A major challenge for many family campers is how to tent camp without a large vehicle. Camping gear can occupy a fair amount of space and, after loading a car with family members, the gear may not fit in the remaining cargo space.
Fortunately, there is a compact camping gear trailer for just about any car, allowing family tent campers to bring along all of their camping kit.
One of the bigger issues with a gear trailer is where to store it when not camping.
A compact gear trailer can often share a garage stall along with a compact car. Camping gear can stay loaded in the trailer ready for the next trip or spontaneous weekend getaway.
Compact gear trailers are not only handy for family campers with small cars, they are useful for any family who wants to keep their camping gear in one compact, towable space.
Compact trailers for tent camping vary in cargo capacity from about 15 to 30 cubic feet. For comparison, a typical mid-size sedan trunk offers 15 cubic feet of cargo space.
A compact tent utility trailer in the garage
It's nice to leave the gear trailer right in the garage between camping trips. After a trip, tent campers only need to unhitch and roll the trailer by hand a few feet out of the way.
Campers should measure the length of their cars and dimensions of their garage stalls, in order to get an idea of how large of a gear trailer might fit there.
A car stall in a garage might be 20' to 22' long overall.
A compact car is 14' to 15' long.
A compact gear trailer is overall roughly 4' to 5' wide.
This shows that many garage stalls are long enough for a small car and a gear trailer parked crosswise.
A garage stall might be 9' to 10' wide, and a compact gear trailer is about 7' to 9' long, including the tongue. This shows that most garage stalls are also wide enough for a trailer to park crosswise.
In the same manner, some larger garage stalls are long enough to accommodate a 16' to 17' long CUV and a trailer.
A garage walkway may also have room to park a gear trailer during camping season.
Campers can expect most compact gear trailers to have a tongue weight of 15 to 50 lb, depending on the loaded trailer weight.
Because of the lighter tongue weight, these trailers can usually be hitched to compact cars without overloading the rear axle of the car -- as long as the car isn't already loaded to the gills with passengers and gear. A suitable gear trailer generally means not needing to load the car to the gills with gear.
Behind the car on the highway
A compact gear trailer is substantially narrower than a car and doesn't require extended towing mirrors on the front car doors, in order to tow.
The trailer walls or enclosures are not so tall that they block the rear view mirror. Campers behind the wheel will still have a good view of what is happening behind the car and trailer on the highway.
A short tongue and deck helps keep the trailer tires within the vehicle tire tracks when turning a corner. Drivers will need to be much less concerned about making wide right turns, so that the inside trailer tire does not scrape or mount the curb or strike something or someone to the side.
Because many compact gear trailers have shorter tongues and decks, they can be more square and less rectangular than larger trailers, with respect to length and width.
As highway towing speed increases, the shorter length may make them more prone to swaying back and forth, which can quickly become a road emergency.
Sway tendency with compact trailers can be greatly reduced by loading the trailer correctly, keeping the trailer tires fully inflated and not towing the trailer at excessive highway speeds.
Trailer manufacturers rate many compact gear trailers to a maximum highway speed of 55 mph and some to 45 mph. Many states have a maximum highway towing speed limit of 55 mph.
Tent campers who exceed speed ratings can expect to assume more risk and liability.
On the highway, forward momentum can be quickly translated into lateral (side) forces, if the trailer becomes unstable and no longer tracks directly behind the vehicle. Side forces can tip the trailer. Campers should control highway towing speeds in order to minimize this risk.
Campers will also want to know whether their small car can safely brake the trailer to a stop within a reasonable distance. One common test is to see whether the car can brake the trailer to a stop within 40 feet from 20 mph on dry pavement.
Perform this test away from traffic.
Campers will need to perform further tests to determine whether they can safely tow a specific car and trailer combination on a highway.
At the campsite
As in a garage, a loaded compact trailer is often light enough to be rolled about by hand on a level campsite by a single camper.
Campers should be careful moving a loaded trailer by hand on a slope, because gravity may overpower the handler and cause the trailer to escape, resulting in personal injury or property damage.
Various workarounds for this include partially unloading the trailer, chocking tires, using a rope and fixed object, etc.
Campers should not unhitch a trailer on a slope, unless the tires are chocked (blocked from rolling downhill). Bring some blocks of wood to use as tire chocks or purchase a couple of ready-made tire chocks, which are usually formed from plastic.
In strong sunlight or rain, a compact gear trailer can be easily covered by a canopy or screenhouse with room remaining under the canopy for camping chairs.
This allows easy access to food, drink or gear on the trailer, as well as for food preparation, if using the top of a trailer enclosure as a counter.
Campers usually park their vehicles and trailers on a campsite by pulling just ahead of the campsite parking spur and backing onto it.
However the short tongue and deck of a compact gear trailer will make it difficult to impossible for the car to back the trailer. Since a compact trailer pivots within a much shorter radius than the wheelbase of the car, the trailer will quickly pivot around the hitch before the driver can steer to compensate.
