How to Build the Ultimate DIY Truck Bed Camper Setup: Step by Step Directions

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Lots of people have found my truck canopy camping build online and have replicated it themselves. But many have also reached out asking for more detailed plans or designs about how to build my DIY truck bed camper setup, which is something I couldn’t really provide… Until now!

How to Build the Ultimate DIY Truck Bed Camper Setup: Step by Step Directions truck-camping, how-to
I took advantage when I had my truck emptied out for cleaning and shot a video explaining how to build this DIY truck bed camper setup. 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 DIY Truck Bed Camper Setup

For just about $100 in lumber and an afternoon worth of work, you can build this DIY truck bed 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.

Read 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 are my original brainstorming ideas prior to the build:

Computer mock up of my DIY truck bed camper setup

A rough sketch of what I actually ended up doing:

Sketch of my ultimate DIY truck camper build

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

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).

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 52+ years.
Notched out 2x4 where the clamp fits

Attach the notched out 2×4 to the side of the truck with the truck canopy clamps.

Now with the clamp in place
Attach the 2x4 to the side of the truck

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.

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.

Cut the 2×4 which you marked to correct the angle to the appropriate distance. These will act as your vertical side bin braces.

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.

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.

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.

Cut a length of 1/2″ plywood at that height and to run the length of your truck bed.

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.

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 DIY truck camper setup, in my opinion.

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 tabletop that runs nearly the length of the truck bed.

I highly recommend a tabletop. 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

DIY Truck Camping Sleeping Platform

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

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

You can attach this if you like, 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, which is why this is the ultimate DIY truck camper build thanks to its flexibility.

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 or a week before reinstalling it. It will probably still have a strong order for a bit, but that will subside in time.

Additional Steps for Your DIY Truck Bed Camper

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.

Remove your plastic tailgate liner.

Measure the length and width of the plastic liner, replicate that size on a 1/2″ sheet of plywood.

Using the plastic liner, place it flush with the plywood and trace out all the screw holes. Drill those out.

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.

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 an area 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).

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 camping setup 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.

These are the hasp locks I use from Amazon.

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 the tailgate in relation to the sleeping platform. I recommend placing them as close to the corners of sleeping platform as is practical.

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.

Screw the hinges into place on the underside of the wooden tailgate.

Attach wooden tailgate to the truck (as before).

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

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).

Open the tailgate, remove the hasp locks from the hinge, and now screw the hasp locks into place on the sleeping platform.

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

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 bed camper setup. You’ve now got a best of both worlds approach.

Anything unclear about this truck camper setup? Any questions for me? Sound off in the comments below or shoot me an email.

Once you’ve got the DIY truck bed camper build done, then you’ll need to outfit yourself for some new adventures…

Read Next: The Gear You Need to Start Truck Camping

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The Most Common Truck Bed Camping Mistakes

Pickup Truck Camping Guide

Turn your pickup truck into the ultimate adventure mobile. This printable truck camping guide will help you through the process.

Instructions

  1. Get a truck if you don't have one! 🙂 I've traveled all over the world in my 1991 Toyota Pickup. The bigger the truck bed the better. Short beds have workarounds but they are not ideal unless you are quite small.
  2. Find a new or used canopy for your truck. Read this guide on what to look for when buying a canopy. My top recommendation is to find an elevated canopy like the Leer 122 (what I use).
  3. Decide on what sort of truck bed sleeping platform you want to build. The two most common are an elevated sleeping platform or the backshelf (and side-shelf) approaches. I did a transformer setup for the best of both worlds, here is my step-by-step guide building the transformer style setup.
  4. Purchase essential gear to start truck camping which includes a sleeping pad or mattress, sleeping bag, two-burner stove, cooler, storage boxes, etc.
  5. Go on a test truck camping run at a free boondocking campsite without amenities to test your setup. Read more about finding free camping in the USA.
  6. Consider your electronics system and how you will charge devices while on the road. You could get an outside system like the GoalZero Yeti but I recommend using a dual battery and isolator under the hood.
  7. Join the Pickup Truck Camping group on Facebook for an amazing, like-minded community where you can ask questions and get answers from experienced truck campers. Be sure to pick up your #PTC stickers, shirts, and swag!
  8. Review the detailed truck camping gear and accessories (plus a packing list) and start planning your epic truck camping adventures. Might I suggest this national park road trip, the most scenic drives in the USA, or this west coast USA road trip? Here is more info on road trip planning for you, based on 10s of thousands of miles of adventures.
  9. Sign up for more truck camping tips, tricks, and info delivered straight to your email inbox from yours truly.

Notes

I hope this helped you get started with truck camping! I know it can be confusing when you are just getting started, which is why I started writing so extensively about it.

If you have any questions about truck camping, road trips, budget travel, or anything else shoot me an email at ryan@desktodirtbag.com.

(I love getting questions! That is how I get ideas for my blog posts and what to write about!)

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Did you find this helpful?

Please let me know with a comment on the blog below or reach out to me on Facebook or Instagram. Feel free to share a photo on Instagram with the #desktodirtbag hashtag once you put this into action!

