I totally understand the appeal of having a full sized toyhauler camper. I mean, they're SO versatile. They're a camper, but they also allow you to take your toys with you, whether your toys are motorcycles, ATVs, or even just a golf cart.
However, there are some down sides to toyhaulers as well. I know firsthand, as I have had a couple. First, they tend to be pretty expensive. If it's something you use every weekend, that may be fine, but for those of us who may only go a couple times a year, it can be hard to justify the cost. It's difficult to find them used, and even when you do, they tend to be more expensive than a comparable camper-only.
They also tend to be large and heavy. After all, you are pulling both a garage AND a camper around with you. Large and heavy means also having a heavy duty towing vehicle, which again adds more cost and equates to really bad fuel mileage.
So I got to thinking, why couldn't I build my own MINI toyhauler? Why couldn't I take cargo trailer and build EXACTLY what I want? And so I did. What you see here is the result. It's a 7x14 v-nosed cargo trailer that serves multi-purposes. Most of the time it serves as a hanger for my powered parachute (flying contraption). It also has room to haul two large motorcycles wherever we want to take them. It also serves well as a cargo trailer, able to help out with moving furniture, college dorm "stuff", or picking up bags of mulch from the local home center. And finally, it's a VERY capable camper with a large bed, kitchen area, sink, portable toilet, TV, and even a portable air conditioner.
We've had it about two years now and will never go back to a full sized toyhauler. We can tow it with a 6-cylinder Toyota 4Runner, park it in two standard facing parking spots, and use it for many different tasks. Take your time, study the pictures, and start dreaming on YOUR own DIY Mini Toyhauler!
Step 1: Determine Your Criteria...
Before you start actually building anything, your first step should be to do a lot of thinking first. Here are some things you need to consider:
Size: What size trailer am I wanting to build? Cargo trailers typically come in widths of 5, 6, 7, and 8 feet, and range in length from 8 feet to 30+ feet, normally in 2-foot increments. A bigger trailer obviously gives you more space, but it also is longer and heavier to tow, and usually costs more. They also come in rounded or V-nose configurations, and also in single or double axle configurations. Don't forget to take height into account as well. If you are 6'3" tall (as I am), then you probably don't want a trailer with a 6' ceiling. Keep in mind how you will be using the trailer, how much stuff you plan to cram into it, how much weight you are able to tow, and how much money you want to spend.
Of course, if you already have a trailer and want to use it to save money, then the biggest decision has already been made for you. In that case, all that's left to do is figure out how to accomplish all your goals for the project using the trailer you already have.
In my case, I decided I wanted to start with a 7x14 V-nosed trailer for the following reasons:
- It would be large enough to hold 2 motorcycles or my powered parachute.
- The 7 foot width would allow me to situate the bed so I could sleep with my body across the width of the trailer.
- I needed 7 feet of internal height both for the powered parachute and also for my own taller-than-average frame.
- The V-nosed frame would accommodate the kitchen area pretty well without cutting into my 14' length.
- A rear-ramp door was a must for easy loading.
- I also wanted a side door for easy access.
New or Used? If money is a big factor, buying a used trailer is certainly an option. A quick check of Craigslist will normally yield several enclosed trailers for sale, normally at about half the cost of a new one. The hard part may be finding EXACTLY what you want in terms of size, features, etc. If money is less of an issue, an online search will reveal lots of sources for new trailers, and prices vary widely. In my case, I opted to buy a new 7x14 v-nosed trailer and have it configured with some specific things I wanted, including extra height, a side door, and two factory-installed slider windows. I could have found something less expensive used, but because of some of the items on my "must have" list, the odds of finding exactly what I wanted used were slim, so I decided to bite the bullet.
Amenities: Once you've determined the basic size, the next thing is to think about what it has to have in it and how "fancy" you want it to be. Some people go VERY basic and use portable cots or an air mattress, while others build beds that come down from the ceiling. How much kitchen do you want to have? Do you want running water? How about a bathroom? A shower? Do you plan to cook, and if so, with what? Do you plan to have electrical outlets installed, or do you plan to run everything off a 12-volt system? Do you plan to have air conditioning, and if so, what kind? Keep in mind that amenities normally involve tradeoffs. While having a bathroom, for example, is nice, it also takes up valuable space in the camper, requires extra cost and hassle to install holding tanks, and complicates the winterizing process.
