This post is several months in development. I’ve been tossing around getting a teardrop camper for several years now. Don’t get me wrong, I love backpacking and bikepacking, but I actually do more car camping. And I’m just not that comfortable sleeping on the ground anymore. Especially now that I’ve found hammocks. For car camping, I often want a bit more, especially for sleeping.
That’s where teardrops come in. They’re a bit more weather-sound as compared to a tent, and you get to have a real bed, most importantly. You can also get them set up with power capability and other options to increase comfort. I found that getting too much (especially something with water tanks and sink and whatnot) added more weight than I really wanted to deal with, since both vehicles in my garage are small.
I had begun researching them, and it seemed the most popular ones, Little Guy, were in the $20,000 vicinity for what I wanted. I began to look at doing a DIY build, and while that looked like a fun project, I realized I was going to wind up spending a LOT more just on tools to be able to do it. Plus, since I’d be learning along the way, it would take even more time. I also did not want to build one onto one of the cheapo bolt-together Harbor Freight trailers that most tend to use. My wife, in particular, didn’t want something that looked or felt cheap. Last summer, a friend of mine wrote a Covet article for Outside Magazine on Hiker Trailer, and their price points really got my attention.
A little later, I learned that they had a shop in Indiana, and that they offered rentals to potential customers (and if you bought one, they’d apply the cost of the rental to your purchase). My wife and I liked that idea, so investigated more. Turns out, their Indiana shop was only about 20min from our house. We ended up booking a rental for the weekend of the 2016 Brown County Epic mtb festival.
We ended up loving the trailer. Cool nights were so much warmer. We slept infinitely better on the mattress. We didn’t quite have optimal car camping gear, but it was so much more comfy than tenting it.
We ended up deciding before our weeklong rental was finished that we were going to buy one. It took us a little bit of time to decide what we wanted, though. My wife, in particular, liked the extra length on the 5×10 we rented. In addition to the queen-sized mattress, it offered us a little extra cabin storage with a shelf at the foot of the bed that worked well for storing clean clothes as well as extra cubbies above and below.
What was difficult was deciding on everything else. Since each Hiker Trailer is made to order, you get to choose EVERYTHING. Even ideas you might have that are not necessarily available on the order list are possibly available as custom touches.
This is the build list we decided on:
- 5×10 Deluxe trailer (provides some core options we wanted)
- Two side doors (one on each side)
- Large tongue box
- Fox Wing awning
- Large side swing rear door (required with Fox Wing)
Electric brakes (didn’t research the car side of this one enough before including the option – it’s going to take a little time to get the brake controller part figured out, because the Crosstrek is not exactly an easy car to install a brake controller on)
- Electrical package 1 (12v AGM battery, 40 watt solar panel, interior lighting, and associated controllers and fuses and whatnot)
- Diamond plate trim (pretty much purely for appearance)
- Maxx Fan
- Undermount spare tire
- Vents for a portable A/C if I want to add one later
The front window on the rental is an option we decided we didn’t want. All it does is add light, but it also means if you want privacy, you need another curtain. Plus, being on the front of the trailer seems to me that it’s more prone to rock chips. Just not things I wanted to mess with, considering the marginal benefit of more sunlight from the front. The two side windows offer plenty for me. I also specifically requested no side access panels to the galley. The ones on the rental were not lockable, and the large side swing door option I got meant I didn’t really need extra openings to access that space.
We placed our order a few weeks after we got home with the rental, and had to wait a few months for it. We had an opportunity to attend the Sedona Mountain Bike Festival (in Sedona, AZ) the weekend of March 4th, so we checked on our trailer build progress before registering. Wes, the builder, was pretty confident he’d have our trailer finished by then, but said if he didn’t, he had a rental we could use. That was enough for us. We booked our spots in the festival and counted on the trip being our inaugural trip in our new camper.
We were fortunate to pick up our 5×10 Deluxe Hiker just under a week before departure. That gave us enough time to get it ready and loaded. I couldn’t have been more pleased by how it turned out.
