The logic of buying a budget-conscious camper is infallible. Buying anything within tight financial constraints is a tried and tested process. We’ve all been there, be it with cameras, bikes or similar pricey items. You don’t go out and drop ten grand on a camera if you’re not entirely sure you’re going to fully embrace the photography lifestyle. No, most of us start off with an entry-level model before committing to the full setup. It’s the same process with a camper trailer. First you have a good think, then perhaps you kick a few tyres, ask a few questions, talk to Joe Bloggs down the street. Next you purchase an affordable camper, test it out with kids, friends, family and whoever else you see as being future camping buddies. Then, if the benefit to your lifestyle takes off like a frog in a sock, you simply upgrade to something more substantial. Sounds straightforward. But is it?
After years of careful camper trailer observation, we’d like to suggest that designing a budget-conscious camper is perhaps the trickiest conundrum faced by manufacturers. Think about it. How would you go about designing then developing and marketing an affordable camper? Consumers testing out something for the first time tend to want everything at once. If they’re into buying an entry-level product and, at the same time, harbour an ambition to one day really frighten the horses by slapping down some serious coin for something with all the bells and whistles, it stands to reason they’ll want to sample as much as possible, straight away. It’s for this reason, in our opinion, why many affordable campers are fully loaded-up with features that are perhaps superfluous for initial objectives. Is an abundance of features on an entry-level product too much?
People want to experiment with everything, we get it. As well as having fun, they want to learn as much as possible, as quickly as possible. This makes it hard to stick to the low-low price that, at the crux of it, is the fundamental quality for anyone with budget-conscious economics front of mind. So, has this fundamental aspect of budget-end campers — the price — shifted slowly upwards in order to allow manufacturers a way to squeeze in every conceivable feature under the sun?
EVERYTHING INCLUDING THE KITCHEN SINK
Back in the day, as any seasoned aficionado will tell you, the first camper trailers were simple conversions of box trailers that handy tooled-up blokes designed and built in their home sheds. Indeed, this grassroots home-style camper design and construction still continues apace. It’s just that it has been totally swamped by full-throated consumer demand for more product than home-builders can satisfy. If you ask many well-known manufacturers how they started in the camper trailer game, they will tell you variations of the same story: “well, I made one for myself, then a friend wanted one, then another friend, then a friend of a friend…”. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Back then, the designer and builder knew exactly what they wanted because they were their own customer. To this day, in their quiet moments alone, many will tell you they still talk to themselves. “No, I don’t want a pop-up coffee-maker!” you might overhear them yelling to no one in particular.
The mere act of them bothering to make an entire camper with their bare hands says enough of their motivation to take up the lifestyle. But even if, after all the hammering and swearing late into the night, they later decided they weren’t into it, at least they had the satisfaction of having made the thing.
Today the landscape is much-changed. Massive consumer interest in family-focussed adventure holidays has put a spotlight on the entry level camper trailer like never before and manufacturers have clamoured to fill the demand. But has it become a case of leading a horse to water and then not being able to make the old nag to drink?
BACK TO BASICS
The pioneering home builders of yesteryear, as well as being skilled craftsmen and women, were also, in a way, outdoor-adventure educators. Within their camper planning and designing logic, was and still is an inherent blueprint of what is fundamental for truly satisfying remote camping adventures. They were building for themselves based on lived experience. But can you sell a personal lived experience? One person’s crucial component is another’s infuriating gadget. If you ask anyone who has ever built their own camper, they’ll tell you that it all starts with drawing up two lists: what you need and what you don’t. These two lists, we suggest, are especially important when it comes to building affordable campers. The lists forces you to ask, “What do I really need?”
So what are these fundamentals? We suggest: safety on the tow, a warm shelter from harsh environmental elements, something capable of bouncing along behind a tow vehicle over harsh potholed goat tracks, a place to safely stow-away gear, an ability to power reasonably essential items, such as a fridge and a radio, and a basic means of generating its own power, via battery recharging and solar.
We think that for the rest of 2020 and beyond, we’ll see more campers coming in, old-school style, under $15k. A budget camper has to be a budget camper. In order to be classified as truly budget, we suggest many manufacturers will ditch trying to load up their campers with every feature under the sun and instead go for educating potential customers on what they need and don’t need. Let's not forget: an affordable camper is often a gateway to a world of previously unrecognised outdoor adventure. And it’s getting through that gateway for the first time that’s the important thing.
MARS Endurance — 2020
“The Mars Endurance comes standard with mud-terrain tyres. If the muddies match the tyres of your tow tug in size, type and brand (and preferably rims too), then it may make sense to keep them. If not, and you spend the majority of your time on the blacktop, we’d suggest you opt for a road tyre or one to match the tow tug at point of purchase.