In my case, I decided that I wanted the camper to be as nice and as comfortable as I could make it, but to avoid the installation of water pipes, holding tanks, and LP gas lines. I determined that most places I would camp would have 110-volt power available, so my appliances (microwave, induction burner, small heater, and dorm-sized refrigerator) would all be strictly 110-volt powered. And for overnight camping with no power, I would add LED battery powered lights (the kind with individual AA or AAA batteries in each light).
For sleeping, I would build a bed that would fold up against the walls and also serve as a sofa. This would allow me to configure the space for daytime or nighttime use. Also, a pedestal mounted table could be stored against the wall when not needed.
Since I already had a portable freestanding air conditioner, I determined to find a way to use it. That way I could take it along in hotter weather, and leave it behind in the garage if the weather was going to be cooler.
Step 2: Plan It Out...
Once you've got your size determined and a list of amenities that you'd like to include, the next step is to plan it all out in more detail. This is where you figure out not only WHAT you want, but also HOW you are going to do it in great detail. Here are some things you want to add detail to:
Walls, floors, and ceiling: Do I want to cover the ceiling, and if so, with what? Remember that the sun will be beating down on the roof of your trailer in the summer and heating it up, so adding some insulation there could go a long way toward helping to keep it cool. Alternately, just painting what's there or leaving it is much easier, and costs nothing.
If your trailer comes with plywood covered walls, my recommendation would be to just paint them and be done with it. I see lots of these articles where the owner tears off the wood to add a layer of foam insulation. If I was living it it, I'd say great idea, but this is a camper. Popup campers and tents don't have insulated sides and do just fine. To me it seems like unneeded cost and effort for very little payback.
For flooring there are several choices. Wood laminate flooring wears very well, looks great, and can be very inexpensive in the quantities needed for a trailer this size. For my trailer, I was able to find a piece of vinyl on Craigslist that someone was trying to sell, so I was able to buy it cheaply and use it. Again, it comes down to personal taste, budget, and availability. Many of my own choices for my camper came down to what I was able to find on Craigslist.
Finalize your layout: Get graph paper out and figure out where everything will go (or IF it will go). This is where you determine exactly where the bed will go, where your cabinets will go, and how to make it all "work". This is perhaps the most difficult part of the project, and one of the most important. The decisions you make here will have tremendous impact on how usable your trailer is.
Build your "procurement list": Once you have figured out what you want to build and how you plan to do it, the next step is to start building a list of all the things you will need to acquire. If you don't have your trailer, of course that is the biggest thing on the list. Aside from that, here are some other things to think about:
- Flooring and ceiling materials.
- Electrical components: wiring, outlet boxes, junction boxes, fixtures, breaker box or RV power center
- Cabinets (both lower and upper, if needed)
- Furniture components (bed, sofa, table, etc). Could be pre-made or the supplies to construct them.
- Water-related components: Sink, pump, holding tanks, fresh water tank, toilet, etc.
- Counter tops (usually works best to cut these from plywood and laminate them with Formica.
- Other finishing items: Window coverings, decorations, lighting, mirrors, etc.
Step 3: Acquire the Stuff You'll Need...
Now that you've got your procurement list, the fun part begins. It's time to start hunting for bargains!
To save money, I scoured Craigslist for many of the things I needed. For example, most of my cabinets came from a dismantled chiropractor's office. I paid $125 for several upper cabinets, figured out what I needed, and then sold the ones I couldn't use. Also, think creatively. By using all UPPER cabinets (even on the floor) I was able to save a lot of floor space because upper cabinets are only about 12" deep, whereas traditional base cabinets would have protruded out about 30" from the wall. Sometimes I changed my design because of something I happened onto. For example, I had planned to install laminate flooring, but then I happened onto a vinyl remnant exactly the size I needed, and it was only $20.
Another great source are RV surplus companies who buy and resell RV-related items that were not used by the manufacturers. These companies either operate from their own retail websites or have online stores on ebay. I was able to get several great deals from RV surplus outlets including a small stainless sink ($20), a pedestal table, plastic edging for my counter tops, and an RV power center (breaker box).
Lastly, some items came from places like the local Home Depot or local discount stores. My ceiling is covered with plastic 4x8 panels I purchased from Home Depot, and the window blinds were from Walmart.
Also don't forget that you have to store all the stuff you buy, so take that into account. The nice thing is that since you are building an enclosed trailer, it makes a great place to store its own supplies! It makes working on it a little more difficult since you have to move stuff out to work on it, but it helps keep your garage uncluttered. Also keep in mind that you don't have to buy everything up front. You can put off some items until close to the time you need them, which means you don't have to store them or work around them.
