Spend enough time ogling trucks and one will see a fair number sporting a shell atop their bed. Some are smooth and streamlined, others hunchbacked or poorly sized for the trucks they squat atop. Whether you seek SUV aesthetics, raw functionality, or a lightweight alternative to a standard slide-in truck camper, a camper shell, also known as a shell, cap, or topper, is a great addition to your truck. From load security and weatherproofing to minimalist weekend jaunts to the woods, nearly every truck can fit some kind of camper shell without modification and using the truck’s existing bed hardware. For near the cost of a new hard-shell tonneau, a camper shell provides far more utility and convenience for a number of purposes.
Why a Camper Shell?
Anyone with an open-bed pickup truck has likely experienced something flying out on the highway, a sensitive load getting soaked in an unexpected rainstorm, the theft of even the most seemingly worthless items, or garbage thrown into the bed. Camper shells turn the traditionally exposed truck bed into a lockable, weatherproof space for storing cargo or even oneself on camping trips. For those of us in a rainy or theft-prone environment, a shell is an all-but essential upgrade. Unlike a bed-mounted toolbox, a shell doesn’t require the sacrifice several feet of one’s bed—already a problem for short-bed trucks. Even the most basic shell features locking handles on the rear access door, which incidentally also prevents the tailgate from opening if one’s tailgate doesn’t itself lock.
Hard and soft tonneau covers are one solution for cargo security, but lose all protection when one attempts to carry a load taller than the rails of one’s truck bed (which, on many midsize trucks, is often scarcely more than 18 inches). The opening windows on many models of camper shell provide useful ventilation where enclosed tonneaus instead create dark caves amenable to mold growth. And while tonneaus (which must be able to open) cannot be fully weatherproofed, camper shells are not only typically mounted with weatherstripping, but can be additionally caulked with silicon caulk or butyl tape as well for added assurance.
First things first, the standard camper shell/truck topper is light—about 300 pounds—making it ideal for payload-challenged half-ton and mid-size trucks. Camper shells provide, at a minimum, cab-height clearance for cargo or more. Mid- or high-rise shells add another one to two feet of vertical space without the hit to efficiency that awkward loads protruding above the cab incur. On top of this, camper shells facilitate roof racks to mount all sorts of outsize cargo which might not otherwise fit inside the bed. Shell-mounted roof racks are useful when a cab-over camper may preclude mounting cab-mounted roof racks. Beyond what they provide in cargo handling and security, a camper shell is also—unsurprisingly as their name might imply—a decent miniature truck camper. They are inexpensive compared to slide-in campers and far less stressful to mount, secure, stock, and drive with for a short weekend jaunt to the woods. Furthermore, their low weight and profile means that even the smallest mid-size truck can tote a camper shell without issue where a slide-in may pose a struggle with handling, efficiency, or insurance liability. Camper shell sleeping setups can be as simple as a sleeping bag and pad, or can feature elaborate builds with futon mattresses, slide-out drawers, and integrated heaters. When it comes time for the greater comforts of a slide-in, most camper shells are easy to dismount and leave behind.
New or Used Camper Shell?
Depending on one’s personal philosophy, a shell or topper can represent an investment of a few hundred to nearly ten thousand dollars. Craigslist is a perennial favorite for deals on used camper shells, but finding a shell on Craigslist which fits one’s exact truck model, generation, and with the right color to match is like finding a field of four-leaf clovers. Short-bed full- and mid-size trucks are typically the easiest to find shells for, but be aware that camper shell fitment can vary hugely between even adjacent generations of the same model of truck. Small gaps from poorly-fitting camper shells can prevent a good, weatherproof seal or create an annoying whistle if edges stick out into the disturbed airflow from the cab of one’s truck. And while an awkwardly fitting and non-color-matched shell can represent a discount of thousands over a new one, it certainly won’t impress one’s coworkers sitting in the office parking lot.
