Friday, July 4, 2014

Choosing a Cargo Trailer for Conversion to a Camper

In the process of building up this trailer into a camper, I have noticed several things about it that I would NOT want to see on a new trailer, so I want to give you some pointers on what to watch for. Then I will get back to posting about the build of our trailer. But first let me remind you that I just went back through the previous posts and updated the New Beginnings post with better (and more) information, as well as some minor changes on the other posts, and now I will tell you how we got to this point.

The trailer as it looked in early spring this year.
This trailer was not intended for this purpose to begin with, nor did we buy it for this purpose. It was originally built as a motorcycle trailer, and that's what it was used for by the original owner. It's a 2000 model year Haulmark, with "MC" in the model number. We bought it in 2004. It belonged to the neighbor across the street from us in Mesa, and was a good buy at only $1600.


I had helped a work associate set up a company to import steel tool boards from Sweden, and since I was the first distributor, my intention was to use the trailer as a mobile demonstration unit, and travel around the southwest setting up dealers under me, whom I would then keep stocked with product.

But before that could come about, I could see what was happening with sales of the product, and it never got a good chance to be a success for many reasons, which I won't go into here. Let's just say that I sold more online than the other five distributors combined could sell in face to face sales before the importing company folded. The product was great...just too expensive for the American market. So anyway, the trailer set empty for awhile, until we used it to help move us from Mesa, AZ back to Arkansas. I knew it would be heavily loaded, so before we even made the first trip with it, we had electric brakes installed on it, just to be safe.

We had it packed like a sardine can, making sure to keep the major part of the weight over the axle, but during the first trip back here with it, the cheap tongue bent and dropped the frame to the pavement about 200 miles short of our destination. We had to have a flatbed wrecker come and pick it up and carry it the rest of the way. After emptying the trailer, we had it hauled to a welding shop, where they replaced the old 2-inch stamped steel tongue with 4-inch iron C-channel beams.

Notice how thin the original tongue was.
Notice the new 4-inch iron C-channel tongue, and the latch with the lock through it.

We used it once more, to bring another load back from Arizona, and that time, we blew a tire just north of El Paso. Once we were rescued from the I-10 Interstate, our repair crew led us into El Paso to a tire shop where we immediately had both 4-ply tires replaced with 8-ply tires.

Other than that, we used it for light-duty work in my contracting business, where it was never overloaded (but now could have been, after all the upgrades). So that is how we came to be in possession of this trailer, otherwise I would have been looking for something different for conversion to a camper. And I certainly would hope that Haulmark has improved their construction methods as well as their quality control in the past 14 years!

Here are the negative things that I have noticed about this trailer:
  1. In the front left corner, they used too short a piece of plywood on the floor, and it left a gap at the end big enough I could see the ground through it, and which a mouse would have no trouble entering through. Not a big deal, as I have another layer of flooring, plus new tile going over it, and I have already closed the gap with construction adhesive.
  2. As I started removing the plywood walls to insulate behind them, I discovered that only the top roof bows had been painted! They left the steel studs in the sidewall without any coating at all, and many of them were showing signs of surface rust!
  3. As I was removing the plywood from the walls, I noticed that the screws were poorly installed. Some had missed the metal studs, and they left them there anyway and drove another screw next to them. In many places the spacing was very uneven, and in some places screws were missing completely (I will buy another box of screws and install more where it needs them).
  4. There was never a ceiling in this trailer (only the metal roof), so I have to install that brand new.
  5. The cheap 1/8th-inch plywood strips that they used for batten strips over the plywood joints were stapled on with the smallest staples I have ever seen...about the size of a 20-gauge AWG wire size (about like you'd see in an office stapler designed for paper) and only 3/8ths of an inch long, so they didn't even penetrate all the way through the plywood behind the trim! They used the same size staples to try to attach the cove molding at the base of the walls, and half of that was coming loose! Some staples didn't even show a 16th of an inch on the back side!
  6. The trailer had no brakes on it when I bought it, and I paid a professional hitch shop about $800 to have electric brakes installed and the old four conductor flat plug wiring harness and plug updated to seven pin round. Fortunately, the axle already had the correct backer plates behind the wheels or that would not have been possible without changing out the whole axle.
  7. The original trailer tongue was a very thin, 2-inch stamped steel tongue, which was barely enough to meet the load the trailer was designed for...but no more. It may have been OK for the "pulling" weight of the trailer, but definitely not for the straight down "carrying" weight of anything but a properly loaded motorcycle, for which the hoop for the front wheel was still installed on the floor.
  8. Although the trailer has a deck plate rock guard shield on the front, it is very poorly installed. The front radius of the deck plate is inconsistent, and there are gaps between the deck plate and the aluminum siding that even metal screws couldn't pull together. One that was installed has stripped the threads on the screw, and now I must find an even larger screw to try to fix the problem. The two outer studs in the front wall are back too far and not consistent with the radius of the front wall. You can see what I mean in one of the photos of the front end below. This is why the stone guard would not draw up properly to the siding.
  9. The side door "keeper"...the little latch that is supposed to hold the door open so the wind doesn't blow it shut...was made out of plastic. It was badly sun-damaged and dried out, and has since broken off. I crimped a piece of lamp tubing over the shaft as a temporary repair, but now I must find a metal one to replace it.

