Bugging out and towing things

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Dec 20, 2002
Louisiana, USA
Following on my "Katrina lessons learned" threads, I've been involved in Hurricane Rita relief efforts as well. I've run down to the disaster areas a few times, and seen for myself just how difficult it is to evacuate a family, with essential possessions, using only one's primary vehicle. There is also the problem of finding accommodation along the way, and if relying on government-run shelters, what does one do with one's vehicle? There's usually no place to park it at or near the shelter.

I've come up with a few basic ideas for bug-out trailers and equipment for a couple, or a family, that can be implemented by anyone, given a reasonable expenditure of money (depending on budget) and a bit of forethought. I'll post them in three different categories, depending on expense.

1. The Economy Model.

Buy a small trailer, the kind used to carry a ride-on lawnmower, or something like that. For example, our local Wal-Mart sells these sometimes for about $600-$700, each capable of handling several hundred pounds of cargo. A trailer like this, even fully loaded, won't weigh more than about a thousand pounds, or half a ton, and can be towed by even a compact car. On the trailer, load some Rubbermaid boxes containing food, clothing and personal effects. Add a decent tent (size will depend on the number in your group, but you can get a very large tent, accommodating up to a dozen people, for a very reasonable price if you shop around - see, for example, Springbar, and check out their wall tents as well as more popular models). Ease of use in setting-up the tent is important - you don't want something that will take half-an-hour and six people to set up, and you also want something reasonably weather-proof, in case a storm comes through. Then, add sleeping-bags, camping mattresses, and other necessities, and you're as ready as you can be.

An important tip: buy two large tarpaulins. One should be laid on the trailer bed, the cargo loaded onto it, and then the ends drawn up to the top of the cargo and secured. The second tarpaulin is then laid over the cargo and secured to the sides and/or bed of the trailer. This provides top and bottom protection for the cargo against rain, snow, mud, etc.

I think that for under $2,000, including the cost of the trailer, towing hitch, and all supplies mentioned above, you could be pretty well prepared for a week or more away from home. If you shop around and buy a used trailer, etc., the overall cost could fall to $1,000 or so. Of course, one can buy a fully enclosed cargo trailer (as rented by U-haul, for example), but they tend to be expensive... in fact, for the same price as a cargo trailer, one can buy a new camper trailer (see Option 2 below), which is probably a better bug-out choice.

One disadvantage to this approach is that in colder climates, it won't work very well (unless you buy a tent that can accommodate a stove, and then you have to either carry or find firewood, etc.). Also, you may have difficulty finding a place to safely erect your tent (i.e. too many people, no open or public land available, etc.). However, on a tight budget, this is way better than nothing!

2. The Camper Model.

This is similar to the economy model, but instead of using a trailer as a cargo device, it uses a camping pop-up trailer. These are available new for anywhere from $4,000 to well over $10,000, depending on what you want (and often for rather less when purchased used). Many are soft-sided, with canvas fold-out beds; others are hard-sided (e.g. the excellent Aliner range - I used to own one of these, and was very impressed). These trailers will sleep anything from two to six people, depending on size and configuration, and will also act as a cargo hauler, where you can load them with food, water, sleeping-bags, etc. prior to departure. They're often easier to set up than tents, and can be collapsed and moving within a few minutes if necessary.

These trailers are typically heavier than utility trailers, and so would need a mid-size car, minivan or light pickup as a minimum towing vehicle. However, they seldom run more than 2,500 to 3,000 pounds, so any of these vehicles should cope.

These trailers are also typically suitable for three-season use only (winter is hard in anything canvas-shelled), unless you're using something like the Aliner with its solid aluminum construction. However, they can be erected almost anywhere, even along the road, unlike a tent, which requires relatively clear ground (you don't worry about sticks and stones under your bed with a camping trailer! :D ).

3. The Deluxe Model.

This uses a proper travel trailer, as opposed to a pop-up camper or utility trailer. One doesn't need a particularly big unit: trailers as small as 13ft., such as the Scamp or Casita models, are light enough to tow behind a mid-size car with ease. Larger ones range up to 30 feet, although the big stuff needs a really big towing vehicle, of course. I've towed an 18ft. travel trailer with a Pontiac Montana minivan, which is rated to tow up to 3,500 pounds, and found it no particular problem. For those with pickup trucks, a truck-bed camper unit might be an alternative (although this obviously reduces the amount of cargo you can load in addition to the camper, unless you tow a utility trailer as in Option 1 to increase your storage capacity).

