Sep 15, 2020 update to the Ford F-250 project car

Project F-250: Buying and Restoring a Slide-In Camper for Our Ford F-250 Tow Vehicle

One of the main reasons we sold our Super Van and switched to this 2001 Ford F-250 pickup was comfort: We camp at the track when we go racing, and the van just didn’t have the necessary creature comforts–or the roof height–that we wanted for a week-long camping trip.

How’s a standard-bed pickup truck going to solve that? Forum user Ian F asked just that question in the comments on our very first truck update:

Little did he know we had an ace up our sleeve. A plan that, assuming we could pull it off, would turn our pickup truck into the most comfortable track-side suite on the block. 

What About a Camper?

Welcome to the world of slide-in campers. These are basically RVs without the running gear, and designed to drop right onto the back of a pickup truck. What’s the point? Here’s why we chose this route instead of a traditional RV or camping trailer:

  • Capability: Most older RVs are built on an already-overstressed van chassis, making them a poor choice for towing. Towing a travel trailer was also out of the question, since we need to tow our race car to the track.
  • Size: Truck campers add little to no length to your truck, meaning the rig will still fit in a standard parking spot, a tiny campsite or a crowded paddock. 
  • Cost: They’re actually priced similarly to RVs on the used market, but truck campers are much less expensive to own and operate. Our state considers them cargo, meaning there’s no registration or insurance required. They’re also much cheaper to maintain, since they don’t have an engine, transmission, tires or brakes to take care of.
  • Flexibility: With a slide-in camper, our truck can haul engines one weekend, then haul our camper the next. 

As soon as we purchased our Ford F-250, we started shopping for a camper to accompany it. For months and months, we kept an eye on Facebook and Craigslist, waiting for the right deal to pop up. Why’d it take so long? Just like our truck search, we had a list of must-haves that eliminated most of the candidates. We didn’t have a long-bed truck, but we wanted a feature normally found on long-bed campers: the bathroom. And by “bathroom” we didn’t mean a porta potty in the corner. We wanted a real bathroom with tanks and a door and a shower. Call us picky or thin-skinned or whatever, but real luxury is reading the morning paper in the comfort of your own home and not in a dirty track-side bathroom stall.

We also had a slim budget–about $3000–eliminating the few standard-bed campers we found with bathrooms. Why not just buy a bigger camper? It’s important to match the camper to the truck, meaning size, center of gravity, and total weight all need to be correct. Add in our desire to tow a trailer, and we wanted something the correct size for our truck.

Meet the Mountain Star

Finally, we found what we were looking for while skimming the dregs of Facebook Marketplace. This beautiful 2004 Travel Lite Mountain Star was for sale just a few hours from home, and seemed to tick all the boxes. This was back in the pre-coronavirus times, so we didn’t think twice about hopping in the truck to go buy something a stranger had recently pooped in.

Later that evening, we’d barely attached our newest portable home to our truck with four ratchet straps and parted with 3200 hard-earned dollars. We were Mountain Star owners, and it felt good. After a terrifying drive home on the highway with our improvised tie-downs, we went to sleep that evening with visions of luxury track-side accommodations and rugged backcountry travel with all the comforts of home. We’d basically bought our own track-side villa.

Then we woke up and realized the previous night’s mistake–maybe we shouldn’t have bought an RV in the dark, even if it was the only one we’d seen under budget in months. It wasn’t all bad news–we’d checked that the major systems worked fine and the interior was serviceable–but it soon dawned on us that we’d badly misinterpreted the previous owner’s repairs. 

Camper Construction

We should take a step back here and describe how the vast majority of campers–slide-in or otherwise–are built. Start with a wooden platform, build a box of our 2x2 boards, then cover with aluminum or fiberglass skin on the outside and thin plywood on the inside. Top it all off with some caulk and accessories, and the result is cheap to build, fairly lightweight, and flexible enough to go down the road without breaking apart. 

