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Commercial Camper Shell Buyer's Guide

Updated on December 13, 2016
Typical utility shell, even though there really is nothing typical about these tops.
Typical utility shell, even though there really is nothing typical about these tops.

By Thomas Zizzo

So you just got a new ‘work’ truck and have determined that the best solution for your needs is a commercial-style top. Buying one of these can be a daunting task because there are many ways they can be built, and I do mean many. There really is no standard way these tops come and often times you are trying to determine how they should be built so your employer will pay for it. When I use to sell these, so many times there would be a purchaser to order one who was not the driver of the vehicle and would typically not get certain features ordered the way the driver wanted it, so this will be a guide to what options you can get and hopefully offer some advice to make your buying decision a little easier.

Brands Available

There are several major brands of commercial tops, and most can be ordered at any truck accessory store that offers standard fiberglass shells. There is the Gem Top Workmaster, which is now sold by Leer. It’s not as common as it use to be since Gem Top (the company) was sold to the TAG Group, which owns Leer and several other popular truck accessory brands. What separated the Workmaster from other tops is the fact that it’s made out of steel, not aluminum. Another popular brand is the ARE DCU (Deluxe Commercial Unit). It’s made out of aluminum and has a different type of ‘wedge’ design for taller units. There’s also the Tradesman made by Access Manufacturing, which use to be Six Pack-makers of the old cabover campers. They are also made out of aluminum and can literally be built any way you want, even for service-body trucks. I use to have a customer with the local fire department that had to have the front wall of the top set back to accommodate a special light bar and the Tradesman was the only brand that would custom build it. SnugTop also makes a fiberglass utility shell called the SnugPro. It’s a lot thicker than their standard fiberglass tops. It has similar options as the other brands, with some exceptions, and has the advantage of a much nicer look, but it comes at a hefty price.

Base Model, a Starting Point

So, while there really is no standard model, they all start out with a base model, which is typically cab level in height, solid front wall, solid sides (no windows) and a rear traditional-type camper shell door (the same type of door you would find on a cab-level fiberglass top). Yes, this is where they start, and they come white. Everything else will be an option.

Cab level with side doors and glass

This is a Tradesman shell. It's fairly basic, with side doors and windows in the doors. Notice the screens on the windows, which are actually sliding windows-not common.
This is a Tradesman shell. It's fairly basic, with side doors and windows in the doors. Notice the screens on the windows, which are actually sliding windows-not common.

Height Options

First thing you want to determine is height. Maybe you typically haul particular sizes of plywood and need 30 inches of clearance, so measure from the bottom of your bed to the top of the cab. Most fullsize trucks are about 24 inches from the top of the bed rails to the top of the cab. Since the top sits on the bed rails, this is the measurement where they start. Remember that the taller you go, the more cost involved and the less aerodynamic it will be, this is where ‘wedge’ shape tops come in handy. One of my more loyal customers was a Lexus/Toyota dealership, and their service department would order tops that were close to 40 inches tall, because they had specific needs.

Custom Utility Shell

This is the Tradesman with the cabover option. The company use to make the Six Pack camper, so they're use to this, but it's not very common. Notice the odd windows, illustrating how custom these can be built.
This is the Tradesman with the cabover option. The company use to make the Six Pack camper, so they're use to this, but it's not very common. Notice the odd windows, illustrating how custom these can be built. | Source

Side Options

You also want to determine what you want on the sides of the shell. Most people order liftup doors, but remember, everything costs money, so if you only need a door on one side, this is the way to go to save money. These doors can be solid, or have glass. Obviously, glass is for visibility, but can be ordered with security screens as well. Every now and then I see people get these tops with shelving and glass in the doors. Then you can get toolboxes or shelving on the inside (on the right or left side) and if you go that route, windows are useless as the boxes will block any view. You also have the option for different types of dividers on the shelving. One side of a shell, with a door and shelving can cost as much as $400-just for that added option, depending on the brand and dealer, so you see how these can add up in cost.

This shell has side doors, solid, including the rear door, and yes, that is optional. Notice the wrap around rack, which you can do, just be sure you measure the doors and distance between the rack legs or the  doors wont open.
This shell has side doors, solid, including the rear door, and yes, that is optional. Notice the wrap around rack, which you can do, just be sure you measure the doors and distance between the rack legs or the doors wont open.

