Want a great way to save *thousands* on an RV? Build one yourself!
If you have some basic construction and carpentry skills, you'll be pleasantly surprised to learn just how easy and totally inexpensive it can be to slap together your own DIY truck camper from hardly more than a small bundle of 2x4s, some plywood, a bucket of screws, and some paint. Bolt it all onto your truck bed, and depending on your design choices, you could conceivably have an actual working RV for less than $200.
Updates Jan 2015!
It naturally seems like there must be something special about building an RV, but if you really think about it, a "mobile home" is really nothing more than a tiny house -- That happens to be sitting in the bed of your truck. Constructing one is actually a lot like making a shed. Depending on your design decisions, it may be even easier, or a lot more complicated -- And that's entirely your choice! You'll probably want your little "truck bed shed" to be light-weight, and it should be built to withstand high winds and mild earthquakes... both depending on how you prefer your driving experience. The best thing is.. It's entirely up to you.
For myself, the pop-up slide-in camper I'm building for my short-bed Tacoma Prerunner, is going to be doing a lot of off-roading to fossil digs and rockhounding sites. I'd like it to stay light on the tires, but $1000+ in aluminum framing is out of the question. Fortunately, since I don't intend to fill it with much in terms of built-in furniture and a humongous water tank, I can afford to use some heavier-than-typical construction. Hence, I'll be making mine from cheap and super-sturdy 2x4s. Like I said -- It's a truck bed shed!
Holes or No-Holes? Of course I'll need a door, which I'll either fashion
myself from some plywood or an actual salvaged RV door. Windows? I haven't decided if I'll really need glass windows, or if I'll keep it solid below and depend on the cut outs in the pop top. (Something to think about: It's much more secure -- and WAY more insulated -- without windows!) If I do opt for windows, I already have some tempered glass I saved from thrift store coffee tables... but meanwhile, I have a Craigslist alert set to look for a junked camper window.
Slide-In Camper or Bolt-On Camper Shell?
For a much simpler design than a "slide in" offers, you can simply make the "top half" of an RV-type camper shell and just bolt it right onto your bed rails. With a bit more work, you can even turn it into a full-size camper with a cabover extension like Bob Wells at CheapRVLiving.com describes how to build. The required wood in his design, is minimal -- about fifteen or so 2x4s and a few sheets of strong plywood -- to make a good sturdy home-built camper.
On the other hand, the Slide-On Camper design gives you the flexibility to park your camper on stilts while you go adventuring, with your truck bed open to get supplies. The trade-off is the added complexity of constructing a solid floor and bottom-half that both accounts for the wheel-well risers and essentially "hangs" from the camper's top half when it's on stilts, ideally supporting one or more people jumping around inside when it's jacked up.
Here's a great video of a pretty awesome DIY pop-up truck camper based on my favorite truck camper design -- the "Four Wheel Camper" patterns code-named Hawk, Eagle, Raven, Finch, etc. -- that includes a couple of really neat added features, including a fold-out room.
Additionally for more extensive details on an all-out full-featured DIY slide-in camper build, check out Dan Rogers' Homebuilt Glen-L Truck Camper. Lots of photos. (Note: Glen-L has historically been a top source of intricate woodworking camper plans for decades, if you want to make a "traditional" style RV from blueprint-style plans.)
In terms of design decisions, Slide In vs. Bolt On is one you'll be wanting to make early. A pop-up roof, for example, can be added later. Slide out rooms and other extensions can be added as well. But the width of your main box would be difficult to change down the road, so you'll want to get it the way it'll be the first time around.
Since the Slide-On design typically spills over the rails a bit, the typical direct Bolt-On camper design has on overall cleaner smooth-sided look that carries over into more fuel-efficient aerodynamics. But what if you really want the extra width? Then you get to make a design choice. When you build your own camper, you don't need to worry about what's "typical" -- You can do whatever you like. If you'd like the added width of a slide-on, but don't want to bother with building a fully self-supporting "tiny house on stilts," you can feel free to just bolt on your own wide-body camper top, provided you can figure out how to support it on the rails.
Alternatively, you could keep the smooth-sided profile, but explore building "slide outs" to extend the sides out a few more feet once you're parked. I'm getting more and more intrigued by RVs with slide-outs. Some of them are really amazing. Note that on a truck camper, a true RV-style slide out room may not be as feasible, unless you plan to convert to or start from a flat bed truck. (Which if you think about it is not a bad idea.) But a shelf-style "pull-down" room like in the video is very do-able.
And not to throw you a huge curveball, but I may as well mention that in addition to my "favorite" camper design, there's some really cool design ideas in the Wedgetail Truck Camper from Australia. Not only does the roof flip open sideways like a lid, revealing a twelve-foot high house-shaped tent, but the rear wall flips downwards, creating a covered "porch" with bathroom and staired entrance. Along with an outdoor-accessible kitchen and storage and tons of other nifty features that are actually DIY-able!
(I'm sticking with my plans to build a Hawk style truck camper, but eventually I'd love to figure out how to create the flip-top Wedgetail ute-camper design. Click to read my discussion about making your own Wedgetail style camper.)
I've added a few videos from the first day of my camper build to a YouTube playlist:
I'll be uploading more in the future, so...