Cost of Converting a Cargo Trailer


So, can you save a fortune by converting an enclosed cargo trailer into a travel trailer, rather than buying a travel trailer from the dealer? The answer may be 'yes' if you put minimal improvements into the cargo trailer, and use it merely as a hard-walled tent for camping a few weekends per year.

The answer is vaguer if you add enough to the cargo trailer to make it practical for most (non-extremist) full time RVers. 

If you browse around on the internet, you will encounter low-ball estimates for how much it costs to convert an enclosed cargo trailer into a full-functional, self-contained travel trailer. There are several reasons for this:
  1. Sloppy accounting. After all, it isn't fun to save all the receipts. The mind gloms onto a couple of the big-ticket items that are easy to remember; then it is easy to claim that that is the cost of converting a cargo trailer. Nonsense! In fact you are eaten alive by a thousand-and-one small expenses.
  2. Lifestyle cheerleading. With good intentions, converters want to offer encouragement to newbies or wannabees. They become more interested in selling the idea than in accuracy. Or they may be interested in clickbait income or even have guru aspirations. (Neither makes them evil, but it makes their information unreliable.)
Trailers made by the RV industry are really not very good camping machines. But they have attractive color schemes. After all, they are not aimed at serious outdoorsmen. This results in expensive frills and junk that a serious camper will probably have to alter or dispose of.  So it makes sense to start with a "blank piece of paper" and only put the stuff into it that you want. 

Otherwise the do-it-yourself approach wouldn't make much sense. You cannot compete against a factory, and only naive newbie do-it-yourselfers make that mistake. The "fortune" that they expect to save is illusory.

Still, it will save a few thousand dollars to convert a cargo trailer. It will be lighter, simpler, and easier to repair. You will be able to camp in a wider variety of locations -- and that is the real point. You will be able to tow it with a lighter duty pickup truck or van.  

A small window was added to the door and the driver's side, after this picture was taken. But what really counts is being able to camp in places like this.

There is a discussion forum dedicated to these conversions, 
http://tnttt.com/viewforum.php?f=42 . Be skeptical about their advice: I'm not sure if most of these guys really go camping with their conversions, or whether they just enjoy their labor of love. Despite wallowing in microscopic details, they seldom mention the 'bottom line' regarding the weight and cost of the conversion.

My cargo trailer is a standard size for a single traveler: nominally 6 foot X 12 foot, single axle, standard steel frame with an aluminum skin on the walls, with a blunt V in the front. It has proven to be the perfect size. 

(Cargo trailers are sized rationally, by the size of the box. Travel trailers are sized by the total length, even out to the hitch. So a 6 X 12 cargo trailer is the same size as a 6 X 16 travel trailer.)
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Weight: a naked cargo trailer of my size weighs 1400 pounds with brakes. When the conversion was done, it weighed 3000 pounds, which amazingly enough is the nominal GVWR. 

(Even more amazingly, the weights on the left and right tires were equal, to within 10 pounds!)

Well, what do you think? Is adding 1600 pounds [1] during the conversion good or bad? Note that the 3000 pounds was weighed on a scale, and it contains all my stuff for real living.

Footnote [1] may convince you that I am not cheating by ignoring something, and that the grand result is self-contained for hook-up free camping. 

Although I was surprised how much the little things added up to, in weight, I am happy to be able to downsize my next tow vehicle. Essentially it will be the same as for towing one of the larger fiberglass trailers, like the Casita.
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The inside standing height is 6.5 feet. It takes a bit of looking to find that extra height at a dealer's lot. The standard stripper height is 6.0 feet. That might be OK if you are under 5'9" tall.

Cost: The trailer was bought off a dealer's lot for $3000. It included an RV side door, a ramp in the back, and 15" tires. But a standard trailer off a lot has those dreadful 4 inch drop axles, and no brakes. Half the reason for doing the conversion is to escape the low ground clearance of lightweight travel trailers. So I swapped out to a straight axle, resulting in excellent ground clearance. 

The cargo trailer has this kind of ground clearance after the straight axle was installed. And the springs are UNDER the axle!  I could switch to a bigger diameter tire when the time comes. No drain plumbing dangling below the trailer. Success.


You can get brakes added after you buy the stripped down trailer from a dealer. You get this done at a trailer shop -- which usually is not an RV dealer.

So, after swapping to the straight axle and adding the brakes, the naked trailer was now up to $4000.

