Of all the RV/camper designs, my favorite is the Pop-Up Slide-In Truck Camper -- Particularly the "Four Wheel Camper" style, which you can recognize by their fine-feathered code names like Hawk, Eagle, Raven, Finch, etc.
Here's why I like 'em:
- Off-Road Capability -- By putting a slide-in camper on an off-road truck, you can access more remote areas than you ever could with a traditional small-wheeled vehicle.
- Fuel Efficiency - The low profile saves tons of gas by virtue of its reduced frontal area -- which is the largest contributor to wind resistance -- and the greatly reduced weight, by virtue of having the top half made of tent material.
- Flexibility - If you occasionally need to use your truck for hauling, you can just remove the camper until you need it.
Off-road readiness is important to me, because my main motivation for the nomadic lifestyle -- beyond my monastic drive to "live simply" -- is digging for fossils, gold, and gemstones. i.e. I'm a rockhound. I drive a Toyota Tacoma Prerunner, and I want to be able to get to those remote sites, "drop anchor" and spend a few days or weeks exploring the territory and digging.
And though I don't spend that many days driving, the distance between sites is significant enough that I do find myself on fast country roads and freeways where wind resistance becomes a serious factor.
So the pop-top design is a really clever way to not only keep the frontal area down for the drive, but also keep the center of gravity low for off-road stability. For my purposes, the combination is tough to beat.
I've figured out that there are quite a few companies who will custom-build these pop-up slide-in campers. The aluminum frame campers are pretty impressively sturdy for their weight -- I've seen photos of their pop-up campers with a dozen people standing on the roof.
But the really big variable in my opinion is the interior design. Some companies do a much better job at efficiently fitting the essentials into that little space. The most impressive I've seen is Phoenix Camper's PULSE SC design that incorporates both a toilet and shower into a 6'x5' floor plan. They do it by combining them into one unit, as a sit-down shower.
Here's a quote from an interview with the designer:
I had a Tacoma customer who wanted a fully self contained camper. He only had a six-foot bed, did not want the camper to go beyond the tail lights of the truck, but he did want hot water, shower, cassette toilet, kitchen cabinets, and all of the other amenities that people often want including a refrigerator, jacks, converter, stove, and two separate beds. He wanted a camper where three adults could sleep and still have a restroom.
Check out the video showing off one of the most advanced designs I've seen:
Collectively, I refer to these types of pop-ups as the "Four-Wheel Campers" (4WC) designs, because of the company that popularized this style of slide-in pop-up truck camper in the 1970's. There seem to be around a dozen or so (?) companies selling these campers, which are typically named after birds depending on the size, ex. Finch, Raven, Hawk, Eagle, etc. I love studying photos videos of them for ideas for my own DIY truck camper, which is modeled after this design.
So how do you make your own "Four Wheel" style homemade camper?
Let's start with the framing. The skeleton of the 4WC is made of sturdy but lightweight aluminum framing. You can find videos and plenty of photos showing what the framing system looks like, in case you have the resources and skills to do the welding yourself. (In my feature article I include a video by a guy who built his own aluminum 4WC, with a few interesting twists. He estimates the project cost just under $5000, spending about $1200 on aluminum alone.)
Assuming you're interested in making your own DIY Truck Camper on the cheap as I am...
The most readily available and inexpensive framing materials are going to be wood. As I describe in my related article on How To Build Your Own DIY Truck Camper, it's really not that complicated! You're essentially going to build a wood shed that sits atop your truck bed rails. The frame will be constructed from 2x4s and will be held together with plywood and decking screws. You can either bolt it to the bed rails or tie it down like a slide-on truck camper. If you make a slide-on style camper, you'll need to attach the stilt-jacks to the corners and hang a self-supporting floor as well.
Although your little shed will need to withstand "earthquakes" and "hurricane winds" -- in the form of off-road and freeway driving -- when you think about it, even a simple construction should be able to handle all that, because 1) it's not a skyscraper, but a rather a very short 2-3 foot tall reinforced box, and 2) it's mostly hiding behind the truck cab, so it won't bear the brunt of the highway wind, which can easily be directed over it.
Challenges Of The Cabover
The complex element in a 4WC-style pop-up that may require some skilled engineering is the cantilevered cabover. There's a particular issue that isn't such a big deal in a "hard top", but becomes a special challenge in the 4WC pop-up design. In order to extend the bed area out over the cab, you'll typically want to support it, either from the bottom (as with an angled shelf bracket) or from the top (as with a cable suspension, like your tailgate). But the 4WC design extends the upper bed area on an unsupported (but well-engineered) aluminum cantilever.
This may be less of a big deal if you have a "regular cab" truck, in which case you'd probably only extend the cantilever out about 2 feet anyway. But if you have an extended or double cab (which I have), or if you don't mind having the cabover extend over the windshield, then you're talking about a 3-4 foot cantilever -- which no deck inspector would ever allow! (At least using typical 2x construction.)
Fortunately, it's doable with wood, and -- unless you were hoping to sleep a whole family up there -- you should be able to accomplish it using clever beam construction (as in "I-beams") without making it too top-heavy. But this is where I can't advise any more than to find an engineer to help you with your particular situation. Constructing cantilevers, especially for non-typical applications like truck campers, is beyond any online calculator or construction table. You need an engineer, even if that means being your own engineer by learning to calculate beam stresses and testing out dozens of beam configurations until you find one that will meet your safety criteria in your chosen worst case scenarios. (Update 9/1: I will say, however that the design I came up with is so strong, I can hang off the edge without any wiggle at all! Details are in my DIY Truck Camper Plans.)
How To Make The Roof
Once you've got the cantilevered cabover licked, the next challenge is the roof. Again, aluminum framing will win the strength-per-weight award, especially if you're thinking you want to be partying on the roof. With wood... maybe not so much. But there are lots of ways to make a lightweight and reasonably stiff frame that will be strong enough to hold -- if not a dance party -- at least some solar panels and a few recumbent stargazers. The basic way is to frame out some 2x3s and 2x2s to support some stiff styrofoam panels topped by painted luan -- the combination is surprisingly sturdy. The top can simply be painted, or if you want to really weatherproof it, you can add a layer of elastomeric rubber coating on top, add your ducting cutouts and seal it all with caulking. (That's typically how camper roofs are made anyway.)
Raising The Roof
As long as you keep the roof light enough and stiff enough, raising it should be a simple manual job that takes no more than a minute. At the simplest, you could just treat it like a pop tent, manually raising each corner and setting the vertical support in place.
Or you could get crafty and attempt a cool lift system like in the video.
As far as I'm aware, Four Wheel Campers use two basic styles of roof lifters. The most common type is a patented system that uses hinged plywood boards at either end that lever the ends up one at a time at the front and back. The one in the video is a new system by Phoenix Campers, who are the original owners of the Four Wheel Camper name.
Canvas, vinyl, rip-stop, sil-nylon, mosquito netting... Your choice! Draw up some plans for where you'd like to put the window openings, grab some fabric and zippers (or snaps or velcro if you prefer) from Joann's, and have a crafty friend or your local tailor sew it all together, using a tent for a model for how to do it right. Waterproof it all, and attach to the top rail and the roof with a staple gun. Seal with caulking and test by hosing it all down a bit at a time until you're confident it's all working.
And off you go!
Assuming you've come up with your own preferred solution for the floor, all that's left is to outfit it with necessities. But before you go off and spend thousands on RV appliances, maybe you'd be interested to read about some simple DIY options that may exactly what you need (Link reserved for future post on DIY'ing all your sustainable zero-electricity off-grid appliances.)