Step 5: Prep the Shell...
Assuming you are starting with an empty trailer, the next step is to execute whatever plans you have for the walls, floor, and ceiling.
My suggestion is to start with the ceiling and work your way down, doing the floor last. Why? Because any drips or messes you make on the floor (from doing the ceiling and walls) will be covered by whatever you place on the floor!
In my case, I opted to insulate the ceiling and then install 4x8 plastic panels over the foam insulation. I taped the 1" foam insulation in place to hold it while I installed 1x2 stringers running perpendicular to the steel cross members of the trailer. The cross members held the insulation in place and also gave me a good surface to screw my plastic panels to. Another choice I considered (and sometime wish I'd have used) is the 12" fiber tiles. This would have involved running the stringers at 12" on center and stapling the tiles to the stringers. I opted for the plastic primarily because it would remain nice if the roof ever leaked.
Another option would be to leave the ceiling as is or just paint it. Again, it depends on how nice you've decided you want your camper to be. If you are going for something that could pass as "store bought" then you probably want to finish the ceiling. However, if you are only concerned with functionality, then leaving it as is or painting it is certainly simpler than finishing it.
With regard to the walls, as we've already discussed in the planning steps, you can simply paint them (easy) or insulate and finish with something nicer.Keep in mind that much of your wall space will be covered with cabinets and other items so people won't be staring at big blank wall in any case.
And finally, finish your flooring. It's MUCH easier to put the flooring down before you start setting cabinets in place. Yes, you will use more flooring this way, but the ease of installation outweighs the cost of the material sitting under your cabinets.
Once you have finished this step, you will have your walls, floor, and ceiling the way you want them and you will be ready to start making it look like a camper!
Step 6: Add Infrastructure Items...
This is the step where you add any other "infrastructure" items that need to be done before you start bringing a lot of "stuff" into the trailer and screwing it down. What do I mean by infrastructure? Things like fresh water lines and tanks, waste water lines and tanks, electrical wiring, gas lines, and things like that.
Water: The water system, if you even decide to have one, has two components. First, you have to supply fresh water and, second, you have to have a way to dispose of waste water. There are multiple options for fresh water.
Water Option 1: Install a fresh water holding tank and a pump that pulls the water from the tank up to the sink. The pump can be manual (popular on many lower end popup campers) or electric (normally powered by 12 volts). To go this route, you will need to install a fresh water tank somewhere in or under the trailer, and then run a line to the pump and then out to the fixture(s) from there. Also, you may decide you want to add a water heater into the mix, which will require the associated plumbing, electrical, and maybe even a gas line (unless you opt for an electric water heater).
Water Option 2: Install a pressurized system that relies on the pressure of an incoming garden hose. Most campers allow you to hook a hose directly to the side of the camper and bypass the onboard water tank. You could simply install a water inlet to the side of your trailer and then run the lines directly to your fixture(s). This simplifies the setup by eliminating the need for a fresh water tank and a pump, but does require that you have an outside source for water that will deliver it through a pressurized hose to your camper.
Water Option 3 is my favorite (and what I opted for). I installed a clear 2 gallon drink jug with a spigot directly above my sink. When we want to wash our hands or get water, we simply open the spigot and release the amount of water we need. When it gets close to empty we refill it, and since it's clear, you never get surprised by running out. I chose this option because (a) it was the simplest one I could think of, (b) it's extremely low cost, (c) you winterize the camper by dumping the water out of the water jug, and (d) it works really, really well. We don't tend to use a lot of water when we camp, and most sites have a water spigot we can use if we need to wash a large pan or something like that.
Waste water: There are two kinds of RV waste water. So called grey water is what comes from sinks and the shower. It's certainly not fresh water, but not as dirty as what goes down the toilet. The water from the toilet is called "black water" (for obvious reasons). If you are going to install a toilet, then you will need a black water holding tank. A simpler option is to use a flushing portable toilet, which essentially has its own fresh and black water tanks built in. I suggest this option, as it will save you a lot of money and hassles, and is much easier to install, maintain, and winterize. I found a portable toilet that is awesome. It's made by Thetford and is called the "Curve". It has a fresh water tank, a black water tank, a built in electric pump for flushing, and even a built in toilet paper holder. It's also about the height and size of a standard toilet, which makes if much more comfortable to use that many smaller portable toilets. A gauge on it tells you when each of the tanks needs attention, and you can generally use it for several days between "dumpings".
