Covered Wagons, Gypsy Wagons

Have House, Will Travel

One couple takes the ultimate road trip in a miniature house on wheels they built themselves.

  • 01_wagon_800
    The prairie schooner— outfitted with Sunforger water-repellant canvas and an outdoor perch for the couple’s cat, Lionshead—is homey, even away from home. The perch is made of plywood and wire cube shelving. 

  • 02_wagon_800
    Getting dressed in the morning in such a small space proved to be a challenge. The payoff? Cozy nights with a glass of wine and candlelight illuminated off of the canvas roof 

  • 03_wagon_800
    Salvaged tongue-and-groove boards, protected with marine quality Spar Urethane (like the kind from Minwax or Rust-Oleum), formed the front and back walls. 

  • 04_wagon_800
    Bows, 12 purlines, and corrugated steel salvaged from a trash bin form the walls. 

  • 05_wagon_800
    A 50-watt solar panel and a modified car inverter powered laptops, a camera, a fan, and a lightbultb. 

  • 06_strawmattress_wagon_800
    Learn to make this straw mattress

Written by Amy Palanjian
Photography by Tristan Chambers & Libby Reinish

When Tristan Chambers was approaching the end of his undergrad studies last spring, he and his girlfriend, Libby Reinish, thought of the perfect way to celebrate: They decided to build a 54-square-foot gypsy wagon and tow it across the country.

Never one to shy away from projects, Chambers admits that this was the biggest to date—and the scariest, with friends proclaiming that it would surely tip over. “Libby and I had talked a lot about building a house together, so when we realized that even building a Tiny House would be too expensive, this seemed like a compatible idea,” he explains. Plus, Reinish knew that her 4-cylinder Hyundai had a towing capacity of about 1,000 pounds, far less than what is needed to haul a Tiny House. So, taking the concepts of small and mobile from the Tiny House movement, and cheap and light from modern gypsy wagon plans, they spent about a month drawing up their design. To get used to how they’d soon be living, they used tape to mark out the wagon’s intended square footage on the floor of their apartment.

“We did the design work together, with Tristan focusing on the structural integrity while I focused on fitting all the functionality we wanted in a 54-square-foot living space,” Reinish explains. They set a budget of $1,500 (slightly more than what they had been paying in rent each month), started salvaging materials (like near pristine tongue-and-groove boards for the walls), and checked out tools from their local ReStore Tool Lending Library.

It took about three months to build the wagon, which included installing a 50-watt solar panel on the roof and an inverter on the inside to charge their laptops and iPods; getting rid of most of their possessions—including Reinish’s vintage Dressmaker sewing machine and an art installation that Chambers never quite finished; sourcing canvas for the roof (and having it sewn by a friend); and saying good-bye to their life in Santa Fe.

“When we started this process, we weren’t exactly sure where we were going beyond the vague goal of New England,” says Reinish, who adds that the area is home in many ways—it’s where she went to school and where Chambers spent part of his childhood. “We also suspected that it would be easier to grow food and live a low-impact life in that area,” she adds.

So they headed east, not getting far before their first stop in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico (extreme heat and a dead battery). Another small setback occurred just two hours down the road in Carrizozo, New Mexico (had to fix a fuel leak). After that it was fairly smooth sailing, and highlights included Kansas City, Missouri (stayed in a KOA campground next to a “short bus” RV); Columbia, Missouri (filled up on food at the local health food store); Kidron, Ohio (visited Lehman’s in Amish country,; Ithaca, New York (stayed with friends on their homestead), and on into Western Massachusetts. The car held up well, considering all it was towing, though they admit they kept an eye on the rpms.

The wagon, which is now parked in the backyard of the group home where they live in Northampton, Massachusetts, is pulling triple duty as clubhouse, reading room, and guesthouse. And it serves as a mobile home when the couple wants to go away for the weekend. “One day we’ll buy some land, and the wagon will be used for its intended purpose of giving us a place to live right away.” The mobile home market will never be the same.

For even more, check out their site at


This page is dedicated to the covered wagon we built and traveled in on a cross country pilgrimage from Santa Fe NM to Western Massachusetts in the summer of 2010. Boy, what fun it was! We built the wagon on a 4×8′ utility trailer and towed it with Libby’s 4 cil. sedan. The construction was wood with a canvas top. Our goals were to build a portable living structure that was light and cheap. Traveling cross country was an experience in itself with many reflections roused on our country’s landscapes, farms, economy, and culture.

For a general overview of the completed structure check out the Grand Tour post.





Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Grand Tour

Ok, folks. It’s time for the grand tour of our new, not-so-grand home. Building the wagon has been, hands down, the most challenging project we have taken on to date. It has also been the most rewarding. While many components of our home did not adhere to the original plan, the overall vision that we had for this place has been carried through in a way I thought I could only dream of. Our systems work, our stuff fits, and it fits the aesthetic we were aiming for when we began this project in March.

So, without further ado:

The wagon has a dutch door for cross ventilation and for fun, with antique door hardware that locks with a skeleton key. On the door side of the wagon are two large hooks that hold kerosene lanterns at night and our solar shower/dishwater during the day.
The bed is raised three feet off the ground to provide under bed storage and to utilize the width of the wagon at that height. The mattress is homemade–a straw stuffed futon cover. At either end of the bed are storage pockets to hold toiletries, books, and computer stuff (you can see the pocket at right here). The under bed curtains were made by my pal Wendy at Holy Scrap Hot Springs. There are magnets in the bottom of the curtains and a steel strip behind that 1×4 which keeps the curtains in place. You can see the full layout of the wagon here as well–kitchen to the left, couch to the right, bed at the rear.
The view from the bed. Hooks on either side of the door hold stuff up for us. In this photograph we are preparing to leave, so the water containers and stove have been stowed out of view.
Wendy and I collaborated on this couch, with Tristan contributing some ideas. I am pretty thrilled with the way this turned out. The seat is a handmade, foam-filled cushion. The back rest has three pockets that serve a dual purpose as cushion and laundry bag. As the laundry bag fills, the couch gets more comfortable! Loops at the top affix the cushion to the wagon but make for an easy removal so the whole thing can be shlepped to the laundromat! At the right here you see our electrical equipment, which will eventually be enclosed in a cabinet/end table. For the moment it looks ugly, but at least we have power!
Another view of the kitchen. The sink is plumbed to the outside of the wagon, where a hose end can be placed into a 5-gallon water jug to hold output. Our input (the solar shower) is 4 gallons, and the jug holds 5, so we never have to worry about overflowing. The jug gets dumped daily to keep it from getting funky. I’ll try to get some pictures of the rest of this system for a later post.
Couch + Laundry = best idea ever.
Lionshead’s obversation deck. She is starting to get the hang of the cat door.  The observation deck is made from scrap lumber and those wire dorm shelf cubes, secured together with hog rings. You can also see our trailer jack in this picture, which is a recent addition. The trailer jack makes it way easier to hitch and unhitch the trailer and raise it to level. It folds up and stores along the tongue when we’re driving.
Our 50-watt solar panel is mounted on the roof and charges the battery while we’re on the road. We got a great deal on the panel at a flea market last summer. Little did we know we’d be using it to power our whole house just a year later!
The only system we don’t have in place yet in our wagon is a toilet. We have plans to build a composting portable toilet, but on this trip we will be relying on facilities at campgrounds for this need.
Well, we’ve reached the end of our tour, folks. ‘Til next time…


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