By Tony Barthel
While the RV industry creates an ever-increasing number of unique floor plans, there is a whole community of people who just don’t find what they’re looking for on the floor of an RV showroom. There is a large community of people who have converted cargo trailers to RVs for a variety of reasons. We find out why.
“I think it is safe to say the main two objectives of converting a cargo trailer are quality and cost. Many of us can convert a cargo trailer for less than going out and buying a brand-new camper. The biggest factor being the quality of our conversion will be better built, insulated better, set up exactly how we want and will outlast many of the standard campers being sold today,” wrote Nate Dettmer in a forum for cargo trailer camper conversions. “It takes time and dedication to convert, and some basic skills, so it isn’t for everyone, and those who want a trailer ready to go can buy the manufactured campers.”
This was echoed by a number of people in the group, who happily shared pictures of their conversions. And the conversions range from elaborate rigs that almost completely hid their cargo trailer roots to rigs that were almost more cargo trailer than RV.
According to many, that’s the point. You can create a cargo trailer conversion that absolutely fits your needs, given that you have the skills to do so.
What are they like?
You might envision a cargo trailer conversion to be basically a workshop with cots and, sure, some fall into that description. In fact, some of the folks who have converted cargo trailers to RVs do so specifically to be able to take their work with them. They want to have some provision of converting the trailer to optimize work or camping configuration depending on how it’s being used at the time.
But there are also some that are very elaborate with beautiful cabinetry, innovative layouts, masterfully clever convertible surfaces and much more. Everybody has that one friend who can look at a piece of wood and a box of screws and turn them into jaw-dropping art. That’s true in cargo trailer conversions as well. Some people are really good at this and the workmanship shows.
Many of the respondents also cited quality issues with commercially built RVs. Many of these comments could be summed up by a response from David Johnson, who wrote, “We love showing our style of quality, the way we built our rigs to last, take a beating, outlast typical mass-produced travel trailer or RV, and we love the process…”
Another factor is size. Many of the cargo trailer conversions I was shown were much smaller than the typical toy haulers produced by RV companies.
Ryan Macke highlighted this by writing, “Quality and wants. I looked at toy haulers and if I was going to get everything that I wanted, I would have had to buy a 24- to 30-plus-foot-long toy hauler. I did not want to have to store and tow something that large. I have a 7×16 enclosed trailer that I’ve converted that has everything I want, exactly how I want it, and great quality because I built it using real wood.”
Cargo hauling was mentioned by a solid number of the people who indicated that they were bringing some sort of recreational toys, from side-by-side vehicles to motorcycles to bicycles and kayaks. Carrying adventure gear was a priority for some, but not nearly as many as one might assume. In fact, many of the trailers I was shown had almost completely disguised their cargo-carrying roots in favor of having more elaborate living quarters.
But there were also converters who started with large car haulers and other larger trailers. Indeed, some even converted gooseneck car haulers and work trailers so, for some, size mattered and they went big.
In writing daily RV reviews, I see a lot of opportunities for flexible quarters. I also see plenty of space in RVs that seems to go unnoticed by RV manufacturers. While there are a few who provide something closer to an empty box that you can then make to fit your needs, the only one I can think of that almost completely embraces this is the inTech Flyer Discover, which is essentially more cargo hauler than travel trailer. But that trailer also carries an MSRP of $25,902, and many of the people who have converted trailers say they can do so for far, far less than this.
Some of the typical ways to do more with less included the fact that some parts came from trailers that had been scrapped or abandoned. Stoves, refrigerators and other components often outlast the shells of RVs that are destined for the scrap heap. Picking up these items for cents-on-the-dollar can be one way of creating a masterpiece for less.
But there are a significant number of converters who create trailers specifically to not have the standard RV components.
Many of the converted trailers I have seen are vastly different from anything commercially available. Plenty of the conversions seem to be far ahead of what’s commercially available in terms of power usage and management. I do believe the RV industry needs to get on board by offering more of the forward-thinking power and water management systems available in some Class B RVs.
For example, the Winnebago Revel has a long customer waiting list. Part of the appeal of this model is the fact that its built-in Xantrex power system can actually run the air conditioner and microwave. It also features an induction cooktop that ultimately eliminates having propane aboard at all.
I have yet to see any travel trailer from any company that is anywhere close to this innovative.
From pricey Airstreams to everything else, commercially built travel trailers feature two propane bottles and a space for lead-acid batteries on the tongue. A few manufacturers do provide solar and power management options, should you choose lithium batteries. But Lance seems the most progressive about doing something different – but not earth-shockingly so in the way that Winnebago has outfitted the Travato.
Meanwhile, many cargo trailer conversions that I’ve seen feature very efficient climate control systems that can operate on lithium batteries charged by solar panels. If I’d have to guess, I’d say that many, many cargo trailer conversions don’t have any propane aboard at all.
Another thing I noticed looking through the pictures is a complete and total lack of brown upholstery. In other words, when people were given the choice, the choice they made was exactly not what the RV industry favors.
Furthermore, not even one single conversion trailer had swoopy swishes and swirls emblazoned on the outside. Not one.
It ain’t easy
To be honest, converting a blank canvas into a workable RV is not an easy task. In fact, the reason I started looking into this is the same inspiration that others have cited – nothing built by the RV industry really does everything I want it to.
But there is a lot of craftsmanship that goes into building an RV. Woodworking, plumbing, climate control systems and more are all skills that a converter should have some basic understanding of. Furthermore, you have to have the knowledge of building things that will survive trips down the highway of life.
“There’s a lot that goes into planning a successful conversion, especially when you start talking power, plumbing, electrical, awnings, weight distribution, hitch setups, towing capacity, water capacity, heating, waste water, toilets, 12, 24, 48v systems, batteries, lights, A/Cs, propane vs. diesel heaters, Victron or Renology, panel systems that can tilt, vs over paneling because you can’t. How many different gauge wires will be needed to completely wire a 110 and 12v trailer. Which switch is the right one. Awning or no awning, mini-split with heat strips or RV style furnace…” wrote David Johnson in a lengthy insight into conversions. “There is nothing small or simple about doing a conversion. It takes time, dedication, some knowledge and a whole lot of ‘Can-do Attitude’.”