Friday, March 6, 2020

Love Refurbished: A Tiny Trailer Romance

Tiny Trailer Camping, Lake Superior Provincial Park
Agawa Bay, Lake Superior Provincial Park

Everyone likes the idea of being able to interact with a tiny trailer builder in order to customize the rig you're buying. Tom and Nancy Grover, of NW Ohio, had that relationship with their builder, Eye4Design, eleven years ago, which led them to buy the first trailer the company built . . . and the last.

Tiny Trailer Camping, Lake Superior Provincial Park
Tom and Nancy Grover, Lake Superior, Agawa Bay.

The problem with extreme customizing of design, the Grovers came to find out, is that every build is a prototype, and those weaknesses in the first-time builds had to be discovered by the owners. Their first teardrop was built as a copy of the classic grasshopper travel trailer (three doors for the galley and one side door), which "had the tongue fail at where it went under the front of the trailer. Fortunately, the second owner was in a small town going slow and found someone to weld fish plates for reinforcing the sides."

tiny trailer camper
The first Mega Mini, with three galley doors and one side door.

The Grovers gave Eye4Design lots of feedback as they built later models--but the company only managed to build seven before going under. The seventh was a second build for the Grovers, which the company never completed. Tom researched suing but found the process too difficult and finally just picked up the unfinished rig and finished the electrical and propane systems himself. "The laws are shall we say nicely skewed in favor of the RV manufacturers, and I researched what I could do," Tom says. "I actually did find a lawyer in Indiana willing to take the case. Eye4Design had basically filed before finishing ours after getting #1 in trade and a good bit of money. Finally with the threat of legal action, I was able to pick it up almost complete. It was basically finishing up the wiring and undoing a couple of mistakes."

Even though Tom had to finish the trailer himself, because of their interactions with design, they have now owned a trailer for ten years that really suits them. "Our teardrop is at the far end of elaborate and has lots of storage space. This means we are not living out of bins. Our tear was designed for this sort of camping: solar provides power for charging, lights, Sirius radio, TV/DVD." Their trailer even has a water heater (which Nancy loves), a big front storage box, and an extended frame with LED lights.

One of the first modifications to the Compass Rose was finding an efficient air conditioner. "The failure of our early Pet Cool (2500 BTU) to cool Compass Rose eventually lead to hacking a 5000 BTU Frigidaire window unit." Later, Tom added more sophisticated changes, including "a solar 185W high voltage panel and a Morningstar MPPT controller Victron battery monitor 150AH AGM battery." He also added a powered TV antenna, cell signal booster, an external directional antenna, and XM satellite to the radio.. For comfort and convenience an external gas point and shower point, from Bullfinch in the UK, and a grill with a ten-foot hose finished the modifications. This summer he is adding a Sleep Number bed.

For all these modifications, the Teardrop and Tiny Travel Trailer forum has been a resource for Tom. He has interacted so much over the years (eighty-five pages) that he has become a resource for others. He wrote up his steps for installing a more efficient air conditioner at TNTTT, and using his explanations, "a number of folks have done variations."

Big Basin Redwoods State Park, Tiny Trailer Camping
Big Basin Redwoods State Park

The Govers' tow vehicle is a Suburu Outback H6 with a transmission cooler. "I use an Ultra Gauge to keep track of engine temp and use a 60/40 antifreeze mix. Pulling in the Sierras with the Suburu's predecessor, a 3L H6, there were times I had to shut off the AC.  The first Mega Mini did not have brakes, but this one does. Lesson learned."

The Grovers introduced themselves to the outdoor lifestyle by tenting. "One of the stops on our teardrop trip to California was Big Basin Redwoods State Park, and my sister told me we had tent camped there when I was three years old, sixty years before. As a couple, Nancy and I did a couple of trips to Death Valley and other California state and national parks. After moving to Ohio, one of our first camping trips was to Lake Superior Provincial Park when our youngest was three years old. That was a regular trip for decades while I was working and only had a week or two off. We had good gear but were sleeping on the ground. We saw RV Crazy on the TV, and it featured a lady with a teardrop. I started looking into it and found Mega Mini #1, which could be towed with my daily driver."

Saddlebag Lake, Tiny Trailer Camping
"On the road coming out from Saddlebag Lake at about 11,000 feet in the Sierra Nevadas."  

