How To Build The $1500 RV

Note: This article is a companion piece to our post titled The $1500 DIY RV. Go read that first and come back!

After years of traveling in and living out of our truck topper camper we have learned a ton about road life, simple living, camping with kids and making the most out of a small space. This post is intended to guide you on the design considerations, materials and tactics we used to build our first Home On The Loose.

In many ways, the truck topper is an ideal starter home for life on the road. The topper is a smaller space, will cost less to insulate and build out and you can travel for years comfortably in the luxury of your truck topper build. If you are a weekend warrior (or summer warriors like us) your topper can make your Friday afternoon pack out much smoother by storing essential items such as your bed, sleeping bags/comforters, camp kitchen, chairs and firewood already packed!

So now you have your very own topper. What’s next?

A lot will be determined by the size and shape of your own topper. Ours is a plumber’s cap that allows me (at 5’10”) to almost stand. Well, actually, it’s more of an awkward stoop. But this extra headroom has been magic on rainy days as we can all pile in the back and not just lay as if we are in a coffin. Your mileage may vary.

1)  Insulate: Regardless of your headroom (or lack thereof) you are going to want to insulate. One of the wonderful features of the truck topper camper is that the small space will heat up quickly is insulated well. (Especially once you put four bodies in there!) We have Polyiso Board in Bertha. This can usually be found at your local big box hardware store in 4×6 sheets. Cut the sheets to cover all of the panels above your bed platform. The Polyiso cuts very easily, so you can get very creative in getting it packed in to funky geometries. We used 3M 90 spray adhesive to stick the foam board up.

Note: After fourteen years, we have never regretted not having insulation below the bed. The storage area below remains cooler, but we have always been toasty warm above with the insulation in the walls and the mattress
insulating below.

2) Cut hole for Vent Fan:  We have loved having our vent fan up by our heads as we can blow cool air on our faces during hot nights and, with a window or door cracked, we can pull cool air through the whole cabin. I’ve used a Fantastic Fan on all of my builds and swear by the simple, non-motorized crank style. Measure twenty times before cutting your hole with the finest toothed jigsaw blade you can find.

3) Run wires for electrical: For Bertha we went with a simple 100 watt Renogy system. Single panel running to a 125 Amp hour battery. This has been sufficient to run the three lights, fantastic fan, inverter for charging the laptop and other electronics as well as an occasional plug in DC cooler that we kept up front until our second child came along. Hello second car seat, goodbye back seat! The battery sits in one of our storage channels under the bed platform. (see below)

4) Cover: For our $1500 RV we went with indoor/outdoor carpet in a lovely grey color. In the carpeting section of your home store you can also buy the adhesive. Scrape that stuff on and then paste in your carpet. The carpet is nice in that it gives a fuzzy interior to your small space and prevents little bits of polyiso foam from being flaked off by your three year old and then strewn all over the back of your topper. (not that we’d know of course) It also gives a nice, finished look and is great for running wires behind. Again, we stopped at the bed platform level and left the underneath unfinished.

5) Bed Platform: Ahhh! Home sweet home! Your platform can be as simple as a sheet of plywood suspended across the truck bed or as complex as a transformable bed/changing area with memory foam topper. Our original platform was a simple plywood shelf suspended by two 1x3s reinforced with channel brackets. The platform had shelving on one side and a nice, snuggleable space for two on the other. When we redesigned Bertha as a family camper we took out the shelving and created a large single platform. For support we created two struts out of 3/4″ plywood that run the entire length fore and aft of the bed platform. These slot perfectly into the grooves of our corrugated bed liner. This allowed us to make the bed platform the exact right height to stash our cooler underneath the bed platform; something we had dreamed about for years! We also cut a channel out of the middle of the bed platform. When our first child was young, she would fit in the space left above the channel and the void space between gave us a place to put our feet down and be able to almost stand up to put our pants on. Lastly, we installed hinged panels up near our heads to access storage areas that we would otherwise need to crawl in to reach. This makes accessing the battery and the dry food storage much easier!

6) Storage: If you use the plywood rails method, you have three channels under the bed platform. We use the passenger channel to house our battery as well as firewood and our camp chairs and water jugs. The center channel is for gear storage. We have three tubs that slide in. The bin furthest back is for occasional use items (tent, slackline, #6 Camalot, etc) The middle bin is for the camp kitchen. The near bin is the food pantry. The driver’s side channel has our long term dry food storage (for longer trips) our cooler and our camp stove.

Since we took out the shelves on the bed platform, we needed a space to keep clothing and personal items within easy reach. We hit upon using bungee cord and black laundry netting to create mesh pockets that run the entire upper length of the cap. They are awesome!

With that, you are done! Load her up and take a test trip! You will find that your systems will evolve over time. Be flexible and allow your design to evolve with you. Enjoy the peace that the simple life on the road can bring you.

Remember, start making your dream of spending more time outside happen today. What is the one thing you can do to move yourself towards the life you imagine? Do it today!

See you out there.




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