For now, the primary tow vehicle is a Subaru XV Crosstrek. The 5×10 Hiker weighs about 960lbs dry, so I wouldn’t want to pull anything bigger with this Subie and its 1500lb towing capacity. In case you didn’t catch it, the tube on the roof rack is the Foxwing awning. It’s seriously cool, but is sensitive to high winds, since it’s so big. I haven’t deployed mine yet, since it’s been so windy.
I like the look of the white trailer with silver diamond trim. It looks super sharp. The tongue box was a great add, too. It houses the battery and some of the electrical equipment, but there’s also room in there for basic towing/trailering needs like locks to secure the trailer (both while towing and while parked) as well as chocks, leveling blocks, a toolbox with a few potentially useful tools in it, an extension cord for shore power pedestals, outlet tester, and whatnot. I’m able to keep those things separate from camping supplies I keep in the galley.
I ended up getting a few upgrades and custom tidbits I didn’t ask for. Partly because of availability and partly because Wes, the builder, wanted to try something new out on me. I think they’re all good ones. Structurally to the trailer, I got an A-frame trailer tongue instead of the straight one that was on the rental. The builder had found the straight one could get a little iffy on the 5×10, so he decided to start building all 5×10 trailers with the stronger tongue. I won’t complain about that. He also had a supply issue with 2000lb trailer axles, so he installed a 3500lb axle on mine. Again, definitely not complaining. He also added a light (attached to the 12v system) to the interior of my galley, which I really appreciate.
After a few days of prepping the trailer, we were ready to for our drive to Sedona.
You can see here that I added roof trays for carrying our mountain bikes. They are 1UP USA roof trays and their fatbike kit allows me to put my Salsa Bucksaw up there. They’re outstanding racks and incredibly easy to use. Compared to the Thule Sidearm trays I had years ago, these are SO MUCH easier to load/unload. A small step stool does help with that, so I’ll be buying one that I can just keep in the trailer all the time.
You can see I’m also bringing my Kuat hitch rack along for the ride. Obviously, there’s not enough room to carry the bikes on it, but there’s really not quite enough room to carry the rack itself. I made it work by being careful, but my turning radius is affected, and so is my ability to enter/exit steep transitions like driveways.
The Kuat extends straight out quite a lot from the receiver, so there’s very little space between the coupler and the bottom of the rack. That sucks. Also, I had to remove the stock tongue jack (which was centered on the tongue just behind the coupler) in order to fit the rack. On the picture above, you can see I had to replace it with a clamp-on type that folded up to keep it out of the way. I plan for this to be a temporary solution. I needed the Kuat on this trip to ferry bikes to trailheads distant from camp. The workstand was nice, too.
Our other problem was related to the electrical hookup to the car. I didn’t research enough before taking the trailer home to realize I was going to need a 7 pin connector on the car AND a brake controller. The only place I could get the car in for the wiring was a local Uhaul, and the installer there was not comfortable installing the 7 pin wiring and brake controller on the car. I think it mostly came down to the fact that it would need to be hard wired in, and he had no easy harness to do so, so it would take him more time. So I bought an adapter that would let me plug my existing 4 flat in, and just wouldn’t give me more than emergency use of the trailer’s brakes. I needed SOMETHING just so I could get the trailer home. The adapter allowed me to do that, but by the time it was time to leave for Sedona, the adapter was dead. I tried all the troubleshooting I could to no avail. I just didn’t have what I needed on hand to pull it off.
Buying local in this case paid off HUGE dividends. I called Wes at Hiker Trailer, hoping he would help me troubleshoot over the phone and give me some direction. After a couple quick checks, he said screw it, and loaded up a toolbox and an employee and DROVE TO MY HOUSE to get me rolling. He ended up wiring in an additional hookup so I could directly plug in my 4 flat connector. Voila, it worked. So now my trailer has both for flexibility.
The trailer tows great. Super stable. Great balance. Had one sketchy incident headed out of St. Louis where we were watching some severe weather that was flirting with the interstate. It was around dusk and severe thunderstorms were just south and west of us, headed close. We kept watching the radar and paying attention to the wind and rain, trying to decide if it would be necessary to pull off and wait things out. There were tornadoes and hail reported as being associated with the storm. Everything looked to be going okay when we were suddenly hammered by a strong crosswind. It sent the trailer swerving behind the car, and I let off the gas and pulled into the shoulder immediately and slowed to a stop. It appeared to be a solitary gust, but to be on the safe side, I pulled off at the exit half a mile down the road and stopped at a gas station to let the storm pass by. Nothing else nasty hit, so I continued.
