Camper trailer overview shows how camper trailers add convenience and comfort to camping. Setting up is simple, but may excess time. A basic kitchen is usually included. The larger versions offer the comfort and convenience of small caravans. Prices relate to quality and intended use – not to size. Most are about 1.9 metres wide and bodies rarely over four metres long. Some have extra long A-frames (drawbars) that add up to half a metre.
Camper trailer weight varies from 350 kg (770 lb) to over two tonnes. The towing vehicle’s capabilities, and where you wish to travel must thus be taken into account.
Camper trailer overview – the Teardrop revival
The smallest camper trailer is the Teardrop. Originally a DIY project from the late 1920s, most are self-made. A few US books and magazines still carry plans and instructional details. They are basically a two-wheeled double bed plus storage, and a rear opening kitchen.
These units are again on the market. There are even ‘stylised’ versions that bear little relationship to the original low-cost DIY concept. At a typical 350 kg (770 lb), a Teardrop unit can be towed by a Harley Davidson trike. Price is $3500 upwards.
Camper trailer overview – full-size camper trailers
The cheapest full-size camper trailer is essentially a box with a basic tent, or a box and tent that fastens onto an existing trailer. They cost $3500 upwards, but even a basic kitchen can be ‘optional.’
At the low end of the price range, even new tyres are commonly optional. Many vendors fit second-hand used ones. By and large, units such as these are best avoided.
Complete camper trailers start at $5000-$10,000. Most are towable on road by conventional cars or small 4WDs.
The original camper trailers were mostly like this superb Teardrop unit. Pic: source unnamed by request.
From $10,00-$17,500 or so, camper trailers are better designed, made and equipped, but not all have suspension that will withstand off-road use. Unlike caravans, most components and wiring can readily be accessed and checked before buying – ideally by an experienced owner or an engineer.
Camper trailer overview – value for money
The best value for on-road camper trailers is currently $15,000 – $25,000. Many are available at these prices. Most are well made and suited for their purpose.
Spending $30,000 – $55,000 assures top-quality off-road units. Many experienced owners suggest that, if affordable, this is the optimal price range in which to buy.
A few camper trailers cost $100,000 or more. Some are as heavy as off-road caravans and too heavy to take seriously off-road.
Jonno’s all-rounder – a little under $17,000 in 2016.
Used camper trailers are often available, but as there is little (with any well-made ones) that can go wrong or wear out, most sell for close to their original buying price.
Camper trailer overview – self-assembly
Be ultra-wary of imported trailers in kit form. RV Book’s camper trailer overview is that there may be good products out there, but some are crude beyond belief. Do not buy without a thorough inspection.
Cameron Camper (soft floor) unit. Pic: Cameron Campers.
A soft unit’s tent annexe has a waterproof floor that keeps out mud and various nasties. They usually have more covered floor space but are likely to flood during heavy rain. The floor material also becomes muddy yet, as with the annexe, usually stores on top of the mattress. Another drawback is that campsites must be flat and have a reasonably level area. On the plus side, soft floor trailers are usually simpler, lighter, and cheaper. Furthermore, their often greater under-cover area appeals to those travelling with young children.
Hard floor units have a rigid fold-down section that also forms the base of a raised annexe. That floor is up from the ground and having a firm surface is valuable, but it adds weight, complexity and cost. With most such units, the annexe still travels on top of the bed (but less muddily).
The Australian-built Track Trailer: Pic: Track Trailer.
The TVan’s hard floor is a metal grid that unfolds to form a 3.0-metre by 1.9-metre rigid deck 50-100 mm above ground. Its tent is stored in the roof extension well away from the bed area.
If purchasing, have the vendor show you how to store the tent (there’s an unexpectedly easy way of doing it).
These combine some of the comforts of a very small caravan with the ‘openness’ of a camper trailer. They typically have a floor that may be up to a metre or so above ground level, but limited in floor space unless they have an extendable floor as has the Tvan – but that one is far from large.
Some trailers have a rigid ‘roof’ that unfolds and hinges down to form a bed external to the trailer body area. Space thus left has dinette seating (convertible to a single or double bed) plus kitchen, fridge and storage.
Others have a pop-top. At well over $35,000, such units are in the mid-upper range of the market.
