The ECOA/NHT Camping Trailer Enters Phase 2

When I set out to build my own off-road camping trailer I set two goals. First, I wanted it to be light so I set the goal of being under 2,000 pounds.  Second, I wanted it to be inexpensive so I set the goal of being under $2,000.  While I never weighed the trailer (probably should have) I’m pretty sure given how easily I can roll it around myself it’s under that 2,000# mark.  As for the budget, for the 2016 season the total investment was just around $1,200.  Still had some room to spare but honestly I was fine with a “rolling bed in a box” and thanks to Jim the guiding mantra was “it’s replacing a tent” which kept things in check cost wise.

An off-road camping trailer isn’t for everyone.
However, I knew I wanted one and am happy to say I’ve built this one myself.

For 2017 the trailer is entering Phase 2.  Just like with the Jeep it’s going to slowly evolve over time.  Phase 1 was all about being on a lean strict budget.  Even thought I could have nickel-and-dimed my way to the exact $2,000 mark I didn’t have to.  However, the time has come to make some upgrades.  Let’s see what’s in store for Phase 2 of the trailer…

12v Fridge Freezer

By now you’ve probably noticed the 47L ARB 12v fridge/freezer hanging out in the trailer.  It was a door prize I won at the 2016 Mid-Atlantic Overland Festival.  To be honest, if I hadn’t won it I probably would still be rocking the cooler life.  However, even a blind squirrel finds a nut from time to time and I won it.  I don’t count it as part of Phase 1 mainly because I didn’t win it till the end of the season.  I also didn’t take it with me when I went to North Carolina for the Appalachian Rendezvous or Overland Expo East.  The only 2016 trip I did take it on was the Rock the Clock weekend at Rausch Creek with Disconnected Off-road.

Nothing wrong with a cooler.
They work.
Not even a fancy name brand one either.
Hashtag “game changer”

As I said, right now a fridge freezer is well out of my budget.  That said, I really really really like having it.  I’d be lying if I said otherwise.  Winning one was a real game changer.  That said, it has opened up a world of new headaches such as powering it with the trailer battery and keeping the battery trailer charged.  I have yet to take a trip with the fridge and have it work 100% of the time.  Even my most recent trip to VA it only worked for one day.  I think it’s mainly the battery being toast and/or a bad ground.  Just one more thing to address before I leave which brings me to the next thing.

Solar Power

After getting publicly chastised by one of my idols (Andrew St. Pierre White) at Overland Expo West in 2016 by bringing up the subject of generators I seriously reconsidered my stance on solar power.  Being on the east coast means trees.  Lots and lots of trees.  Solar sometimes just isn’t practical.  However, I noticed that almost every time I’d need solar I was in wide-open sun at an event like MOAF, Expo, or one of the Jeep shows.  Those are the only times I’m parked for multiple days and the trailer is disconnected from the Jeep (which means the battery won’t trickle-charge as I drive). Seeing more base-camping in my future I decided solar was the way to go.  Haven’t ruled out a generator just-in-case (sorry Andrew) or at least the ability to tap into shore power when at a state park or something.

Solar power for days!

Enter Overland Solar.  One of the new corporate partners for 2017 is Overland Solar.  After more than a few conversations with them we decided for my needs one of their 150 watt tri-folds would be the way to go.  Now, let me be straight up with you – you don’t need 150 watts.  The average overland adventurer really only needs about 90 watts to top off their battery.  One of the reasons I’ve opted for the 150w system is because when I’m in show mode running a booth I’ll need a little extra juice to power my displays and stuff for photos.  So I guess that cat is out of the bag too.  Look forward to seeing me at shows in a more official – and visible – capacity.  More on that later.

In time I’ll be doing a full profile and write-up about the Overland Solar 150w system.  In the meantime you’ll just have to deal with the tease and look forward to some social media photos on Instagram and Facebook.  Till then, there’s someone else I need to welcome onboard.