Such a trailer gives you very weatherproof accommodation and storage space, cooking facilities, toilet and shower, etc. It also has battery-operated lights, and can accommodate generator power if you can lug one along with you (it's easy to load one in a pickup bed, for example). You can typically store well over 1,000 pounds of cargo in the trailer, and more in your towing vehicle.

I think this is the way to go for serious bugging-out, as you can live for a month or more in such a trailer, and have secure storage for important documents and other items. It's also a four-season option, with the addition of a furnace or heater, and can run an air-conditioner in summer if power is available. You do have to invest more money in such a vehicle, and have a towing vehicle capable of handling the load, but then, you pay for what you get! You also have to consider the greatly increased gas consumption by the towing vehicle... my Montana minivan typically gets 26+ mpg on the highway at 70, but when towing the aforementioned 18ft. trailer (cruising at 60 in 3rd gear, rather than overdrive, to spare the gearbox), it drops to no more than 11½ mpg! :eek: Carrying extra fuel becomes very important, as you may not find gas stations with supplies in a bug-out situation.

This is obviously the most expensive solution, as the trailer and the towing vehicle must be matched. However, buying a used trailer is often much cheaper (eBay is your friend! :D ), and one's total budget can be held below $15,000 or so for both vehicles with careful purchasing and being willing to wait for the right deal.

So, there are my thoughts. I've chosen to go with the third option, after what I've experienced with Katrina and Rita. I'm also limited by physical disability, so that some of the lower-end options (requiring more physical exertion) would be a bit beyond me.

What would you choose?
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Personally I would think I'd rather not have a trailor unless I know my entire bug out will be in the form of pavment. But if there's a chance where I might run into obsticle's (lot's of snow or flooded roadway, down tree's, having to go off road, basicly anything where towing a trailor would be a big hinderence) I'd try and prioratize the situation. Though provided I could take a trailor here is what I'd take.

A small box trailor (in a bug out situation I wouldn't trust storing anything in an unlockable condition such as a truck bed or open trailor). Which has two tank's. One to hold extra fuel through some sort of system. And the other tank to hold water. At worst I might have to treat it but it would be better then some of the stuff I might have to filter that has god knows what chemicles in it. And use the rest of the room to store more thing's that are essential or family item's which I would like to take with me for various reason's. I guess if all else fail's you could always ditch the trailor somewhere.
During my Rita bugout I noticed a lot of people using trailers to good effect. Just remember to bring at least one spare tire for your trailer! That was the main problem that I noticed with trailer usage. Overnight security would be the only other thing that I can think of. I had to resort to strapping gas cans on the back of my van. A little trailer would have been useful for that and my van could have towed my lawnmower trailer if I had a hitch on my van.

I work for a large RV club and we had a lot of members evacuate in their rigs. Fuel was the #1 issue for them. Size/length/maneuverability along with lack of off road ability would be the only downsides. That being said, I've planning on using a bumper pulled RV on my next bugout.
Personaly I would prefer a pickup with a capped bed to securly store thing's in. Better gas milage too.
You don't have to spend a ton of money on a camper trailer. If you shop around and know what to look for, you can find a pretty decent old camper trailer for $1000-1500, or maybe even less.

Look for one with at least 15" wheels and good ground clearance. Some of the older brands had metal bottoms (good!) while many just have fiberboard which usually gets wet from the road and starts falling apart. "Roadrunner" is a good older brand. Water damage (rot) is the main thing you have to watch for in wood framed RVs:( .

And a smaller (13' - 18') single axle camper trailer behind a good full-size 4x4 can go quite a few places off the pavement. When we used to camp on the NF, we always found a place where we could be alone, following old logging roads and such. The only thing that really stopped us was trees too close together or too low of limbs, since I didn't want to tear up the siding.

The nice thing about a camper trailer is that you can keep it stocked with some food and extra clothes (and ammo, too;) ), and just be almost ready to hitch up and go at any moment. Leave the beds folded down for sleeping and you can toss long guns on the bed where they will ride safely.

