How to Build the Ultimate Truck Camper Setup – Step by Step Directions

I’m doing my best to answer your truck camper questions! Got a question? Shoot me an email at [email protected].

John recently wrote in and asked:

Hey Ryan!

I’m a huge fan of yours. I’ve been following your blog for a while and was recently inspired to make my own ‘truck home’ for hunting season (as I commonly spend weeks outside at a time).

I just bought an ’89 toyota hilux and it has a similar canopy as yours (although mine needs some new seals :P)

Anyways, do you have any good plans drawn up or sketched up of your truck bed? Specifically the vertical side bins. I can get 80% there from the photos, but I’m still trying to figure out how it all fits together. Anything additional you can provide would be great.

Lots of people have found my truck camper build online and have even replicated it themselves.

But many have also reached out asking for more detailed plans or designs, which is something I couldn’t really provide… Until now!

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How to build the best truck camping setup (step-by-step)
I took advantage when I had my truck emptied out for cleaning and shot a video explaining how we built this thing. I’ve also got the step by step instructions below and a decent (hey, I’m no artist!) sketch up of the layout that I used.

Hope you’re able to get a clear picture of everything… If not, ask away!

How to Build the Ultimate Truck Camper Setup

For just about $100 in lumber and an afternoon worth of work, you can build the ultimate truck camper setup in the transformer style.

If you’re not familiar with the transformer style truck camper approach, it basically means allowing either the backshelf mode to maximize livability or the elevated sleeping platform mode for stealth camping and secure gear storage.

See more about the pros and cons of each approach here.

But I highly recommend building in a way that maximizes livable space.

On to the details… (Click for larger photos)

Here were my original sort of brainstorming ideas prior to the build:

Ultimate Truck Camper Build Initial Design

A rough sketch of what I actually ended up doing:

Ultimate Truck Camper Build Sketch

More detail of the overhead view:

Ultimate Truck Camper Build Sketch

More detail of the 3D view:

Ultimate Truck Camper Build Sketch

Building the Vertical Side Bins

  1. Cut a 2×4 to fit the length of the truck. Hold the 2×4 up inside the truck where you want it to sit, mark out where the canopy clamps are located, and any other possible obstructions (the bedliner was slightly raised near the wheel wells).
  2. Using a skill saw, notch out where the canopy clamps will sit, along with any other obstructions. The 2×4 where the canopy clamps sit were notched down to only one quarter of their original size. This has not been a problem in 2+ years.
    Notched out 2x4 where the clamp fits
  3. Attach the notched out 2×4 to the side of the truck with the canopy clamps.Now with the clamp in place
    Attach the 2x4 to the side of the truck
  4. The 2×4 now attached to the truck may not be vertical. Take another 2×4 and mark the angle of the wood using the back wall of the truck (near the cab) as your guide to horizontal.
  5. Measure how wide you want your vertical side bins to be… I made them as narrow as possible to maximize sleeping space. That meant measuring to just beyond the wheel well.
  6. Cut the 2×4 which you marked to correct the angle to the appropriate distance. These will act as your vertical side bin braces.
  7. Confirm that the angle and length of the 2×4 is correct. Then use that piece to trace out 2-3 more 2×4 cuts.
  8. I used 3 short 2×4 braces through the length of my 6′ bed. One at the back, the front, and the middle. Screw these short 2×4 braces to the long 2×4 running the length of the bed.
  9. Measure how high you want your vertical side bins. I’d recommend them being flush with the 2×4 height, or basically the height of your bed. Remember, if you’re doing the transformer style and want to sleep with your feet below the shelf that means you need sufficient height for the thickness of your bed and your feet.
  10. Cut a length of 1/2″ plywood at that height and to run the length of your truck bed.
  11. Using the 1/2″ gaps in my plastic bedliner, slide the sheet of plywood into the appropriate groove, and then screw the short 2×4 braces into the plywood.
  12. Finally, measure the length of your truck bed, cut a 2×2 to that length. If using 1/2″ plywood for the sleeping platform (recommended), offset the 2×2 half an inch below the top of the vertical side (so the sleeping platform will sit flush). Screw the 2×2 to the vertical side bin.

