A New Project…

And now, for something completely unrelated to networking:

In August 2019, I bought a 16 foot fiberglass trailer – a 1977 Boler, to be specific – with the idea of fixing it up and living out of it for a big part of 2020. I’m hoping to use this blog to chronicle the entire build/remodel process, and then cover my adventures in it.

Why Now?

The past two years for me have been very rewarding on the work-front, but also very very thick. I’ve known that I needed a break for quite some time, but haven’t been able to figure out quite how to do it. While I enjoy my job quite a bit, it’s also been pretty high-stress for quite a while, and I’ve spent far too many nights debugging code in Papua for my taste. Most importantly, my work tends to eat up all the oxygen in the room and leave me with less time than I’d like to pursue other random hobbies and interests.

A couple things coincided to create the turning point that I’d need. The first one was a conversation with an old, dear friend of mine, who owns a farm near Yosemite and just had a child. We were talking about how excited I was to meet his kid, and how he’s going to be expanding his orchard and needs some help in the spring, and it all just sunk in at once: I’m screwing up! I need to meet his kid, I need to help out on the farm, because that’s what we do when our friends need help. Sure, work’s busy, but work will always be there. I need to prioritize these things better, because “later” easily turns into “never,” and life moves too fast when you’re busy.

The second was a tentative lab plan, for some of my colleagues to spend the summer of 2020 collaborating with a research lab in India. The timing seemed perfect: I’d be out of the lab, they’d be out of the country working on other things, there’d be no one to let down, or send me emails during my time off… can’t get any better than that!

The rest of the plan quickly fell into place. I’d drive down from Seattle in the spring, and spend a good chunk of time helping out around the farm, and getting in some good hikes and climbs in the Sierra. Once the summer hits, I’d take the long way back home up the coast – see some good friends and family in Santa Cruz and the Bay, spend some good time out in the Kings Range and the Lost Coast, pass through Redwoods National on my way up through Oregon, and eventually wind up in the Olympics until the weather turns sour. Beyond that… well, I’m not quite sure yet. TBD, as my friends at Facebook always say 🙂

Why A Trailer?

One of the first questions I had to figure out was whether I wanted a trailer or a van. I won’t lie, the van-life has always appealed quite a bit… but logistically, it ran up against a couple of hurdles for me.

First and foremost, I didn’t want to deal with a second/different vehicle. I’m already the proud owner of a ’96 Tacoma, the famously indestructable “AK-47 of trucks,” and I trust it completely despite its 240,000 miles. The prospect of buying a van immediately raised a ton of questions in my head – what are good makes and models (I usually swear by Japanese manufacturers), how many miles does it have, what’ll I do with my truck (sell it? No way!). Moreover, it’s not good for an engine to let it sit for a long amount of time, and I already don’t drive very much in my normal, daily life. I didn’t relish the prospect of taking care of two cars and making sure they get driven regularly, but dreaded the alternative – take the van out for its first trip of the season only to spend it on the side of the road when the engine won’t turn over or the water pump’s gone out.

When I started thinking about a trailer, all of these problems went out the window. I could tow it with my normal truck, and feel confident in my vehicle. When I wasn’t out on the road, I could just park it anywhere I wanted and drive around like normal. The more I thought about it, the better it got. There are many roads that are too rough for a van, but my truck wouldn’t have any problems on. Break-ins sometimes happen at remote trailheads, it’d be nice to not have to park my house there for days on end. Speaking of break-ins, securing a van is relatively hard due to the large window in the front, but a trailer is just like a small house.

Finally, I sat down for a while and thought about *what* I’d be doing. When I thought through a couple different scenarios in my head, the main advantage of the van over the trailer is its mobility: it’s a hell of a lot easier to drive and park than a trailer, and can get into many more places. The trailer’s a lot harder to drive and park, *until* you un-hitch, at which point my truck can go just about anywhere. This approach appealed to me a lot more, since for 2020 I’m planning on visiting a handful of places for extended periods of time, keeping the trailer parked in a “home base” and driving my truck off to wherever I may want to go. My top concern about this approach is that there are some particularly rugged areas I want to go on my trip (shoutout to the Lost Coast) and I’m hoping this doesnt lead to some crazy back-tracking.

Why Fiberglass?

