Rather than shell out hard-earned cash for motel lodging on family jaunts, I figured I'd put a few bucks, and a bit of effort, into building a homemade camping trailer.
ILLUSTRATION: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
If you've got travel in your blood but only a little cash in your pocket, build a homemade camping trailer.
I've been a fan of the great outdoors since my youth, but
once I became a family man, I had to think about changing
the manner in which I visited the wilds. You see,
though all of the Pentecost clan enjoys camping, we don't
all appreciate middle-of-the-night close encounters with
wild critters . . . and needless to say, the prices of
recreational trailers have gone far beyond the reach of
many folks, including us.
I didn't, however, let a mere lack of funds prevent our
traveling around and experiencing the thrill of new and
distant places. Rather than shell out hard-earned cash for
motel lodging on family jaunts, I figured I'd put a few
bucks, and a bit of effort, into building a homemade
camping trailer . . . and still have some money left over
to spend on a trip. The result of my brainstorm is the "appropriate technology (or APT) camper" pictured here . .
. a lightweight, four-berth tent trailer—built from
both new and used components—which cost me less than
BUILDING A CAMPING TRAILER: START AT THE BEGINNING
The heart of my APT Camper is a small, 750-pound-capacity
fishing-boat trailer . . . which I picked up, in good
condition, for $100. These tag-alongs are typically just
under 4 feet wide at the rear and taper inward toward the
front. To ready it for camper carrying, I simply welded two
Lshaped pieces of 4 inch-broad lightweight channel iron to the
trailer's nose, thus providing a 4-foot-wide structural
base at the front of the tapered frame. Since the chassis
wasn't quite 4 feet wide at the rear, I also had
to weld some 1/8 inch by 2 inch by 2 inch by 3 inch angle iron brackets to its
side rails in that area to support my trailer's 3/4 inch by 4 foot by 8 foot plywood floor.
After I'd drilled through the brackets and frame members
and bored mounting holes in the wooden platform, I started
work on the camper's walls. To make them, I first trimmed
five 2 by 4's to 8-foot lengths, then cut four 41 inch-long
sections. Seventeen 2 by 4's—measuring 15-3/4 inch
each—served as vertical studs.
Then, using 1/4 inch by 3 inch lag screws, I fastened 13 of the
studs to their respective top and bottom plates, forming
three 19 inch-tall wall frames . . . which I went on to fasten
to the front and side edges of the plywood floor with bolts
run through the bottom plates, the wooden platform,
and the trailer frame (or the angle iron brackets)
beneath. To enclose the camper's tail end, I framed out two
12 inch-long walls at the rear corners, bolted them to the base
as I had the others, and then fastened them to the side
walls with lag screws. More screws, placed through the
corner studs at the front, helped to make the entire "box" secure.
I covered the wall frames with 1/4 inch exterior-grade plywood,
which I fastened to the studs and plates with No. 6 by 1 inch
wood screws. And finally, I made a 19 inch-tall, 24 inch-wide door
of 2 by 2's covered with the ply wood skin and attached the
portal to the walls in the usual manner, with hinges on one
side and a standard lock set on the other.
In order to provide the camper with bunk space and a
protective lid, I attached two "wings"—made from 4 foot by
8 foot sheets of 1/2 inch plywood—to the top of each long
wall with Thinges. One of the wooden sheets was left full
size, but the other was cut down to 44 inch wide to allow it to
clear a 2 by 4 spacer I used to mount the first
wing. (This spacer—which I fastened to one wall's top
plate—raises the full section of plywood enough to
let the narrower sheet fold flat beneath it.)
Then, to stiffen the sleeping platforms, I glued and
screwed three evenly spaced 2 by 4 ribs across the breadth
of each wing, one near each end and another in the middle,
using No. 6 by 1 inch flathead wood screws countersunk into the
The wooden wings—when extended—are further held
in place by a total of six 3/4 inch E.M.T. support poles (three
per side) fastened between the ends of the ribs and the
trailer frame. After cutting the rods to about 45 inch in
length, I flattened one end of each section, drilled a 1/4 inch
hole through the metal at that point, and locked a 1/4 inch by 4 inch machine screw into each opening. Then I bored six 1/4 inch
holes—each in line with one rib—through the
side of the trailer's chassis, and tightened 1/4 inch by 2 inch
bolts into the openings, threaded ends out, using double
nuts. After bending the bolts upward slightly, I slipped
short pieces of 1/4 inch neoprene hose over the studs to assure
a snug fit.
