Luggage trailer recommendations.
July 10, 2006 9:48 PM   Subscribe

We are taking our minivan with four kids, two adults, to the coast in Oregon. My wife and I have an unresolved disagreement about which is best--a trailer, or a roof top carrier--for hauling all of our camping junk that won't fit in the vehicle. Please enlighten me about trailers.

When filled with people, our 1999 Mercury Villager has almost no room for sleeping bags, tents, cooking supplies, etc.

The last time we camped on the coast we stayed in a yurt and used a crammed full fabric luggage carrier and shoved stuff on the floor.

Our kids are a bit bigger now and that may not work. If we had the money we'd get a used tent trailer. However, we are debating whether to get one or two rooftop plastic boxes, like the x-cargo sold by sears, OR a utility trailer of some sort.

We can get one of those ugly but functional utility trailers made from an old pickup truck. It has wiring for a trailer brake and lights. It looks big and heavy, and I don't want to destroy our engine.

Or we could get one of those flatbed utility trailers available at Home Depot, but I'm not sure how well it would do on an 800 mile road trip.

I have also seen "luggage trailers" but they seem pitifully tiny.

Please, be the father I never had and tell me the truth about trailers in wise and insightful ways...
posted by mecran01 to Travel & Transportation (20 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
A trailer will be a PITA on windy coast roads and there are a surprising number of things that can go wrong with even a simple one. For starters- do you have a hitch? Is it a bumper mounted hitch or a frame hitch? Is it the right size? How about wiring? Those things are pretty expensive to have installed. The heavier utility trailers will put a load on your tranny and cooling system and, as they have no electronic brakes, you'll put stress on your brakes too. If you have to back up on narrow roads or park on the street it'll be a pain.

Having traveled with both I'd definetely go with the rooftop carrier if possible.
posted by fshgrl at 9:57 PM on July 10, 2006

I highly recommend the X-cargo. As a kid, I remember going on campouts with my family all the time (family of four with lots of random crap.) The x-cargo worked fine and it was never much of a hassle, except the time mom backed into the garage without removing it ...

Even with a powerful van, towing a trailer of any sort can be a hassle. There's always brake lights and cables and whatnot to screw with, and you have to watch your weight limitations. You'll probably have a bit more of a security worry securing gear in a trailer, esp. a flatbed.

On the subject of popup trailers, I can't recommend them enough (although then you are towing a trailer.) You get that camping sort of feel without selling out with the RV. We took a 2 week road trip when I was 12 and changed locations every day ... after 2 or 3 days we could pitch the whole popup in 5 minutes flat, although it takes an hour or two the first time you try.
posted by Happydaz at 9:58 PM on July 10, 2006

Rooftop carrier. It will hold less than the trailer, but is way cheaper and more convenient. Plus all the things fshgrl said about trailers.
posted by LarryC at 10:01 PM on July 10, 2006

Keep in mind that with a trailer, you will have to suddenly develop a skill you probably don't have -- going in reverse with a trailer. It's a learned skill, not always easy to pick up. If you don't have this skill, you will have a harder time just moving the car around and parking and whatnot.

Rooftop carriers have no such issues.
posted by frogan at 10:23 PM on July 10, 2006

You'll be on the Oregon coast. For most of the Oregon coast, highway 101 is essentially a narrow two lane street with some rather twisty cliffhanger sections and entirely too few turnouts. It is already quite clogged with Winnebagos, campers, log trucks, and other obnoxious slowpokes. Please, do everyone on the road a favor and do not tow a trailer and add to the problem unless you absolutely do not have any other option.
posted by majick at 10:32 PM on July 10, 2006

The secret to backing up a trailer is to do exactly the opposite of what you think you should do. If you think you need to turn the wheel right, in reality you need turn it left, and vice versa. Takes some getting used to.
posted by wsg at 12:43 AM on July 11, 2006

The trailer will carry more stuff, but it's harder to deal with. Towing a trailer is not that difficult, especially a small one, but it takes a little learning.

Learning on the Oregon coast is not a very good idea.... if you do want the trailer, buy it first and practice with it. Learn how to back up with it. You MUST know how to do this properly. And always use a spotter when doing this, even with a very small trailer.

To determine whether or not you need one, I'd suggest packing your stuff now. Get a couple of big boxes and load everything you will need into them. Measure their cubic footage. If it will not fit into a cartop carrier, then buy the trailer and practice with it before you leave.

