a tiny house Towing How-to with personal experience
by Alek Lisefski
Day one began with my eyes so glued to my mirrors my neck started aching. I was checking and re-checking for clearance, judging my location within my lane and trying to avoid the narrow shoulders, anticipating and sometimes yelling obscenities at approaching cars, upcoming hills and hazards of all kinds.
My head was spinning and my stomach was tied in knots. I knew it would all work out but when the product of a year’s worth of labor – not to mention huge financial investment — is rolling down the road with seemingly no protection, well, it must feel about the same as if your child was rocketing down a high—speed luge track, strapped to the back of a first-time racer.
What had I gotten myself into?
An oft-overlooked topic in the tiny house community is the process of moving a tiny house and especially long distance. Most people build very close to where they will be living. I, on the other hand, built my house on Iowa, and once finished, immediately towed it about 2300 miles to Northern California. Was this crazy? Probably, yes. But you know what? It worked. We made it safe, and the house made it through with little more than a scratch.
Preparing a house for travel can’t be done after—the-fact. Before even starting the building process, consider these tips for a more travel—friendly house:
- Get windows with tempered glass just to be safe — they’ll be less likely to break during the bumps of travel, and less likely to cause injury if broken.
- Frame your house with plenty of wind-bracing to protect the house from shearing and distortion from wind shear as it’s towed at high speeds. It would be a shame if all your tight construction ended up completely out of square after travel — you could even break windows with too much strain, so if in doubt, over-build when it comes to framing.
- Use flexible materials throughout — plywood instead of drywall, for instance, is how we created our white walls.
- Make sure all pipes and wires are properly strapped to joists/studs, so they don’t shift and connections don’t break.
- Make sure weight is evenly distributed within the house — balancing appliance location, for instance, so they were not all on the same side.
Size And Dimensions
It’s extremely important that you adhere to maximum height and width requirements if you are going to travel down the interstate, pump gas, or really do any towing of your house at all.
Your finished house from road level up must be no taller than 13.5 feet by law. Interstate signs, toll stations, gas stations, power lines, etc., are all set at a standard distance from the ground — in many cases at exactly 14 feet. That gives you as little as 6 inches of clearance!
It took me a full week of travel to stop looking up as I crept slowly up to any covered gas pump, each time thinking the house wouldn’t fit. But build to a max of 13.5 feet and you’ll be safe.
That goes for the 8.5 feet width limit as well. Every time we were passed on the freeway by a large double-trailer truck, with its rear trailer swaying to within inches of our precious house, we were ever so thankful that we did not build wider, as great as the temptation was to maximize indoor space.
During our move state troopers or local police did not stop us once. Our house was not measured or weighed along the way. But just because you might be able to get away with it, doesn’t mean you’d ever want to.
That reminds me – make sure your trailer is registered and has a visible license plate when you are traveling. Don’t give state troopers a reason to pull you over and start asking too many questions.
Not only are there pre-construction considerations but also checks and preparations for each day of moving your tiny house. Consider the following:
- Burn off excess propane in supply lines and turn off gas completely at the tank. That way, if a pipe starts leaking during travel, there won’t be any dangerous gas collecting inside the house.
- Cover the most vulnerable windows with plywood to protect from flying rocks or other debris on the road.
- Add extra weatherproofing on what will be the front of the house during travel (tongue side of trailer). Make sure all gaps in cladding are caulked. We even duct-taped over a few joints just as an extra layer of protection. We encountered rain, freezing rain and snow, and lots of dirt and dust during travel, each particle trying its hardest to work its way into the house.
- Bring an extra trailer tire with you. If your truck blows a tire, it’s likely not hard to find the right size replacement. Trailer tires are less common, and you should have a spare just in case.
What else do you need for safe towing? A truck of course! (And a big one at that) A little research on towing capacity and power needs should lead you in the direction of a ¾ ton truck like a Ford F250 Super Duty or Chevy 2500, at a minimum.
If you can get access to a 350/3500, all the better. Diesel is much better for towing than gas. 4WD is better than 2WD or AWD.
Ultimately you want a truck that can, at minimum, tow 15,000 lbs. safely and that has a large v8 or v10 engine. An F150 for example, may seem like it possesses enough power,
but the suspension, cooling system and breaks are not designed for such heavy towing. Do careful research and make sure the truck you choose is more than you need, not less.
