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Woman Converts Cargo Trailer into Stealthy and Cozy Off-Grid RV

This Cargo Trailer Converted to Homey, Cozy, Off-Grid RV is a guest post by Elizabeth Kelch

One trend in the tiny living movement is converted cargo trailers. The advantages to this are;

  • they’re lighter weight,
  • more easily mobile,
  • and can often be used for free by ‘stealth camping’.

I recently got the guts to take the leap and I bought a 7×12 insulated cargo trailer and converted it to an off-grid micro RV.

My tiny RV is designed for one person, maybe a couple, because I wanted to keep it very simple and lightweight but there’s no reason I couldn’t apply the same principles to an 8×20 trailer.

Woman Converts Cargo Trailer into Off-Grid RV for $7k

How I turned my cargo trailer into an awesome micro camper

© Sustainabletarian

I encourage you to read the rest of my story (including how much this cost me) and tour the rest of my DIY cargo trailer micro camper below:

My dream started years ago when my kids were little and I wanted to take them traveling. I wanted plenty of outdoor living and the convenience of an RV to be able to head out on the spur of the moment.

Back then my idea was a campground and lots of outdoor living but now I want to travel in urban and rural environments. As time went on I wondered why I had to pay for a campground. If I’m respectful and polite and don’t infringe on the rights of those around me, why can’t I live wherever and however I want?

My 7×12 Insulated Cargo Trailer ‘Before’ Shot

One of my problems with traditional RVs is the dark, closed in space. What I like about my cargo trailer is that it has a large ramp door on the back which, in this case, becomes opening a wall of your home and invites the outdoors in.

Before I Finished converting it

I open my ramp door and prop the end on my jacks so that it becomes level and I enjoy the slightly elevated patio. It’s one of my favorite features.

The ‘After’ Shot of my Cargo Trailer After Converting it to Home

Interior of My Cargo Trailer Conversion
The process took $7,000 and about a month of time. I parked my trailer in the driveway and- with the help of my very supportive fella- worked on it out of the garage. We kept it very simple starting with painting the plywood walls and insulating the underside. Next we added the kitchen. It’s a used countertop and sink on two stock cabinets. And I use an RV pump handle faucet to maintain mindfulness of my water usage. The bed is a mattress on plywood with storage in milk crates underneath. This system offers tons of storage space.

The Micro Kitchen

Kitchen in Cargo Trailer to Micro Camper Conversion

Simple Gravity Plumbing and Water Storage w/ Hand Pump

Simple Gravity Plumbing

How some of my other daily living needs are met:

Plumbing – I have a 5 gallon tank/bucket and a 5 gallon gray water tank/bucket under my sink (you can see it above). At the moment I have to obviously fill my 5 gallon supply bucket by hand but an addition I’d like for the future is a rainwater catchment system and a Berkey Gravity Water Filter.

Cooking – I have a solar oven and propane stove.

Electricity – I have Goal Zero’s Yeti 1250 Kit with panels mounted on the roof.

Toilet – For now I have a chemical port-a-potty. Soon I’ll have a composting toilet with a sawdust bucket under a wooden box disguised as a seat.

Shower – Yet to be added, I’ll have a solar shower bag hanging outside with brackets for a privacy curtain mounted on the outside of the trailer. Or I may just use a commercially available shower tent. This will be great in a warm rural environment but I happen to be retired military and will want to use the gym anyway so I’ll shower at the nearest military base.

Heating – Propane fueled space heater.

Cooling – Fans.

Life is a Journey Not a Destination

The saying, “life is a journey not a destination,” certainly applies to this adventure for me. I even like to think about how this might be useful for people with unstable housing situations. There’s a whole community of people who could be served by off-grid living. This RV and the journey that it is are new to me. I continue to have ideas and read articles about ideas for improvements. I have lots of big plans, like the water catchment system I mentioned above, in my head for continued improvements and look forward to the journey.

More information at Elizabeth’s website sustainabletarian.com.

***

Elizabeth, thank you so much for sharing your story with us! If you have your own story to share submit it here.

