Our New and Improved Road Trip Machine

Hey guys! As Rebecca promised, we’re going to be sharing all about our six-week road trip, sans camper, across the Great Southwest. But first, I wanted to show off a little bit and show you the camping rig I built so we could camp in the back of the Tahoe!

Our New & Improved Road Trip Machine

Let me back up. When we took our road trip last fall, we started out tent camping, but after two weeks of breaking down and setting up that tent every.single.day., I decided I never wanted to do that again, and we spent the rest of the trip camping in the back of the truck. And we really liked it! We stayed warmer, felt safer, and slept sounder than we had in the tent. And the time savings in not setting up and breaking down the tent every day was awesome.

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One of the few issues we had that were frustrating was that we had to take EVERYTHING out of the back of the truck every night. Simple annoyance is one thing — but then we met the Monster Raccoons of the West Coast. Giant, dog-sized raccoons with no fear of God or man, who were smart enough (and strong enough) to get into just about every container we had, including locking ones and our cooler. So ultimately, we spent every night with the entirety of our belongings piled up to the ceiling in the front seat.

Soooo, when the trip was over, and I knew we were likely to do another similar adventure in the not-too-distant future, I started researching and brainstorming on how I could make the truck more comfortable, more usable, and with better storage. I found a ton of pickup and SUV campers online, and had fun assembling my favorite of all their ideas and builds. And what I ended up building worked out great!

the starting point.
The starting point.

So here’s what I started with: the empty back of the Tahoe. During my research and daydreaming, I developed a set of criteria the final project had to meet:

  • It had to be completely removable from the truck.
  • It had to allow us to use the back seats when we weren’t road tripping.
  • It had to be long enough for us to sleep comfortably. (I’m 6 foot, and Rebecca’s a few inches shorter.)
  • It had to have room for storage underneath the sleeping platform for our food, clothes, and camping gear.
  • It had to have plenty of headroom in the sleeping area — we weren’t trying to downgrade from the tent.
  • It had to have a built-in pull-out table.
  • It had to leave us access to the 12-volt ports in the back of the truck.
  • It had to leave us access to the hidden tire jack in the wall of the back of the truck.
  • And it had to look good!

So with a those criteria and lots of ideas, I put my build plans together.

Tahoe Camping Build Collage

Basically, what I came up with was a 4ft x 4ft box that would sit behind the back seats in the rear of the Tahoe (bottom right pic above) with modular panels sitting on top of it. Then, when it was time to go camping, we’d lay the seats down flat, and slide those platforms forward into that space, creating a 6-foot long sleeping platform (left picture above). It looked good on paper, at least!

So, one rainy Louisiana day at my parents’ new house, I assembled my materials and got to work. For those of you who may be curious, I used 1/2 inch plywood for the top and bottom of the platform, and 3/4 inch plywood for the supports. It’s held together with Gorilla Glue wood glue and a few different lengths of sheetrock screws. I have a pretty respectable power tool collection for a guy who lives in a camper, but it sure was nice to have access to my dad-the-professional-building-contractor’s tools for the day. This would have been a good bit more difficult without a table saw.

So here we go!

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I began by cutting out the base to size, which also gave me my measurements for the top of the platform. Then, I starting cutting my supports, and jigsawed out the space around the jack access (which I was VERY grateful I had done a few weeks later when I had to change a tire in the middle of the desert!). After a few attempts, it was pretty good! I then cut the other supports, and begin assembly…

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The plan was for the finished product to have two 4-foot long camping gear storage compartments on the left and right, and in the middle, room for a long low container to hold our food. Directly under the food compartment, you can see the thin space I’d left for my table, which I was very excited about. Once everything was squared up and attached, it was time for a dry fit …

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And it fit! Really well! Some might even say it fit…

like a glove

Once the table was assembled it was time to sand, stain, poly, and carpet!

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The stain came out a little darker than I wanted, but overall, it came out pretty good! And installed, it looked even better:

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Now we had a flat, carpeted area for sleeping, with tons of room for storage, both in the back …
PicMonkey Collage (3)

… and also on the sides! We used that space for our clothes bags on the trip, which worked out really well. 

With some new sleeping bags, our pillows, and our trusty Thermarest LuxuryMap mattresses we’d bought in the fall, we were ready to hit the road! The build successfully met all my criteria, and we were excited to give it a trial run.

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But before we hit the road, we ran into another challenge. We realized, since we were packing pretty heavy on this trip (to prepare for some wildly varied weather forecasts, as well as some backpacking) that we were about to run smack-dab back in to our old storage problem! We were going to have to pull big bins of STUFF in and out of the truck every night, and probably leave them outside, which we didn’t want to do.

However, my parents happened to still be in the middle of a giant purge as they moved into their new house, and discovered they still had an ancient cartop carrier that hadn’t been used in probably 15 years. Very kindly, they offered it to us!

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The famous Sears X-Cargo.

Now, as a lover of cool gear, I was a little torn. I love awesome camping rigs, and Thule racks and carriers, and all that sweet expensive stuff. However, having just spent literally thousands of dollars over Christmas on camper repairs, the price tag of “free” hit me just right — and Lord knows Rebecca and I love to breathe new life into old cars/trucks/apartments/campers/furniture/etc. So, we gratefully accepted, and got to work.

Now this thing was probably 25 years old, had spent most of its life in storage in unvented attics, and it definitely looked like it. The straps were faded and dryrotted, all the hardware was rusted, and the foam gasket had certainly seen better days.

PicMonkey Collage

However, with a sanding block, some WD40, a spray can of Plasti-Dip, new straps, and a rivet gun, as well as a some new weather stripping, I was able to fix those problems right up.

PicMonkey Collage (1)
Ooooooooh yeah.

However, there was still the problem of appearance — it looked like 1987 was back with a vengeance, and you were about to endure an 18-hour car ride with your siblings to go see your weird aunt. Since we had gotten the carrier for free, I figured it would be okay to splurge on some paint and rollers, and bring this bad boy into the 21st century.

PicMonkey Collage (4)

With a few coats of our much-beloved Glidden Gripper primer, and a few coats of a flat black Rustoleum paint, the X-cargo was looking ready for a new life of adventure!

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With our backpacks and winter gear safely stored up top, our sleeping bags and air mattresses already set up for crashing, and the cooler full, we were ready to hit the road on our Great Southwest Adventure!

I grew up in New Jersey, went to college in Virginia, and married a girl from New Hampshire, so I can drive the East Coast in my sleep. I love exploring, jumping out of airplanes, whitewater rafting, fast cars, comic books, and generally refusing to act my age. More practically, I love budgeting and financial planning, renovating and updating older homes (and now campers), and learning to make our family as self-sustaining as possible.


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