As we approach the first anniversary of this camper’s restoration – and the coming of its second big camping trip since then – I figured the time was right to share its story.
If you’ve ever considered buying a stick-built RV of any sort that “needs a little TLC”, consider this a preview of all the
grueling torture fun and excitement you’re missing out on.
For a number of years, it has been a family tradition that we – myself, my father, and my sister – all get together and go camping in early August. In the beginning we simply roughed it, piching a tent and sleeping on the ground. That had been the way I’d grown up camping, and it seemed the obvious way to introduce Katie to it.
But as the years went by, tent camping became more burdensome – and less attractive – to the adults involved. So two years ago, I decided to try something different.
Our grandparents had a ’76 Holiday Rambler travel trailer that had been parked in the woods for a good 2.5 decades. It was sort of a cabin substitute, in that it had been purchased, towed to their weekend property, and not moved since. It had been kept clean and leak-free, but years of sitting had left its roadworthiness in serious doubt.
Though Grandma didn’t hesitate in volunteering the trailer for that year’s outing, I had my reservations. It had shot tires, locked-up brakes, and was of questionable physical integrity after so many years of sitting. But after a few weeks of cajoling (along with the looming prospect of sleeping on the ground for several nights), I finally relented and got to work on the trailer.
The week that followed saw me installing four new tires, four new brake assemblies, and four new wheel bearings, along with wiring, bulbs, and a host of other parts, all in the secluded spot where the trailer sat. After cutting down a few inconveniently located trees (funny how much they can grow in 25 years!), the Rambler was finally ready to ramble.
Our time spent in the trailer was nice. The time I spent towing it, however, was much less so. Being as I was between tow rigs at the time, I made the regrettable decision of hooking it up to my 2003 Chevy half-ton pickup. I had to beef up the rear suspension on short notice to make the trip possible. And though I made it there and back (50 miles each way), the truck’s weenie little 4.3L V6 complained to no end about the added weight.
All in all, I figured our experiment had been successful. We now knew that truck camping was the way to go, and we knew that a full-sized trailer was overkill.
So for the following year, I decided that a pick-up camper would be a better choice. I looked for weeks, but found nothing but junk.
It seems that one is likely to encounter two main types of old slide-in campers. One is the pop-up kind, which involves canvas sides that are almost always shredded. The other is the stick-built kind, which has an aluminum skin over a wooden frame, and almost always leaks like a sieve.
In the case of the latter, those leaks generally occur at the aluminum covering’s seams and edges. Any water that enters will eventually cause the wood within to rot. When that happens, you’re left with a moldy pile of garbage, with a bit of scrap metal mixed in to lure the uninitiated.
By the time I’d rejected around six of these waterlogged rat-traps, I was beginning to lose hope. My expectations were therefore rather low as I rolled up on Potential Rat-trap #7, an ’87 Hide-Away (aka Sun-Lite, aka Sun Valley, aka Yet Another Brand from Elkhart, Indiana that doesn’t exist today).
As opposed to the other dilapidated wrecks I’d seen, this one actually showed some promise. It was a one-owner rig that had been kept clean and intact. The owner had even stored it indoors for most of its life. Unfortunately, a change in his garage situation had forced the camper into the backyard a couple of years prior, at which point the usual story of water intrusion began.
I wish I had “as received” pictures to show you – but since I don’t, suffice it to say that this one was in mighty nice shape on the surface. The only thing that marred its otherwise upstanding condition was the rotten wood under the top bunk bed.
For $750, I wasn’t willing to take a gamble on how far the rot actually went. What price would convince me to roll the dice, the owner asked? $400. My low-ball offer was immediately shot down.
Oh well, I figured, it’s not like the world isn’t filled with rotten campers; I did all I could, and now it was time to move on. So I got back in the truck and prepared to inspect the next moldy nightmare on my list.
About ten minutes later, the seller called me back and relented. I swung around, handed him the $400, and left with the camper.
Upon unloading the camper, my first concern was finding out just how extensive the water damage was. I knew the sheet of plywood that supported the front bed was poke-a-finger-through-it rotten… but what else would need replacing? I spent an hour or so carefully disassembling the nose of the camper to find out.
How bad? Really bad.
Really, really bad. The rest of the camper was sound, but the whole nose would need to be rebuilt.
The camping trip was a week away. With no time to lose, I got working.
The main 1×4 on both sides was cut out and replaced, eliminating the final 3′ of each that had rotted away.
I had planned to use strips of steel and wood screws to attach the new wood. But after discovering that the thickness of the screw-heads and steel strips interfered with the flush attachment of the paneling, I had to revert to the factory method: strips of aluminum siding and a staple gun. (At least I used a reasonable amount of staples. At the factory, 2-4 per strip was considered sufficient!)
The entire front nose assembly also had to be built, using what dimensions I could glean from the previous rotten chunks. Everything was made from standard lumber; nothing fancy here. Only the plastic corners for the front window were reused – and even those were iffy, being old and brittle.
Thankfully, one of the two lower curved pieces was intact enough to trace the basic shape onto new wood.