Note: many vans are rather underpowered for their physical size. Check your Gross Vehicle Weight Rating and trailer-towing capacity in your owner's manual before buying. Do not exceed either figure. GVWR is the maximum that the van itself, all the people in it, all the gear loaded into it, the trailer, and all the stuff inside the trailer can weigh. You may find you're already exceeding it just with the stuff inside the car. If so... well, don't buy a trailer. And drive extra-carefully at the coast.
posted by Malor at 4:16 AM on July 11, 2006

I'm thinking about gas mileage! I would imagine a rooftop carrier would make you like a brick in the wind...
posted by CwgrlUp at 6:15 AM on July 11, 2006

Trailer. Between the gas savings and the cross-wind problems with rooftop carriers you should make out.
posted by electroboy at 6:43 AM on July 11, 2006

I'd get a trailer. You won't need anything huge, I've got the 8' model of this unit but even the 4' would probably be enough. I've pulled the trailer about 5000kms in the last 5 months with my 89 Voyager (L4 Auto). The only problem I've had is when I took out a tire on a monster pothole. And that was only a hassle because I didn't have a spare with me so make sure you have a spare. Yes you'll need a trailer hitch and wiring but it's only about a $250 job to have it installed and it takes about an hour.

In your case I wouldn't bother decking the 4' trailer, a couple of those large rubbermaid totes and a few ratchet straps would be all you'd need. For more money the rubbermaid action packers are a bit tougher and are lockable. I've built 3 plywood boxes for all our camping equipment. Because all our gear is in those boxes (with the exception of food and clothing) we can decide to go camping on a moments notice and 10 minutes later be ponied up and driving down the road. Very handy.

Regardless of which trailer you get they aren't all that much trouble to tow. Winding roads aren't really a problem because a small utility trailer is much narrower than your van and the wheel base is so short. Backing up takes a little practise but I can teach someone the basics in about a half an hour. The big hassle is parking, you have to think about the extra length and you might want to look for drive thru spots until you get practised backing up. And the trailer can be useful in the future to haul stuff like garden supplies and yard waste if you are into that kind of thing.

On the other hand those roof top carriers are a pain in the back to load and unload equipment from. You've got to be worried about scratching the paint and smaller kids can't help. Your roof rack is probably only rated for 50-100 pounds (including the mass of the carrier) (check your owners manual). If you're carrying more than that you'll need after market racks. The carrier will make the effects of side winds worse and because the mass is up high your van will feel more tippier than usual. You have to constantly be on the lookout for low (6'- 6'6"- 7' are common) entrances at motels, parking garages and drive throughs lest you rip the rack off the roof. They will have a noticeable effect on gas mileage (much more so than the trailer assuming same mass carried). Many of the cargo pods are quite noisy.

As a further benefit you can unhitch the trailer at your campsite and be unencumbered by it for the duration.

Don't get a truck box trailer, they are way too heavy for your needs. The more your trailer weighs the less stuff you can carry in it. And a little flat deck utility trailer can be hung on a wall for storage.

Whatever you choose realise you are probably stressing the limits of the vans load rating just from the stuff inside. If your van has a recommended or optional transmission service I'd get it performed before you leave. If your transmission has an overdrive lock out make sure to use it whenever the transmission starts shifting back and forth. Run your tires at the max inflation rating in your owners manual.
posted by Mitheral at 8:07 AM on July 11, 2006

How about a hitch-mounted cargo carrier?

Basically a metal platform that slots into the trailer hitch and jutts out behind your minivan.

I've never used one, but I've seen them on the road. A guy I used to work with had one for his pickup truck, with a high bar so he could carry long lengths of timber (16' pine boards) in an 8' bed truck.

I'm guessing the amount of weight cannot be more than the max tongue weight for your minivan hitch.

A couple of quick links:
posted by sol at 8:07 AM on July 11, 2006

I have a 2000 Mercury Villager and own a Sears Rooftop Carrier. I think they are great. They swallow tons of stuff.

I have driven half-way across the country through hillyest spots of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Maryland with one. There was a slight effect on speed and no noticeable issues with wind. I will also add that ours has a luggage rack and the carrier is attached to it. I believe this makes a difference because I have also driven the van with a bag type carrier that does not attach to the luggage rack, but to the top of the car. I noticed enormous problems with acceleration and the ability to maintain speed, especially in hilly areas, when using that type of carrier.

I forget how much the van is rated to tow, but you should look this up in the owner's manual. Remember that minivans are engineered as big cars, not SUVs. The transmissions and other load bearing parts are not designed to handle the heavy load an SUV or truck can for really long periods of time. My mechanic even told me that I should get rid of any minivan before it hits 90k miles because that's when everything starts to break.
posted by internal at 8:23 AM on July 11, 2006

