DIY Overland Trailer Build Part 1
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.
I’ve written a separate overview of the pros and cons of overland trailers and the different types. So here I’ll just summarize how I decided that I wanted a trailer, what trailer type and that I would build it myself. Here is a quick overview of the process of building a basic overland trailer:
- Choosing a Trailer Style
- Design the Trailer
- Tools and Materials
- Building the Base Frame
- Suspension and Wheels
- Hitch, Safety Chains, Swing Up Jack
- Building the Cargo Box Frame
- Trailer Doors and Latches
- Painting the Frame
- Cladding: Floor, Walls, and Roof
- Wiring Junction Box, Breaks and Break/Turning Lights
- Trim and Waterproofing
- Final Painting
- Titling and Registration
In future posts, I’ll cover all the different stages of my build. See the bottom of this post for a complete list of articles in this series with links to each installment.
I’m also making a series of videos to go with these build articles. Here’s the intro video, from our first camping trip in the trailer:
Why get 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.
I like camping in backcountry areas that are accessible with my Jeep Wrangler, but I also enjoy technical off-roading. Sometimes I head to areas where we can camp and then during the day hit some local off-road trails.
This presented two problems: 1) I had to pack up my roof-top tent every time we wanted to go on a day excursion from camp, and 2) the tent and other camping gear in the Jeep limited what trails I could hit because they increased my cargo weight and raised the Jeep’s center of gravity — which made me nervous.
The other problem was that between trips I had to pack and unpack the Jeep, which was a huge pain. I would be frazzled from all the packing before a trip even began. For long trips, this wasn’t such a problem, but for short weekend trips, it felt like the juice wasn’t worth the squeeze.
An overland trailer solved both of these problems. I can leave the trailer at camp for the day with all our gear in it and go hit the trails. And, I can keep much of our camping gear in the trailer when we’re home, which makes packing much easier.
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 camp when I hit the trails made a lot of sense for me.
One last thing I’ll point out is that Jeep Wranglers don’t have a large cargo capacity, which becomes evident when trying to pack camping gear for a family. This was another motivating factor – the trailer greatly expands our cargo space.
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 some companies 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 when you factor in the time it took.
The time I spent on my DYI trailer could have been spent making money to pay for a commercially built trailer. 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 $80,000 and maybe more. 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 and they come with a VIN number, which eases the process of DMV registration.
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.
After getting inspired while studying other people’s DIY overland trailers, 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 firsthand 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 and provide details on the materials and tools I used. 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 am still ironing out some of the final details 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.