If you keep the camper parked away from your house a few yards, then it also provides emergency lodging, clothes, etc if you should happen to have a house fire.

But if you don't already have a tow vehicle or you can't park your trailer at home, then it probably doesn't make as much sense. For us, since we already have them, it came in handy when we had to evacuate for a nearby wildfire a couple years ago.
First...Thank you for posting all of the after action review threads.

The economy size trailer is something that came to my mind immediately after the first reading of the NOLA posts. Already have F-150 4x4 with cap, and Jeep Grand Cherokee 4x4.

My circumstances preclude garage/driveway/rear yard storage. Townhouses don't have those. But I already have a storage unit not far from home. On consideration I realized that a garage type storage unit some 20 or 30 miles out along a well planned escape route would gain me time and distance in an evac scenario. Added benefit cheaper unit rent.

Stocking the trailers, 2 sized for comfortable towing by smallest vehicle. I figure 4 or 5, 5 gal. gas jerry cans and min. 2 , 5 gal water cans. These can be filled on the way out.

This allows me and mine an emergency rendezvous point for fast bug-out from where ever, initiated by events and cell calls. I planned so that I don't lose too much time by a passing home to grab the dogs and lock down of home( grab docs bag and shut down utilities, etc. a five minute max drill)

First one at rendezvous hooks up trailer and fills cans.

Then on to leg two.

My locale limits my escape route option. River to the west with problematic crossings on a good day, and Boston- Wash interstate corridor to east. South lies Wash DC, the frying pan and fire ;>). So my routes are limited to a NW triangle. I've driven many of the routes, scouting and noting bottlenecks, potential re-supply and secondary routes. GPS is invaluable here as well as paper map sets. But more scouting is necessary to reach end point.
if i ever have to bug out, im towing my 14' jon boat behind my car. it can double as a trailer and hold quite a bit of stuff, and if i need to, i can always hop in the boat and motor away. in a floodtype situation that could be very helpful. could also be helpful if the roadways are clogged/blocked and i NEED to get the hell out of dodge ASAP.

just an idea for those of you with a boat that dont own a actual trailer.

I've traveled for quite some time with trailers. The most important option I can recommend is to get an enclosed trailer. Everything is out of sight and reasonably secure.

Second, if you are going to tow a trailer with a marginal vehicle, do consider a two axle trailer as they pull much straighter and don't tend to steer the towing vehicle quite so much.
Otherguy, very good point! I've towed single-axle camping trailers behind a pickup and a minivan, and they were a lot less stable (particularly when 18-wheelers went past! :eek: ) than the two-axle 18ft. travel trailer I mentioned. The latter may have been heavier, and wind resistance may have meant higher gas consumption, but its stability was much, much better.
Extra Cargo

There's always one of those hard shell roof top carriers that will
fit on the luggage rack of an SUV. Far cheaper than a trailer.
You will also get better gas milage and be more maneuverable
than using any trailer.

I still remember being backed up on the interstate for hours years
ago when someone with an extended cab pickup jack-knifed with
their camper (it was a big one) on a highway bridge. Everyone
was ok, but it really sucks when you're pinned in behind them
on the bridge. Keep in mind this was a comfy Summer day in
peacetime and police and towing services were available.

Now imagined being in a tight spot with a trailer attached to
your vehicle.

I used one of the large carriers from Sears on my SUV a few years
back on a 33hr crosscountry trip and we easily held enough gear for
3 adults and one child.

I suppose you could also add a trailer hitch carrier.

Then again, I'm one for "bugging in" and the last place I want to be
is on the road with a bunch of other people when SHTF.
I always imagined that the ultimate SHTF set-up for me would be to have a military surplus trailer. The ones with huge ground clearance and leaf springs: a trailer specifically designed for towing big loads off-road. I would then build some kind of box that fits inside the trailer so that the trailer was divided and organized, so all my gear wasn't just thrown in a pile. With this box, if need be, I could take it out and then use the trailer to haul something else. Around the outside of the trailer, I would have jerry cans for fuel and water. I would keep the containers filled and ready to go: every week or so, I would change out the water and maybe every six months I could use the fuel. I could then load the trailer with all my outdoor/SHTF gear. Stored inside the garage this trailer could be ready to go at any time: just add the guns, which I wouldn't store on the trailer .
Something nice about the trailer is that if absolutely nessessary, you could disconnect the trailer and hide it. Or store it inside someone's garage. Or abandon it if you decide it is no longer needed.
I already own a late model, Ford F-250 turbo diesel 4wd pickup which is more than adequate to pull the trailer on or off road. Ideally, I would have an auxilliary fuel tank installed on the truck. It is pretty easy to get 100 gallons of extra fuel on board. With the standard fuel tank, I can drive for just over 500 miles. I can leave my home in Las Vegas, drive North through Utah, and into Wyoming before I need to get fuel for the first time: I have done it a dozen times.

