When most people start overlanding, they use whatever vehicle they’ve got, whether it’s a truck, car, van, motorcycle…whatever they can pack up with camping gear and hit the road in.
Eventually, they will encounter an overlanding trailer on the trail or see one in an Instagram post and their interest is peaked.
Then begins the great debate…to trailer or not to trailer.
In this post, I hope to make that decision a bit easier. Or at least, by providing information based on my own experiences, make the decision more transparent and clear-eyed.
Why use an overland trailer?
There are a few good reasons to use an overland trailer, and I’ll rattle through a few of them below. I’ll also lay out some of the downsides of owning a trailer.
Every time my family headed out for a camping trip, whether an overnighter or a longer overland expedition, it used to take 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.
An overland trailer makes packing more efficient as you can keep your gear in the trailer between trips. That doesn’t mean you don’t need to organize your gear and resupply your consumables, but at least you know where everything is and don’t have to lug as much of it in and out of your vehicle.
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. And when I do, I want my Jeep to be unencumbered by heavy and bulky gear, such as an overland kitchen, water, fuel and food storage, and a roof-top tent. For may years, I often carried 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.
Also, when I camped with a roof-top tent on my vehicle, I needed to pack it up every day if I want to drive somewhere.
This can be a huge hassle. And taking a rooftop tent on and off the Jeep between wheeling and overland trips is time-consuming and physically taxing. In part to solve this problem, I built a DIY overland trailer.
Having a trailer allows you to keep your vehicle unencumbered and thus easier to use as a daily driver and for day excursions from camp when you are in the backcountry.
Less Vehicle Wear & Tear
Packing a vehicle with camping gear and supplies can quickly exceed the payload limit which can put a great deal of strain on your drive train and suspension, particularly when tackling difficult terrain.
While you still have to be conscious about not towing more weight than your vehicle or the trailer can handle, using a trailer takes weight off your vehicle and puts into onto the trailer.
The Cons of Overland Trailers
I laid out some of the pros of overland trailers above. Now let me squish some of the rainbows and butterflies.
Put simply, overlanding trailers can be pricey. Really pricey. A basic cargo trailer will start in the $8000-$15,000 range and they go up from there. High-end camper trailers capable of off-road travel run in the tens of thousands of dollars. This is one reason I decided to build my one.
Typically, outfitting your vehicle for overlanding will be cheaper than purchasing or building an overland trailer
Where are you going to keep that thing? Overland trailers are bulky and will need a place to live when not in use.
I managed to fit mine in my garage, but it’s still a hassle to store it. You’ll definitely want to figure out where you’ll keep your trailer, whether it’s in a garage, driveway, or RV storage facility.
Trailers can be targets for theft. This is true of vehicles as well, but having a trailer means you’ll have one more thing to keep track of.
Also, if you leave it unattended for long periods of time, it can be very difficult to ensure that no-one will break in – especially if you are travelling in places with high levels of petty theft.
Maintainance and Repairs
Another thing on wheels is another thing that can break. You’ll need to maintain your trailer and repair anything that breaks, which can range from flat tires, broken axles, faulty electrical systems and appliances on the fritz.
If you plan to tow your trailer into the backcountry, you’ll need to be aware of its limitations. Some trailers are quite off-road capable, but others will not be able to handle highly technical terrain. Make sure you get a trailer that can rise to your ambitions.
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, for now, I prefer something smaller and more nimble on the trail.
The next type of overlanding trailer are teardrop trailers. 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.
Cargo Trailer with Tent
The trailer I built is 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. These are the cheapest style of trailer and, in my opinion, a great place to start if you are looking for an overlanding trailer.