by Chinle Miller
There’s not a lot you can do to a cargo trailer, or so I thought when I bought mine. Then, I got a wild idea to paint one wall a deep sunburst yellow, and one thing led to another. I ended up painting the other wall a Taos blue, which I initially thought might be a bit much, but then decided since I was going to live in it, why not make it like I wanted?
When it was all done, I added a handmade quilt a friend made for me, and it all matched perfectly, though I hadn’t planned it that way. Serendipity! It’s kind of cozy, like a gypsy vardo. I run everything on solar, and the trailer is insulated so it stays warm in the cool weather and cool when it’s hot. After a certain point either way, I do have to turn on the propane heater or my 12-volt fan.
After doing a bit more research on converted cargo trailers, I was pretty amazed at some of the things people have done. Some were simple, and some were as nice as anything I’ve seen. At 6 ft. by 12 ft., mine’s pretty modest, but the storage under the bed is great. I’ve now full-timed in it for a couple of months, and I’ll say it’s much more livable than any of the half-dozen other trailers I’ve had, which include a Casita and an Aliner. It’s also very easy to pull, and I can stealth camp in it about anywhere—I actually camped in a Montana DMV parking lot once when on the road.
Living in a converted cargo trailer feels much more like living in a little cabin, except I can change the views when I want. It feels more substantial, more sheltering, than living in a trailer. And what I really love about it is the simplicity. There’s nothing to break or need repairs. I cook outside (unless it’s too windy), and I use a solar shower and porta-potty.
Life is simple and I can devote my time to writing, hiking with my three rescue dogs, cuddling with my three cats, and watching the sunrise and sunset. People think I’m crazy when I tell them I live in 70 square feet with six animals, but everyone’s happy. We get to be outdoors most of the time, even the cats, as I have a special cat-tent for them. I also take them for walks on leashes.
I’ve owned several nice houses (with the bank) and used to work in a high-paying professional field (computer consulting), but one morning I just flung it all over my shoulder and hit the road, traveling and living in a tent. Sure, being a nomad can be hard sometimes, but the benefits more than make up for it. I can live on almost nothing, and I find myself wanting little. I take great pleasure in things that some would consider unimportant, like watching the bluejays eat the nuts I throw out.
I’ve discovered that having a nice place to live, like my gypsy cargo trailer, gives me the underpinnings to enjoy a life of simplicity. Who could ask for more?
You wouldn’t normally think of a 5th wheel trailer as a tiny house, but when I was invited over to Matt and Kathleen’s Forest River Cardinal trailer which is parked behind a friend’s home, I was astounded at how cozy and “house-like” it felt. The couple, who downsized from their home in Seattle to this 30-foot trailer about a year ago, have turned it into a little mobile retreat.
A few years ago, a trip to India opened the couple’s eyes to an alternative way of life and they decided to sell their home in Seattle and most of their belongings. Kathleen said they were both “ready for wheels on a house” and wanted more time for themselves and each other. Matt works as a freelance multimedia designer and Kathleen is an acupuncturist, so their jobs can go on the road with them. Their cats, Mojo and Chloe, also travel along with them and seem to love their new, sunny home.
The couple’s travels have taken them to several RV parks and campgrounds in the West and they spent last winter on a relative’s ranch in Arizona. They currently live in the large acreage behind a friend’s home and pay $500 a month which includes their utilities and Internet access. Since this winter will be colder than the one in Arizona, the 10,500 lb trailer has currently been fitted with a plywood skirt to protect the tanks and pumps. Matt mentioned that the skirting keeps the bay and bottom of the trailer about 4 to 10 degrees warmer than the outside air.
The reason the couple chose a fifth wheel rather than a wooden tiny house on wheels is simple: Matt is 6’2″ and needed the headroom. This particular trailer was also rated one of the highest in insulation value. The couple purchased the fifth wheel from Fife RV in Washington for $14,500 and it contains a slider for the living room, a cozy kitchen and dining area, a stand-up work station for Matt, a shower and separate toilet, full bedroom, and they keep it warm with the propane/electric furnace and small space heaters. Gray and black water is first sent through a grinding pump before being pumped into the home’s septic system.
Kathleen said that while it can be difficult to keep the trailer warm and that cleaning out the tanks is not fun, she loves the freedom of the trailer.
“I love the mobility and the idea of being totally self contained,” she said. Matt added that he also loves that there’s no wasted space and he totally digs the trailer’s “Command Center” where they can keep an eye on the level of the tanks, the lighting and battery system.
“We were a bit worried about what people would think of us,” Matt said. “But the response to our decision to move into the trailer has been overwhelmingly positive.”
Photos by Harry Thomas
On a recent trip to Yosemite National Park, the parking lots were dotted with some very colorful little campervans that reminded me of the long-term travel vans in Europe, Australia and New Zealand. It turns out that the Kiwi company that rents out the graffiti-inspired vans Down Under now has rental options in the U.S. The individually painted vans are available in several cities around the country for both short and long road trips.
Escape Campervans are available in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Miami and New York and each are hand painted by local artists. Prices are quoted for trips from 3 days to 85+ days. A young British couple we met in Yosemite were driving their Escape campervan from Los Angeles to New York for three months and the longer you rent, the cheaper the cost. Only a $200 deposit is needed to reserve a camper van.
The U.S fleet of Escape Campervans are economical Chevy Astros, Ford E150 and Dodge Caravans. Each of the campervans sleep two to four people and include beds, bedding and comforters, picnic chairs, sinks and running water, cooking and eating utensils, heat and AC, stereos, propane stoves, and ice boxes for food. Some of the vans include pop-up roofs with sleeping areas. Optional items can be rented including picnic tables, snow chains, rooftop storage boxes, GPS systems, tents, awnings, solar showers and child seats.
Photos by Escape Campervans
For their first tiny house, Green Valley Natural Builders in Sebastopol, CA decided to build something very small, but beautiful, using only natural, unprocessed and re-used materials. What they came up with is a delightful tiny structure on wheels that cost only $1,500 to build. Because the small company is used to creating houses out of straw bales, cob and wood, they didn’t want the materials for their first 6 foot by 10 foot house to come from the lumber yard.
The group used an old trailer frame, separating and recycling the aluminum and priming the trailer with metal paint. The walls were framed with rough cut 2×2 pieces of wood. The rough cut of the wood varied in thickness by up to a quarter inch and because of this the house began to take on its own dimensions and character. Various sizes of 1/8 inch plywood were used for strength and rigidity and the roof was decked with 1/2 plywood for strength and lightness. The exterior siding was rough milled cedar and fir and recycled blue jean insulation was used inside the walls. The windows came from the old trailer and the door was cut from a slab of 2×12 redwood. Metal roofing was purchased for the roof.
“It was fun to build, although definitely one of the more challenging and time consuming projects I have worked on, due to the variability in the raw material we used and the unplanned natural nature of the design,” said Ganesh of Green Valley Natural Builders. “Tens of hours were spent planning and edging and fitting non-standardized materials. What we saved in material costs we definitely made up for in labor, but the end result is unreplicable making it worth it for me.”
Green Valley Natural Builders is a local builders cooperative with over fifty years of accumulated experience in construction, carpentry, landscaping, heavy equipment operation and forestry. They construct and sell tipi poles, handcrafted furniture, play cabins and dog houses, floating cabins, sweat lodges, saunas, solar water heaters and they are currently working on several collapsible vardos.
The build process of the tiny, tiny house is available on Instructables.
Photos by Green Valley Natural Builders