August 7, 2022

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Travel Finishes First

We Turned a Retro Camper Into Our Home for $10,000

13 min read

Before our Bigfoot trailer, we were tent people. But after our 2013 Subaru Forester became cramped with outdoor gear, and a few epic Colorado storms terrified our Chihuahuas, we started to consider alternatives.

Our gateway to the Bigfoot was a 1992 Jayco pop-up camper. It allowed us to camp much more comfortably, for longer, and tour around the West for Joe’s bluegrass band performances. We started to consider camping permanently, but wanted a hard-sided shelter to better withstand unpredictable mountain weather. A fiberglass trailer became our best choice to replace the Jayco. Molded fiberglass is durable and easier to clean than materials like wood that are affected by moisture. These trailers are also considerably lighter than many other typical RVs and trailers (our 1981 Bigfoot B-17 SM Deluxe weighs in at 2,300 pounds, while an aluminum Airstream Bambi 16RB, a new camper of roughly the same size, starts at 3,000 pounds). And fiberglass trailers hold their value, particularly Bigfoots, a higher-end brand with plenty of reliable models still around today.

We had some unique requirements for our home. Joe is 6’1″ and plays violin, which means he needs roomy proportions to play while standing up inside the trailer. And being outdoorsy people, we need sunlight. Most RVs and campers have hardly any windows, it seems, but after venturing down a forum dedicated to fiberglass RVs, we found our 1981 Bigfoot trailer in the classifieds. This particular model is 106 square feet, boasts 6’6″ of interior headroom, fell within our budget at $7,500, and has windows facing nearly every direction. It ticked all the boxes. We had to have it.

We love using our Kelty low “loveseat” to make a homey vibe when we’re outdoors.

Cassidy Araiza

This was July 2020, when the used-RV market was absolutely on fire. To secure our Bigfoot, we sent the owner, Jed, a $500 deposit sight unseen. We made him promise not to sell the trailer before we could take a look at it, and then sped the 1,050-mile, 15-hour drive from Fort Collins, Colorado, to the Idaho Panhandle. We were initially wary about trusting a stranger we had only met on the internet, but turns out, Jed was a big fan of Colorado bluegrass. He was even wearing a T-shirt for a band Joe knew from our local area.

We gave the Bigfoot a once-over, but we didn’t know what we were looking at. We didn’t even test the furnace or the appliances. We took Jed on his word (luckily, his word was good, though it took us a while to figure out how to light the furnace), hooked the Bigfoot up to our borrowed E-350 van, and camped in the trailer all the way back to Colorado.

Our last step before renovations was upgrading from our Forester. The Subie had been our trusty camping vehicle for years, but it wasn’t designed to haul the Bigfoot and all our gear, so we traded it in for a 2013 Chevrolet Silverado 1500 with a towing capacity of 7,500 pounds. Our newfound power made us cocky, though. After hooking up the Bigfoot to our new truck and pulling onto College Avenue in Fort Collins, we heard a colossal screech—we were dragging the trailer down the street by the chains. The Bigfoot hadn’t seated properly. Some burly fellows arrived (classic Colorado) and helped us free the trailer from the bumper and place it back onto the hitch ball, and we learned two lessons: Always hook up your chains when towing, and triple-check that your trailer is connected correctly before setting off.

Despite our early mistakes, we were under no illusions about how much work our Bigfoot would need. A cosmetic overhaul was a must, and the 41-year-old trailer needed a few fixtures to bring it up to modern standards.

inside the 1981 bigfoot in marana, az on march 3rd, 2022

Cassidy Araiza

inside the 1981 bigfoot in marana, az on march 3rd, 2022

Cassidy Araiza

The Bigfoot’s layout and structure made renovations easy—fiberglass trailers are well-built and resilient. Ours is made from two large pieces of molded fiberglass joined at a seam. This prevents common roof leaks and other problems that come with more traditionally constructed campers.

Allie likes to get things done, and Joe’s a perfectionist, so there were many “this is fine” versus “we have to do it right” debates, but we found the answer was always somewhere between those two points. In all, we spent about 10 weeks (working around our full-time jobs) between bringing the trailer home and moving in for good.

There’s always a balance to renovating an old thing. How can you make it functional but maintain the old, cool aesthetic? What was essential to update, and what could we leave original to keep costs low? In some ways, we were lucky—all the appliances could stay. The fridge looked almost new at purchase, and the 41-year-old stove still works well. Our oven is original, too—that’s a unique feature to our RV; these days, many trailers come with a microwave instead, which we wouldn’t use.