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Ryan

Author, Writer, and Head Honcho at Desk to Dirtbag
Ryan is an author, adventurer, perpetual wanderer, and self-proclaimed dirtbag (but that might not mean what you think). Originally from Seattle, he headed to Washington D.C. where he spent five years working for Congress before heeding the call of the wild. He set out truck camping to road trip across the American West. Since then he set out traveling to Colombia, drove across all of Central America, and also wrote a best selling book: Big Travel, Small Budget. He just finished driving his old truck across all of South America. Follow the adventures on social media or read more about me.

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Comments 28

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    Ryan,

    It seems like your clamps are deeper tham the ones that I have attaching my camper cap. Do you remember where you purchased them and what the model number is?

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    Wow, it is cool that you can add a little platform into your truck beds. It is good to know that you can do this with wood. I wonder if you can still do this if you have an extender put on the bed of your pickup truck.

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    Great instructional! I built the bed of my 92′ Toyota pickup ext. cab the same way you did. I did some hard searching and found this camp pad, which literally fits the 40″ wide sleeping space perfectly. A few different mats from Exped will fit, but here’s the one I bought. Just thought you might like to know there’s an inflatable duo sleeping pad out there that works for your setup!

    Thanks again.

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    Love the design. I’ve got a 15 tacoma, which has rails that run the length of the bed and are what my shell is “clamped” into via a bed rail nut. Hence my problem with following your outline verbatim. Any suggestions for incorporating the rail as a substitute for the 2×4 you clamped into your truck? Essentially connecting the 3, 2×4 braces directly to the rail… I’m a construction novice, any suggestions greatly appreciated!

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    Hey! Thanks for all the tips! A few quick questions (sorry in advance if
    they are simple, zero experience).

    Do you do anything for insulation?

    In regards to the side bins, what do you mean by angling the wood and how do I know it’s correct?

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      Hey Kasey, I don’t do anything for insulation, I treat truck camping just as I would cold weather tent camping. Just bring a good sleeping bag and learn how to manage in the cold. Usually the side wall of the truck is not at a perfect 90 degree angle, so you will need to check out the angle and compensate. You can hold up a small piece of 2×4 at the back to judge the angle and make a few test cuts to ensure it sits “flat” aka level.

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        For insulating your bed you can use the blue foam board (Lowe’s) they use in constructions or find some of those floor pads (2ft square) that fit together like puzzle pieces, Both of these you can cut to whatever shape you need and they are flexible to bend where you need it. This is a great project I think I’m going to try for my new truck.

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    Hi thanks for the info. I’ve got a 2009 tacoma and went with a simple, no screws elevated system. I’ve also got a mx series ARE shell with rack rails so I’ll probably take too much stuff now. Oh well. My question is: how did you attach the plywood to the life gate? My carpentry/construction skills are best illustrated by the “Homer Simpson spice rack”. You used the existing holes in the tail gate, but did you put the tail gate cover back on the tail gate and put the plywood over it and screw thru both or ditch the cover? Thanks

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      I just unscrewed the tail gate cover, used it like a stencil on the plywood to trace the holes, then screwed the plywood directly into the tailgate. Just stashed the old tail gate cover in my mom’s garage. I’d imagine if you try to use both, it would be too thick.

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    I have used the hasp locks in the past and found that most are just junk, EASILY popped off with just a screwdriver under the hasp. I would recommend another system.

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      Author

      Yeah, you could go with someone more robust if you felt the need. Really it’s just another deterrent for those quick smash and grabs because most thieves won’t be expecting a special locked platform inside as well. For my needs, the hasps are good enough.

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    This is one of the simplest and versatile setups I’ve come across. I’ll be working on one in my truck this weekend, for sure. Many thanks!

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    Ryan, I have the same (almost) 90’s Toyota Pickup and love it! this is so helpful, and I will definitely be using this method. my main concern is that 1/2′ plywood sagging. do you notice it sags quite a bit or does it mostly hold up? my thought was to build the vertical bins a little wider, so that the plywood bed platform wouldn’t be under so much stress. the second issue im running into is wrapping my head around trying to organize and compartmentalize things appropriately. what do you typically put where so it is easy to reach and use?

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      It does sag a little bit, but not worryingly so. As I mentioned, it often rests on top of the large plastic boxes I place underneath, and I put in a small wooden brace at the entrance. You could definitely build it slightly smaller, or put in a more substantive center brace — like a sheet of plywood that fits into the groove of the bed liner and is the exact height you want.

      In terms of organization, I keep a few things easily accessible from my headlamp to my toothbrush and such. Hard for me to help you with that since each person will need to figure out a system that works best for them. It’s a learning process, but it’s quick. Everything should have its place.

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    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

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      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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    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!

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      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…

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        There’s no way you’re getting minimal sag with no central support on 1/2” plywood and your gf must be tinkerbell if you both slept on that thing. It’s a great idea, but horrible execution.

        Spend the money for thicker plywood if you’re going this route or throw in a muddle support that’s removable.

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          Couldn’t disagree more. Still got the same setup a few years in. As mentioned the sag is minimal (not non-existent), I place a small removable 2×2 near the tailgate so I can hop up top. You’re not building a home up to code, you’re building a practical truck camping solution, and in my extensive experience it is more than fine. You can do thicker plywood, but realize that it will be much heavier and more cumbersome to move.

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    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.

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      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.

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