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Old 08-08-2009, 05:29 PM   #1
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Stealth Camper Build Thread

A stealth camper is a mobile home that can go pretty much anywhere and live in relative comfort, more or less indefinitely, without shore power, sewage, or running water. Itís dry camping or stealth parking, in locations that range from a Walmart parking lot, BLM land, National Forests, or a friends driveway. It is very commonly done by even conventional RV folk, but usually only for a night or two.

I imagine it conjures up images of crazy unwashed smelly drunks dumping their garbage in the street in front of your house and then driving off to desecrate someone elseís neighborhood. Iím sure there are people like that in the world, but Iím not one of them, and my home wonít be an eyesore. Itís a box van, plain and simple, clean, and in good working condition. It will be there and gone before you even notice it. The point is not to bother anyone, and not be bothered by anyone. That implies not breaking any laws.

The point of this thread is to share the experience of designing and building a stealth camper. I assume very few readers would want to make their own stealth camper, but there are many similarities to more conventional RVís and there are many handy people out there who would consider building or modifying a camper for their own needs. I intend to dig deep into at least one possible example of how things are built and why they are built that way. If you like to get technical about tools, techniques, materials, and design philosophy, then read on.

In many ways I am a newbie to this RV thing, let alone building a stealth camper and living in it. If you are a newbie of one sort or another then that might be to your advantage, because I will ask some of the same obvious questions that you would have asked, and make some of the mistakes that you would have made. If anyone out there catches me in error, please correct me. I would rather be corrected than misinform. Likewise if you just have a different point of view, jump right in.

This forum tends to lean towards the very high end class 8 truck conversions. There is relatively little about medium duty trucks. I will buck that trend, not because I want to, but because I have little choice. I am not as broke as you might assume, but I am CHEAP, so if you canít afford a top of the line class 8 conversion, I might have some options for you. I will admit, however, that if you just want a conventional RV, then you could probably buy a used one cheaper, and you could probably resell it for more. Building your own makes no sense unless you really want something unique, or you really enjoy building things.

I am working a full time job, and then some. I also have friends and family obligations, and I have a stealth camper to build. Forgive me if I canít always respond right away.

Lets beginÖ

I have already purchased my truck, a 2002 Mitusubishi Fuso FE-SP COE (Cab Over Engine) with a 4.9 liter direct injection turbo intercooled 4 cyl diesel rated at 175 HP. It has a 4 speed automatic transmission with an overdrive button on the shift lever, but even in overdrive it would probably top out at 3000 RPM at about 78 MPH, so I wonít be racing Geofkaye at 100 MPH on the interstate. It has an unladen weight of 5,240 and max GVWR of 14,500. The 14 foot long box was built by Supreme Corp. and is made of FRP (Fiberglass Reinforced Plywood). The total vehicle length is about 20 feet with a wheel base of about 11 feet, so it turns as sharply as I would ever need it to. It has 4 wheel disk brakes with ABS (Antilock Braking System) which is better than any car I have ever owned.

I am no truck driver, but it seems to me to be plenty powerful, at least when empty. I would have preferred a manual transmission for better fuel economy, but I may grow to appreciate the simplicity of driving an automatic with a fluid filled torque converter, like a car.

It has barn doors in the back, and two very large top hinged doors on the right hand side that basically allow access to the entire right side of the box. It also has underbed boxes all around except for the forward left side of the underbed which is mostly filled with the 33 gal. diesel fuel tank. It also has a built in gas tank for the generator bay which is currently empty.

My truck is a COE (Cab Over Engine) because it needs to be short enough to fit in my present driveway while I build it into my future home. Where I live, it is illegal to park such a truck on the street but it is not illegal to park an RV on private property. It is arguably not an RV yet, but it will be. As soon as it is, I will try to re-register it as such, which may prove to be difficult or impossible here in the United Socialist Republic of Mexifornia, (CA) but I need to try because the registration and insurance for even a medium duty commercial truck are way too expensive.