Depending on the nature of the SHTF senario, my tenetive plan is to simply drive North into central/northern Nevada. From my house, I could be out of sight of houses within 20 minutes if the roads were clear. If need be, I can simply pull off the freeway and drive through the desert around traffic or obstacles. For those that haven't been outside of the cities in the southwestern US, we are talking about hundreds of thousand of miles of nothing. No people, no houses, no nuthin. Dirt roads leading to ghost towns, or military installations. You can drive for days without ever being on pavement. Having a 4wd truck and a trailer capable of rough duty would be a huge asset. I figure a trailer like that, combined with my pickup should sustain me for a couple weeks easily. Most situations would be over by that time and I could come back.

Now, the reality of the situation. The only part of this that I actually have is the pickup. It is one thing to talk about all this stuff, and another to actually have this stuff wired and ready to go. If TSHTF tomorrow, I would be totally unprepared.
I have a Starcraft pop-up camper that was my bug out house long before it was fashionable to have one. The season is over but the camper is packed with linens, necessities and 2 wks durable foodstores, including a menu to manage food consumption. It has a multi-power fridge and a heater that will keep it warm in winters in this area (I wouldn't try it in a North Dakota January). All that's needed is 25 gallons of water in the tank and the battery from the laundry room. I drain the water system, rather than antifreeze it for this reason. The battery needs to stay warm and charged.

Some additional thoughts;
A utility trailer like Preacherman describes will usually have a cap. of 500lbs. You'll reach that real quick.

A pop-up can be used year round if you need to. A mid level model will have a heater. You'll use a lot of propane.

My pop up will go anywhere I'll take the SUV with family. Most built in the last six years are built higher off the ground to match the tow vehicles commonly used. You can actually buy one rated as off-road capable.

Water damage on the undercarriage is old news. Most wood floored trailers are well undercoated and treated. Starcraft uses decking manufactured for them. It is one solid sheet (8'x14'),treated and they guarantee it for as long as I own it.

A roof carrier will not hold much weight. It is limited by roof strength.
1. The Economy Model.

Buy a small trailer, the kind used to carry a ride-on lawnmower, or something like that. For example, our local Wal-Mart sells these sometimes for about $600-$700, each capable of handling several hundred pounds of cargo.
Actually, you can go even cheaper than that if you shop around. When we were moving to our current house, I bought a used single-axle ATV trailer (steel frame, wooden bed, fold-up ramp, 14" sport wheels) for $300, and snagged a new-in-box Reese receiver hitch for my wife's Voyager for $25 plus $20-ish shipping). Tows well, even at 75 mph (big wheels help) and the ramp is removable for reduced drag if you don't need to roll things onto it. I now use it for hauling the lawnmower and such, but I suppose if a Cat 4 or 5 storm were headed our way, I might load some stuff on the trailer and take it with us. Got a 4-pack of large ratcheting tiedown straps at Big Lots that work well for $10.

Preacherman, thanks for the info on how to waterproof your load. I hadn't thought of the second tarp underneath, but that makes a lot of sense (duh!).

It's probably overkill, but I bought a couple of screw-in-the-ground tiedowns at a mobile home supply place (some shortish 30" ones) so I can use the tiedown straps to tie the trailer down during a lesser storm (did for Ophelia last month, though it was only a Cat 1 and wouldn't have blown the trailer around anyway).
Some additional thoughts;
A utility trailer like Preacherman describes will usually have a cap. of 500lbs. You'll reach that real quick.