We spent our first night in our own trailer at a KOA in Joplin, MO. Our delays of the first day meant we didn’t get to the KOA until late. Some jerk was parked in the site we had reserved and paid for. Grrr. We grabbed our late arrival paperwork (at least he didn’t swipe that, too), and the paperwork for a different empty site, and then set up to sleep. The next morning, we were able to let the attendant know about the jerk, and he gave the guy an earful about it. Some more rough storms rolled through during the overnight. There was some pretty heavy rain, and the winds had the camper rocking around a bit. But yay for a warm and dry place to sleep. So far, all we have for supplemental heat is an electric blanket we use at home. So since we don’t have a power inverter on the camper, we can only use it when we’re plugged in to shore power. I intend to add a small 12v heater for boondocking in the cold. Heating the air should also help with condensation when it’s cold out. Running the fan high enough to vent all the condensation makes it pretty chilly in the camper, so it’s a balancing act to find the right spot to be reasonably warm without too much condensation.
Our 2nd day of driving was the longest of the outbound leg of the trip, and had us stopping at some silly and classic Route 66 stops, since our drive followed or paralleled the historic highway. The first of the day was the Blue Whale in Catoosa, OK.
That’s a silly Route 66 sight if ever there was one. You used to be able to dive off of it into the pond or use the slides, but the current owners don’t want any of those shenanigans. Can’t blame them. The thing looks like a tetanus trap nowadays. But it is incredibly silly, and that’s the whole reason we stopped to visit it. At least visitors are still allowed to climb up to the 2nd level in its head, where you can peek out of its nostrils. Ha!
I will say this…Interstate 44 from Joplin, MO to Oklahoma City sucks. It’s perfectly scenic, especially north and east of Tulsa. What sucks is how backwards Oklahoma is with toll collections. It’s a bizarre system. The first toll plaza is a few exits into the state. To use any of those early exits, you pay your toll to get off. If you pass them, you pay a larger toll…but then, if you use one of the next few exits, you then get a refund. WTF is that business? There are a few other plazas along the way, but I also noticed that OK’s tolls are MUCH higher than elsewhere I’ve been with toll roads. Granted, I expected higher tolls because of the extra axle on the trailer. But I didn’t expect nearly $20 in tolls for the relatively short distance we were on the road (tolls are NOT collected in the OKC or Tulsa metro areas, either, so the distance we paid tolls for was even shorter). To cap it off, they don’t take plastic. Again, accepting credit cards seems to be pretty standard in most places I’ve been. The new I-65 bridge over the Ohio River between IN and KY even takes a photo of your license plate and mails you your toll. If I ever have need to pass through Oklahoma again, I’m going to take a different toll-free route. Screw Oklahoma.
Our next Route 66 site was the Cadillac Ranch just outside Amarillo, TX. That was pretty fun. It’s hilarious reading online reviews for the place on sites like Tripadvisor and Yelp. Some people think it’s obscene that everything is painted. They don’t get that allowing people to paint it all as they please is the whole point of this public art installation.
Just past Cadillac Ranch, you can see a couple of feedlots right along the interstate. Yeah, seeing (and smelling) places like that really gets you bothered by factory animal husbandry. They make me really glad that I’ve got places like Tyner Pond Farm very close to where I live, where I am welcome to visit and see how the animals I eat are raised, and Smoking Goose, which creates wonderful sausages from farms like Tyner Pond. This is a Google Maps satellite image screenshot of a place tagged as “Quality Beef Producers“. I have serious doubts that any quality beef comes from here, or other places like it.
Unfortunately, because of the long day, it was pretty much dark by the time we got to New Mexico, and we still had a lot of driving to do. A quick stop for food and we had to move on to our overnight spot in Holbrook, AZ. It was dark all the way through NM, so we didn’t get to see much.