Camper trailer overview – side/end opening
Of both soft and hard floor models, some have a tent awning to the side, others to the rear. Trailer bodies are longer than they are wide so the side-openers tend to have larger and more usable under-cover space. They can be a bit claustrophobic as the only full-height opening is that side entry.
Camper trailer overview – tent-trailer – or pop-top?
Traditional camper trailers are well equipped mobile tents. Most need similar time and effort to erect and pull down. Vendors claim it ‘becomes quick over time’. Opening up is easy. It takes 30-60 seconds. What vendors rarely add is it also requires placing and retrieving a score or more tent pegs and squaring it all up. Setting up may take 30 minutes (and longer first time).
Typical soft-floor unit. Pic: Source unknown.
Packing up often takes longer because early morning mist usually soaks the canvas. It is necessary to dry it before packing, as most travel on top of the bed. A protector is often supplied, but the trailer’s interior stays humid after packing.
Pop-top versions lack tenting’s romanticism but most are ready to put up and take down within seconds of stopping. Handy on cold wet nights, and for those driving long distances most days.
TVan’s patio-like metal rear deck – a great place for an evening drink! Pic: RV Books.
A good compromise includes the smaller pop-top caravans (e.g. the smaller Jayco units, and A-Vans). Some are available for semi off-road use. These are easy and quick to set up. The Getaway Supreme is an excellent example and is often encountered off-road. They are fine if towed with care and not taken into extreme conditions.
Travelling with young children
Many families travel with children. It works well if you stay on-site for two-three days or even longer, but not if you travel every day. If you have very young children that need to be close to you, choose a camper trailer that has a large closable extension of the main area. The Ultimate basic camper trailer (below) has an optional tent (under an elevated main bed) that can double as a spacious children’s bed and playroom.
An alternative, for reasonably self-reliant children, is a quickly erectable tent. The 2.0 metre by 2.0 metre (1.9 metres high) plus 2.0-metre awning RV Oztent can be erected and pulled down in about 25 seconds. It weighs about 20 kg (44 lb). When packed it is 2.0 metres long. It fits comfortably on a roof rack – but not inside a tow vehicle with a cargo barrier.
Camper trailer mattress quality can be lacking. IKEA foam mattresses are available in several grades of firmness, types of foam, and size. The bed base must be well ventilated or the mattress will become soaking wet. A folded pure wool blanket under the mattress helps keep it dry. If the tent section stores above it, you will need a tarpaulin in-between.
Camper trailer kitchens vary from marine quality stovetops and grilles, and stainless steel sinks and drainers, to ‘stove optional’ and a few plywood shelves. They are usually external and accessed from outside the trailer body. Some pull out from a drawbar-mounted enclosure. Soft floor camper trailers usually have the kitchen free-standing or hinging out from the rear.
Outdoor kitchens are fine when the weather is right but tedious when it is not. This is especially so when it is below freezing. Some form of annexe or awning over the area is essential.
Wind protection is hard to arrange, but it helps a great deal as it can be close to impossible otherwise to bring water to the boil, let alone keep it so whilst cooking.
The Ultimate camper trailer has an (optional) enclosed area beneath the extended internal bed. Pic: Ultimate.
Overhead cover is virtually essential. Natural shade is non-existent across much of inland north and north-western Australia. A good overhead light is essential. A yellow globe or filter discourages insects, but not all of them.
Many users find the built-in sinks too small to be of any use, and cool washing up water too quickly. Instead, they use a folding table and plastic bucket, retaining the sink for washing up material.
Do not remove that sink, however. Camper trailers are unsalable to novice buyers unless a sink is there (useless or not).
Weight and space are saved by using a diesel-powered stovetop. These are available from Webasto and Wallas. Many users say that cooking is a bit slower than with gas burners, but is nevertheless effective.
Webasto diesel cooktop saves valuable space. Pic: Webasto.
If feasible, have ready access to the kitchen for quick lunchtime stops. This is hard to do with an internal unit in fold-down trailers. Carry a primus or single burner LP gas stove for this purpose.
The size and type of fridge virtually determine the electrical system’s size and cost. A 32-litre unit may draw 80% of daily energy use. An 80-litre unit may draw 90%.