Okay, so I wanted to tow a trailer. Why a fiberglass one? I started the project considering all options, but fiberglass quickly won me over for a couple of reasons that mainly had to do with cost. Since this project has a relatively low budget, I knew I’d be looking at buying something used, and probably older than myself. This meant that I’d have to look pretty carefully for a wide range of structural issues: water-damage, rotted seams/seals, or sagging roofs could all be likely and require some serious work to fix, or potentially total the project before it even starts. Here, the fiberglass design really shines: the one-piece cast shell means that there’s barely any seams or seals to leak, and the nature of fiberglass means it holds its structure and strength pretty much indefintely. This was just what I was looking for! I don’t mind fixing or replacing most appliances or utilities (I actually kinda enjoy it), but am very not-excited about replacing a roof that just won’t stop leaking.

Building on this point, fiberglass trailers seemed to represent a “knee of the curve“ in the market. Old enough to be depreciated and cheap, yet (hopefully) more trust-worthy than other designs. The reliability of the shell does mean that you’ll end up paying a bit more ($12K vs $7K USD), but it felt like money well-spent, in my eyes.

Finally, there’s the cute-factor. Though Scamp (and other manufacturers) continue to manufacture trailers to this day, they still have a retro-70s look and feel that I’m very fond of, but without the corresponding price-tag. A lot of different retro-style things are gaining popularity in a way that incredibly inflates the price – think 1960s Airstreams going for $20-30K, or 1970s motorcycles going for $5K. For some reason I don’t quite understand (maybe just brand-name recognition?), this trend seems to have skipped over the fiberglass trailer scene: since 2010, used prices have gone up slightly, but nowhere near as much as others.

Why 16 Feet?

Best I can tell, most fiberglass trailers come in two basic sizes, 13-foot and 16-foot. Given the logistics of towing, and my general preference for smaller things, being a relatively small human myself, my goal was to find a trailer that was as small as possible while still giving me enough room to do all the things I wanted to. I used my good friends Colin and Lisa’s van as a starting place, given that it’s very well-laid out, and thought about my key goals for this trip: living in the trailer full-time (potentially without hookups), doing a lot of various outdoor activities, and working on my writing. As such, I came up with the following set of needs: (1) a full-time bed (i.e. not one of those beds that folds away into a table, (2) a full-time table to keep active projects on, (3) a stove, sink, and fridge, and (4) maybe a bathroom (more on this later). Aside from reading and writing at a small table, I’m expecting to be outside a fair amount, whether it’s sitting on a porch-chair or hiking/camping out in the Sierras or Olympics.

After measuring my good friends Colin and Lisa’s van, I was convinced that a 13-footer was exactly the size I needed: as small as possible while still giving me enough room to do all the things I wanted to. However, when I checked out a couple of 13-foot trailers from Craigslist, they all seemed significantly smaller than I wanted! For a while, my working theory was that the trailers were simply laid out inefficiently for the space. I kept telling myself that once I gutted it, it would look much, much bigger, and then I could design it to my heart’s content. Finally, I brought a tape measure with me to one of these visits, and everything made sense. Turns out, the length advertised includes about 3 feet of tow-hitch on the front! In short, a “13 foot” trailer’s actually about 10 feet long, and a “16 foot” trailer’s actually 13 feet. I started looking at 16 foot trailers, and everything made perfect sense in terms of length and width.

Why Boler?

Turns out there’s many more manufacturers than you’d expect: Scamp is the brand I was most aware of when I started out, but I quickly found many more: Casita, Boler, Trillium, Bigfoot, the list goes on. With respect to floor plans, construction materials, weight, pretty much anything you can think of, they all look pretty much identical. I started searching Craigslist daily for all of the manufacturers, just to get a sense of where the market was, and eventually found a great deal on a 1977 16-foot Boler, being sold outside Vancouver. I called the seller, hit the bank for a cashier’s check, and drove up to Canada without a clue what I was doing. Ten hours later… I had a trailer in my driveway!

What Now?

Since acquiring this trailer, I’ve put a fair amount of work into its different systems, and learned a ton about a wide range of new-to-me technologies. I didn’t take as many “before” pictures as I’d like, but I’m hoping to write several articles about what I’ve learned – half for fun, half to share with everyone what I’m doing, and half in case anyone else finds it useful (doubtful).

Published by Spencer

Postdoctoral researcher at the University of Washington. I work on expanding Internet access and connectivity worldwide.

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