Introduction: Home-built Teardrop Camper
Greetings, Fellow Members of the Society of Garage Engineers!
I'm "DJ" Davis of San Antonio, TX. A couple of years back I contracted the insanity that I could build a camping trailer. I spent a year reading build logs, looking at pics on the internet, as well as reviewing as many YouTube videos and Instructables I could find on the subject. I started the build in late 2018 and declared the camper "operational" in August of 2019. The pictures above are the line drawing (adjusted during construction, of course) of the concept, a cardboard scale model, and the paint scheme concept for the exterior.
After a lot of research, I opted to build a "Foamie" hybrid covered with "poor man's fiberglass," or "PMF." I call it a hybrid because I used more wood for bracing than with most foamies. I tend to over-engineer projects, so I used wood where I thought it needed to be. Be that good or bad is yet to be seen. At least I have the peace of mind knowing something is braced well.
HF 4' x 8' trailer
2" and 1" extruded polystyrene (XPS) foam in 4' x 8' sheets
Hot-knife for cutting the foam
Titebond II and Gorilla glue
10 Ga canvas
LED lighting and 14 ga wire
120V to 12V inverter
4" deep stainless steel half-pan for sink
RO spigot for water dispensing
85# lift struts
Draw latches for hatch and tongue box
New-style hurricane hinge with rain channel
Estimated total cost of materials was ~ $3500.00
Step 1: Trailer and Deck Base
The HF trailer was decked with 2" x 4"s and 1/2" exterior grade plywood. Like many, I went 6" over on each side to gain a 5' x 8' deck on which to build. The underside of the deck was painted with roofing tar. A four inch strip was left at the bottom side edges to allow a place for the PMF on the sides to be glued to. Wiring for the taillights was run before the top decking was nailed down.
Step 2: Side Layout
A lot of new house construction had been going on in my neighborhood, so I had access to a lot of scrap lumber and other building materials for this project. The first pic above is a piece of electrical service drop wire that I used for a bendable French curve. That was used to transfer my scale dimensions to the materials for the build. I cut down pieces of scrap lumber into 1 1/2" x 2" widths for my bracing. Building a door frame in the "middle" of the side wall allowed me a taller profile. A lot of folks will notch their sidewalls for the cross-bracing, cover the outside with 1/8" Luane, then fill in with foam from the inside. I did the opposite - I applied the Luane directly to the sidewall edges, braced by gluing the bracing to the Luane, then filling in with foam before the PMF outer shell. With the door frame and no notching, I added about six inches to the center height. The camper doesn't seem as claustrophobic inside, but I almost made the camper too tall to get out of the garage after completion (a Leroy Jethro Gibbs moment, if you will). Pic 2 is the test fit of parts before affixing them to the deck. Pic 3 is the door frame installed with its top panel glued in. Pic 4, the front and rear side sections and pic 5, the use of bamboo skewers to hold parts in place as the glue dried.
Step 3: Galley Partition
Pic 1 - a combination of 1/2" plywood and 1" XPS to make the galley partition and counter. Pic 2 is with the wiring run, galley cabinets cut out, and a test fit of the cooler/stove placement. It was at this point I realized I was 2" too low with the counter and 2" too shallow for the front to back depth of the storage area under the counter. I had to adjust the plans for the stove placement and decided to build a cooler (Pic 5) with the leftover 1" foam to fit under the stove shelf. This galley design is modified from LWms' concept; you can watch her video here:
Pic 3 is the view of the galley cabinets from inside the sleeping area. Pic 4 is the formica on the galley counter and the 1" blocks I glued into the 1" XPS cabinet wall edges to have something solid for the door hinge hardware.
