So you’re thinking about buying a camper trailer…
There’s almost more species of camper trailers than there are insects, so let’s follow Ross Daws as he selects the perfect camper…for his family, anyway!
I’VE SPENT ENOUGH time watching four wheel drive shows and visiting lifestyle expos to have learned for a fact that all I needed to transform my family camping trips from a maelstrom of chaos into a cherubic, sunkist utopia backed by choirs of angels, was to buy a camper trailer. And it seems like such a simple idea, too. After all, campers start at only a few thousand dollars, brand new, how could you go wrong?
There’s a few things that you need to remain mindful of if you’re going to get into this, and come out sane the other end, especially if you’re starting off going around the factory demonstrations or the 4×4 and camping expos. Firstly, the $4,000 soft floor camper is like a gateway drug. Your first step in trailer choice is:
Understanding the terrain
You head on over thinking that you’re just going to look at this little, affordable unit, and suddenly find yourself reclining on the optional-extra inner-spring mattress of a $40,000 full offroad caravan complete with fridge, freezer, internal shower & toilet, and an air conditioner, and a rooftop tent up top for the kids…
Also, the range of choices available stretches from maddening to unfathomable! There are hard floor, soft floor, rear fold, forward fold, side fold, wind up, slide out… the list goes on and on! And each one has its own particular strengths and weaknesses, that will suit some families and some camping styles better than others.
The key is to have put some thought into what you want to do, and then to have worked out what style of camper is going to help you get there.
Where we started
My partner and I bought our first tent back before we had kids – a nice little geodesic 4 person with a covered vestibule, that was a great size for the two of us with some undercover room out front to keep the camp kitchen out of the rain.
But then the kids came along, and the hiking mats were replaced with air beds, and then stretchers, and somewhere along the line the single room tent was replaced by a two – or even a three – room geodesic Taj Mahal that took nigh on 90 minutes to set up, before we’d even started inflating air beds or unpacking stretchers. Sometime around then we made the change from camping in the Peugeot station wagon to buying a four wheel drive, which ironically involved a serious reduction in storage space, and rapidly led to towing a trailer to carry all the camping gear along with us.
What did we want?
What we wanted was the easy part. We wanted a hard floor rear fold camper trailer, just like I’d seen my parents use for their trips around Australia. That was, until we realised that we wouldn’t be able to fit the four of us into a standard rear fold camper without putting the kids in bunk beds (logistical issues there) or throwing them out in a swag. When it turned out that both the kids actually wanted to stay in the same tent as Mum and Dad – and all our friends with older kids advised us to treasure these years as this won’t last long – it was time for plan B, which turned out to be a Johnno’s Off Road Deluxe soft floor side fold.
Only there was a problem there. The side fold access to the double bed means that one person has to clamber over the other in order to get into or out of bed, which turned out to be a real obstacle for us.
Then we discovered Forward Fold campers, which gave you rear access to the double bed, and a second double bed where we could top and tail the kids… only the fold-down table double bed is pretty squishy and our eldest is pretty tall, and so the forward fold campers weren’t going to be large enough unless we went for one of the big ones with a slide out bed at the far end, and suddenly we were talking about a whole lot of weight and a whole lot more money. Until one day I stumbled upon the Quattro camper by Modcon which offers a rear entry door, and two permanent beds on the lower portion with an aisle up the middle for access to the double bed! So for a little under $21,000 drive away (and 1,700kg ATM) we were going to be sorted.
Now on with getting a second job and a second mortgage, to make cheap and simple camping holidays more accessible.
What did we need
Breaking that $20,000 price tag barrier really gave me pause. You can take a family of four on a cracking overseas holiday – once in a lifetime, making mountains of memories type overseas holiday – and still get change from $20,000. It’s a big investment.