One of the completed side bins

Repeat this process for the other side of your truck. Boom. You’ve got two side bins that can support an elevated sleeping platform–the ultimate truck camper setup.

Fun with skill saws

On the side of my truck where I had electrical access (cigarette lighter adapters connected to my truck battery–ideally a dual battery and isolator setup), I decided to install a table top that runs the nearly the length of the truck bed.

I highly recommend a table top. With that decision though, you may want to cut out a small access panel in that vertical side bin so you can reach things that otherwise might be inaccessible.

Hole cut out to allow access under the table

Sleeping Platform

  1. Measure the length of your truck and the width of your bed between the vertical side bins. Cut a sheet of 1/2″ plywood to fit. Pro tip: the width near the cab and the width near the tailgate might be slightly different. Measure twice, cut once.

The transformer style sleeping platform for truck camping

Backshelf

  1. Hopefully you’ve got a little bit of plywood laying around. Cut a sheet of plywood that reaches (at minimum) the vertical side bins. I cut mine with about three inches of overlap on each side.Truck camper backshelf mode
  2. You can attach this if you life, but I prefer not to. Just leave it free and movable back there. You can put in a small nail or screw into the side of the 1/2″ plywood vertical side bin which will keep your shelf from sliding toward the tailgate. It’s a stopper, it’s not actually screwing the two pieces of plywood together.Truck camper backshelf mode

That’s really all there is to it for a basic transformer style build. You are now able to sleep in either the elevated mode with gear stored below, or place gear on the backshelf and/or in the cab in order to maximize livable space.

It’s a pretty simple build, but it’s really quite awesome.

Having the flexibility between both modes is highly recommended and something that I can’t fathom living without after being on the road for 2+ years.

I would next recommend that you take out the entire truck camping setup… Again it’s really easy. Just take off the four canopy clamps and the vertical side bins will pop right out with a wiggle.

Treat the lumber with sealer… You will experience some condensation, undoubtedly. Treat the lumber now so it will last you a long time. Leave it out for a few days before reinstalling it. It will probably still have a strong order for a bit, but that will subside in time.

Additional Steps

Wooden Tailgate

A flat wooden tailgate is a must for truck camping

I highly recommend replacing your tailgate liner with 1/2″ plywood. It makes a great cooking area or place to grab a quick seat.

  1. Remove your plastic tailgate liner.
  2. Measure the length and width of the plastic liner, replicate that size on a 1/2″ sheet of plywood.
  3. Using the plastic liner, place it flush with the plywood and trace out all the screw holes. Drill those out.
  4. Given the thickness of the plywood, you will probably need longer screws than those used by the plastic liner. Hopefully you planned ahead for that, if not head to Home Depot.
  5. I also decided to carve out two holes–one the diameter of a large fuel canister for cooking, and the other slightly smaller. Not necessary, but it comes in handy sometimes when parked on ground that isn’t level. It can keep other things from rolling off the tailgate (not the stove per se, but other things you might be working with).
  6. Attach the plywood to the tailgate.

Security System

My tailgate did not have a separate lock. It was basically just the cheap canopy locks that would be protecting all my valuable gear inside.

No bueno.

Therefore I decided to beef up the security a little bit for my truck camper by being able to lock my tailgate to the elevated sleeping platform. This prevents the tailgate from opening. I’m not saying it’s 100% thief proof. But it’s a pretty good deterrent against quick smash and grab jobs, which are the vast majority.