A lot of our work was simply to make the Bigfoot look nicer. We wanted it to feel like home. The prior owners had installed weird laminate tile as a backsplash above the sink, and someone had inexplicably painted the ceiling pink. We removed all the cabinets, doors, hinges, and light fixtures, removed the tile and installed a peel-and-stick subway tile backsplash, and then painted the ceiling and cabinetry white.

inside the 1981 bigfoot one major perk of the bigfoot is its layout, which positions the bathroom at the back many rvs put the latrine in the middle

One major perk of the Bigfoot is its layout, which positions the bathroom at the back. Many RVs put the latrine in the middle.

Allie Wall

We definitely underestimated how time-consuming painting 100 square feet of ceiling would be. There are a few different materials on the ceiling that take paint in different ways, plus your arm starts to hurt after a while! We painted one wall orange because we liked the aesthetic with the wood and the vintage trim, and it turned out to be almost the same color as the stripe on the outside of the camper. We didn’t plan it, but somehow it aligned in our subconscious.

The old seat cushions were well past their prime, so we tossed them and ordered custom-cut memory foam that we upholstered ourselves. And after a few months of growing sick of making the couch into a bed, we began using the convertible dining room table as a bed. The table was almost meant to collapse in alignment with the surrounding seats, but we removed the aging conversion mechanism and installed a collapsible table leg that looks similar to something you’d find in a ’60s diner. It’s nicer to look at and makes for a sturdier table. When we’re ready for bed, we collapse the table and add a four-inch memory-foam topper. It’s great for us, but it puts our two Chihuahuas, Maya and Ruby, in absolute heaven. Sometimes since the couch is now free extra space, we leave the bed down on weekends, as a treat for everybody.

Climate control was both a trouble area and a triumph in our renovation. Fiberglass naturally provides better insulation than most other RV materials, and our Bigfoot Deluxe model has an even thicker layer of insulation than some other fiberglass trailers. That makes this one of the only true four-season RVs. It stays toasty in the winter, and, thanks to the terrific cross-ventilation from multiple windows, it keeps us cool in the summer.

the fan inside the 1981 bigfoot in marana, az on march 3rd, 2022

Our MaxxFan Deluxe

Cassidy Araiza

The windows are a double-edged sword, however: There’s no air conditioning in the Bigfoot, which means when it’s 100 degrees in the Arizona desert, no amount of crossbreeze can keep things pleasant. Our most significant improvement in this regard was installing a Maxxair ceiling fan, which can blow air in or out of a hole in the roof. The Bigfoot had an original ceiling fan, but Allie’s brother, a van-life veteran, pushed us to install a MaxxFan from the beginning. We picked a 900-cfm, 10-speed MaxxFan Deluxe that can operate as both an intake and exhaust fan. It was the final thing that made the Bigfoot livable, allowing us to bring in cooler outside air at night or vent excess heat. If you need additional climate control, the custom roller shades we installed over the windows are a huge help, as is our collection of vintage blankets. We also recommend getting a couple clingy Chihuahuas to cuddle up by your side.

The propane-powered furnace that heats the trailer has been our only true problem child. Early on, the heat would kick on, then turn off unexpectedly. An electrician friend advised us to install a new thermocouple first, and when that didn’t solve the problem, we grew worried we’d have to replace the entire heating system. But then an RV repair guy in Loveland, Colorado, suggested connecting a multimeter to the thermostat to see if something was impeding the current and causing the outages. Turns out, the current was fine, so the thermostat itself was the issue. We spent just 30 bucks on a new one—and we’d been afraid we’d have to buy a brand new furnace! That was a giant aha moment, and a reminder to not overthink anything. Checking individual components is always a better first step than replacing things wholesale. And, have you tried turning it off and back on again?

When a camping trailer is parked, it’s not particularly stable with two humans and two Chihuahuas moving around inside. That’s why it has stabilizing jacks that come down at each corner to give you a firm foundation. Trailers in 1981 didn’t have fancy auto-​
leveling stabilizer jacks like a modern unit might, so we bought a new set of manual stabilizers from Harbor Freight for $100 and welded them on with the help of a friend who had the right equipment (sometimes having handy friends is the most useful tip). The stabilizers made the Bigfoot feel like a real house, which was grounding (no pun intended) for us when we started to live in it.

This whole adventure has been a terrific lesson in “you can do anything you put your mind to.” We’ve been out of our comfort zones a lot. Before the Bigfoot, we didn’t know anything about towing, electrical, or plumbing (two simple-but-essential rules we now swear by: Always use plumbing tape when attaching fixtures, and always check your connections after going down a particularly rough road).

But we studied, learned, made mistakes (make sure to latch your trailer cabinets closed—all our dishes broke on our first trip), and we’ve gotten to a place where we feel highly knowledgeable. Our biggest source was the Fiberglass RV forum. It’s full of owners of older Bigfoots and other fiberglass models, and they have been super helpful with the more obscure, un-Google-able quirks of Bigfoot ownership. Between them, trial and error, and how-to videos on YouTube, it turns out things like electrical wiring aren’t that intimidating!

The renovations took about two and a half months, on and off. We picked up the Bigfoot in August 2020 and, by the end of October, we were living in it full-time. The updates cost us about $2,500 after the cost of the trailer, but really, the work never stops. As with a typical house, there’s always a little project to do or some improvement to make. The more we live in it, the more we learn what we need to do to be comfortable and happy.

The first place we went after we moved in was just outside Moab, Utah. We parked on an otherwise-deserted rock face and had the most incredible sunsets all to ourselves. We’ve gone all around the American West—mostly Arizona and Colorado—but one excellent diversion took us to a beach on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula last summer. It was so fantastic that we’re going back again this year.

When folks find out the Bigfoot is our home home, usually they either say, “Oh, that’s awesome!” or they look at us like we’re freaking crazy and ask, “How do you still have a relationship?”

Many people living in RVs full-time have an enormous fifth-wheel trailer with two fireplaces and a walk-in closet. That’s fine for them, but it’s not us. We just need our tiny Bigfoot, and Maya and Ruby, and one another. The gorgeous mountain sunsets are nice, too.

Stay Connected from Anywhere on Earth

inside the 1981 bigfoot in marana, az on march 3rd, 2022

Our 30-amp solar charge controller.

Cassidy Araiza

Our Wi-Fi hotspot completely changed how we live while camping. With our smartphones and a Verizon MiFi, our internet in the RV is faster and cheaper than at our old place in Fort Collins. Joe can teach music lessons over Zoom, and Allie can work remotely. To find areas with cell coverage, we use a premium camping service called Roadpass Pro from Campendium. It includes cell coverage overlays from AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile, plus reviews of a given area’s connectivity from other campers. We haven’t had any major issues since we started using that, but we still text each other “hi” when we park to see how quickly it goes through.

Nothing makes you more aware of your energy usage than living in an off-grid RV. One of the first things we did during our renovation was replace all the Bigfoot’s old incandescent bulbs with LEDs, which use about 85 percent less power. Those LEDs and our ceiling fan are the only electrical things we use regularly, and neither consumes much power, leaving plenty of leftover juice for our phones, laptops, iPads, and Wi-Fi. Still, we try to save on the margins. One of our recent purchases was a tiny 24-inch TV. Aside from being far superior to watching Netflix on a MacBook Pro, it uses less power than streaming on the laptop, which was a bit of a surprise.

the wifi  hotspot jeff and allie use inside the 1981 bigfoot in marana, az on march 3rd, 2022

Our Verizon Jetpack MiFi 8800L hotspot.

Cassidy Araiza

We have 200 watts of solar panels, which is easily enough to charge up the 12-volt battery in the trailer every day. We haven’t run out of electricity yet, but if the solar did go out, we’d probably have a couple of days of power if we were careful.

At first, we’d lean the panels against something on the ground when we parked to juice up our gear, but that was a giant pain in the ass. We eventually installed them up top (many solar panels will include mounting hardware) with VHB tape and Sikaflex adhesive. Some would advise you to screw your panels into place, but we didn’t want to put any more holes in our roof. Regardless, mount your panels. It’s a huge time-saver. We’d love to install a lithium-ion rechargeable battery setup at some point so we can run higher-power appliances like a Vitamix or a large Instant Pot, but our giant RV batteries have been perfect for the way we like to live. We’re not running microwaves and coffee machines; Joe hand-grinds our coffee beans every morning, and we have the propane-fired stove, water heater, and refrigerator. For extra lighting outside and in, we have USB-powered string lights and portable lithium-​ion battery-powered lights that work great.

4 Rules for Towing Your RV

the 1981 bigfoot on the road in marana, az on march 3rd, 2022

Cassidy Araiza

OK, So About the Bathroom…

the 1981 bigfoot in marana, az on march 3rd, 2022

Cassidy Araiza

Being in the middle of nowhere means you’re far from things like clean water and a restroom. RVers call this kind of sewerless living “boondocking,” and it’s why our Bigfoot has three onboard water tanks, plus potable water stored in five-gallon containers.

Our 26-gallon freshwater white tank, so named for the white inlet on the side of a camper that’s used to fill it, supplies the water for our toilet and sink. Drainage is split between the 12-gallon gray tank, for the shower and kitchen sink, and the eight-gallon black tank, for the toilet. The size of these tanks is critical to how long you can spend in the wilderness: The larger the tanks, the more flexibility you have, but you’ll still need to conserve your water.

We use on-off-on-off strategies, like turning water on when we’re rinsing the dishes, then off when we’re scrubbing. That’s something we do when we shower, too. We save a lot of water by storing our drinking water separately—we used to fill our Brita pitcher from the white tank, but it really cut into our supply and impacted how quickly our water went.

In the beginning, our black tank would be full after just three days or so. Now, we can usually make it a week if we’re careful, and we once went 10 days, with Joe peeing outside.

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