When I first had the inkling of an idea in December 2014 to move out of my apartment and live in a tiny trailer, I was hugely inspired by the clever designs seen in many micro homes, as well as a number of other really interesting trailers. The Cricket Trailer was my top inspiration, and the SeaLander, while I knew I wouldn’t build a floating trailer (let alone have anywhere to actually float it), was also up there in terms of its wow factor. In writing this, I just ran across the Hütte Hut, and while I can’t claim it as inspiration having literally just found it, it is amazing. I love this stuff!
I knew my trailer wouldn’t be anywhere close to those designs when it came to looks, materials, polish, and interior, but I didn’t need it to be; this was and is a prototype, a blank canvas for experimenting and learning how to make it better. As I live in this first trailer, I’m also designing a significantly improved V2 that will bring me a lot closer to a “final product.” Something more than just a little box.
That all being said, I did have a lot of fun designing and building my current trailer, and I’d like to share some of that process with you.
The headlines include: many late nights, giant death robots, and six-wheeled electric drone tanks. Literally. There were explosions too, but that happened later.
The Initial Idea
This experiment first emerged when I was taking some time off work around the holidays. I had just bought a Smart car, and was curious if it could tow a trailer. Some Googling led me to all sorts of neat little trailers, and eventually I landed on the Cricket. My jaw dropped. That was the coolest thing I had ever seen. Ever. Period.
It didn’t take long for me to start daydreaming about living in something like that, and when the realization hit that my apartment’s lease wasn’t too far away from ending, I was decided; I sketched idea after idea, navigating the design constantly in my head as I had any idle moments.
It could have a flip-out bed that's also a couch. Yeah, there would totally be enough room for a kitchen. And a shower — that would be tricky, but it could work. Let’s go! Yes!
It was an obsession. I used masking tape to mark the footprint of the trailer on the floor of my apartment. At first I thought 5x10’would be about right, but realized that would make construction a bit tricky as I was trying to stick to 4x8’ sheets of material for the outer panels. So I dropped it to 5x8’. After more research, it became clear that even that was a little too large, the Harbor Freight trailer I chose having a 4x8’ bed.
I adjusted the tape on the floor. Wow that’s small. Even in a 4x8’ footprint though, everything still seemed to fit. So… that was it. I was going to live in a 4x8’ trailer.
The Internet is full of awesome stuff. With so many cool ideas for small living spaces, I was sure I could use a lot of them in my trailer.
However, mostly due to time constraints, I wasn’t able to build anything beyond a simple box — and now that I’m living in it, the process of making modifications is a little more involved. Having an empty box though has given me a much better idea of what is necessary, what would be nice to have, and what would be an annoyance in a such a small space. The time constraints have worked out for the best.
Here’s what I was thinking:
A Couch, a Table, and a Bed
I planned to have an L-shaped “couch” with storage underneath the seats and a fold-up, flip-around panel to cover the open part of the L, transforming the space into either a bed or a table depending on what you needed. Maybe the under-seat storage could lock, letting me keep any valuables in the trailer with a modicum less worry.
Yes. Yes. And one more for good measure: yes! If I were to add a single thing to my trailer now, it would/will be this. As I type, I’m sitting on my sleeping pad, back against a wall, laptop on my outstretched legs, and the whole situation is not particularly comfortable after more than 20 minutes.
When I build the next trailer, I’ll do something similar to my fold-out bed/table idea, though perhaps more modular; smaller panels that can fold up rather than one large piece would be nice.
Next in my original list of things to build: a kitchen. I like to cook, and I didn’t want to stop cooking while in the trailer, so I planned to have a corner set aside with a counter and a sink — albeit, very small, but still there.
I guess I was planning for the kitchen when the trailer was still going to be 5x10’. When I dropped the size down to 4x8’, even though it would have been possible, it would have been tight.
I also realized that as long as I had some sort of working space, I didn’t need an explicit kitchen area. And I still think that's right. To have such a relatively large amount of space dedicated to a single purpose would be frustrating. Repurposing space is key.
Of course, as I said, I still don’t even have a table.
Shelving and Storage
Coming in a close second place to a bed/couch/table is shelving. Or more generally, some sort of wall storage. I’ve got these great big walls that are largely empty, and right now I spend precious floor space on storage. Some things hang, like my bags of clothes. And I’ve got an elastic net at the front of the trailer where I can hook small things, but a good portion of my stuff stays on the floor.
One thing is for sure: all storage should be solid and ready for travel; right now, I have to move some things into my car and strap others down whenever I want to move the trailer. You really don’t want a portable toilet bouncing around as you’re driving down the street.
Yes it happened. Yes it was empty.
I had, up until I actually started living in it, planned to put a shower in the trailer. I figured it would be easy —just hang a portable RV shower at the top of the ceiling, put a drain in the floor, maybe even coat the floor of the trailer with NeverWet®.
Maybe I’ll consider this for V2, but as I see it right now, that’s a terrible idea. There’s just not enough space. Not to mention I built this trailer only 5’ tall, and who wants to take a shower while hunched over?