For grey water, you can either install a holding tank or run a drain hose out onto the ground. If you are going to have a fresh water tank or use a pressurized hose to deliver a lot of water into your camper, you will need to include a holding tank for the grey water into your design. Since I have only one small sink in my camper (and only have a 2 gallon water jug to feed water to it), I chose to just install a drain hose which empties under the front of the camper onto the ground. Some campgrounds have regulations against this, so you can always place a plastic tub or bucket under the hose to catch the grey water if needed. I chose this method again because it's the simplest solution and it works.
Electrical: You may need to run electrical wires through walls or under the floor before you put cabinets and other furniture in. Plan your electrical system carefully to avoid problems. Most campgrounds have 30 and 50 amp electrical service. You probably want to purchase a 30 amp RV cord to feed into your main electrical box, and then route a handful of circuits off from there. I found an RV breaker panel on ebay and installed a 30 amp main breaker in it. From there I set up three separate electrical circuits, each with a 15 amp breaker. I ran one of the circuits to where I knew my air conditioner would plug in, a second one to the microwave, and the third one to the outlets where I would power my induction stove burner. This way I avoid overloading any of the three circuits with two "big" power hogs, and as long as I don't pull more than 30 amps total, I am not in danger of tripping the main breaker. If you don't understand how electrical circuits work or how to plan them, this would be a good area to get help from a knowledgeable expert. This is also a good place to remind you to be SURE to install a smoke detector in your camper and to include a fire extinguisher in your design!
Step 7: Start Adding Your Big Items In...
Now you are ready to start roughing in the big stuff. Big stuff includes things like your cabinets, appliances, beds, etc. No matter how much time you've spent with graph paper, things are always a little different when you start positioning them in the actual trailer.
As you can see from the photos above, I still had some "trial and error" on how I wanted to position things. You can see that I originally had all cabinets across the front of the trailer, but decided to rearrange things and put the refrigerator "front and center". This is also a good place to remind you that this trailer will be traveling over some bumps, so things need to be well secured. For example, once I had the refrigerator positioned where I wanted it, I put some heavy anchors in the floor on either side and secured it in place with a heavy ratchet strap over the top of it.
You have a lot of options with beds. Some options include:
- Commercially available beds or jackknife sofas from RV surplus or supply stores (or even Craigslist, from time to time).
- Foldable cots or even inflatable beds. Not quite as "finished" as other options but they are inexpensive, easy, and can be left out of the picture when you need all your storage room.
- Custom building what you need. This is the option I chose, as I needed something that would fit VERY flat against the walls (to make room for my powered parachute) and I wanted it to fit perfectly across the back. I fabricated frames from thin-walled steel tubing with folding legs and hinged them to the walls. I can fold one side down and use it with the tri-fold cushion (ebay) as a sofa, and then fold the other side down (and unfold the cushion) for nighttime use as a bed.
Step 8: Tie It All Together...
Once you've got the big items in and situated you can start filling in some of the details around them. Things like the counter top, spacers between the cabinets, a shelf for the microwave, lighting, etc. I've found it is these touches that make it look more finished and "homey" as opposed to "just a trailer".
Step 9: Add the Finishing Touches...
Once the construction is done, you can add one more layer of "gingerbread" to complete the transformation from trailer to camper. Some of the touches you can see in the pictures above include things like:
- Accent rugs on the floor
- Pillows on the sofa
- A nice curtain (2 shower curtains, actually) on the back wall to hide the ugly ramp door
- Mirrors and other wall accents
- Window coverings
- Rear screen door
When we get to the campground with our motorcycles in the trailer, it looks very much like a cargo trailer when we open that rear door and roll the bikes out. However, within about five minutes we sweep it out, fold down the sofa side of the bed, lay out the rugs and sofa pillows, and pull the rear curtain over the door (or just close the rear screen if the weather is nice), and insert the table into the floor sleeve The transformation is complete and amazing, and we generally look at each other and comment what a really nice camper it becomes.
Step 10: Enjoy the Fruits of Your Labor...
How much do we enjoy this trailer? Just this past week we had a need to pick up several appliances for someone who was moving. I hitched this little toy hauler onto my 4Runner and was able to easily pick up a washer, refrigerator, dishwasher, range, and microwave and deliver them. That's what sets this apart from any other trailer I have ever owned. It's very versatile and functions as several different trailers (and does it very well).
I realize this article is not exactly a step-by-step guide to building a specific trailer, but is rather a guide for helping you organize your thoughts so that you can build YOUR trailer. Feel free to ask questions, and I can post more pictures if there are things of particular interest.