Don’t get me wrong, $20,000 isn’t exactly the upper limit when it comes to off road camper setups – indeed you can easily spend twice or even three times that, and still need a budget for making some customisations and modifications to suit your intended use. This is where doing some honest analysis about what sort of camping & travelling you’re going to do, and how often you’re going to do it really needs to come first. If you’re about to embark on a months-long or years-long epic tour around Australia, then dropping $50,000 (if not more) on a well set up camper might make a lot of sense. But a lot of people aren’t in that position, or have aspirations of undertaking such an adventure only to discover the reality isn’t what they were hoping for. Gumtree is awash with second hand camper trailers “only used once; have upgraded to a caravan” or “we didn’t use it as much as we thought we would.”
I’m a bit of a gadget fiend, and so I’m naturally drawn towards the latest and greatest camper that has the best components money can buy all crammed into one amazing package, but we aren’t at the months-at-a-time-grand-tour stage quite yet. Neither our budget nor our expected use of a camper in the next five years warranted an extravagant investment, lest we join the ranks of the “used once” Gumtree advertisers. So we sat down to think about what, exactly, were the problems we were trying to solve, and what are we wanting to do with a camper when we get one.
Problems with current approach – tent & stretchers, towing trailer
- First night setup takes a long time
- Kitchen setup time is also required (plus finding the right plastic crate with the kitchen gear)
- My bung shoulder requires a certain level of comfort for sleeping, and was complaining about the effort involved in setting up and especially packing up the tent
- Pack up time was even worse than setup
In short, setting up and packing up camp felt like a half day job each way, which restricted camping to long weekends and periods of leave. The idea of a camping road trip was out of the question.
What are we wanting to do
- Camping trips once a month (or more in the warmer weather)
- Weekend getaways through to 2 – 3 week long base-camp trips each year
- Road trip up to Flinders Ranges, across Oodnadatta Track to Coober Pedy & surrounds
- Mostly bush / national park camping (not much caravan park stuff, only for road trips where necessary)
- Offroad adventures – camping in remote places that require 4WD access
Looking over the above lists of problems and goals, I put together the following shortlist of attributes that we were looking for. Some of it is logical, some of it is arbitrary, but this is what we came up with:
Required Camper Trailer attributes
- Sleeping room for 4 of us with room to move inside tent
- Rear fold, or walk up side fold (easy access to bed)
- Tare (unladen weight) no greater than 750kg (max goal weight of 1 tonne for offroad towing)
- Slide out kitchen that is accessible with camper packed up (side of the road coffee stops) that doesn’t require moving a gas cylinder to use
- Room for a fridge that is likewise accessible (not an essential, could keep fridge in tow vehicle, but preferable)
- Easy set up / fast pack up, ability to have beds mostly set up while packed up (for road trips)
- Preference for Australian Made (both quality and supporting local jobs)
- Must be able to set it up for drying out in room available at home (between house and carport!)
- 70 litres water (we budget 10l/day if camped near water source so that’s a week of drinking water for our family of 4)
- Capacity/storage for 12v battery for running fridge, lights etc
- Offroad suitable construction
- Ability to maintain camper after purchase / support for second hand campers etc
There’s a few items on this list that helped to clarify our thinking. Firstly, if we were going to be serious about wanting fast (15 minutes if possible) setup time, that eliminated a whole raft of soft floor campers. (While we were doing our research, we came across one camper trailer listed for sale, the complete footprint of which was very nearly the same as our three bedroom house! Listed for sale because “we didn’t use it as much as we thought we would” – I wonder why? Not the 3 hour setup time, surely?)
Room to sleep 4 with still room to move inside the tent similarly eliminated many of the hard floor options, as did the focus on tare weight… and whichever hard floor campers survived that particular crucible were shortly excluded on budgetary grounds.
In the end, we focused in on two soft floor models: the Johnno’s Off Road Deluxe, and the Outback Campers Sturt. Both are Australian made soft floor campers, with modest tent sizes that are supported by the boom poles without the need for a number of spacer or spreader poles to keep the main tent up. (The Outback does require one additional pole inside the tent beside the door.) Both can accommodate a family of 4 with the kids on stretchers (as was thoroughly investigated in advance!).
