Wild and Foamy Camper Project — Part 1


Post by WildSnow.com blogger | August 8, 2018      

A camper made of foam? That’s right!

As a millenial, #vanlife pulls me nearly as strong as avocado toast and selfies. However, my cooler head (and light wallet) prevailed. I resisted the temptation of a camper van, instead opting for the lower cost and much bigger pain in the derriere, of building a camper trailer from scratch!

The common choice for a trailhead camper among backcountry skiers is a tricked out camper van, preferably a sprinter, and preferably with its own instagram account. However, the lowly tow-behind has its own unique appeal. For one, it is classic. Warren Miller may have invented sleeping in ski-area parking lots, and he did it in a diminutive teardrop towed behind a jalopy. For me, the ability to own only one car, and one that doesn’t double as a living room, is appealing.

A tow-behind camper can be left set up while you drive to another trailhead, or to town to grab supplies. I’m sloppy, and whenever I’m on a long ski mountaineering trip, the inside of my car ends up a wet, smelly mess (several people can vouch for me on that). A camper allows you to use the car as gear storage, and have a nice clutter-free area to cook, eat and sleep. However, I’m all talk right now, and it’s all hypothetical; my camper hasn’t even had the honor of being pulled out of the driveway. Yet. (Check out our teaser, in the garage.)

Theoretically, a tow-behind camper is much less pricey compared to a van. However, buying one new still isn’t cheap. Even a junker is at least a few grand. No matter what I bought I would want to fix it up and modify it anyways (yeah, WildSnow.com, everything shall be modded). So, I decided to design and build a custom camper, from scratch. Just a bit more work than fixing up an old one, right? Hah, yeah.

I began the process with lots of planning and designing, putting ideas down on paper, and then making a CAD model on the computer. I even made a full-size mock-up of the floor layout with masking tape.

Since this thing is custom, it needed to be exactly what I wanted. Here’s a list of requirements (roughly in order of priority):

  • Just large enough for at least two people to sleep, cook, and most importantly, stand up inside.
  • Small and light enough that it could be towed with a small vehicle, and be almost unnoticeable towing with a truck or SUV; between 700-1500 lbs, hopefully closer to 700.
  • Well insulated and waterproof.
  • Built out of materials that are as long-lasting and rot-resistant as possible. It needs to hold up to the ever-present wetness of a PNW winter.
  • The camper isn’t designed to have much off-road capability initially (taller tires, re ground clearance), however I want it to be built so that it could be upgraded in the future, as well as heating and electrical upgrades.
  • As simple and inexpensive as possible, while fulfilling all other requirements.
  • This covers some of my gripes with commercial camper trailers. Pop-up campers are light and roomy, but are not well insulated . Most campers are built with junk wood frames and rot issues abound, they lack thick insulation as well. Teardrops are light and small, but they’re not much more than a hardsided tent. Not being able to stand up inside is a major bummer in the winter. There are some commercial camper trailers out there that solve many of these issues, but they are expensive, upwards of $20k. If I’m gonna spend $20k on something, it’s definitely not going to be a trailer.

    My design has evolved significantly over the course of the building project, but this is where it stands now:

    Here's the initial CAD model for my design (with a car and person for scale). As you can see, it's pretty small, but with the drop floor (the rectangle below the floor) it's tall enough to stand in. It's also not much taller than a small car, so there isn't much added air resistance when towing.

    Here’s the initial CAD model for my design (with a car and person for scale). As you can see, it’s pretty small, but with the retractable drop floor (the rectangle below the floor) it’s tall enough to stand in. It’s also not much taller than a small car, so there isn’t much added air resistance when towing.

    View without the roof, showing the bed (in the back), and the small kitchen counter.

    View without the roof, showing the bed (in the back), and the small kitchen counter.

