Popup campers are a great way for a small family or single adventurer to get on the road and enjoy nature. They can also be a great DIY project, even for the beginner. By taking an old, neglected popup and applying a little elbow grease you can have a “like new” unit that is personalized and even better than it was off the show floor.
Where to start?
The first step is deciding how much you are willing to invest, both in time and money. Be realistic as this will be the basis for your budget and guide you as you shop for a starter camper (if you do not already have one waiting for TLC). If you are handy with tools or do not mind spending a little more for replacement parts it is possible to do a complete frame up rebuild. This really opens the possibilities in terms of getting started as nothing is off the table. For those who are less mechanically inclined, or on a tighter budget, look for structurally sound units that could benefit from simpler upgrades.
Once you have determined your budget and how much construction house are willing to take one it is time to start shopping. Believe it or not there are plenty of second hand pop ups out there- either from those looking to upgrade to large models or others who simply do not have the time to enjoy the outdoors any more. While you could cruise the neighborhood and hope for a good deal there are other options. Area campgrounds or RV dealers are likely sources, especially if you are willing to take a shabby trade they would otherwise need to invest money into before selling. Other sources include Craigslist, Facebook file market groups and local swap meets.
Any unit you find should be thoroughly inspected so you know what you are getting and getting into. Pay particular attention to windows, doors and canvas for signs of leaking. If water damage is detected be sure to check the walls and bulks for rot as most are constructed from plywood. All of these components can be replaced or rebuilt but it will increase your investment.
Getting to work
Before you break out the tools break out the pen, pad and calculator. Inspect everything, make a list of what must be replaced/repaired and a list of what you would like to replace/repair. Now create a work list and budget.
Once you have a budget and list of repairs by priority it is time to get started. Sometimes you will want to simply repair, clean and paint to make the camper live able, but if you are going to invest the time and money why not get as much bang for your buck as possible by stripping the unit to the bare bones and starting with a blank canvas? Even if you plan on reusing some of the components it will be easier to work on items such as the floor or cabinet frames with everything else out of the way.
- Save as much of the removed pieces as possible. Even if you will be replacing a cabinet or bulk it will be much easier to fashion a replacement if the original is used as template.
- Whenever possible try to refinish, paint or cover and otherwise stabile but outdated features. It is far easier and cheaper to resurface a cabinet than buy new. That 1970’s linoleum floor may look like it belongs in a junk yard but cover it with long lasting outdoor carpet and it will instantly increase appearance of entire unit.
- Add storage whenever possible. Many wasted areas, such as under seating or sleeping areas, can easily be converted to storage by simply adding an access hatch or door.
- Still need more space? Look outside. Adding a collapsible awning or screened room can instantly double your living space.
- Clean before replacing. A piece of canvas, filthy door or marked up floor may not need anything more than soap and manual labor.
- Previously started DIY projects can make great new projects but be careful when selecting one. Try to find those that were stripped but never taken any further as it gives you your own blank canvas without the added labor. Avoid those part way through a reconstruction unless you have the time to double check everything and replace the previous owner’s mistakes.
For additional information and tips on reconstructing your popup camper check out this YouTube video.