Notice we didn’t say “waterproof.” Except for fancy one-piece fiberglass campers that were well out of our price range, there’s no such thing as a waterproof camper of any style. Keeping one from dissolving takes yearly cleaning and resealing, and even that regimen only slows down the water. Keeping a camper alive long-term means storing it inside, period. And unlike cars, these things don’t fit in a normal garage, so they sit outside. Once water gets in, the wood rots, which means things move more than they should, allowing more water in, etc. It’s a positive feedback loop that means you should never, ever buy a used RV.

Mountain Start 

But when have we ever listened to our own advice? We knew our camper had been renovated at some point, and the various colors of caulk outside, fresh interior paneling inside, and excess staples along the bottom of the exterior skin told the story of a well-meaning owner who’d realized they had some rotten wood and fixed it to the best of their ability, even if they didn't have the skills to finish it the way a professional would have. We weren’t that worried about appearances, as long as the underlying wood was sound–and who could possibly screw up replacing a few 2x2s?

Yeah, we judged that one wrong. As soon as we got the camper home, we pulled off all four jacks to get a real feel for what needed to be fixed. And the news wasn’t good. We’d assumed the previous owner had replaced rotten wood before installing fresh paneling, but the deeper we dove, the more we realized the real picture: This thing had been rotten beyond all belief, so they threw out the rotten interior paneling, shoved a few new boards in here and there, caulked it all back together, and sold it before it disintegrated.

After hundreds of deals, we’ve gotten used to gambling on unknowns. We’re still up overall, but this gamble was a bad hand by any definition.

We’d signed up to become camper restorers without even knowing it, but there was no turning back now. Until we fixed the Mountain Star (correctly) we couldn’t even put it back on our truck, never mind trying and camp in it.

But this isn’t a magazine or a website about camper restoration, so we’ll put the keyboard down and let these photos tell the story of the next few months of nights and weekends. It took a few hundred dollars in materials and hundreds of hours of time, but we ended up with a camper that’s stronger than it was when it left the factory, and probably more waterproof, too.

What’s Next?

We’d fixed the camper, but that didn’t mean we were ready to use our track-side villa yet. Before we could leave the yard with it, we needed proper tie-down points, meaning steel brackets either mounted to our bed or our frame. We also needed a way to tow a trailer, even with our portable home hanging out over the rear bumper and blocking our stock hitch. We’ll find solutions to both–and take the Mountain Star for a test drive–in our next update. 

Like what you're reading? We rely on your financial support. For as little as $3, you can support Grassroots Motorsports by becoming a Patron today. 

Become a Patron!

Join Free Join our community to easily find more project updates.
Comments
View comments on the GRM forums
Ian F (Forum Supporter)
Ian F (Forum Supporter) MegaDork
9/15/20 1:03 p.m.

I looked at a few slide-in campers back when I had my Dodge Cummins. Especially since the truck had already been setup for one (brackets welded to the frame between the cab and bed).  Unfortunately, I never found a camper that met my "must fit bicycles inside" requirement.  So I ended back with vans. 

I trust you were able to do a better job of connecting the camper to the truck wiring than the PO of my truck did - which was the "hack the berk out of the trailer wiring harness" method... 

grover
grover Dork
9/15/20 1:41 p.m.

Will you keep it on a majority of the time or take it in and out of the truck? 

Jesse Ransom
Jesse Ransom UltimaDork
9/15/20 1:53 p.m.

Is it really that impossible, in 2020, to build a reasonably priced box that keeps the weather outside on a reasonably permanent basis?

frenchyd
frenchyd PowerDork
9/15/20 1:56 p.m.

In reply to Tom Suddard :

I found most slide in campers built as cheaply as possible in order to be price competitive.  Cheaply made things aren't durable and the cost of replacing well everything  to be much more expensive then just buying new. 
(  and I don't charge myself for labor I perform. ) 

Tom Suddard
Tom Suddard Director of Marketing & Digital Assets
9/15/20 2:07 p.m.