With a tiny trailer designed for both powered and primitive campsites ("I designed the solar with that in mind."), Tom and Nancy usually take five or more extended trips each year, some longer, such as their five thousand mile trip to California. Mostly, though, they use Ohio's Golden Buckeye card, which gives them half off site fees in Ohio state parks midweek. They've even gotten up into Canada, visiting Agawa Bay Lake Superior Provincial Park, where they spent many hours sitting on the beach ("Nancy likes to have her 'water feature.'"), allowing Tom to convalesce after a near-fatal heart attack. They've met "sun birds" in the UP or Michigan, but haven't traveled much to Florida, although they did spend a couple of weeks two years ago at Fort Wilderness Disney World and one Florida state park. "Not a fan of hot, but we do have the AC!"

Tiny Trailer Camping, blogging
Nancy, chronicling the journey. (Lyman, WY)

Nancy did her share of documenting their travels with the Compass Rose when in 2012 the Grovers took an extended trip out to California from Ohio in order to celebrate her sister's 50th wedding anniversary.  She started a blog (Tom and Nancy's Teardrop Trip) to keep track of their travels and is glad she did so.
"My friend Jackie persuaded me [to start a blog]. She had kept a travel blog during a trip to the Southwest and convinced me that it was a great way for my kids to keep track of us as we traveled. She also pointed out that after so many days, all of my memories would run together. A blog would also serve as a record of our trip. She was right. (Thanks, Jackie!) What I didn't expect was how important it became for me to record my thoughts each evening. Long hours in the car or busy days with friends and family blurred. Taking time to write about the day allowed me the opportunity to make sense of so many competing experiences. I found myself looking forward to 'blogging' when we finally settled for the night. I became frustrated when the WiFi failed or the internet connection was so tenuous that I couldn't download photos. And woe betide Tom if he took too long on the laptop! So, it became very important for me to finish and edit the blog once I got home."
2012 Ohio-California Trip

Tiny Trailer Camping
"There are storms in the area, but they have gone around us. However, we enjoyed a beautiful sunset."
(June 14, Day 2, Des Moines, IA)

Tiny Trailer Camping
"Tonight we are just west of Reno, within spitting distance of California. It has been a long day."
Photo of the Compass Rose's interior. (June 18, Days 5 and 6)

Tiny Trailer Camping, Lake Tahoe
"Credit must go to my husband for doing all of the navigating around the lake. It was not an easy task. At one point the road was a tight uphill switch-back with no guard-rail. There was nothing between us and a huge drop down to the lake. For the second time this afternoon I was in tears. I HAD to close my eyes. Thankfully, Tom was cool, calm, and collected enough to make up for my panic!" (June 20, Day 7, Lake Tahoe, CA)

Tiny Trailer Camping, Stanislaus National Forest
"California is a state of contradictions.  It is crowded, noisy, congested, and ultra-urban. Then, without warning, you can find yourself in a place of astonishing beauty. Tonight I am writing from a campsite deep in the Stanislaus National Forest.  We are at Dimond O Campground, just outside of Yosemite National Park. At Big Basin Redwoods State Park, we had been surrounded by huge redwood trees. Here we are also camping in a forest. This time, the trees are towering pines. The floor of our site is carpeted with needles." (July 1, Day 15)

Tiny Trailer Camping, freeway
Commuting while visiting family for the wedding anniversary. "You know you are in California when freeways have 7 lanes in each direction, all packed with vehicles going 75 miles an hour. On-ramps have two lanes, each controlled by red and green lights that allow only two cars from each lane onto the freeway at a time. I’m not sure which is more unnerving: switchbacks on mountain roads or rush hour." (June 26, Days 10-11, San Francisco Bay Area)

Tiny Trailer Camping, Saddlebag Lake
"Tonight we are camped at an elevation of 10,000 feet.  While the campground is surrounded by trees, we are just at the tree line, and the hills around us only support scraggly scrub.  The air is thin so that during the day the sun feels hot and skin burns easily.  But step into shadow and you shiver." (July 2, Day 19, Saddlebag Lake, Tioga Pass, CA.)

Tiny Trailer Camping, Yellowstone National Park
"The most amazing sight today was an emerald green river cascading down a mountain gorge. 
Beautiful!  They call it the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone." (June 12, Day 23, Yellowstone National Park.)