Both campers hold their value well, though both require a bit of research to ensure you know exactly what you’re getting. Many of the Johnno’s models look the same but can differ with what’s underneath (suspension) or the fitout of the kitchen. The Outback have a few models that cosmetically appear the same or similar, but again have great differences with what you get for your money, including the difference between onroad and offroad suspension, or the width of the camper in others. Around 10 years ago the Outback Sturt went from a wooden kitchen to a stainless steel kitchen, so you may need to be more pedantic if you’ve got your heart set on stainless steel. Similarly, the Johnno’s campers began being made in a different factory around 2013 which resulted in a GTM upgrade to 1,500kgs, which may be significant for some purchasers.
In the end, we went for a ten year old Outback Campers Sturt. The side access to the double bed proved to be a big obstacle for us, and the Sturt campers were able to fit inside the budget with greater ease than the Johnno’s.
Both are top notch campers for their price range, but we were able to get ourselves set up with a 2007 Sturt with 100AH battery and a stainless steel kitchen without breaking our budget. Outback Campers are made here in Victoria, and they’ve been making Sturt campers on roughly the same design now for 30 years, with little tweaks and improvements along the way. We’ve taken her out for two weekends away in the six weeks since we got her, a Queen’s Birthday weekend out to the Grampians, and a weekend in the foothills of the Victorian High Country, and on both trips it’s continuing to tick the boxes and makes quick & easy setup camping a reality for our family, and that means that we can do more camping, more family trips and more adventures, more often – and that’s what we were looking for.
Camper trailer questions for you to consider
As much as I love my little Outback Camper, I don’t want to extol its virtues too greatly. Not because it’s not a great camper – it is, I assure you – but the reality is what makes it a great camper is how suits my family, not yours. To help get you started with narrowing down the field, here are a few attributes of your new camper for you to think about
- Tent Size – you can find campers that sleep 1-2 through to campers that can sleep 20
- Trailer Size – is it big enough to carry everything you need? Is it small enough to get through your front gate? Will it fit where you’re planning to store it?
- Weight – can your current vehicle tow it, or will you need to upgrade? Can you tow it into the places you want to go?
- Construction – offroad camper trailers typically are made to withstand some more punishing treatment, with sturdier construction, greater ground clearance, off road couplings that allow for greater articulation, offroad suspension and tyres, and even underbody protection and recovery points. These features all cost money, do you really need them?
- Payload – how much stuff can you cram into the camper before you reach its legal limit? Is that going to be enough?
- Capacity – different campers will come with different capacities of various cargo, specifically water, number of gas bottles, number of jerrycan holders, and batteries (measured in amp hours). 250 amp hours of battery might be enough to last you two weeks out in the bush, but that 30 litre water tank may not.
- Bed Access – typically campers have a main bed, double or queen, that can be accessed either from the head or foot, or from one side. If you have a significant other, this is not a decision to make alone.
- Orientation – Side fold, rear fold, forward fold. Side folds tend to offer the most floor space when set up, but require odd shaped plots – not necessarily a problem in the bush, can be tricky in the caravan park. Rear folds can usually fit into any spot that can take a caravan. Forward folds take up the least real estate, and most designs feature an internal table & couch arrangement that is perfect for some, but “not camping” for others.
- Setup Time – Do you need to be able to go from just-parked to ready-for-bed in under 10 minutes, or are you happy to spend a couple of hours setting up?
- Kitchen – Most campers these days have some sort of kitchen included, but not all will be plumbed permanently to gas and some may require you to carry the gas bottle from its storage place to the kitchen at the side or rear in order to make a cup of coffee. Is the water from the tank plumbed to the sink? Does it use a 12 volt pump that requires a battery, or is it a hand pump? Can you easily (and safely) access it on the side of the road if you want to make a coffee by the side of the road?
- Accessories – because everyone’s needs are slightly different, you will most likely want to tweak or customise the camper to suit yourself. What can you get for the camper you’re looking at? Is it affordable or are the options exorbitantly priced? Keep an eye on your payload figure if you’re adding in extra batteries and second water tanks!