I would have preferred a more conventional cab, and a larger box, and possibly a pass through from the cab to the living quarters, but these things werenít options. I realize that a COE is going ride rough, especially as lightly loaded as it will ultimately be, but thatís just how it has to be. Iíve driven it a bit completely empty and it doesnít seem too bad. Sure, a really big bump will bounce me off the headliner, but most of the time it seems the Mitsubishi engineers did a good job of making the springs progressive. As I load up the back I expect it will only get better. I may also want to look into letting some air out of the tires. I generally like running them hard for optimum fuel economy but beyond a certain point for a given load it probably doesnít buy me much except to make the ride more harsh. I may even want to consider running only the outside duel in the back. I will have to get it all finished and weight it first though.

The truck doesnít have an air ride seat, but it does seem generally comfortable enough. One problem is the generally upright seating position. I like to recline the seat back a bit but it is already up against the back wall of the cab. I found a simple and cheap solution that I really like though. My local electronics store (of all places) has these mesh lower back supports. They have a wire hoop that gets contorted onto a potato chip shape by the tension of the fabric. It fits nicely on the seat, provides great lower back support, increases the recline angle just enough, and as an added bonus provides for some air circulation back there, which is great for those 105 degree days in the central valley.

The rest of the cab is fairly car like. Itís not luxurious or anything but I think most people would find it perfectly comfortable. It has a good strong AC unit and all the normal amenities. It has a broad bench seat for the passenger, and a central seat back that folds down to reveal a map holder, clip board, cubby for logs, etc. You could probably sleep on that bench seat in a pinch, but that shouldnít be necessary.

Naturally the cab lifts up and forward to reveal the engine, so you need to give some thought to what might shift around inside the cab before you lift it, but it only goes up about 45 degrees, so things donít shift that much.

I paid $14K and it has less than 27K miles, so itís almost new. I think it had probably been neglected a bit, not driven much, less than perfect maintenance, etc. My mechanic went through it from top to bottom and it is in good shape and now up to date. I replaced the fuel line from the diesel tank, which was leaking. I think the folks who put the box on moved the fuel tank, and they either didnít use the correct type of fuel line, or they didnít support it adequately.

The U bolts that held the box on were loose (check those bolts). The front tires were (are) heavily worn on the outside edge. We checked the toe in and found it normal, so I am thinking that the people who were driving it were just gunning it around corners and wearing out the tires. It is powerful enough and maneuverable enough to forget that itís a truck and push it harder than is necessary. (Not that I ever would ;-)

To be continuedÖ
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Old 08-08-2009, 08:30 PM   #2
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.....should you need to go to panic mode you can call the office at 888-513-5293 during the afternoon and the girlz will find me and I should return your call asap if you have any questions....unless all hello has broken loose and I have to clean up someones mess......[which happens at least 2 times a day]..... Next: do not remove the dual wheels as you will be loosing the rear lateral traction that keeps you sorta in your lane when the wind comes from a different direction.... [somewhat unexpectedly]-which you will get used to now and then. I in No Way want to have you miss that experience with a Fuzie on the X-way...one of the true thrills my business partner had on the way to Colorado a few years ago in a Budget Rental-he is now a believer in a HDT-[though a slow learner]-someone from above convinced him.....The box acts like a big sail and lane changes are the norm in cross winds-interestingly enough my business partner didn't change lanes as he was on a bridge....removing the paint from the wheels and some damage to the drivers side of the truck....but having him look down at a river or something while rubbing the truck on the guard rail and concrete barrier wall was enough to convince him it was time to step up to a road tractor instead of a city truck.......you are in for a great adventure building/driving a personal RV...remember to BOLT everything down or use e-track/belts to secure it to the wall anything less will cause moving furniture and appliances because of the spring ride-usually forward and backward movement but occasional side to side in turns...and you will not know about it till you enter the box because of no pass through....exciting! Just something to look forward to without air ride......I'd suggest finding some carpet foam and making pads about 2 inches thick to mount the appliances to to keep the road shocks to a minimum-and don't tell the supplier it is for a RV as it will void any warranty......use SO chord for all wiring or use plastic conduit and make a small clamp to hold the plug into the reciptical or maybe twist lock plugs on all connections as the vibration will unplug all your electrical stuff in the first block.....I have been there and have done the above....best of luck on this project and keep us all informed.....geofkaye
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Old 08-09-2009, 09:29 AM   #3
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Geofkaye, (my hero)

Thanks for the offer of help and advice. I plan to use plastic conduit in the walls and ceiling, but what is SO chord? Is it just stranded wire or what?