New Awning and Room Kit

My poor-man’s-budget-cheap-DIY awning was only ever planned to be temporary.  I wanted to make it part of the base build of the trailer to show people you can in fact build your own awning for a hell of a lot cheaper than buying one.  The awning only cost me $48 (or so) and the bulk of that was the two machine bearings (probably way overkill) that it spins on (although they make it really nice to roll/unroll).  What I really wanted – and knew I’d someday have – is a professionally made awning and one that converts into a room.  Enter Bomber Products.

Here you can see the old setup.
An ez-up along with the DIY canvas awning.

Another shot of the ez-up with it’s wall kit and the DIY awning work together.
Like most things with the trailer, basic but functional.

I have friends.  Hard to believe but I do.  I have some pretty cool friends.  Some are way cooler than I am.  One of those way cooler friends is Josh.  He has his own company called Bomber Products.  You might remember that name from Overland Expo East 2015.  I did a little feature on his Awn-Lock brackets.  They are hella-sweet and do a great job of allowing you to mount an awning to either round  (<cough> Yakima) or rectangular (<cough> Thule) roof rack bars.  It’s a novel product that is made in the USA and machined out of aluminum.  Which of course I appreciate since my brother is a machinist.  Makes it easy to spot a quality product.

Checking out the Bomber Products Awn-Lock at Overland Expo East 2015.

The new upgrade for the trailer is a 2.5m square awning with a “deluxe” room kit that is both a solid-wall room and a screen-wall room in one.  This will make it easier for me to be nice and let people come along with me (<cough> Alex) and not make them camp in a tent.  This way they can sleep a little more comfortable on a cot and have a little more room to spare and not have to worry about pitching a tent and tearing it down (cause would want to do that for a month long adventure … <flashback to 2015 NHT> … <shudders>).  Plus while in base camp mode the walled in room will double as shelter from the elements – and most importantly the sun (ginger problems).  Stay tuned for a more detailed install writeup on the awning and the room kit.

New Bed Frame

To be honest this was the main thing I wanted to talk about, but the other stuff just kind of fell into place as a more comprehensive Phase 2 write-up for the trailer.  Oh well.  Anyway, when the trailer was first constructed I was so overwhelmed with possible configurations that I was stuck in “analysis paralysis.” That means you never make any progress because you’re constantly planning, refining, and planning some more without ever actually doing anything.  It’s all abstract.  Once Jim reminded me the trailer was “replacing a tent” and it was going to be nothing more than a “rolling bed in a box” we decided to just build the most basic bed frame we could.  So a few 2×4’s some nails, a few screws, some hinges, and some plywood later (all scrap wood by the way) the mattress was on a frame and there was storage underneath it.  BAM!

The original bed frame was basic and crude, but it worked.

Sadly the BAM! moment was short lived and the jubilation of finally having my own camping trailer was soon replaced with total frustration.  While the under-bed storage was nice it was really inconvenient to access.  The hinged method of lifting up the mattress was totally impractical in such confined quarters.  As such I often (always) resorted to just piling crap on top of the chair.  This of course negated the ability to use the chair.

About the only way to get it to open and stay open is without the mattress.

To be honest, I was pretty sure something like this was going to happen.  That’s why I’m fine with an organic build process that slowly evolves over time.  By starting off with a rough crude bed frame I was able to jump into the trailer right away without shelling out a lot of money or wasting a lot of time trying to build the perfect interior.  Which is a good thing because I’m pretty sure I couldn’t imagine how I’d actually use the trailer.  Now, after just over a year of use, I can look back and reflect on some concrete experiences and come up with a new plan.

I spent a lot of time in CAD trying to come up with something that would work.
I think this really helped me visualize what I wanted. There are a few areas of waster space, but I have plans for those down the road.

First to go was the hinges.  I knew no practical storage in the trailer would be accessed in such a manner.  It would have to be cubby-holes.  That way I could stuff something like my duffel-bag or spare bedded into a cubby but easily retrieve it later.