  1. Prior to attaching the wooden tailgate, you need to place the hinges for the hasp locks. Close the tailgate and mark where you want them on them tailgate in relation to the sleeping platform. I recommend placing them as close to the corners of sleeping platform as is practical.
  2. You can use a skill saw to carefully shave off a thin layer of the underside of the wooden tailgate platform where you will place the hinges. This is to ensure that the wooden tailgate can sit flush with the metal brackets underneath.
  3. Screw the hinges into place on the underside of the wooden tailgate.
  4. Attach wooden tailgate to the truck (as before).
  5. With the sleeping platform in the elevated position, close the tailgate. Place the hasp locks in the hinges as if they are locked.Trace the hasp lock outline onto the plywood
  6. There will likely be a little bit of play or wiggle room with the hinges so try to find the sweet spot in the middle. Trace the outer edge of the hasp lock onto your sleeping platform (both sides).
  7. Open the tailgate, remove the hasp locks from the hinge, and now screw the hasp locks into place on the sleeping platform.
  8. Close the tailgate and ensure you can successfully lock the hasps to the hinges. If not, try again.L-Brackets attached to underside of the 2x2 rails
  9. In order to ensure that the sleeping platform doesn’t move (if someone were to open the tailgate even though it is locked to the sleeping platform), I recommend attaching two metal L-brackets to the underside of the 2×2 rails. These will be sandwiched between the tailgate and sleeping platform, and provided there is a slight overlap, it will make it impossible to open the tailgate when locked to the sleeping platform.L Brackets attached to underside of 2x2 rails

That’s pretty much all there is to it in terms of building the ultimate truck camper setup. You’ve now got a best of both worlds approach.

Anything remain unclear? Any questions for me? Sound off in the comments below.

Once you’ve got the build, now you’ll need to outfit your truck camper… Here’s what you need to get started truck camping.

If you liked this article please don’t forget to like it, share it, tweet it, etc!

How to build the best truck camping setup (step-by-step)

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Ryan

Author, Writer, and Head Honcho at Desk to Dirtbag
Ryan is an author, adventurer, and wanderer. Originally from Seattle, he headed to Washington DC where he spent five years working for Congress before heeding the call of the wild. He set out living in his pickup truck and road tripping across the American West. Since then he backpacked through Colombia, drove across all of Central America, and also wrote a best selling book: Big Travel, Small Budget. Follow along on Instagram or read more.

Comments 6

  1. Ryan, Love your work here. Easily one of the best set ups I’ve found anywhere. I have a short bed (5.5ft tacoma) but will you utilize your system with a couple modifications so I can extend the sleeping platform over the tailgate and then have the shelf slide in to finish the bed.

    1. Post
      Author

      Glad you like it, Taylor! Look forward to seeing what you come up with in your design… You should join the Facebook truck camping group if you haven’t already.

  2. Cool setup Ryan. Does the 3/4″ ply wood support your weight easily or does it sag at all? I’m trying to map out my build out right now and I just assumed that plywood that you slept on would need to be braced by 2’x4’s. Any info is greatly appreciated!

    1. Post
      Author

      It’s actually a 1/2″ plywood sheet. It does sag a little bit, though it is partially braced by the storage boxes underneath. I’m at around 175lbs. I’ve slept on it with my girlfriend a few times as well. All in all it has held up well without permanent bracing underneath. Your mileage may vary…

  3. Great job Ryan!
    Very clear and detailed instructions, thanks. It will make my construction easier.
    I am thinking on the same lines only making one of the vertical bins about 30 inches wide which can double as a sitting area and a single bed. If a double bed is needed the plywood can then go in-between. A little height adjustment may be required.
    I have a Tacoma and was thinking of the Leer 122 also. Does it give you enough ceiling height when seated?
    Thanks again.
    Ted

    1. Post
      Author

      Hey Ted! If you mean to ask whether you could sit up from one of the vertical sidebins and have enough headroom under the Leer 122, I think that would be a no. You’d have to build the sidebins to be a little shorter. At least with my truck, that would be the case. Perhaps with a full-size pickup you would have enough room thanks to the overall size increase of the canopy as well.

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