How to Choose a Truck Canopy for Truck Shell Camping
Once you’ve decided that pickup truck camping is right for you, one of the first decisions you’ll have to make is choosing which truck canopy or truck shell is right for your build.
There are literally thousands of options, models, and designs out there, making this one of the harder decisions we made when building our ultimate DIY truck bed camper!
Though we definitely think a fiberglass canopy is the way to go, in this post we’ll walk you through all the various build types, pros & cons of each, and point out the 5 most important things to consider when deciding which pickup truck canopy is best for your own truck camping adventure.
Three Main Truck Canopy Build Types to Consider
1. Aluminum Truck Canopy for Truck Shell Camping
Strength - As they’re primarily manufactured for trade work - such as construction, electrical, plumbing, etc - they are typically very sturdy.
Built-in Storage - Also because of their use in trade work, some aluminum truck canopies have storage built in by the manufacturer.
Good Used Selection - You can often find these used fairly easily, though in our experience second-hand prices seem to be higher on average than other options
Less Insulated - An aluminum truck canopy will generally colder in the winter and hotter in the summer compared to other options
Difficult to Customize and Repair - The built-in storage may not suit your needs or build, and making repairs or modifications to aluminum is not as easy as other options.
Lack Ventilation - Most lack windows with ventilation or any windows at all, and while this may be helpful for stealth camping, it will seriously impact comfort level.
2. Wooden DIY Truck Canopy for Truck Shell Camping
Completely Customizable - If you have the necessary skills (or can learn them), you can literally build your truck shell exactly how you want it. This is a great aspect of building a DIY wood truck canopy, because invariably any metal or fiberglass truck canopy will be a compromise in height, strength, or features.
Leaks - Fully sealing all the seams can be very difficult to achieve, which can then lead to water ingress, resulting in leaks, wood rot, and potentially mold.
Very Heavy - Wood is not light, and most custom builds are typically not very aerodynamic which is no bueno on your truck’s gas mileage.
Cost - While it may seem like a cheaper option, when factoring in your time and cost of materials, building one can quickly become just as expensive as the other truck canopy options. If not more so.
3. Fiberglass Truck Canopy for Truck Shell Camping
Options - There are hundreds of fiberglass truck canopy options out there, making it easier to find one that fits your specific truck shell camping build.
Aerodynamic - Fiberglass truck camping shells are built with aerodynamics in mind. We actually saw an improvement in gas mileage when we first installed ours (though mounting a cargo basket, solar panel, awning, etc quickly dissolved that improvement).
Easy To Find Used - Fiberglass truck shells are the most prevalent and there are some seriously good deals to be found on places like craigslist or FB marketplace. However, be prepared to invest some time in both searching for and rehabbing a used fiberglass truck canopy that fits your truck well.
Easy to Repair - A fiberglass pickup truck camping shell is much easier to repair than other build types, and the supplies needed to do so are generally available at most big-box hardware stores.
Strength - While not weak, a fiberglass truck canopy can be more susceptible to breaks/cracks than an aluminum truck canopy which often will only incur dents.
Weight - Though not nearly as heavy as wooden truck camping shells, a fiberglass model will be somewhat heavier than an aluminum truck canopy.
Cost - If bought new these can cost a significant amount.
A fiberglass canopy was ultimately the route we chose, and is also the route we recommend to others who are considering truck shell camping or travel.
But when deciding for yourself, you’ll definitely want to take the following into consideration:
5 Things to Consider When Choosing a Truck Canopy for Truck Shell Camping
1. Budget: New vs Used Truck Canopy
New - Depending on the configuration, a new fiberglass truck camping shell can run anywhere from $1000 to $3000+.
The benefit is that it can be fairly customized to your needs and you won’t have to worry as much about leaks since there is generally a warranty offered, as well as installation. The dealer will ensure your canopy is exactly the right fit for your vehicle.
So if you have the disposable cash, this is a great place to spend it!
However, we just couldn’t justify the cost of a new canopy - especially considering we were going to be cutting a 14” hole in the roof. Plus, we wanted to spend our budget on other areas of our build.
Used - You can find used fiberglass truck canopies anywhere from completely FREE up to $2000 depending on how new they are or how much work they need. During our search we found that most can be had for between $100-$500, and we inevitably found ours for a whopping $40!
But expect to reseal windows, replace gas window struts, and possibly repaint any used truck canopy as needed, especially if it’s old and cheap (like ours was). These are not difficult things to do but can be tedious.
Also, make sure to measure the dimensions of any used truck camping canopy you’re considering to ensure a good fit with your truck bed, and take into account the fact that the front pitch of the canopy can vary depending on whether it was made for a standard cab, extra cab, crew cab, etc. and may not be interchangeable.
Tom Zizzo maintains an incredible resource for determining the fitment of a used truck canopy or truck shell, which was invaluable during our search
2. Interior Height of the Truck Canopy
When truck shell camping, you want as much headroom as possible. The more interior height your truck canopy offers, the more room you’ll have for storage, changing clothes, eating, and even just sitting up inside.
It’ll also make things like building a sleeping platform or having a comfortable mattress easier because you’ll have more vertical space to work with and thus more options to choose from.
So when selecting a truck canopy for truck shell camping, we recommend steering clear of the cab-height models and looking for a topper that rises higher than cab-height.
Some popular models to consider that offer extra interior height are Leer’s Model 122, ARE’s MX Series, and SnugTop’s Hi-Liner
3. Truck Canopy Window Options
When truck shell camping, proper ventilation can make or break the experience. You’ll want at least one sliding window with a screen (preferably two to allow a cross-breeze).
A side wing window that opens outward can also be really handy when needing to reach things at the front end of the truck bed from outside without having to climb all the way in from the back.
They now make combination sliding-wing windows that offer the best of both worlds.
We also recommend installing high-quality dark ceramic window tint. This will help reduce heat, increase privacy, improve your ability to stealth camp, and help to keep your gear hidden from prying eyes.
Another major upgrade to truck shell camping comfort level is to install a vent fan in the roof of the shell. Check out our post, How To Install a Vent Fan in Your Truck Camper.
4. Truck Canopy Headliner
Condensation is inevitable when pickup truck camping, especially in cold weather, and the more people you have the more it becomes an issue.
A felt headliner can alleviate the problem by preventing the condensation from pooling and dripping down onto you while you’re sleeping (a super unpleasant way to be woken up). It also adds a modicum of insulation to the shell.
The truck canopy we found did not have a headliner installed, so we installed one ourselves.
5. Truck Canopy Color
Though pretty obvious, color plays a big role in climate control while truck shell camping. A white or silver truck canopy will be cooler in the summer heat, and a darker colored truck canopy will be warmer in the winter.
Though for us, aesthetics won out and we chose to plasti-dip our camper shell black despite the majority of our camping being 3-season. But it is worth considering before making a purchase.
Finding the perfect truck canopy to put the “shell” in your truck shell camping experience is a big job, and hopefully this post has helped guide you closer to making an informed decision.
If you have any tips, suggestions, or questions about selecting the right truck canopy for your truck shell camping adventures, please let us know in the comments section below!
And for more on our adventure as a truck camping family of three, click SUBSCRIBE!
As always, thanks for reading!
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