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Alex

Alex is a contributor and editor for TinyHouseTalk.com and the always free Tiny House Newsletter. He has a passion for exploring and sharing tiny homes (from yurts and RVs to tiny cabins and cottages) and inspiring simple living stories. We invite you to send in your story and tiny home photos too so we can re-share and inspire others towards a simple life too. Thank you!
{ 63 comments… add one }
  • TomLeeM May 6, 2014, 9:02 pm

    I think that is a very creative use of space.

  • Sally May 6, 2014, 11:11 pm

    Very creative and wonderfully “stealth.” The windows are a great feature, as most of these cargo trailers don’t have any, and I really get the claustrophobe thing sometimes. Looking at the plywood, it seems the windows were added??? And is that a little skylight, or the solar-generated light? I’m sure someone will scream that there’s no washer or dryer :-), or OMG! no shower, but sometimes it takes a while (years) to stop worrying about all the Gotta-Haves.
    From personal experience, stick with this size if at all possible. I’ll never forget a friend of mine in a RV towing a car who got stuck in a little bitty town on streets a car could barely negotiate. Couldn’t make a sharp curve, couldn’t back up, and caused the town’s first gridlock. Funny now, but he shook for days. 🙂 You’re very smart with your low-cost, light weight choices. Love this, and the expandability options for open camping!

    • Theo April 11, 2016, 8:47 pm

      Yeah, real stealthy with that tailgate down. The windows don’t give it away either. You want light, there are plenty of ways to light up the interior, do some research on boats, they have some unique ways of lightening the interior, without anything on the sides, only the roof.

      • Graham September 14, 2016, 5:29 pm

        I agree Theo.

        I am in process of converting a hauler with drop-down right now. No way will I put windows in it.

        I have a skylight with screen that provides more than adequate lighting on a bright day.
        If I want even more light I could add another but why bother.

        I will also not install an RV door lock on the side door.
        I will just chain back and lock to the axle the swivel bar, using a barn gate on the inside.

        Nice conversion, Elizabeth.
        You are using similar modifications to what I am planning.

  • Michael May 7, 2014, 1:58 am

    Yeah, but a bit to tiny for my taste. An enclosed bathroom is a must. Bed could be a murphy one to save on space.

  • LaMar Alexander LaMar May 7, 2014, 10:22 am

    Nice job!
    I have designed and helped turn a couple of these into nice stealth campers. I would look for one that has at least 7 feet of headroom and the walls should be insulated and foamcore board works well inside a 2×2 wall frame for R10.

    I would build a wall across that back end with a traditional door that is hid when the ramp is closed and add two fold down legs to the front of that ram for support.

    This would be cheaper than building a house on wheels from scratch and you can pick up these enclosed trailers on Craigs list for reasonable prices. They are lighter and can be towed with a smaller truck and no one knows it is a house until you drop the ramp. Can be used where camping and living may not be permitted and won’t attract as much attention as a camper or house on wheels.

    • katyemorris April 10, 2016, 3:45 pm

      That’s a great idea for putting in a door on the ramp that can open when the ramp isn’t used. I was picturing opening the ramp to get in on a rainy day…

  • Joyce Rader May 7, 2014, 6:26 pm

    I also like the simplicity. Wonder what you do for a privacy screen or mosquito net when the ramp door is down. HHHMMM wonder if two or three of those ‘magnetic screen doors’ side by side would cover the end opening.

    • breid1903 May 7, 2014, 7:12 pm

      google “garage door screen”. lots of choices.

      peaceup raz

  • breid1903 May 7, 2014, 7:00 pm

    one of beauties of a cargo trailer is that they are bullet proof. made to be used by geniuses like me that pack them high and deeper, then drag them places that nobody thought you could. usually at irrational speeds. in other words abuse them. nice. very nice.

    peaceup raz

  • Kate May 8, 2014, 10:27 am

    I happened to get a cargo trailer last year and am currently filling it up to relocate. It has a roll-up door (that needs repair), no windows. But now, thanks to this story, I see this also holds housing possibilities for short term. Thanks for sharing. Looks like it will be a lot of fun to use.

