Updating my Truck for Overlanding and Photography Workshops
Updating my Truck for Overlanding and Photography Workshops
I am a Colorado Landscape Photographer. I’ve taken many adventures in my truck. I like to go to the back country both personally and to teach Photography Workshops. However, I was getting tired of either moving in/out of hotels, or setting up at tent and packing up early in the morning for sunrise. As you can imagine it takes a while to get there, and the roads aren’t conducive to a normal trailer.
I did a fair amount of research online and found two major options, modifying my truck, or purchasing a new breed of trailer called an overlanding trailer. These trailers come in multiple flavors, some with a Roof Top Tent (RTT) and another that is a teardrop small enclosed space. Both can be equipped with a galley, power and really whatever your heart desires, at a significant price. The RTT models are typically in the $6K - $7K range for starters. The teardrop ones start at $10K - $11K and up (to $20 - $30K).
After thinking about this for a while, I decided to pursue the truck modification method with a Roof Top Tent, Roof Rack, and pull-out drawers in the back of the truck. I am actively working these now. I will continue to add to this blog as I finish each of the components of the build. The negative of this solution is that you have to pack up in the morning heading out for sunrise shots. This takes about 10 minutes where the trailer method, you basically just lock up and leave.
A Place to Live on the Road
Roof Rack: My first item to purchase/ build was a roof rack on my Leer Camper shell. First, I called Leer and found that my truck shell can take ~500 lb load on the top. This is enough for two, the tent and our dog Riley. I shopped around and found, much to my chagrin that a roof rail system, standoffs, rods and mounting hardware would set me back ~$1000 installed. I found my first project to build myself. After a bit of research, I found a few builds that made their own roof rack, but nothing that really fit my need. The one I liked most used a product called Unistrut/Superstrut. These are high strength steel channels used to mount electrical and plumbing typically in commercial settings. You can find these at the big box stores along with all the mounting hardware. What I liked most was this was a system with many different mounting options allowing me to later add an awning, traction boards or whatever else I needed easily.
Superstrut comes in multiple sizes and finishes. I purchased the 10’ galvanized option. I used the 7/8” 14g option for the mounting rails and the 1 5/8” for the crossbars. If you get a larger 4-person tent, you will need 3 crossbars. Just two crossbars for the 2 – 3-person tent. One 10’ for the rails, and one 10’ for the crossbars is typically sufficient (you will need to confirm this with the size of your tent and mounting options.
My firsts step was to cut the Superstrut and finish it. Cutting is easy with a saws-all, a hack saw if you have to or a jig saw. I cut the crossbars to be 5’ basically cutting the 1 5/8” in half. The rails need to be cut to fit the length of your shell. Each is different. Just make sure you don’t interfere with any lighting, antennas or go over any of the edge curves. Once I cut these out, I needed to finish them. Galvanized material doesn’t paint well unless you use a self-etching primer. I used the Rust-oleum as shown in the picture. I used auto undercoating on top for a black finish. It looks quiteprofessional.
My next issue was mounting the rails to the Leer camper shell. I found out that my shell was curved from the front to the back, as well as side to side. The Superstrut is very rigid and bending wasn’t an option. So, I needed to create a “shim” to adapt a flat surface to the shell. I made a quick trip to my local Restore store (a used building material store) and purchased a piece of composite decking. You don’t need much, just something flat. I then located the rails on my shell in the correct positions. Make sure the rails are parallel and are straight front to back. Based upon discussions with some local installers, they recommended 17” from the center line making a 34” space between rails. Make sure you look at the mounting of the Roof Top Tent to give you some space to mount the tent. This worked for me, but may not work for you. I cut a few pieces of wood the correct length to space the two rails while I was working on this. To create a shim located a piece of the material (1 5/8” wide) below the rail and shim it underneath till it is flat against the rail. Then measure the maximum gap at the ends and create a small block of wood this size. Place a pencil on the block of wood and then trace the outline on the side of the composite material. Repeat this for the other side. You will typically need a band saw to cut this shim, though a saber saw may work though these are hard to hold. Once you have the bottom cut, you will need to angle the top to the angle of the roof line. It took a few times to do this for me. I put the shims on the roof and then put a level on them looking for gaps. This is approximate and extreme accuracy isn’t necessary. The left figure below shows the top angled driver to passenger. The right figure is the curve for front to rear.
Now I was ready to mount all this to the roof. Drilling holes in the roof is the scariest part of this build. You don’t want to create a leek in this shell.
I talked to some friends and we came up with a good solution. I used Dicore rubber roof repair on the bottom and then tub/bath silicone in all the holes. I used 3/8” bolts with a large fender washer and locking nuts on the bottom spaced 6” – 8”. I taped all the pieces in place prior to drilling to make sure that nothing moved while I was drilling. I added a bolt each time I drilled to make sure nothing moved. The pictures below show some of this build. Be careful not to over tighten the bolts as you can crack the shell. It is quite difficult to tell the thickness of the camper shell. Typipcally the middle has a honeycomb core and is quite thick. I purchased an assortment of 1” – 2.5” 3/8 bolts and figured out which one worked when I did the install.
Once the rails were mounted and the sealant dried, I mounted the crossbars on the rails. I found that I needed some additional space between the camper shell and the crossbars for tool/hand access to mount the roof top tent. You will need some spacers. My current solution is a series of large fender washers ~ 1.5” stack between the rail and the crossbars. You can use a piece of Unistrut here also. You will need sufficient spacing to mount the Roof Top Tent. Superstrut uses either cone nuts or spring nuts to position these easily and so they don’t move. The 7/8” channel requires the nylon cone nut. The 1 5/8” can use spring nuts. These are not locking nuts so lock washers will be necessary. Just put a bolt with a lock washer and larger washer through the crossbar slots and bolt into the cone nut. Make sure your length isn’t too long and bottoms out on the channel. You can avoid the bottoming out issue if you use 1 5/8” channel for the rails.
Another modification you may consider is purchasing the Unistrut covers that will provide a plastic slide area when you put your RTT on top. I haven’t done t his yet as it is a bit challenging to find and expensive.
You now have a fully functional roof rack system for about $75
Roof Top Tent:
There are many RTT options based upon the number of people you want to house and your price-point. I have a friend with a iKamper and they love it. The price-point was just too much for me. I purchased a Smittybuilt Gen 2 RTT. I waited for a sale and got 10% off and a free awning. This ran me ~$1000 for the tent. I was told by the representative that the Smittybuilt and the Thule tents were made by the same manufacturer. I don’t know if this is true, but I do know that the Thule Insulation package fits great in the Smittybuilt tent. Coincidence? I don’t know, but it worked. As a modification, I had to replace the Stainless steel bolts with longer bolts to go around the crossbars. Make sure you get the exact same head size for the bolt. I also replaced the locking nuts with clamping handle nuts with through holes to make install easier. This does require locking washers and is a bit more risky for people to easily steal the tent. I left one bolt with a locking nut to make things a bit harder.
My next install was the awning. The awning kit came with mounting brackets. All I had to do was bolt the angles on the Superstrut and basically I was done. I purchased a long, 8’ awning and realized that I wanted some additional support. A bit of scrap aluminum with 45 degree tabs on the end did the trick. I drilled a hole in the side of the unistrut and mounted the other side with a bolt in the T slot. Make sure you leave enough room for hands where the RTT mounts. I didn’t really leave enough but it works. There is still enough room to add some right angles and some verticals for traction boards.. but that will be next!
Keywords: colorado landscape photographer, diy roof rack, Mountain West Photography, overlanding, roof top tent
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"Colorado Landscape Photographer"
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