Unless there are very good reasons, never use two smaller fridges rather than one larger one. This is because their power consumption is a function of their external surface area. A quick sum shows that a single (say) 220-litre fridge uses far less energy than two 110 litre fridges.
Think hard about whether you want as opposed to needing a freezer. We thought we wanted ours until we tried vacuum packing. We sold it: and never missed it again.
A fridge larger than 80 litres will require battery charging by driving several hours a day, preferably with alternator charging, or an hour or two’s daily running from a generator. Competent installation is essential.
Many owners prefer to have the fridge in the tow vehicle, powered by the alternator and/or solar modules on the roof. Pic: RV Books.
You need to drink about two litres of water a day and twice that in tropical areas. Apart from that one can get by with five litres per person. Seven litres is more comfortable but one still needs to be frugal whilst washing etc. Ten litres should be fine.
Water weighs 1.0 kg (2.2 lb) per litre. Most camper trailers hold 60-70 litres, and 100 litres is a realistic maximum.
Alternatively, carry about 45 litres of drinking water in the plastic containers described below. This is adequate for two people for a week – and longer at a pinch. It is also a good solution for travelling in much of inland Australia, particularly inland SA and Northern WA. There, safe drinking water is surprisingly hard to find.
Typical space heater: Pic: Dometic (Aust).
The only safe form of heating a camper trailer and/or its annexe is the Webasto/Dometic/Truma diesel-powered (or LP gas) heaters. They run up to eight hours on a litre of diesel (or its LP gas equivalent). These units adequately heat a camper trailer and annexe on the coldest of winter days and nights.
The only realistic choice is light-emitting diodes (LEDs). These draw so little power it is pointless to use anything else. It also makes sense to replace any existing halogen globes by these units.
Headband mounted LEDs are perfect for camp cooking outside. There are also LED torches, reading lights, night lights, step lights etc. Others provide a wider spread of light. You can readily obtain direct LED replacements for existing halogen globe holders, and/or to modify existing light fittings.
Most camper trailer users carry 250-350 kg (550-775 lb) for two people. We finally reduced ours to about 100 kg (220 lb) – but started with far more.
Beware of options
Some vendors offer costly options of often needed items at excess prices. They may add $200 for a ($45) gas cylinder. An optional spring mattress costs about half at IKEA. An additional water tank may cost $1000.The same item sells for $250 in camping stores. Solar (particularly) and electrical stuff, can usually be bought from electrical suppliers. Most can be self-installed by those handy with tools.
Camper trailer overview – energy
The tow vehicle’s alternator copes with realistic day loads plus charging an auxiliary battery but, unless you drive most days, or use that battery only for lighting, radio etc., there is unlikely to be enough energy to power a fridge for more than a day or two.
This can often be fixed by adding solar. Trak Shak addresses this problem, as do many DIY builders, by having solar modules doubles as a way of providing shade.
The author’s 4.2 litre TD Nissan Patrol and TVan. Each had independent solar systems that could be coupled together if ever necessary (we never needed to). Pic: the rig set up for camping close to Mitchells Falls in the Kimberley. Copyright: RV Books.
What works well is two independent solar systems, one for the tow vehicle, and another for the trailer. Two 120 watt solar modules and a 100 Ah AGM or lithium battery will drive a 60-80 litre chest fridge in the tow vehicle with ease.
A second system, (about 100 watts), will run LED lights, water pump, and a diesel or LP gas-powered water/space heater in the trailer. If that has also to run/charge iPads and cope with modems etc., it is advisable to increase solar capacity to 130 watts.
The previous image shows the author’s own system that was set up this way. (Extensive details are in our associated book Solar That Really Works.)
The Vista pop-top unit provides small caravan space with full off-road mobility. Pic: Andrew Woodmansey
Unless fit and active, I advise most people over 70 to be wary of minimalist camper trailers. Whilst strength varies, it usually decreases after that age, possibly precluding otherwise good choices. Particularly when wet, tent canvas is really too heavy to lift safely single-handed. This is true also of raising the roofs of pop-tops (unless assisted by compressed gas struts). Larger units have an inside kitchen but what works well are kitchen facilities, such as a folding table and portable two-burner gas stovetop, outside as well.