    The camper floorplan is an elongated hexagon, it is 10 feet long, and 5.5 feet wide at its widest point. The interior has a built-in bed that is large enough for two people to sleep with extra room, or 3 if they squeeze (the bed is about the size of a 3 person tent). The bed converts to a “booth” and table, in classic camper fashion. In front of the bed is a 4×4 foot “drop floor” that stows for ground clearance while transporting and can be lowered when the trailer is parked. When the floor is fully lowered the the interior has 6ft 2in of head room. When the drop floor is raised, the camper is still fully functional, however the interior height is only 5 feet. In front of the drop floor is a trapezoidal kitchen table.

    Front view,  it isn't any wider than a car (making towing and backing up easier), and only a little bit taller.

    Front view, it isn’t any wider than a car (making towing and backing up easier), and only a little bit taller.

    The hexagonal shape is somewhat unique, I decided on it for a few reasons. First, I thought it looked cool. Also, since none of the walls are parallel, the structure is stronger, and the walls are much more resistant to “paralelograming” and collapsing (e.g., house of carding). The front of the octagon is located on the tongue of the frame, making the trailer a shorter and lighter. The shape makes the interior a little smaller, but the inside has no unnecessary space, making the trailer lighter. The catch: a lack of right angles made this thing a bear to construct. Brushing off my highschool trig helped, as well as accumulating additional custom carpentry tools such as bevel gauges, straight edges and saw guides.

    A few more unique features: The drop floor achieves many of the benefits of a pop-up, but it is lighter, won’t collapse under snow, and is much easier to make. The camper is also fully functional when the floor isn’t lowered, something that can’t be said for most pop-ups.

    The frame of the trailer is built on an old pop-up camper trailer frame. This original camper weighed over 2000 lbs, so this trailer is way overbuilt, which is a good thing. It is not uncommon to see a funky home built trailer skidded to the side of the highway, frame broken or an axle stub jacked at an odd angle. Not with this — it is burly (and while heavy, will keep the center of gravity nice and low).

    The structure of the camper is clever, and something I can’t take any credit for. There’s a community of folks who’ve come up with this process for making camper trailers, dubbed “poor man’s fiberglass” or PMF. This is exactly what it sounds like; a cheap substitute for fiberglass. The structure of the camper is made entirely out of XPS foam (the pink foam commonly used to insulate houses), then the inside and outside are coated in heavy canvas soaked in glue. This results in a hard, waterproof shell. The materials are perhaps 10% of the cost of fiberglass and resin, and easier to work with. The major disadvantage is that the resulting structure is quite a bit less strong and durable than an actual fiberglass shell. For that reason, I’m still considering coating the exterior in fiberglass, although it’s unlikely I’ll go that route.

    Many have made campers larger than mine that entirely use foam for the structure. However, I wasn’t confident in the strength of the foam, especially for a snow load, so I added pieces of embedded wood and aluminium framing to beef it up. It still won’t hold up to a ton of weight, but should be fine with up to a few feet of snow. (For example, leaving the rig at a high-altitude trailhead during a week-long storm, while staying at a hut.)

    Ok, that was the plan. I’ve now been working on the thing for a while, and have made some progress. Stay tuned for part two for the start of the build.

    Here's the CAD model showing the floor plan

    Here’s the CAD model showing the floor plan. The retractable drop floor is shown by the gap, but nothing in the drawing really shows how I constructed it or how the floor is raised and lowered. Hopefully that’ll be a blog post.

    (Rigid foam cutting tip for you builders out there: To avoid making a mess with mass quantities of foam dust blowing all over your work area, cut foam with a circular saw or table saw, using a continuous rim diamond abrasive blade such as that linked below. You’ll make a bit of dust, but nothing like cutting with a normal toothed bladed. Also, I built a hot knife that works quite well. If you’re in a hurry you can score and break the foam (as is often done on construction sites), but doing so results in a somewhat wavy and rough cut. For trimming, I use a normal carpenter’s hand saw. The “foam DIY” community has developed quite a few specialized techniques for this type of building, google terms such as “foam camper diy.”)

    Norton 2788 Diamond Saw Blade



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    Comments

    34 Responses to “Wild and Foamy Camper Project — Part 1”

    1. John August 8th, 2018 10:24 am

      Fascinating, I look forward to seeing some more posts about this. It’s something I know nothing about.

