Buying a New Camper Trailer

David Cook — 18 April 2019
Deciding which camper to buy can be intimidating. This guide drills down on the important questions to ask so you end up with your dream setup.

So, you’re here to learn as much as you can before buying a nice new camper trailer. Smart move. An educated journal such as this should be part of your research, as should the wider internet, talking to existing owners and hiring a few different formats and brands.

Still, it’s hard to have confidence when there’s so many choices. The decision is far from black and white. It’s the small things you could easily overlook that require the most vigilance; because, as they say with marriages, it’s not the big things that cause them to fail; it’s the accumulation of all the little things.

All campers will claim to be the easiest, most convenient, best value, best equipped, most comfortable, roomiest... it’s hard to hear the truth through all that noise. But if you keep a few vital considerations in mind, and don’t allow yourself to be rushed, you can ensure you end up with the camper that’s right for you.


DRAW UP A LIST

Give some thought to the type of camping you expect to do and then draw up a list of what you want and don’t want in your new camper. Ask yourself:

  • Does it have to be Australian made or are you happy with imported?
  • Do you want an external kitchen?
  • Do you require genuine offroad capability?
  • Does your tow vehicle require extra room to open the rear door? (Remembering that some brands offer drawbar extensions).
  • Does the bed have to remain made between setups?
  • How difficult will internal access be on the roadside if you need something urgently?
  • Can you use and fully open the camper while it remains hitched?

These are just some of the questions you will need to answer.


DESIGN

A major consideration is what sort of camper suits you. All types have their strengths and weaknesses. 

Sidefolds are largely out of favour, but are ideal for families because of their generous carrying capacity, and, despite all that canvas, some recent designs are very quick to erect.

Rearfolds were once considered top of the line. They are relatively quick to erect, though they do often have less storage capacity than sidefolds.

Forwardfolds are currently very popular, but in most cases have poor storage, no internal access on the roadside (unless you’re prepared to fully set up the tent), are heavy (some imports are reportedly over 1800kg empty), and have very exposed under-awning areas because of the height of the awnings.

Hybrids are another strong growth area but can be heavy (especially imports) and expensive.

Pop-tops which are cranked up by hand usually depend on cables and pulleys, and there are many stories about them failing. If the roof goes up or the back or front opens out automatically make sure there’s a manual override capacity in the case of electrical or component failure.

Campers with pull-out beds protrude the sleeping person out into the environment with limited thermal protection, so if it’s very cold or very hot outside you’ll feel it inside, even with tropical roof protection.

For those thinking that small is better, look into pod-type campers, or teardrops, or one of the smaller forwardfold or sidefold designs. These can be light, well-equipped and very capable in all circumstances.

An important issue is storage. Most camper manufacturers will boast about how much storage they offer, but you are likely to find much of this is in big lumps. Where do you put little things? Look for pockets and drawers that allow you to carry smaller items without having to dig through large lockers or storage bays.


CONSTRUCTION STANDARDS

If you’re no expert on welding or mechanical design, assessing construction can be challenging. If you know someone who is and you’ve narrowed your choices down, take them along to a show, pay for their entry ticket and give them a good day out at your expense. It will be a good investment.

Look for smooth welds that haven’t been ground down (this would imply that it was sloppy to start with) with what appears an even flow of weld into the join. Feel cut edges (especially on kitchens) to make sure they aren’t sharp such that they could cause injury. Look for an absence of little dags and bumps in any galvanising to indicate a good job. Make sure rubber bushes are not crushed. Look for nyloc nuts or spring washers on all bolts to ensure bolt and nut don’t part ways. Look for grommets wherever cables enter and exit holes.

Check to see if painted surfaces have primer underneath. Galvanising of a chassis is better but can add a lot of weight or distort a frame, so take care.

Do the hatches and doors seal properly? Sadly you will only know for sure after you’ve been out in the rain and the dust. Still, look for hatch doors that are well braced and not flexible.


WEIGHTS AND MEASURES

A camper weighing more than 1500kg Tare is very heavy. It will eat up your fuel, limit where you can tow and put extra strain on your tow vehicle’s mechanics, especially the gearbox and rear drive. Many import campers are 200 to 300kg heavier than their locally built equivalents. A decade ago a 1000kg camper was considered heavy, but with all the equipment that’s now considered “necessary” the extra weight is to a degree unavoidable. Some smaller campers can be quite light though, without being flimsily built. Note that any camper over 2000kg GTM will require a breakaway system on the drawbar.

Check load ratings on axles and bearings to make sure they will do the job.

Look for a good carrying or load capacity (the difference between the Tare and the GTM or gross limit). Don’t accept less than 300kg and preferably make it 400kg or more. Make sure the ball weight is around 10 to 15 per cent of the camper weight.

If you want to go offroad be wary of campers that are wider than your tow vehicle, to avoid knocking the corners off on trees.


SUSPENSION

Do you really need that fancy independent suspension? For all practical purposes a good leaf spring set up is fine, but these days you won’t really get any choice as an independent system is considered the standard. An air bag system is great but adds expense. 

Multiple shocks were once considered better because the failure of one didn’t leave you stranded, but they are of necessity smaller shocks; the thought these days is that larger single shocks are less affected by heat and are therefore best.

Replaceable stub axles are good but only of real value if you’re carrying a spare. Electric drum brakes are fine, and while disc brakes are notionally better at dissipating heat they do suffer from issues like stones jamming under the brake pads. Avoid mechanical brakes if possible. They work fine in most circumstances but are noisy, soon overheat on downhill drives and are a nuisance if you have to do lots of reversing.