Now we can proceed to the cost of the conversion proper.

The final cost of the converted trailer was $11,500. Therefore the conversion proper cost $7,500. [2]  This is no clerical error. All receipts were saved. No costs were hidden by moving "off budget," which is the usual accounting trick. I double-checked the total from the receipts by looking at the total of the withdrawals from my bank account. 

I hope you aren't disappointed with that number. Remember that this was a conversion for a full-time RVer who wants the same level of comfort as in a conventional travel trailer. You could take the opposite approach, treat a naked cargo trailer as a hard-walled tent, and make piecemeal improvements as funds permit.
   
I hope these bottom line numbers correct some of the false expectations that are promulgated on the internet. This was a worthwhile project that I would do again. Remember that it only uses the skills that any home-improvement enthusiast has.
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[1]  A 5 gallon jug of drinking water, a 5 gallon porta-potty, food in a 12 volt compressor-based refrigerator, two burner propane stove, small sink, large and pretty laminated kitchen counter-top, clothes, tools, office chair, etc.

It only includes one small (5 gallon) tank of propane, four deep-cycle flooded 6 volt batteries, and 480 watts of solar panels.

The conversion did not add a water heater, awning, or microwave. The spare tire is put inside the tow vehicle. Most of the drinking water is in 5 gallon jugs in the tow vehicle.

[2]  But surely, you say, I must have been extravagant. I could supply character references if you like that less than $50 was spent on making things look pretty.

A)  But...but...you could have knocked the four batteries down to two, you say. 

Well yea, but then you just cycle the batteries deeper and they don't last as long. How does that save money?

B)  But...you could get by with 320 Watts of solar panels instead of splurging on 480 Watts.

Well yea, but by adding that last panel ($200), I was willing to do without a generator. These days, skimping on solar panels is false economy.

C)  But...you could get by with an ice chest. Or restrict your diet to brown rice and oatmeal.

Give me a break. Besides I carried over a used ($500) Whynter refrigerator from the old trailer. So the $11,500 total does not include a refrigerator. Is that cheating? I don't think so, because everybody probably has a certain amount of stuff from the basement, garage, or old trailer that they will move into the new trailer for "free". In my case, it was a $500 refrigerator, and that is all.

D)  But...you don't really need a water pump to survive. You could use baby wipes, and wipe a little here, and a little there. 

Big deal, a water pump costs $80, and is one of the real success stories of RV technology. It gets used 30 times per day, and will last for the next 20 years. It spares you all that spillage. And how do you take a shower, or clean anything for that matter, unless you rinse it off with pressure?

E)  But...you added two small windows and a Fantastic fan roof vent. Your trailer would be more stealthy if you had omitted those extravagances. 

This is not a stealth cargo trailer. You are at the wrong blog if you are interested in that.

F)  But...you shouldn't have wasted all that money on fancy woodworking, exotic paneling, imported Italian granite countertops. (eyes rolling) 

Once again, character references will be supplied on request...

G)  But...you included two months of rent in an RV park for the conversion. You could have done it at an LTVA or in a national forest and saved a fortune.  

Yea right, transportation is free. Do you have any idea of how many trips you take to the hardware store on a project like this? In my case, it was three shopping expeditions per day for 2 months.

I had great luck by finding an RV park in Farmington NM that let me boondock the old and new trailers, side by side, in the storage row in back of a regular RV park. He charged a total of $175 per month. I was a couple miles from Home Depot, Lowes, Walmart, Ace, a trailer store, and even a metals supplier.

So I had it as good as it could be. Still, all that running around was ridiculous. I included $500 in the total for transportation and eating-out during the conversion.

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COMMENTS:

  1. I don't think it would be possible to outfit a decent fulltime rig for less than you did it. You are a poster child for frugality. Hell, we carry 3,000 pounds of wine, water, guns, ammo, and food on our rig before you even get to all the other stuff. :~)
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  2. Good stuff. I'm in a truck camper now, but considering the van/cargo trailer route, so it's nice to have a data point cost-wise. On an unrelated note, based on extensive investigation of the clubs during my younger years, I'm pretty sure that there is not a "standard" stripper height. But if there is, it's less than the 6 feet you indicate above, unless you're also counting the high heels. ;)
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    1. Glad you liked it. I am still experimenting with footnotes, appendices, and smaller fonts to keep the overall theme intact for a first reading, with details off-loaded somewhere.