We stayed at another KOA in Holbrook. This one was a touch nicer than the one in Joplin, but only a touch. This time, nobody stole the campsite we had reserved, at least. We could afford to sleep in a little bit more this time, because it was a fairly short day from Holbrook to Cottonwood (we had campsite reservations at Dead Horse Ranch State Park). This meant we were up and at it when other visitors were up, so I got to field quite a few questions from other people about our little camper.
It’s just too much fun for anyone who even remotely enjoys the Eagles. It may not be one of the classic Route 66 sights, but I think it’s an essential stop for a modern Route 66 trip.
Sortof in the same category is Meteor Crater (or, Barringer Crater). It wasn’t REALLY developed into a major tourist stop until relatively recently, but for me being the science nerd that I am, it’s one of those bucket list types of visits because it’s such a well-preserved impact crater. There are plenty of other impact craters on the planet, but none of them look like they could have been pulled from the moon or Mars, and none of them are so easy to visit. If the Blue Whale was my wife’s “must see” stop on this trip, Meteor Crater was mine. I’m thrilled to have seen it, and it absolutely blew my wife’s mind, so I think she’s pretty glad, too.
One thing that never fails to impress me is the scale of stuff out west. This picture is taken from the top viewing platform above the visitor center/museum on the rim of the crater. In the bottom right, you can see the lower viewing platform cantilevered out over the edge. What you can’t see well in this picture is that at the bottom of the crater in the middle, there’s a chain link fence with remnants of research equipment inside from when the owners were figuring out what caused this crater in the ground. The lower viewing platform has some telescopes fixed on specific objects (like, say, a house-sized boulder on the opposite rim), and one of those is a 6ft tall silhouette of a person against the fence (which looks about 4ft tall). You simply cannot see that silhouette at all without optical assistance. To commemorate the stop, I bought my wife some earrings made from fragments of the nickle-iron meteorite ejected during the impact and found miles from the crater, as well as pieces of turquoise.
The only place I really felt the trailer pushing me downhill was when driving down US 89A into Oak Creek Canyon. That road was steep with some pretty tight switchbacks. Not to mention in pretty poor condition with the potholes. Super scenic, though, and worth the drive down. But I would have liked to have the trailer brakes for that segment of the trip. Stuff like that is the reason I got the optional electric brakes on the trailer, even though the Uhaul place thought I was an idiot for wanting a brake controller on a 4 cylinder car. Of course there’s nowhere in Indiana that such a thing is really worth it for a trailer within the Subie’s towing capabilities. But I’m not driving it exclusively in Indiana, as you can see here.
Dead Horse Ranch State Park is a pretty nice place. It’s clean and well-maintained. We had a site directly across the road from the bathrooms, which was super nice. Warm showers after lots of mountain biking are great. Campsites weren’t packed together quite like at the KOA campgrounds where we stopped. Unfortunately, we spent very little time in camp because of the mountain biking around Sedona we did. We never bothered opening up the Foxwing awning, either. Partly because it was either super early in the morning, or it was after dark when we were in camp. There were also some fairly high winds at times, so it just wasn’t worth it to mess with the awning on this trip.
I will cover the actual mountain biking in another post, as there’s enough to cover for another one. I do wish we had more time on this trip, though, because there was so much we didn’t have time to ride, including the trails right by camp at Dead Horse Ranch.
There’s a few things I still need to work on to get the camper set up to camp efficiently. First, I need a new cooler. The one we have is a good volume, but the wrong dimensions. It’s just simply too tall to fit inside the camper’s galley. For storage, I made use of various bins and such I already had, with milk crates on the bottom. I also added some empty containers down there to prevent stuff from sliding around. Space on the middle shelf also wasn’t used terribly efficiently. I’ll be rigging some straps to hold stuff down and seeking out clear bins with lids that fit better to get everything loaded in the back better.
I also need a better setup for cleaning up after meals. I think I might be setting up a simple side table with a cutout for a rubbermaid tub, such as like this one. Maybe with two tubs – a wash tub and a rinse tub. Something like this is simple enough to add, though. It doesn’t necessarily even have to attach to the trailer.
