Creating a Tiny Camper: Have a Plan!

Taking on a DIY camper construction project isn’t a small commitment. You’re going to have significant skin in the game (and by skin I mean money) so preparation is essential.

It’s important to know what you want this thing to look like and how you want it to function (or at least have an initial plan drawn up) before you start.

Assuming you’re starting with a stock cargo trailer (read more in selecting a trailer body), here are some things to consider when you’re in the planning stage:

Plumbing Infrastructure

Our waste tanks. They’re low to the ground because we’re parked (when attached to a vehicle they have much better clearance).

Plumbing is not the sexiest topic, but if you want running water in your camper, it’s going to be the foundation for the rest of your work. In order to have a camper that’s plumbed and fairly compatible with RV fresh water and dump stations (more on this later), you will need:

  1. A fresh water tank (we mounted ours underneath the trailer) that has a line running to your water pump, as well as lines for filling and venting (these can be combined if you’re OK with the filling process being a little slow). The water pump will send water to the various locations you’ll be using it, like your sink, shower, and toilet.
  2. Waste water tank(s). Depending on whether you are planning on having a toilet, you’ll need one or two of these. When people refer to a grey water tank, they’re talking about the one that holds your sink and shower waste. A black water tank is specifically for your toilet. You’ll need a hole drilled in these tanks for the PVC drain pipes coming in from various locations. You’ll also need a hole to run another PVC pipe to vent each tank, which will run up to your roof (more on this in another post). The ends of the tanks should be easy to access so you can quickly empty the contents when you’re at a dump station.
Our freshwater tank installed under the camper, with a line of PEX tubing leading to the water pump and a secondary tank. Yes, you can use zip ties for parts of this project!

The need for these to be strategically placed (and balanced across your trailer body for good weight distribution) will ultimately help you determine the layout for your camper, and vice-versa. For example, if you know you want to put a toilet in a specific corner of the trailer, that’s where your black water tank should be located. That may lead you to place your grey water tank next to it, place your fresh water tank closer to the axle, etc…

Electrical Infrastructure

If you want your tiny camper to be powered, you’re going to need to do some upfront planning on the how of power distribution — especially if you are designing it to operate off-grid with batteries and even solar capabilities.

Wiring from solar panels and an LTE antenna lead into our camper through the roof.

The questions you need to answer as you’re laying out your camper are…

  • How many batteries are you going to have, and where will they be located? We started with one battery but found that two was more practical. Look for my upcoming article on power calculation (another sexy topic) to determine how much energy you’re going to use each day.
  • What will your power system look like for campsite (AC) charging and/or solar charging? Where will that hub be located? In our case, we used the Goal Zero Yeti 1250 as our central power hub, but you can create your own power system for less money, which I will outline in a later post. We put the Goal Zero inside our camper, over the axle, as it’s a fairly heavy piece of equipment.
  • What will your wiring infrastructure look like? Keep in mind that you’ll need to run wiring from your solar panels (if applicable) to your power system. You’ll also need to run wiring or cables from your power station to any/all of these applicable elements:
    • Water pump
    • Lights
    • Fridge/freezer
    • Batteries (if housed outside your trailer)
    • Electrical hookup for incoming campsite power/charging
    • Anything else you want powered constantly — if your power system doesn’t have USB connectors, you may want to add some for on-the-go charging of your phones, tablets, etc.

As you start to diagram the electrical infrastructure, compare it to your plumbing design to be sure they don’t conflict with each other. Keep a “master plan” that shows how it all comes together.

A Couple Odds and Ends

These don’t necessarily fit into either of the above categories, but are worth considering.

These flanges (usually for RV waste tanks) make it easy to hook up our heat/AC unit.
  • Do you plan on adding heating and/or AC? Where will the power come from (strictly on-grid or sometimes off-grid)? We are currently (2017) using a ClimateRight 2500 and are thrilled with its performance so far.
  • Will you want storage for “dirty” things like your wheel chocks and waste hose? If so, a tongue-mounted storage box might be a good solution, and you might want to avoid using the tongue of your trailer for things like tanks or heat/AC units. Learn about the trailer tongue and various designs in Selecting a Trailer Body.
  • You’ll likely want a spare tire. Where do you want to put it? On our first trip, we stored it in the back of our RAV4. We now (2017) have it mounted to the roof.

    We mounted our spare tire on the roof, so we don’t have to keep it in the trunk of the RAV4.

Practical Living Space

How do you want your interior to function? Do you want to be able to use the sink or other appliances from outside of the camper, when you have the door open? What sleeping configuration do you prefer? How many cabinets will you need? Where will the windows go, and how big do you want them to be? If you’re going to put in a sink, shower, and/or toilet, you’ll need to make sure those are in a place that work well for you aesthetically, but also work with your plumbing layout. Also consider lighting, both in terms of quantity and where you’re going to put them.

Creating a layout that you’re happy with can be a fairly time-consuming project. Use pencil.

These are some of the more personal touches that you’ll need to decide on when you’re creating your plan. Ensure that your decisions play nicely with the technical needs of your camper (plumbing, electrical, and other essential components) so you have a good balance of form and function.

Are you overwhelmed yet?

Don’t be. You don’t need to be a plumber or interior designer to create a tiny camper. Just do an honest assessment of your needs, put pen (or maybe pencil) to paper, and create your new home on wheels! The items above are based on our experience and trial-and-error, and hopefully they’ll give you a good starting point as you are drawing up a plan. Don’t worry, we cover each of these topics (and more) in much greater depth in subsequent articles. Your journey is just beginning!

Have questions? Ideas? We’d love to hear from you.

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