Laura and I have previously traveled throughout Australia for over one year in a Ford Ranger with a custom built camper box on the back. After a terrible accident in 2014, I decided I had enough and needed a change in my life. I finalized everything and closed my business and built my first camper box, to travel my own country. In the following post I will provide you with a brief rundown of the build of the camper box. With no experience in camper boxes and very little with aluminium welding (only steel) I did a pretty good job building this one:
Step 1 – Planning
The most difficult step was the planning. While it is not hard to draw an idea on paper or on a computer it is a lot harder to design something and translate it from a drawing to a working functioning object.
Another difficulty was, I also had to find suppliers of aluminium, consumables, gas struts, hinges, door locks, rubber seals and many other components.
The box needed to have room for a solar power system, fridge, a kitchen setup with stove, gas bottles, tools and spares and many other things necessary for an extended stay away from civilization. I was also planning to attach a roof top tent on top of the box to sleep in.
I had considerably more experience in manufacturing things from steel but decided to construct the box from aluminium, mostly for the large weight saving and corrosion resistance.
The research was done, the plan was drawn and the parts were ordered. It was time to build.
Step 2 – Building
I used 50x50x3mm SHS for the base frame and 50×25 RHS for the rest, I later realized I could have used a smaller profile but extra strength wouldn’t hurt. To cut the tubing I used a slide compound mitre saw with an aluminium cutting blade and had no trouble getting the angles I needed to cut.
I clad the box with 2.5mm aluminium sheet. Lacking access to a guillotine and sheetmetal bender, I cut and bent the sheets myself. It took considerably longer but worked just fine. I ordered some of the 1mm cut off discs and 5mm grinding discs specifically for aluminium to suit a 125mm angle grinder.
I made roof racks to attach the roof top tent and side awning I planned to use out of 40x40x4mm SHS with additional reinforcing on the inside of the box to evenly distribute the weight.
Next I built a sliding stove drawer in the rear section closer to where the gas bottle would be located.
Next up was the choice between paint or powder coat. I had been using a local powder coating shop for quite some time and knew they would do a great job so I decided to go with that option over trusting myself with a paint spraying gun, it was considerably more expensive but I thought it looked brilliant.
The rear section was made to be open as I was originally planning to possibly travel with a dog which I did not actually have. But this area made for a good place to have the gas bottles and a large crate to store camping and recovery gear.
Step 3 – Wiring and Fit-out
The fit-out was not too difficult but a little time consuming. The first job was to install the wiring for the 2 solar panels, 2 batteries, solar regulator, all lights and switches and power outputs. One of the solar panels was permanently attached to the top of the camper box in front of the roof top tent, resulting in a bit more streamline form. The second solar panel was stored on draw-runners under the box and had a long cord, so I could set it up in the sun, even if the car was in the shade.
Then I clad the inside walls with painted MDF to cover the wiring and give me something to mount other parts to. I built a tilt-able fridge drawer slide that operated on gas struts which worked brilliantly for the first half year or so but then became difficult to use, so I just didn’t use that function anymore.
The drawers were all made of wood along with a nice chopping board made from leftover hardwood from a previous project. The roof top tent and awning were bolted onto the roof racks ready for a test run.
List of installed power components.
- 2x 120ah AGM Batteries
- 2x 120w Solar panels
- MPPT Solar regulator
- 600w pure sine wave inverter
- Engel 45l fridge freezer
- Several meters of LED light.
Step 4 – Car Mods
Considering the risk of Kangaroos and other animals when country driving, I had a bullbar installed. This also gave me somewhere to mount the winch, spotlights and CB Radio antenna. Next I fitted a second 70l diesel tank and 60l water tank with pressure pump under the tray. The extra fuel capacity was great for the longer drives across the Nullabor and to the cape where fuel prices are significantly higher.
I also had the rear suspension replaced with a higher rated springs to handle the increased load I was carrying, which came in at about 750kg. This made a huge difference to the drive-ability of the vehicle when fully loaded.
Step 5 – Test Run
The next thing I had to do was a test run to make sure everything worked and to fix any problems. For some reason I decided to drive from Perth all the way to Exmouth, a total of 13 hours one way. Luckily I had no major issues and found only a few minor problems such as the LED light dimmers were unreliable and had to be swapped out and I needed to build a wind protector for the stove but one that can fold down flat. Luckily i had some stainless steel sheetmetal left over from a small project.
As I am writing this article 3 years later, I don’t remember the exact costs of the individual components anymore. However, the total costs, including everything but the car, fridge and tent were around 3,500 AUD (2,100 EUR / 2,500 USD). Considering I had a quote for almost 15,000 AUD, I managed to save a lot of money by building the camper box myself.
Rough cost breakdown:
- Powder Coating: 1,500 AUD
- Roof top tent: 750 AUD
- 2 batteries: 320 AUD each
- 2 solar panels: 150 AUD each
- MDF board: 100 AUD
- Gas stove: 150 AUD
- Aluminium: 500 AUD
- Engel fridge/ freezer: 1,400 AUD
Well Sealed – I spent a lot of time making sure the rubber seals on the door worked and kept out water and as much dust as possible, this extra effort was worth it.
Structural Strength – The design of the box was robust and had no issues with the 4wd tracks and heavily corrugated roads.
Convenience – The setup was extremely quick and took less than 5 minutes for complete setup and 5 minutes to pack up.
The rear cage – Filled with dust from the country roads.
Solar panels – The cheap Chinese panels were down to only 50% output after 1 year.
Drawer sliders – The heavy duty drawer runners had a few problems with the bearings coming apart. I was able to fix this on the road but only temporarily. And the built in locking function also failed after 6 months.
Car charging – The ability to charge the two rear AGM batteries from the engine while driving.
Comfort – The option to go inside and sit down when the weather is not so nice. The roof top tent only allowed me to lay down on the mattress, there was nowhere to stay inside that was not on the bed. Also, the mattress that came with the roof top tent was compressed in the middle within 3 months and I replaced it with a better quality one that lasted almost a year.
Quality Solar Panels – Better quality solar panels.
After 18 months of traveling around Australia, the camper box held up really well, even in harsh condition. We had a few minor problems, but nothing that couldn’t be fixed with the tools I had available.
We are currently building our second camper box and are making space to go inside the box to get out of the weather or away from mosquitoes or aggressive Australian flies. We will also use a proper household mattress for more comfort. The box will be significantly larger this time.