Tuesday, March 17, 2015

What If: The cargo trailer version


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 vans every fork banging against every spoon and every squeak of shifting cupboard door competes with the dulcet tones of the latest death metal band blasting from the speakers (Assuming you're into that sort of thing.) as you rattle on down the road. With a trailer you shut the door and don't give a rat's ass what sort of commotion is going on back there as long as things are still pretty much where they belong when you get to the other end.

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.

The trailer

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.

The layout

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.


Of course any self-respecting boondocker needs solar. In this case I've installed 400 watts of flexible panels on the roof (More expensive than glass but only about 3 lbs each, installed with adhesive instead of bolts through the roof, and invisible from the ground.) By spreading the panels out towards the corners of the trailer I've increased the likely hood that one or more will be outputting full power in a partially shaded situation. If the panels were all clustered together, shade on one is more likely to be on all.




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.

12 comments:

  1. This is a fantastic blog post, at least for those considering converting a cargo trailer. I've been looking at this option for months. I've looked at used cargo trailers for sale on Craig's List but did not find any where I liked the interior design. I've always wondered about the "V" front and also have a ramp door in back instead of a door that swings open from the side.

    Once again, one of your posts have scrambled my brain cells.

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    1. Thanks Steve but I didn't mean to scramble anyone's brains. Sorry about that! I hope it didn't hurt too much and heals quickly.

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  2. You did a great job in this post. I am sure that this will work out well for you.

    Also, your cost estimate was pretty good. I converted a $4000 6 X 12', single axle cargo trailer to full-time boondocking mode, and the final TOTAL cost was $11,500. This was a few thousand cheaper than buying a new Carson Kalispell and converting it.

    But the main reason for doing it was the satisfaction of working with a blank slate, being able to repair it, getting a solid frame, big tires, and getting high ground clearance.

    By the way, the final product, LOADED, weighed out at 3000 pounds. That opens the door to an F150 pickup or Nissan Frontier as the tow vehicle.

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  3. I too think the inside looks great, but what do I know? I'll leave that to people who know something about colors.
    moving trailer rental

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  4. Greg, this trailer is amazing, I love all of the compartments, I bet you could store a lot of stuff in here. I'm curious to know if you could build something like this on an existing cargo trailer. My wife and I would love to travel route 66 someday. Having something like this would make the journey so much fun. http://www.coloradotrailersinc.com/enclosed-trailers

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    1. Thanks for the comment Sam.

      Yes, one could store a lot of stuff in this trailer but the objective wasn't really for lots of stuff, but rather plenty of places for the stuff I need. For me living in a small space works much better if things are organized and I know where everything is. It doesn't have to make sense, for instance my cold weather gloves and knit cap share an overhead cupboard in the van with two flutes, a harmonica and the power supply for my laptop.

      And yes, you can build on an existing cargo trailer. This specific design is for a cargo trailer I already own but I could also go out and find any halfway decent used one for a good price and start from there too.

      I think that's an under-appreciated option.

      If I was a couple instead of a traveling single I could pick up something a little larger that could accommodate 7' of facing bench seats in the rear that make a great lounging/dining area for two and then convert to a nice large bed at night.

      If I was not confident of my carpentry skills I could go to Ikea with my tape measure and find some cabinet/counter/bed solutions that would fit, with or without minor modification

      If I was on a really tight budget I would use my current funds to get the trailer then just 'camp' in it with air mattress, sleeping bag, portable toilet, cooler and camp stove until I built up additional funds to do something a little more permanent.

      My recommendation to people is to not wait until everything is 'perfect' but to go ahead and get out there as soon as you can with the basic needs. In my travels I have met two couples full-timing in pop-up campers and another one full-timing in a tent and they were all having a blast. In my experience, we don't as much stuff and amenities as we think we do to have a great time and make wonderful memories.

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  5. Greg,

    I just came across this post. Excellent stuff here. I am deciding myself between a converted Shuttle Bus with a toad or a SUV/Converted Trailer.

    Leaning towards the Trailer option.

    What program did you use to design your trailer conversion? It looks great! I'm currently working on paper for my design.

    I'm thinking of raising the floor on a 8' interior height trailer by roughly 1 foot because I want all of the batteries/electrical/plumbing safely inside but below the floor and organized. This would allow all the heavy stuff (water tanks, batteries) to be placed over the tandem 5200lb torsion axles. This should also provide ample storage space for clothing/tools throughout the cabin.

    I'd like to use a design program that allows both 2D layout/dimensioning as well as 3D visualization from multiple angles.

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    1. Joe, thanks for the complement. This is, by far, my most viewed post. Makes me think I should just post some of the many other designs I've come up with.