What I ended up using landed somewhere in the middle, or even on the low end of this range. Needing a truck to haul materials during the building process, I chose to buy an inexpensive truck as opposed to renting something solely for the move.
This limited me to older trucks, ones that I could afford to buy outright. I found a good deal in Denver on an F250 Super-Duty, which had a lot of miles, but was a solid truck, able to tow heavy loads safely.
As it turned out, however, it was not quite up to the task. Less than a day’s drive from our final location, the strain of towing up over the various mountain and desert passes proved to be too much.
The truck shot a spark plug clear out of the cylinder, stripping the threads and taking out some softer, plastic parts with it. Fortunately, we were able to get it repaired the same day but it easily could have been much worse.
We could have been stuck in the Central Valley of California for a few days at least. (Not something you want to happen.)
As it was, having to stay only a night in Modesto, CA we had a bike, camera, credit cards, passports, and other items stolen from the back of the truck. Major bummer! An unforeseen hurdle for sure but there just wasn’t anything we could do but roll with it.
Only lesson there was to avoid the dreaded Central Valley of California. It’s known for its car theft. Luckily the house itself was left untouched!
In retrospect, I would have spent a little more on a truck with fewer miles and perhaps a diesel engine for better towing over the long, slow climbs.
During our move my girlfriend Anjali drove our other car as a follow vehicle.
This way she couldn’t speed too far ahead for me to catch up, but also meant she could help direct traffic around the slow-moving house, help open up a lane for passing or pulling off the highway when it was needed, and could keep and could keep an eye out for anything amiss as we rolled down the road. (She was also able to snap some great travel shots, the best being an image of a Tumbleweed house passing us in Arizona).
She caught a few things of importance like when the trailer’s license plate almost fell off after being scraped by a steep dip pulling out of a gas station. And of course the second car was vital when the truck broke down in Modesto.
Though not absolutely essential, I always felt safer with her behind me and I definitely recommend a follow vehicle when on a trip of this distance.
Though it took some careful planning, one of the easiest and most enjoyable parts of the process was being able to stay in our house almost every night of the trip.
We found it much nicer to have nearly everything we needed when we stopped for the day (and a comfortable home for our dog), preferring tiny house nights to hotel stays. By doing research ahead of time and planning out stops where RV parks were located, we knew we’d always have a place to stay. The RV parks we stayed at turned out to be prefect.
They never denied us entry because we were a tiny house and not a normal RV, and they offered the amenities we needed to travel comfortably. Though KOA campground tended to be a few dollars more per night, they were consistently good and very accommodating.
The KOA in Flagstaff was even forested and quite pretty. Most others were not at all scenic, but were generally conveniently located close to the highway. Here are a few things to consider about RV parks:
- Call ahead to check not only general availability, but to make sure the park has a 40+ foot pull-through spot available. You definitely do not want to be backing the house into a tight space unless absolutely necessary.
- All RV parks will have 30/50 amp hookups, so as long as your house was built with an RV style power hookup, you’ll be fine wherever you stop.
Weather And Unforeseen Delays
Though we took the most Southerly route possible to avoid winter weather and high-mountain passes, we still couldn’t have guessed what Mother Nature had in store for us.
After just a couple days of travel, having made it through an ice storm in Oklahoma we were met by a large, early-season snowstorm that blanketed much of the southwest and south-central states on our way into the Texas panhandle.
Though we had plans to keep driving, we were forced to stop in Amarillo, Texas just after lunch to avoid dangerous snowpack and ice on the roads. We were snowed in the next day as well and took the day off to get some exercise at a local gym and treat ourselves to a movie. Be prepared too for delays like this.
Even in summer months you never know what might happen (think wind and rain!).
We had planned on an approximate duration of 7 days (SE Iowa to N. California – over 2,300 miles, taking I-40 west from Oklahoma City).
We felt that was conservative, allowing us to stop before dark each day. But with a day and a half lost in Texas and another half day to fix the truck in Modesto, our trip ended up taking 9 full days.
Finding a Place to Park/Live
This is a big topic. There are rules and regulations about where one can live and how permanently based on how your tiny house is classified and where it is located. This is far more than can be covered in this short article, but here’s the simple version of our story.
We had advertised our need for a place to park on craigslist and other local Sonoma County bulletin boards and ended up having great success.
