Introduction: Home-built Teardrop Camper
Greetings, Fellow Members of the Society of Garage Engineers!
I'm "DJ" Davis of San Antonio, TX. A couple of years back I contracted the insanity that I could build a camping trailer. I spent a year reading build logs, looking at pics on the internet, as well as reviewing as many YouTube videos and Instructables I could find on the subject. I started the build in late 2018 and declared the camper "operational" in August of 2019. The pictures above are the line drawing (adjusted during construction, of course) of the concept, a cardboard scale model, and the paint scheme concept for the exterior.
After a lot of research, I opted to build a "Foamie" hybrid covered with "poor man's fiberglass," or "PMF." I call it a hybrid because I used more wood for bracing than with most foamies. I tend to over-engineer projects, so I used wood where I thought it needed to be. Be that good or bad is yet to be seen. At least I have the peace of mind knowing something is braced well.
HF 4' x 8' trailer
2" and 1" extruded polystyrene (XPS) foam in 4' x 8' sheets
Hot-knife for cutting the foam
Titebond II and Gorilla glue
10 Ga canvas
LED lighting and 14 ga wire
120V to 12V inverter
4" deep stainless steel half-pan for sink
RO spigot for water dispensing
85# lift struts
Draw latches for hatch and tongue box
New-style hurricane hinge with rain channel
Estimated total cost of materials was ~ $3500.00
Step 1: Trailer and Deck Base
The HF trailer was decked with 2" x 4"s and 1/2" exterior grade plywood. Like many, I went 6" over on each side to gain a 5' x 8' deck on which to build. The underside of the deck was painted with roofing tar. A four inch strip was left at the bottom side edges to allow a place for the PMF on the sides to be glued to. Wiring for the taillights was run before the top decking was nailed down.
Step 2: Side Layout
A lot of new house construction had been going on in my neighborhood, so I had access to a lot of scrap lumber and other building materials for this project. The first pic above is a piece of electrical service drop wire that I used for a bendable French curve. That was used to transfer my scale dimensions to the materials for the build. I cut down pieces of scrap lumber into 1 1/2" x 2" widths for my bracing. Building a door frame in the "middle" of the side wall allowed me a taller profile. A lot of folks will notch their sidewalls for the cross-bracing, cover the outside with 1/8" Luane, then fill in with foam from the inside. I did the opposite - I applied the Luane directly to the sidewall edges, braced by gluing the bracing to the Luane, then filling in with foam before the PMF outer shell. With the door frame and no notching, I added about six inches to the center height. The camper doesn't seem as claustrophobic inside, but I almost made the camper too tall to get out of the garage after completion (a Leroy Jethro Gibbs moment, if you will). Pic 2 is the test fit of parts before affixing them to the deck. Pic 3 is the door frame installed with its top panel glued in. Pic 4, the front and rear side sections and pic 5, the use of bamboo skewers to hold parts in place as the glue dried.
Step 3: Galley Partition
Pic 1 - a combination of 1/2" plywood and 1" XPS to make the galley partition and counter. Pic 2 is with the wiring run, galley cabinets cut out, and a test fit of the cooler/stove placement. It was at this point I realized I was 2" too low with the counter and 2" too shallow for the front to back depth of the storage area under the counter. I had to adjust the plans for the stove placement and decided to build a cooler (Pic 5) with the leftover 1" foam to fit under the stove shelf. This galley design is modified from LWms' concept; you can watch her video here:
Pic 3 is the view of the galley cabinets from inside the sleeping area. Pic 4 is the formica on the galley counter and the 1" blocks I glued into the 1" XPS cabinet wall edges to have something solid for the door hinge hardware.
Step 4: Construction of the Camper Front
My goal was a true teardrop profile, but I wanted storage space in what (IMHO) would've been wasted open-curved space in the sleeping area in the front. Pic 1 shows what I called the "tic-tac-toe" bracing made from 1" XPS. The window opening is 24" wide x 11" tall. Pic 2 is the view from inside before I cut out openings for the storage areas. Pic 3 is the cutouts - top center is 24" wide x 12" tall, the cutouts each side of the window are 12" wide by 11" tall. Wood blocks were also inserted/glued to the cabinet openings for hinge hardware attachment points as in the galley. All surfaces, inside and out, were covered with PMF. In the top left and right of the front wall are two oval-shaped areas that were left open. I refer to those as "grabs," a place to put gloves, a scarf, etc, and easily accessed from reaching in through the door. The exposed (not covered with PMF) side wall edges and the tic-tac-toe frame were covered by 1/8" Luane plywood to complete the inside of the front. I ran braces from side to side for structural integrity and to provide bracing for the window. Using a hotknife mounted to my tablesaw deck, I kerfed 1" XPS sections about 1/2" deep and 1-1/2" apart, then used the pieces to fill in between the bracing in two separate layers glued with Gorilla glue. Pic 4 is the front before the foam sections were glued down and pic 5 is the window installed and midway in the process of putting expanding foam or spakling compound in all the gaps. Cargo straps and 2 x 4s were used to keep the foam in place on the curved surfaces as the glue dried.
Step 5: Shelving at Rear and Front Storage
Pic 1 - rear shelves with bamboo accent rails.
Pic 2 - front cabinets after painting
Pic 3 - cabinet doors and bamboo accent rail installed
Pic 4 - a louvered blind set I made for the front window
Step 6: PMF, Tongue Box, and Painting
A foamie gets its structural integrity from the foam and bracing covered with canvas glued to the foam in overlapping sections then painted with exterior grade paint (PMF). I went with porch paint for its durability. The entire body is covered with PMF, inside and out. I left approximately 4" of exposed wood under the bottom edge of the deck to which I glued the canvas. After painting the entire exterior, to include the glued underside edge, I painted the rest of the underside of the deck with roofing tar to the edge where the bottom meets the side. Any holes on the outside of the trailer drilled for wiring or screws/fasteners were filled with sealant or roofing tar. To the best of my knowledge this thing is watertight.
Pic 1 is the completion of the main body of the camper and all holes/uneven areas filled with expanding foam and sanded smooth
Pic 2 is the first side covered with PMF
Pic 3 - tongue box and PMF completed on main body
Pic 4 - painting completed; three coats of porch paint sanded between coats to smooth things out a bit
Step 7: Equipment
Multiple build logs mentioned that they regret not buying doors for their camper. One log stated that by the time you purchase hinges, windows, latch hardware, and drip trim, for a few dollars more you could have a complete door. My takeaway was from the ones that complained of their homemade doors warping. I went with a company called Challenger Doors. They'll make your doors to your specs. Since I'm getting somewhat "chronologically enhanced," I wanted to be able to swing my legs into the camper easily. My doors are 40" tall x 36" wide. In other words, I "put a small camper on my doors." That was my main expense (~$750) on this build and I'd make them the same size again. It's a breeze getting in and out of the camper, plus loading/off-loading gear is very easy, too.
Pics 1 and 2 are the doors installed
For ventilation, I opted for the MaxxFan system. I like the dual support arms that raise/lower the cover and the cover is actually a screened cowl that will protect the opening from everything but a wind-driven rain directly from the rear. Like most fans it's reversible with multiple speeds. You can also run it with the cover completely down like a ceiling fan to circulate the air in the camper.
Pics 3 and 4 are the fan down and raised
Pic 5 is my icemaker filter between the exterior hose connection and the spigot on the counter. Next to it is the inverter system. Yes, I know...water and electricity should NOT be installed in such close proximity, but I made a shield around the filter and pex tubing from a 5-gal plastic bucket and the filter itself sits in a plastic container to catch drips. The inverter mounting frame also has a plastic cover on the side of the filter and on top. Hopefully that will block water from any pex tubing leaks from spraying on the inverter.
Pic 6 is the newer style hurricane hinge with rain channel
I purchased two 1000 lb scissor jacks for leveling/stabilizing the camper. I found a third one at a yard sale that I use under the tongue. The three jacks keep the trailer steady as a rock.
Step 8: Hatch Construction
The hatch framing was made by gluing hardwood plywood together then cutting out ribs with a bandsaw. Cross braces were either solid Poplar boards or hardwood plywood strips glued together to make composite beams. As with the front of the camper, 1/8" Luane was glued/nailed to the interior and exterior sides of the hatch. The interior of the hatch was filled with foams scraps cut to fit the spacing between the bracing (sorry...I forgot to get a pic of that step). Grooves were cut in the foam to run the wiring for the rear lights, pieces of angle iron were positioned where the lights would be mounted, and the exterior side covered with 1/8" Luane and PMF last. Vertical hatch weight force came out to 60 lbs and with an on-line calculator I determined the lift strut placement and length/strength of strut required.
Step 9: Galley Layout
Pic 1 is with all the doors closed. Pic 2 is the kitchen "deployed." Pic 3 I added some hanging hardware for frequently used galley items. Cabinet doors inside the main body and the upper galley are 3/4" x 1 1/2" frames with a groove cut in the back edge. Pieces of scrap Luane were glued into the grooves to make a door panel. Bamboo place-mats were cut to fit and glued in the recesses of the front of the door panels. The lower cabinet doors are made of 3/4" hardwood plywood with 1/4" x 1-1/2" poplar laths glued just in from the edges of the panels to make a frame on the surface to accommodate cut to fit pieces of bamboo place-mats to follow the design of the upper doors. A shelf is on the right bottom cabinet door to support the stove. It's held in place by a cargo strap during travel. Pics 4, 5, and 6 are my concept for supporting the 1-lb propane bottles for short trips. I have the 6' hose and a 10-lb propane bottle for longer excursions. I made a hinged flap over the paper towel holder (found at a yard sale) to keep the wind from spooling off yards of towels on a breezy day. The holder also has a drawer under the towel holder; that became the silverware drawer. I incorporated the drawer/holder into the galley wall, covered it in the appropriate places with Luane scraps, and painted the Luane. If you watched LWms' video, my sink set up is identical to hers except for the spigot.
