Click for Coverage
  • JP Magazine
  • Dirt Sports + Off-Road
  • 4-Wheel & Off-Road
  • Four Wheeler
Subscribe to the Free

Building An Off-Road Trailer On A Budget

Posted in How To on November 1, 2011
Share this

I like towing a trailer on the trail. My wife and I both enjoy the added comfort, the increased convenience, and the additional cargo space a Jeep trailer can provide. And we’re too old to sleep on the ground nowadays. Plus, as with higher speeds, a Jeep trailer can add driving challenges to a well-known, low-rated, non-technical trail. Attach a trailer to your off-roader and it allows you to take more tools, more spare parts, more equipment, more camping gear, and better food along for the ride.

This wash-out shows the super stability of the homemade Jeep camping trailer. This same obstacle caused a very expensive off-road tent trailer to turn turtle.

In fact, I enjoy towing a trailer on trails so much that I’ve towed an off-road tent trailer over the Rubicon Trail three times. I once told an editor that I thought I might have been a mule skinner in a former life. After chuckling a bit, he responded with, “Perhaps you were the mule?” Well, I might have been a jackass more than a few times in my life, but not when it came to designing and building my own Jeep camping trailer.

Actually, for $450, my wife and I bought a freshly made cargo trailer built from the bed and frame of a 1997 Chevy S-10. We bought it for light-duty trash hauling and weed collecting around our property. I assume its tires and wheels—mounted on the S-10’s rear end—were original because they resembled a pair of dull CDs more than tires to these off-roader’s eyes. So I went to my Jeep storage and found a pair of Bridgestone Dueler A/T 33x12.50R15 tires on Jeep wheels that were left over from one of our previously owned Jeeps; I thought they would make it easier to move the trailer through the soft dirt and gravel around the property.

Using a pair of adapters from A-Dapt-It USA, I changed the S-10’s five-on-4-3/4-inch lug pattern to that of a Jeep TJ’s five-on-4-1/2-inch pattern, and I installed the tires on the trailer’s axle without a bed lift kit. I did this before I even thought about converting the cargo trailer to a camping trailer. The tires themselves lifted the trailer several inches for increased ground clearance. With the tires in place, I discovered that the trailer followed the Jeep easily, and it started me thinking that with a little money it could make a very stable trailer for our trail riding and an excellent camper for our ghost town hunting trips.

Matching the Jeep in color, height, and tire track, the trailer pulls as well as it looks and can haul a half-ton of cargo.

Since most of our ghost town hunting is done solo, one of the first things I added to our camping gear was a .22-caliber rifle as a camp gun. In my opinion, the Henry Repeating Arms’ AR7 .22-caliber rifle should be in every four-wheeler who travels the trails alone. The AR7 was designed by Eugene Stoner in 1959 as a survival rifle for U.S. Air Force crews. It’s semiautomatic and breaks down into four main parts; the barrel, action, two eight-round magazines, and the stock. All the metal parts are stowed in the water-resistant hollow stock, which also floats if you should drop it in a river or lake.

The AR7 fits beautifully in the small “trunk” of a Jeep JK or behind the backseat in a CJ7. With shot shells it’s a perfect snake gun, or it can secure dinner if you become stuck and need to roast a rabbit or two. Back in the days when Dick Cepek had a number of camping and tire stores throughout the West, he sold the AR7, and I always wanted one for my Jeep. For years I was under the impression that the AR7 was no longer being produced, but last year I discovered that Henry Repeating Arms is now building and selling the AR7. Mine—equipped with an excellent OEM peep sight and a somewhat stiff trigger—is an absolute tack driver.

Best Jeep Gun Ever! The AR7 is kept packed in my Jeep backpack along with targets, earmuffs, and ammo, which is locked in the trailer’s toolbox.
PhotosView Slideshow

Making a list of all the stuff my wife and I “needed” while searching out Arizona ghost towns, I planned to build a camper that could not only haul all the gear two people and two dogs seem to need after nearly five decades of Jeep camping, and a camper that would provide dust-free, dry, comfortable sleeping while on the trail. I must admit that I had a lot of help with my designing and with the finished product; take a peek at the source list at the end of this article for a guide to folks who can also help you build your own budget camping trailer.

James Drury, Gordy’s manager, is double-checking the installation before allowing the trailer to leave the shop.

Already on the trailer when I bought it was a locking aluminum toolbox, called a tailgate fifth-wheel toolbox. It turned out to be the perfect place to carry my tools; including a Firestone 12-V DC air pump kit, jumper cables, ammo box with all my winching gear, extra bungee cords and tie-down straps, hot water shower kit, and extra drinking water.

Starting with a blank slate and a $3,000 budget (see the sidebar for an itemization), I added up what I’d need: paint job, a bed liner, and a bed cap to make it into a weather-tight camper. First thing was to have the trailer painted to match my 2007 Jeep Rubicon Unlimited, which I did at Chris’ Auto Body in Kingman, Arizona, for $400. Next came a trip to Sun Valley Bumper (also in Kingman) and have the bed sealed with shiny black Rhino Lining. I then added an A.R.E. cap that also matched the Jeep in color. Two more items were added about this time also: The Jeep tailgate decal is from Chaos Signs, which took the owner about 10 minutes to cut and apply; while the tilt-down tongue wheel from Sun Valley Bumper greatly eases the trailer’s parking chores.

I have a few things I want to mention: 1) If you’re using the bed of a damaged pickup—as I did—you’ll want to make sure it’s completely inspected, approved, and registered with your state’s motor vehicle department. Otherwise, the MVD might require additional funds for bonds and take a longer time inspecting its history to make sure it isn’t a stolen vehicle; 2) Match the lug pattern to that of your towing vehicle. It can save you on the trail with an extra spare tire. You can do this either with lug pattern adapters (as I did) or with different axle hubs; and 3) If you can afford it, you might opt for either surge or electrical brakes on the trailer. With electric brakes, you can actually use only the trailer brakes if necessary. For instance, while driving down a steep muddy or slippery hill the trailer might begin to slide past the Jeep, simply hit the trailer brakes (or hold them on slightly) and the combination will straighten out.

I left the S-10’s rear differential under the trailer for a couple reasons: weight (being so low it adds to the trailer’s stability) and money (it was already there). At a later date I may change to a trailer axle with electric brakes, but for now I’m sticking with the differential and a lower center of gravity (it also has shocks for a better ride).

My budget trailer’s “maiden voyage” was a total success! I towed it across 120 miles of Mojave Desert, slept in it two nights, hauled all our gear in it, and had no problems whatsoever. This was with a group that included 19 vehicles, five of which were pulling trailers. One specifically designed, very expensive off-road trailer turned turtle with its wheels up; another tipped over on its side; and a third dug up the trail with its tongue when its receiver’s locking pin disappeared. My budget build flowed along behind my Rubi like they’d been mated at birth!

Trailer $450
A.R.E. cap $1,800
Adaptit Adapters $99.50
Paint $400
Rhino Lining $375
Tongue Wheel $65
Bridgestone Dueler A/T Tires $0
Total $3,189.50

PhotosView Slideshow


A.R.E. Accessories, LLC
Massillon, OH 44648
Rhino Linings
San Diego, CA 92121
A-Dapt-It USA
Indianapolis, IN 46113
Chaos Signs
Chris' Auto Body
Gordy's Auto Body
Bullhead City, AZ 86442
Henry Repeating Arms
Bayonne, NJ 07002
Sun Valley Bumper

Connect With Us

Newsletter Sign Up

Subscribe to the Magazine

Browse Articles By Vehicle

See Results