Lessons I Learned From Building My Own Camper
Buckle up. This is going to be a long one.
You'll never read enough about projects as big as this. There will be always be something you overlook.
Ask for help! Going it alone isn’t the best (or enjoyable) strategy. Your friends love to be included!
Be ok with saying “fuck this“ and walk away.
Be ready to do it all over again. (Hint, I messed up, twice)
Have fun, because if you don’t, you’re doing it wrong.
The TL;DR, it was hard! but I would do it all over again! (and I'll most likely will...)
There wasn't much to do growing up in Kuwait. Life was slow and boring at times. But, as someone who just can't sit still for more than 3 minutes straights, I was always looking for something to do.
I was the kid that was always taking things apart and putting them back together, trying to grow vegetables in the garden, or nerding out on the hype of the week. I just had to fill my time with something productive and keep the gears turning.
25 years later, I'm a bit more focused on what I want to do but still as curious as I ever was, if not even more!
Sometime during high school, I caught the DIY bug, and I slowly grew my tool collection and made a creative space for myself at home.
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I was excited to get my older sister's Land Cruiser 120. She knew how much I loved that car and decided to pass the torch to me after owning it for a while.
Long story short, I turned every bolt on that car, fully built it as a turn-key off-roader, and roamed around Kuwait's desert and much of northeastern Saudi.
I knew that would be part of my identity for a very long time.
I remember my weekend trips to Um Eshar, SA, with my cousins and friends, as well as to Ha'il and the Aseer mountain range. All of it seems like it was yesterday.
I graduated high school, and I was on my way to the United States after landing a full-ride scholarship.
This was the beginning of the most exciting and fruitful time of my life.
After two years of saving up and searching for my dream car while I attended college, I managed to find a sweet 2007 Toyota Tacoma that fit my budget at a dealership in the Twin Cities, MN.
Luckily I was living in St.Cloud, Minnesota, at that time, so it was just 45 mins away from where I lived.
The truck wasn't in perfect shape, but it was good enough for me. So let's just say that I really love my rust bucket.
I didn't spend much time in St.Cloud, but I truly enjoyed every day I spent in Minnesota. It was life-changing to experience the change of seasons, the leaves turn color, and feel the falling snow on my skin for the first time ever. I met a lot of amazing people, and I'm happy to find myself smiling when I look back at those days.
A few months after I bought my truck, I was packed and ready to move to Oregon, the place I'd been dreaming of since I was 10 years old.
And fret not, I'll be writing about that soon enough.
Leaving Minnesota wasn't as easy as you'd think. I felt like I was leaving behind part of myself. However, it was a rite of passage that I had to go through.
A few days before my departure, Saad Aldossary tells me with complete confidence, "you ain't leaving without me."
I enjoy road tripping by myself, but I couldn't say no to Saad. He was one of my closest friends that I met in St.Cloud.
Packed, Fueled up, with coffee mugs in our hands, we were Oregon bound.
The first day we drove all the way through South Dakota, most of Montana, and ended up in Missoula, at a friend's apartment to spend the night, funny enough also called Saad Aldossary!
The drive wasn't that difficult, but what was hard was keeping your eyes on the road. Saad and I were blown away by the changing topography and the beauty of the west. None of us had been to that part of the world before, and little did we know how beautiful it actually was.
Westward bound from Umatilla, OR, Saad and I listening to Arabic music (click here to listen), mesmerized by the flashing lights across the horizon. We didn't know that these were wind turbines at that time since it was nighttime.
Tired and sleepy, we got to Portland late at night.
I barely slept that night out of excitement to finally be where I wanted to be after dreaming of this day for over a decade.
By now, you know that I'm into building my own stuff, exploring new territories (physically and mentally), and that I'm just a reflection of the people around me.
My mentor & Gearhead Garage
On the second day in PDX, Saad and I ran errands, setting up my new apartment. Then, I recalled that my truck needed an oil change, so I googled to see my options, and there was a"DIY garage in Tigard" ad at the very top of the search results.
So Saad and I decided to go check it out.
Little did I know that I would meet one of the most influential people in my life to this day.
We walked into the shop, and Mike Crone, the owner, greeted and showed us the space and told us about his retirement plan idea, which was to run a DIY shop part of the week.
I got to work and changed the oil & filter. We were on our way out to the coast shortly after that.
