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DIY Overland Trailer Build Part 2: Design

In my previous article on building a DIY overlanding trailer, I explained my rationale for building a trailer myself and how I decided what type of trailer I wanted to build.

Here I’ll talk about the process for designing an overland trailer — or at least the process I used. Like I said in my earlier post, I’m not a professional trailer builder nor am I an engineer, so do your own research and consult professionals when necessary.

Research

The first thing I did was lots of research. I looked at other websites on overlanding, trailer manufacturers materials and read through online forums where people had posted their own build threads.

Overland trailer design
Rough sketch of an overland trailer with a roof-top-tent rack.

I also went to a couple of overlanding and off-roading expos to check out commercially manufactured trailers in person and talked with trailer owners I met on the trail about their trailers.

How much design work you do in advance depends a lot on how complex your project will be. If you want a simple cargo trailer to carry gear and supplies you’ll have to account for far fewer design elements than if you’re planning a sleep-inside tear drop trailer with running water and solar-charged battery powered electrical system.

Erring on the side of simplicity made sense to me as a first time trailer builder. Even with the fairly simple build I was imagining, as the various elements of the trailer came into focus – wheels, suspension, frame, cargo box, tent rack, etc. – my brain overheated a few times trying to plan how to mesh everything together.

Building a flexible platform

I reach a critical thinking limit when I started attempting to add water and electrical systems to my designs. There were just too many elements to consider and it felt like I would never get started actually building my overlanding trailer.

Facing despair, I opted for a progressive enhancement design philosophy — meaning I would design the bare minimum trailer to use in the backcountry and add on other bells and whistles later.

Overland trailer with wheels design
When it comes down to it, a trailer is just a box on a wheeled platform.

The goal was to come up with something simple, function and flexible. I drive a Jeep Wrangler which is sometimes referred to as a “platform,” as it can be modified in endless ways. I decided to adopt that mindset for my overland trailer.

Really, all I needed at first was a sturdy, off-road capable box on wheels that could hold gear and supplies, and could pass DMV inspection so I could legally drive it on the road.

Once it was road worthy, I could progressively add enhancements. My goal then was to design a basic trailer that I could take on trips and continue adding to over time. This broke down into these objectives:

  1. Wheels, suspension and base frame capable of off-road travel
  2. Cargo box to carry gear, supplies and an overland kitchen
  3. Rack on top of the cargo box capable of supporting a roof-top tent and the weight of three people

I’ll outline how I tackled each of these components, both the design and build, in subsequent posts. But first a bit about design tools.

Downsides to My Approach

Leaving some design elements for later in the project has some drawbacks. The main problem is that the base trailer may not be optimized for the components I add later in the process.

Overland trailer with fridge and sliders
Although I tried to keep it very simple, I still tried to anticipate future enhancements like sliders and a water tank — somewhat.

Eventually, I want to add cargo sliders, a water tank, lights, a portable refrigerator, and other bells amd whistles. Ideally, these things would be planned out in advance — and I have given then SOME thought. But I left the details solve at a later date, which could lead to unforeseen complications.

Design Tools

My first instinct was to design the overland trailer in SketchUp, a popular CAD-type tool. I soon realized that I needed a lot more flexibility to sketch things out and make big changes of direction.

To that end, I decided to use plain old graph paper, pencils and various hand-held rulers, protractors and compasses. Old school.

Overland Trailer Drafting Set
A cheap drafting set bought online provided my primary design tools.

If I had had a firmer idea of what I wanted to build and better CAD skills, Sketch Up or another design software might have been the way to go. But I’d still probably sketch out early concepts on paper.

Where a CAD drawing would be particularly helpful is if you need to have parts fabricated by a shop. Giving them a precise drawing from a standard design program could make it easier/cheaper.

That said, I’m pretty sure based on my research that I can make it all work.

Tools and Skills

I’ll get into the tools and techniques I used to build my overland trailer in the next article. But it’s worth pausing here to consider how those capabilities play a role in your design.

Welding overland trailer
Welding the frame of my overland trailer. You don’t need to know how to weld to build a trailer, but you’ll probably need to source a trailer basic frame to build on.

If you don’t know how to weld or would rather avoid a lot of welding, you’ll most likely want to start of with a pre-made frame onto which you can bolt the suspension and cargo/sleeping box. You could either build on an existing trailer, such as a military surplus trailer or a purpose built overlanding trailer frame.

The more custom your trailer, the more tools you’ll need. If you buy a prefabricated frame, suspension and box, you will likely be able to bolt most things together. Keep this in mind as you start designing.

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