I think the trick was being thorough in our postings, describing our needs in detail, introducing each member of our little family, showing lots of pictures, and making it clear we were expecting to pay rent and offer services in return.
Within a few days of putting the word out there, we were on our way to an agreement for a nice place to park in Sebastopol. But the story is not without its drama. Just a couple of days before leaving for California, our potential host talked with some county authorities and became a bit spooked by the answers they received.
They didn’t know the right questions to ask, but more importantly they were
the kind of people who didn’t want to take the risk of our living there being even somewhat illegal – for it is, in truth, in somewhat of a legal gray area.
They retracted the contract we had drawn up just two days before our departure date. We left Iowa without a home to go to, hoping and praying for someone to step up and fill the void.
And they did! After sending desperate last-minute emails to other potential hosts and to the greater tiny house community, our current hosts got in touch with us and were happy to offer temporary parking, if not a long term home for our house.
With this arrangement in place, we made it safe and sound to Sebastopol to meet our future hosts thinking the hard work was over. In fact, another phase had just begun.
Relying on images and email descriptions of the property alone prior to arrival we were not fully prepared for how much work it would be to navigate the house through a narrow gap to one side of the “big house” and down to their large back yard.
Huge piles of scrap wood and heavy concrete pavers needed to be moved, an entire shed and its contents relocated, and countless trees needed serious trimming and sometimes complete removal to clear a path at least 13.5 feet tall and 8.5 feet wide. Not only that, but the only suitable locations for our house were not at all level, meaning more work to level the house to prevent it from shifting over time.
It was tiresome work, and at times we thought once more we were crazy for trying. Surely there was another potential spot close by where we could simply pull in and be done?
But our hosts were so incredibly kind and flexible, encouraging us to continue, and we just knew it was the right fit.
In the end it all worked. It was tight; very tight. In fact, the space we backed in to was within an inch of the main house roof and scraping tree branches at times.
Anjali had to climb on top of the truck as we moved, using a push broom to lift power lines a couple of feet higher to clear the tiny house roofline.
Once parked in our final location, holes were dug, earth packed and leveled, and concrete pavers set in place to make room for, and to support, the 4 jack-stands placed at each corner in order to level the house.
I had leveled the house a few times before in different locations during the building process, but not on soft, sloped earth like this.
Using a heavy-duty bottle jack, lifting the house one corner at time was not difficult but digging, leveling of earth, re-digging and re-packing to make small changes needed to level the house as it sank into the soil was a long, slow battle.
Here are some things to consider when looking for a place to park – this doesn’t touch at all on codes and legal issues, but simply the location itself:
- Is there adequate access to the final parking spot, or can it be made large enough for entry without too much work? Look up, check nearby tress, the roofs of other houses, etc.
- How flexible are the landowners to allow changes to their property?
- Is there a down-sloping grade for water run-off and/or room for a French drain to handle gray water exiting the house?
- How far is the house from a reliable power outlet and water hose connection?
- Is the power outlet on it’s own circuit, and is it rated for the amperage your house will require?
- Will you be within range of the property owner’s WiFi, or do you need to arrange your own Internet connection (if desired)?
- And most importantly, are your potential hosts cool, laid-back people willing to bend a few legalities in order to support your chosen way of living? We’ve learned that the people you are living “with” can be even more important than the location itself. (We are so lucky to love our new host family!)
Building and living in a tiny house is an incredibly rewarding experience but towing a tiny house is no easy task. Neither is finding a place to park for that matter.
You need to be prepared for potential delays and setbacks like snowstorms, car/truck problems and theft.
And that’s only if you’ve done the pre-construction planning and design work needed to ensure safe travel in the first place. You’ll need to do a lot of research and networking, both to find places to stop along the way, and more importantly, a spot to park and live legally (or semi-legally) once you get where you’re going.
That said, we did it and so can you! Choosing to build close to your final parking place is wise, but wherever you start out, living on wheels means you have the freedom to move and find your perfect spot. As far we can tell, we’ve found ours.
With more than a month of full-time living in our tiny house, my girlfriend, small dog and I are quickly becoming comfortable and happy as ever to be living in our lovingly built little dream home!
As always, you can find photos and details of the entire construction process, our move, and our continued experience with tiny house living at our blog: tiny-project.com
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