Step 4: Construction of the Camper Front
My goal was a true teardrop profile, but I wanted storage space in what (IMHO) would've been wasted open-curved space in the sleeping area in the front. Pic 1 shows what I called the "tic-tac-toe" bracing made from 1" XPS. The window opening is 24" wide x 11" tall. Pic 2 is the view from inside before I cut out openings for the storage areas. Pic 3 is the cutouts - top center is 24" wide x 12" tall, the cutouts each side of the window are 12" wide by 11" tall. Wood blocks were also inserted/glued to the cabinet openings for hinge hardware attachment points as in the galley. All surfaces, inside and out, were covered with PMF. In the top left and right of the front wall are two oval-shaped areas that were left open. I refer to those as "grabs," a place to put gloves, a scarf, etc, and easily accessed from reaching in through the door. The exposed (not covered with PMF) side wall edges and the tic-tac-toe frame were covered by 1/8" Luane plywood to complete the inside of the front. I ran braces from side to side for structural integrity and to provide bracing for the window. Using a hotknife mounted to my tablesaw deck, I kerfed 1" XPS sections about 1/2" deep and 1-1/2" apart, then used the pieces to fill in between the bracing in two separate layers glued with Gorilla glue. Pic 4 is the front before the foam sections were glued down and pic 5 is the window installed and midway in the process of putting expanding foam or spakling compound in all the gaps. Cargo straps and 2 x 4s were used to keep the foam in place on the curved surfaces as the glue dried.
Step 5: Shelving at Rear and Front Storage
Pic 1 - rear shelves with bamboo accent rails.
Pic 2 - front cabinets after painting
Pic 3 - cabinet doors and bamboo accent rail installed
Pic 4 - a louvered blind set I made for the front window
Step 6: PMF, Tongue Box, and Painting
A foamie gets its structural integrity from the foam and bracing covered with canvas glued to the foam in overlapping sections then painted with exterior grade paint (PMF). I went with porch paint for its durability. The entire body is covered with PMF, inside and out. I left approximately 4" of exposed wood under the bottom edge of the deck to which I glued the canvas. After painting the entire exterior, to include the glued underside edge, I painted the rest of the underside of the deck with roofing tar to the edge where the bottom meets the side. Any holes on the outside of the trailer drilled for wiring or screws/fasteners were filled with sealant or roofing tar. To the best of my knowledge this thing is watertight.
Pic 1 is the completion of the main body of the camper and all holes/uneven areas filled with expanding foam and sanded smooth
Pic 2 is the first side covered with PMF
Pic 3 - tongue box and PMF completed on main body
Pic 4 - painting completed; three coats of porch paint sanded between coats to smooth things out a bit
Step 7: Equipment
Multiple build logs mentioned that they regret not buying doors for their camper. One log stated that by the time you purchase hinges, windows, latch hardware, and drip trim, for a few dollars more you could have a complete door. My takeaway was from the ones that complained of their homemade doors warping. I went with a company called Challenger Doors. They'll make your doors to your specs. Since I'm getting somewhat "chronologically enhanced," I wanted to be able to swing my legs into the camper easily. My doors are 40" tall x 36" wide. In other words, I "put a small camper on my doors." That was my main expense (~$750) on this build and I'd make them the same size again. It's a breeze getting in and out of the camper, plus loading/off-loading gear is very easy, too.
Pics 1 and 2 are the doors installed
For ventilation, I opted for the MaxxFan system. I like the dual support arms that raise/lower the cover and the cover is actually a screened cowl that will protect the opening from everything but a wind-driven rain directly from the rear. Like most fans it's reversible with multiple speeds. You can also run it with the cover completely down like a ceiling fan to circulate the air in the camper.
Pics 3 and 4 are the fan down and raised
Pic 5 is my icemaker filter between the exterior hose connection and the spigot on the counter. Next to it is the inverter system. Yes, I know...water and electricity should NOT be installed in such close proximity, but I made a shield around the filter and pex tubing from a 5-gal plastic bucket and the filter itself sits in a plastic container to catch drips. The inverter mounting frame also has a plastic cover on the side of the filter and on top. Hopefully that will block water from any pex tubing leaks from spraying on the inverter.
Pic 6 is the newer style hurricane hinge with rain channel
I purchased two 1000 lb scissor jacks for leveling/stabilizing the camper. I found a third one at a yard sale that I use under the tongue. The three jacks keep the trailer steady as a rock.
Step 8: Hatch Construction
The hatch framing was made by gluing hardwood plywood together then cutting out ribs with a bandsaw. Cross braces were either solid Poplar boards or hardwood plywood strips glued together to make composite beams. As with the front of the camper, 1/8" Luane was glued/nailed to the interior and exterior sides of the hatch. The interior of the hatch was filled with foams scraps cut to fit the spacing between the bracing (sorry...I forgot to get a pic of that step). Grooves were cut in the foam to run the wiring for the rear lights, pieces of angle iron were positioned where the lights would be mounted, and the exterior side covered with 1/8" Luane and PMF last. Vertical hatch weight force came out to 60 lbs and with an on-line calculator I determined the lift strut placement and length/strength of strut required.