Thanks,

R.D.
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Old 08-09-2009, 09:35 AM   #4
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Driving a truckÖ

The driving experience is fairly car like. You sit up high, and very much in front of course. I pull it up to within inches of my garage door and I could reach out and touch the door if the windshield wasnít in the way. Yes I know, that will put me first at the scene of the accident. The huge side view mirrors are both nice and necessary since a central rear view mirror would be useless. I did learn right away that the box sticks out way past the side of the cab and it is very easy to hit something with the front corner of the box. There are round dome mirrors below the side mirrors but it is still difficult to see the sides that far forward.

The instrument cluster is very car like with just a few exceptions. It has an oil check switch and light that you can use even before starting the engine. Green is good, red is bad, just what you would expect. Donít bother checking right after you shut it down though. It will show red until the oil drains down from the engine top end. It has an exhaust brake, which I gather is an exhaust restrictor, not a jake brake. It only comes into play if you take your foot completely off the gas. The braking effect is modest and only at higher RPMís. It takes a tiny bit of getting used to the idea that you need to keep your foot slightly on the gas if you want to just coast.

It has a warm up switch which apparently activates the exhaust restrictor and warms the engine a bit faster. It also has an idle up button/knob that allows you to increase the idle speed by pushing the button/knob and then turning it to the right. I gather it is for warming up the engine faster, but I could see where it also might be useful for running the alternator at higher RPM to faster charge the batteries. I havenít seen any use for either of these features, but it doesnít get that cold here. It has a 3 prong plug and cord going to an oil heater tied up in the engine compartment. I donít think it has ever been used.

The headlights come on when you start the engine and the shift lever is not in neutral, whether you have them turned on or not. Itís a bit weird, but I gather itís a safety thing and normal for trucks. I know all this must be blah blah blah for you experienced trucker types, but some newbes might read this as well.

The automatic shift lever is a standard straight line on the floor. It has a little button on the side for overdrive but as a practical matter I canít see that I would ever use it. The button will stay pushed in (overdrive on) all the time. I suppose I might turn it off for a descent in the mountains but I donít know about that yet. I do know that if you try to turn it off above a certain speed it just ignores you in order to prevent over revving the engine.

The foot position on the gas pedal seems a little awkward to me. In a car you sit well back behind the pedals and push them mostly forward. You can rest your heel on the floor and push the gas with the ball of your foot. If you bounce up and down it doesnít affect the pedals much because they go mostly forward and aft, and your foot is supported by the floor. In this truck your foot comes down more on top of the gas pedal. As you bounce up and down (which you tend to do because itís a COE (Cab Over Engine) without air ride), you tend to bounce up and down on the gas as well. It may be a matter of technique, and I am already getting used to it, but I can imagine that on bumpy roads it could begin to impact your ability to control the truck.

On the whole, I would say that a wife or friend could drive this truck without batting an eye. Itís just a big car.

I will say that if you read the Mitsubishi Owners Manual it is ridiculously conservative. For example, they talk about breaking in new tires only on the front where the load is smaller, and then driving 125 miles at 37 MPH or less. Yeah, like thatís going to happen. Unfortunately, it makes it difficult to know what issues are a serious concern and what is just CYA nonsense.

When I started looking for a truck I really intended to get a manual transmission. When I found this truck it had everything I wanted except for the automatic, so I decided to compromise. I may regret it in terms of gas mileage or I may not. I will have no need to get anywhere in a hurry, so I can just slow down and save fuel that way. That and I really donít need to be traveling long distances all the time. Mostly I will just move around a bit to visit friends, and keep from annoying anyone in particular. I donít actually know what kind of mileage I am getting. I havenít managed to burn a tank of gas yet going back and forth to the building supply store and the RV shop.