  • CathyAnn May 9, 2014, 9:06 pm

    I sure like this trailer and how it is organized. It sure has given me some ideas!

  • Kevin May 12, 2014, 5:11 am

    Might I suggest investing in a second solar shower bag and using it for your hot water needs inside (i.e. dishes, cooking,etc.) You could stretch your stove fuel longer that way.

    • Alex May 12, 2014, 2:19 pm

      Great suggestion Kevin thanks!

      • Graham September 14, 2016, 5:38 pm

        I have already done just as you suggest, Kevin.
        It just so happens I have two solar showers available; I like long showers.

    • Joyce April 30, 2015, 11:52 am

      I often consider placing a dark colored tank on the roof to heat water by the sun and gravity feed downward for a sink or shower. Since white deflects light, I often wonder if this would work also for cooler water eliminating the pump. Using a pump would only increase pressure or perhaps be used to fill a tank too high to reach by hand.

    • Jeff April 10, 2016, 4:08 pm

      In a similar fashion, any “generic” water container could be painted black for similar water heating. I’m tempted to search up a couple or three of those DIY combo electric & water heating solar set ups, especially as the solar electric “panels” are available completely clear (using UV or other parts of the spectrum), so much smaller…the technology is truly stretching my tiny little brain. I know a lot of it is on the pricier side, but 1) tech prices always come down with the advent of the next generation, and with so many other costs being reduced in this steath-ish camper situation, maybe a bit of a splurge would be doable. And such systems could “easily” be re-purposed to a “standard” THOW or other TH as needs or desires change over time.

      Really cool ideas!

  • Bdubz May 14, 2014, 4:28 am

    Very cool bravo, I did something similar with a cargo trailer, my wife and I took it on a 3000 mile 15 day test trip through 7 states, and I have to say… My wife and I did not want it to end. The cargo trailer worked better than our regular camper did, plus the cargo trailers are built way better structurally than a conventional camper, and stealth if need be. It’s nice to see articles on alternative living….thanks for sharing.

  • di May 28, 2014, 7:49 pm

    To save space, store your outfits, kitchenware, linens and dry goods beneath the bed.

  • di May 28, 2014, 7:53 pm

    If the extended counter top were a little closer to the bed, you could sit on the bed and use the counter to dine or study. The extra table may not be needed.

  • di May 28, 2014, 7:54 pm

    To save space, one standard-sized kitchen sink may be sufficient.

  • di May 28, 2014, 8:00 pm

    Rather than a ramp door, a sliding glass door may let in more light.

    • javadog June 25, 2014, 2:07 pm

      Right, but do what LaMar said. Get a sliding glass door with a sliding screen mounted in such a way to let you keep and close the rear ramp door for travel or extra security. I like that idea a lot.

      • Patches April 3, 2015, 2:43 pm

        That is a great idea! I am going to be converting my cargo trailer into a tiny house. Im leaning towards a set of french doors build right behind the ramp door so when I use the ramp as a deck I can still keep the bugs out and what not.

        • Alex April 3, 2015, 3:40 pm

          Love your idea!

  • foofoodog March 26, 2015, 2:03 pm

    That was a lot to spend on the Yeti though it is a plug and play solution and a sweet bit of kit. A 100 watt briefcase panel with charge controller attached, 100 AH SLA AGM battery and 1000 watt sine wave inverter all told costs half as much. Also 7 grand seems like a lot to spend on that whole setup.

    • Joyce April 30, 2015, 12:09 pm

      Solar setups do vary in cost. Cargo trailers new can easily cost half of the $7K spent. I’m not sure what the windows cost to have installed. Some of the other items could be new or used but look new. There are premade trailers that convert to cargo campers (Vymarron) that include dorm fridge, ac/heat, with adjustable folding bed/benches to allow for small toys to be hauled. I do not believe these are as tall as the ones LaMar likes but they function better than many teardrops and can cost 10K or less.

  • Patches April 3, 2015, 2:45 pm

    When I was researching converting my cargo trailer into a tiny home over winter I came across a company that sold enclosed trailers that had popout bed setups. I really like the idea of expanding the space outwards instead of cramping up inside. I contacted the company and their price for the kit to do it your self was way out of my budget. does anyone have any other ideas?

