Remodeling a pop-up camper

It was a Sunday morning. My friend and I had gotten the day started very early because we weren't sure if we had to give someone a ride to church. It turns out we didn't, so we killed the extra hour before church by going to a coffee shop.

We got to talking about campers, pop-up campers in specific.

That led to us pulling out our phones and looking at a local website where people listed things for sale.

There was a nice looking Starcraft unit from the late 1990's, in good shape, with a slide out. The price was reasonable. We talked in terms of "wouldn't that be cool" and then went to church and by the end of the week, we'd met with the fellow and bought the camper.

The camper was in great shape; the owner had taken excellent care of it and even made a few cool modifications of his own (e.g. exterior bike rack). Still, the interior decor was not awe-inspiring. It used the mauves and dusky blues and grays, blue, and beige in patterns that were equal opportunity offenders.

We'd both been looking at a popular pop-up camper remodel website in which amazing examples of all kinds of remodels, from serious guttings to simply changing the fabrics, were on display. We decided we could do something. Since the exterior of the camper had a greenish blue canvas trim, casting that color inside when the sun shone through, we decided to go with grays and blue/green. 

My friend was going to handle the floors and cupboards while I was going to replace all of the fabrics and create a new table top.

Understand that it takes a lot of fabric to cover even what seems like not too much space. Fabric isn't cheap. It probably cost a few hundred to get the fabric for this project. I used a heaver cotton duck or twill for the table seats, and for the velcro border that went around the top interior.

I'm not fantastic with the sewing machine, zippers elude me, and I don't like to follow patterns because really, patterns are just someone telling me what to do (ha). 

So I eyeballed everything, worked it out in my head, estimated the fabric based on some measurements, and went to it. My goal was to avoid fussy fasteners while making it easy to remove and wash fabrics as needed

As we were taught in 4-H, you learn by doing. There may be swearing, but you'll learn. And of course, there were cats involved.

The seat cushions were in pretty good shape, other than the fabric was dingy. I cleaned them up as best I could, and decided to sew a cover that would simply go over the top of them as they were. They had a nice thicker bottom covering that I wanted to keep in place instead of just the raw foam and the new covers. 

I washed and dried all of my fabrics. I laid the cushions on the fabric, and started cutting. I won't bore you with how I did it; if you sew, you can see what I was doing by looking at the photos.

The printed fabric was for the seat backs; the darker gray was for the seat bottoms.

These seat cushions are basically of the principle you use when you make slip-on pillow covers for throw pillows.

You know.

To avoid zippers and a really tight fit which I don't have the skill to deal with.

Because the open overlap opening across the back was so long, I did put four pieces of velcro there to keep it from sagging. 

Really, it worked out not too bad. It's not as heavy or tight as a custom-made commercial cover, but it will absolutely work, and will be easy to remove, wash, and put back on the cushions if we need to.

I think I only swore twice, both involving pin pricks and not involving the need to tear out seams, which is something I'm known for doing quite a bit of.

Next up was the curtains. The camper's curtains weren't in too bad of shape; they were dingy and stained, and a few had a small tear or two from being caught in something, but those tears were easy to stitch up. While I knew it would make the curtains bulkier, I decided to sew fabric over the original curtains (which I'd washed). 

The original curtains came with a special blackout coating on the back, a kind of rubbery substance. It was in good shape, and is very desirable in keeping the camper private. Without it, you'd either have to have light streaming easily through your curtains, or use a heavy fabric to accomplish the same thing.

Additionally, the original curtains had the hard plastic hooks still attached, and I didn't want to have to take them off and sew them on something else, or come up with a new curtain hanging system. I'd see in some pop-ups where they'd used expandable curtain rods, but that meant yet another rod to pack. If you've used a pop-up, you know there are already a lot of bits and bobs that you need to have a place to store when you tear down the camper.

There are a heck of a lot of curtains in a pop-up camper.

It seemed like an endless task.

I was very grateful that a few years ago, after saving up money, I had purchased a decent little basic Bernina sewing machine at the local sewing store. It handled the massive task without making me want to burn the camper and call it done.

My friend, meanwhile, had taken all of the cupboard doors off. He painted the cupboards in the camper while I painted the doors laid out in the garage.

The painting of these cupboards was a decision process, and if you go to that pop-up camper site, you'll see quite a few different approaches and reasons. 