    2. Cody August 8th, 2018 11:15 am

      For the snow load problem I wonder if a light weight a frame of just poles and fabric would work to give it enough angle so the snow would shed off to the sides

    3. Lou Dawson 2 August 8th, 2018 11:38 am

      Cody, from what I’ve seen of the project, the curved parts of the roof are pretty strong, the flat section is weak, but once the embedded girders are added it should be good. Depending on shedding snow is always iffy. If you’re not around, something like an ice storm can prevent the shedding, and the next thing you know you’ve got a collapsed structure. Louie also spoke of the simple solution of a couple of temporary posts he could leave propped inside when the trailer is exposed to possible snow load. Lou

    4. Louie Dawson 3 August 8th, 2018 11:51 am

      Especially with PNWet snow, you have to have a very steep roof to shed snow reliably.

    5. Joe John August 8th, 2018 1:06 pm

      A canvas glue alternative is to a diluted high quality paint (like Behr Premium Ultra) and soak canvas in it like you would the glue. However I would imagine this glue or paint n canvas
      could weigh a lot more than dried fiberglass. (Maybe test a piece to check weight impact?). However you would have a lot of cool color options! An old Craftsman I trained under made his own custom truck shell out of wood, and that was his water proof top, canvas soaked in paint.

      Also a built in a roof rack the camper would be great to store stuff off the ground. If a storm was coming it could be made to fold up to a pitch roof when parked.

    6. zippy the pinhead August 8th, 2018 1:28 pm

      Hi Louie,
      I don’t like to nitpick (okay, sometimes i like to nitpick). However…

      I count six sides to the floorplan, not eight.

      If I counted correctly that makes your floorplan hexagonal, not octagonal.

      (Even so, the walls are still non-orthogonal.)

      I employed fingers from both hands to enable counting to six. Nevertheless, double-checking for yourself is recommended.

      Happy trails…. Zippy

    7. Louie Dawson 3 August 8th, 2018 2:01 pm

      Lol yep, It’s definitely six. Not sure why I said octagonal. Thanks!

    8. Louie Dawson 3 August 8th, 2018 2:04 pm

      The paint/canvass option is definitely viable. Some folks do that instead of the wood glue. It has the advantage of adhering to the foam much better (I’ve tested it, and the foam breaks/fails before the canvas/foam bond does. Using wood glue the bond fails much more easily). The disadvantage is that the resulting shell isn’t as hard as it is with wood glue. I actually used paint/canvass on the interior ceiling, since I figured the adhesion is more important than having a hard shell. The paint is a bit heavier, but it’s not too bad.

    9. Louie Dawson 3 August 8th, 2018 2:05 pm

      The canvass glue idea originally comes from the marine world. Apparently in the days before fiberglass was common, that is how many wooden boat decks were waterproofed. Still used on some, from what I understand. Similar to that truck shell.

    10. afox August 8th, 2018 2:23 pm

      Very cool! Id like to know your thoughts on if those $20k campers are a good value after building this.

    11. TimZ August 8th, 2018 2:27 pm

      Dacron coated with polyurethane is what I used on a skin on frame canoe years ago. I imagine woven Dacron would be stronger per weight compared to canvas, though perhaps more expensive.

    12. zippy the pinhead August 8th, 2018 4:41 pm

      Louie,
      You’re welcome. It seems that in the blogosphere, copy editing is a crowd-sourced phenomenon.

      Anyhow, thanks for confirming my counting skills.

      Happy trails…. Zippy

    13. Richard Elder August 8th, 2018 6:58 pm

      Hi Louie,
      Don’t like to be the one to be negative, but I’d hate to see a lot of time spent on something that doesn’t stand up. I’ve built all kinds of small to huge boats with cores of everything from solid wood to foam, honeycomb and balsa. There are several fatal flaws in the structural design you are using. First, the structural requirements for how it will be used are not trivial and can’t be determined by waving one’s thumb in the air. If you want engineering data or FEA I could point you to a designer who has all the necessary data to design something that would probably suffice, but he isn’t cheap.