Oh, and did I mention the FIRE ANTS? One of the original pieces of wood in this area was crawling with them. I was still being (bitten? stung?) for hours after the offending chunk of wood was gone.
At this point, I was about two days into the project, and rather exhausted. But at least I knew the worst of its problems were now behind me.
With the new nose assembly installed, I could now begin carefully reattaching the aluminum skin.
Getting it to stretch correctly around my SWAGed wooden structure was a bit of a challenge, but it worked out in the end.
Staples, staples, everywhere – that’s the cheap-built camper way!
At long last, I was able to install the new plywood for the bed.
The front support was supposed to be stapled. I made a new one, reinforced it with a 2×2, and used wood screws. No one will be falling through the bed and onto my cab, if I have anything to say about it!
Add some insulation, a few 1x4s for support, and the requisite aluminum strips full of staples, and we’re finally nearing the end. I decided to replace all the loose fiberglass insulation with foam-board… it’s easier to work with, and should be more effective that the original.
Time to button it up! That meant more staples, some wood screws (to attach the aluminum edging), and lots of gooey butyl rubber for sealing the seams. I decided to scrape off all the old sealant – not just in the area I’d been working on, but all around the camper – and apply the new sealant, to ensure there’d be no future water issues.
Speaking of water issues: Early in the project I did debate eliminating the front upper window, as it seemed to be the source of the original leak. The plan would have been to frame the nose without the opening, and then replace the upper aluminum panel with a new sheet. But after finding that matching aluminum was not available, I decided to stick with the original design instead.
Butyl rubber is no fun to work with… but if you want a dry camper, it’s what works.
I also ended up replacing much of the molded rubber trim, as well as several of the clearance lights whose seals were no longer water-tight. Anything to keep the water out!
There was also a noteworthy amount of scrubbing done to make all that aluminum siding nice and white again, along with some paint pen touch-up on the vinyl stripes.
With the exterior issues resolved, it was time to focus my attention on the interior.
I tried to leave as much of the wood paneling and cabinetry intact as possible. But for parts that were damaged, or had to be removed to repair the nose, I cut out and installed new pieces of paneling. The pattern was vaguely similar (or as close as one can find at Menards). I also put down some carpet in place of the ugly vinyl flooring.
The ceiling panels were okay (aside from being covered in some terrible looking wallpaper-type stuff), so I left them be. For the nose, I cut and installed some white paneling for the upper area, and some more woodgrain for the lower section.
After removing all the hideous wallpaper-type material from the ceiling, I masked it off and painted it.
The paint was the usual sort of off-white, into which I mixed some sand for texture. (I first tried some “popcorn in a can” type product that was ridiculously expensive and promised the moon, but unsurprisingly fell short. At least it came with a money-back guarantee!)
I also installed some new 12-volt light fixtures, which replaced the dated and broken originals.
The original cushions seemed to be in decent shape at first, but upon closer examination had lots of issues. I ordered two foam twin mattresses from an online supplier; one was installed intact onto the top bunk, the other was cut up to make cushions for the sofa and lower bunk. I also purchased a bunch of fabric for making covers and curtains, but didn’t end up having time to try making any before the trip.
So the outside’s looking good, the sleeping arrangements are handled… what’s left?
The kitchen, of course. Though all the appliances worked, it was a sea of chrome and pink Formica, with ducks on the backsplash. Since I had to rip it all out anyways (to replace lines, wires, and check for rodent damage), I figured it was time for an upgrade.
The new countertops went in with minimal effort. They were cut from a damaged piece found in the bargain section at the local lumberyard.
After that came the new tile – another el cheapo affair, made up of the remaining stock of a discontinued style. When you have so little space to cover, leftover quantities are usually plenty.
All that remained was to measure and cut…
…and reinstall the fixtures.
The stainless steel sink cleaned up nicely. The chrome range and vent hood were too scuffed up to be reinstalled as-was, so they got some quality time with the wire wheel, followed by a few coats of almond Rust-Oleum I’d had from another project.
Since the seals were worn out in the original hand-pump faucet, I was forced to buy a new one (at $45, it was the single most expensive piece of the project).
Though it was far from finished, it was entirely usable in its current state. And I’d gotten it there just in time. With five days spent, it was time to load it up and hit the road!
Being exhausted from a week of all-night camper repair probably wasn’t the best way to begin a week-long camping trip. But Katie thoroughly enjoyed the outing, which helped to assure me that the ordeal had been worthwhile.
Would I take on such a project again? Probably not (or at least, not unless you happened to drop a Cayo or an Avion in my driveway). In fact, I consider myself fortunate that the damage wasn’t more extensive; most of the other rigs I looked at would have been far, far worse.
But in the end, I got what I’d set out to find: a nice, clean, solid pickup camper for around a thousand bucks (which, counting the initial purchase and materials, is about what I ended up spending).
A word to the wise: If you’re looking for a camper of any sort, inspect carefully! Yes, anything can be restored… but would you rather spend your summer enjoying the wilderness, or up to your elbows in soggy building materials?