Some people remove and replace, others paint, some use acrylic, some use chalk paint, some use contact paper. They're cheap particle board covered in a plastic woodgrain sticker. We knew that painting them wouldn't hold up for decades. On the other hand, it was fast, and we figured we'd give it a try for now. So we used acrylic, after preparing the surfaces through sanding, etc. The problem comes with the rubber trim used inside the camper. We ended up painting it, though we knew it would start to scrape and slough off over time. For now, that's what we went with.

My friend changed all of the knobs and closures to something that looked better than the shiny gold ones that came with the camper. That was quite a task, finding, ordering, and installing all of that stuff.

Yes, there was some muttering and swearing. 


We found a thin flooring at Menards that we used. My friend was able to remove the flooring where the table was, and put it directly on the wood.

After much research, he decided to use a special cleaner and place the new flooring over the old. There were som pros and cons to that, but ultimately that was the decision we came to. It was one reason we choose the thinnest flooring we could find.

One of the best times to do a remodel of a tight space is at the end of July and early August, where you can sweat your troubles away to the music of mosquitoes. It was during the painting and the flooring where we really grew to appreciate this.

During the remodel, we did not go to the gym. It was plenty of exercise in and of itself. You have to really cram your body into strange positions to get some of this stuff done.

Anyway, the next project was the table. The table that came with the camper had a broken corner, though the legs were fine. We decided to cut a new board for the table and attach the legs to it. 

Once my friend cut the board, I sanded the surface and applied several coats of acrylic gesso to it, sanding a bit between coats to get a quasi-eggshell surface. I then used some of my pthalo blue acrylic paint, thinned with water, to create a kind of watercolor surface. I used some salt on the edges to create a mottled effect.

Once that was dry, I brushed the salt off and began drawing cartoons around the edge. I drew with a pencil, and then used watered down acrylics to add color and shading. We decided the camper theme would be travel. One thing we always do when pulling out of the driveway, whether going to the airport or heading down the road, is say "here we go!"

We've kept travel journals on all of our trips, and we often end up with funny inside-joke sayings after each trip. So I decided to use images from some of these sayings and vacations around the edge, as well as depicting the different modes of travel we've taken on various trips.

I kept the art to the edges, as the middle of the table was going to be a map of the United States. I used Modge Podge to adhere the map, using a few coats and letting it dry a full day in the heat of summer.

Once the Modge Podge was dry, we used a special polymer my friend had ordered online. It is a two-ingredient mixture that is often used on tables and bar counter tops. We carefully mixed and poured, using a spray bottle of rubbing alcohol to get the bubbles out. It really smoothed out the visual imperfections you get with Modge Podge. I was pretty impressed.

At timed intervals, we scraped the drip off of the edges. We let it cure over 24 hours. It was pretty cool stuff; it looked wet even when it was completely cured.

We were pretty pleased with the final result. My friend attached the legs from the original camper table to this table.

The next project was the mattresses. My friend decided to put down a rubber layer on the wood base for added comfort and also moisture issues. 

We then got new mattresses as the old ones had tears in the fabric and the foam was sketchy. We got covers to go over them that kept moisture and insects out of the mattresses.

The larger pop-out bed area had a kind of shelf that sat above the mattress. Apparently this was something the higher-end models had back in the day. The woodgrain sticker on it was damanged and peeling, so my friend removed it, and then covered the shelf with gray contact paper.

We got duvets and sheets that matched the color scheme for each of the beds, and I sewed pillows to fit the camping/travel/aviation theme.

I had to get a camping bear mascot, ha ha, and picked up a few travel-themed pillows at a local art fair for the table area as well.

My friend got a few other accessories, such as a light with a fan, a USB powered mini bug zapper for inside the camper, and so on. 

I also painted a design on the fridge door (a kind of special Bible verse for travelers), and used glow-in-the-dark paint to make dots for real star constellations around it.

This camper project was so much fun to do that I hope to never do it again.

Of course, I can't live in a real story without a heroically tragic moment or two to laugh about later.

"Julie, how well do these pop-up campers hold up in bad weather?"

Funny you should ask.

While the camper was setup in the driveway amidst the remodel, a severe thunderstorm roared through with 70 mph winds and torrents of rain and some hail. My friend was out of the state, and I was at work. We were on the phone, agonizingly discussing what we were seeing on the radar with a pink/white hail core barreling down on the house.