To be continuedÖ
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Old 08-09-2009, 07:19 PM   #5
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...."SO CHORD" IS A BLACK RUBBER COVERED electric wire that is used for HD extension chords and is very pliable and won't hook on sharp stuff in the walls etc....A fellow in Mid-Ohio built a MH for himself and he used blue covered wire for the 120vt side....the blue stuff is arctic covered wire and will not get stiff to about 20 below or something like that...I haven't seen the stuff since Alaska in the early 70's in MH for the pipeline guys....it was a M-35A2 with a camper shell in the bed insulated with 3inches of foam and all electric heat/ac and every possible electric appliance known to man at the time....The guys in Mid-Ohio were selling their MH here on this forum site-Amanda and I went to see it and it was one of the best over built unites in North America-"Military type of Construction" and never a short cut...back with more soon.....geofkaye
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Old 08-11-2009, 05:38 PM   #6
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Buying and insuring the truckÖ

I found the truck through Craigís list. I really like the fact that Craigís list is easy to use and free. I donít like that it is full of scam artists and resellers. I consider buying a used vehicle a dangerous thing to do regardless of who you buy them from. Dealers are professional con artists, and private individuals are, well you never know. In this case it was a private individual business owner whose business was hurting due to the current recession. I probably made the deal too quickly and without pressing him hard enough on the price. Iíve come to accept that negotiating is not one of my strengths.

One major snag is that he didnít have clear title. The bank was in physical possession of the piece of paper, though oddly enough they had never registered as such with the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles). I wrote him a check and took possession of the vehicle. He filled out the release of liability on line (I helped him do it) and sent it in. What followed was a long uncomfortable wait for the title. I couldnít quite figure the sellers angle for ripping me off, since I had the truck and he had also released his liability with the DMV. I also couldnít get the truck insured without the title and didnít feel comfortable starting to work on it.

The previous owner had let the registration lapse so he was accumulating penalties, which were now my problem. I did go to the DMV and at least start the registration process and pay the fees and the penalties, $1600 plus another $500 plus when the registration came due a few months later. That is how I discovered that the previous owners bank had no legal claim on the vehicle. Now I had a temporary registration but no insurance.

Meanwhile a month goes by and I still didnít have the title. At this point I am telling the previous owner that we need to fill out the forms, and get them notarized, to get a replacement title. I figure, to heck with the bank, they have no legal claim on the vehicle (according to the DMV) anyway. So the previous owner calls the bank one last time and finds the whole thing is being held up because his check to them is literally 2 cents short. He gives them the 2 cents and I get my title 2 days later. Or at least thatís the official story. Could it be the previous owner didnít actually pay off the loan until I got in his face? I will never know, but the truck and title are now all mine.

I started the process of getting insurance but that turned into a hassle as well. My insurance agent seemed to have no idea how to handle a commercial vehicle that was owned by a private individual. It seems most insurance companies didnít want to touch it and those that did insisted that I at least pretend to be a business. Mind you, at this point I was just insuring a truck, not an RV.

I eventually did get $1,200 worth of insurance through Commerce West, a company that I had never heard of. The forms say I am an individual using the truck for computer consulting as a service technician. That last part is nonsense but they wonít accept the truth. My agent insists that itís fine, but I worry that they will use this ďlieĒ to deny any claim I might need to make. For the moment I can live with the situation, since I almost never drive the truck while I am converting it. Eventually I have got to find a better, and hopefully cheaper solution. By then, the truck will be undeniably an RV, though that only promises to complicate the situation.

To be continuedÖ
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Old 08-11-2009, 05:52 PM   #7
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DeconsTRUCKshon

So now I can finally start working on the actual truck. Step one is to clean off the glue goop from the vinyl graphics. Acetone and Paper towels folded into 2Ē squares and then unfolded and refolded to expose new clean surfaces got the job done fairly easily on the truck body. I was concerned about the Acetone attacking the paint, but it didnít touch it, though I was careful not to leave it on too long or scrub too hard.

The box in the back was another matter. There were large areas of thick gloppy glue that just wanted to smear around and not come off. Fortunately nothing seems to touch the FRP (Fiberglass Reinforced Plywood) so I was able to use different solvents, including Lacquer Thinner and Spray on Goof Off which contains Xylene, Ethylbenzene, Butyl Carbitol, Toluene, and other nasty stuff. All of these worked to some degree, but the Goof Off also contains a light oil which seems to help prevent the more volatile solvents from evaporating before they can do their job. I could then use a spatula to gently scrape up the glop and sling it into a garbage can. With the bulk of the glue removed it was back to scrubbing with paper towels to get it really clean. It might not sound so bad, but it took a couple of long days to get it done. After that was a good overall wash and wax by conventional means. Even that took most of a day.

