My Poor Man’s Backup Camera

If a poor man happens to own a wifi-capable GoPro and spare smart phone.

One of the things I really like about my 2012 Ford pickup is its backup camera. Incorporated into the tailgate, it automatically shows an image on the rear view mirror every time I shift into Reverse. It helps me see what’s behind me in tight spaces or parking lots and, when used in conjunction with the obstacle warning system, makes it impossible for me to hit anything while coming as close as possible to it.

Trouble is, when the truck’s tailgate is off — as it is when I’m traveling with my truck camper (the Turtleback) — I don’t have a backup camera anymore. And when the Turtleback is on board, I can’t see out the back at all.

Clearly I needed a backup camera that would work with the Turtleback.

Commercially Available Solutions

There are some options I could buy to give me the setup I want.

The first is the Lance backup camera, which installs over the back door. The Turtleback was already wired for it, although the camera wasn’t installed. I had to buy the camera and then buy the cable that would connect the camera to my truck or some sort of monitor in the truck. I was spared the ordeal (and cost) of putting this system together by the simple fact that Lance no longer sells the camera. At least that’s what I was told and it works for me.

I could also buy a Ford backup camera just like the one in my tailgate. After spending $800 for that, I’d have to figure out how to mount it on the Turtleback and run the wires to the truck’s existing plug. That would be great because it would work just like my tailgate camera. But $800. And how the hell would I mount something that was designed to fit into a truck tailgate?

There were various wired and wireless options I could buy from various online sources. Prices ranged from $50 to close to $1,000. All of them had one thing in common: they would likely be a bitch to install, the biggest problem being getting power to the camera. This, however, would be the avenue I’d travel if I couldn’t come up with a better idea.

The DIY GoPro/Smart Phone Solution

Camera Mount
The window over the Turtleback’s sink with the GoPro mounted and plugged in. I can close the blinds without disturbing the camera. In this photo, the Turtleback is parked in my friend’s backyard in Arizona.

Reading about all these wireless cameras and receivers reminded me that I already had a wireless camera: my GoPro 3. It also had a suction cup mount that made it possible to mount on the inside of the Turtleback’s back window (so I didn’t have to worry about it falling off or getting stolen when parked). And because I’d had a USB power center installed in the cabinet over the sink (where the stereo is), I could run a power cord to the GoPro to keep it powered all the time, thus enabling me to keep the WiFi feature turned on and ready all the time. That gave me the camera component without spending a dime.

But I still needed a monitor.

Sure, I could use my iPhone and just run the GoPro Capture app every time I wanted to look behind me. But did I really want to deal with pushing buttons every time I shifted into Reverse or just wanted to see what was back there? Not really.

And that’s when I remembered my iPhone 5. I’d sold it to Amazon when I bought my iPhone 6 two years ago. They’d rejected it. There was nothing wrong with it. In fact, it was in remarkably good condition since I’d had a skin on it the entire time I owned it. I tried again. They rejected it again, on different grounds. I called up and complained. They looked at my Amazon purchase history. They saw the thousands of dollars I spend on Amazon every year. And they gave me a credit for the value of the phone. When I offered to send it to them, they told me to keep it.

And it had been sitting in a box inside another box in my garage ever since.

By some miracle, I found it. I charged it back up. And then I set it up to work with the GoPro. Sure enough, the rear view picture was almost exactly what I needed. Certainly close enough.

I poked around in my box of RAM mount parts. I found a suction cup mount and an iPhone 5 cradle and all the other parts I needed to mount the old iPhone over the truck’s dashboard beside the mount I already had for my iPhone 7. Then, because I knew the now 6-year-old iPhone 5 wouldn’t hold a charge as well as a new one, I attached a power cable to it.

The result: a dedicated monitor showing a live image of whatever’s behind the Turtleback.

Backup Camera Monitor
Here’s an example image from my backup camera “monitor.” In this example, I was parked at a campground in Washington. The empty phone cradle to the left of the monitor is the one where my iPhone 7 lives in transit; I was using my phone to take this picture.

All without spending a dime on any equipment I didn’t already have.

Best of all, when the Turtleback is removed from my truck while traveling, I can set up that camera in the truck’s back window to give me some of the same benefits as the backup camera in the tailgate I left home.

Keep in mind that although I’m unlikely to use that old iPhone for anything else, I can grab the GoPro and use it while I’m on my trip any time I don’t need it back there. In fact, I brought an assortment of GoPro mounts and SD cards, as well as my GoPro 3+, to use on my trip.

A Word about Having “Too Much Stuff”

My friends constantly rib me about having too much stuff. After all, they’ve seen my garage and the seemingly countless labeled bins and still unpacked (but labeled) boxes of things I’ve collected throughout my 50+ years of life.

But there’s a lot to be said about having all this stuff and this blog post offers a perfect example. Because I kept that old iPhone, I had an easy monitor for my camera solution. And because I had later model GoPros with wireless built in, I had an easy camera setup. And because I had that old RAM mount stuff, I was able to put together a solid and reliable mount for my monitor.

In other words, this solution cost me nothing because I already had all the components I needed. And I had those components because I don’t throw much of anything out if there’s any possibility I might be able to use it in the future.

So yes, I have a bunch of labeled bins with old electronic equipment in it. So what?

It’s what made my poor man’s backup camera possible.

5 thoughts on “My Poor Man’s Backup Camera

  1. Nice solution! I’ve got a couple of older vehicles that don’t have backup cameras, including a giant Dodge truck with dual rear wheels. If there’s ever a vehicle that NEEDS a backup camera, it’s a dually with a topper. While I don’t happen to have any of that spare equipment just sitting around (though I’m still using an Iphone 5s) it does give me some ideas on how to go about adding backup camera capability without necessarily spending a bunch.

    • As new GoPros (and similar) cameras come out, you can often pick up older models used for cheap money. Keep it in mind. The key feature you need is the WiFi capabilities that’ll communicate with a smartphone.

  2. I’ll bet there’s a phone or camera setting buried somewhere in a menu, or a software solution to the reverse-image issue. Maybe someone “has an app for that”, who knows?

What do you think?