5 or 6 months ago I started a series of 'What If'' posts. The premise was, if I lost my van for some reason, how would I go about replacing it on the limited budget an insurance payout would afford? In the process of doing that series I wandered into a cargo trailer that we already own and got to thinking that it was actually pretty comfortable in there. It felt cozy and seemed to be just about the right size for turning into a compact little camper.
This post is the result of the subsequent day-dreaming.
That first 'What If' series was pretty long, consisting of some 21 posts, (OK, really really long.) as I delved into the thought process as well as a great deal of technical detail. This time I'm going to try and fit everything into one or two posts. (But we'll have to see just how long winded I get.)
Pros and Cons
Trailer verses van; which is better? The answer; it depends.
Driving the Van is pretty much like driving a car, you just need to remember that it's a little bigger and heavier. Towing on the other hand takes more care and concentration, assuming that you want to do it safely that is; and since I'm out there on the road too, please do!
Of course, if you're one of those that just has to have the front parking spot at Walmart to the point where you're willing to cruise and troll and swoop to get it, forget the trailer and stick to a van.
In terms of stealth camping, the Van wins, though a 6x12 cargo trailer behind a truck will still easily fit into two end-to-end parking slots which is a lot better than a 45' motorcoach with a toad and three slideouts!
With vans you put a few things away, turn the key and drive off. Trailers need to be un-jacked, (Though I have never really understood the need for enough jacking to hold up a small house just to stop a little swaying as you step from the sink to the table.) cranked up, backed under, cranked down, chained up, plugged in, and un-chocked before any driving off can be done. So the van is clearly better for drive and stop and drive type travel, on the other hand, if your main travel mode is to stay put for days or weeks at a time then there's a lot to be said for the trailer/tow-vehicle combination which allows you to leave your house behind, all set up and ready for when you get back from shopping or the trailhead or sight-seeing or any other day-trip you might be inclined to take.
With the Van, I have everything right there with me all the time. With a trailer, even if it's hitched up back there, I still have to de-Van to get to the fridge, the toilet, or to kick back for a half-hour break with my current book.
That's a shortened version of the whole pro-con list but in the end, though switching from the Van to a trailer would require me to make a few changes, overall I think the pros and cons would balance out.
Here's one of the real advantages for me if I ever need to replace the Van; we already own a 6x12, single axle cargo trailer.
It has a rear ramp door as well as the side door and when we ordered it we added a spare tire, (Since when did a spare become an option??) a Dexter Torflex axle to smooth out the ride and electric brakes to reduce the pucker factor. It cost us about $3K though a little searching and patience could have probably turned up a suitable used trailer for less.
With an additional couple hundred invested in a few supplies such as air-mattress, portable stove, portable toilet, lantern, cooler and a few odd plastic boxes to store things in, the trailer could be used as is; pretty much as a hard-sided tent, but where's the fun in that!! So for me a few extra modifications would be in order to make the raw trailer a comfortable home.
First, openings would need to be cut into the trailer for the two screened windows. Though a hassle, I think these would be a necessity in order to ensure decent ventilation for those times when leaving the side and rear doors open is not an option, such as during black-fly season or when stopped in the Walmart parking lot for a few Z's. Speaking of ventilation, the cheep roof vent would have to be replaced with a powered vent. I've long been a fan of the Fantastic Vent but have been eying this MaxxAir version because it can be left open in rain but folds down tight for travel.
Second, in the interest of a little climate control, the wall panels would need to be temporarily removed and 1.5" of ridged closed-cell foam insulation added all the way around. The ceiling, currently exposed rafters and roof tin, would also need to be insulated and then finished off with 1/8" ply or similar paneling.
1.5" of insulation is certainly better than nothing but isn't actually a whole lot if I get into temperature extremes. Even though the trailer is only 6' wide, there's still enough leeway in the layout to fir-out the walls and gain an extra inch or so of insulation, but that's not an option with the ceiling, which is the most important place to insulate, since the top of my 5'10" noggin needs every inch of the 6' height available in there. If I was spec-ing a new(used) trailer for this I would be looking for one 6.5' high; but it is what it is.
And finally, while making mods to the trailer I would also like to add 2 or 3 inches of lift to the axle mounts. This would raise the trailer's center of gravity slightly but significantly improve it's ability to travel forest service and fire roads, not to mention getting in and out of the steep entrance some gas stations and other commercial establishments barricade themselves behind, without dragging the rear.
A key element in determining the layout was the drop-down ramp door. With the door open suddenly the trailer is as big as all outdoors! For a bonus, with a couple simple jacks on the outside corners, the door can be turned into a compact little deck, and who among us doesn't like a deck? True, it's not a very large deck but a folding chair and table would fit nicely. No railings but for those that tend to fall into the category of klutz or enjoy partaking of adult beverages to enhance the deck experience, don't worry, the fall is short.