Step 9: Galley Layout
Pic 1 is with all the doors closed. Pic 2 is the kitchen "deployed." Pic 3 I added some hanging hardware for frequently used galley items. Cabinet doors inside the main body and the upper galley are 3/4" x 1 1/2" frames with a groove cut in the back edge. Pieces of scrap Luane were glued into the grooves to make a door panel. Bamboo place-mats were cut to fit and glued in the recesses of the front of the door panels. The lower cabinet doors are made of 3/4" hardwood plywood with 1/4" x 1-1/2" poplar laths glued just in from the edges of the panels to make a frame on the surface to accommodate cut to fit pieces of bamboo place-mats to follow the design of the upper doors. A shelf is on the right bottom cabinet door to support the stove. It's held in place by a cargo strap during travel. Pics 4, 5, and 6 are my concept for supporting the 1-lb propane bottles for short trips. I have the 6' hose and a 10-lb propane bottle for longer excursions. I made a hinged flap over the paper towel holder (found at a yard sale) to keep the wind from spooling off yards of towels on a breezy day. The holder also has a drawer under the towel holder; that became the silverware drawer. I incorporated the drawer/holder into the galley wall, covered it in the appropriate places with Luane scraps, and painted the Luane. If you watched LWms' video, my sink set up is identical to hers except for the spigot.
Step 10: Artwork
The six pics above are the various stages of painting the "theme" of the trailer. It's a nod to the movie "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." Hence the name in the last two pics - "Crouching Teardrop, Hidden Camper."
Step 11: Daybed/mattress Set-up
For the mattress, I purchased three pieces of medium density foam, two at 33" x 55" and one at 14" x 55". Pic 1 shows the three pieces set up in the daybed/couch configuration. At bedtime, the small piece goes at the foot/back of the sleeping area (pic 3) and the second big piece (pic 2) slides into the middle position to complete the sleeping surface. An unzipped sleeping bag goes on top of the "mattress" and either a light blanket or a second sleeping bag is used for cover. For extra padding and insulation, I added 1/2" foam, interlocking squares of gym matting on the floor.
Step 12: Spare Tire Storage
I didn't want to put a mounting rack for the spare tire on the tongue, so I modified the concept of a product I saw advertised for big-rig RVs. That system suspends the tire from side to side. I came up with a simple rack made from bent sections of 3/4" electrical conduit with flattened ends that would mount between trailer frame braces from front to back. The bends cradle the tire so there's no need for a threaded lug mount to hold it in place on the rack. Four 2" pieces of 1-1/2" angle iron were bolted in the pre-drilled holes of the frame. The flattened ends were bolted with 5/8" bolts, flat washers, and locknuts to the angle iron in the "rear" to act as the pivot point. The "front" flattened ends hold the tire up with a pin and a cotter-key on the right side and a lock on the left side for security. The small tire doesn't weigh much and it's easy to lift into place to secure with the pin and lock.
Pic 1 - the cradle - 24" long x 12" wide
Pic 2 - the cradle mounted
Pic 3 - the tire on the cradle (valve stem up)
Pic 4 - the cradle raised and locked into place
Pic 5 - a view from behind to show clearance of the cradle
Yes, I'll have to watch for steep driveways to keep the cradle from dragging, but I think that won't be an issue too much. To protect the tire in the cradle, I wrapped it in an industrial strength trash bag and duck tape. I figure that's an inexpensive way to protect the spare that can be replaced for about a dollar, if that.
Step 13: Spare Tire Storage (Modified)
So, after a year of camping and either (foolishly) not having a spare tire or just tossing it in the back of the SUV, I finally got around to making a new under the rear frame storage rack for the 24" spare tire. It is similar in function to the original I made from electrical conduit (Step 12 above), but I upgraded to 3/16" thick 1-1/2" angle iron. Main frame of the rack is 24" x 20" with short support arms/locking points at the rear to allow the tire to be partially covered by the last frame member of the trailer. The front arms/pivots are about 7" in length and snug the tire against 4th cross frame member covered with a rubber pad to protect the tire from abrasion. Pic 1 is a view of the rack upside-down. Pics 2-5 are various angles. Pic six is the tire in position on the rack before mounting. Pics 7 & 8 are the rack mounted on the trailer frame and tire in storage position. Pic 9 is the rack lifted and locked into position via padlock and 3/8" pin with Kotter key retainer. Clearance is about 9-1/2" at the front and 11" at the rear. The final step will be to make some type of shield for the tire to protect it from road debris. My idea is to find a semi-trailer mudflap on the side of the road and affix it to the front of the rack and angle it up and forward to the axle.