New, basic aluminum utility shells and toppers may cost less than $1,000 installed and ready to drive. Hard tonneaus often cost more than a basic aluminum camper shell. By comparison, a color-matched fiberglass shell with a roof rack ranges from $2,000 to $3,000 depending on the size of one’s truck bed and additional accessories. More exotic truck toppers, like the Four Wheel Campers Project M and AT Overland Summit, near $10,000, but sport the utility of a small pop-up truck camper. Regardless of the type or model, buying new ensures a truck camper which is color-matched, tightly-fitting, and properly mounted to the rails of one’s truck. As with all vehicle accessory purchases, one should consider the anticipated remaining lifetime of one’s truck. AAA puts the cost of operating a new pickup truck in 2017 at $0.66 per mile. If one plans to drive their truck for 200,000 more miles after buying a $2,000 camper shell, then this adds a measly $0.01 to the per-mile lifetime cost. Buying a $10,000 shell for a truck with only 50,000 miles expected lifetime remaining, however, would add a whopping $0.20 to the per-mile lifetime cost. Camper shells retain value only moderately well, partially as a result of their specific fitment to a particular truck model and generation, and their resale value independent of a truck is lower than what they contribute as a truck-shell package. For truck camper owners looking to sell a truck independent of their slide-in camper, selling the camper shell with the truck can be a decent way to appreciably raise its resale value.
For an economically-minded truck owner looking for a shell or topper with good fit and decent color-matching, a new aluminum shell purchased early in the truck’s lifetime represents the best deal. A fiberglass shell will improve on insulation, options for accessorizing, and features better color-matching and aesthetics if that’s a concern. Premium toppers like FWC’s Project M offer more capacity for building out and more space for long-term travel, but at a cost approaching a used slide-in camper. An honest assessment of one’s needs should begin with the question of how often the camper shell will stay mounted, the remaining lifespan of one’s vehicle, and the utility it will provide to one’s lifestyle.
Which Style and Manufacturer?
Like slide-in truck campers, there are a variety of truck topper and camper shell styles and manufacturers. Since camper shells are far less mechanically complex than slide-in campers, the spread of build qualities and amenities is not as vast. The biggest camper shell brands are Leer, ARE, Century, and SnugTop, nearly all of which offer both fiberglass and aluminum options. Less-common builders of camper shells include Bestop’s soft camper shells, ProTops, Ranch, ATC, and Jason. The biggest truck topper brands include Four Wheel Campers, AT Overland, GoFast Campers, OVRLD Campers, Eco Rover. Many of the smaller companies use similar if not identical molds as the larger companies, and dealer support, warranty, and honest testimonials may be more difficult to find. When purchasing a new camper shell, one should consider the proximity of licensed distributors who can order, install, and service your shell. No major brand is a poor choice—Leer has the most negative remarks from online automotive communities, but this is largely a factor of their being the most popular manufacturer of camper shells to begin with—and personal preference for style and accessories may guide one’s choice more so than brand.
Soft canvas camper shells have similar security and weatherproofing problems as do soft tonneau covers. Furthermore, soft shells preclude the use of a shell-mounted roof rack. While they are doubtlessly better than nothing at all, a basic aluminum shell offers more security, weatherproofing, and options for roof racks and other accessories at nearly identical cost. However, a soft camper shell is by far the lightest and easiest to dismount if one anticipates frequent removal of the shell, and so may pose a good solution for people in this situation. Else, a no-frills aluminum model provides more of the benefits of a camper shell without a significant increase in cost, and with a longer lifetime owing to sturdier construction and fewer moving parts.
Fiberglass shells are the most commonly seen camper shells on the road, and a huge variety of shapes, sizes, and options exist these. The vast majority of camper shell owners opt for cab-height shells with full-length side windows and an opening rear window for access. This arrangement has the benefit of having low to no impact on fuel economy and providing great rear and lateral visibility while driving. The downsides of a cab-height shell are posed by their low interiors and smaller size; while this makes fitting into parking garages easier, one may not be able to accommodate common cargoes like furniture or bulky building supplies. Cab-height shells also make for coffin-like sleeping arrangements, especially if one opts to build storage underneath a sleeping platform or owns a midsize truck with a shallow bed. For these reasons, mid- or high-rise shells, like the Leer 180, Leer 122, or Century T-Class, are better for outsize cargo or comfortable camping. High-rise shells may impact fuel economy negatively, though this is slight at most and a subject of contention on many automotive forums. They also add nearly 12 inches to the height of one’s truck, complicating parking garage access, and some truck owners find the humpbacked shape of a high-rise shell aesthetically offensive.