      Why is it that decisions are often so difficult? On the one hand, shuttle-bus + toad = two engines for the ultimate in 'save-yourself' while SUV + trailer means only one insurance payment and a common vehicle which can be repaired lots of places at a decent price, but might require a tow to get there.

      But I'm with you and would lean towards the trailer option.

      Wow! That's a serious trailer you're talking about! Utilizing the head space by raising the floor for the 'systems' sounds great. When I designed The Van (The Sprinter based Sportsmobile I currently use) I had all the tanks and valves placed inside the insulated envelope so freezing weather wouldn't create a panic or disrupt my normal routine.

      I used to do my design work on paper too but now I do all of it, including for this trailer conversion, on the free version of SketchUp. It's called SketchUp Make now and can be easily downloaded. (SketchUp Pro is the pay-for version but I've gotten along just fine without it's extra features.)

      SketchUp is a heavy user so the more CPU and memory the better (It will run on less CPU and memory, just slower.) but I think it might be just what you are looking for. The 2D dimensioning capability is there and the 3D capabilities of the app are really handy for visualizing how things fit into small spaces. All the images in this post are screenshots directly from Sketchup.

      There is a learning curve that will slow you down initially, but there are also loads of tutorials out there as well as a very active community of users.

      I would recommend using lots of 'layers' in any design. I just counted and have 19 layers in this particular design. That let's me separate out things like the trailer shell from the plumbing/tanks, cabinets, bed, electrical, etc. I can then turn each layer on or off depending on what I'm trying to work on or need to see.

      Happy designing - Happy camping!

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  6. Wow! Great job! Glad to see someone with your talents do something so practical for so many people. It will be available to my 12,000 friends and followers on my Google documents.

    I have been thinking out my RV plans for a couple of years. My wife is not an outdoorsy type, and I am, but we are both seniors. I didn't want to spend big bucks and knew if we did, that we might not use it enough anyway. I had a hard time not going with a hybrid RV and may go to one in the future, but we love minivans, and had just purchased a new Town and Country. They are powerful but are only rated for 3,600 pounds. We love the mountains so I wanted to go as light as possible. Experts say to go with half the rating at high altitudes, and slopes. I figure that we can cut down the weight as needed with my flexible plan. All my gear can be taken out. I just bought six long storage bins that fit in the back under a queen size air bed. I may go with a shelf to protect the light weight bins. Rubbermaid $20 apiece.

    We will have every imaginable component to add or remove: solar, generator, propane BBQ, batteries, etc.

    The front V area will have the cooking, food prep,water containers etc. We will have a portable toilet etc.

    I had planned on a screen for the door and back, but yours is perfect, if I want to build it. I may just go with a triple layer canvas, clear plastic, and screen.

    Thanks for your great work!

    Ron Wagner

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    1. Hey Ron, I posted this over a year and a half ago and to this day it is still the daily leader in number of page hits.

      I've been tossing around the idea of doing another post focused on converting a cargo trailer using a layout designed for a couple using off-the-shelf components for those that aren't much on DYI or don't have access to a workshop. I'm thinking of calling it the Ikea version. But I have other things on my plate at the moment so it will be a while before I get around to it.

      I've built a few pop-up type truck campers in the past that used the triple layer component for part of it, but I had to farm that work out which made it somewhat expensive. Though the idea of being able to just roll the thing up to the ceiling and tie it out of the way is attractive.

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  7. I would recommend that you try Google Docs or Slides. I started with Blogger, but got exponentially more views by just sharing docs. I distribute them using HootSuite, Buffer, Facebook, Twitter etc.

    All My Rants: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1ipd1YlcDaA_E9QtLhUXJBPiobFcRx1Rgipny9rOPJZE/edit

    223. Recreational Vehicles and Resources of All Types
    https://docs.google.com/document/d/1_TLeFM6hvTplvBsvtTC5sugZOeaGgEugd3Lgk_epBxQ/edit#

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  8. Just came upon this post, it seems so simple, which is the hallmark of a well thought out plan. Well done! I have a 5x10 enclosed SA trailer, which is probably too small for what I want to do... and that is... haul my fun machine (motorcycle) with me and be able to sleep, raid the fridge and hit the john while it is stealthily lurking inside. Now, I also have an open 6 x 16 tandem that could be clothed in a more aero shape. You know, these V trailers don't really save fuel, right? In fact, if you turn them backwards they would be a tiny bit better. Still the extra space is... well... there. If closing in the 6x, I would use box in almost all the tongue for light items (donuts holes for instance) I would also recommend going to the pricier AGM or at least a sealed FLA battery (6 volt the pair) to avoid the slight but feared hydrogen gas with the yummy suphuric condensation. Now let me see if I can reply without using my nonexistent FB login. Thanks Greg

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