How to Build a Camper Shell

Updated August 4, 2021
Old Green Explorer Truck With Camper Shell

If the idea of going camping without the need to set up a tent or sleep on the ground appeals to you, you may want to learn how to build a camper shell so you can transform your truck into a comfortable place to sleep. With the right supplies, tools, and a weekend set aside for the project, you can build the perfect camper shell for your truck.

What Is a Camper Shell?

For almost as long as there have been pickup trucks, there have been camper shells that provide an enclosed area over the bed on the back of a pickup truck. They are also called caps or toppers. The earliest models were made of metal. However, due to premature rusting and weight, the next generation of caps were made of fiberglass.

Using a Camper Shell to Go Camping

The original purpose of the cap was for camping. Over time, people who drove trucks with these caps ended up using the enclosed space for other things such as tools or supplies. However, camping with a pickup camper still remains one of the most convenient and inexpensive ways to go camping.

Pickup truck with rooftop tent driving

Learning How to Build a Camper Shell

If this type of camping sounds appealing to you, but you can't quite afford the high cost of the new fiberglass toppers, then you may want to consider building a camper shell yourself.

Materials Used for Camper Frames

The materials that you choose for the shell of your truck camper will determine the overall weight, the durability, and of course, how easy or difficult it will be to build. The most common options for camper frame and wall material include the following:

  • PVC pipe framing with fiberglass sides
  • Wood framing with thin plywood sides
  • Metal framing with aluminum sides

Most people don't have the welding skills or tools to create the metal framing, so out of these three options, the two most popular use PVC and wood. The procedure for how to build a camper shell is almost identical in both cases. The only difference is in how all the components are attached to each other. In the case of wood, nails will do, but in the case of PVC and fiberglass, you'll be using adhesives.

How to Build a Camper Shell in a Weekend

Before you get started, you should spend some time taking accurate measurements of the bed of your truck. While you're at the hardware store, if you're opting for the PVC shell, you'll need to buy about 10 1-inch PVC pipes, each 10-feet long. Purchase 10 three-way PVC angle joints and also pick up PVC adhesive. For the walls, pick up four fiberglass kits (which include fiberglass cloth and resin).

If you're going with a wood frame, all you need to do is replace the PVC piping with 10-foot lengths of 2-by-2 lumber, and one-quarter-inch plywood sheets rather than the fiberglass. Also, pick waterproof wood sealant. Remember to pick up small windows if you want them.

Other things you should purchase:

  • A respirator, good work gloves, and safety glasses
  • Wood or fiberglass spray paint
  • A piece of Plexiglas the width of your truck bed
  • Four C-clamps
  • Two hinges, clasps ,and a latch for the back door

When You're Ready to Get Started

Once you've collected all of your materials and you're ready to start building, you might feel like jumping right in. Use these helpful steps to guide you from start to finish:

Prep Your Materials

  1. Carefully measure the bed of your truck and record it for reference. You'll need the length and the width of the inside of the bed.
  2. Cut four pieces of PVC or 2-by-2 wood the measured length, and four pieces the measured width.
  3. Cut four pieces of PVC or wood about 2 or 3 feet long (depending on how high you want the camper).

Build the Frame

  1. Using two length pieces and two width pieces, glue or nail each together end-to-end (using angle joints in the case of PVC) to create a square.
  2. Repeat the same procedure to create a second square, but without one width piece.
  3. Using the four short pieces of PVC or wood, connect the two squares together by the corners so that you basically have a cube the length and width of your truck bed, with a missing lower piece where your tailgate will touch.
  4. Let the frame of your new camper dry for 10 to 20 minutes before moving to the next step.

Cover the Frame and Finish Up

  1. Lay wall sections over the top and three sides of the box (leaving the back open). The top will be solid, but on the sides you'll need to consider cutting appropriate sized holes for your windows if you plan to install them. With fiberglass, you lay a fiberglass cloth across the side, mix the resin, and then coat the cloth. The resin will harden into a wall in about 30 minutes.
  2. If you're using plywood, simply cut it to the appropriate size and nail to your frame. Then coat all four walls and roof with a good layer of sealant.
  3. Install the windows, if you've created holes for them. Don't forget to seal the edges of the window with caulking to stop leaks.
  4. Cut your Plexiglas into the same size as the front wall of your cube.
  5. Attach hinges to the top of your cube with screws, and screw the other end of the hinge into your Plexiglas sheet to attach it, so that it can swing up and down to allow entry into the camper.

Installing Your Camper Shell

Now that you have a completed shell, all you need to do is apply weatherstripping tape (campers tape) along the inside lip of the bed, and then lower it so that the edge slides slightly inside the lip. Using the four C-clamps, you can firmly attach the shell to the lip so that it won't move at all. You may need the help of assistants to hold it in place while you're attaching the clamps. Once attached, latch the Plexiglas flap to your tailgate, and you're ready to go camping!

Young woman reading book while relaxing in her pickup truck camper

Flex Your DIY Skills

Taking on a build such as a camper cap may seem like an impossible task for someone who doesn't have a lot of fabrication experience, but following the steps of a quick guide like this one will help you create that truck camper cap of your dreams. If you're in the mood to save some money and put your hands to work, then go ahead and start prepping your truck bed for a whole new makeover.

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