  • Ron Brown April 11, 2015, 2:37 pm

    How about a small tent pitched ON the ramp? You could still have
    a screen door opening into the trailer and that way extend your enclosed space………..RB

  • Heather April 28, 2015, 10:04 pm

    Building on the the screen door/popup/tent ideas mentioned above… I was thinking that there is a square screen porch thing with an awning roof and scissoring scaffolding, that comes in different sizes for field events and festivals. They are cheap for the square footage. That might be an option along the lines of that folding plastic table. It could be sized to fit on the ramp, or next to the ramp on the ground – whatever was preferable. The whole think packs down into a tiny package. I’ve seen them for sale at Home Depot, Sams, and sporting goods stores for around $100 to $200 depending on size. I had one that was 10×10, that was a gift. Mine didn’t’ have a screen, but I used it for shade. It was very light.

  • jeff L April 29, 2015, 11:57 am

    Carson trailer here in So. Cal. Sells and will customize cargo trailers with shower enclosures, doors, windows etc. or anything you want. 5,000. Will get you a very nice 7 x 12 with 6’6″ ceiling. Windows. side door. Insulated and white paneling inside.

    • Libby A. August 18, 2015, 1:16 am

      Thanks, Jeff, for the great information about the enclosed cargo trailers. I went to the site and EVERYTHING is possible! I had no idea there was anyone who would customize these trailers like that.

  • Greg Burns April 29, 2015, 12:17 pm

    VERY NICE JOB! Congratulations on your WONDERFUL “stealth RV”! In case you can’t yet afford and/or put together a “shower”, there’s another simple alternative you can do, and I know it works WELL! A canister or two of those “flushable wet-wipes”. They’re relatively inexpen$ive, work well to clean up & refresh yourself, and they dissolve in water (i.e. such as a toilet…). I know for a fact that the Cadets at “West Point” use them during outdoor training, when showers are unavailable. I’ve used them, too, when traveling, if there wasn’t a place to become, um, “hygienically correct”…LOL! So if lack of space and/or money is preventing you from “feeling clean & comfortable”, this is a way to make things work! Enjoy you GREAT new “RV”! Greg

    • Jeff April 10, 2016, 4:15 pm

      AMEN! I was stationed in Germany in the mid 80’s and supported a huge field exercise for Reserve units (an annual deal). That particular year, the winter was a bit cooler than anticipated & the permanent pipes frozen. No one had hot water for showering for nearly 49 days. W/o those wet ones…

      my only regret was not having the…”entreprenurial savvy” to have purchased 10-12 *cases* of those bad boys to sell to the less prepared. (Boy Scout training really came in handy).

      I’m not as keen on the ones available nowadays with the aloe already “built in” but they sure do work in a pinch!

  • Martha April 29, 2015, 12:56 pm

    Congratulations on a good job done! I doubt if I could ever be that creative. Happy living and camping!

  • CathyAnn April 29, 2015, 2:09 pm

    The great thing about that Goal Zero setup, it isn’t fiddly, meaning it’s easy to set up and use. If I had to buy the different components of a solar system and setup/maintain it myself, I think I’d get lost since I’m not savvy where these things are concerned. I do have a Harbor Freight system which is fairly simple, but not as simple as a Goal Zero; but knowing what I know now, the Goal Zero would be preferable to me, and the amount of charge it holds to run a mini-frige and some lights, and to recharge some electronics would make the cost worth it to me.

    I’ve been thinking hard about buying a 16′ Scamp or a Little Guy TAG, but getting a cargo trailer like this and fixing it up is very appealing. It’s not about the money. I like the fact that it’s light weight and stealthy, not calling a lot of attention to myself — and I would be pulling it with a 6-cyl. Ford Ranger.

    LaMar, I really like your suggestions such as a wall with door next to the ramp.