No matter the height or material of a camper shell, it’s important to consider the impact it will have on your ease of driving. Shells without windows are more secure and remove the risk of a rock or other projectile shattering what can be a shockingly expensive window ($300 to $500 for a factory-replaced opening rear window), but complicate driving. While many slide-in camper owners are used to not relying on their rear-view mirror, this can grow tiring especially if the camper shell stays on one’s truck most of the time, particularly in cities. Side and rear windows on truck caps make driving one’s truck nearly as easy as with a bare bed, and increase comfort and ventilation while camping inside. Most manufacturers offer the option of swing-out or sliding side windows on truck shells, which each have benefits. Swing-out windows allow one to access the truck bed from the side for smaller items, which can be more convenient than crawling in from the rear every time. However, if the shell is used for camping at all, swing-out windows tend to preclude window screens, which will be a huge inconvenience if one spends any time in bug-prone areas. Sliding side windows nearly always have screens, or can be easily retrofitted with them, and make a better option if the shell will be used for camping trips. The more windows, the less coffin-like a camper shell will feel from the inside and the better the driving visibility will be.
Some companies offer shells which replace the rear tailgate entirely, but it is more common for shells to sport an opening window which compliments the existing tailgate. If your slide-in camper requires the removal of one’s tailgate, a camper shell which replaces the tailgate entirely may be a better option than reinstalling the tailgate each time you want to mount the camper shell. Many commercial-type aluminum shells feature opening double-doors, and fiberglass options include ARE’s Walk-in Door series. It is important to consider whether one will be able to drive with the rear of one’s camper shell open or not—cargoes like watercraft, furniture, and lumber often require more length than even long-bed trucks can offer. A swing-up rear hatch without a tailgate, or opening single- or double-doors as found on some commercial-type shells, may not safely allow for carrying these goods with open doors. Conversely, most camper shells which feature swing-up rear windows and use the truck’s existing tailgate allow for outsize cargo to rest on the raised tailgate while the open window can be secured with a bungee as far up as it needs to go.
Aluminum or Fiberglass?
The choice of materials for one’s camper shell comes down to personal preference and budget. Aluminum shells are generally cheaper than their fiberglass counterparts, although heavy-duty commercial-type aluminum shells can be the most expensive options many manufacturers offer. Fiberglass shells are more streamlined, particularly for mid- or high-rise options, offer more color choices to match one’s truck, and provide an inherent degree of insulation owing to the properties of fiberglass. While the most economical choice is almost always going to be a basic aluminum camper shell, considerations such as accessory choices, roof load limits, and truck configuration all play a role.
Aluminum shells range from thin-walled, bare-bones economy models to beefy contractor-grade shells capable of holding a quarter ton or more on the roof. The simplest thin-wall models may not be capable of supporting a roof rack, but weigh the least of all hard-side camper shell options. For midsize truck owners who anticipate carrying heavy loads in their beds, the 100 to 200 pounds of weight savings from a basic aluminum model can pose a significant payload increase over heavier aluminum or fiberglass shells. If the impact of the camper shell on maximum payload is not as significant a factor, a heavier-walled aluminum shell can support more weight on roof racks. This is useful not only for carrying loads on one’s roof, but also if one needs bodily access to the roof of the shell to secure those loads without using a ladder from the ground. Thin-wall aluminum shells could dent or even fail with the weight of a person and gear on top. For this reason, many contractors and commercial shell owners opt for thick-walled or otherwise reinforced aluminum shells, which can feature integrated cargo or ladder racks capable of holding far more than the typical 150 pounds dynamic load limit of sport racks from Yakima or Thule.
Note that for all shells, rooftop dynamic load ratings may be different, sometimes significantly, from static load ratings. In a practical case, this could mean that a shell is capable of carrying a rooftop tent down the road, as well as safely supporting two or more campers inside when stationary. It’s worth reading manuals, talking to dealers, or calling the factory itself to more clearly understand the difference between these two ratings.
