Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Building a Lightweight Off-Road Trailer


Last year we got a sidekick for our Sidekick: a custom Dinoot trailer. This small, lightweight—and extremely yellow—trailer weighs in it about 400 lbs. and can be pulled behind nearly anything with a means of propelling itself, including our 95 hp Suzuki Sidekick.

The trailer came to us with perfectly functional, albeit narrow, 175/80/13 trailer tires on equally functional and narrow steel wheels. But ever since buying the trailer, I considered modifying it for a more trail-worthy capability and rugged good looks. It would be a multi-step process starting with flipping the axle underneath the leaf springs, which would immediately add about 4"–6" of lift. But a big lift would look silly with the tiny little 13" wheels and tires, so I'd want to upgrade the rolling stock to something bigger. And if I'm going to upgrade the wheels and tires, I might as well get the same ones that are on our Sidekick so we don't have to carry a dedicated trailer spare—and it'd look awesome. There were a couple of other things I'd need to do to pull this off, but the results would be worth it. Oh yes—very worth it.

To make this happen, I'd need the following parts:
  • New trailer hitch
  • 5 on 4.5 to 5 on 5.5 (5x114.3 to 5x139.7) wheel adapters/spacers
  • 235/75/15 tires
  • 15x7 wheels
  • New fender flares
Curt trailer hitch
First things first, I decided to upgrade my trailer hitch from the old Reese unit to a new Curt hitch. The reason for the upgrade was because the Reese Shadow hitch employed a proprietary low-profile receiver instead of a standard 1.25" Class I vesrion. The Class I hitch would allow me much more versatility with regards to hitch risers, accessories, or even things like bike carriers or cargo racks that wouldn't fit the proprietary receiver on the Reese hitch.

Installation was easy except that the mounting bolts were much longer than the last hitch's bolts and there isn't much room to work. But with enough perseverance and swearing, I got things mounted up. By the way, speaking of hitch risers, this one came with a 2-5/8" riser, which just happened to be exactly what I need.

Wheel adapters and spacers
Next up was adding the wheel adapters/spacers. I contacted the guys at JustDifferentials.com who offered the 5 on 4.5 to 5 on 5.5 adapter (5x114.3 to 5x139.7) with a 1.25" (32mm) spacer. This would allow me to convert the trailer's axle to the same bolt patern as my Suzuki, and they were far cheaper than buying an all new axle and hubs. I'd also need spacer's with so the larger wheels and tires didn't rub up against the trailer frame or suspension.

After hand-tightening the adapters/spacers onto the axle, I flipped the axle to the underside of the leaf springs. This would give me an instant lift, which would give me the clearance I'd need to run the bigger tires. However, once the axle was bolted up, I hadn't taken into account how I'd torque these things down since the axle doesn't have a brake to set—they'd simply spin freely. My friend and fellow Subcompact Culture contributor, Scott, came up with an ingenious method of using a ratchet strap around the wheel stud and looping the strap around the trailer frame. Does it sound like a redneck fix? Yes. Did it work? Of course!

WILL IT FIT? WHEELS AND TIRESLarger trailer tires
With the spacers/adapters and spring-over axle lift done, it was time to think about wheels and tires. Before purchasing, I took two wheels and tires from the Sidekick (15x7 wheels on 235/75/15 tires) and mounted them to the trailer to get an idea of how big they'd truly be. Upon installation, it became apparent that the wheel and tire upgrade would totally transform the look of the trailer. What was cool little utility trailer became a badass off road trailer. Insert manly noise here.

Once the testosterone settled down, I decided lift would provide plenty of clearance for suspension travel and enough wheel offset so they wouldn't hit the frame. By the way, a 235/75/15 setup would be nearly 5" taller than the original tire setup. Insert more manly grunting.

Now I knew I wanted to use the same size wheels and tires for both functionality and looks. However, I wasn't sure if I necessarily wanted to spend the cash on matching mud terrains, as they're generally more expensive than a set of all-terrain tires. After all, I didn't need mud terrain tires on a trailer. Then again, I really didn't need to modify the trailer at all. So if I'm going to go, I'm going all out.

I ordered a set of matching 15x7 Unique 297 steel wheels wrapped in Kumho Road Venture KL71 mud-terrain tires from Discount Tire. In addition to them being the same as the truck's rolling stock, they would look badass. Well, as badass as a tiny yellow trailer being pulled by a teal Suzuki Sidekick can look. Which is pretty badass.

Larger tires and wheels on the trailer

The new tires are a full 2.4" (60mm) wider than the original trailer tires, plus they stick out farther on the 15x7 wheels. The stock fender flares, which were modified Jeep units, weren't going to do the job since they didn't fully cover the tires (I don't need a ticket) and they would've rubbed the flares when the suspension compressed.


Removing the fender flares

We removed the original flares, which were modified rear Jeep Wrangler YJ (1987–1995) units, and did a bunch of measuring to see what'd fit and what wouldn't. In doing the measurements, I'd need a little more than 4" of tire coverage for it to look right and to have the satisfactory amount of tire coverage. Most aftermarket Jeep fender flares offer around 6" of coverage. However, it turns out that Bushwacker, one of the best-known companies in the fender flare business, had just what I'd need. They make their rugged looking Pocket Style Fender Flares for the Wrangler TJ (1997-2006) with 4.25" of overage, so I ordered some up.

Due to the original flares' location on the trailer, we would need to drill new holes that were higher up on the trailer's sides to accommodate the Bushwacker units. Out came Mercedes and her world-class tape measuring prowess. Let's get something straight here: I loathe drilling into the side of a vehicle, or in this instance, a trailer. If you screw it up, it's screwed up for good. Luckily, Mercedes is great at the detail work and my friend, Ken, came over to lend a hand—and some tools—to get this job done right.

Trimming the fender flares

After multiple rounds of tedious measurements, marking of holes, and arguments about whether or not the flares were in the right position, it was finally time to drill. We carefully bored holes in our fiberglass trailer tub until everything aligned properly. Like the original flares that came with the trailer, the Bushwacker flares would need to be slightly trimmed at the rear to match the trailer's bottom edge. Ken had a rechargeable saw that cut through the flares quickly, easily, and accurately. Fortunately, the "measure twice, cut once" rule worked.

Dinoot trailer with Bushwacker Pocket Style Fender Flares

Once our drilling and trimming was done, we installed the flares' rubber edge trim, which runs between the fender and the body. We installed the 14 stainless-steel bolts, washers, and nuts, and secured everything. I was extremely happy with the final product.

Custom lightweight off-road trailer

Frankly, I love the way the trailer looks and the functionality should be great. We haven't done any major off-pavement treks with the trailer yet, but we have towed it up to Canada and back and it performed perfectly. We even got several comments on how badass the trailer was, including one from an extremely enthusiast Dodge Ram driver at a gas station outside of Lynden, Washington who specifically said the trailer was "fucking badass." William Shakespeare couldn't have said it better.

There are still a couple things that need to get done. I want to spay the fenders' undersides flat black and plug the old fenders' holes. I also need to test if the leveling jacks are now too short for when we go camping with our CVT rooftop tent. However, now the rooftop tent's ladder should be able to fully extend. Previously, the trailer was so short it didn't work quite as well as we'd hoped.

The trailer now looks awesome and should be even better for camping and adventuring. We're itching to heading out for some adventures this spring and summer and really put our now not-as-little trailer to work.

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