5 Steps to Cargo Trailer Conversion For Off-Season Fun
Skiing Expert Justin Y. walks through the 5 steps of turning a cargo trailer into a tiny house for camping trips this summer—without breaking the bank!
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If you’re familiar with the outdoor world at all, you’re probably aware of the Van-Life craze that has captivated many of us who love spending time in nature. There doesn’t seem to be an aspect of outdoor life that has gone untouched by Van Lifers. You will find them in National Parks, National Forests, and in just about every ski town this winter.
The price point required to enter the Van-Life world was too much for our family. Even though we did not have the financial resources we needed, we still wanted to find something we could use as a camper. That’s when we stumbled upon the idea of converting a cargo trailer. It was significantly cheaper than any other option out there and it gave us everything we were looking for when traveling - the van lifestyle without the van. So, we started the process and took on the project of cargo trailer camper conversion, on a budget.
Here are the five steps for cargo trailer conversion, along with a few helpful tips on how to make it happen.
Some quick notes:
- YouTube is your best friend. Use the expertise of those who were kind enough to film the process! Search it, watch someone do it, and then watch someone else do it. Hint: use DIY in your search. If you're motivated and have the equipment, you may consider creating a YouTube channel of your own, too, so others can watch your journey.
- Don’t let your lack of craftsmanship skills hold you back; I didn’t know what a jigsaw was when I started.
Now, onto the five (kind of) simple DIY steps to converting a cargo trailer into the camper of your budget-friendly dreams. 1. Locate 2. Insulate 3. Ventilate 4. Fabricate 5. Decorate and Illuminate
Step 1: Locate a cargo trailer
Your first task may be the most difficult. Buying used will save you money but requires some research and time. Use Facebook Marketplace or any buy-and-sell web platform common in your area. If you do enough hunting, you can find a solid enclosed cargo trailer for a decent price. Here are some things to consider while shopping.
How long is the trailer?
Twelve feet in length should be the minimum you consider! It can be done with shorter trailers, but you’ll appreciate the space. Plus, trailers between 14 and 20ft in length are actually easier to back up than 12ft or shorter trailers.
How tall is the trailer?
Make sure to find a trailer that everyone in your group can comfortably stand up in. You don’t want to have to duck under the trailer frame when inside
Get a tandem axle trailer.
These will be a little more expensive, but they are considerably more stable and have better suspension than single axles. Something to add to your keywords when searching for these might be "toy hauler" which is what people call their trailers used to two their motorsports toys such as ATVs and snowmobiles - these enclosed trailers are often tandem axles.
How wide is the trailer?
Seven feet is a common interior trailer width and that makes for a solid trailer footprint.
How are the amenities?
There aren’t many amenities on a cargo trailer, but here are a few upgrades you want to make sure exist: A roof vent or fan of some kind. Wood interior walls. A lockable side and rear entrance and exit. Some of the larger ones have both a normal door and a ramp door which can be used as a way to open up your camper for maximum views and air in the warmer months. Bonus if it already has windows and a spare tire so you aren't totally starting from scratch.
Safety features and requirements
If you are buying used, hook the trailer up and check all the brake lights, turn signals, and running lights.
Most importantly, MAKE SURE THE TRAILER DOES NOT LEAK. Take it from someone who learned this the hard way. A leaky trailer will triple the amount of work required. Don't skirt this process and make a decision based on the look of the trailer — check for mold, damp spots, or obvious holes. Get on a ladder and inspect the roof before you buy. A leak won’t ruin your trailer, but you don’t want to spend your time fixing leaks and patching holes.
Step 2: Insulate your trailer
Now that you have your own cargo trailer (soon-to-be cargo camper!), you are ready to start your conversion project. You will want a level of insulation because, unlike campers, most cargo trailers have zero insulation installed.
Where to insulate?
We elected to insulate only the ceiling and walls of our cargo trailer because we plan to use the trailer in temperatures above 20 degrees Fahrenheit. There were a few reasons for this, one being that insulating the floor would have been more expensive and time-consuming. The walls and ceilings only required the easy removal of plywood pieces that could be reinstalled after insulating.
Panel insulation is the easiest and most efficient way to insulate your trailer. You can match the thickness from the outside wall to the inside of the plywood panel and then cut long sheets to match the height, width, and depth (usually one-half inch or three-quarters of an inch). This is especially useful with the ceiling because, if cut in the correct dimensions, you can wedge the insulation between the trailer frame and it will hold while you attach the ceiling paneling.