  • Blake April 29, 2015, 4:26 pm

    I love it… Great build. What water pump do you use? I like that system. Stealth trailers are a great way to stick it to the man… Or landlord. I’m in my 3rd month of living in full time stealth 20’x8′ cargo stealth. I am saving $800 a month in it. It works people… I live in Los Angeles and have it parked behind my work. I’m a motorcycle mechanic. My daily level of stress is hardly there anymore because of my low impact of monthly bills and no landlord looking over me. I’m not ready to show my trailer yet but soon it will be posted up here.

    • Stacy August 4, 2015, 1:11 pm

      Do you have any pics of y ur trailer? Cost? I’m thinking this is the solution for me as well, I do have until April of 2016 to build one.

  • Julie Brown April 30, 2015, 1:40 am

    This is exactly what my freedom frugal loving heart is talkin’ bout. Fantastic job. Love it.

  • Howard April 30, 2015, 4:36 am

    If you want hot water with minimal fuss, buy a Zodi brand hot water heater. It comes in either one or two burner models and has an included battery powered pump. It is primarily used as a shower but could, obviously, be used to heat water for washing.
    When I use my single burner, I fill the included storage box with four gallons (max) of water, light the burner (uses one 1# bottle for single burner), turn on the pump and recirculate the water out of them back in to the reservoir. When it gets to the temperature I want, I turn off the burner. Then I take a shower by wetting down, turning off the pump, soap up then turn the pump on again to rinse off. If I’m careful, I usually have about one gallon left over which I can save or enjoy a nice warm shower hose off.
    The pump is a low pressure, which is fine and helps to conserve water. I should also mention that the on-off switch is housed in the waterproof battery box and a nice, long hose with a shower head like you’ll find on your solar water bag.
    For my use, the Zodi works great and you can adapt it to your needs for showering or cleaning up dishes.

  • Joolie April 30, 2015, 5:34 am

    Fantastic! I’ve been rolling around some ideas in my head lately – I’m thinking a hammock attached to hooks in the frame. Much lighter, cooler and more comfortable (imho) than a traditional “bed” and during the day it can be folded up out of the way. I like the idea of a big screen across the back too. Thanx for sharing!

  • Peter Piper April 30, 2015, 3:44 pm

    I like this idea. However, in keeping with total stealth, I’d forego the windows and install a skylight. I’d also use gravity-fed water at the kitchen sink (have a fresh water bucket with spigot secured at sink level or above). No need for a pump this way. If at all possible, I’d install a 1-piece shower with drain through the floor… a bucket placed underneath to catch the gray water from the shower could be emptied and stored in the shower… where the toilet could also be stored, the bucket placed on top of the toilet until the toilet needs to be used.

  • KENT May 1, 2015, 10:28 pm

    TOILET- LUGABLE LUE, FIVE GALLON BUCKET, KITCHEN PLASTIC BAGS ON A ROLL, KITTY LITTER, SPLASH OF PINE SOL.
    WHY? PORTA POTTY ARE A PAIN TO EMPTY. NO WAIT IN LINE FOR A FLUSH. YOU CAN THROW IN THE TRASH WITH A KNOT IN THE BAG. THE BUCKET CAN COME IN HANDY. MOVE WATER, LAUNDRY, FIRE WOOD STARTER CARRIER, CAMPFIRE SEATING. MULTI-USE .TRAILER LOOKS GREAT. NICE JOB.

    • Marsha Cowan April 10, 2016, 3:33 pm

      Excellent ideas, Kent, as usual. That’s what I do when I am not in a place with facilities. Works great, and is perfectly legal. If possible, buy the biodegradable bags since it is all going into the landfill.

    • Graham September 14, 2016, 5:47 pm

      That’s my plan, Kent.
      Good to know others think of the hunter’s toilet.

  • Byron May 4, 2015, 12:10 pm

    Dumb plumbing questions, why/where does the sink drain branch off?

