I have always been fascinated by the van life trend, with the freedom to see amazing and wild places and to have all the luxuries of home with you. I watched countless hours of van tours and conversions, dreaming of what I would build if I had a van. But I couldn’t afford a van, let alone have the time to convert it, which lead me to exploring alternative ways to live on the road. That is when I found truck camping. With a cap over the bed of the truck it creates a tiny living space big enough for a bed and some storage underneath. It wasn’t anything fancy, but it was the perfect set up for me. With special circumstances that allowed me very little time, my dad and I quickly converted the bed of my truck into a tiny home on wheels.
The bed was a little bigger than a twin sized mattress. It had storage underneath and some open space on the passenger side. This allowed me to put my legs over the side of the bed and sit up. I was able to sit up straight on the bed without bumping my head (that’s one thing being short is good for).
I built this tiny home on wheels to follow my girlfriend as she continued her attempted thru hike the Appalachian Trail (Spoiler alert, she did it!). I had just gotten off the trail after doing 900 miles and still had a month before I needed to be home for college. I quickly came up with a plan for the build, already having so many ideas from the hours of research I put in. The bed platform consisted of a piece of plywood and some 2x4’s. Four 2x4’s ran the width of the bed, one at the foot of the bed, one at the head, and two evenly spaced in the middle to distribute the weight. The two 2x4’s in the middle attached to the frame of the truck bed in groves designed to hold the boards in place. This kept the bed platform from sliding around when driving. We used the additional wood from the cut 2x4’s for feet and had an additional sheet of plywood between the feet of the bed and the bed liner of the truck. This allowed for a flat surface for the feet to rest on and place to store things while letting the water drain underneath in case of a leak (which happened).
I made the small space as homey as possible adding pillows and blankets, as well as blinds and rainbow lights. The lights, two small portable fans (which were a must for the summer), and all of our device charging was powered by a Jackery Explorer 300wh battery. This battery was the perfect size for hanging out in the bed area with us, it was small enough to fit underneath the platform and had enough juice to keep us going for near a week if need be. It can be charged through the 12v car port, but I charged it using a 100w solar panel, also from Jackery. This was my first time getting into solar technology and I must say I am in love. I originally bought the Jackery to power my 12v fridge from ICECO but soon realized it was not going to be able to handle the power draw from the fridge. It would have powered it for nearly 10 hours on a single charge, which made it a great back up in case my bigger battery was empty and the sun wasn’t shinning. Eventually, I upgrade to a 2000wh battery by Bluetti that would keep the fridge running for over 5 days. I was able to recharge that battery with a 350w solar panel that topped it off quickly on a sunny day. Needless to say, we had a lot of power.
The fridge opened up so many possibilities for cooking. We had eggs and bacon for breakfast, cold cut sandwiches for lunch, and chicken alfredo for dinner. I had borrowed my uncles Coleman two burner stove for our kitchen set up. It ran off propane, which we had plenty of (20 lbs). I went from living out of a tent eating cold ramen every night to sleeping on memory foam and eating home cooked meals, trail luxury at its finest.
Things I love about life on the road:
You have the freedom to go wherever you want, so long as you can drive there.
You have *most* of the comforts of home with you (minus the shower and bathroom). This is especially great for remote places were there isn’t a convenient hotel to stay the night in. You still have a comfy bed, plenty of power to charge your devices, and a kitchen to cook. In contrast to a tent, it makes a world of difference to the extra sitting room and storage space, particularly on rainy days.
Compared to living out of a backpack for 2 ½ months (or 5 months for Lily, my girlfriend) the truck was an astronomical amount of storage space and better yet, we didn’t have to carry the weight of it. We could bring any luxury we could think of as long as it fit.
Solar power is amazing. I can’t express enough how fascinating it is. I was able to leave the panel on the roof of the truck while I went into a Planet Fitness to shower and the battery would be charged back up.
The fridge was a game changer and I am so glad that I invested in one. We could eat healthier and cook with things that needed to be kept cold. My fridge does not have a freezer, but you can get fridges that have a dual fridge and freezer.
The 4x4 and high clearance of the truck was a nice comfort for me. Driving down bumpy, muddy dirt roads, sometimes in the dark, it was nice to know that we wouldn’t get stuck.
Is there a better drive-in movie set up than this?
Things I didn’t like:
As hinted to before, the cap leaked by the cab of the truck and head of the bed. In a heavy rain it found its way between the cap and bed liner or through holes in the bed frame that is standard for Toyota trucks. It would run down the back wall and sometimes get onto some of our stuff. I had a box of books near the back wall that all have water damage now. Luckily, the extra sheet of plywood underneath the bed kept most of our stuff up off the ground and allowed the water to run out through the grooves in the truck bed liner.