Step 10: Artwork
The six pics above are the various stages of painting the "theme" of the trailer. It's a nod to the movie "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." Hence the name in the last two pics - "Crouching Teardrop, Hidden Camper."
Step 11: Daybed/mattress Set-up
For the mattress, I purchased three pieces of medium density foam, two at 33" x 55" and one at 14" x 55". Pic 1 shows the three pieces set up in the daybed/couch configuration. At bedtime, the small piece goes at the foot/back of the sleeping area (pic 3) and the second big piece (pic 2) slides into the middle position to complete the sleeping surface. An unzipped sleeping bag goes on top of the "mattress" and either a light blanket or a second sleeping bag is used for cover. For extra padding and insulation, I added 1/2" foam, interlocking squares of gym matting on the floor.
Step 12: Spare Tire Storage
I didn't want to put a mounting rack for the spare tire on the tongue, so I modified the concept of a product I saw advertised for big-rig RVs. That system suspends the tire from side to side. I came up with a simple rack made from bent sections of 3/4" electrical conduit with flattened ends that would mount between trailer frame braces from front to back. The bends cradle the tire so there's no need for a threaded lug mount to hold it in place on the rack. Four 2" pieces of 1-1/2" angle iron were bolted in the pre-drilled holes of the frame. The flattened ends were bolted with 5/8" bolts, flat washers, and locknuts to the angle iron in the "rear" to act as the pivot point. The "front" flattened ends hold the tire up with a pin and a cotter-key on the right side and a lock on the left side for security. The small tire doesn't weigh much and it's easy to lift into place to secure with the pin and lock.
Pic 1 - the cradle - 24" long x 12" wide
Pic 2 - the cradle mounted
Pic 3 - the tire on the cradle (valve stem up)
Pic 4 - the cradle raised and locked into place
Pic 5 - a view from behind to show clearance of the cradle
Yes, I'll have to watch for steep driveways to keep the cradle from dragging, but I think that won't be an issue too much. To protect the tire in the cradle, I wrapped it in an industrial strength trash bag and duck tape. I figure that's an inexpensive way to protect the spare that can be replaced for about a dollar, if that.
Step 13: Side Tent
As you'll find out, having a teardrop means less space to move around in to get dressed. *****This is not a product endorsement*****, but I purchased the Ozark Trail two-room instant shower tent. Pics 1 and 2 (sorry about the glare) - after staking it down, I run a piece of rope from one support pole around the roof vent to the opposite tent support pole. Sections of pool noodle protect the side of the trailer from abrasion by the tent poles. There's still a gap at the top of the tent where it meets the trailer's roof line, but a small tarp can cover that and take care of a light rain. For the cost, well worth it to have a place for the wife's lugable loo. The wife gave it her "squeal of approval" for not having to make a late-night walk to the restroom when needed.
How well does it work in windy weather? Monday at noon on the 2019 Veterans Day holiday outing, a cold front blew through...violently...and the side tent got a serious wind test. As positioned, the 35 mph wind shook it a bit, but no damage was incurred. At the end of the trip the tent was (carefully) struck in the wind, folded up, and simply placed in the back of the car for the trip home. A quick set-up and sweep out in the garage later confirmed it survived. It was then refolded properly and placed back in the carrier bag for the next outing.
All-in-all, I'm pleased with the choice of side tent. My only wish was that it had a second door to facilitate entry/exit from the camper through the tent. If you don't mind popping into the shower tent to get dressed ,then going through the camper to the "open" side to get out, it's OK. I usually just grab my change of clothes, trudge over to the restroom, and get changed/dressed there. I'm currently trying to design a simple side tent for "my" side made from tent material and replacement fiberglass tent poles that will affix to the side of the camper via Velcro tabs. Yep...you're never "finished" with a teardrop build....
Step 14: Maiden Voyage/shake-down Cruise
Maiden voyage/shake down was just about perfect, except for that cold front that blew through on the second day....
The trailer tows like it isn't there. I did notice a bit of wagging around 64 mph, but I finally noted that occurred when someone was passing us. On a straight run with no vehicles around, the trailer towed straight as an arrow. Weight distribution came out with a 65 lb tongue weight. Gas mileage was another story. Even with the rounded front, the fuel economy dropped about 20%.
Every part and feature built into the trailer has performed as envisioned. The next additions/upgrades - one of those rechargeable power stations and a 100W solar panel for off-grid camping.
I hope you enjoyed reading my tale of insanity. Please don't hesitate to ask for clarification if I wasn't clear enough on a construction point.
We look forward to our next trip and I hope we see y'all out there in one of future adventures.