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RVs are becoming more and more expensive—both new and used. But contractor Chris found a way to renovate his own custom camper for a fraction of the price. He bought an enclosed cargo trailer for $4,300 and drew up the plans to make it a home.
In this article, Chris shares exactly how he turned a cargo trailer into an awesome RV that sleeps four for under $10,000.
Renovate an Enclosed Cargo Trailer
Chris, what kind of trailer is this?
It's an enclosed cargo trailer. The dimensions are 6′ X 14′ with the barn doors in the back that swing open. The barn doors were important for being able to open up and let a lot of fresh air in and take in pretty places as we travel. We also have a side door for the main entry.
This enclosed trailer also has a double axle, which is helpful for carrying more weight and being stable while driving.
What made you want to renovate an enclosed cargo trailer versus buying a regular travel trailer?
I wanted to be able to customize it to our needs. It's hard in a commercial trailer to get everything you need. We've got a composting toilet, a large freezer, Dometic Cooler and we can easily sleep four people in a 14-foot trailer. Plus, the all-in costs for what we have were around $10,000 versus $20,000 to $25,000 on a travel trailer. We also wanted the flexibility of being able to haul cargo, such as our dingy or other items (but still wanted it to be small).
The key is that we wanted it closer to tent camping but with more comfort as we spend a lot of time outside the trailer.
How did you decide on the layout you built?
I wanted an open layout so that it feels bigger than it actually is.
The cabinets I used are pretty basic. I used only easy materials. They aren't full cabinets, it's a face frame with little tie-backs to the walls. My walls are half-inch plywood so I can secure them this way without having to be a full cabinet. For this reason, I also used a lot of drawers.
I started with putting in the water systems and worked the cabinets over them next to our side door. We have 42 gallons of fresh water, an electric heater, 12-volt pump, and because of space I did something a little strange… We only have a five-gallon grey tank. It's mainly for courtesy and not to spill over in a parking lot (we basically use it just for dishwater). We'll then drain it when we go into campgrounds. The goal is to cook mostly outside so I didn't install a stove and we use a butane cooker. I also have a larger outdoor kitchen with a flat-top griddle that works great.
What exactly did you pay for the enclosed cargo trailer upfront? Was it already built out at all or was it just a shell?
I bought the trailer used for $4,300
It was a very rudimentary camper conversion to start. The cabinetry was not great and I redid all the electrical and plumbing. There was a (cold only) hose and a dump through the floor for the sink drain. It didn't function the way I wanted it to. It did already have the rooftop AC on it though and the walls were insulated with foam, which was a cost-saving on the renovation.
What was your all-in cost to build out the enclosed cargo trailer?
I put in two lithium batteries with 200 amps of life which cost $1,000, as well as a 2000-watt inverter with 300 watts of solar. All in, I've put around $10,000 or $10,500 in it and it's exactly what I want. We have two full-size beds and it sleeps the four of us very comfortably.
Gear and Upgrades
What kind of toilet do you have?
We use a brand called Separett for our composting toilet. It is essentially a urine diverter toilet. On the front side, the urine goes into the grey tank and the rest of it is just dry in a bucket in the back. We dispose of it with our trash, similar to a dirty diaper.
What kind of lithium batteries did you get?
I just found some decently rated batteries from Battery Surplus and paid $350 for each of them. They aren't top-of-the-line like a Battle Born Battery but will work great for our needs.
What kind of mattress did you buy?
We found a great simple mattress on Amazon that is six inches and it's been really comfortable. I wanted to save on height and the one we bought works great.
What's one of your favorite features?
I like the storage space I put in for our clothes. Similar to what I've seen done before in a truck camper where you lift up the bed to access the clothes.
I used e-track brackets and have a two-by-four frame and then skim the bottom of the frame with a 3/16 plywood on the bottom screwed on. Then I hinged the top to open up.
Any other advice you'd give for someone wanting to renovate an enclosed cargo trailer?
I found mine just searching on Facebook marketplace for “enclosed cargo trailer”. A lot of people will use them for conversions or tiny hunting cabins or a backyard office.
They aren't terrible to take from a raw trailer into something as I did. I probably saved myself two days of work by buying one with insulation already set up.
I would say starting with renovating an enclosed cargo trailer is infinitely easier than starting with a custom van build-out.