You’ve decided to take the plunge and buy your first camper trailer. The days of arriving at the campground exhausted and yet to unpack the cots, inflate the mattresses and erect the tent are numbered after watching too many others effortlessly unfold their trailer, brew a steaming hot coffee and enjoy the view. You know you just have to have one.
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So what’s holding you back? The matter of budget is the principal hurdle for many. Convincing your partner — or yourself, for that matter — that finding up to $20,000 for a trailer is vitally important. Just how much cash you have to find will depend very much on what you want, which will be determined by what you want to do with it.
A camper for on-road use on the major highways to your favourite campground has a much less demanding life than one intended for offroad. Gibbers and corrugations impose strains on the chassis, suspension components and mounting points for heavy items like tailgates, kitchens and water tanks. That’s not to say a good on-road camper won’t handle a few kilometers of dirt track but you need to take care; lower the tyre pressure to soften the blows and don’t expect to cross the Simpson. An offroad camper will be more expensive, so you’ll need to consider that in your costs.
On a tight budget? Read our guide to the best budget camper trailers.
First and foremost, newbies need to know all camper trailers are not alike, so do your research. You obviously have good taste and enough common sense to read Camper Trailer Australia, so you’re well on your way to making an informed choice. One great way to do this is by attending camper trailer gatherings. Groups like CamperTrailers.org hold get-togethers in most states and are happy for newbies and non-members to attend. Owners are usually more than happy to share their real world experiences regarding their pride and joy and you can pick up all sorts of ideas.
Camping and caravan shows provide a great opportunity to compare all kinds of campers side by side. You can talk to staff and find out what options are available, what features they have, how their product is assembled and from what materials. Many manufacturers offer discounts at shows, which can save you hundreds or even thousands of dollars and/or provide you with attractive extras options free of charge.
By now hopefully you will have made decisions on type of camper — on-road or offroad; softfloor, hardfloor or pop-top — each having its own peculiarities and features.
Softfloor camper trailers
Softfloors can take longer to set up but they also have the most storage and potential room for longer stays, which is great if you have kids. They’re lighter and the cheapest to buy. Softfloors with walk-up staircases and an aisle at the foot of the bed are popular, but few are available in a budget price range as the walkway requires extra engineering and uses more materials.
Hardfloor camper trailers
Most hardfloor models are beyond the means of the budget buyer as the construction and engineering required for the swing-over floor and subsequent tent is expensive. You can pick up some hardfloors for less than $15,000 but only thorough research will determine whether it is truly a good buy. Hardfloors are usually heavier but are quick to set up and pack up.
Find out more about the differences between hardfloor and softfloor camper trailers before you make your decision.
Pop-top camper trailers
Pop-tops often have cooking facilities inside and look like entry-level caravans. This suits some people, but they are often heavier and maybe out of the price range of the budget buyer. If the design requires that you pull the beds out of the ends of the trailer, make sure you can access the front bed with the tow vehicle still attached.
A longer drawbar makes a trailer easier to reverse but requires more care turning corners. A heavy ball weight — the downward weight on the hitch — can stress the vehicle’s towbar. Around 10 per cent of the tare (empty) weight is ideal.
Suspension is very important. In a budget camper you’re most likely to be getting leaf springs, and eye-to-eye is best. Slipper springs where the back of the springs slide in a box under the chassis are acceptable for on-road use but not offroad. If shock absorbers are fitted make sure they’re in line with axle movement. Round tube axles are suitable only for the lightest onroad use.
If your trailer weighs more than 750kg fully loaded (you’d be surprised how quickly it adds up) you must have brakes. Electric brakes are best as they give you direct control over the trailer brakes but they require the tow car to have an electronic brake controller fitted, which will set you back around $400 including installation. Over-ride brakes avoid this but clunk as you brake and can overheat on long downhill runs.
Avoid tents which require many spreader bars and complex set-ups, but look for at least an end wall on the awning to protect the kitchen. A high tent with a steep pitch will drain better in the rain and be cooler in the heat. A gable on the awning front will add protection from the elements. If the bed base tilts for access to the interior, try lifting it. If it’s too heavy for you, why have it? Such bed bases should have gas strut assistance.
You would like to think your new camper has the best possible workmanship for your dollar, but check to make sure. If you aren’t knowledgeable in any of the following areas ask a friend or employ an expert to cast a critical eye over the rig.
Look for clean, smoothly applied welds and take note of any signs of grinding, which is done to correct errors. Look for full welds and not tacked spots on structural components like the drawbar and the chassis. Gussets or supporting pieces in corners or major joins earn a tick of approval.
Mark down trailers where the cutting of the metal is rough and untidy. This doesn’t weaken or diminish the durability of the finished product, but it shows a lack of care and pride in the work.
If the drawbar or chassis isn’t galvanised, look at the paint. Hammertone paint is tougher, powdercoat is better. If you just get plain paint make sure it has primer underneath. If this step is skipped, the trailer can look good when new but as it accumulates stone chips you will end up with spots of rust that can quickly start looking shabby.