Design and Construction
With the basic ideas sketched out on paper and floating around in my head, I used the freely available student version of Autodesk Inventor to finalize the design. I’m glad Autodesk has made their software available for non-professionals, but I wish like mad there were a free or inexpensive 3D CAD software out there — anything that doesn’t cost thousands of dollars. Though there are a few options, none are really capable enough for practical use.
As an aside, I did some pretty heavy research into solid modeling CAD software after having used both Inventor and SolidWorks in the past. I wanted to find something I could purchase and use for commercial projects. I may end up writing an article on my findings, but the short version is that I chose BricsCAD. It’s very capable, and compared to other options, fairly affordable.
The main structure of the frame is made of 1 1/2” wide, 1/8” thick angle aluminum and is bolted together. While aluminum was a given, I spent a long time thinking about which shape, size, and thickness to use, as I needed to find a balance between strength and weight. My Smart car can’t tow more than... ehh, 750 lbs at most, and I was trying to keep the dry weight of the trailer under 500.
To span the two sides of the trailer, I used 1” wide, 1/16” thick angle aluminum. I’m very happy with the design of the spans and how they mount to the main frame, mostly because it’s simple and they’re all made the same two parts. However, if I could go back, I would have made them from 1/8” thick aluminum instead of 1/16”. Several times now they’ve bent slightly out of shape from too much load when I’ve driven down the road with something strapped to them.
All in all, the frame comes in at a theoretical 36.69 lbs. The panelling adds approximately 100 lbs, so the final empty box weighs in under 150 lbs. Add that to the 250 lbs of the trailer, and we’re looking at an empty weight of under my 500 lbs target. Success!
For the siding, I looked into all sorts of materials, including aluminum and PVC, ABS, and polyethylene plastics. However trivial and illogical a reason, I was strongly opposed to plywood because it just didn’t seem high-tech enough. Sure it’s strong, light, cheap, readily available, and easy to work with. I’d have none of it. None of it, I tell you!
It turns out that shipping a flat 4x8’ sheet of anything is outrageously expensive, what with it far exceeding the allowable dimensions of any of the major shipping companies. So I had to source my materials locally. Fortunately, the area of New Jersey that’s right around the corner is filled with all sorts of industrial supply companies.
One of the more commonly available materials was something called expanded foam PVC, which is commonly used in semi-permanent store displays and signs. It was light and cheap. The guy at the store said it wouldn’t hold up for my needs, but experts be damned; let’s do it!
The stuff was great to work with. It was easy to cut, drilled nicely, and could even be bent cleanly with a heat gun. As it turns out though, that “damned expert” was right. The foam PVC was’t anywhere strong enough for what the trailer demanded.
After the minor propane explosion, I replaced all the panels with plywood. It’s much better, but I’ve got some ideas for V2 about how I can use easily shippable pieces of ABS.
With the switch to plywood, I also switched to using pop rivets to attach the panels instead of nearly 400 locknuts 400 screws. Pop rivets are amazing if for no other reason than they can be secured from one side, not requiring someone to hold the wrench and another to operate the screwdriver.
Insulation is a currently unsolved part of the puzzle. I found some very lightweight R1 foam at Home Depot, but I don’t know how effective that’d be, and I haven't had time to install it. I had considered spray insulation, but that’s too messy and permanent for my liking.
I’m now leaning pretty strongly towards reflective bubble insulation after seeing it used in these crazy survival capsules. If nothing else, I figure the people behind this have put a lot more research and experimentation into their decision than I ever would. I learned my lesson; listen to the experts.
CNC Router aka. Giant Killer Robot
When it came time to start building the trailer, I was very fortunate that the software company I work for also owns a very well equipped industrial design shop in New Jersey. I had access to not only space, but also all sorts of machines and tools including a very large computer controller router.
I used the CNC router to drill the 400+ holes in the aluminum. It was a lot easier, faster, and frankly, more accurate to do it that way than measuring and drilling by hand. CNC machines are generally controlled by a very simple instruction language called GCode, of which I had to learn the basics. It was a lot of fun to write code and see this giant machine come to life — not what happenes day-to-day in a software developer's life to be honest.
Alright, so, it's life lesson time: when you're recording footage of something, or taking photos, MAKE SURE you back it up properly. I'm actually not sure how this happened as I was being careful, but somehow I managed to lose/delete all the really interesting footage if the CNC router doing its thing.
But don't worry. You're not leaving empty-handed. There are all sorts of cool prototypes out at this shop, so here's a gif of my girlfriend driving one of them: a 6-wheeled electric tank.
I can't wait to share the next design with y'all. I'm working on it regularly, and I'd like it to be something that really makes people go "wow" like I did with the Cricket Trailer. Bells and whistels and beds and tables, heaters and showers and maybe it'll even have six wheels. Ok, proably not that last part. And I'm not sure what the bells and whistels would be for, but why not?
I've got ideas, but I'm not sure I can do it all myself. I'd really like to hear the ideas that all of you have. What would you like to have in such a small space? Do you have any ideas about space utilization? Furniture or storage? Is 4x8' too small?