Tiny Trailer Camping, Lake Itasca, Savanna Portage State Park, Mississippi River
"For the second time on this trip we crossed over the Mississippi River. This time we were not far from its headwaters in Lake Itasca. We camped not far from the river in Savanna Portage State Park. It is a lovely spot, filled with trees on the shore of a lake. Frustratingly, vampire mosquitoes discouraged us from enjoying the park. As soon as we could, we escaped to our trailer and watched a movie!" (July 15, Day 25, Minnesota)

Tiny Trailer Camping
"Shortly after 4:00, we crossed into Ohio. Another 15 minutes and we pulled into our driveway. We are home!"
(July 17, Day 27, Ohio)

The Compass Rose Rebuild

After traveling in the Compass Rose for ten years, last year Tom decided it was time for a major overhaul and refurbishing. His experience and insights can provide direction for tiny trailer owners who have had their rigs for a number of years. "Our tear at 10 years old is getting a major rebuild. This corrects inherent weakness in the aluminum frame. Persistent leaks, etc," he posted last year on Facebook. Evidence of wood rot and leaks lead Tom to take it to RV Mobile Repair for leak testing. "RV Mobile Repair and I have had a long term relationship, Tom says, "basically them doing the stuff that is above my level of incompetence. Sam, the owner, is very good, and as an example when I took ours in with the leaks, he borrowed a leak tester, and I had to make the decision to fix it or scrap it." The decision was made to repair, and interior and exterior walls were replaced. "Not much leakage can lead to a lot of mold, and all of the EPS insulation had to be replaced."

Last winter it was rebuilt with additional frame reinforcement which included walls and exterior walls and refurbishing the galley. Long term problems were fixed, including some from the original build. "Have [your trailer] leak tested every couple of years," Tom Grover says. "In my seldom humble opinion, RV caulk is designed to fail, and mold is a killer." He also has suggestions on wiring your trailer. "Plan on more than you think you want, i.e., we have four duplex 120AC outlets in the cabin and four outside. Six 12V DC outlets in the cabin, and two outside, and they all get used."

Tiny Trailer Camping, RV Repair
"Amazing how much can be done when you remove the skin. This also shows the axle has been moved forward."

Tiny Trailer Camping, RV Repair
"Some original plumbing issues were taken care of while it was naked."

Tiny Trailer Camping, RV Repair
"Sides on, graphics added, new countertop."

Tiny Trailer Camping, RV Repair
"Nancy had always wanted additional counter space, and an extension was fabricated."

Now that the Compass Rose is all fixed up and ready for the 2020 camping season, the Grovers are finalizing their travel plans. "We will be headed out to Teddy Roosevelt National Park this summer," Tom says, "and will be coming back north of Lake Superior and meeting up with my daughter and her family, including her daughters at Lake Superior Provincial Park. Two of our three kids love to camp there."

Tiny Trailer Camping, Lake Superior Provincial Park
"Last fall's LSPP trip, showing the grill attached and the refrigerator, which is powered by the solar panel."

Dreams are already forming about a possible road trip: Cass Scenic Railroad State Park in West Virginia, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Lake Superior Provincial Park, "and places in between." Sounds like fun! Tom has great hopes, saying that if he can convince his wife, then maybe Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park are on the agenda. He also hopes to make a Tear Jerkers gathering. So little time, so many destinations . . .

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  1. Tom, you have done a wonderful job of refurbishing your camper. I always enjoy reading all these blogs. It's amazing how you are never done with the Teardrop, you discover a few things you want to change every time you take it out!

    1. Yes, I like the way Tom Grover bought the trailer, used it for years, and then had it rebuilt so it's like new.

  2. Good Morning Tom,
    I like this new comment section for Green Goddess Glamping. This is quite a story! Love the pictures and the honesty from them. I sold my house and am now in Florida, packing up and storing my household goods to put in storage until I decide to get another "sticks and bricks" which I'm not sure when that will happen again. Will return to the Wild West for exploring in my 24' Born Free. I've been living in "Daisy" for 4 months and have enjoyed this journey so much. Thank you for sharing all of these wonderful stories - keep 'em coming! Enjoy the journey!

    1. You'll appreciate the Wild West this spring and summer. As the weather gets hotter, you'll be able to head up into the mountains to cool off. The Flagstaff, Arizona, elevation, for instance, is a little less than 7,000 feet. Enjoy, and thanks for commenting.

  3. Really interesting. What worries me most about getting into a trailer is all the problems and repairs that need resolving, sounds like no matter what you buy.

  4. I can understand that, Dawn. My tiny trailer is so simple--no plumbing or solar electric--that the main problem that mechanically could arise is with not keeping grease in the wheel bearings. Leaking can be a problem with any camping equipment, including tents. Or should I say "especially" tents?