    The door keeper shaft has been repaired for now, but needs to be replaced.

  10. During the measuring for the insulation board to fit between the steel wall studs, I saw many inconsistencies...as much as half-an inch from top to bottom. You would think that a company this big would have a jig to hold these studs at a consistent spacing, so that the studs, as well the entire trailer, would remain consistently square and true. I also noticed a difference of MORE than a half-inch when measuring the interior width. The measurements at the top were not consistent with the bottom, nor were they consistent front to back.
  11. They can say what they want to about curved sides and front being better for wind resistance, but I can tell you that it's not enough to offset the added costs and aggravation of trying to fit things to curved walls and ceilings! For one thing, I am going to be pulling this with a high-top van that is already taller and wider than this trailer, so I doubt the curved front is going to make a hill of beans difference in fuel economy! And as far as the sides, that little bit of curvature at the top of the walls isn't going to make a hill of beans difference when it comes to side winds. Other trailers with straight sides and straight fronts have been pulled down the road for years. Only the really curved ones, like the Airstreams, have been proven to handle better in side winds or get better fuel economy because of the rounded shape.
So now that I have seen all the faults of this trailer (hopefully), let me point out what I will be looking for "IF" (and that's a BIG "IF") we ever buy another cargo trailer to convert to a camper. That alone is questionable, since we are looking at this current trailer as a temporary fix to get us away from here to other areas where they have a better selection of RV's. Also, I am not getting any younger, and I don't want any more major projects. I want to be out traveling...not building another thing to travel in!

Fifteen things to look for in a cargo trailer to convert to a camper:
  1. I would be looking for a cargo trailer with straight sides, square corners, a flat roof and a V-front. Although the curvature of a Haulmark does little for fuel economy and handling, a V-front definitely cuts through the wind better, as well as providing additional interior space. You can't buy stock cabinets at a builder store and expect them to fit a curved wall...in either direction! But with straight sides, you can walk into any builder store and buy stock cabinets, including wall cabinets, just like you would for your kitchen or bathroom at home...and that can save you a ton of time and expense by getting away from all that custom cutting to make things fit!
  2. I would be looking for a trailer that is well built, from the materials it's made from to the quality control of the workmanship that goes into it. I would be inspecting the size and material that the tongue is made from, to make sure it can handle weight put in the front of the trailer, not just over the wheels.
  3. I would be looking at the interior finish to see if fasteners are consistent and of proper size for the job. No loose screws that didn't hit anything, and no staples that are too small to hold what they are put into! Also, is the trim cut properly and mitered for the proper angles?
  4. I would be looking for a trailer that was already insulated, which would save a lot of time in having to do a job (installing paneling) three times...once to install it, once to remove it to insulate behind it, and again to re-install it. Remember, you are paying for all that labor time...one way or the other! Better to have it done by the factory, where they can do it a whole lot more efficiently than you can, and do it the FIRST time!
  5. I would be looking for a trailer with at least a place for roof vents, already framed in. A cheap roof vent can easily be upgraded to a Fantastic fan, if the hole is at least framed for it. They're all 14-inches square. But if you have to frame for the fan as well as install it, and provide wiring for it, you are looking at more expense and more work!
  6. I would be looking for a Bargman type latch with deadbolt on the side door, or at least have one installed by the dealer. Ours only had a cam bar latch, and I had to spend over $30 for a new latch and then install it myself! A cam bar latch is great for security, and works fine for the rear doors or a ramp door, but now we have both on our trailer. And if you also have a cam bar latch like ours, make sure you have an extra hasp on the other side of the doorway to lock that bar back, so no one can come along and lock you inside!