What about the cracks?
Use bottle-spray insulation for the hard-to-reach spots and any gaps or holes you find in the floor (this will be especially useful if you buy a used trailer).
Don’t panic or fret over small gaps in insulation. There will be some tiny areas that don’t get insulated and that’s okay. Not every square inch has to be insulated for the trailer to retain heat inside. Do the best you can and move on to the next phase.
NOTE: It is after insulation that most builds to talk about the wiring of lights, electronics, and a full bathroom with a toilet and a shower. This is a perfectly normal step in the trailer-building process, but this is also when things get REALLY expensive. This is because you have to consider electrical supply sources (like solar panel kits or rechargeable batteries) and any other electronics you want to have installed. If you do want a way to charge small electronics but don't want to go through fully wiring the camper with things that require electricity and adding outlets, an intermediate option is to purchase a lithium or deep cycle battery and inverter so that you don't have to bring power bricks with you on longer trips. You can choose to wire the battery into the trailer harness to charge while you are driving, or just charge it when you are home from your trips.
This is also when you would consider indoor “plumbing” for your trailer for water or a bathroom system to make it self-contained. Our goal was a cost-effective trailer conversion, so we decided against any electrical system or plumbing of any type. And honestly, if you want all those gadgets and full amenities (totally fine if you do), I’d suggest just buying one of the many RV trailers available.
Step 3: Ventilate your trailer
You will need to create airflow in your camper trailer. After a few nights in it, you’ll be thankful your enclosed trailer has a way to circulate air.
As noted before, only buy a trailer that already has a roof vent or fan. This is vital in creating airflow. You can install one yourself if you're feeling up to the task of cutting a hole in your roof - it's definitely doable, but much easier to get one that comes in stock.
You will need to install windows. Measure the distance between your vertical frame supports and order an RV sliding window that fits within this distance (you can purchase these on Amazon). You don’t want to take the time or energy to cut and support any of the framings just for a window. This was by far the hardest part of the building process for us. The installation was working, but somehow we did not get one of the windows installed properly and it leaked. Take your time and do this one right.
There are times when you will want both the side and rear doors open to allow the trailer to air out or cool down. You need to accomplish this without letting in flies, mosquitos, bees, or whatever airborne creatures are swarming around your camp spot. There are bug nets in various sizes that will fit almost any trailer door opening. We used a door bug net for the side door and a small garage door net for the back door/ramp. Get the nets that attach via Velcro, and you can outline the edge of your interior doors with the Velcro — this allows the nets to be easily attached and removed. These types of nets also come with a zipper down the middle for easy entry and exit.
Step 4: Fabricate your trailer
This is the step you’ve probably spent the most time considering - the layout. Where will everyone sleep? Do we have enough room? Do we have a kitchen sink? Countertops? We were very much considering cost, so there is no sink (cost comes from a water pump setup) or cookstove inside our trailer. We were able to meet those needs the same way that we did when we camped in a tent. We cook on a camping stove with a propane tank outside the camper and use plastic basins for washing dishes.
Measure, consider, plan, measure again, plan again, and measure again.
As stated, this is the step you’ve considered the most. Measure and design your floor plan on grid paper or a computer program, then measure again. It doesn’t have to be exact, but it needs to be pretty close. You’ll need space for beds and counters, and don’t forget about storage or space to move (more on this below).
Walls / Ceilings
We attached beadboard to the plywood walls of the trailer. This is not required, but the white beadboard lightens the trailer up significantly and gives it a cozy feel, some people will do a shiplap wall, too, to make it feel homier. You can use beadboard on the ceiling or hang some thin panel board. Whichever you decide is fine, just make sure the product is lightweight, as that will ease the obstacle of attaching the ceiling to the frame.
This will take up the vast majority of your space, which is why we recommend a longer cargo trailer. We built all of our beds out of wood and made sure that all the beds were removable. This is where YouTube can be really beneficial because you will find tons of options for different types of beds there with the exact design specifications and steps you need. Choose the bed you feel is best for you and gives you plenty of room. I recommend building beds with plenty of storage space underneath as well (use bungee cords to secure boxes or items in storage during travel). The more room you have, the better. Build your beds outside of the trailer, then attach them inside when they are completed. This will allow you the most flexibility to make changes in the future. If you go with a very small trailer and still need some living space, you can play around with more of a murphy bed-style fold-down option. If you don't need multiple beds, a small bench to use as a dinette with storage underneath is a good, space-efficient option, too.