In reply to frenchyd :

I assumed that would be the case, too, but a new one with this layout and options was about $25,000. That pays for a lot of my time replacing 2x4s. 

Tom Suddard
Tom Suddard Director of Marketing & Digital Assets
9/15/20 2:19 p.m.

In reply to grover :

With some practice, I've got the installation/removal process down to about 20 minutes, so it spends most of its time off the truck. 

grover
grover Dork
9/15/20 2:45 p.m.

In reply to Tom Suddard :

Wow- that's not bad at all! I really would love to have a slide in. When we were in Maine, the slide in campers could stay overnight in some parks when others could not. 

Tom Suddard
Tom Suddard Director of Marketing & Digital Assets
9/15/20 3:23 p.m.

Yeah, this threads the needle pretty well. In areas where slide-ins aren't allowed it's just a white class C (What gap? I don't see it? What?), and in areas where RVs aren't allowed it's just a truck with a box on the back (Really? You'd sleep in my cargo in my pickup truck? Weird!).

Cactus
Cactus HalfDork
9/15/20 3:24 p.m.

This heightens my appreciation for my nice metal car hauler.

pirate
pirate HalfDork
9/15/20 4:34 p.m.

In the 70's had a F-250 and a rather long and heavy Travel Queen camper. Rather unnerving to drive as the bed/camper seem to have a rolling motion different from the cab. Back then they had some shock absorbers or damper that connected to the front overhang of camper to the truck cowl which helped a great deal. We used it a lot as young married couple with just one child at the time. Lots of weekends and vacations. Sometimes bit cramped but miles ahead of the tent we were used to.

tooms351
tooms351 Reader
9/15/20 4:34 p.m.

In reply to Tom Suddard :

Don't forget to store it on some sketchy harbor freight jack stands. 

Rodan
Rodan Dork
9/16/20 12:54 a.m.

Welcome to the most versatile of 'RV' choices! yes

After a lot of research, we also ended up with truck/camper/enclosed trailer, and it has served us very well.

For trailer towing, take a look at the Torklift Superhitch and Supertruss extensions to maximize your tongue weight capability.

Also, you'll want to get that rig on a truck scale that will give you axle weights to ensure that you're within your truck's ratings (truck, axle and tire), and to give you an idea of what you can carry when the camper is loaded.

Truck campers are HEAVY... ours is ~4500lbs wet and loaded.  It's pretty easy to outrun the ratings on a SRW 3/4 truck...

Here's a particularly useful site (no affiliation):   Truck camper weight calculator

logdog (Forum Supporter)
logdog (Forum Supporter) UberDork
9/16/20 5:17 a.m.
Tom Suddard said:

Yeah, this threads the needle pretty well. In areas where slide-ins aren't allowed it's just a white class C (What gap? I don't see it? What?), and in areas where RVs aren't allowed it's just a truck with a box on the back (Really? You'd sleep in my cargo in my pickup truck? Weird!).

Today I learned some places don't alow truck campers.  Any idea what the reasons are?

Ian F (Forum Supporter)
Ian F (Forum Supporter) MegaDork
9/16/20 6:19 a.m.

In reply to logdog (Forum Supporter) :

Probably the same RV parks that have age restrictions as well (RV's older than a certain year not welcome).  

logdog (Forum Supporter)
logdog (Forum Supporter) UberDork
9/16/20 7:25 a.m.

In reply to Ian F (Forum Supporter) :

Today I also learned some parks have an age restriction.  I assume those are mostly the privately owned ones?

Ian F (Forum Supporter)
Ian F (Forum Supporter) MegaDork
9/16/20 7:43 a.m.

In reply to logdog (Forum Supporter) :

I believe so, although sometimes they'll make exceptions. Like for a couple I know who have an uber-customized 60's Flxible Starliner bus conversion. It looks like an old bus (with a really nice paint job), but in reality there is nothing "old" about it. 

