There are so many uses for old, decommissioned cargo trailer. Some people stack them one on top of the other to turn into family homes. However, there are a lot of enterprising souls who turn these old shipping containers into other vehicles, for instance, into a camper. If you want to learn how to turn a cargo trailer into a camper, you have come to the right place.
Not everyone has the immense budget that is needed to purchase a full-fledged camper trailer and the entry-level campers do not have nearly enough space or features to make you happy. Thankfully, there are lots of enterprising builders out there who have done it before you, and they are more than willing to share their knowledge with you.
Table of Contents
Why Do Shipping Containers Make Excellent Travel Trailers?
There are many valid reasons why shipping containers make great travel trailers, and they include the following:
They are cheap – Enclosed utility trailers are very affordable. You can buy one in used condition for less than a thousand bucks and then put in a couple thousand more into it, and you can end up with a camper trailer that is unlike anything else in the world. Compare that to spending upwards of $15,000 for a brand new camper trailer.
They are spacious – Unlike traditional recreational vehicles in the same price point, you can get a cargo trailer conversion that is large and roomy. You no longer have to pick which members of your family you can take on your next camping trip. Now, everyone can get in on the fun. You can even get one of the larger trailers and turn them into a home on wheels.
They are strong – Cargo containers are mostly made of thick sheet metal because they need to keep their contents secure. They also have strong steel bracings that keep the trailer rigid and able to keep their shape. They are so strong that they can withstand tropical storms almost effortlessly.
They need minimal tweaking – The great thing about cargo containers is that they require minimal tweaking so you can mount them onto a trailer chassis. You can even just use an original tractor-trailer as the chassis of your new travel trailer. The only difference is now, you will be mounting the container permanently.
They already come with the necessary features – Many cargo containers already come with roof-mounted ventilation ports, so you do not need to install that many windows. Some containers also come with insulated double walls so you do not have to install them yourself.
They are weatherproof – Shipping containers are meant to be stacked one on top of each other and placed on a ship traveling across oceans. They will often encounter strong typhoons and cyclones on the way to their destination. The containers need to protect their contents from all kinds of weather conditions, which is a quality that you would want to have in a travel trailer.
Converting a Container into a Home on Wheels
Converting a shipping container into a travel trailer is not an overly complicated project. You just need to keep in mind the final weight of the trailer once you are done with the conversion. Converting a shipping container into a travel trailer is not like renovating your basement into a family room.
You need to remember that the interior work you will be doing in the trailer should be functional and lightweight at the same time so that you will not be putting too much weight on the trailer’s wheels and axles.
Plumbing and Electrical Lines
The best way to go about with the plumbing and the electrical wiring is to build a false floor on the bed of the shipping container. Although this means that the ceiling will be lower, a false floor will provide you with enough space for all of the plumbing and wiring that you will need. You can even fit in floor heaters if you want to.
The false floor does not need to be so high. Using 2x4s turned on their edges as a floor framing will provide you with more than enough space for your needs. The walls and ceilings can also make do with this kind of treatment. However, you do not need 2x4s for the studs, 2x2s will work just fine. You can even use aluminum channels for the framing.
It is recommended that you use aluminum channels as they are lighter and stronger than wood. Furthermore, they are cheaper and easier to work with. Install the plumbing for the toilet, sink, and shower drains on the floor. You should also install drinking water and holding tanks underneath the trailer bed.
The plumbing can come from the potable water tank towards the wastewater holding tank, or it can drain out of the trailer if you want. To give the water enough pressure to move through the pipes, you can use an RV manual hand pump or you can spend a bit more on an electric pump for more convenience.
Do not forget to install electrical wiring for the indoor lights, convenience sockets for appliances, all of which can be installed in the space within the wall and ceiling framing.
Floor and Wall Treatments
Remember to keep it light, so using ceramic tiles for the floors is not recommended. You can just use quarter-inch plywood planks and cover them with a linoleum sheet or vinyl tiles. Not only are these floor finishes lightweight but they are also easier to clean and very durable.
As for the walls and the ceiling, you can use lightweight laminated wood panels. These have the same look and feel like real hardwood but they weigh a whole lot less and they are also more economical.
Keep in mind that before you place the top cover of the walls, floor, and ceiling, you need to put foam insulation in the framing to keep the trailer warm during the winter and cool during the summers.
Amenities and Creature Comforts
Once you finish constructing the trailer’s floor, walls, and ceiling, you can start shopping for doors, window frames, kitchen counters, cabinets, and other furnishings that will make your new travel trailer feel like home.
This is also the right time for you to choose whether or not you will be using a water closet with a chemical toilet, or if you will be going full boondocks when you are out in the great outdoors. Fortunately, you can find the doors and windows online that you can easily install into the cutouts made along the sides of the trailer.
You can also find modular cabinets and furniture that come in different finishes and colors. Lastly, you need to decide how much space you want to dedicate for the trailer’s galley (kitchen). You can find plenty of stoves, sinks, refrigerators that are meant for use in RVs.
Can You Truly Save Money by Converting a Cargo Trailer into a Camper?
Can you save a lot of money by converting an old cargo trailer to a travel trailer? Is it better than buying a brand new travel trailer?
The answer is yes if you will only putting the bare minimum features into the trailer. In other words, if you will only be needing a hard-walled and storm-resistant camping trailer then you stand to save thousands of dollars.
If you browse the internet, you will find a lot of low-ball estimates about how little money you need to spend when converting a cargo trailer into a travel trailer, and there are several reasons for this:
Bad accounting – Who saves all of the receipts for their projects? Not that many. The human mind will only remember the big-ticket items instead of all the miscellaneous expenditures. If you list down all of the experiments, keep track of how many cans of paint were used, how many feet of wire were laid out, and others.
Lifestyle cheerleading – There are many DIY converters out there who are out to encourage newbies to join in on the lifestyle. They are selling the overly romanticized idea of the glamorous world of converted cargo camper trailers. These people are not interested in giving accurate estimates. They just want more people to join their niche club.
There are some truths to their claims. For instance, travel trailers are not that suitable for serious camping. These are not aimed at serious outdoorsmen. This results in a vehicle with a lot of bells and whistles. You might even need to dispose of some of the said features. This is why sometimes, it is better to start from scratch, a cargo trailer that is a blank slate.
The fact that you want to learn how to turn a cargo trailer into a camper means that you are a serious camper. You are not the type who is easily swayed by the beautiful trailers. You know what you need and you know how to get them. You are also aware of the merits of converting a cargo trailer and you experienced them firsthand.
Hi, I am Dane Heldt, a full-time RVer since 2016. I am always passionate about building and joining an RV community where people share their love for RV lives. This blog is a dream of mine, as I can finally share my experiences to help people who want to start living differently. So, feel free to reach out to me!