      Out my back door the road up to the trail heads at the head of Teton Canyon sees a hundred cars a day and hasn’t been graded in two years. It is a mine field of 10″ deep chuck holes and continual washboard. Not unusual for popular access roads in the Age of Trump.

      Last time I drove up to Hanagan Pass beyond Baker the pot holes were deep enough that a standard car frequently dragged. Your drop floor would have to be skidded through them by brute force.

      Foam core designs are structures; The skins provide the necessary stiffness while the chosen core material has to be stiff enough to transfer loads from the inner and outer skin without deteriorating. House rigid foam insulation (blueboard) is designed for one purpose— to provide insulation . It is brittle with low sheer strength, and when subjected to sheer forces between the skins it will rapidly break down.

      For the skin part of the structural equation, canvass soaked with carpenter’s glue is probably a good match because it is so flexible as to provide little strength. In the wooden boat era it was sometimes used over plywood as a waterproofing layer, but all the strength is in the wood.

      Unfortunately 30 years of building cored structures leads me to believe that a camper built with house foam and canvass will be so flexible that it will fill with dust due to leaks around the door and windows in the summer, and if used for any length of time on the kind of roads I mentioned it will tear itself apart as the foam breaks down.

      The solution to your roof snow load problem is to make the roof area crowned rather than flat. Either curved laminated beams with a 1/4 inch plywood top skin or structural foam with fiberglass skins will do the trick.

      ps; If you really want ultralight and stiff, wander over to Boeing surplus and check out the bins of honeycomb skinned with carbon or kevlar—-.

    14. Jernej August 8th, 2018 10:02 pm

      My thoughts exactly (re: Richard).

      Also, Louie please don’t follow the typical millenial, #vanlife, IG influencer DIY campervan advice on anything electrical. They know nothing about solar, batteries, proper charging or most anything else. Since this is a low cost build I will assume lithium batteries are out of the price range anyway (trust me, that’s a good thing) but don’t fall for the AGM trap. It’s a dead end technology being abandoned that hardly ever delivers what they promise. EFB is where development is and they’re much cheaper to start with.

    15. Lou Dawson 2 August 9th, 2018 7:08 am

      Hey guys, Lou 2 the editor here, in our undying pursuit of excellence in exposital prose, I fell short in clarity regarding Louie’s drop floor. It retracts upward, to stow the same level as the trailer axle and probably equal or higher than the ground clearance of the tow vehicle, depending on the vehicle.

      As for his foam structure, while in theory it does seem a bit dicey, the system is in play, real life, by quite a few people. Some of the builds are quite large. Also, Louie’s build has quite a few plywood ribs embedded into the foam. All the window frames and the door frames are wood, for example. Moreover, the bed structure and front table serve as structural components.

      All that said, I’ll encourage Louie to address engineering issues, such as foam densities and tensile strengths.

      I’ll do a few edits to amplify the meaning of “drop floor.”

      Lou2

    16. Lou Dawson 2 August 9th, 2018 7:23 am

      Guys, google “foam camper diy.”

      One other thing: Commercially built campers, whether they be pull behind or a pickup truck slide-in, are notorious for being fragile and under-built. As for used ones, unless “new used” they’re often moldy leaking nightmares with everything from electrical system challenges to cracked trailer frames. The poor quality of pull behinds is one of the factors that’s driven the tiny house movement. The tiny house, in reality, is just a strongly built high-quality pull-behind.

      Lou2

    17. afox August 9th, 2018 9:37 am

      Keep in mind that lithium batteries are not suitable for use in freezing temperatures! They can be discharged in freezing temps but charging them in freezing temps destroys the cells.

      The drop floor seems like a neat idea but I would have just made the whole camper taller for simplicity.