  7. I would be looking for a deck plate stone guard on the front of the trailer...one that hugs the siding and fits properly. Anyone who has ever pulled a trailer knows how much junk gets thrown back there by the rear wheels of the towing vehicle, even on paved roads. A stone guard will keep the front of the trailer looking new for a long time, and will be a good selling point for the next buyer, so it is well worth the extra expense.
  8. I would be looking at the rest of the siding, to make sure it is straight and not buckled anywhere, and I would be paying attention to seams and how they are put together.

    Note the stone guard, but also notice the wavy siding on the front of the trailer!

  9. I would be making sure that the trailer was built with a metal cage, and not just wood as many travel trailers are. I don't even know if any cargo trailers are made with wood, but if they are, I wouldn't want one!
  10. I would be looking for not only good tire tread, I would be looking for the age of the tires, as well as the load rating and the number of plies. Having already dealt with a number of flats on trailers, I can tell you it is no fun. And many trailer tires are actually cheap, under-rated tires that are not fit for use on a passenger vehicle! In fact, they are ILLEGAL to use on a passenger vehicle! That alone should tell you something! If they aren't good enough to keep people safe, why would I want them on a trailer of any kind? Just because people don't ride in trailers doesn't mean they aren't due just as much respect as a passenger carrying vehicle! I want GOOD tires on a trailer, preferably over-rated for the weight of the trailer! I don't want to have to figure out where the nearest road service is when I may be out wandering and not know where I am myself! And even though I know more about changing tires than the average person, I am getting to the age where I don't want to have to mess with changing it myself, especially on the side of a busy freeway!
  11. I would be looking for a good anti-theft locking mechanism on the trailer hitch itself. Cargo trailers are a highly resellable item to thieves, as many of them all look alike, and are hard to tell if they are stolen. Ours has a latch that comes down whether it is on or off the ball, and we can put a padlock through it. (Shown on one of the pictures above.) I also have a device that fits into the ball socket itself, and locks in place with a key. In addition, you can also wrap your safety chains around the locking mechanism and put an additional padlock through the links. Since trailers always should have wheel chocks handy to keep them from rolling, you can get the kind that are hollow, and run a chain through the wheel chocks and through the spokes of the wheel, and if possible, over a part of the frame or suspension. That way, a desperate thief can't even hook onto the tongue with a chain and drag the trailer away, because the wheels won't roll! 
  12. I would make sure that the trailer has a clear and proper title to it. ALL trailers have titles...even those cheap little Harbor Freight trailers, and even home-built trailers have to be titled if they are used on public roads! I have seen cases where in some states it is not a requirement to "register" them and put plates on them, so some people think they don't even have to have them titled in their names...but they DO! The guy I bought our trailer from lived in Wisconsin, and he never had the trailer titled in his name! He tried to give me a manufacturer's original title, which is illegal to pass on to someone else unless you are a licensed dealer...which he wasn't! He tried to argue that in Wisconsin he didn't have to "register" it! That may be true that it doesn't need plates in that state, but titling and registration are two separate processes! Since he sold that trailer to someone who wasn't going to use it in Wisconsin, and whose own state required plates, he is legally obligated to furnish a title that was first titled in HIS name! ANY vehicle that has a title HAS to be titled in the legal owner's name before they can pass that title to someone else! He argued that with me to the end, and because I was already four states away when I discovered it, he had me over a barrel! I already had put over $800 into electric brakes on it, plus the tongue replacement, plus I was nowhere near him, or I would have dumped it back in his lap in a heartbeat! Instead, I was forced to pay the $35 for his title work AND his late fees, which I shouldn't have had to pay, and I couldn't do anything about it! And I never spoke to the ignorant, tightwad, rotten S-O-B again, either, even though we lived across the street from him until we moved out of the place completely! And by the way, when they first moved in, I even GAVE him an extra aluminum stepladder! You'd think the least he could do is pay for his own title work! I have little tolerance for people like that...as you can tell!
  13. I would want an electric jack on the tongue of the trailer with a disconnect switch mounted inside the trailer somewhere. Thieves can't steal the trailer if they can't retract the jack post! Some people may be satisfied with a crank-down jack...if they don't have a bad back. The one on our trailer is an "add-on" type that clamps to one side of the tongue. It has a pivot on it that allows it to to swivel up parallel to the tongue, so there's nothing hanging down to catch on anything. (shown in one of the photos above.) I really like that feature, but if you have one that is mounted through the hole in the top of the hitch, like most of the power jacks are, you may end up with too much hanging down...especially if your trailer sets low to begin with, like most cargo trailers. If you use a jack of that type, you may have to cut some off the bottom of it, or take a chance that it will catch on something when going down the road...or over a railroad track, or over a curb, or over a speed bump, or...well...you get the idea. A jack of any type should never hang down lower than the bottom of your hitch. You can always add a few blocks under it if you have to...but you will have one heck of a time trying to straighten out a bent 1-1/2-inch shaft on a hundred dollar jack post if you catch it on something!
  14. I would want stabilizer jacks on both rear corners of the trailer. A single stabilizer in the middle is worthless. With two, you can adjust them to the levelness of the ground, and when you power down your front jack, you can use that three point method for leveling the trailer side to side as well as front to back. Our trailer has "flip down" stabilizers, which are not true "jacks", as they won't raise the trailer...only hold it at the height you set them at. Also, in order to flip them back into position, you usually have to let the front of the trailer down, and then raise it back up again after the stabilizers are in position. They will get the job done for now, but will likely get replaced with scissors style jacks welded in their place, as soon as we can get somewhere to have it done.

