My wife and I knew we wanted to build a small, portable living space to use when we take road trips, as we discussed in “Why We Decided to Camp Tiny.” However, we didn’t know what we wanted that to look like. Should we convert a van? Should we get an old box truck and finish out the back of it? Ultimately, there are several factors that led us to converting a cargo trailer into a tiny camper. The biggest ones:
- We already have two cars and didn’t want to pay insurance on a third.
- Hannah’s RAV4 can tow a trailer.*
- We can park the trailer at campsites and take just the RAV4, for example if we’re going into a city/town or driving on dirt roads to a trailhead.
- It was the cheapest option, by far. Our (brand new) 5’x10’ cargo trailer cost us $1,800.
So, let’s assume you’ve decided to convert a cargo trailer. What type should you buy? Here are a few points to consider…
Take a look at your vehicle’s rated towing capacity. Compare it to the dry weight (weight when completely empty) of the trailer you’re considering. You’ll want to find a trailer that weighs far less than the capacity of your vehicle, so you have adequate weight available for things like water, batteries, appliances, flooring, solar panels, etc.
It would help to do a rough calculation of how much “cargo” you’re going to have in your camper. For example, how much fresh water and wastewater do you want to accommodate? How many batteries do you want to have on board? By ensuring your trailer shell is as light as possible, you’ll have more allowance for accessories, storage, etc. The RAV4 has a two-ton towing capacity, yet the trailer we purchased had a dry weight of only 700 lbs. That gave us plenty of available weight for our build-out.
The amount of headroom you choose for your trailer will come with pros and cons. While we decided to go with a low-profile trailer that is great for fuel economy, we do have to deal with the fact that we can’t stand up inside the camper. Changing clothes, brushing teeth, and just generally moving around are all done in a sort of half-crouch position, but our cooktop and sink are near the door so we can use both while standing. For you taller folks, a trailer with more headroom may be preferred so you aren’t constantly banging your head as you come and go. However, be prepared to sacrifice fuel economy if that’s your choice.
Having the right type of entrance for your needs and design starts with selecting the right trailer. You’ll save a lot of time (and money) if you choose one that has the right door(s) already in place. Depending on your design, you may prefer one single back door, a two-door “hatch” in the back, or possibly a smaller entrance door on one of the sides. The smaller door may be in conjunction with a back door or could be all you need. Once again, it helps to have a design in mind before you commit to your trailer body. If you know you’re going to have a lot of your storage in the back of the unit, a side door could be a good option. If you know you’re going to want the side walls for storage or other purposes, you may decide the back door works just fine
This is something that we didn’t think of until we were finishing up our project, but the tongue (“V”-shaped section of the trailer frame that leads to the hitch point) can be a valuable part of the trailer itself. Some trailers are “V”-nosed, meaning the cargo section of the trailer is pointed at the end to enclose that space. Some are more curved, leaving the metal V section exposed. Our style was the latter, and we ended up mounting a cargo box on that section of the frame. It allowed us to store things that we wouldn’t want in the car (like our waste water hose and wheel chocks) and is also the location of our second battery. It’s definitely worth considering whether you’d want that storage or would prefer to have more space to design on the inside of your soon-to-be camper.
Windows & Vents
Some cargo trailers come with windows and/or vents. Others do not. It’s worth considering whether those features would fit in with your design. Pre-installed windows could save you time, but they might not be in the right places or in the style that you’re looking for. A pre-installed vent could really help with air flow, but if you are planning on putting a lot of solar panels on the roof, it might get in the way. Keep those things in mind as you’re shopping.
Chances are you’ll want to mount things underneath the trailer (fresh & wastewater tanks, plumbing, wiring, etc.). Make sure you find a trailer with adequate “stock” clearance to accommodate those modifications, or you may find yourself bottoming out as you drive on uneven roads or hit speed bumps.
Once you start cutting or drilling into your new “camper shell” you’ve reached the point of no return, so be sure to do good research on the unit you’re buying. This isn’t an exhaustive list of things to consider when you’re looking for a trailer to turn into a camper, but it’s a good start. If anything else stood out to you when you were doing your own shopping around, let us know in the comments!