"How many pieces do you think we'll find?" I asked at one point, almost crying.

"Hopefully they'll stay near the house."

As soon as I could leave work, I rushed back, preparing myself for a collapsed and destroyed camper that we'd just paid for, and invested more money and time in.

It was completely fine.

I could see it had shifted an inch or two by looking at the wheel chocks, but otherwise it was still standing.

Some of the exterior velcro had come loose and the canvas was flapping a bit, and there was a bit of water that got in by the door and had bloated a tiny bit of the cupboard, but really, it was fine. We'd read that pop-up campers don't do too badly in some storms, even when other campers are tipping over, since they aren't a solid wall and the air moves through them. Considering the directin of the wind on that storm, I think we were also spared because of the dining room pop-out, which added another support and extended the support base. That probably kept it from tipping over.

 Amazingly, it held up with only slight water getting inside. That was it.

The first actual use and test-run of the camper was a family event at a relative's farm in the Red River Valley. This was during pre-haul of the sugar beets, and it was dry, and it was windy. So it was a dust storm for two days straight. Suprisingly, though there was some dust inside, it wasn't as much as you'd expect from a canvas camper.

On the drive home from that family event, there was a massive severe thunderstorm near Bismarck, pelting us with hail. I was worried it would crack the camper top, but it did not. Once in Bismarck, as we drove toward the house, the streets were flooded higher than the wooden bottom of the camper.

"We just lived through a dust storm, a thunderstorm, a hail storm, and now flooding," I said as my friend drove around, like all of the other traffic, trying to find a way through water that wasn't high up the side of the truck. "Now we're going to have to drive through water and it's going to come up the bottom of the wood floor of the camper and flood the whole thing."

Once we got home, we opened up the camper to check for damage and to let it dry out.

Again, no damage. We could see the water had hit the bottom, but nothing inside.

We got one final camping trip out of the little pop-up, heading up to Lake Sakakawea State Park. We pulled in, set up the camper, and were absolutey delighted with it. We had our first meal in the camper.

I had a camper journal, which stays in the camper and we simply write about our camping trips and put stickers, maps, sketches, and so forth in it so we can reminisce each time we go somewhere. I worked on that a bit.

As the day went on, the rest of the spots filled up. 

Every other camper was huge and massive, and we felt completely dwarfed. 

We bought special covers for the pop-up areas that block the sun and keep the interior cool and dry.

Some campers had kitchens and big screen TVs on the outside of their camper. As night came, we made s'mores and I read poetry from the Billy Collin's book I'd brought (I always bring one camping). We could hear people watching TVs outside, or see them sitting inside the big air conditioned campers, watching TV.

I kind of felt bad for those in their huge, massive campers. Not just because it took more than one guy 20 times around the circle to get the camper wedged in with his wife trying to wave him into the spot, hollering about his inadequacies, but because there's more to camping than going to a campground only to resume your same activities.

The campground had very few people outside around fires, talking. Most were inside their house on wheels, watching TV or keeping to themselves. In fact, the only other person near us outside around a fire was the fellow directly across from us.

If you want to watch TV, just do it at home.

At one point, some kids and their dads walked by our camper and we watched from inside as they stopped, pointed, and seemed to reminisce about when they first started camping and had a tent or pop-up. Maybe they kind of missed that, now that they had upgraded to a huge house on wheels. I don't know.

After a weekend of hiking and relaxing, it was time to go home.

The truck barely started.

Turns out the battery was all but dead.

Once it finally turned over, my friend and I looked at each other and thought the same thing: don't turn it off for any reason until we get home.

2020 has so far turned out to be a sketchy year, though we do have a few camping trips planned as long as things keep opening up. I hope that at least one of them will not have a dust storm, hail storm, thunderstorm, wind storm, flood, and dead battery.

Other than that, I have few other requests.


  1. “ It used the mauves and dusky blues and grays, blue, and beige in patterns that were equal opportunity offenders.”

    I started to say that’s another illustration of the differences between men and women. But that would have been both sexist and inaccurate. Really, it illustrates the differences between people with taste and color sense, and ... well, me. The colors in that first photo wouldn’t have troubled me at all. I wouldn’t even have noticed them.

    After reading this epic chronicle, I’d say you got a real bargain. Not only a camper, but a hobby, too. Even if it’s a bit of a laborious one.


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