As you consider storage underneath your beds or benches, make a list of exactly what you need to store so that you can thoughtfully plan where things will need to go. Your kitchen needs included pots and pans, your stove, plates, etc. might fit in a milk crate which is an easy thing to store underneath something else. If you have bigger items like bedding, clothing, or gear, you may want to think of other storage ideas like specifically sized storage tubs, then ensure that your bed is tall enough to accommodate them underneath. There are lots of creative ways you can store your belongings on the road with enough planning.
Countertops, sinks, stoves
We chose not to add a sink or stove and that was solely because of the cost. These aren’t bad additions, and there are plenty of YouTube videos about the installation of stoves and/or sinks, but our goal was to be cost-efficient. If you choose this route, the framing for sinks, stoves, and countertops should be made out of wood and should be removable, just like the beds. Drawers are also great in a travel trailer because they keep items from shifting too much while traveling. Depending on your plans you may want to consider space specially sized for a small refrigerator or cooler, water tank or fresh water jugs, or maybe even a portable cassette or composting toilet.
Depending on how your space is laid out you may consider some cabinets or shelves. If you do plan to add either, be mindful that the cabinets will need a way to stay secured so that they don't open and have items slide out during travel. Similarly, for shelves, they'll need to have a large lip or be built more like a flower box to ensure that contents stay put. Spice racks are a great option not only for spices but also for other small essentials that can keep them in place.
Don’t forget to leave room for people to move around! It’s easy to take up all your floor space with beds and other amenities, but none of it will be effective if you can’t move between places. You will not have the luxury of a hallway or “open space,” but factor in an area to maneuver.
Start with the item that has the least amount of flexibility. If you must have a bed that is 6 x 8 feet, then start with the bed, build it to your specifications, and install it. If you must have a countertop with a sink that is 3 x 3 feet, start there. Start with the item that cannot be modified so as you build and install, you have flexibility with your other pieces that you can afford to make changes to. Do not build all the beds and sinks and then install them because you will not give yourself enough wiggle room. This is when you make your decisions about what’s most valuable to you. For us, it was a sleeping space, so we built and installed the bed first.
There are so many videos and online descriptions out there about how to build various kinds of beds and countertops. Find a build design you like and go for it. Keep in mind that the longer the video is, the more detail you will find on the building process. Check your local supply shop for pricing discounts on lumber for fabrication.
Step 5: Decorate and illuminate your trailer
This is where you get to have some fun in the building process. And the best part is that, like the rest of this build, we can do it for a price point that works.
Light it up
As we discussed previously, we avoided the cost and work of wiring and expensive batteries. Instead, we went with some battery-operated LED lights. We also added battery-powered string LED lights (a kid’s favorite because some modes flash and change colors). These two options provide more than enough lighting for our converted trailer. Depending on the length, you may need to add a few more puck lights, but this is a much easier and more cost-effective way to illuminate the trailer.
Flooring can be expensive one of the more expensive DIY projects to do, but we found a few ways to cut some costs. First, we only put flooring down in areas that were visible. We did not create an entire floor in the trailer, we just floored areas that were not covered by beds or other large items. We sacrificed some consistency, but we compromised there to stay under budget. Second, we used the cheapest peel-and-stick flooring we could find. When you cut the flooring to fit, keep in mind that it is “sticking” to a surface that will change temperatures drastically. This may cause the adhesive to lose its effectiveness. We’ve yet to have flooring pieces come unattached, but they do slide a bit. Just be prepared for a little movement if you go the same route. You could also easily install vinyl plank flooring if you have the budget for it.
Hang some items on the walls to make it feel like home or create a sense of adventure. If you plan on doing some long-distance travel, a “places visited” poster or framed work is always a favorite. Pinterest is a great place to find camper decoration inspiration. Just make sure that any décor you add to the trailer is attached in multiple places. That trailer will shake and bounce like crazy when you travel — you don’t want to lose anything off the walls when this happens.
While it took some time and effort, we were successful in turning a cargo trailer into a camper and we actually had a lot of fun doing it. The best part is, we did it on a budget. If you're looking for a way to break into the camper world, having your own camping trailer is a great place to start and can be perfect for both getting off-grid or posting up at a campground or small RV park.
Got any questions on how to make it happen or what other types of gear you might need for your outings? Hit up one of our Experts on Curated and we can offer personalized advice tailored to your needs and adventures!