    Stabilizers are not true "jacks" as they won't raise anything on their own.

  15. The choice of a ramp door as opposed to dual barn doors at the back is one of preference, but I'll tell you my reasoning for wanting a ramp door. For one, it's easier to move heavy items (like my wife's piano, cycles or an ATV) in and out on a ramp than having to lift them. Secondly, if you put jack stands under the end of the door, it makes a great raised deck or patio so you don't have to get out in the grass and stir up all those mosquitoes. Thirdly, and this is already an option on some higher end toy haulers and cargo trailers, is that you can get a canvas screen cover made for it so that you can use it as a screen room. Doors are worthless except to hang things on. I feel that a ramp is far more versatile.

    A ramp door is far more functional for us than typical "barn" doors.
    So that's the main things to look for if you are planning to buy a cargo trailer to convert to a camper, whether it be new or used. These items apply to any size trailer, and the size is a matter of personal needs. All I can recommend there is to not go any bigger than you absolutely need to. Plan out your space on a scale drawing. I have been working on our plan for nearly a year, and still think of minor changes now and then. If you want to see what we have done, go to the New Beginnings post, and look about half way down the page, in the updates, for a link to an OpenOffice file download for it. If we can fit everything we want for full-timing into a 6 x 12 trailer, including a future washer/dryer and even a dishwasher, there is no reason you can't do it! If I can think of anything else, I will update this accordingly.

As always, if you have any questions, I'm here every day.


5 comments:

Anne Cole said...

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CS Trailers said...

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John Abert said...

Thank you for the compliment and for that information.

David said...

Thank for taking the time to write the perfect article in a well thought out manner. You probably saved me hundreds of dollars or more.

John Abert said...

Thank you for commenting. I apologize for the delayed reply, but my laptop crashed and I finally got a new one. I'm glad my post was of help to you. Let me know if you have any questions.