“The Mars Endurance is a fully functional forward folding camper trailer with a 60 month structural warranty. For those keen to discover the outdoors, while maintaining many of the familiar comforts of home, the Mars Endurance offers a family-focussed camper at a price-point that will keep the bank off your back.”
MARLIN Escape Deluxe — 2020
“The Marlin Escape Deluxe is designed around the principle of simplicity. In the arms race to cram as much technology and as many features as possible into a limited space, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that what we are doing here is going camping.
“Marlin hasn’t lost sight. They’re staying true to a back-to-basics theme that keeps camping a low cost, low tech process that gets you out in the fresh air, in front of this country’s greatest natural attractions, with minimal fuss.
“The Marlin Escape Deluxe has all the basics for survival away from the usual trappings of civilisation. The heavy wall poly 60L water tank and a jerry can holder (a second holder is optional) give you over 80L of water capacity, though consumption would need to be carefully monitored. The tank is equipped with a manual pump which ensures minimum water wastage.”
AUSTRACK Simpson X — 2019
“I love expedition-type trailers, because they’re simple and lightweight, yet provide all the necessary items and features you need when wandering far from home. As with everything, some makes and models do it better than others. When it comes to the practical, not-so-glamorous side of this particular expedition-ready camper, you’ll find it offers all you need as far as electricity, gas and water are concerned.
“In sum, the Austrack Simpson X packs well above its weight in what you get for the dollars outlaid. This well-priced, go-anywhere trailer would suit the more adventurous 4WDer and their family, whether they are heading for Cape York or the Canning.”
Starvision Alpha A — 2019
“We took the Alpha A out into the Victorian bush in September. We should have known better. It was wet, it was cold, the ground was, well, yielding. Despite the less than ideal camping conditions, the Alpha A was warm and snug. I happily sat under the annexe in an easy chair reading a book as rain outside pelted the canvas. When weather turns severe, it’s best to let it play its course and put plans on hold. But it struck me, like a bag of frozen peas thrown by an angry lady: Often downtime, enforced or otherwise, is the best part of camping in the bush.
“I have a fond recollection of dozing off in a camp chair underneath the Alpha A’s annexe awning, the sound of rain teeming against the canvas, lulling me off into delightful meditative kip.
“The Alpha A is a perfectly pitched entry-level camper. It’s compact and tight, fitting snugly behind any tow tug. At just 4.6m from hitch to tail light, it shouldn’t be a handful for those relatively inexperienced at towing anything. It’s lightweight and adequately equipped underneath for most offroad escapades and finally, the price. It costs about the same as a mid-spec road bike, just shy of 11 grand. Enough said.”
MDC Explorer FF — 2018
“When it comes to the budget end of the camper trailer market, the order of the day is usually sacrifice. Either sacrifice the basics you need to camp for a well-built base trailer, or sacrifice build quality for a well-specced camper. Imagine my delight then, to see that MDC has managed to strike a balance on this front with its entry-level Explorer forward fold hard floor. At just a lick under $15k, this camper trailer delivers a well built base capable of tackling offroad terrain — backed by a five year structural warranty — making true adventure possible for the budget conscious. That’s a tick in my book. It has a basic but functional electronic set-up, a reasonable amount of storage for a forward fold and plenty of space to accommodate a growing family in the dinette/second bed and the annex which comes with completely enclosed walls and floor. You’ll need to bring a few items of your own — a fridge, gas bottles, jerries — but as it stands this camper promises newbies to the camper trailer world a hassle-free experience exploring the great beyond.”
MARS Rover — 2018
“For years cheap campers were thought to be just that, cheap. Cheap was normally followed up with clarifiers too. Words like cheerful, cost effective, crap. That’s no longer the case, and Melbourne based Mars Campers are one of the front runners in the ‘cheap and actually good’ category. This year they presented their rear fold Rover. At $14,990 it’s one of the least expensive campers of the field, and scraped into the under $15k category by just $10. With an included kids bed, Mars markets the Rover as a family camper, although there’s no permanent second bed so unless you’re bringing bunks the Rover is a strictly two-up arrangement. Swags or inflatable mattresses are an option, although I’d most likely end up there with the kids in the bed. Dad's life right?
“Despite its place in the least expensive category, Mars has thrown in a bunch of freebies which definitely need to be considered when counting your gold doubloons. Free mud tyres and an upgraded kitchen are the big-ticket items, although a set of front mud flaps and bow-shackles also snuck their way in. At 1500kg the Rover’s no lightweight, but does come reasonably well appointed with plenty of open plan living once the side is dropped. With a low-slung profile, plenty of ground clearance, and draped in that oh-so-black paint, the Rover could be the perfect arrangement for adventurous couples or young families on a budget. Mars pride themselves on their upgrade paths too, so the camper can grow as your family, needs, and budget grows.”