A wall with a sliding door built just inside the ramp will allow some weather and insect protection while the ramp is down. Screening and double-walled poly-carb panels, the kind used on greenhouses, come to mind for max ventilation and light. This wall does not need to be structural or even very strong, since closing the rear door takes care of that, so it can be light-weight, less than 50 lbs for the whole thing by my calculations.
This wall sits about 8" in from the rear door so that it clears all the hardware used for raising and lowing the heavy ramp. (And needs to be installed in such a way that it can be removed in case the door hardware ever needs repair/service.) Yes, that cuts into the space a little but it also creates a micro porch where a couple things like a folding chair, outdoor rugs and a broom can be stored.
The space just inside this new wall is - well - just space. I've drawn a fixed fold-away table over against the left wall but will probably leave that off initially to see how a portable camp-table, one I can use both inside and out, works out first. I can always add the fold-away table later.
Along the same lines, a good quality folding chair will serve as both inside and outside seating and, with the addition of a folding 'ottoman' for kicking my feet up on, will handle lounging as well as eating.
The view above shows the just over 5' long kitchen counter with cupboards below and overhead storage above. (OK, really! Where else would overhead storage be?!!) The overheads extend nearly to the new rear wall but stop a little short of it in order to leave room for the sliding door to slide. Those with good eyesight will also notice the 12V and 110V outlets in the end of the cupboard and and also way over there at the far end of the countertop. I've drawn in the flatware caddy way over there too but there's plenty of additional wall space over the counter for hanging things like pot holders, mugs, etc. There's also room for a plethora of towel bars and LED lights on the bottom side of the overheads.
On the other side of the trailer, most of the right wall is taken up with a built-in that is 9" deep (Dictated by the width of the house batteries which I'll get to soon.) In addition to housing the electrical components and the fold-up bed, there's book/DVD shelving there near that rear wall, as well as quite a bit of additional storage space in the form of shallow cupboards. I used sliding doors on these which will keep things in place when on the road, especially if drilled and pinned in place with a dowel while traveling, yet, if the mood hits, can be easily lifted out of the tracks and stored away when parked.
The shelving behind the doors will be arraigned as needed for efficient storage.
As with the slide-in camper, I made no attempt to fit a double bed into the limited space and stuck with a comfortably sized single.
True, in the raised position the bed partially blocks the right-side window but that couldn't be helped.
Even with a good quality dense foam mattress the bed won't be all that heavy, but if I get weak and feeble enough that getting it up and down turns into a struggle I can add a couple pneumatic struts to help with the raising and lowering, just like on a full sized Murphy-bed.
The nearly full length folding leg that supports the bed in the lowered position and provides enough structural strength to keep a full grown, or even an over-grown, person from crashing down in the middle of a sweet dream, can also be modified so it can be swung up and used as additional counter space when the bed is in the raised position.
Even though I lost some wall space to the placement of that inner rear wall, there's still enough left over at the front of the bed cabinet to create a nice little nook between the cabinet and the side door.
This is a perfect spot for coats, hats riding crops and anything else that will hang on a coat-hook. There's even a little bit of room left over on the front side of the door for a hook or two as well.
The same 12V compressor fridge I put into the slide-in camper sits in a cupboard at the forward end of the kitchen counter.
I mounted the fridge at about eye level which isn't so great for keeping the center of gravity low but sure does make it easier to find that last bit of moldy cheese! But more importantly leaves enough space below for a hanging closet. If desired, this space could be converted to shelving instead. There is enough room left over above the fridge for an open cubby for storing a few lightweight items.
The door for the hanging space is hinged but the kitchen cabinet, and overheads, use sliding doors. In the case of the kitchen cabinet this means that I will have full access even with the bed down when traditional hinged doors would be blocked.
The trailer has a V-nose front which I've turned into one big storage area
with shelves. The bottom shelf is high enough that the portable toilet fits underneath.
From the bottom shelf up the space is closed off with sliding doors but these require tracks both top and bottom and sliding the toilet in and out over one of these tracks would be a pain, so I used hinged doors for the floor-level storage area. As always, I keep the hinged doors at least an inch short of the floor so they will swing open over top of any rugs I might put down.
I've already spilled the beans about the toilet, (There's a sort of unintended joke there for those that think about it!) so now I'll move on to the other systems.
The water system is almost as simple as you can get short of a bucket and a dipper. It consists of several 3 gallon water jugs, a little bit of flexible hose and a Shurflow pump. I concidered installing n hand pump instead but the only ones that aren't jokes are made for the marine industry and cost at least as much as a brand new Shurflow!
The active jugs are on a shelf up under the sink, one for potable water the other for grey-water. A hose attached to the pump is dropped into the potable jug and one attached to the sink drain is dropped into the grey-water tank. Additional jugs are stored on the floor in the rear-most cupboard where their weight works out best.
Modifying the shelf locations would allow for using 5 gallon jugs and require less juggling of - well - jugs, but carrying a single, full 5 gallon jug back from the nearest spigot is a great way to screw up my back and, at a combined 85 lbs when full, one in each hand is an equally quick path to pain and disability. A pair of full 3 gallon jugs only come in at about 50 lbs and, when balanced one in each hand, are much less likely to cause bodily harm!