Nearly all fiberglass shells are made from chopper-gun fiberglass construction, which is cheap but heavy. Some manufacturers offer reinforced versions of their fiberglass shells for commercial usage as well, increasing the shell weight even further. The ability to gel-coat fiberglass means that color-matching one’s truck is much easier if this is a concern. Furthermore, as fiberglass shells are built from molds specifically designed to fit particular truck models and generations, they tend to feature closer fits and more similar styling to one’s truck than one-size-fits-all aluminum shells. Since fiberglass shells are more popular for the recreational user, they sport a dazzling variety of options, ranging from lights and inverters to any number of rooftop rack systems and slide-out drawers. Some manufacturers have specific deals with accessory companies like Thule or Yakima to only install their particular brand of hardware on their shells, so this should be a consideration when making one’s choice of camper shell brand. Drilling and adding cargo rack rails oneself is easier on a fiberglass shell than an aluminum one, and this is a potential for great savings where some cargo rack options can add $500 or more to the price of a camper shell. Nearly all fiberglass shells feature rooftop dynamic load ratings of 150 pounds, so if one plans on carrying heavy loads like a Jon boat or building materials, the reinforced commercial variants of fiberglass shells should be considered instead.
Common Issues and Tips
As a semi-permanent accessory, camper shells are relatively trouble-free. Removal is a common need for truck camper owners, as the shell must be removed before mounting a slide-in camper. This is often a two-person (or more) job, as some fiberglass shells can top 400 pounds for long-bed trucks. Removing the shell is easiest if one is able to back under a beam in a garage or stout tree branch where the shell can be hoisted slightly by a pulley and stout rope and the truck simply driven out from under the suspended shell. Camper shell installations which require drilling into the rails of one’s truck bed are slightly more difficult to remove, but this is still a quick job with a good vice grip and socket wrench.
Weatherproofing is the most common issue for camper shells, which may leak in heavy rain. This is as much a feature of shell design and fitment as it is the thoroughness of the shell installer. The ideal way to weatherproof a shell is to use one or more layers of foam or rubber weatherproofing strip running entirely around the rails of the truck bed. When compressed by a properly mounted and tightened camper shell, this provides a strong seal against rain, dust, and wind. Furthermore, as the adhesive is secured to the bed rails and not the camper shell, this will not bond the camper shell to the truck bed. The quality of weather strip installation can vary hugely between camper shell dealers, and sometimes even at the same dealer depending on who does your installation or the notorious “Friday Afternoon Effect.” Without weather stripping, or with a shoddy job at it, leaks can cause pooling inside one’s truck bed or ruin sensitive items that the camper shell was purchased to protect in the first place. In this case, the best solution is to use a caulking gun loaded with flexible, outdoor-rated caulk and to run a bead along the rails of the truck bed where the leak occurs.
Flexible caulking is important as camper shells, especially when heavily loaded on the roof or taken off-road, will work slightly and can break the bond of a non-flexible caulk. Alternatively, for total security, one can run a bead of caulking all the way along both the inside and outside of the truck rails where the shell mounts. Through this method nearly any present or future leak can be eradicated (except from egregious gaps stemming from poor fit) at the cost of bonding the camper shell to the truck bed, which complicates removal. In this case, or if the camper shell sticks to the truck bed in general, using a screwdriver to separate the caulking or gently levering the camper shell off the bed rails is a fast way to unstick a shell for removal. Dripping a small amount of acetone into problem areas can also help, but this should not be done with important cargo in the truck bed or while one is inside the camper shell where fumes will pose a problem.
Broken windows, either from rubble kicked up while off-road, shifting cargo, accidents, or just general bad luck can be a huge expense. Rear window replacements may run upwards of $500 on some premium models. While most of us have likely seen a camper shell “augmented” with plywood in place of a window, this removes the benefit of having a window in the first place and looks ugly. The cheapest option which still retains some utility and aesthetic value is to cut a sheet of Plexiglas or Lexan sheet to size and to mount it with heavy-duty construction adhesive to the shell. One can also often buy the exact model of window from factory-direct online stores and save on labor costs instead.
Installing a roof rack and other accessories like lights or inverters oneself can save hundreds. This also allows one to pick a shell manufacturer independent of whether they partner with Yakima or Thule to provide these accessories. Another area to increase savings and utility is the expensive headliner option many shell manufacturers offer. Choosing a shell without a headliner can be problematic, as chopper-gun construction leaves fiberglass shells with a rough finish inside and aluminum shells have inherent condensation and insulation problems. Automotive headliner fabric is easy to find online, and can be installed using heavy-duty spray adhesive. Alternatively, for more insulation, indoor/outdoor carpeting can be used to upholster a shell instead. Carpeting, featuring a rubber base and thick felt pile, provides the most insulation, but should be tested in small areas first to ensure that one’s particular spray adhesive facilitates a strong bond between the fiberglass or aluminum shell and the rubber carpet base. Before upholstering, note that bare fiberglass shells direct from the factory tend to have a significant amount of fiberglass dust on their interior surfaces which will ruin this bonding. While this can be brushed off, this is a slow process and raises the risk of inhaling fiberglass particles. A faster option is to use a shop-vac to simply suck the dust off, and finish problem areas with paper towels and acetone.