      I guess my reference to strippers was a Freudian slip, brought on by talking about "naked" trailers.
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    2. I have always liked pickup campers, except for the cost of the camper and, even worse, the heavy-duty pickup truck that it takes to hold 2500 pounds in the bed.

      The virtue of a cargo trailer is more comfort/cost, lower overall price, and you can use a common and "inexpensive" tow vehicle.
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  3. You mention the cargo trailer is a "blunt V" in the front. In the posted photo, I see a a totally flat, squared off front. Am I missing something in the orientation/perspective of the photo?
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    1. You're right, Chris. That camera angle plays a trick on the eyes. But the wedge extends forward 18". Gives you a bigger desk in the front of the trailer, and still leaves room for one 5 gallon propane tank on the tongue.
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  4. "Since the RV industry makes expensive junk"

    Make no mistake. Your utility trailer is junk as well. It's just bare bones, less expensive junk. :-)
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    1. I'll certainly admit that the RV-style, side door is junk. It doesn't even have an interior aluminum frame. It is held on by aluminum trim that is glued to the rest of the door. Ridiculous!
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  5. The idea of converting a cargo trailer into travel trailer is brilliant! My family and I love to go camping in the summer, and now that it's getting warm, this is something I will have to look into. What kind of trailer would you recommend for this project? We don't have a cargo trailer to convert, so any advice is welcome!

    Cargo Trailer
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  6. You don't provide enough details for me to really respond.

    Keep in mind that my conversion was aimed at full-time RVing for a single man. The details will change quite a bit for a family who wants to do weekend camping.

    You might enjoy reading the cargo trailer conversion sub-forum on tnttt.com . Most of the contributors are men with families who go weekend camping. Keep in mind that they usually overdo it on the conversion. Perhaps it is "man-cave" therapy for many of them.

    You can treat the cargo trailer like it is a hard-walled tent, move some camping gear into it that you already own, and resist making a small suburban house-on-wheels out of it.

    1. Your "cabinets" inside would just be Sterilite and Rubbermaid drawers and stackable tubs.

    2. "Furniture", "desks", and "kitchen counters" would just be Luann plywood thrown across the plastic tubs.

    3. "Chairs" would just be folding outdoor chairs that you probably already own.

    4. "Plumbing" could just be 5 gallon plastic water jugs,

    5. Pots and pans from a thrift store.

    Not comfie enough, yet? Too much like real camping? Then nibble away at improvements, one at a time. You will appreciate each of them. Maybe it is a good chance for the kids to learn how to work with tools.

    But it is hard to imagine that a family (you didn't say how big) could adapt to a trailer box smaller than 7' X 16'. It will have to be pulled by a pickup truck, not a minivan or hatchback CUV.
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  7. Excellent suggestions. The bit by bit would apply to me since my wife is strictly motel minded!
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  8. Ron, glad that my bottom line cost of a COMPLETE conversion didn't scare you away from taking a "nibble away at it" approach.
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  9. Great write up of your conversion. I also love your rational thinking process about costs, including travel time to the supply stores. I always mention roundtrip mileage when discussing distances, and people look at me with a puzzled look if they don't indeed challenge the figure. I look forward to reading your other posts and live the "free life" vicariously!
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  10. I there somewhere I can see the in side? I want to see what the 7k+ goes to lol
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4 comments:

  1. Thank you for sharing this very detailed, enlightening description. I'm very interested in doing something similar, have I overlooked it or did you somewhere include a link to photos of the INTERIOR (both during construction and completed)?

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  2. Thanks Phil. For ideas from other people, check out the cargo trailer sub-forum of tnttt.com.

    Or try the archives of my blog in May and June 2014.

    Or email me your email address and I will send you a couple photos of the inside layout.

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  3. Hi kaBLOOnie,
    Your are right on about all the small expenses that add up while your doing your build. In my case I use the word build loosely. It took me three years to decide where I wanted my bed, after trying different set ups, along one side, then along the other side, or across the back. I decided across the back worked for me the best and actually screwed brackets into the wall for a permanent bed. Ha.!!

    Trainman

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    1. Trainman, you were more flexible than me. My cargo trailer had the side-entry door in the same place as my first travel trailer, so I let that determine the floor plan.

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Comments are appreciated. Feel free to disagree as much as you want with any idea in the post or other comments, but resist the ad hominem approach. Please don't be discouraged if I don't respond to every one of them.