I also need to set up a little cover for the electrical controls above the head of the bed. You can see here that there’s a red LED display that shows battery voltage. On either side are little rubber covers for the cigarette adapter (left side) and 2x USB ports (right side). There are blue lights on the USB ports showing that they’re powered, and when you’ve got something plugged in to charge there, all those lights is a bit distracting at night. I’ll probably just make a little fabric mini-curtain to cover it, because I need to make curtains for the side windows, too. In part, those windows need curtains for nighttime privacy, but also to shade sunlight in the mornings. It’s not too bad in March, but by midsummer it’s going to be getting light SUPER early, and my wife and I are totally not morning people. We don’t want to be getting up at 5am all the time because the sun is shining in.
I also want to figure out a better way to organize clean clothes inside the trailer. Maybe some plastic drawers will do it. I could use something better than just throwing gym bags onto the shelf. And definitely something that doesn’t block the pass-through to the galley.
Structurally, there are a couple things I’m thinking about. First relates to bringing the hitch rack on long drives, where we’ll need to drive the bikes to trailheads after parking the trailer to camp. I used the adapter because I thought the tongue would be longer and I’d have more space between the tow vehicle and the camper. I also didn’t want to block the galley door with the rack. Kuat does specifically say NOT to use the rack on the back of an RV (I have no plans to carry it loaded behind the trailer, but unloaded should be fine). I just want to be able to get to the cooler and other food while on a long trip. I did just that on this one. Between the vehicles is just a bit too sketchy, though. I think I’m going to be having a receiver added to the rear of the trailer, anyway. I’ll try to measure things up and get it spaced in such a way that I can fold the rack out of the way and still open the door.
The drive home, we squeezed into 2 looooong days (one night on the road) instead of 2.5d and 2n. It was rough. We left early enough on the first day that we squeezed in a few hours at Petrified Forest National Park, which is just east of Holbrook, AZ. We did the driving tour through the park and saw most of the “big” sights. We did a couple short hikes, and then stopped at most of the overlooks.
This was another place that blew my wife’s mind. She loved this stuff, and I’m glad she agreed to make this stop, too. I wasn’t sure we’d have time to swing it. It did make for a really painful day of driving, though. The scenery in this park is incredible. Painted Desert is no joke. It’s unfortunate that cameras don’t capture the colors all that well. Sunrise/sunset lighting probably does a better job.
If the winds were high earlier in our trip, they got truly gnarly on this segment. We began to fear for our hats and eventually took them off every time we got out of the car. There’s just simply nothing to block the winds here. The terrain you see in this park is eroded down into a pretty flat plain, so the wind absolutely howls. Apparently, the night before, they were having sustained 60mph winds. These winds I could feel on the car/trailer, but everything handled admirably. I think with them being pretty sustained and not so gusty helped quite a bit to keep everything pointed where I wanted.
Inside the park, there’s a small memorial to the OLD Route 66 alignment which passed through the park (since replaced by a stretch of Interstate 40). If you look really hard, you can see the old road grade in the brush, but the old car and the pulloff are the best indicators.
I love the little plaques and historical markers along what remains of Route 66. It’s a bit of a shame that the interstate outright replaced it and that more of the old US highway isn’t left behind. In this other picture, you can see the trucks on the interstate in the distance…so you get an idea of how close the interstate is to the old highway. In places, like near Cadillac Ranch, Route 66 is essentially a frontage road to the interstate. In some (like near the Blue Whale), the old route is still there, though it might be called something else. In so many like this one, the original route has just been obliterated.
The most scenic parts of Petrified Forest National Park are north of the interstate. Most of the actual Petrified Forest is south of it, but the area north is the “Painted Desert” portion and is definitely more picturesque. I took quite a few video panoramas along the way.
There are definitely fewer road miles north of the interstate, though. And the main visitor’s center/gift shop is there. And the food is quite good, too. We ate lunch here, and stopped at the gift shop for souvenirs. Of course, we’d been collecting stickers for our trailer along the route, so we had to add one from this park, too. A friend of ours also texted us when we were at Meteor Crater, asking for a space rock. We obliged, and also picked up some petrified wood for her as a surprise from here, too. And since I like buying my wife earrings at different places we visit (I’ve been doing this for years), I picked out some Zuni-made silver and semiprecious stone butterfly earrings. My friend still doesn’t know about the petrified wood. Ha!
