Would You Consider A Tarp For A DIY Truck Camper Roof?

Know what? Losing the pop-up roof off of my home-built truck camper has been a really interesting experience.


While I don’t exactly want it to happen again, I’ve learned a lot of neat things I wouldn’t have learned otherwise. And since my main motivation in life is to learn stuff, I often find good things come from minor “disasters” like this. I typically learn quite a lot.

One unexpected discovery — Living under a tarp is not so bad! 

DIY home built camper with temporary tarp roof

As it happened, the first few days after my roof mysteriously vanished somewhere on the freeway north of Sedona (a vortex had something to do with it, I’m sure ;-D ), I slept in the tent. Besides building another solar panel to replace the one I lost, my first priority project was to find a sturdy way to install a tarp in place of the missing roof before the thunderstorms arrived.

You can see what I came up with in the video. I thought it was pretty clever for a quick fix. It not only stays put during freeway driving, but easily folds back giving my temporary “indoor” solar panel a view of the sun and opening the cabin up to the sunshine and fresh scent of ponderosa pine trees. (Did you know they smell like caramel vanilla macchiatos?)

But beyond just keeping the rain out of the cabin, I didn’t expect to actually like sleeping under tarp!

If you think about it — as I obviously didn’t, until I could no longer ignore it — sleeping under a tarp is the same as sleeping under a tent. Do you like sleeping under a tent? I do! I only wish sometimes that I had easier access to my stove and my electricity and my food and books, etc. Well, now I do! I’m also surrounded by a fortress of 7-foot walls that provide a reasonably good amount of discouragement to those larger nighttime predators who wouldn’t make the high jump team.

Disadvantages of a Tarp Roof: It’s a little colder at night and hotter in the day, because it doesn’t insulate as well as a styrofoam-core roof. It’s noisier when you park close to the freeway or to a caravan full of party-kids. And you just know it’s going to rip any day now.

Advantages of a Tarp Roof: It insulates as well as a tent — maybe better. It can fold back easily, like a “convertible”. It’s rainproof and pretty easy to knock the rain off, as long as there’s not too much. It’s wicked cheap to replace — for the price of a good DIY roof that will require regular repainting, you could replace your heavy duty tarp 5-20 times for the same price. And if you’re careful, a heavy duty tarp can last quite a while before quick fixes of duct tape no longer do the job.

Based on my experience living under a tarp, I actually would highly recommend trying a good heavy-duty tarp for a roof while you’re in the build-and-test stage of your DIY camper project. Just build your walls, tarp the top, and get out there and camp!

That’s actually what I did when I first built my camper. I finished the cabin on Day 1, tarped the roof, and then day camped around the area while planning the details of my roof, getting used to the space, figuring out where the skylight should go, noting where I needed to make sure I had extra headroom… all that stuff that is really difficult to plan in advance, when you have no idea what it’ll be like.

Remember… It’s about camping! If you enjoy camping in a tent, but just want a little more than a tent offers, then there’s no reason to get your ego caught up in “wood shop class” worrying what your teacher would think. Just build something. Then enjoy a weekend or two camping up a storm, and then re-plan and correct anything you think could have been better. If it all falls down the moment you hit the gravel, then 1) you haven’t tested enough around the driveway!, and 2) NOW YOU’RE REALLY CAMPING! So enjoy yourself. Unpack the tent, throw your “ruins” on the campfire, and toast some marshmallows. 🙂

A view you just can’t get from a popup roof!
view from diy truck camper with tarp roof

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  • Chipper says:

    Tarp for the roof…? Great idea for a extended fix Rik. Still rebuilding your roof though, right? I am very interested in building my own camper and will be following you closely on your website. Take care of yourself and God Bless.

    Thanks for the emails too!?

    • Mobile Rik says:

      Hi Chipper! Yeah, it looks like I still have at least a few weeks of nice weather before monsoon season, so I’m relaxing and hiking and enjoying the fact that with the “tarp roof” I can peel it back and enjoy the outdoors safari-style. Meanwhile, I’m making roof plans little-by-little, thinking of new ways to do things. I’m pretty happy now that I seem to have a pretty solid way to DIY a full-height popup without the complications of a 4WC-style design. (I actually described it briefly in the last ebook release, but I didn’t give it much thought when I came up with it. It turns out to be an awesome method, totally made for DIYers.)

  • Kitfox says:

    Hey Rik: A friend of mine has a 4Wheel popup camper which I like ok, but it weighs a ton and cost him a bomb. Not to mention that those fake-wood cabinets and polyester curtains and cushions are just not to my taste. So I was thinking about building my own and came across your blog in my search for ideas.

    As an ultralight backpacker (and tin-can alcohol-fuel user!) I’m always interested in shaving weight. In fact, I was wondering if I could build an ultralight poptop camper, not unlike your own, made of lightweight wood framing clad completely in waterproof fabric of some sort. Say Tyvek, maybe? Or maybe heavy canvas that’s waterproofed (though canvas is heavy enough all by itself).

    I don’t need it to last forever, maybe a few months to a year. And I don’t like to camp in the snow, so it doesn’t need to keep me warm below freezing. Given your experience with a tarp roof, is this idea entirely wacko? How does your tarp system hold up at highway speeds? In your experience / calculations, would shaving a couple hundred pounds of plywood off the camper make a meaningful difference in miles per gallon?

    Thanks for your great blog — I look forward to following your future adventures!


    • Mobile Rik says:

      Thanks Kit! I would say that from my experience with the tarp roof that it would be perfectly reasonable to build a full camper out of it. When it’s secured down flat to minimize shaking in the wind, it seems to behave just fine at highway speeds. I’d just caution that you really need to check on it often to make sure the grommets are still in place and aren’t ready to rip away on the next drive.

      If you think about it, it’s not in any way a new idea — you’re basically talking about a covered wagon or, in more modern times, a canvas top military caravan. For an ultra lightweight experience, you might even think about — rather than using a wooden frame — making an arch out of something like hog wire.

      Lemme know what you come up with!

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