New Mexico-based startup Earth Traveler is developing a very different style of teardrop trailer, a skeletal archway built of lightweight composite meant to put minimal strain on your engine and wallet. And while the range-topper will be made from carbon fiber, the more interesting version will use a composite concocted from chicken feathers, a material that's literally featherlight. At camp, full-length gull-wing panels will rise up like a phoenix, creating standing room and a spacious, breezy interior intimately connected to the surrounding outdoors.

The story behind the Earth Traveler trailer is a slightly more dramatic rendition of an oft-repeated tale of scrappy trailer-building ingenuity. After heading out for a relaxing family camping trip only to find himself battling unrelenting winds and collapsing tent fabric, founder Angel Irlanda knew it was time to upgrade to a more robust camping shelter. But having recently purchased a Fiat 500, towable options were basically non-existent for a car more likely to be towed than do the towing. Irlanda turned his attention away from buying a trailer and toward designing a more minicar-friendly breed of towable.

The idea was to sleep the whole family inside the trailer, so the traditional aluminum-skinned two-person teardrop was out. Instead, Irlanda tapped into his skills as an artist to reimagine the teardrop into a larger, more open space, constructing the first prototype out of simple, accessible materials like wood and fiberglass. Like so many other small trailer entrepreneurs, he was initially quite happy simply using it for his own camping trips, but the urging of friends and family impressed with his work inspired him to pursue a business.

With an artistic background ranging from sculpting to movie set painting, Irlanda was well-equipped for creating a unique teardrop but less equipped for navigating the unfamiliar waters of business development. After winning US$4,500 of local small business grant money last year, and getting some nice publicity to go along with it, Irlanda tried to build on the momentum and attract additional investment to build molds and start production. Unsuccessful at raising the investment money he needed, he turned his attention to earning the money on his own, working overtime on a movie set gig to buy the materials and equipment himself.

Irlanda is planning to launch two teardrop models. A full carbon fiber trailer will top the range, scaling in at an estimated 216 lb (98 kg) – an astonishingly low weight for a trailer sized for a family of four. But with a projected retail price of $30,975, and standard amenities no more luxurious than a pop-up roof over one's head and windows at his sides, the T250LX seems a niche product without much of a niche.

Earth Traveler's second trailer, the T300, will be the more affordable model with mass appeal, thanks to the most unlikely of solutions: chicken feathers. Feathers are quite famously lightweight, but according to Irlanda, the feather-based fabric he works with also offers strength close to that of carbon fiber when set in resin. And since farmers are eager to give the feathers away, the material is far cheaper than other composites, bringing the estimated retail price of this variant screaming down to $10,000.

Feather-based composite might sound like a late April Fool's joke, but there has been a lot of research into this type of material as an eco-friendly alternative. Irlanda is having the version he's using tested for strength, flexibility and insulation value at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. He admits that the material does have some drawbacks, such as lack of uniform structural integrity, but he intends to use it only for non-structural components, where it will provide insulation and weather protection. The load-bearing structural elements will be made out of more traditional composite and Corecell.

Rather than designing his own chassis, Irlanda plans to purchase an existing chassis to plant the Earth Traveler body on, with aims of keeping weight of the feather-composite version around 298 lb (135 kg). The T300 looks to be a futuristic family camper for those driving smaller, more efficient vehicles, including electric cars.

Of course, part of keeping weight so low is creating a minimalist trailer with little more than open space inside. The cleanly arched roof is actually two dramatic, centrally hinged wing panels that open at the front and rear, expanding interior headroom and space. Design plans call for the production version to use expandable sides to create floor space for two single beds on the sides of a central double bed. Standard mosquito mesh will keep critters out, and an available front tent will provide fuller weather protection around a high-ceiling, standing-height space. Additional equipment, such as the available kitchen, will be optional.

One advantage of this empty-shell design is that the trailer will have plenty of space to haul toys and gear on the way to camp, functioning similarly to the SylvanSport Go. Irlanda intends to create an interior capable of carrying a small ATV, as well as smaller gear like bikes, fishing equipment, camping furniture, etc. Integrated underfloor storage will provide additional cargo capacity.

Irlanda still has some work to do to turn his artistic vision into a viable retail product, and we wouldn't be surprised if the design and specifications change from now to production. He tells us he has the materials for the first production-spec model and hopes to finish his mold and build the first trailer over the next few months, beginning regular sales sometime thereafter. He's also making tweaks and adjustments, including the addition of a roof spoiler to help increase downforce. After speaking with him over the phone, it's clear he has loads of interesting ideas and enthusiasm for the product, and we're looking forward to seeing how the finalized models shake out and evolve over time.

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