The idea with showing the five jugs here is that I can run two potable jugs dry (For that balanced carrying stuff) and still have a third full jug to operate off until I can get to a spigot for a refill. Presumably some of the water coming out of the potable jugs gets consumed so two empty potable does not quite equal two full grey-waters but still close enough for that balanced carry thing on my way to empty them. And if I'm lugging grey water jugs I'm not running water through the sink at the same time so two should be enough. Of course taking the time to clearly mark which jugs are which is probably a good idea. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't want to be mixing a little used wash water into my potable!
While at first the jugs might appear less convenient than a couple of fixed tanks, the jug setup has some significant advantages. First and foremost is that emptying and filling can be done without dragging the trailer along. Instead of having to break down the camp just to make a short run for a refill then have to set it all back up again, any trip to the trailhead or town in the tow vehicle can also be used as a water run. Also, 9 gallons of water will last me a week, but if I want to be able to go longer than that between resupplies all I have to do is buy more jugs, or even a water bladder such as the one at the end of this link, and keep them/it in the tow vehicle. A less obvious advantage is that having to switch out jugs helps keep me well in tune with my water consumption and the state of my supply. Sucking air on my second to last jug is preferable to sucking air on my one and only tank. . .
A final word on the water system. Installing some low curbs around the perimeter of the roof terminating in a downspout under which a jug at a time could be placed, would allow collection of rainwater off the roof. Depending on rainfall this could supply a significant percentage of my wash-water needs and my drinking/cooking water could be taken care of by modifying the front shelving to provide a permanent home for a Berkey filter. I've been drinking rainwater collected off a tin roof and filtered through my Berkey for years now and it hasn't poisoned me yet!
The electrical system starts with a pair of group 27 batteries tucked into a sealed and vented compartment below the bed. (I've removed the face of that compartment here so you can see the batteries over on the right.) Though this trailer is designed primarily for boondocking I have included a shorepower connection, some 110V outlets and a charger. The large black rectangle forward of the batteries is a really neat combination 12V/110V distribution center-charger. This gives me 12 volt fuses, 110 volt breakers and a decent 3 stage battery charger all in one package.
The solar charge controller, E-meter and panel disconnect switch are mounted at eye level above the bed. Some 12V and 110V outlets are also installed right here and turn the adjacent shelf area into a handy recharging station.
I could go into more detail here, like on living without a shower, water heater, furnace, microwave, etc., but I've already covered all that in a post included in the previous What-If series and everything I had to say then still applies, so no need to drag this post out any longer than it already is!
OK, Looks nice and comfortable, now the next step is figuring out if this whole thing is practical. Is the design going to fit within the allowable weight limits? And what do the costs look like?
For that I fall back onto my trusty spreadsheet.
I start by calculating the weights and costs of the materials needed for each component,
then I add a 10% contingency to the cost to cover incidentals such as screws and finishes as well as any miscalculations.
And finally combine all the various components that make up the completed design and sum it all up. In the case of a trailer such as this I also calculate axle and hitch weights.
For this design, if I were to buy everything new at full retail pricing, I estimate the conversion would cost just under $5000, on top of the $3000 I paid for the trailer originally. A big chunk of that, almost $2000, is for the electrical system alone. Scaling back the electrical system plus a little hunting around for discounts and salvaged materials could reduce the cost by a decent percentage. For instance, new RV windows are $150 to $300 apiece while salvaged RV windows can be picked up for as little as $15.
Even at full price I figure the cost, along with a slightly used tow vehicle, would probably fit within the limits of the insurance settlement that would have triggered this What-If scenario in the first place.
I also estimate that the total weight of the conversion would come in at around 2500 lbs. The trailer has a GVWR of 3500 lbs so I can load up with as much as an additional 1000 lbs worth of junk and supplies. Even loaded to 3500 lbs the trailer is still easily handled by an F150 with plenty of capacity left over for throwing some things in the back of the truck.
One thing about cargo trailers, especially singe axle cargo trailers, is that the axle is placed quite a ways back on the frame. This cuts back on kind of potential disasters hap-hazard loading of the trailer could cause, (Not enough weight on the hitch and the trailer could fishtail uncontrollably at highway speed!) but even with careful placement of some heavy items such as the batteries and spare tire, I was just barely able to squeak in under the recommended max of 15% of the total weight resting on the hitch. Fortunately one of the key reasons for that recommended max is to prevent overloading the rear tires of the tow vehicle, yet pickups are designed with weight carrying on the rear axle in mind so it will be manageable even if my supplies shift a few more lbs. onto the hitch.
OK, so there it is. (And in only one post!) My semi-stealth, boondocking, what-if, cargo trailer conversion.
I have to say that after working this plan up, even though it requires towing and all that goes along with that, I think I like this idea better than the slide-in option I designed earlier.