Fortunately, there are several workarounds for this situation:
If the campsite drive is level, campers can unhitch the trailer on the campground loop drive, back it by hand down the spur and then back the car into place.
If the trailer is a bit heavy or the drive is sloped, campers can partially unload the gear onto the campsite and then back the trailer in by hand.
Campers can unhitch the trailer at the campsite parking spur, position the trailer in line with the spur, position the car ahead of and in line with the trailer, re-hitch and then try to back straight onto the spur. This will only work for short spurs, as the trailer will probably jackknife, if backed more than a car length by the car.
Another easy workaround is to pull the car and trailer forward onto the campsite drive, unhitch, maneuver the trailer to the other side of the car, turn the car around, and re-hitch.
Compact gear trailers and sports gear
Most compact gear trailers are better suited to carrying camping gear that would otherwise fit inside a vehicle.
These trailers have limited capability to transport sports gear.
Transporting oversize sports gear, such as canoes or kayaks, with a compact car and compact gear trailer will be especially difficult and awkward.
Compact gear trailers do work well for carrying bulky inflatable kayaks, which might otherwise consume too much space inside a vehicle and be left behind.
Bicycles will likely travel best on the roof of the car.
Tent campers will find sports gear is available for rent at some campgrounds and at local outfitters.
Campers looking to haul oversize sports gear with a trailer should consider a mid-size gear trailer.
Assemble-at-home trailer kit with plastic cargo shell
An assemble-at-home trailer kit with a car-top carrier shell on a small trailer frame offers an easy and relatively inexpensive way for most family tent campers to add an enclosed gear trailer to their camping kit.
These trailers can be found online and at some national tool chains and hardware stores.
They offer about 15 cubic feet of cargo space in an aerodynamic shape and allow families to "tow an extra sedan trunk" behind their vehicles.
They can be assembled and prepped in an afternoon and are then ready to load and tow. No need to buy plywood and boards and to fabricate a separate deck and walls.
They are occasionally referred to as Tag-along or Backpacker trailers.
The trailer weighs 150 lb, including the shell.
Due to the available cargo space, campers can expect to get up to 250 lb of camping gear in them.
The axle rating is about 750 lb, which should offer a reasonably stiff suspension for support around curves.
These are the lightest compact gear trailers, and family tent campers can be fairly confident that they will not overtax a subcompact car.
It doesn't take a lot of gear to load a subcompact car to its maximum rear-axle weight rating, which means that loading gear into a car-top carrier may not be feasible, either. Attaching a car-top carrier and then loading it for each trip can be a hassle, anyway.
Family tent campers with small cars can hitch and unhitch a loaded gear trailer, just like campers with large vehicles.
These trailers are quite easy to tuck away in the garage between trips.
Utility trailer-frame kits
4' trailer frame kits are available for campers who want more cargo space and are willing to build their own deck and walls to transform the frame into a gear trailer.
These trailers are very popular, widely available and include the trailer frame, tongue, axle and tires.
These kits can be the least expensive option for a new compact gear trailer, although the owner is responsible for purchasing and building a separate 4' deck and walls to complete a gear trailer.
They can be found online, at national tool chain stores and at some hardware stores.
Overall length for these trailers including tongue is 6-1/2 to 8-1/2 feet, and width 4 to 5 feet.
They should store fairly easily at the back of a car stall.
Decks are 4 feet long, 3-1/2 feet wide and offer a fair amount of floor area compared to a car trunk.
Assuming a wall height from 18" to 24", these trailers offer about 18 to 24 cubic feet of cargo space, depending on the deck area and height of the walls or enclosure.
Stake-and-rail walls are relatively inexpensive and easy to build for these trailers. Treated 1" x 4" pine boards are cut to size, assembled and fastened to form fence-like walls, which insert into slots in the trailer frame.
Campers who like to keep much of their gear in plastic bins and tarp the rest can get along fine with a deck and stake-and-rail walls. Load the trailer, tarp the gear, bungee everything down, and the trailer is ready to tow to the campsite.
Full plywood enclosures can offer more cargo space as well as shelter from rain. However, these take more time and effort to fabricate.
Axle weight ratings for these trailers run about 1000 to 1200 lb.
The trailer weighs about 150 lb for the frame, 200 lb with walls and up to 300 lb with a full plywood enclosure.
Tent campers will generally load up to 400 lb of camping gear onto them.
These trailer frame kits are often used for an errand to a local home building supply store or a recycling center. They can be adapted for tent camping, but campers should be careful how they load and tow them.
Manufacturers often rate these trailers to 45 mph, which is enough for local use, but constraining for towing on a highway to a more distant campground. Campers who tow them above the manufacturer's speed rating will be assuming more risk and possibly liability. Campers should drive conservatively when towing these trailers on a highway.
5' frame kits
Compact trailer-frame kits are also available with 5' long decks.
These trailers are more expensive and not as widely available as 4' trailer frame kits.
These trailers offer 5' long by 4' wide frames and up to 50% more cargo space than a 4' trailer kit.