If there is wood involved — as there often is — give a tick of approval to screwed and glued joins. Stapled wood joins rarely survive repeated shocks and vibration, and can leave your kitchen and/or interior cupboards or drawers a mess.
The tent is vital to any camper trailer and you want it to be straight and smooth when set up. Sags in the awning or roof will accumulate water in the rain. Look at the sewing. You want quality thread which won’t deteriorate in a year or two. Are stitches evenly spaced? Is the thread similar in thickness and appearance to that in high-end camper trailers? Can you see daylight coming through any of the canvas or around the stitching?
Small points of light around the stitching are common on new tents and disappear after several applications of water when the thread expands in the holes, but large holes will always be a problem. Does it have a zip-out floor for easy cleaning?
The choice of materials is important. Australian-made canvas is among the best in the world and won’t let you down. Recent testing of a sample of an imported canvas by the CSIRO showed it to be 21 per cent below the claimed weight and easily leaked water on the Australian standards water penetration test.
Which wheels and tyres should you get — make sure they’re new — and what sort of hitch? A ball fitting is okay for on-road use but not for offroad.
Is the mattress high density foam or open cell foam? You’re unlikely to get an innerspring mattress on a budget trailer, but a good closed-cell foam mattress can be very comfortable, especially with an ‘egg-carton’ layer on top. You can always upgrade to innerspring when the budget allows.
Look at the hinges on any tailgate or major doors. They need to be sturdy, especially if the kitchen travels on the inside of the tailgate; there’s a lot of weight swinging there. And while you’re looking there, check the dust seals. Automotive pinch welds are the best while self-adhesive foam on one side is the least effective and is likely to let in dust and water. All doors and hatches should lock to secure your trailer’s contents, and latches adjust to ensure they squeeze dust seals tight enough to be dustproof.
What sort of poles are supplied? This is important. Quality aluminium or steel poles can make a difference to your camping experience and you don’t want a tent coming down in the night in a strong wind because the poles have started to bend. While you’re at it, look at the pegs and ropes. Are the ropes long enough to give you flexibility when you’re setting up? Are the tent pegs sturdy enough to live with being hammered into ground with large tree roots or rocks beneath the surface?
The little details of the camper can also make a difference in your final assessment. Is the jockey wheel a fold-up or does it need to be removed for transport?
Are there any electrics involved? If so, what size battery do you get? The higher the number of amp-hours the longer it will last. Also ask about a charger: a smart charger is best. Check the number and type of 12V plugs and lights; you don’t want arid plugs if all your appliances have cigarette lighter type fittings. Where are the power outlets? It’s best to have some near the kitchen as well as some inside the tent.
What do you get for a kitchen? Pull-out ply kitchens are lighter than steel and can have more drawers, cupboards and fittings for the price since wood is easier to work with, but the edges can look dirty after a while. Is there a sink and/or a stove? If there is a sink do you get a tap? How much bench space is there for food preparation? Listen to your partner on this matter as the kitchen is usually a shared space and he or she may hold a different opinion.
Water and gas
What size water tank will you get, if any? 60L should be the minimum, and it should be a heavy wall poly tank or have some sort of stone shield around it to prevent punctures, especially if you want to go offroad. Is the filler point conveniently located? If there is a water tank you will want at least a tap at the kitchen. This will most likely be a manual pump on a budget trailer, but that’s okay; you use less water when you have a manual pump. Is there an external pump to wash your hands after packing up?
Are the gas and water for the kitchen permanently plumbed or do you have to do it each time you set-up? If so, how convenient is it? Do you get a gas bottle(s) or just the rings to hold them? A new bottle will cost you $30-plus. If you don’t get a bottle but have a kitchen that travels inside the body of the camper then make sure you get a properly certified regulator as it is a requirement under the law. Do not accept the sort of regulator you can buy at the hardware store.
These are as important on a busy highway as they are offroad, as stones can accumulate anywhere and you don’t need the rear window of your tow car smashed. Spare tyres that double as stoneguards are not acceptable as tyres can cause bouncing stones.
Do you get a storage box on the front of the trailer? If so, does the lid have a gas strut to hold it open and is it lockable? Are there any other storage lockers along the side of the trailer?
6. Setting and packing up
At a dealer’s premises or at a show have them pack up the trailer for you and set it up. Take note of how long and how many people it takes to put up the tent. Remember, demonstrators are experienced with the product and should be able handle it in a timely manner. As a rule of thumb, a quick set-up for a simple overnighter without any awnings should be achievable in less than 15 minutes.
Also look at the insurance situation for your new camper. There are some trailers which insurers are becoming very wary of, so it won’t hurt to check.
And don’t forget to add into your budget the cost of a towbar on your car if you don’t already have one. Check its suitability if you want to go offroad or tow a trailer with a heavier ball weight.
This sounds like an unbelievably long list to keep in mind, but remember going camping with your trailer is supposed to be a pleasant and enjoyable time. There are many manufacturers out there who can easily tick all these boxes so don’t think it’s an impossible task. A little investment in time now may save you grief when you want to be at your most relaxed.