I figured out the camper dimensions I had to work with I began designing the lay-out of the interior of the camper.  After full-timing quite a while in Nelly, I knew exactly what I was looking for in a truck camper.

I knew I wanted enough room for 5 or 6 people to hang out comfortably in the camper, which means I needed to fit 2 full-size couches in the camper.  One couch would "flip out" into a bed for 2 people, and the other couch would be wide enough to sleep the 3rd person.  This was challenging to fit 2 full-size sofas in an 8 ft truck bed, along with toilet, oven, wood stove, propane furnace, TV, refrigerator and sink, but I knew I could be done.  I also wanted to be able to tow snowmachines/ATV's behind the truck, so I had to make sure the back porch was short enough to not hit the trailer corners when turning sharp.  I created a list of what I wanted in the 8 ft. space, the next pictures show each phase after I completely finished it:

1) 2 full-sized couches for a super comfy place to hang out in for up to 6 people, that fold into a place to sleep 3 people comfortably.

2) A wood stove for the primary source of heat and a propane furnace for quick/backup heat.
3) A toilet (sometimes you gotta go when there's no bathroom around in the middle of the city).

4) An range with an oven for warming up food/baking lazy frozen pre-packaged lasanga style meals after a long day skiing:^)
5) A simple hand-pump and removable water jug setup for "running water", even in the winter.

6) A TV/DVD player to veg out on rainy/down days and USB charging stations/phone holder.

7)  A 12 volt super efficient refrigerator/freezer to store food and cold beer.

8) A solar panel to keep the house battery charged.

9) A roofed front porch with a couple of storage seats" to store firewood, dry out wet kayaking gear, and pick a banjo outside under pouring rain.

10) A strong and stout camper that can hold up to Alaska's rough roads (even the paved roads in AK are worse than anywhere in the states, potholes, frost heaves, pavements breaks vibrate/tear campers apart up here).

Full-timing in the winter taught me a couple extremely important topics to pay attention to in a camper, which I also incorporated into my new camper design:

1) STRENGH! Most campers are made of 1x1 inch sticks of wood, glued and stapled together with industrial staples.  This is great for making the camper light, but start hitting a bunch of potholes and frost heaves/bounces and you watch your camper disintegrate into a wavy pile of toothpicks.

I wanted this camper to be strong, stout and actually last for a long time, potholes or no potholes.  I tried to keep it as light as possible, and went for the best balance of strength and weight.  I used wood because wood does not conduct as much as steel (steel/aluminum frames "sweat" when it's cold outside and warm inside your camper... which means condensation... which means mold inside your camper walls.

I used wood to keep the condensation to a minimum, and because I know how to work with wood.  I used 2x4's on the "lower half" of the camper and on the corners to keep things strong and stout, 2x2s for the wall/window framing, a 2x4 for the roof ridge beam, and 2x3's for the roof rafters.

It took FOREVER, but I decided to use screws instead of nails... screws bite and hold, nails will vibrate while driving and pull out.  To accomplish this, I used a Kreg jig and drilled out pocket holes for almost every single screw I used, took a long time, but made it STRONG.  After that, I used 1 1/4" deep x 1" wide industrial staples and stapled the wood together everywhere.  I think it will hold up very well now over time, even with bad road vibration/potholes/etc.

1) INSULATE INSULATE INSULATE!  I wasn't messing around this time.  It's amazing how drafty campers are when it's super cold outside.  I knew I had to keep this new camper design insulated and airtight as possible, so I decided to spray foam the interior (and just stuck with R-13 insulation for the floor stuffed in between the 2x4 floor joists).

I spent a little extra cash and bought acrylic RV windows, which are double-glazed and insulated.  I wanted to originally use double-pane windows like you see in any house... HOWEVER the vibration of driving down the road shakes the argon gas (which is in between the double pane glass), then the argon gas escapes, then your window will permanently have condensation in between the glass... so I knew I could not get double panes, and I also knew how cold single pane windows are after full-timing in Nelly... so acrylic insulated thermoplastic windows it was!

2) WATERPROOF EVERYTHING!  Water damage and mold is a serious issue.  I knew I had to keep the water out of this new camper from some water damage repairs I did to Nelly in the past.  I decided to Tyvek house wrap the frame of the new camper (1st layer of defense, breathable and waterproof similar to Gore-tex).  I had to staple the Tyvek directly to the frame of the house, adding a layer of plywood sheathing just to mount the Tyvek to would make the camper too heavy.

Then I laid down Grace Ice & Watershield rubberized matting to waterproof the roof, it's awesome stuff!  I DID NOT vent the roof like a standard house, because I want the roof watertight when driving around in the rain ( a roof fan and cracking the windows would be my ventilation solution).

Finally I decided to do a steep metal roof design (6/12 pitch) so the roof instantly sheds water off... this is essential to keep water damage at a minimum, especially since I live in a temperate rain forest.  I spaced the metal roofing screws 6 inches apart (as opposed to the normal 2 feet apart) so that the wind would not rip off the metal roofing driving down the highway with a strong wind gusts.

I sealed all the seams carefully with a high-quality silicone to keep water out.  Windows were double-sealed with butyl tape and silicon adhesive.  I water sealed the outside wood, then varnished with Captains Varnish, awesome stuff that creates a "gel coat shell" (same stuff used o wooden sailboats).   I also used roll-on truckbed liner for the bottom floor plywood and subfloor sides.

3) CONDENSATION!  Especially in cold climates, condensation is a major issue.  I designed this new camper to keep condensation at a minimum by:

1) Installing a wood stove to "bake out" condensation... a propane furnace won't do that at all (in fact it adds to the problem).

2) Install a MaxxAir powered ceiling vent fan... at night, the vent can be
barely opened to allow condensation from breathing to escape and not soak the roof/walls.  Also, you can turn the fan on when cooking with the oven/range to pull condensation out of the camper.  I stacked butyl tape to seal the "valleys" of the metal roof where the Maxair fan sits on top of the ridges.

3) The last line of defense was coating all my cedar wood interior with a high-quality polyurethane, so that any condensation present will just "bead up" on the surface of the wood, instead of passing through the wood and getting trapped behind the wall.


Overall, it was an incredibly fun project (and learning experience) building my first truck camper.  I'm super stoked with how it turned out and it's a great feeling getting to design, build and create something with a little bit of thinking and a little bit of sweat.  I hope that this is shared amongst all you awesome people and you find some sort of inspiration to do whatever you have ever wanted to do!  Happy travels everyone and see you on the road!

Timmy J.


  1. You're a badass. 2 thumbs up on the log cabin camper.

    I found your blog while researching how to do a tire conversion to fit snow tires on my '89 toyota dolphin motorhome. I've been rebuilding this thing since March, and have recently started touring around the states playing music. While I don't plan on living in Alaska in the winter, I am going up to Washington state in January. Your blog has been a wealth of information on winter living in an RV. So thanks for that.

    Best of luck with everything!

  2. Very cool. Can you stand up in it?

  3. How exactly do you load and unload this in and out of your truck?

  4. This is amazing. I love it. Great job and congratulations from Massachusetts

  5. I absolutely looooove your home it's beautifully designed!!! Can't wait to see your adventures!

  6. I love all your work you did to it. Very well built. You should go in business you would stay busy. Sincerely Hoss Adams

  7. What is the estimated cost and value. I know you cant put a price on peace of mind

  8. How much did this affect your gas mileage ??

  9. I'm thinking about doing the same for my 89' F350 Dually 4dr,but extend it out about 2' more & using reese hitch for a bottom support. ��