With the support poles on their respective studs, I
temporarily shored up the plywood wings so they were level,
positioned the bolts on the ends of the supports against
the ribs, and drilled horizontal 1/4 inch holes through the 2 by 4's at the points I'd marked. By slipping the support bars'
bolts through the crosswise bores, I could be sure that
each wing was firmly secured.
At this point I had a "winged" camper . . . that would
still tip sideways if someone were to sit on one edge. So,
to solve that problem, I cut two 28 inch lengths of 1 inch E.M.T.
and two 30 inch pieces of 3/4 inch electrical conduit . . . and
drilled a 1/4 inch hole through the side of each 1 inch section,
about an inch from the end. By securing 3/4 inch pipe hanger
clamps to the drilled E.M.T. so that the threaded collars
were in line with the bores, I could slide the
smaller-diameter tubes inside the larger ones and hold each
one fast by a bolt (bent at a right angle) tightened
through the clamp to press against the inner conduit
To make a foot for each of the telescoping supports, I just
purchased a pair of 1 inch E.M.T. to 3/4 inch pipe couplers and
two 3/4 inch floor flanges, and fastened them to the bottom of
Then, to secure the supports at their upper ends (as well
as to provide an attaching point for the exterior tent
poles), I cut two 8 inch lengths of the channel I'd used to
extend the frame and drilled seven 1/4 inch holes through each
piece . . . two pairs in line through the part's
shoulders—about 4 inch apart and toward one end—and
three in a triangular pattern in the base at the opposite
end, as shown in the drawing.
By placing the brackets over the ends of the central ribs
and drilling through the shoulder holes and the wood
between them, I was able to slide some 1/4 inch bolts into the
openings to serve as fastening pins. Likewise, 1/4 inch by 2 inch
bolts—secured to the brackets' remaining holes in a
two-up, one-down arrangement and covered with more fuel
line—provided tent pole and support mounts. (The
brackets, poles, and other loose hardware can be stored in
the bed of the camper when not in use.)
Several coats of exterior paint, applied to all the wooden
surfaces (both inside and out), protected the camper's skin
and gave it a real quality-built look, too.
FROM CABIN TENT TO CAMPER
I found that actually installing the tent was a
simple—and satisfying—task. My 9 foot by 12 foot
exterior-frame unit fit the camper just about perfectly,
though I had to cut the canvas floor out to allow access to
the center bunk area. (I used the scrap to stitch up a
snap-in-place weatherproof tarp that protects the trailer
when it's towed.)
I merely spread the tent out in place—making sure its
door lined up with the camper's entrance—then worked
around the perimeter, pulling the canvas walls so they hung
over the platform an equal distance all around. By holding
the edges temporarily with C-clamps, I was able to set the
shelter up and secure an inch or two of folded-over canvas
to the underside of the wings, using strips of 1/4 inch plywood
ripped to 1 inch widths and held on with 1/2 inch wood screws.
Then, to attach the tent to the front and back walls, I
simply installed sturdy snap fasteners.
That's about all there was to it, too. Of course, you may
want to add some extra "goodies" to your own APT Camper,
should you choose to build one (I've included foam mattress
pads, an electrical outlet, and a small cabinet in mine),
but you can get along quite nicely with the simple setup
I've described here. Don't be afraid to improvise, though .
. . if you already have a tent, by all means build your
camper to suit it, even if it's an odd size. There's
nothing like "making do" to save money.
EDITOR'S NOTE: For those who may not feel confident
building their own APT Camper just from the descriptions
given in this article, the author is offering a
construction guide that includes drawings and a materials
list. It's available for $10 from Robert Pentecost, Dept.
TMEN, Louisville, Kentucky.
Check your state's motor vehicle regulations concerning
registration and insurance of a towed camping trailer
before you build.