Hazard Fraught Travel Trailer

on Chris Martin's Blog

trailer

I built a travel/camping/cargo trailer sized for a subcompact car. It took about a month of evenings and weekends. Go here for a photo album! Or, read on for background, photo tour, and FAQ.

On Sleeping While Traveling

About seven years ago, I moved out of a dysfunctional apartment to try "living outside". Having read some Thoreau, I dreamed of camping in a tent under the stars on state forest land, but it was April in Upstate NY, and everything outside was frozen or wet. For most of that experiment, I slept in the back of my Subaru wagon (in a coffin-sized area next to my stuff) and showered at a gym near work. Eventually there were stretches of camping-friendly weather, but then I was breaking camp every morning, not wanting to leave anything for critters and thieves when I drove into town for work. After two months, I moved back indoors with newfound empathy for the 'working homeless'.

camping in smowy woods

Some years prior to that (between my first two years of undergrad), I started to build an enclosed camping trailer, intended to be towed via bicycle. I had dreams of touring the country with it, but the idea was poorly executed. I built a base frame, four feet wide by seven feet long, which weighed about 50 pounds. That was already too heavy for bicycle trips, so I scrapped the effort.

bicycle trailer frame

With these lessons in mind, here is my solution for the sleeping-while-traveling problem.

typing in trailer early dawn

As I type this, it's 5:44 AM, 59 degrees and raining outside. I'm in bed, blanketed and comfy inside the trailer, but with room to stretch out. It's parked in a steep, narrow creek valley with zero cell service, miles from pavement in the Northern reaches of bumfuck Appalachia. When I want to get moving it'll take about 5 minutes, with nothing to pack up or clean. This arrangement works similarly well in town -- you can park on the street, pull down the shades, and hang out inside without drawing unfriendly attention.

Getting ready for an overnight trip is simplified because the trailer replaces tent, sleeping pad, bag, and other miscellany. Just throw some food and clothes in there, and connect it to the car.

trailer interior to rear

FAQ

What did it cost to build?

All expenses included, about $3500. The biggest component of this was the offgrid solar electrical system (about $600), but the grand total also includes about $210 of tools purchased for the project and $270 of towing-related car modifications. If you exclude these and some other ancillary things, the cost of the completed trailer drops to about $2300.

The base trailer (frame, wheels, hitch, etc) is only about $300 at Harbor Freight. Building on that foundation, you could do cheaper than I did (with reclaimed materials and borrowed power tools) or more expensive (with hardwoods and more electrical doodads).

Where did you learn to do all of this?

TnTTT, YouTube University, and the Squaredrop Campers Facebook group (https://www.facebook.com/SquaredropCamperGroup/). This was by far my most ambitious DIY project, previously only completed little things like this.

Finally, the SV Seeker YouTube channel lit a fire under me. Doug will show you that amateurs can build ambitious things from scratch.

Does it fit two people? How roomy inside?

Yes. The width is between a twin and a full mattress. Fits me and my partner comfortably, though we aren't big people. Inside, you can stretch out, change clothes, and so forth -- but not stand up, obviously. Think of it as an upgrade from a tent, not a downgrade from a house, and you won't be disappointed.

I should mention that I found a wider mattress for two, and a narrower mattress for one, which leaves extra room inside for cargo (i.e. bikes!).

What does it weigh?

820 pounds (372 kg) empty, about 50 pounds on the tongue.

Why not a teardrop trailer?

The classic teardrop design trades significant interior space for an exterior kitchen and improved aerodynamics.

A "rear hatch kitchen" is really nice in natural settings but less useful in urban places where you'd be cooking in the street.

How does it tow with a Yaris?

Mostly fine. The car doesn't want to go fast up steep grades. Downshift and let people pass. Otherwise, It's just driving a car. The roads are full of more severely-disadvantaged vehicles (e.g. semi trucks) and they still do OK, too. The brakes still feel sharp enough and I haven't felt the need for trailer brakes, though I descend hills like a trucker (by downshifting and leaving lots of following distance). Air helper springs in the rear made the overall ride significantly better; they avoid bottoming out the suspension on bumps with the added weight of the trailer tongue.

Parking with a trailer can be annoying, but this one is light enough to be unhitched and pushed around by hand. This makes it easier to parallel park and back into a campsite.

That means I can pull one of these with my little car?

Probably, but for everyone's safety, you must learn to do it safely. Towing has some non-intuitive failure modes -- particularly sway -- which is dangerous but preventable with good weight distribution. A vehicle with a trailer requires more braking distance, and it is less stable/forgiving during emergency maneuvers. You cannot expect your car to handle like a go-kart when someone pulls out in front of you, or when you look up at the road after being distracted by your phone. The heavier your trailer is relative to your vehicle, the more important this becomes.

I suggest reading up on these until you can explain them to someone else:

  1. How to safely distribute weight in a trailer
  2. How to properly connect a trailer to a vehicle
  3. How towing affects vehicle dynamics

Fuel economy?

27-30+ MPG (US) depending on conditions. (Sans trailer, the Yaris gets 35-40+ MPG). I avoid exceeding about 60 MPH towing and that certainly helps.

Where do you pee?

In an empty orange juice bottle.

Does it get hot in there on a sunny day?

Livability in warm, sunny climates drove several design decisions: white aluminum exterior, foam board insulation in the ceiling, and tinted windows.

As a result, it doesn't get hot like a car does! If you leave the solar-powered roof vent on, the interior stays within a degree or two of the ambient outdoor temp.

What would you do differently next time?

Maybe outfit a cargo van (e.g. Sprinter or Ford Transit) instead. A van would be roomier inside and more maneuverable, but right now I can disconnect the trailer and still have an unladen small car. Cargo vans also carry the 'creepy guy in a van' stigma, whereas people think that little trailers are cute.


If you haven't yet, go check out the photos!


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