Basically, they want to discourage the unruly riff-raff from showing up, although usually the higher fees do that.

Paul_VR6 (Forum Supporter)
Paul_VR6 (Forum Supporter) Dork
9/16/20 7:53 a.m.

Definitely interesting and better than the tent I was considering! I had the pre-thought that the rear axle rating on an F250 wouldn't be enough. Time for some maths.

wae
wae UltraDork
9/16/20 7:56 a.m.

I'm also pretty sure that any place that's going to have rules like that in place is also going to be able to tell the difference between a C and a slide-in.  I mean, I like it and I think it looks nice.  And if I ran a campground, you'd be welcome any damn time you wanted.  But unless you've done something to make it look more integrated that you didn't include a picture of, you ain't gonna fool anybody.

alfadriver (Forum Supporter)
alfadriver (Forum Supporter) MegaDork
9/16/20 8:22 a.m.
Ian F (Forum Supporter) said:

In reply to logdog (Forum Supporter) :

Probably the same RV parks that have age restrictions as well (RV's older than a certain year not welcome).  

Didn't realize that, either.  But planning for our rapidly upcoming camping trip shows me that there are a lot of options out there.  

If this is a real positive, then we may look into getting a travel trailer.  And I've seriously considered getting an ancient canned ham style if I can remodel it to be the layout we need.  

wae
wae UltraDork
9/16/20 8:58 a.m.
alfadriver (Forum Supporter) said:
Ian F (Forum Supporter) said:

In reply to logdog (Forum Supporter) :

Probably the same RV parks that have age restrictions as well (RV's older than a certain year not welcome).  

Didn't realize that, either.  But planning for our rapidly upcoming camping trip shows me that there are a lot of options out there.  

If this is a real positive, then we may look into getting a travel trailer.  And I've seriously considered getting an ancient canned ham style if I can remodel it to be the layout we need.  

Just as a data point, I've heard tale of these snooty RV parks but not once have I had a problem finding a place to park my older class A.  Nobody has ever asked the age of the rig or turned me away.  I've stayed at KOAs, state and national parks, casinos, Daytona, and some privately-owned non-chain places.

My hypothesis is that the places that wouldn't let me in are the ones charging over a hundo per night so I'm self-selecting away from them

Rodan
Rodan Dork
9/16/20 9:23 a.m.

In reply to wae :

We have also stayed at a variety of RV sites public and private and I have never seen one that had a blanket prohibition against certain types of RVs.

The '55 and over' parks are usually geared towards permanent residency or 'snowbirds' who stay for a significant period of time.  We try to stay with parks that are obviously catering to travelers, as I've found that as the number of permanent residences increases, the appeal decreases.  Which is why the 55+ parks exist in the first place.

Curtis73 (Forum Supporter)
Curtis73 (Forum Supporter) MegaDork
9/16/20 10:15 a.m.
Jesse Ransom said:

Is it really that impossible, in 2020, to build a reasonably priced box that keeps the weather outside on a reasonably permanent basis?

Apparently, yes.  As an avid RVer I'm a bit shocked at the crap I see these days.  Kudos to staffers for ressurecting a good used one.

The newest RV I own is a 1993.  Everything today is manufactured to be light and fluffy.  It looks good, and they charge insane money for them, but they're not what they used to be.

Tom Suddard
Tom Suddard Director of Marketing & Digital Assets
9/16/20 3:25 p.m.

Yeah, it's not very common for parks to have restrictions, but they do exist. I've found that they are never enforced to the letter of the rules, usually not looking like a dirtbag and being nice gets you a wink and a site. 

Sponsored by

GRM Ad Dept

Our Preferred Partners
XHXKn7kq9iRErNbk55lnhILLqOTulKZxhWHRNz1Pio1bWrLOvq367dUL6UCM2lMN