Truck Camper Construction: Wood – Aluminum – Steel – Fiberglass
Trying to figure out the best materials to construct your camper?
While I’m hardly an expert on all the different ways to build campers, I can hopefully get you started with some of the wisdom I’ve picked up while researching my own truck camper build.
Lets compare some typical materials you’ll find used in truck camper construction.
- Wood — By far the cheapest and most common material used in every class of camper. Both ordinary lumber and hardwoods can be used for framing, and engineered wood products like plywood and OSB can be used in both paneling and framing, while cheap but stiff particle board can be used in indoor counters and shelves. It’s readily available and by far the easiest to work with.
- Aluminum — Is used in “lightweight” campers and trailers, both for framing and exterior paneling. It’s much more expensive than wood, and it takes some specialized knowledge to both engineer and construct a sturdy structure whose weight savings will justify its expense. It can be welded at much lower temperatures than steel, but in practice, rivets are more commonly used, both for ease of construction and dependability. Besides framing, aluminum sheeting is a common outer skin.
- Steel — Obviously very strong but heavy, and yet relatively cheap. Not used as much in small campers, but is common for framing travel trailers and big rigs, particularly to accomplish fancy features like slide-out rooms, which involve a lot of heavy metal.
- Fiberglass — Technically plastic reinforced with glass fibers, you’ll find this used in two common but completely different ways: 1) in the form of external weather-resistant paneling, and 2) molded into curved structures, such as truck bed caps. Fiberglass itself isn’t actually lightweight, as is commonly believed — it’s actually quite dense. But its toughness allows it to be used as thin paneling or molded around styrofoam as a tough protective coating, so where it really excels as a lightweight product is when paired with styrofoam.
- Styrofoam — While not usually one of the first construction materials to spring to mind, styrofoam insulation boards are an important structural component in many lightweight “foam sandwich” style designs, whether bonded between plywood panels or sculpted and coated with fiberglass to create an extremely stiff structure that’s both lightweight and thermally insulating.
Which materials should I use?
To summarize what I’ve found in my research… There’s no “best” material to use. Any of the above materials can be engineered to create a camper structure that’s both sturdy and lightweight. The important questions will be:
- Which materials do you have the most skill with?
- Which of those materials will best fit your budget and construction timeline?
I'm sure that a few of you reading this are skilled tradesmen who have specialized experience working with one of the above. But...
For most Do-It-Yourselfers, there is really no question: You should use Wood!
Wood is by far the least expensive and easiest to work with, and you absolutely can build a simple sturdy all-wood camper in record time. (I built mine in just 3 days for under $250.)