The next step was the deconstruction of the inside of the box. The whole box was originally wired for both AC and DC. Nothing fancy, just armored cable, a circuit breaker box, and lots of cable clamps screwed into the walls. It also had some very industrial 12V lighting with wiring back to a switch in the cab. All that had to go, but not get thrown out, because it might come in handy later.

As I bought it, the truck had multiple heavy duty shelves along the entire length on the left side. They were made with angle iron and FRP inset with caulking all around. There was also a super heavy duty stainless steel work surface in the front of the truck, and a large display box along the entire right side of the truck. The display box was also made of FRP with heavy duty aluminum L and U channel. It was originally accessible from the two full length side doors. It was lined with peg board, and I assume the original idea was for some kind of an industrial display case or store front. The previous owner had wanted more access so he chopped out the front half of the display box which meant the front side door gave full access to the box interior.

The whole thing was held together with various forms of big heavy duty rivets, some of these coming through the FRP on the box outer walls to secure things on the inside. I say ďrivetsĒ but they are actually a special kind of two piece fastener that is pressed together. I gather one piece comes with a sacrificial screw stud attached. A special tool (I assume) uses that screw stud to pull the two press fit pieces together and when the force becomes too great it snaps off. It makes for a very strong fastener that is never intended to be removed, and I had to remove lots of themÖ

At first I tried my angle grinder with a cut off wheel. That worked but was slow, and left me with a face full of sparks and hot metal. It also tended to damage whatever the rivet went through. Never the less, for many of the rivets it was the only option. Once I got some out I was able to figure out how they were made. I figured I could pound them apart with a modified ľĒ drift punch and a hammer, which I did, but it took several good solid blows on a solid surface that didnít just flex and absorb the energy. Many rivets were in places where I couldnít get a proper swing, or where I couldnít support them from behind. Even for those I could wale on, I soon found that my ability to hit a target with a hammer had somewhat deteriorated over the years. Fortunately that got better with practice over the next few days, but I still wasnít going to risk my hand holding that drift punch, so I ended up making a side handle from a piece of heavy dowel rod and some duct tape.

Beyond the rivets there was caulk, lots and lots of caulk. Whatever it was they used on the inside of that box, it was good stuff. It grabbed and held, and didnít let go until something broke. Eventually I found I could work under it with a wood chisel and then pry it up. Once I got a loose spot I could peel it back and out of a corner with lots of force and stretching. One inch of caulk in a corner would become 4 to 6 inches long as it peeled out, ripping my hands raw and then sticking to everything it touched. Eventually I started wrapping it into a ball and by the time I was done I had a couple of 6Ē caulk balls. (Te-he, I said caulk balls.)

All of this took a couple of weeks of evenings and week ends with lots of loud crashing sounds, usually followed by swearing. Ultimately it all came out, and was taken apart, and stored for reuse, because I am cheap. I only dropped that stainless steel work surface on my foot once, and all the other scrapes and bruises eventually healed.

To be continuedÖ.
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Old 08-12-2009, 07:03 AM   #8
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Rod, good luck with your project, I'll be following as you go. This forum has a good deal of traffic, but not a lot of folks that post. So I thought I'd stop in a cheer you on. And to pass on a shameless plug for my leftover parts.

I have a stash of leftover parts from my project, (lots of stuff that didn't fit in to a re-design or just change of direction. If you could use any of it, I'd sell it at a loss, most of it was purchased in Elkhart at RV surplus stores. Maybe over the weekend I'l lay it all out on the floor so I take pictures.

some of the hightlights,

2 new matching gray/black tanks agout 20-30 gallons each

a fantastic fan

a box of 110V RV style electrical outlets

a fold out handle to attach to the outside for stepping up into the door

a funky flat panel tv mount

theres more just things off the top of my head.

Any way if you could use any of it great, if not thats ok too.

again good luck with you project, I hope it goes better than mine has.
-blizz
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Old 08-12-2009, 01:00 PM   #9
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I second Blizz's encouragement to carry on and tell us the story. It's a great read so far.

Rad
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Old 08-12-2009, 06:09 PM   #10
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blizzardND and Radman,

Thanks for the encouragement. So bliz, what's an RV style electrical outlet? Are they some sort of a twist lock like a NEMA plug, or do they have something to keep them from falling out with vibration or what? I told you I was an RV newbie, or is that nube?

And since you asked for more... Here it comes...
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