Step 14: Side Tent
As you'll find out, having a teardrop means less space to move around in to get dressed. *****This is not a product endorsement*****, but I purchased the Ozark Trail two-room instant shower tent. Pics 1 and 2 (sorry about the glare) - after staking it down, I run a piece of rope from one support pole around the roof vent to the opposite tent support pole. Sections of pool noodle protect the side of the trailer from abrasion by the tent poles. There's still a gap at the top of the tent where it meets the trailer's roof line, but a small tarp can cover that and take care of a light rain. For the cost, well worth it to have a place for the wife's lugable loo. The wife gave it her "squeal of approval" for not having to make a late-night walk to the restroom when needed.
How well does it work in windy weather? Monday at noon on the 2019 Veterans Day holiday outing, a cold front blew through...violently...and the side tent got a serious wind test. As positioned, the 35 mph wind shook it a bit, but no damage was incurred. At the end of the trip the tent was (carefully) struck in the wind, folded up, and simply placed in the back of the car for the trip home. A quick set-up and sweep out in the garage later confirmed it survived. It was then refolded properly and placed back in the carrier bag for the next outing.
All-in-all, I'm pleased with the choice of side tent. My only wish was that it had a second door to facilitate entry/exit from the camper through the tent. If you don't mind popping into the shower tent to get dressed ,then going through the camper to the "open" side to get out, it's OK. I usually just grab my change of clothes, trudge over to the restroom, and get changed/dressed there. I'm currently trying to design a simple side tent for "my" side made from tent material and replacement fiberglass tent poles that will affix to the side of the camper via Velcro tabs. Yep...you're never "finished" with a teardrop build....
Step 15: Maiden Voyage/shake-down Cruise
Maiden voyage/shake down was just about perfect, except for that cold front that blew through on the second day....
The trailer tows like it isn't there. I did notice a bit of wagging around 64 mph, but I finally noted that occurred when someone was passing us. On a straight run with no vehicles around, the trailer towed straight as an arrow. Weight distribution came out with a 65 lb tongue weight. Gas mileage was another story. Even with the rounded front, the fuel economy dropped about 20%.
Every part and feature built into the trailer has performed as envisioned. The next additions/upgrades - one of those rechargeable power stations and a 100W solar panel for off-grid camping.
I hope you enjoyed reading my tale of insanity. Please don't hesitate to ask for clarification if I wasn't clear enough on a construction point.
We look forward to our next trip and I hope we see y'all out there in one of future adventures.
Step 16: Adding an Air Conditioner (A/C)
After much consideration, I decided to sacrifice part of the tongue box storage on the front of the camper and add a 110V 5K BTU window air conditioner to gain four season camping ability. The steps are below:
First I had to cut away the top and walls of the tongue box, smooth down the edges of the base, cut an opening for the A/C, build bracing to support the A/C, and re-PMF the adjusted area on the front of the camper. (Pics 1 - 4)
Second, since the front is hollow on the bottom "third," I had plenty of area to cut holes for the return air on the sides and in the center of the front wall of the cabin for the supply air. I built a duct for the supply air from 1" XPS, covered it with HVAC foil tape, glued it to the cabin wall side of the space in the front, and used self-adhesive weather stripping on the opposite edges that lined up with the front of the A/C. I used the same HVAC foil tape to line all the "dead spaces" where the return air will flow back to the front of the A/C. Cut to fit filter sections were inserted between the return air duct cover vents and the wall on each side of the front of the camper's cabin. These can be replaced very easily from the inside of the camper. (Pics 5 - 6)
Third, power was run from the inverter in the galley through the cabin to the front hollow space using 1/2" PEX tubing as a conduit with 12 ga Romex running through it. A dedicated 30 amp breaker feeds a wall outlet installed in an outlet box in the hollow space in the front of the camper. The outlet can be accessed by removing the return air vent cover on the left side of the cabin front wall.