Accessories and Build Ideas
While utilitarian-minded owners of camper shells may prefer to keep them and their truck beds bare, camper shells serve as passable living quarters for short-term trips where the work of loading, stocking, and driving a slide-in camper might not make sense. For those with four-cylinder midsize trucks like the Toyota Tacoma, camper shells may represent the fullest extent of what their power and payload capacity facilitates. In either case, a few upgrades make camper shells comfortable for short or even long-term trips. Most notably, for truck owners with short beds—or indeed, any truck bed shorter than your own height—something like the DAC truck tent can facilitate sleeping with the tailgate down and shell window raised, adding the necessary length for comfortable, non-diagonal sleeping. In a pinch, a tarp or mosquito net secured with bungees can also provide this coverage.
While the simplest mode of camper shell living is a sleeping pad and bag on one side of the bed with all one’s gear pushed to the other side, this is not the most efficient or smooth usage of space. A popular upgrade is to construct a bed platform with space for storage underneath. The Decked system is a pre-built version of this featuring slide-out drawers, but at a relatively high cost to what can be achieved in a weekend with power tools and some lumber. An even simpler option for storage under a bed platform instead of drawers is to use low-height sliding storage boxes commonly found in college dorms. For truck beds which are especially long where one may not be able to reach all the way to the front of the truck bed comfortably, it is easy to drill a hole into a storage box and attach a rope. The other end of the rope can be tied off to the back of the truck bed, and the box easily pulled out of from under the bed platform without crawling under it.
As sleeping goes, I am of the opinion that one’s sleeping situation sets the tone of one’s day. A fun adventure in a beautiful place can be ruined by a terrible bed the night before. As such, I use a full-size futon mattress, about 6 inches tall, atop a sleeping platform. While this mattress would not fit between the wheel wells of a Tacoma without squeezing, the bed platform sits atop them. Most 6-foot mid-size truck beds are able to fit a full-size mattress in this way, and full-size trucks should have no issues at all fitting full-size mattresses. Any number of inflatable mattresses exist to fit between the wheel wells of specific styles of truck, but I am not a fan of air mattresses and prefer something solid. Memory foam mattresses are a good solution, and ones which fold up allow for more room in the camper shell while not sleeping. Memory foam mattresses can also be cut to size to fit short truck beds, but be warned that some mattresses feature a fiberglass fireproofing layer which can leave strings of loose fiberglass everywhere if cut open.
An insulated shell will still lead to condensation with one or more people sleeping inside all night, particularly on the single-pane windows found in every camper shell, and so it is important to allow some ventilation. Leaving the rear window slightly ajar is one option, but sliding, screened side windows are the best choice for this. A shell insulated with an indoor/outdoor felt carpet will allow Velcro to be stuck to it, while automotive headliners may not provide a bond at all. This allows one to add hooks for suspending a camping light inside a shell, or even to attach curtains or Reflectix panels over the windows for privacy and additional insulation. The T-handles to be found on most styles of camper shell are another place to hang a camping light, which is a boon to those of us using the tailgate to cook on. If one anticipates rain, a tarp attached by bungees to a roof rack and staked onto the ground behind the truck can provide shelter, but a purpose-made automotive tarp would be a smoother solution.
Just as there are hundreds of options for choosing a camper shell, thousands of accessories exist to make life easier, whether for utility or life inside the shell. Blogs and social networks like Pinterest and Reddit offer a wealth of inspiration for build ideas, accessories, and living arrangements. As with slide-in campers, it is wisest to pick and outfit a model which will support one’s budget and needs both present and future. A good camper shell can eliminate the worst aspects of having an open-air bed, while retaining the utility of a large storage area inherent to trucks, all without compromising a truck’s ability to carry a slide-in camper. Wherever one’s adventures lead, a camper shell is the perfect, lightweight companion that won’t break the bank.