Mike and I quickly became friends, I was at his shop at least once a week, either kicking it or working on my truck, and there was a lot of work to be done.
Over the years, I managed to not only modify my truck, but to help others with their projects, some of those people I'm still in touch with to this day, and others I've never seen after. Regardless of that, I made a new friend almost every time I was at mikes.
That garage was a social hub.
Whenever I had a new project or something that I was stuck at, Mike would be there by my side or looking over my shoulder, guiding me on doing things best. I've never seen a person so keen on helping others that passionately before.
Mike was a true mentor. He won't admit it, though.
I can see him in my mind's eye just shrugging it off "it's the least I can do."
When I told Mike about the idea of building my own camper, he was on board immediately.
"I can't see why you can't do that" Mike.
So I pulled the trigger and sold my old camping set-up, committing to this vision.
Jim was and still is the real MVP.
Not only did he build two versions of his camper, but he shared the process of what went right and wrong. As well as the parts list all for free on the thread.
I highly recommend you check out his work (Found here). He is humble and kind enough to reply to my frequent questions, even though everything was detailed on the forum.
Jim broke down the build into 3 parts:
Starting this project wasn't easy. It required money, time, and determination.
Initially, I slept on the idea of actually doing this for a few weeks. I was hesitant and, to be honest, scared as well.
I kept thinking:
"What if you're overestimating your abilities?"
"Are you able to balance work, riding your bike, and building the camper?"
"You don't even know how to sew!"
"what if you gave up halfway through?"
I shared these concerns with Mike, and he said, "Abe, I've seen you grow so much over the past 6 years. I don't doubt that you'll have trouble finishing this project. So I'll get the welder set up and ready for you."
I probably wouldn't have started this project hadn't I talked to Mike about my concerns.
I needed that push.
The spaceframe Pt.1
I started by building the welding jig in the basement and ordered the necessary parts for the first few steps.
I can't emphasize this enough, DOUBLE TRIPLE CHECK your measurements before cutting.
Apparently, I measured once and cut twice...
But more on that later on.
The welding jig is built, ready, and marked up to quickly assemble/disassemble the jig.
I hauled all that I needed to weld the spaceframe to Gearhead Garage. Then, I assembled the jig and got ready to cut and weld all the pieces together.
This part of the project was fun and went by faster than I expected. Measuring, cutting and dry fitting everything took most of my time.
I am not the best welder, but I could build this spaceframe up to spec.
I focused on function more than form.
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A handful of days later, the frame is all welded up, holes drilled, and welds are cleaned. Finally, it's pretty much ready for paint.
It felt like a milestone, and it was! Creating something out of raw materials is still one of those experiences I enjoy a lot. This is the pinnacle of my experience with that.
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(Images sourced from Ripcord)
The wedge is comprised of two parts, the upper and lower rectangles.
Aside from the long wait to get my aluminum extrusions delivered (which took a while), this part was pretty easy. It was just a matter of tapping the holes and assembling the two rectangles separately before joining them to make a wedge.
The hard part was lining all the slide-in nuts into the extrusion channels with the holes I drilled into the aluminum panels. It was like a wack'em all.
Nonetheless, I managed to line them up and bolted.
I'm not going to delve into mounting the wedge and to the spaceframe, but let's just say that I was ready to throw the project into the nearest river and pretend none of this ever happened.
The spaceframe Pt.2
Sh*t hit the fan when we tried to install the camper on the truck, using Mike's lift.
Remember when I said, "DOUBLE TRIPLE CHECK your measurements before you start cutting"?
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Well... I apparently didn't measure enough and cut too much. As a result, the height of the spaceframe was a little over 1" short than where it needed to be.
The wedge part was resting on the truck's roof, and that was a big issue. I couldn't process what was happening since I was at the shop from 8:30 am, and it was 7 pm by the time we installed the camper.
Luckily, Both Garret and Lee were there to lend some brainpower. They suggested I cut a shim made of wood that's about 1.5" thick just so I can drive the truck home.
So we did that.
During those days, I was going through some of the most challenging times in my life, I was moving out of my old place, and work was picking up.
Whenever I drove the truck, I would hear and feel the camper tapping the roof whenever I hit the slightest bump in the road.
I cringed every time that happened and felt ever so stressed about finishing the project.