      Agree that 98% of the RV market is junk. It is an interesting industry. 98% of the RVs come from a single town in Indiana (Elkhart). Lippert industries owns most of the component businesses. Most of the components have not seen design upgrades in 30 years or more. Automobile safety standards do not apply to mobile homes. Most of the components have a marine counterpart that is of much higher quality and often a similar price. There is a “code of engineering” for marine living spaces, no such thing for RVs. As a result of all of this the RV industry has no quality or safety standards, it is sort of a race to the bottom for competing RV manufacturers. The problem is exacerbated by uneducated buyers, unscrupulous salespersons, and generous financing.

    18. Richard Elder August 9th, 2018 9:44 am

      Hi Louie
      Looking at the CAD illustration it shows a welded-in-place box frame for the drop floor, but the photo of your project looks to be canvass sided and capable of being retracted. Looks like two different designs were shown.

      Part of my post had to do with “design for purpose”. How many Internet DIY campers have been only been tested by sitting in the driveway or rolling down the freeway rather than going over thousands of miles of potholes and washboard? And the fact that commercial models are crap has nothing to do with the toughness of house foam in DIY campers.. The basic rule is that you can have ultralight and tough but you can’t have ultralight and cheap. The closest exception I’ve ever seen to that rule is my friend Steve Rander’s 77′ racing sailboat “Rage” Where everybody else in the world was throwing carbon fiber at their designs, he built a long and narrow hull out of Klegcell foam with wood/epoxy skins. Won all the races to Hawaii with it. Years ago I was in his shop looking at the first example of a boat built with this method. I and two others picked up one end of a 44′ boat hull and moved it around the shop.

      All of the tiny houses I have seen are just stick built trailer houses–heavier and probably no more rigid than commercial trailer houses.. Many of them are beautiful, but that doesn’t make them suitable for the Alcan or extensive backroad usage.

    19. Louis Dawson August 9th, 2018 12:41 pm

      Thanks for the comments and feedback! Don’t worry about being negative, I’m happy to get some ideas and criticism. Here’s a few interesting links of some other campers built with the PMF method:

      This one is built entirely of foam, with no wooden or aluminium structure, and it’s larger than mine. It’s been around a few years, and has held up well (I’ve talked to the builder a bit online):
      https://imgur.com/gallery/Z8SuZ

      Here’s a forum with lots of the foam-structure campers (callied “foamies):
      http://www.tnttt.com/viewforum.php?f=55&sid=b00a29f52146e8afb7f251a3f87cdb5b

    20. Sam August 9th, 2018 12:51 pm

      Honest question here Louie; why not just add an inner and outer layer of fiberglass? Given the time and work that will go into your glue-canvas plan and the proven advantages of using an actual engineered material are the cost savings really that significant?

    21. Louis Dawson August 9th, 2018 1:01 pm

      Yep, the CAD had a fixed drop-floor, I did that just to make the computer modeling easy, and to figure out the dimensions (e.g. how high the ceiling needs to be). Through the course of construction the design has changed a bit from the original CAD. For example, it’s a bit taller and a bit shorter than the CAD model. The CAD model is still very similar overall to the final design.

      The drop floor I ended up making moves up and down with a pulley and ratchet system. It’s a bit rube goldberg, but it works. I’ll do a blog post on it in the future.

      As for the toughness of the foam structure, it’s definitely a question. I’m happy to get feedback and advice (one of the reasons for putting this on Wildsnow). Part of its strength comes from how it is a bit flexible and will flex without breaking or cracking, to some extent.

    22. Louie Dawson 3 August 9th, 2018 1:17 pm

      I’m still considering covering the exterior in fiberglass. You guys are making me lean that way a bit 🙂 As far as I know it would work, as long as you use epoxy rather than polyester, as polyester will melt the foam.

    23. Bruno Schull August 9th, 2018 2:08 pm

      Hi. Great project. Undoubtedly an adventure itself, that will lead to more adventures.

      I have a question: is it bear proof? Or will you deal with your food as if you were camping?