Rear Options

The other thing to consider is the rear of the shell. Many people like ‘cargo’ or ‘walk-in’ doors, where the tailgate is removed. These can be built with a single door, or two double doors, and yes, the double doors cost more, and depending on whether or not you have decided to get a window in the front of the top (to see behind you while driving) you can get glass in these doors, or leave them solid. The Tradesman has a unique option for the rear that allows it to literally lift-up like a side door, with the gas props to hold it up. This allows for maximum width clearance since standard cargo doors take up space with a frame around them. I’m pretty sure the Tradesman is the only top that offers this option. You can also get these built with a standard, camper shell type lift-up door, which is what it’s called because it doesn’t swing open the way a walk-in door would. Yes, you can get these solid, or with glass and screen, etc.

Roof Options

Ladder racks are very common on these tops and of course, there are options for these. Standard roof racks that aren’t real heavy-duty can handle about 150 lbs, and are a fairly cheap option. Most of these shells have the option for what are called ‘quick clamp’ racks, which you typically see on cable TV installation vans. They are specifically made for ladders and have handles on them to lock down your ladder. There are also heavier-duty racks that are made with added support to handle larger loads.

Special Options

Commercial tops also have other unique features like pin-switches on the doors for cargo lights and alarm systems, as well as carpet insulation and roof vents. Insulation matters because unlike fiberglass tops that typically have honeycomb insulation built into the structure of the roof, metal utility shells have nothing, and they will build up condensation inside. They can also be color-matched, but it has been my experience that most work trucks are white, and all of these commercial shell brands come white, so paint can be a costly option and is mostly only used for companies that want to stick with their specific color schemes, like tow yards that have that unique yellow color, which incidentally, Tradesman is so use to that color they typically know the code for it. I think every picture I included in this hub are shells with the standard white. It tends to go well with any factory white color.

As you can see, the features can add up, and so can the cost. Prices can range from about $1,500 for basic featureless models to well over $3,000 when you add up the options.

This is a shot of what the boxes, or shelving on the inside would look like if you go that route. This one here has the special parts bin dividers. These is good if you have lots of small pieces to keep handy.
This is a shot of what the boxes, or shelving on the inside would look like if you go that route. This one here has the special parts bin dividers. These is good if you have lots of small pieces to keep handy. | Source

Used Commercial Tops

As you can see, these tops can be very expensive, so if you’re on a tight budget, it would be worth your while to find one used. Because these are not like fiberglass tops that have very custom-molded fits, you can sometimes fit models from other trucks to your truck, so long as the dimensions are close. But I caution that if the used top you’re looking to buy has walk-in doors, those are only compatible with the bed they were built for(tailgate opening dimensions). For obvious reasons, these tops do not hold their resale value well so finding a good deal on a used one is fairly easy. Popular trucks that you will find used utility shells for will be the Ford Ranger and longbed F150s and Superdutys, why? Because most state and city yards get good deals from Ford on fleet trucks, so these are what a lot of them buy, as well as large companies and college universities. Santa Clara University was a big customer of mine and they had a nice fleet of white Rangers. The city of Santa Clara has around 30 Rangers. Just remember to measure, always measure and check out my other hub on buying used tops for more information on used tops.

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    • Tom Zizzo profile imageAUTHOR

      Tom Zizzo 

      5 months ago from Santa Clara, CA

      @Bryan lang - It might, it won't look right, the Superduty has a tall cab, and the rails are kind of wide.

    • profile image

      Bryan lang 

      5 months ago

      Will a long bed 250 ford year 2000 fit a 2003 dodge long bed

    • Tom Zizzo profile imageAUTHOR

      Tom Zizzo 

      5 months ago from Santa Clara, CA

      @Doniwarner -the mistake people make in wiring the third brake light is tapping into one of the tail lights -this will technically work, but the light will also blink when the blinker gets activated, and this you don't want. It's not wrong at all to tap into the trailer wiring, in fact Leer now offers easier wiring harnesses that tap into those connections. I think on GM trucks, the third light wire we usually tap into is under the dash, and it's a pain in the butt to find-meaning one truck is not always the same as the other, even in the same years! Sounds crazy but it's true. If you can rig a harness using the trailer connections, it should work just fine.

    • profile image

      Doniwarner 

      5 months ago

      When I "dry fit" the topper the pegs were the only thing I noticed that would be a complication. You were 100% right though, the pegs were all removable and I simply took them out and everything went together like a champ. Again, thanks for offering up your insight. Any recommendations on wiring the lights? Haven't had a chance go digging too deep for the information on that one yet but I read somewhere that splicing into the trailer harness is the wrong way to do it.