I actually got to the point where I pretty much gave up.
The fact that the spaceframe wasn't built to spec threw the rest of the project off course. Nothing was gonna fit as it should. I knew that, but I was in denial and didn't want to deal with rebuilding the whole spaceframe again.
The pandemic and supply chain issues made steel prices fluctuate dramatically, adding additional costs.
Then again, the project was the least of my worries at that time.
So I paused for a solid 3 weeks, took a breather, and walked away from the project.
That was the best thing I've done with this project because I got a chance to decompress and focus on more important things in life.
I also took that time to brainstorm how to move forward with the project. I ended up rebuilding the welding jig since it was where I messed up my calculations.
I got in touch with a handful of friends to help me separate the wedge from the spaceframe. I wanted to store the wedge while I rebuilt the spaceframe.
I was lucky enough to get help from Ben, Todd, Pat, Josh, and Molly in lifting the 150lb wedge off of the spaceframe and onto a bunch of sawhorses in the driveway.
A few days after that, I gathered all that I needed and headed to Mike's to do it all over again.
What took me 4 days of measuring, cutting, and welding only took 1 full day to do this time. And I did it right this time.
Did I mention that I painted the spaceframe for the second time as well?
All in all, I am glad that things went south the first time, for real.
I learned so much from that major failure, and the best thing about it is that I got to bring friends into this project and collaborate with them on how to move forward.
Again, I don't think I would've finished the project with their help.
Let's just get this out of the way; I am not a sewer.
The only thing I've sewed was my ripped clothes and patches. That's pretty much it.
This would be the hardest part of the project for me to complete. First, I started practicing with an old sewing machine, but that quickly reconfirmed how poor my sewing skills were. So I decided to seek help in getting this done.
I'm not gonna beat a dead horse here, but friends came to save the day yet again!
Chris Stone, out of Psyche Design Lab, saved my ass from a very long learning curve and poor execution of the third and last part of the project.
I asked him if he had the time and interest to help me out with this, he graciously accepted.
I marked and cut the canvas according to the plan and gave it to Chirs to start sewing.
However, remember when I said this?
"I learned so much from that major failure, and the best thing about it is that I got to bring friends into this project, and collaborate with them on how to move forward with this."
Well, I done messed up again.
I apparently cut the canvas an inch shorter on both ends, meaning the roll was 2" shorter than it should've been. Which, in turn, messed up the angles and the sewing process and how the wedge was going to prob open.
This was another major failure. But Chirs said, "give me a few days to think about this." What he ended up suggesting was not only a good solution but a brilliant idea for the next camper I build or canvas I make.
He suggested breaking the canvas into 3 parts and linking them up using HD velcro. That way, if one part of the canvas gets damaged, you only replace that part instead of the whole thing.
I knew asking Chris for help with this was a great idea!
Chris was more invested in making this work, more than I could've expected, and I owe him one for this.
A few weeks later, He texts me, "I think we're ready to set it up."
So I zoomed over to his house and got it set up.
It looked great!
The look on Chris's face was priceless, and I was genuinely happy I got to work with him on this.
"I can't believe it's almost done" I told Chris.
I can't believe I got done with that project even while writing this post.
All I had left were the little things left:
Electric outlet extended from my auxiliary battery setup.
Bed bike rack
I was on track to build a camper ready from my long trip around the western United States in the summer. I spent about 4 weeks on the road, with nothing but a few good books, great coffee, and my bike.
I'm really looking forward to sharing stories from that amazing journey soon enough over the next few months. So make sure to stay in touch.
Reflecting on this project made me realize that it was more than a custom handbuilt camper or a DIY project.
It is a statement about the environment I was in and the people around me. That environment made me believe in myself and put trust in others. It made me become a better person for myself and others.
This project helped me get closer to finding an answer to a question that Chris DiStefano asked me a while back.
Chris D. asked me to think about whether being the person I am today was because of the environment I was in? or was it something coming from within myself?
Well, Chris D., I can say with a substantial degree of confidence that I believe the environment and community I was part of is why I became who I am today.
I'm not underselling myself when I say that. I genuinely believe that I wouldn't have made it to where I am now today without all the incredible people I met along the way.
I'm forever in debt to them, and I can't wait for the day that I can repay them back or pass it along to someone in the same spot I was at.