Learn to build a handy camper for under $2,000.
The family’s on- or off-road Subaru crossover vehicle is easily able to trailer the camper.
Eric Keiper framed in the camper on top of the small trailer he bought.
Eric Keiper tests the strength of the rooftop framing to be sure it can support the tent.
An adjustment here, an adjustment there… Eric bolted on a piece of square iron to serve as a bike hitch.
Adding R5 foam made the camper more comfortable in the heat as well as the cold.
What is a camper without water? The PVC water system holds 8 gallons of potable water.
Eric bought a SEAFLO diaphragm pump to provide water in the camper.
The galley area features the sink, small fridge and some handy storage space.
The rooftop tent easily folds out.
Eric built shelves and provided lighting above the camper’s sleeping area.
One of the side doors on the camper allows easy access to the sleeping area.
The decal says it all.
Just like Noah’s neighbors when he was building the ark, the folks who live in Eric Keiper’s Oklahoma neighborhood had to be wondering what the fuss was all about in his garage throughout the winter. From December until the unveiling a few months later, the physical therapist spent weekends, and any additional time he could spare, constructing a top-notch camper for his family.
“I have a little following in the neighborhood,” Keiper said, noting the curious visitors who approved of his project as it gradually took shape.
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The funny thing is, it all began with a tree that fell in his backyard. Instead of hiring a company to cut up and remove the tree, Keiper decided it was cheaper to purchase a small trailer and do it himself. And what do you do with a trailer after the project is finished? Build a camper on top of it, of course.
- (1) 4-by-6-foot trailer
- (4) 4-by-8-foot-long, 19/32-inch-thick plywood sheets (one for floor, two for sides and the extra for cabinets and counter)
- 6 cans of rubberized undercoating (to cover plywood and wood surfaces that are exposed to water on camper’s underside)
- Lots of fasteners (long and short wood screws, liquid nails, long and short carriage bolts with flat washers, and lock washers).
- (20) 2-by-2-inch-by-8-foot pine boards (for framing the cab)
- (4) 5-by-1-inch-by-6-foot and (5) 1-by-2-inch-by-6-foot red oak framing (for cab and roof rack to support rooftop tent). Use leftover pieces to create cross members.
- 12-volt RV ventilation fan
- 2 rolls of 16-gauge 12-volt wiring for 12-volt accessories
- Converter/charger for 110-volt 30-amp source to 12-volt DC
- (4) 110-volt outlets, (6) 12-volt lights (indoor and outdoor) and 12-volt socket or outlet.
- Deep cycle 12-volt battery
- SEAFLO new 12-volt water pressure diaphragm pump 4.3 L/min. 1.2 GPM PSI
- Butyl tape
- (8) FRP 4-by-8-foot fiberglass sheets (for exterior and interior surfaces)
- 1-inch R5 Foam sheeting (for insulation and expandable foam spray)
- Various pieces of aluminum trim (for cab, doors and doorframes)
- n Rear latch and both door latches
- 2-by-12-by-18-inch chicken coop windows with venting
- 1-by-6-by-10-inch plastic floor vent (to install at base of cab for airflow)
- Plastic Primer (to cover fenders and fiberglass)
- 1 gallon white, UV-resistant exterior paint
- 1 gallon of tan, UV-resistant paint
Builder’s Note: Plans do not include plumbing materials, fixtures for the galley or some materials for the camper’s potable water system.
A Mobile Oasis
Creating a mobile oasis of civilization had been on Keiper’s mind for some time since he wanted to make the family camping and hiking excursions as enjoyable as possible for everyone. He and his wife, Michelle, like to spend time outdoors together, as does their 13-year-old son, Sam. But it’s not exactly on the “most fun in the world” list for their 16-year-old daughter, Madison, who isn’t as thrilled with the rustic accommodations of a traditional tent.
“The inside of the camper is for Madison, and for anyone who has the urge for civilization,” he explained.
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Before embarking on the project, Keiper studied numerous plans and books about building small-scale campers, modifying the plans as he saw fit to provide what he needed for keeping his family safe, sound and happy.
“It’s been fun designing it and imagining where things go,” he said.
Part of the plan was to keep the cost below $2,000. He didn’t need to buy high-tech equipment. Instead, he opted to utilize the handheld, battery-powered Ryobi tools he already owned, along with employing plenty of creative ingenuity. Many of the parts he purchased were from companies specializing in replacement parts for vintage campers.
“There were things that I bought that I couldn’t use,” Keiper said. “But I have a very small pile of leftovers.”
First, Keiper bolted a piece of square tubing to the base of the trailer to make a bike hitch. Oak framing was used to build on the bones of the trailer and to provide adequate support for the pine framing to hold up a rooftop tent. Next, working with 19/32-inch plywood, he created the bottom and sides of the camper. To frame in the ends, as well as the roof of the camper, he used 2-by-2 pine lumber.
