Building your own DIY overland trailer is a great way to save some money and get the satisfaction of building something with your own hands. It’s also a lot of work.
I have spent many hours thinking about, planning for, and building my own overland trailer. To save others some time, mistakes, and maybe even some money, I’m going to document my own build in a series of posts here on Ordealist.com.
I hope the information here helps you make decisions on whether or not to build your own trailer and, if you do decide to go that route, to get it done as efficiently as possible. This all comes with the major caveat that I am a hobbyist who has built exactly one trailer, so all of the information provided here should be taken with a grain of salt.
Please do your homework and consult professionals when needed. Building a trailer that will be traveling down the road with other vehicles and will support your backcountry adventures is not a task to be taken on lightly.
The Big Picture: Why Use an Overland Trailer?
Let’s start at the beginning. Why did I decide on an overland trailer? First of all, not everyone needs one. My rationale boiled down to a couple of things.
First, I like camping in backcountry areas that are accessible with my Jeep Wrangler. I live in Southern California and there are many mountain and desert backcountry areas where dispersed primitive camping is allowed and accessible with an off-road capable vehicle. BUT — and here’s where it gets complicated — I also like hitting technical off-road trails where I want my Jeep to be unencumbered by heavy and bulky gear that is often used in overlanding, such as an overland kitchen, water storage, and a roof-top tent.
Packing a Jeep with camping gear can quickly exceed the payload limits which can put a great deal of strain on it, particularly when tackling difficult terrain. I used to carry a roof-top tent on the top of my Jeep but found that it added weight and raised my center of gravity, which was unnerving on very technical trails. Taking a rooftop tent on and off the Jeep between wheeling and overland trips was too time-consuming and physically taxing.
In short, if I had only been using my Jeep for overlanding trips, outfitting it with a kitchen and roof-top tent probably would have been the best path. But, given my use case, getting all that gear onto a trailer that I could leave at home or in came when I hit the trails made a lot of sense for me.
The second major motivation for me to get or build a trailer was that I was tired of having to find and pack up all of our gear every time we wanted to go camping. I found that each time we wanted to go on a camping trip, it was taking me hours to dig out all the gear and get it packed into the Jeep. It was so time-consuming, that I found I was already tired and irritable before we even hit the road. The result was that we went on fewer trips.
Having a trailer will help overcome some of those logistical barriers. By having our gear stored in the trailer, we will be able to ramp up for a trip more quickly and have less unpacking to do afterward.
These two factors — 1) keeping my Jeep flexible for technical trips and 2) the ease of getting ready for and unpacking after trips — convinced me that a trailer was the right route. I ruled out RV-style overlanding rigs, such as vans based on Sprinters or other van models due to high cost and the desire to have my Jeep with us when we travel so that we can hit up local off-road trails as side trips. That’s how I landed on an overland trailer.
Choosing an Overland Trailer Type
The next big decision was what type of overland trailer I wanted. There are several styles to choose from.
The most luxurious would be larger camper trailers with all the bells and whistles. These are the sort made by well-known manufacturers that are the tow-behind versions of RVs, complete with bathrooms, kitchenettes, beds, and small seating areas. To be honest, if I had a place to store one of these and if I had a larger truck capable of towing one comfortably, I would have given one of these more consideration.
We rented one from a local RV place and really enjoyed it — and we’ll probably do so again. They provide more comfort, amenities, and a more home-like feeling when you’re in the backcountry.
There are a number of downsides to these larger camper trailers. First of all, they are fairly expensive. Second, you need a place to store them, which I don’t have at my house and don’t want to pay for. Third, they are rather large and heavy, which limits their off-road capability and puts strain on your tow vehicle. For these reasons, I decided to go for something smaller and more nimble on the trail.
The next type of overlanding trailer I considered was a teardrop trailer. These are scaled-down campers that have a protected sleeping area that’s just large enough for sleeping. Typically, teardrop trailers designed for backcountry use have an external kitchen, storage areas, electricity for lights and small appliances, and water storage. While teardrops don’t offer as many amenities as the larger camper trailers, they offer more protection than a tent, reducing exposure to the elements and outside noise while you are sleeping.