Rain. Rain in general sucks when living out of your car. When you aren’t in something like a van that you can stand up in, you don’t have much room to maneuver. This made cooking especially difficult. Luckily, we could take our house through a drive through or go park it and go to a restaurant. It also forced us to keep the windows closed, making it stuffy and hot in the cab.
As much as I loved the solar set up, I wished it was a fixed panel attached to the roof. Having to set it up every time wasn’t a big deal but I was worried that if I left the panel on my roof someone might steal it. The good news is that it is hard to see on top of the truck unless you can see down onto the roof.
Lastly, the east coast is not the best place for living out of your car. Out west there is a plethora of public lands from Bureau of Land Management lands (BLM) to National Forest lands. Most of the time Lily and I were sleeping on the side of the road in a residential area or in the parking lot of a Planet Fitness.
Things that I would do differently:
When you have empty space, you tend to fill it. I was guilty of this and brought way too many things. I had bins that I never opened and just got in the way. When I do another extended stay or live full time in the truck, I will bring less stuff.
If I was ever going to do full time living, I would get a mounted solar panel. A typical glass solar panel you see on houses is not only more durable but also cheaper than the folding ones. They can be mounted to the roof of the car or onto roof racks. This would allow me to charge my batteries all day without having to set anything up or worrying if someone might steal it.
Another thing with the power system is getting lithium deep cycle batteries. These are the batteries they use in cars and have pros and cons compared to lithium-ion or lithium-ion-phosphate batteries. Not to get too technical, the deep cycle batteries can store much more power for a similar or cheaper price and can handle more extreme temperatures. Those portable power stations don’t work in the extreme heat or temperatures below freezing. If you plan to live in your vehicle year round, I recommend the deep cycle batteries.
I would get a mounted canopy that covered the back and side of the truck. This would allow us to be outside and cook even in the rain. It would also shade us from the sun in the summer and keep the living space cooler.
Taking the back seats out. The back seats in my truck fold up like in many others. Even with this I had the back seats full of bins and the fridge. They weren't able to be used with all of the stuff on it anyway. Removing the seats would give me another foot of depth and I can build my own shelf system to put back there to have storage underneath the fridge and bins as well.
Parts and Cost: *Some of these are affiliate links which help support the blog.
Leer Truck Cap ($2500): My cap is felt lined, which keeps the carbon fiber dust from getting into the sleeping area and becoming a hazard. It is the mid-rise 180 cap with sliding screened windows. (You can find used caps for much cheaper, but they are hard to come by for a Toyota Tundra).
Wood ($250): The wood for the bed platform was from Home Depot. The ply wood was smooth so that I did not need to carpet it.
Lights ($25): I used LED camp lights from REI to light up the bed area and Velcro to attach them to the felt lining of the cap. (Any light strip on amazon will work).
Jackery Battery and Solar Panel ($600): The Jackery explorer 300 costs $299.99 and the 100w solar panel costs $299.99. (Sometimes you can find them on sale or use a discount code from YouTube review channels).
Bluetti Battery and Solar Panel ($2500): The Bluetti AC200P costs $1699 and the PV350 solar panel costs $799. (Sometimes you can find them on sale or use a discount code from YouTube review channels. The AC200P is on sale for $1,399).
ICECO VL45 Fridge ($559): This is a great, robust fridge with 47.6 quarts of usable space. (You can typically find a discount code to make it cheaper).
Storage Bins ($30): I got storage bins from Home Depot and the dollar store, as well as what I had around the house. Any bins lying around the house will work as long as they fit.
Coleman two burner stove ($50): Typically, a new one will cost $50 dollars but I was able to borrow the one I used from my uncle.
20 lbs. Propane tank ($65): A new propane tank will cost you $65, but once purchased you can trade it in for a new one for around $10 depending where you are. I was fortunate enough to borrow one from my parents.
Mattress ($440): My mattress was a bouldering pad I already owned and a twin sized memory foam topper from Walmart. The bouldering pad cost $400 and the memory foam topper cost $40. (Use a mattress you already have to save money).
Other Things to Have:
Road Atlas: If you plan to travel into new locations, I would recommend a road atlas in case you lose service and cannot access GPS.
Car Jump Starter: Having a jump kit is a necessary safety precaution in case your battery dies. This jump kit has a rechargeable battery that allows you a single jump in case there are no other cars around.
Kitchen Utensils: As you would imagine in a kitchen you need utensils. The same goes for your kitchen on wheels.
Camp Chairs: It is always nice to have some chairs so that you can eat outside or sit by a fire and don’t have to be inside the car all the time.
Let me know any other suggestions you have for what to add to the list in the comments below!