This stop was really our only fun on the drive home. After this, it was down to business. We had miles to make up. Our plan was to make it roughly to the halfway point, which would put us in western OK for the night. By the time we got to Amarillo, I was seeing warnings about smoke impacting visibility on the interstate to the east. Wonderful. There was nothing about any closures, so I hoped we wouldn’t have too much trouble. I’m not entirely sure where the fires were that generated all the smoke. I suspect they were quite a distance away. The smoke wasn’t terribly thick, but it covered quite an area. It was unpleasant to breathe in the car and I was beginning to wonder if it would be irksome while we tried to sleep whenever we did stop. By the time we got into Oklahoma, it was dissipating. We ended up boondocking at a truckstop for the night. When we got up, there was a thin haze and a definite smoky smell to the air, so the wind must have shifted a touch overnight. Thankfully it wasn’t bad enough to have messed up our sleep.
On this day, we had absolutely zero fun stops. All business to get home. Of course, on the drive home, we lost 2hrs due to crossing time zones, so that sucked. At least it was 1hr each day of driving, so we spread it out. We got home somewhere around 1am. Late, but not horribly so. My wife had enough time to sleep before her night shift the next day, and that’s the important part.
I learned a few more things on the drive itself. I wasn’t able to calculate fuel economy for the drive TO Arizona. I forgot to reset the trip meter, for one. Two gas stations also wouldn’t print receipts, and I just didn’t feel like going in and getting them from the cashier. So I had to satisfy myself with calculating fuel economy for the drive home. We drove a little over 1600mi on the way home (probably about 3500 total for the trip, counting driving between Cottonwood and Sedona every day, and all of our side trips). Our fuel economy for the drive home ended up being a touch over 18mpg. I hoped for better, as our car usually gets 29+mpg highway. I’m sure part of that was due to the bikes on the roof and the extra wind resistance from that.
I think for long drives in the future, I’m going to try carrying the bikes on fork mounts inside the trailer. I got a mattress that folds so I can get it out of the way in case I want to haul cargo inside. I have fork mounts I usually use in my Honda Fit, so I will probably try them out on a longer drive with the trailer to test changes in fuel economy. The Subie definitely wants to push hard going uphill, even though on flat ground, it cruises pretty well with low engine rpms. That sort of engine revving definitely sucks more gas. I found myself using cruise control on the flats, but disengaging it as soon as the road tilted up, so I could let the car slow a bit and keep engine rpms down. Then on the downhill, I’d let the car pick up a bit more speed to help for the next climb (if there was one). I think fuel economy could have been much worse.
On short trips in-state, it probably isn’t worth it to put the bikes inside the trailer. Just toss ’em on the roof and go. I have been wanting a smaller pickup truck again. I had one for awhile before I ever started this website and I really liked it. I got rid of it due to reliability issues, and I’ve missed it. Now that Chevy is offering a small diesel option for the 2017 Colorado, I find myself REALLY wanting it. A truck like that would be great for long road trips like we just did here. It gets 30mpg highway and has a much higher towing capacity. Which means for this little trailer, the hit to fuel economy will be MUCH smaller. Probably at least 25mpg. The bikes could go in the bed of the truck, which would cut out a lot of complaints I have and improve fuel economy and handling in crosswinds even more. Plus it’d offer a slightly roomier ride for the drive itself. I just have to figure out how to pay for it. Ha! I may wind up with a slightly older used pickup that I can actually afford, though.
Overall, I’m thrilled with the trailer. We have some friends back home in Indy who also enjoy camping and riding and we’re already working on plans for some close-to-home trips together. We will probably also work in a weekend of boondocking and riding on the Sheltowee Trace in Kentucky and possibly a Pisgah trip this year to use the camper. We will also definitely be at the 2017 Brown County Epic with it, and trying to organize a corner of the camping area for teardrops, other small campers, and vans.