I’m getting started on our cargo trailer conversion. The trailer won’t be here for another six weeks, which makes this the perfect time to start the conversion. The factory is doing some of it, we’ll be doing most of it. Researching the components has been an eye-opening experience. It’s not only possible to improve upon what RV and camper manufacturers offer, it’s easy and can be had at a fraction of the cost of a new camper or RV.
All Aluminum Shell
As most of you know, I hate rubber or rubber-like fabric roofs on campers. I’m also not a fan of the laminates some campers use for side panels. Tops on my component list for the cargo trailer was an all aluminum exterior. Some cargo trailers, the cheap ones, have a galvanized steel roof. If you’re willing to spend a little more, there are many models that feature a one-piece aluminum roof. We’re getting a 20 foot V nose, all aluminum toy hauler with a 7 foot interior ceiling and two windows factory installed for right around $8,000. A similar length 2016 22 foot used Airstream is $40,000. How much interior customization do you think I could buy for $32,000? I won’t argue that the Airstream is nicer, only the value proposition.
There is a bit of difference in the weight of the aluminum. Most Airstream replacement panels are 0.040 and our cargo trailer skin is 0.030. The biggest difference will be the interior fit and finish. A lot of what you’re paying for in an Airstream is the quality construction. Ours won’t be as nice but, with a total price tag right around $10,000, I’m not going to complain if the cabinets aren’t as nice.
You can’t even get a decent used camper with a leaky rubber roof for $10,000. Our camper shell is being delivered without any roof vents. We’re installing the A/C and vents in a way that doesn’t require a giant, gaping, leaking hole in the roof. Instead of rubber, we’ll be under a solid piece of aluminum with no caulk to crack or seals to leak. The vents and exhaust fans will come out places they’re easier to work on and less likely to cause problems if they do leak.
Campers are way too complicated with way too much junk jammed into a small space. If you’re using your camper like a portable hotel room, connected to water, septic and electricity, then you don’t need 2/3s of the systems in most campers. Park model campers are built to be connected, but they’re too much like a house in that they’re heavy and hard to move. Automatic awnings, auto-levelers, slide outs, even top-mounted vent fans…all that junk is just more that can go wrong. Even something as simple as shades can be an endless source of aggravation. I hate RV shades, not as much as rubber roofs, but they’re something else to go wrong and another example of RV manufacturers not being able to think out of the box.
All The Features We Want
The minimums for my wife and include a shower, toilet and a bedroom with a door. That’s because we keep wildly different sleep schedules some days. Those considerations were the primary reason we went with a 20 foot V-nose toy hauler rather than a 12 or 14 foot, which are far more popular sizes for conversions. We needed space to turn the V nose into a bathroom and to put a wall between the bed and rest of the camper.
Initially I thought the bathroom was going to be an insanely difficult piece of the build but it turned out to be one of the easier challenges to figure out. We can pipe gray water directly to a septic outflow and we can start with a good quality chemical toilet that’s less than $200.
I can get a set of four leveling jacks for $90 that have a special connector for my power drill. I bet they last as long as the camper. A 12 gallon hot water heater is $300 and comes with a 6 year warranty and I don’t have to install a propane system. An RV refrigerator runs over $1,000 and burns propane when you’re not connected to electricity. We got our refrigerator/freezer on sale for $99 at Costco. All we need is a 12 volt cooler for when we’re on the road for $79. Or I could just freeze a couple big jugs of water for the trip and not worry about the refrigerator being disconnected while we travel. Instead of building a heavy wall for the bedroom, I found a heavy duty insulated blackout curtain for $50 on Amazon that will tuck out of the way when we need to load the scooter and kayak.
Another Costco find was a fabric sun canopy for $25. Hook it to the corners of the camper, a couple tent poles and we have a canopy that’s lighter, cheaper and simpler than even a manual roll-out canopy. When it finally wears out I’ll just toss it and get another one. I found flooring and lots of other goodies, all for a fraction of what I estimated for the cost.
If we do want to wilderness camp, then there are only a few modifications necessary to set it up for that. With a blue boy waste tank, a freshwater tank with a pump in the bed of the truck and a generator we could wilderness camp nearly indefinitely with only occasional trips back to town for water, food, gas and emptying the waste tank.
DIYers Got It Right
I was skeptical when I started this quest. The assumption was that DIYers were either sacrificing creature comforts or engineering clunky solutions. None of that is true. We’re getting a stronger, lighter and better-built camper than anything on the market for a fraction of the price. The components I’m getting are better than the ones RV and camper manufacturers use and come with individual warranties. There’s less to go wrong, so I won’t be running back to the dealership for service every week and the roof will never leak. The seams along the side may leak, some day, but there won’t be water coming through a hole in the roof.