    24. Lou Dawson 2 August 9th, 2018 2:33 pm

      From what I’ve seen, I think the cloth covered foam is plenty strong. Heck, they make airplanes out of cloth. It’s all in how it’s engineered, but of course.

      The problem with rodents and large rodents such as bears is very real. For that reason alone, I’m not sure the cloth-foam construct is practical, a marmot could chaw through it in ten seconds, and I don’t want to think about a bear. If Louie is planning on mostly winter use, and carries the proverbial roll of chicken wire during summer, for marmot defense, then perhaps ok.

      One of the biggest reasons I like hard-side campers instead of tenting is rodents and bears, and wind in the desert.

      Mainly, I just think the cloth-foam is super cool stuff. It’s certainly all he needs on the inside. Perhaps a very thin layer of fiberglass on the outside, eventually, or this being WildSnow, carbon fiber.

      Mainly, I’ve seen this thing and put in a few hours work on it, Louie’s design and craft are impressive, the drop floor alone reminds me of something they’d build for the space shuttle, though perhaps with more gold foil.

      Lou

    25. Carl August 9th, 2018 4:19 pm

      While this looks like a fun project it would have been much easier to buy an old fiberglass trailer, insulated and revamp the interior. the 13′ ones are around 1000lbs empty. I agree most commercial trailers are crap, we recently bought a new fiberglass trailer that should hopefully see some ski parking lot action, but was quite expensive.

    26. XXX_er August 9th, 2018 4:34 pm

      I have an old 13 ft FG Trillium and they are now worth triple what they cost 40 yrs ago if you can find one

    27. paul August 9th, 2018 6:59 pm

      to Bruno – cars and Rv’s are not bearproof so I rather doubt this would be. A bear can peel a car door off – it’s happened many times in the Nat’l parks which is why they tell you at Yosemite never to leave any food in your vehicle at a trailhead. And bears have been known to tear right into RV’s to get at food inside.
      However, I think Louie has room on that trailer tongue for a nice steel job box that will keep the food safe – and in the winter, keep the beverages cold for after the tour.

    28. Louie 3 August 9th, 2018 7:33 pm

      Yea I don’t think it’s bearproof, but like Paul said, rvs and cars aren’t really either. Luckily I don’t spend much time in areas with bear problems, and it isn’t an issue in the winter.

    29. Richard August 10th, 2018 9:46 am

      Lou 2
      I guarantee they don’t make airplanes out of cloth glued to household foam!

      Cloth covered aircraft are steel or occasionally wood framed, with coated cloth shrink fitted over the structure. Its only function is to keep the air out.

      And as to your (tongue in cheek) suggestion of carbon fiber— that is one of the worst materials to use over low density foam. In order for a cored composite to work effectively skin stiffness must be correlated with core density.

      How long do you think a pair of ultra-ultra light skis would last if built with carbon fiber skins laminated over household foam?

    30. Richard August 10th, 2018 9:54 am

      Sam & Louie

      From and engineering standpoint covering the outside with fiberglass is poor design because the difference in stiffness creates an un-balanced panel . It should add a bit to durability though.

    31. Mike August 10th, 2018 3:34 pm

      Hey great looking project. I am thinking about a pick-up camper build with this method. One major problem with a small air tight and insulated camper is moisture build up. Especially in the winter with wet gear and two people breathing all night.I have thought it be good to make an forced air air to air heat exchanger to get rid of the moisture. It would be good to have a dry heat source vented propane heater or diesel such as a marine type or fishing shanty. Looking forward to your progress reports

      Cheer mike

    32. Lou Dawson 2 August 11th, 2018 2:18 pm

      I’m suggesting two camper rooftop vents and perhaps a Fantastic vent (really nice fan operated). He’s got three opening windows.

    33. Joe John August 12th, 2018 3:26 pm

      Or cover it with a Wildsnow.com sponsored advertising auto wrap, likely about $3k.

    34. Dave Field August 13th, 2018 9:43 am

      Check out Chesapeake Light craft website, they have a small teardrop kit that includes some weatherproof ventilation ports you can purchase separately to get some air flow within your build.





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