Fourth, I had to create shaft extensions to be able to operate the power and temp controls on the front of the A/C. I used 1/4" brass tubing and 1/4" steel rod sections to connect the D-shafts of the A/C power and temp control switches to the plastic knobs from the front of the A/C. Once I filed down a section of the 1/4" rod, I used that to crimp the 1/4" brass tubing into a D-shape for the switch end. I melted solder into the crimp for extra strength. I cut grooves into the rod sections, pushed JB-Weld into the brass tube round ends, inserted the rods sections, and peened the brass tubing where the rod grooves were. Once the knobs were pushed on to the extension shafts, I reached through the left side return air duct and guided them onto the switches on the front of the A/C. A simple recessed box in the front of the camper wall protects the knobs from any damage. Some hand printing copied the label around the control switches on the front of the A/C. (Pics 7 - 9)
Fifth, to hold the A/C in place, I JB-Welded a locknut into each of the "feet" of the A/C frame that normally holds the unit in a window frame. There's a hole on the underside of each foot. Four rubber pads were glued to the storage box top to minimize vibration for the A/C. I drilled a corresponding hole under where the feet set through the "front" rubber pads and storage compartment top. A metal plate, washer, and bolt were inserted into the hole from inside the storage box, threaded into the locknuts in the feet of the A/C frame, and tightened until the locknut engaged. To close the gaps between the A/C frame and the opening in the front of the trailer, I used Flex Tape on the top and sides. Before inserting the A/C into the opening in the camper front, on the bottom, I stuck a piece of D-shaped, self-adhesive weather stripping on the underside of the A/C frame in line where the opening in the front of the camper ended. I then inserted a corresponding piece under the frame and stuck it to the top of the storage box. That was done by pushing the weather stripping under the A/C up against the weather stripping on the bottom of the A/C frame with a yard stick, then very carefully removing the protective strip over the adhesive with a long, thin grabber tool. This is backed up by expanding spray foam applied under the A/C frame. This, hopefully, will keep any unwanted air/moisture out of the void in front of the A/C.
Last, pictures of the travel cover box that fits over the A/C. The cover is made of 1" XPS covered with PMF. Two latches were attached to wood blocks inserted into the XPS before the PMF was applied. D-shaped weather stripping seals the edges of the cover where it meets the front of the camper. The cover will protect the A/C's coils from damage during travel and double as winterization when the A/C is not needed. (Pics 10 - 16)
Step 17: Adding a New Suspension System
While researching other items online, I came across torsion half axles and decided to install a set on the camper. I watched a couple of videos of other folks' installation of these and designed a cross brace on which to mount them. The sketch of the design (modified during construction) is the first pic.
After contacting a couple of local welding shops for estimates (YIKES!!!), I opted to get the materials, purchase a welding set up and gear, learn how to weld, and make a DIY project. Again, after perusing YouTube for guidance, I made my purchase of a MIG welder and watched several MIG welding tip videos. IMHO, it looked easy and to me it was. After a bit of practice to get the settings right, I took my time and laid my first beads in areas not readily seen and as I got better, moved on to the rest of the task. I think I did pretty well for just buying a welder and jumping in feet first. Pics 2 and 3 are the front and rear sides of the half axles' mounting assembly.
The drawing above shows just one piece of 2" angle iron welded perpendicular to the cross brace on each side/end with the "L" down with vertical bolt holes. The flat side up was aligned with the trailer frame. I tack welded a second length of 2" angle iron on top of the first with additional horizontal bolt holes to go into the sides of the HF frame. It just seemed to make sense for structural strength.
- Torsion half axles - $300
- Steel - 1/4" plate; 2" square tubing, 1/4" wall, 5' length; and 2" angle iron, 3/16" thickness, 8' length - $150
- MIG welder, self-darkening helmet, gloves, leather apron, angle grinder, cutter/wire wheels, etc - $400
- Nuts and bolts; black spray paint - $30
To improve the towing, I extended the cross brace outside the 4' HF trailer frame about 4" and upgraded to 5-lug hubs, 13" rims, and 24" diameter tires. With the leftover angle iron, I'm going to make mounting brackets for the fenders. I'm going to use the old HF fenders for now and replace them with some nicer looking round fenders later.