I decided against a teardrop primarily because they aren’t really big enough for three people to sleep comfortably. My wife and I typically camp with my son, who turns into a pro wrestler when sleeping, careening around, and dropping elbows and knees on us. We needed space, so a compact teardrop wasn’t going to work.
One setup that might have worked for us was to get a teardrop that had a roof-top tent on top, so there are two sleeping areas. This is a great option. In the end, I decided that getting a larger roof-top tent that would sleep all three of us comfortable was the most efficient setup. Also, because I decided to build the trailer myself, it would be simpler to build one that wasn’t a teardrop.
Cargo Trailer with Tent
So what kind of overland trailer did I decide to build? After factoring in all of the parameters, including how difficult it would be to build a DYI trailer, I landed on a cargo trailer with a rack on top for a roof-top tent.
This style of trailer provides plenty of room to store an overland kitchen, water, fuel, an electrical system, and camping gear while providing a stable platform for a roof-top tent. It also fit in my small garage and was within my abilities to fabricate the frame and cargo box on my own. I should add here that there are some companies out there that make simple overland trailers like this for a good price.
By the time you factor in the value of the time it takes to tool up, buy the parts at retail prices and build time for the trailer, it’s questionable whether building one from scratch is really a money saver. You really need to have the desire for a DIY project that will take you many months to complete. Clearly, I decided it was worth it to me, and I bet there are lots of people out there who are of the same mindset.
Why build a DIY Overland Trailer?
A big motivator for building an overland trailer myself was that I already had a set of wheels and tires for it. I’d recently put a suspension lift and new wheels and tires on my Jeep, and had the stock set sitting around. I reasoned that the wheels, which were larger off-road wheels off my Rubicon, would make a great start for an off-road trailer. If you’ve shopped for overland trailers, you’ll know that they can cost quite a bit of money — anywhere from $8,000 to $50,000. My reasoning was that this would save some money building my own, given that I had the tires already.
Initially, I thought I’d build my trailer using a trailer frame purchased from Harbor Freight or Lowes or find a surplus military trailer such as an M416 trailer. These are a common base for building overland trailers on a budget. I was considering buying a conversion kit from Dinoot Trailers, a company that provides no-weld parts to convert the trailers mention above into overland setups. If you are considering building an overland trailer, I highly recommend checking out their products and their forum at TVenturing.com.
The more I studied other people’s builds, however, I decided I wanted to custom build my frame and use a suspension-less axle set up so that my trailer would have more clearance. I’ll get into what a suspension-less axle is later. For now, I’ll just note that they present a number of advantages for off-road trailers and are relatively easy to install.
For me, the major challenge in building a trailer from scratch was that I would need to work with metal, which meant having the equipment to weld and saw mild steel and possibly aluminum. My welding skills are adequate for that task, so I decided I would build a custom trailer frame myself, attach the wheels with an axle-less suspension and build the cargo box and roof-top tent frame myself.
One thing that’s worth mentioning is that I live near a terrific metal supply shop and an industrial hardware store. Having access to these stores made life much easier, as I could run down to the story and look at metal and hardware first hand as I designed and built the trailer. If you don’t have a good metal supply store nearby, you may want to consider buying premade DIY parts from Dinoot or other suppliers — or plan very carefully so that you can order the metal and hardware with confidence and not need to make lots of trips to stores.
In subsequent posts, I’ll walk through my process of building an overland trailer. It has taken quite a while and I’ve already made a number of mistakes along the way that I hope will be cautionary tales for others looking to build a trailer. All in all, it’s been a great experience and I’m glad I decided to build the trailer myself. I still have a ways to go and will document all the steps in the following posts We’ll see how it holds up over time, but the nice thing is that I know it inside and out. If something breaks, I have the tools to fix it. And it’s very satisfying to use something you made with your own hands.