CANVAS

There is a slowly growing anti-canvas mood within camping as people find its care and the need to clean and dry it a burden. It gets hot inside on sunny days and cold at night, but the reality is the alternative (the thermally better solid walls of a hybrid) is expensive and pushes you into a whole different style of camping.

You will need a tropical roof or thermal blanket for the top of your tent. Make sure the canvas isn’t unnecessarily heavy (12 ounce roof and 10 ounce walls are fine), not just because of weight but also because heavy canvas makes setting-up and packing-up of the tent harder. Ask if the canvas weight includes the waterproofing.

As a side not, make sure to check what’s included in the price. We saw a camper recently that was many tens of thousands of dollars that didn’t supply ropes or pegs – you had to supply your own – nor did it supply gas bottles. 


SETUP AND PACK-UP

We have seen campers with over 30 spreader bars, poles and braces necessary for a full awning set-up, and while you might be prepared to live with this for an extended stay, it could drive you crazy if you are using the camper for overnighters.

For a fine night in the desert you wouldn’t need an awning but if you’re there for a few days and need shelter, you should have the option of a quick travel awning that goes up with less than five or six poles. The fewer the better, within practical limits.

And you shouldn’t have to be adjusting and resetting every internal tent hoop at every setup. For forwardfolds and rearfolds you should only need to be adjusting one hoop and maybe inserting a couple of uprights or (in the case of heavy weather) spreader bars.

Ask for a full demonstration of setup and pack-up with these considerations in mind.


SLEEPING

Look at the sleeping arrangements. Is bed access easy or difficult? Does it require you to climb a ladder? Are you happy with a rooftop type tent? Are you happy with a foam mattress or do you insist on an innerspring? Are there reading lights? Do you have to climb over your partner to get in or out of bed?

Do you have somewhere to put glasses, books, tissues, torch, phone and other personal items adjacent to your head when sleeping? There are many campers which have nothing, or just a tiny canvas pocket, which means those items may fall into awkward spots or scatter in the night.


KITCHEN

Kitchens are important, especially to the cook. Is the kitchen easily accessed? How is the access to pantry storage? If external, how easy is the kitchen to pull out? Does it require more than two hands to easily pull it out? Does it need a support leg underneath and if so how easy is it to insert? What’s the food prep space like? Does it face the cook away from others under the awning, thereby isolating them?

Is the cooktop properly sheltered from a breeze? Low pressure gas cookers can lose a lot of their heat and therefore efficiency to wind. Does the cooktop have a large burner? Having all small burners can result in lengthy cooking times for things like a saucepan of potatoes. 

How big is the sink? Large sinks will use a lot of water. Is there an electrical water pump and a mixer tap for hot and cold water? Is it handy to the rest of the kitchen?

Where is the fridge located? An externally accessed fridge requires an external awning in bad weather, or else you’ll be out there with an umbrella and torch looking for the milk. A fridge that can be accessed internally gives you options, regardless of weather. An upright fridge will consume much more electricity because it will spill so much cold air every time the door is opened, whereas a chest-type fridge requires more digging around to access what you need.


ELECTRICALS

Don’t overlook electronics. How many batteries do you get as standard? What size and type are they? People turn away from lithium batteries because of the upfront expense, but lithiums will last you much, much longer – plus they’re lighter, charge more quickly, sustain their voltage all the way to flat and therefore work more efficiently with running appliances and have a greater capacity.

Is solar included? Portable glass-fronted panels are heavier and more awkward to carry than blankets, but less expensive. Permanently mounted panels will limit their value as your camper can’t just be moved whenever necessary to align with the sun or avoid shadows.

A DC-DC charger is a necessity today, to offset limitations imposed by low voltage or “smart” alternators in tow vehicles, and just to give your battery a chance to return to around 100 per cent capacity (an alternator, even a good one, won’t get you much above 70 per cent on its own). Look for DC-DC systems that double as a solar regulator.

An inverter is handy for charging items such as computers, camera batteries and other electronics. A unit of around 350 watts should cover most requirements. If you want to run air conditioners or microwaves you’re going to need pretty heavy-duty systems that few will offer, other than as specially quoted options. Don’t take less than a pure sine wave inverter, as a modified sine wave or less will kill your batteries or any sensitive electronics.

Make sure there are USB charging points included as almost everything today requires USB charging.


WATER

How much water is enough? That depends on your plans, but 100 litres should be your minimum. It’s probably better to have two smaller tanks than one large tank to better distribute weight and reduce losses if you tear off a hose or spring a leak.

With a heavy wall poly tank there’s no need for a stoneguard. Stainless steel tanks can suffer from fracturing unless given enough internal baffling and the right sort of welding and construction.

Internal ensuites are popular in hybrids, but add weight and take up a big chunk of space. If you have a shower setup, you will want extra water capacity but this can be extended by a water syphoning capacity that can draw water from an external source. Many hot water systems have this feature.

Hot water will add from $2000 to $5000 if a permanent fitting. Diesel is popular, but will consume electricity when running, while gas, especially the portable instant units, has become increasingly popular in the $20,000-$30,000 segment of the market, but will require some setting up for each use.

Look for an external tap to wash hands if packed up and an external shower head to wash off sand and salt before you go inside.


AT THE END OF THE DAY

Your ultimate decision will be largely governed by your budget and the amount of research you’re prepared to invest. Ask to visit the factory or warehouse if possible, as this can tell you much about the products of a business and give you insights into construction methods and standards.

Don’t be rushed – it’s a lot of money no matter how much it is – and make the purchasing as much of an adventure as your future trips in your camper will be. 

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Photographer

David Cook