We have a 2000 Windstar and tent camp with four people and a dog and a 15" truss-tube Dobsonian telescope. We haul nearly everything in a 5x8 cargo trailer. We have a roof top box, but don't use it on the van because it's just so inconvenient. When the youngest kid was a baby, we had a pop-up camper, and it was annoying. We'd have to unpack the trailer before we could pop it up, and it's so much easier to just unpack what we need. However, we did get the van with a towing package, so it's got a heavier tranny/beefier engine/hitch points/wiring. We also use the trailer a couple of times a month for stuff other than camping. The wiring's not a problem -- there's a plug on the van that matches the standard trailer wiring plug.
posted by jlkr at 9:01 AM on July 11, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks all. I am not sure what to do, but will go the x-cargo route if we can find a used one before our departure in four weeks. Otherwise, one of these utility trailers (that I can pick up locally) would probably work really well: haulmaster at harbor freight.
posted by mecran01 at 11:31 AM on July 11, 2006

Best answer: Years ago I helped talk my folks into getting a 4x8 stake-side utility trailer kit. I don't even remember the original reason it was needed, but it quickly became an indispensable tool. It's been used for hauling brush, moving friends, picking up furniture, taking the lawn tractor to the shop, etc. time and time again. I still borrow it a few times a year myself. It's traveled thousands of miles without a problem and has clearly paid for itself many times over.

A utility trailer like this doesn't put a big load on an ordinary car. And you're talking about hauling camping gear, not iron ingots. Your minivan can handle it.

I've traveled with rooftop carriers, and they're all right, but on a taller vehicle it can get old having to open a door and climb up on the sill to reach over your head to get something up or down from the carrier. (And they're much, much less useful for future brush-hauling or couch-moving.)

A trailer would hold more, permit less-precise packing, and be easier for the kids to help load & unload.

Towing a small trailer is not the big hairy deal some people make it out to be, unless you are truly spectacularly uncoordinated. In fact on a trip the slight extra challenge can be part of the fun. You tend to look for different kinds of parking places, pull into the truck section of highway rest areas, etc. Just always carry a spare wheel+tire and a jack, and if you have to use it, go straight to a Home Depot to replace it.

fshgrl raises some non-issues: there's almost no such thing as a bumper mounted hitch anymore unless you have a pickup. You'd likely go to Ziebart or somewhere to have a Hidden Hitch and a wiring harness installed for less than $200. Crosswinds aren't a big deal unless you have a tall, slab-sided box trailer. And electronic brakes don't really enter the picture until you're talking about big, serious cargo and boat trailers that you'd never pull with a minivan anyway.

A simple, no-fail, monkey-safe trailer-reversing tip: rest your hand on the bottom of the steering wheel. Move that hand in the direction you want the trailer to go. This works whether you're turned around looking out the back, or using the side mirrors. Get a bunch of practice before the trip -- have the kids help spot (whether you need help or not) -- make it fun. Slow is fast. Rushing will only mess you up.

Concerns might include weatherproofing and the security of contents when unattended. Perhaps some big padlockable Rubbermaid boxes bolted to the floor? Or if you're handy, maybe instead of a stake-side design you could turn it into a low box trailer with a lockable lid.

(On the other hand, have you looked into renting a full-size van for the trip?)
posted by Tubes at 11:39 AM on July 11, 2006

mecran01 writes "Otherwise, one of these utility trailers (that I can pick up locally) would probably work really well: haulmaster at harbor freight."

If you go the harbour freight route do a quick google for coupons before heading out. They are constantly offering 20% discounts with a coupon that you can print out. The 4X8 version of that trailer is really popular amongest guys making teardrops.
posted by Mitheral at 12:37 PM on July 11, 2006

Response by poster: Awesome, interesting advice. Renting a full sized van is about $1200 for the entire trip, so that's out. Those teardrops are amazing! I am leaning more and more toward the harbor freight utility trailer, which is $179 *before* the 20 percent off coupon.
posted by mecran01 at 2:59 PM on July 11, 2006

Another note on these little trailers: if they are not piled high with stuff, they can be impossible to view through the back window of many vehicles. My dad affixed a tall fiberglass rod to each rear corner for visibility, which makes reversing a piece of cake. (Not sure where tall fiberglass rods come from, but that's what hardware store staff are for.)
posted by Tubes at 3:53 PM on July 11, 2006

Fiberglass rods with a mounting loop (and bonus flag :) ) are available from bike shops.
posted by Mitheral at 10:45 AM on July 14, 2006

I would really appreciate some feedback on this very subject. I've decided to go with a trailer, what many call a "luggage trailer". My problem is I cannot find any reputable dealers here in the Midwest are of the U.S.

I know Venter makes great luggage trailers, but they're in NZ/Australia, etc ! I've found another manufacturer "Thunder Trailer Sales" but they are in Manitoba! This is what I'm looking for:

Can anyone please help with comments/suggestions.
I live in Ohio, but would gladly drive to MI, PA, IN, IL etc.

Please and Thanks
posted by Evets at 10:31 AM on July 4, 2007

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