Blank slate.
So much room for activities!

The second thing to go was the chair.  While a nice idea I never used it.  Okay, I used it once for like a half hour while in Utah along the Colorado River.  Beyond that all it ever did was collect CRAP.  When I did sit in a chair I did so under the awning or I just sat on the tailgate of the trailer.  If I needed to rest in the trailer a nap was in order.  Plus, after sitting in a Jeep driver seat all day driving sitting in another Jeep driver seat to relax isn’t exactly comfortable (can you say numb butt?).

Still a work in progress, but it’s functional again.
The storage is so much easier to use.
Stay tuned for a full write up on the build later this summer as well as my thoughts on if it works as planned.

The other thing that needed to happen was better weight distribution.  The prior arrangement of the inside of the trailer has the cooler/fridge at the very back of the trailer.  That’s also where the battery was.  That’s a lot of tail-weight in a relatively light trailer.  As such the balance of the trailer was off.  Not dangerously so (thank god).  It was just enough to notice a little extra bumping and clanging.   Also, with the cooler/fridge all the way in the back it was impossible to access except through the rear trailer doors.  That meant if I wanted a drink I’d have to drop the tailgate and pop a door (or two) to get at my beverages.  Same for lunch makings.  Once or twice isn’t too big a deal.  However on longer trips like the No Highways Tour it was getting to be a pain.  As such the new location for the fridge will be where the chair used to be.  This means I can access it through the side access hatch.  That also happens to be the side that will get the new awning and room kit.  Just makes it that much nicer to access everything I’ll need for a quick drink and/or a trail side lunch.

Conclusion

Phase 1 was all about building a low-buck “bed in a box.”  As Jim’s mantra reminded me countless times, it was “replacing a tent.”  As such, it served the job admirably.  Aside from a few small leaks here and there (which can be blamed on the cap being $50 and formally used to haul goats) and the fact that rivets are probably the absolute worst thing in the world, oh and that using pressure treated 2×4’s as a spacer is a bad idea, I have no major complaints.  With a little more time (and probably a little more money on a nicer cap) the trailer could easily have been more water-tight right from the start.  I’ve also learned the M101 trailer body itself has more than a few holes.  Needless to say, if you ever build something like I have make sure to caulk every seam you can BEFORE you head out.

The overarching goal for Phase 2 of the trailer is just to improve upon the basics.  Go from the DIY awning to a better made one.  Upgrade from a cooler to a 12v fridge.  Make a more functional bed frame with more practical storage that is easier to access.  And of course power.  Solar will be a major game changer for me not just personally but also professionally.  It will allow me to power a booth with things like photo slideshows and eventually videos playing without fear of draining my battery (unless it’s raining/cloudy/snowing/etc).  In the meantime I’ll be rewiring the trailer the best I can.  Might have to call in some reinforcements.  We shall see.

At any rate I hope you’ve enjoyed following along on the build/rebuild of the ECOA/NHT “Poor Man’s Teardrop” overland adventure off-road camping trailer – thing.  It all started with some inspiration I saw online and hopefully my build will inspire you to build something yourself. Don’t feel pressured to build the perfect trailer.  Don’t get suck in an endless loop of “analysis paralysis” and do nothing but plan and re-plan.  Build something, use it, evolve it.  What works for me may not work for you.  You’ll have to figure that out as you go along.  Mistakes will be made.  I know I’ve made my fair share.  Sure the trailer looks cool and all NOW but what you haven’t seen are the countless errors and mistakes I’ve made along the way.  Maybe at some point I’ll write a narrative about those.  In the meantime if you have any questions about the camping trailer or trailers in general feel free to ask.  I know a fair number of people with roof-top-tents mounted on trailers.  So if a teardrop style trailer is not for you and you want something a little smaller then let me know.  Maybe I’ll do a detailed profile of one of my friends trailers (hey Josh, or Lyle, or Martin…).

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