How many times have you seen a travel trailer zooming by on the interstate and thought, “Boy, I wish I could travel in one of those?” It may not be as unreachable a dream as you think. Even though most of the ‘silver palaces’ of the 1940s–1960s are gone, and modern RVs are prohibitively expensive, there is another option.
Cargo trailers, like the Endura Cargo Trailer by Hillsboro Industries, can be easily converted and customized into a comfortable tiny home on wheels.
Advantages of Cargo Trailer Conversion
- Fully-customizable – Classic travel trailers were designed to serve a different lifestyle, and may not be suitable for modern living. Many feel like dark, claustrophobic spaces. Cargo trailers are an empty, open space, just waiting to be built to your specific needs. Straight-hitch trailers can run from fourteen to twenty-eight feet in length. Fifth-wheel models vary between fourteen and thirty-four feet. Cargo trailers come in a variety of widths and heights, unlike pre-built travel trailers, and include many options for the numbers and types of doors and windows.
- Less expensive – Starting costs for a customized cargo trailer are considerably less than an RV.
- New – With a brand-new cargo trailer, there are no concerns over the condition of the frame, exterior, or electrical systems. When you buy a used travel trailer, you’re never sure of the condition it’s in.
- Lighter – Aluminum, double-wall construction is light, stronger and more durable than steel. You can control how much weight you want to add to your mobile home-away-from-home.
- Unobtrusive – Many people prefer using a cargo trailer because it attracts less attention. Traditional RVs may be subject to restrictions on where they can be parked, but those restrictions do not apply to cargo trailers.
Things to Consider First
The first decision that must be made is, how will the trailer be used? Do you want to live in it full-time year round, or only as an alternative to a tent when camping in the great outdoors? How much do you want to spend? How much time and effort do you want to invest in the project? What climate zones do you plan to visit in your customized RV? What functional areas are most important to have in your trailer? What conveniences do you require?
Most cargo trailers include a standard side door and double rear doors. However, if you want the option of an outdoor room, or you want to use your RV as a toy hauler, consider buying a trailer with a rear ramp door. If you arrange supports to lower your ramp door so that it is level with the floor of the trailer, you can create an instant outdoor deck. Some people prefer to live in a trailer with no windows, or small windows set high up along the walls. This design is optimal if being unobtrusive is an important feature. In this case, you might want to consider installing small skylights.
Insulation Is Key to Comfort
One-inch aluminum studs are readily available and would support both rigid and soft foam insulation in walls and ceiling. However, insulation in the floor will be the most important factor in keeping the heat in during the winter, and out during the summer, especially if you plan on living in the RV full-time. Installing studs and internal walls are also necessary if you wish to install plumbing, additional electrical features (like outlets and specific lighting), and propane lines for furnaces and ovens.
Many Design Options Available for Wall Panels and Flooring
Many people choose aluminum panels or 3/8” wood panels for walls, but pre-fabricated wall panels are available in hardboard, MDF, fiberglass and vinyl with almost any decorating style including brick, tile, bead board, wood planks, and 3-D textures. Subfloor panels should be at least 3/4” thick, or the floor will feel spongy when you walk on it. Once that is installed, almost any type of flooring would work well, including vinyl flooring, wood parquet tiles, or small ceramic tiles. Another quick, easy and attractive option is to paint the subfloor with a few coats of marine varnish and leave it bare.
If you plan on living in your camper full-time, you will probably want both a furnace and an air-conditioner. Choose appliances that are designed for use in an RV. Used appliances can often be found in good condition if you are on a budget. Plumbing will be crucial if the trailer is your main residence. Most campgrounds offer public showers, so you may not require one of those in your trailer, but at least one sink and a toilet are important. PVC works great in RVs, and supplies can be found at almost any hardware store.
The principles of gravity are simple and almost anyone can install their own plumbing lines. Tanks for fresh, gray and black water add weight and take up space. If you design the drainage lines at the correct angle of descent, you can avoid installing tanks altogether. Most campgrounds provide sewer and water hook-ups. Since you’ll never know the quality of the water before you arrive at a campsite, installing a small water filter is a good idea. Also, look for a water heater that is designed for RV use. If you do want a shower, you might want to search for a used one from an old RV. Installing gas lines to the propane tanks is a job best left to professionals, though, so keep that in mind.
Most campgrounds provide 120V and 240V electrical hook-ups, so once you’ve installed basic electrical wiring and outlets, you can fill your customized cargo trailer with whatever standard appliances you prefer. Small or medium-sized refrigerators, microwave and convection/toaster ovens make the most sense. Propane RV oven-stoves are also popular.
If you don’t plan on berthing your new converted RV in a campground, there are a number of options like solar panels, chemical toilets, tent showers and other features you could install to save money and energy.
Once the basics are installed in your converted trailer, the real fun begins. Many people install customized shelving and platform or bunk beds. One unique idea is to use a pop-up trundle bed in conjunction with a daybed. During the day the daybed acts as a sofa. At night it converts into a king-sized bed. Not many RVs, even the really expensive ones, can support any bed larger than a queen-sized mattress. Multipurpose and convertible furniture ideas will also help make your new residence more livable.
With the emergence of the tiny home movement and a robust RV industry, once you’ve decided to embark on the cargo trailer conversion adventure, there really are no limits as to the RV you can create. Visit a trailer dealer to see what brand-new, customizable cargo trailers are available and begin the journey.
Dixie Somers is a freelance writer and blogger for business, home, and family niches. Dixie lives in Phoenix, Arizona, and is the proud mother of three beautiful girls and wife to a wonderful husband.