Keiper installed R5 foam board to insulate the spaces between the framing, and the cracks and crevices were sealed with spray foam insulation, which also aids in keeping insects where they belong, on the outside. “It stays very cool in direct sunlight for five hours,” he explained.
With a footprint roughly 4-by 6-feet and an interior height of 48 inches, Keiper said, “The teardrop makes you get outside.” But it is large enough to provide a comfortable sleeping space off the ground and is well protected from the elements.
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The interior air foam mattress is large enough to sleep two people comfortably, and is accessible from 18-by-26-inch doors on either side. Keiper even built windows within the doors to provide light and additional ventilation. A cool summer breeze blows inside the sleeping area while the mosquitoes are kept at bay.
Another practical feature is the galley at the back of the camper. There aren’t many flat, clean surfaces when you’re camping, but Keiper built in a functional space to prep food and store camping items. He only has to lift up the hatch to access the area, which is complete with a small sink, refrigerator and storage area. This provides a convenient and organized place to cook and wash up.
The 8-gallon potable water supply is situated under the floor in a series of PVC pipes that snake through the framing below. For the Keipers, this is an adequate amount of water to take on a weekend excursion.
Eric Keiper fills the system at the opening in the top of the PVC network, and he included another pipe behind the PVC fill hole that serves as a vent. The skinny pipe (that leads to the faucet) goes to the lowest point in the system below the floor. He then installed an inexpensive 12-volt on-demand automatic diaphragm pump. There’s also a lower opening in the PVC system that is the drain. It’s a simple yet genius configuration.
When the family stops to set up camp, all Keiper has to do is prop open the back hatch and it serves as a handy shelter out of the elements when they put together dinner. It’s another practical feature to make the entire experience more pleasant.
There’s also no need to worry about keeping enough ice in a cooler since the small refrigerator provides ample space to keep food for a weekend. The junction box for the electrical network of the camper is also located in this area. The refrigerator runs from a 110-volt AC system only if hookups are available. The lights and fan are powered by a 12-volt marine battery, which is situated on a box resting near the tongue on the front of the camper.
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Unlike a car battery, a marine battery has solid lead plates and is designed to withstand being discharged down to 80 percent, although this practice is not recommended.
Keiper also included a converter so he can plug it into an AC power source at a campground. The wiring runs among the framing between the fiberglass skins and through the roof of the camper.
“Eventually, I’ll probably put solar on it,” he said, which will make it possible to travel greater distances.
As part of the interior and exterior finish of the camper, Keiper used .9-millimeter fiberglass sheeting purchased at a local home-improvement store. This product is very pliable, making it feasible to apply easily over the curves of the seams, as well as being waterproof and durable. He took particular care when sealing up all of the seams with glue and special trim. Water-sealing the roof was also critically important to keep the interior dry because of the sometimes volatile weather.
“For some reason, the rains are not gentle. It’s all very intense. Butyl putty is compressed between all of the joints to seal out water,” he said.
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This butyl putty tape is found at vintage trailer supply outlets, and it’s used to seal airplanes as well as trailers since it doesn’t harden and fail. On the maiden voyage at the end of March, Keiper’s trailer endured rainstorms with no leaks.
He painted the trailer with UV-resistant house paint, and made the trim a canvas tone that complements the color of the tent and the trim on the family’s trusty Subaru, which pulls the less-than-700-pound trailer with no problem.
Going above and beyond on a project is not unusual for Keiper, so he added a rooftop tent he purchased from Cascadia Vehicle Tents (cascadiatents.com) to be able to accommodate the entire family in one space. Even by adding the tent on the top, he kept the price below what he might have spent on a commercial small trailer.
Keiper said that the tent cost an additional $1,300, but a typical teardrop-type camper on Craigslist (without a rooftop tent) runs roughly around $4,500, making his entire setup still more than $1,000 cheaper.
To fix the tent to the top of the camper, he built a customized roof rack where the tent system attaches to secured pipes. It’s not going to budge traveling down the road at highway speeds. And when the family are at their campsite, he simply unfolds it, since it has a solid frame bottom, and lowers the ladder. It’s definitely a room with terrific views.
Keiper named the camper “Escape,” a fitting moniker for a way to spend quality time with his family in beautiful natural settings. To register the camper in Oklahoma, he was required to submit a photo and a description so he’s legal to be on the road.
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“When I’m driving down the highway, every single car that goes by me pauses, then continues,” he said.
Without a doubt, people are probably wondering where they can buy a camper like that. In the end, Keiper created a self-contained unit that provides a protected sleeping space, and is home base during these family outings that create fond memories of their time together.
This article was originally published in The NEW PIONEER™ Fall 2015 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.
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