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Why I Bought a Trailer Instead of a Truck

Some might not consider a utility trailer to be a tool but I do and it’s one of my most useful ones. This article describes why and reviews Harbor Freight’s 4×8-foot utility trailer, item number 90154.

I lost the ability to bring home full-size sheets of plywood and other large items, which I do often, when we replaced my wife’s mini-van with a small SUV about five years ago. I thought about buying a used pickup truck but I had a long commute and a perfectly good car that was paid for and got much better gas mileage than even a compact pickup would get. A truck wouldn’t get driven much it and it would take up a lot of room in our driveway. Worse, even an old rust-bucket would cost me thousands of dollars and I’d have reoccurring expenses for insurance, registration and maintenance. So I put a trailer hitch on my Camry and bought an inexpensive utility trailer from Harbor Freight instead.

“Basic” Cost

I’m not certain but I think I bought it on sale for about $225. They’re often on sale now for about $300 and you might be able to save an additional 20% with a coupon. The trailer hitch and wiring for my Toyota Camry cost another $300. The trailer comes without a deck so I also spent about $80 on a 3/4-inch thick sheet of exterior plywood, some paint to help protect it from the weather and a bunch of bolts, washers and Nyloc nuts to attach it to the trailer frame. With taxes, registration and an inspection sticker my total basic cost to get it on the road was about $650.

Accessories

Over time I added accessories Harbor Freight to my trailer to make it more useful and easier to use.

An assortment of ratcheting tie-down straps: I use wide heavy-duty straps for almost everything and I often use more than I need to because it’s not worth taking chances.

Swing back trailer jack (about $26 on sale): This must-have accessory keeps your trailer level when it’s unhitched and makes it easier to move.

Wooden Sides – homemade from 1×6 and 2×4 pressure-treated lumber (~$80): I still haven’t decided how to connect the sides together at the corners. If I need to I just run heavy-duty tie-down straps around the outside.

Six 1/2-inch forged D-rings and mounting hardware (~$45): These are mounted on the trailer’s deck at the corners and near the mid-point of each long side. They make it a lot easier to attach tie-downs. Without them you have to attach them to the underside of the trailer where they can be damaged by edges of the trailer. I used metal backing bars to keep the mounting bolts from pulling through the plywood deck. I also used Nyloc nuts so the bolts couldn’t become loose from vibration.

Spare tire ($50) and a spare tire carrier ($13): After five years I decided it would be wise to have a spare tire. I still need to buy a lug wrench and jack that I can keep with the trailer.

2-ton Shop Crane (~$160 /w coupon): I bought it to safely get a 400-pound jump shear on and off the trailer. I couldn’t have used it with a pickup truck because it wouldn’t have been able to lift it high enough to get it on the bed. Now that I have one I keep finding uses for it and friends who would like to borrow it.

Ramps (still to come): Even Harbor Freight’s ready-made ramps seem kind of pricey. So I’m probably going to fabricate my own attachments for planks. Ramps will make it easier for me to get lawn tractors, snow blowers and other items with wheels on and off the trailer.

Review

It’s light and easy to move

My trailer’s shipping weight is 159-pounds. It probably weighs about 250-pounds with a 3/4-inch thick plywood deck and all the accessories I’ve added to it. I’ve found it to be very easy to pull by hand even when it’s loaded and on gravel or grass. That’s really helpful because it’s very hard to back up with my car because it’s so short. I also can’t see it unless the sides are on it or something tall is sitting on it. So I often don’t even try to back it in, especially if I’m on a busy road. I just pull in, unhook the trailer and pull it by hand to where it has to go. To make it even easier I keep a loop of rope tied to the tongue.

The trailer’s light weight makes it very easy to hook it up because you can move the trailer to your hitch instead of having to back your vehicle up to it. I can have it completely hooked up and ready to go in less than 3 minutes (5 minutes if I have to turn my car around in the driveway).

It folds-up for storage

I took advantage of this feature to store my trailer against a stockade fence for a couple of winters. But I don’t do that anymore because now it gets used year-around. When folded it’s about 5-feet high and wide, and about 15-inches thick.

The trailer is hinged in the middle of the deck so the back half folds and lays on the front. The tongue is also hinged so it will  fold against the bottom when you pull a couple of pins. Once that’s done you can tip the whole trailer up so it sits on a couple of brackets near the fenders that each have two swivel wheels. The wheels on mine were plastic and the same kind you often see on office desk chairs. They probably would have been fine on asphalt or concrete but they didn’t last too long on the gravel next to my garage. After they broke I had to “walk” the trailer to move it.