    • Tom Zizzo profile imageAUTHOR

      Tom Zizzo 

      5 months ago from Santa Clara, CA

      @Doniwarner -interesting, I know there were subtle differences between the Chevy and GMC trucks for the 07-to 13 generation, which always blew my mind why GM did that-they don't do that now. I did see someone put a Chevy gate on a GMC, so that's why it's interesting that you're having an issue. See if you can unbolt those pegs-you won't need them, if not, you may have to notch the DCU.

    • profile image

      Doniwarner 

      5 months ago

      Tom, First, thank you for your extensive knowledge! You were certainly a strong resource when I went "used topper" shopping. And now the question: I have a 2012 GMC Sierra and found an ARE DCU with double doors on a 2008 Silverado. Everything size wise to cross over from one bed to the other is good but I have found that lining up the double doors into the receiver for the tailgate is an issue. For lack of a better term I will say the "stays/locking pegs" for the tailgate interfere with the door frame of the topper. I'm actually thinking that I could notch the topper frame and do a little fabrication work to strengthen it back up. Any thoughts or recommendations before I buy this thing and bust out the snips and sawzall?

    • Tom Zizzo profile imageAUTHOR

      Tom Zizzo 

      6 months ago from Santa Clara, CA

      @buckroe -you might try modifying a Dee Zee part-a tailgate protector. Look for part number DZ2145B see if that might help, maybe you can connect that to the door.

    • profile image

      buckroe 

      6 months ago

      Hello Tom, I hope you have some advice for me, I have a Century DCU cap made for a 2006 3500 Chevy LB. I recently purchased a 2017 Dodge 2500 LB and I mounted the top on the Ram. Tthe fit is very good but I am not having any luck finding a 1/2 door skirt with Ram flareo

    • Tom Zizzo profile imageAUTHOR

      Tom Zizzo 

      2 years ago from Santa Clara, CA

      @Don -The Superduty bed is wider, and the cab is taller. If it's a fiberglass top, probably won't fit very well.

    • profile image

      Don "Wills 

      2 years ago

      I am looking at a leer canopy off of a full size 2008 chevy Silverado and my pickup is a 2002 Ford Superduty. What are the chances of the canopy fitting my truck?

    • Tom Zizzo profile imageAUTHOR

      Tom Zizzo 

      2 years ago from Santa Clara, CA

      @D -very common truck, anything from 1988 to 1999 are the same with a 2500, and for a commercial top, even up to 2006 is basically the same. I would say most ads claiming a used commercial top can fit a long bed Chevy would fit that truck, GMC as well.

    • profile image

      2 years ago

      I just purchased a 1997 Chevy Silverado 2500 with 8 ft bed. What are your suggestions for that?

    • Tom Zizzo profile imageAUTHOR

      Tom Zizzo 

      3 years ago from Santa Clara, CA

      @Mark -any Tacoma 2005 or newer. For a commercial top, you could probably fit a Nissan shell, maybe a Ranger shell as well, depends on the type of top. If you want the type where your tailgate is removed, you need something made specific for your truck.

    • profile image

      Mark 

      3 years ago

      I have a 2006 Toyota tocoma long bed 4 door and looking for a camper shell, what all different brands of pickups will fit mine?

    • Tom Zizzo profile imageAUTHOR

      Tom Zizzo 

      3 years ago from Santa Clara, CA

      Those trucks should be the same, that is if the seller knows what they're talking about. Even if your truck (2000 GMC) is what I call a 'fringe' year, meaning some 2000s were the newer body and some were older, it shouldn't be that different, but yeah, it should fit your truck.

    • profile image

      LukiesMom0604 

      3 years ago

      Hi I was hoping you could help me! I found a camper shell on craigslist, but it's a 2 hour drive away and I'm not certain that it will fit. It's a 2001 Gmc 2500 2wd 8 foot long camper shell.

      My truck is a 2000 gmc, extra long bed (I believe 8feet).

      Do you think it will match the bed of my truck? Obviously I have never done this before! Thank you so much for any help!

    • Tom Zizzo profile imageAUTHOR

      Tom Zizzo 

      5 years ago from Santa Clara, CA

      @Bedbugabscound -I agree. And it's not just the dollar value on tools, but work lost when you're trying to replace them, not to mention all the time it takes to get the right tools you use.

    • Bedbugabscond profile image

      Melody Trent 

      5 years ago from United States

      I think more people need to think about getting a commercial camper shell. My landlord does most of his own carpentry. He keeps, or kept his tools in a truck box. Someone stole the whole truck box! He lost $800 worth of tools. With the economy bad and people getting desperate it is really important to have something secure, like a commercial camper shell.

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