With an overall length of 100" or 8-1/2' (including the tongue), these trailers are pushing the limit of what campers can expect to park crosswise in a car stall. This trailer straddles the border between a compact and a mid-size gear trailer.
Overall width including tires is about 5'. Campers looking to park the trailer with a car in a garage stall will need 5-1/2' of depth behind a car, as well as a good 9' of width.
A 5' trailer frame kit with enclosure can offer up to 60 cubic feet of cargo space, which could allow for 600 lb of camping gear and provisions. Families who like to bring a lot of kit to the campsite, but still want a compact gear trailer may appreciate this trailer.
With a longer deck and tongue, this trailer is more rectangular than a 4' trailer and should be somewhat more stable at highway speeds.
The 5' trailer frame kit has an 1800 lb rated axle and is sturdier than the 4' trailer frame kit. This axle rating is overkill for camping gear, but offers a stiffer suspension for more stability around corners, especially with a tall enclosure and a full load of gear.
This trailer is suitable for a mid-size car or for a compact car with some horsepower.
Unlike most compact gear trailers. this one could carry adult bicycles.
It could also conceivably carry a kayak up to 11' long, if the kayak were centered along the top of the trailer.
Because the trailer has wood studs and walls, it's a better practice to mount any sports gear directly on the roof and not to attach or fashion a rack over the trailer. A notched cleat on the roof can keep gear from shifting to the sides.
In order to secure sports gear to the roof of these trailers, campers may need to beef up the roof fasteners so that stresses from the attached gear do not cause the roof to slowly work loose from the walls. Any sports gear on the roof will also need to be strapped down to secure attachment points, preferably on the trailer frame.
A tent camper who has a small car with some horsepower and enough parking space and who wants to build the "ultimate" compact gear trailer can consider this trailer frame kit.
Ready-made, open utility trailers
Ready-made, welded utility trailers at home building-supply stores are generally not available in compact 4' or 5' deck lengths.
These stores offer trailers that can be used to carry lawn and sports equipment, such as rider mowers, ATVs etc. Longer decks are necessary for this. 6' to 8' long decks are common.
Campers looking for a new, ready-made, compact gear trailer can consider a car-top carrier shell trailer or a sports-cargo trailer.
Motorcycle cargo trailers and sports-cargo trailers for cars
Motorcycle cargo trailers and sports-cargo trailers are ready to load and tow.
These trailers are more expensive, but offer a finished, professional look, which most do-it-yourselfers will be unable to match.
Carpeted enclosures often offer multiple, locking access doors that seal out weather.
Welded frames reduce the number of fasteners that need to be inspected and tightened over time.
Motorcycle enthusiasts, especially campers, often need to transport more gear than can fit in the saddle bags or trunk of the bike.
Road bikes have engines as large as 1800cc, which are the same size as the 1.8L engines in many subcompacts.
This allows large motorcycles to tow fairly large compact trailers, which are also large enough to be suitable for small cars. Motorcycle cargo trailer builders offer many of these trailers to car owners as well.
Embossed, diamond-plate or checker-plate aluminum wall trailers are moderately expensive at $1200 to $2000 apiece.
These offer a simple, aerodynamic design and a few colors to choose from.
They can accentuate a large road bike or a small to mid-size car.
Molded fiberglass trailers offer a custom aerodynamic design similar to a motorcycle or sporty car and are expensive at $2000 to $3500.
These trailer builders often offer to match the paint of a bike or a car.
The largest of these custom cargo trailers are manufactured as sports-cargo trailers for cars only. They feature 40 cubic feet or more of cargo space and are too large for road bikes.
Trailer tires can also be matched to that of a small car, so that a single spare can serve both.
Bikers will generally tow up to 200 lb of gear in these trailers, while cars can tow twice as much or more.
A 500 lb to 600 lb axle weight rating and a softer suspension on many of these trailers offer a smooth ride on the road.
Longer tongues and lower ground clearance increase performance at highway speeds behind a sporty car. Enthusiasts should however be mindful that many states limit towing speed to 55 mph.
Tent campers who drive a more expensive small car from desire, rather than an less expensive small car from necessity, may be interested in a new, compact sports-cargo trailer, which offers an eye-catching look to one's tent camping kit.
Campers of more modest means can shop around for a used sports-cargo trailer. If desired, some of these trailers can be repainted to match the paint on a new owner's car.
The author of these pages is merely a camping enthusiast. He is neither a mechanical engineer nor an industry professional.
No professional training, experience or expertise of any kind are implied with any information or designs on this webpage. The author has not been able to build or test any designs.
Information or plans on these webpages are only ideas and guidelines offered as a starting point. Campers are encouraged to adapt the information or designs to their own needs and abilities.
Readers should only assemble or tow a camping gear trailer, if they are confident about their ability to construct a road-safe trailer and/or to safely tow one.
A car and trailer combination is never as safe to operate as a car alone.
Tent campers who tow trailers will need to perform due diligence and to educate themselves about issues such as licensing, state towing regulations, proper towing practices, trailer maintenance, etc.