One problem is the two halves won’t fold completely flat because the hinges can’t accommodate the 3/4-inch think plywood I used for the deck. They probably would have been fine if I’d used 5/8 or 1/2-inch but I wanted the extra strength and to be able to countersink the heads of the mounting bolts.

The hinges also occasionally cause some problems with the trailer lights by preventing the “ground” from getting back to the car, probably because of corrosion. I tried bypassing them with wire but for some reason that didn’t help. But it happens infrequently and if I drive it down the road for a mile or so the bouncing quickly wears away whatever rust or corrosion was causing the problem.

The trailer’s pretty stable when it’s folded up but it could hurt someone if it somehow fell over. So I always tied it to my fence. It also takes some strength to tip up and there’s a chance you could hurt your back or pinch your fingers.

It took awhile to assemble

The trailer has to be assembled and it probably took me at least 2 full days. The directions weren’t very good and I took apart and reassembled the trailer frame at least twice before I got it right. I had to go get a sheet of plywood for the deck and then drill and countersink holes for the mounting bolts and paint it before permanently mounting it. I also had to grease the wheel bearings, mount the lights and install the wiring harness.

Of course, after I was done I started noticing nice used full-assembled utility trailers that were for sale for about the same amount that I had invested in mine.

One Concern

I’ve been very happy with my trailer until just recently, although it’s not really the trailer’s fault. I’ve been thinking about buying an old Simplicity compact tractor to restore and the ones I’ve found so far on Craigslist have been at least 200 miles away. They’re heavy enough with accessories to approach the trailer’s 1200-pound load capacity. The trailer also has 12-inch Chinese made tires that are not suppose to exceed 55 mph. So I’m nervous about using it to pulling something heavy at high speeds for a long distance. Harbor Freight sells a nearly identical trailer for about $50 more that has a 1700-pound capacity but it still comes with tires made by who knows who in China.

9 comments to Why I Bought a Trailer Instead of a Truck

  • DaveD
    April 4, 2012 at 11:17 AM | Reply

    I picked up this same trailer a while ago to replace my beater pickup (that I picked up on Craigslist for a song but has the recurring insurance costs that I’d like to quit paying). Do you think it’s necessary to weld it together? I’ve read a few other people online say that welding it is a good idea as it seemed a bit flimsy bolted together.

  • rleete
    April 4, 2012 at 12:54 PM | Reply

    I’ve used mine (same model) for years, and it’s simply bolted together. Never any problems, and I’ve torture tested the “1200#” weight limit as well.

    The bolts through the decking add enough rigidity that you’ll blow out the tires before anything gives.

  • Rob
    April 4, 2012 at 3:06 PM | Reply

    I agree with rleete. It seems plenty strong and it comes with polymer lock nuts (Nylocs) so the bolts should never become loose. I do intend to weld the two halves together if I ever have to replace the plywood decking. But that will probably be a long time from now and by then the hinges may need a little help.

    There might be one good reason for doing it sooner. Tie downs could pull the back half up when you tighten them if your load isn’t sitting on both halves.

    If load capacity is really a concern then consider paying $50 more for the 1700# model. You might have to pay shipping for it though. I don’t know if its carried in the stores.

  • John Doe
    April 6, 2012 at 5:10 PM | Reply

    I just picked up the 1720# model on clearance for $185. Coupon code 23374407 drops the price of the steel ramps(44649) to $39.99.

  • Alan Lilly
    April 8, 2012 at 2:31 AM | Reply

    We said post… I agree, I love my trailer as a substitute truck and it has served me well. http://panofish.net/garage-trailer-lift/

  • John Doe
    April 8, 2012 at 3:08 PM | Reply

    Very cool. I would love to rig up a floating trailer like that. The harbor freight trailer only weighs 272 + 50 for the plywood. The tires are 27 lb each so some weight could be saved like that. I would throw a few rubbermaid containers with holiday decorations on it. However it would be pretty lame to be killed by a trailer crashing down on my head.

  • Roger Leete
    April 9, 2012 at 12:22 PM | Reply

    Alan, that is a pretty slick setup you made.

  • jpg366
    October 28, 2012 at 8:13 PM | Reply

    Lowes has some aluminum ramp ends that bolt on to a pair of 2×6 planks. About $25 if I remember correctly.

  • Charlie
    January 20, 2014 at 11:14 PM | Reply

    Great Post.. I totally agree with you. The fuel economy savings alone makes it much more worthwhile to own a small trailer for those random errands and a car for everyday vs driving a large truck everyday. Since I live in Canada, I bought my trailer at foldingtrailers instead (HF trailers can’t be used in Canada without paying very expensive importation fees), its not identical as what HF sells but the folding mechanism is similar.
    Thanks for the great post.

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