How to Get Off Grid in a Vintage Travel Trailer

by Misty Tosh Mar 18, 2008

A guide to pimping out a vintage travel trailer and going large on the coast of Baja.

It’s so simple to buy a cheap vintage travel trailer and experience a whole new way of living that I’m stunned more folks haven’t figured it out. Is it a big secret? Too intimidating? It is considered kooky? Well, if you’ve ever dreamed of ditching it all and heading south of the border, here’s a handy guide to get you started on the road to freedom.

1. Acknowledge the Beast Within

Oh, you know what I’m talking about. That little sing-song voice inside calling out when you least expect it. It’s saying, “Are you kidding me, this is my life? Is this all there is? And, I pay how much rent for this dumpy apartment?” If you can just answer with “It’s time to change things” the next time the monster kicks in, you might find yourself calling a tin can box home. And, trust me, you will be the envy of everyone you come into contact with.

2. Research Galore

There are a bundle of websites out there with vintage trailers for sale. You can buy one already restored or you can buy a way old-school one and put your own flair into it. I opted for my own flair. Going this do-it-yourself route allowed me the opportunity to explore options I might not have run across. Things to think about: Do you really need a bathroom? How important is a fridge vs. icebox? Is a shower imperative? For me, none of these things mattered and by not giving a hoot about luxuries, I managed to save loads of money.

3. Time to Drop the Dough

Once you’ve determined what your exact specifications are, it’s time to lay down some dinero. I didn’t want to spend a wad of cash and my deciding budget was based on this simple premise: If the shit hits the fan down a back road in El Salvador and I have to abandon the trailer, what amount of dough will I not miss? I settled on $1,000 for the trailer alone and for this pittance, I managed to get this glorious little 14’ looker. 1967, baby!

4. Get Hitched

Ah, the hitch. I have an old, 2-door Ford Explorer and it was a bit hectic trying to figure out what I needed to be able to lug around 1500 lbs. Turns out that U-haul can install a sturdy trailer hitch ($350) in less time than it took me to down three frosty cold beers at my local cantina. Whatever you do, don’t go to a dealership to get the install done. They will charge much more and babble on and on with warnings, your nerves will be shot before you even pull out of the driveway.

5. Assess Your Needs

Once I had my trailer safely parked in my parents’ front yard, I tore her apart. I got rid of all the previous owners paraphernalia and took a good look at her from top to bottom. I knew some mad decorating was in order, but first I tried to imagine a/ where I would be parking this trailer and b/ what I wanted to come home to once she was parked. My thoughts leaned toward unexplored beach villages throughout Central America, so a cute awning and the ability to generate my own power were in the cards. When you’re dead alone grilling some fish on a deserted beachfront in Veracruz, the last thing you want is an annoying generator to kill the moment.

6. Go Solar

There was a very brief moment in time when I thought my dad and I could just install the solar panel I’d ordered ($400). But once I opened the box and pulled out all the cords and wires and mounts, I took a quick trip down to my local RV center to get some intel. Thankfully, those boys hook up solar panels all the time and they were able to sling the whole kit together on my roof in just a few hours ($200). I used two marine batteries I already had from my sailboat and tucked them away in a closet so they were out of sight. Make sure you put a vent wherever you hide your batteries since you don’t your home to burst into flames while you’re out exploring. In the end, I made sure I was covered for all possible camping scenarios: propane gas, 110 volt power, and solar.

7. Decorate on a Dime

My needs were simple. I wanted a funky global feel with lots of vibrant colors, soft candles, and eye-catching fabrics. I also needed some 800-count bed linen. After painting the interior walls (from station wagon brown to soft eggshell), I did a massive Ikea shop for kitchen supplies, storage containers and rugs. I also recovered the cushions with some old curtains and safety pins. I ended up with a cozy vibe and not a soul would know that I barely spent $100 decorating.

8. Where Ya Wanna Go?

The best place in the world to RV has got to be Bahia Concepcion, a remote getaway on the Sea of Cortez side of Baja. The minute you cross the Mexican border, it feels like you have gone rogue. You can park directly on the sandy beach for a few bucks a night and kayak, swim, fish and drink cervezas to your hearts delight. And, the good thing is that most folks down in Baja are like-minded and trying just as hard as you to get off-grid. Make sure to get Mexican insurance for both your vehicle and your trailer though (1 year $300), since insurance generated in the USA does not apply once you cross the border.

9. Hit the Road

Hauling around a 1500 lb mini-beast is way more doable than it sounds.

Hauling around a 1500 lb mini-beast is way more doable than it sounds. In fact, these little tin cans are so light, it’s easy to forget they are attached to the back of your vehicle. I’d be hauling down the highway at midnight, texting away and guzzling a Red Bull when I’d glance in my rear view and freak out thinking a blue and white squad car was on my tail. Then I’d realize it was just my little trailer keeping time with me. Driving in a straight line is cake. Hairpin curves are too. Backing up is a different story. But, it’s like a boat. You move the wheel one way and the trailer goes the opposite way. As soon as you make that connection, you could almost pop wheelies with your baby and not think twice about it.

10. Set Up Camp

Your first night camping out will be pretty wild. Once you unload the trailer off your vehicle, all you have to do is put some support under the wheels (rocks will do) and sling up your awning. The sun glazing over your solar panel throughout your trip will have loaded up your batteries to capacity and you’ll be able to power up pretty much anything you might need. Things like microwaves, AC’s, and blenders require way too much amperage for a small solar panel, but that’s what hand-cranked blenders and swamp coolers are for! Time to crack a cold one, gaze at the stars and make some new friends.

Helpful Websites:

The best vintage trailers can be found at Tin Can Tourists.

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