October 24, 2022
By Gary Lewis
When a backcountry adventure calls, hunters need a secure base camp. Traditionally, canvas wall tents or nylon outfitter tents, along with cots, sleeping bags and portable kitchens have served well in these situations.
More recently, some creative adventurers have been turning to enclosed cargo trailers, which can be converted into a mobile deer camp with most of the comforts of home. These trailers are blank canvases with four walls and high ceilings, and they can be loaded with everything from bullets and beans to sleeping quarters in a self-contained unit that can be locked up and stored in the offseason.
When I started considering a cargo trailer for use as a deer-hunting base camp, I realized one of my friends had been down the road ahead of me. Joe Kiblinger, of Redmond, Ore., is a diehard backcountry hunter. Kiblinger's cargo trailer camp goes into the field for at least two weeks each year—seeing the heaviest use during spring bear hunts and November elk hunts.
SIZE IT UP
Cargo trailers come in all sizes. Popular dimensions include 5 feet by 8 feet, 6-by-12, 7-by-12 and 7-by-14. Tongue length will add about 42 inches. An enclosed 6-by-12 trailer with a single axle will cost about $5,000, new from the dealer, depending on your location and any additional expenses related to costs of materials and availability issues due to recent supply-chain problems caused by the COVID pandemic. Interior width will be 5 feet 9 inches, while the interior height will be 6 feet 3 inches. For towing, figure an empty weight of 1,200 pounds.
Selecting a trailer is the most important part of the process. Smaller trailers are light enough to tow with the average SUV or small truck. But go too small and it won't sleep all the people in a large group. Go too big and it might not access a backcountry base camp down a narrow, rocky road. "We've tried wall tents and nylon tents," Kiblinger says. "I've had a big toy hauler and I was using it only twice a year, so we went over to a cargo trailer."
Kiblinger started with a 7-by-14 cargo trailer and began to imagine how to maximize the space to shelter and feed two to four hunters. Depending on the size of the group, Kiblinger can put two people in bunks against the back door and two more in cots along the side wall. Other people solve the sleeping problem by putting beds under work benches.
A hunting trailer can be configured a lot of different ways, but one of the things people seem to agree on is that a main door on the right or left side of the trailer makes using the trailer more convenient. If a 4-wheeler is going to be used on the hunt, it is a good idea to have a ramp style back door. Otherwise, barn-style doors are OK.
LIVABILITY, LIGHT, POWER
Windows let in light and are cheap and easy to install. At night, the lights come on. Most cargo trailers come wired these days for LED lighting and the systems are easily tapped into to add task lighting. It is a great help to have outside lighting too, which can be mounted to the back of the trailer to light up the camp for skinning and cooking chores.
On a week-long trip, the deep-cycle batteries are going to run down. If a generator is going to be used, then a hole can be drilled in the floor to run the extension cord. Mount a plug strip on the wall to power a refrigerator, a small chest freezer, coffee pot, microwave and phone/radio chargers. Consider adding a solar charger from the Zamp Solar Obsidian series instead of a generator to keep batteries topped up.
On a November elk hunt, it gets pretty chilly. Kiblinger’s trailer is vented for airflow, and he uses a small portable propane heater to keep it livable. Many trailers are already equipped with a rooftop vent. Consider upgrading to a Dometic FanTastic 3350 with three-speed fan, automatic dome lift and rain sensor. Carpet remnants are easy insulation to add to hold a little heat in the trailer at night.
WORKSPACE AND STORAGE
At a minimum, plan to install wall-mounted overhead cabinets. Add friction latches and handles that can be bungee-wrapped to keep the doors from opening and spilling the contents while going down a bumpy road. Leave space for wall storage for guns and bows, backpacks and treestands.
A floor-mounted cabinet adds more storage and a workspace on top. Screw it down to the floor and to a backing board against the plywood wall. Including a foldable work table increases versatility. It can be strapped to a wall and even put away to make room for a cot. Adding leg extensions makes the table taller, which adds some space underneath and can make skinning operations smoother.
Kiblinger added a melamine fold-down dining table that secures to the wall when not in use. Drop-down bench seats are an option, too. Kiblinger uses a large two-burner Camp Chef propane-fired stove for cooking outside, but keeps a small two-burner stove inside for making quick work of small meals. He stores a first-aid kit, gun-cleaning tools, meat-processing equipment, towels and dishes year-round inside the trailer.
Of course, camping is all about the great outdoors. Plan to do most of the cooking and eating outside as the weather permits. Kiblinger considered adding an RV awning to the trailer, but opted instead to carry two 10-by-10 pop-up shelters he ties together with bungees. If rain or snow is in the forecast, he adds tarp walls to keep out the weather. Most of the cooking is done on the big stove with a griddle for pancakes and bacon.
When it comes time to pack up and head for home, all the gear goes inside, the door is locked and the camp is ready to roll. Cargo trailers come in standard colors including white, black and gray. Put a wrap on a white one to make it look like a pine forest, or use camouflage detailing and turn it into a comfortable stealth hunting blind by adding custom shooting windows on both sides.
Converting a cargo trailer into a hunting camp is a great idea that can be sized up or down depending on the tow rig. And the only limit to its versatility is your own imagination.