  • Susanne May 4, 2015, 11:21 pm

    Chaput, you are a pill!!!!! 🙂 Blake ., I agree with you 100 percent!!! And in L.A.-$$$ you MUST go tiny to survive there, eh?!?!?!? 🙁

  • Gary June 2, 2015, 8:46 pm

    What an easy and inexpensive way to house the homeless. Converting and building them could help employ some of them also. )^_^)

  • Greg Burns June 2, 2015, 9:19 pm

    As far as “housing the homeless”? Well, that sounds somewhat “plausible” IF other folks in those neighborhoods would ALLOW them to LIVE THERE! You see, in my home State of Connecticut, one of our Senators proclaimed that “the Government would rather $pend money building prisons than homeless shelters!” SERIOUSLY! It’s easier & cheaper to “house” inmates, than “down-on-their-luck” homeless people! And with ALL the MANY “vacant” office buildings and “brown sites” (i.e. decrepit factories…), hey could easily and cheaply transformed into housing for them. Most, if not ALL “homeless” individuals are both “able-bodied” AND “want to work”! So do like “Habitat For Humanity” and use them for “sweat equity” to clean up and transform these useless eyesores into afe and clean paces to reside. There are even many High School and College-aged kids who really WANT to help, and do so by volunteering at fund raisers and doling out hot food to the hungry at local Churches and Soup Kitchens. GOD BESS THEM ALL! So yes, there is a GENUINE NEED for MORE HOUSING for the “homeless”. Whether it be in old, run-down, inner city buildings or in something like these mall cargo trailers. Thanks for letting me “ramble”. I know, first hand, of what I’m speaking about, and, unfortunately, as of tomorrow morning, I am “out on the street” yet again… 🙁

  • deborah November 12, 2015, 9:40 am

    I run a small bilge pump in a storage tote. Black sitting in the sun all day warms it up (sometimes too much). The pump is hooked to a battery and a switch that we can turn on and off. We shower 4 adults in one batch of water. Easy

  • Libby A. February 24, 2016, 4:02 pm

    It looks like Elizabeth Kelch no longer maintains her site at http://sustainabletarian.com/ — the site loaded, is empty, and marked “For Sale”

    • Marsha Cowan April 10, 2016, 3:40 pm

      Could have something to do with her being ex military…? I did not see a “for sale” notice…

  • Marsha Cowan April 10, 2016, 3:36 pm

    Ingenious little home…I love the deck idea. Lowes makes a wide screen that is hung on a simple rod with a magnetic strip down the middle divide to come and go. I have used this and it really works well and easily. Yvan keep out insects, but still come and go with your hands full and the screen closes behind you. Just a thought if don’t want a wall between the living space and the deck.

    • Marsha Cowan April 10, 2016, 3:37 pm

      …meant to say “you can keep out insects…” Sorry :/

  • Blake April 10, 2016, 5:53 pm

    I have a stealth trailer 8’x20′ and lived in it for a year. Saved a lot of $. I’m in the process of insulating and building it better. First year was to get a feel of what I wanted to build inside the trailer. I can’t wait to be back inside it sometime soon. Saving $ these days without busting your brain and back is hard. Great build Elizabeth.

  • Kathy April 10, 2016, 9:32 pm

    I have a tiny art studio that is a 6 by 12 foot cargo trailer with a sturdy work bench and a power outlet built into it. I have a folding cot with mattress for camping. I actually live in a travel trailer full time. Much cheaper than renting and I can keep my two dogs.

  • rick June 26, 2016, 5:52 pm

    im thinking a bag awning from an old popup would work over the ramp/porch

  • April Cook August 29, 2016, 2:50 pm

    I love this idea! I think I could handle towing something like this on my own. I really like that the ramp door is used for a patio so you can have more living space when it is opened. Would it be possible turn the hatch in the ceiling into a large skylight? Thanks for sharing your work!

  • Big Red Tiny Trailers March 20, 2017, 3:16 pm
  • Chris April 6, 2017, 10:12 pm

    This is what I have in mind and the first time I’ve seen it done. NICE!! I’d want an awning with screening to enclose the patio and almost double the living space. I also thought of putting an RV black tank on the roof for hot water, possibly with an instant hot water heater as backup. I definitely need a shower every day! And a composting toilet, which lets you carry more drinking water. I’ll probably need a 16 or 20′ to live full time comfortably.

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