I've had one of those Harbor Freight kit trailers for many years. The one I have is the 4' x 8' size. GVW is 1200 pounds and cargo capacity is 900 pounds. I've carried 50% more than that for short distances and not done any harm. The factory-built ones that are sold at Wal-Mart, Lowe's, etc, carry up to a ton.

Having used an open trailer for many years, my first thought was to go with a box trailer. Lowe's, Home Depot, Sam's and any trailer sales place has them, and they don't cost a whole lot more than a flatbed of similar load capacity. What you get is both weather protection, and doors that can be padlocked. Carrying your life's possessions on an open trailer when the rest of the world is also bugging out is not my ideal concept of security.

If you stop for the night, don't forget a padlock for the hitch, so someone can't just hook up to your trailer and be gone with what's left of your life.
The Harbor Freight trailer with 12" wheels (do not get the 8" model), and a truck box or two bolted on, would be pretty nice.

My bud and I use a 6x12 enclosed Continental Cargo trailer for loading at the range. I've built in workbenches, and over the winter, my project is to build some drawer cabinets. We've got a long power strip, and a 30 amp box to plug into RV power, along with an inverter, battery, etc... Heat, AC, and a folding cot, and you're there. Whoever loses the coin toss sleeps in the van.
I've had one of those Harbor Freight kit trailers for many years. The one I have is the 4' x 8' size. GVW is 1200 pounds and cargo capacity is 900 pounds.
Last time I looked at buying a utility trailer at Home Depot it was a basic frame that you could build a box on. Load cap was 500lbs which I passed on. That was awhile ago and I see now they have more substantial trailers for sale.

I stand corrected.
Yes, those Harbor Freight trailers do look interesting... here's one for under $250 with a capacity of over half a ton. That's good value, and it folds up for easy storage, too.

Another thing: I agree that older trailers often have problems with their plywood or fiberboard floors and water damage. Something I've seen many owners do is to buy a do-it-yourself truck-bed-liner kit from Wal-Mart. They cost less than $100, IIRC. They then paint the whole of the underside of their trailer with one or two coats of this stuff (on some simple flatbed trailers as in Option 1 above, I've seen the whole thing so painted, top and bottom). This permanently ends any water penetration problem, and provides some protection against chipping from stones, etc. kicked up by the wheels as well.
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444 said:
I always imagined that the ultimate SHTF set-up for me would be to have a military surplus trailer. The ones with huge ground clearance and leaf springs: a trailer specifically designed for towing big loads off-road.
I agree. The biggest problem with relying on a typical trailer for evac is that almost all trailers are designed for on-pavement use. They will rarely stand up to any kind of offroad excursion. Travel trailers are the worst, in this regard.

The most likely evac scenario for me involves a massive earthquake along the New Madrid fault that knocks out water, sewage, gas, electric, etc. for extended periods of time. In that case, there is likely to be significant damage to the transportation infrastructure, as well. I expect bridges to be down, roads to be cracked and/or strewn with debris (or washed out), etc. The last thing I want when trying to navigate in that environment is a typical trailer.

If I have to have a trailer (and I might, as I have a wife and three small kids to transport, so space in the vehicle will be at a premium), I want something as light weight and maneuverable as possible, but with enough durability and ground clearance to at least let me handle light off roading. There's no way I'm hooking up a typical travel trailer -- even the pop-top variety. I'd take my chances first with as just as much gear as I could carry lashed to the roof and receiver platform.
If you want to tow a trailer successfully "off road" then (IMHO) you need to go away from the standard ball type hitches and use a pintle setup. These will allow the trailer to pivot independantly of the tow vehicle and will prevent you from losing traction when your tow vehicle is operating at a different camber than your trailer. I think you can retrofit a pintle setup to pretty much any trailer.

The cool thing about "camping" and "campers" is that they tend to use standarized components for the fridge, water heater, furnance, etc. If you've got any mechanical ability and can read an electrical diagram you could build your own custom camper pretty easily. I'd imagine that if you had an enclosed trailer for snowmobiles, an enclosed car hauler, etc you could do something pretty cool. I've always thought that one of my 'dream' lottery projects would be to convert a Unimog to a camper or something along that line. :)

Have a good one,
Trailers have always been practical, if you pick one that suits what you need to do.
Where we would go, is not that far, and with just the wife and I, our one vehicle would carry what we need, for the time that we would be on the road.
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