4x4

What type of offroad camper trailer should I buy?

There is an dizzying amount of choice in offroad camper trailers – so many manufacturers, and so many styles.

WHILE THERE IS A LOT of choice in the camper trailer market, it is possible to roughly categorise them all. Here’s a guide to what’s what:

What is a camper trailer?

A camper trailer is accomodation on a trailer that has some sort of canvas roof or wall. If the walls are solid and fixed in place that’s a caravan. Some caravans have roofs that pop up half a metre or so…these are still know as caravans. The basic tyres of camper trailer are:

Soft floor campers

What it is

These campers fold up and out to form a tent with the trailer as a base. You need to peg out the floor, or maybe just put heavy objects at the side to maintain the shape. They are dependent on having a flat surface to set up on as the canvas takes the shape of the ground. Soft floors can fold out sideways or out the back.

Pros and cons
Soft floor campers are cheap and light, but take extra effort to set up, sometimes more than a tent. You also need a pretty flat bit of ground not just for the trailer but the canvas parts too. However, most of them are very spacious. It is typically not easy to put things on top of the soft floor camper once it is packed away as the canvas doesn’t make a good base for a roofrack, although some do have crossbars.

Hard floor – backward fold

What it is

Same as the soft floor, but there’s a metal floor which folds up and out and that forms your floor. Hard floors can fold forwards or backwards.

Pros and cons
You get a nice hard floor, so if the ground is wet, rocky or uneven that doens’t matter. The hard floor has stands which can be adjusted to compensate for slight uneveneness. The hard floor gives the camper a bit more rigidity than a soft floor when set up so there’s a bit less blowing in the wind, and there’s no pegs to worry about either so it’s much quicker and easier to set up. The hard floor limits the available space, so these units are typically only sleep two. A hard floor is also slightly raised above the ground, handy in the mud and dust or when it rains. However, hard floors are space-limited.

Hard floor – forward fold

What it is

A hard floor camper that folds the bed forwards instead of folding the floor backwards.

Pros and cons

Forward-folds can have internal sofa seating so you can get inside out of the weather, whereas because rear-folds can’t offer that, unless you put camp chairs inside and that takes up room.  Rear folds also require you to ensure the floor is level relative to the ground which may require a bit of messing around with small leveller pins. That’s not a problem with a forward fold.

On the other hand, rear folds have a big flat area near to the ground formed by the floor that flips over. The forward fold takes up less room on the ground so fits into smaller spaces, but as its flip part goes over the front of the unit then access to storage at the front may be restricted, and you may need to unhitch your vehicle to open the back door.

Forward folds can usually convert their lounge seats to beds.

Pop-up camper trailers

What it is

These are a cross between a caravan and a camper. The walls fold away and the beds push in to the centre, then the roof comes down and away you go.  Smaller units have 2 beds, larger have 4. You sleep at right angles to the towcar, so the pop-up is quite wide, wheras the other campers have you sleeping lengthways. There is generally an internal kitchen and a dining table.

Pros and cons
The pop-up camper is spacious, but because of that it’s big and relatively heavy. As the occupants sleep ‘sideways’ it’s also wider than the towcar, both in actual width and width of the wheels. This means it’s harder to tow offroad than the smaller campers as you make two sets of ruts in soft ground, not to mention the greater weight and dimensions. However, the comfort and space can’t be matched by the other designs, and the pop-top is significantly smaller and lighter than a caravan yet isn’t that far off in space. You can also drop the walls in hot weather and get a great breeze through the cabin, unlike any other design.

Caracampers

These are really smaller caravans designed for offroad use. They are bigger, heavier and more expensive than camper trailers, but offer fully-enclosed luxury.

Special designs

There are so many camper trailer designs it’s hard to know when to stop categorising them, but here’s two more:

Tvan
Has a fibreglass shell with a canvas extension and a hard, fold-out floor. You don’t need to erect the canvas part if you don’t want to, just sleeping in the shell. This makes for a windproof camp, and there’s a lot of storage room on the bed when travelling; we tested one and took a pram with us which would otherwise have been impossible to find space for.

Ultimate
The dimensions of a camper trailer yet with an internal kitchen. The height of the roof means you can create an annex underneath.

What to buy when

A soft floor is best when you’re on a budget, need the extra interior space, or want a lightweight trailer. Just be prepared to put in the setup effort.

A hard floor is a good choice if you have the money, don’t need the space, and value the quicker setup, or really need the camper roofrack space.

You must also spend a lot of time researching because there are so many designs and options. Camping and caravan shows are a great place to start.

Things to look out for

  • A proven design – it’s not easy to build a good camper trailer, and it’s not possible to get it right without a lot of testing over many years. You don’t want to be doing that testing yourself. These units will not the be cheapest on the market. A good sign is that an active owner’s group exists.
  • Offroad coupling – you definitely want an articulated offroad coupling, even for minor offroad duties.
  • Maximum weight – the weight you’re quoted by the manufacturer will almost certainly be optimistic. Calculate the real, ready-to-camp weight which will be much greater.
  • Warranty – the correct answer to “where can I tow this and still have it covered by warranty” is “anywhere”.
  • Accessories – the base price is just that. In most cases you’ll need to tick a lot of option boxes to make the camper you really want.
DO35 offroad coupling.
This is why you need an offroad coupling. Even if you don’t try something this difficult, it’s good to know you could.

You can, and should rent a camper trailer or four because all we can do here is give you an idea of the market. Camping setup is a very personal choice, so you must try things out for real before you commit cash and effort into the trailer of your dreams.


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Zachary Tomlinson
6 months ago

Whoa, thank you for this extensive guide about offroad camper trailers! My mom likes camping and I’ve been looking for options regarding which trailer can my dad buy for her as a gift. What you said about how there are campers that can form out a tent while using the trailer as a base is really interesting. I should share this article with my dad so we can pick which one to get.

Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper