Inside Word: Zone RV

Aaron Flanagan — 19 April 2019
Camper catches up with Zone director, Matt Johns, to talk about the brand’s distinctive style and ambitious expedition-focussed vision.

In just a few short years the whole concept of what a camper can be has been flipped on its head. 

Rapid advances in technology have opened up true offgrid touring capability to anyone with the spirit and resolve to plan and execute their own overland expeditions. 

Battery size and cost have made the concept of ‘offgrid capability’ a byword for everyone. And alongside this new-found easy, affordable and reliable energy generation and storage — the central pillar of offgrid, offroad touring — there’s been comparable technological advancement in reliable overland touring information and mapping; similar gains in cheap and effective global communication equipment and proficiency; significant progress in building and distributing networked safety beacons or EPIRBs; and substantial development in serious offroad underbody and suspension engineering. 



All these technology advancements have occurred quickly, providing for anyone who’s keen to explore what’s beyond the bitumen at a level never before been seen in human history. And — similar to every other industry on Earth — the pace of this technological change is only set to increase. 

Into this burgeoning, technology-rich age — less that five years ago — Zone RV, based in Coolum, just south of Noosa on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, came into being. Zone immediately announced themselves as a camper and RV manufacturer with style and high-tech ambition. In just a handful of years, their overland, expedition-style mindset is proving to be a perfect fit for the times. We at Camper think Zone’s mission is no coincidence; their aim of enabling efficient, top-spec, hugely capable forays way off the beaten track corresponds with a statistical uptick in those wishing to take offgrid, offroad touring up a notch. Going confidently off the beaten track in style is what Zone do, and they want everyone to share the ride with them. 

“That’s what really drives us,” Zone Director Matt Johns told Camper recently.

“We love to plan and achieve true offgrid touring; to abandon ourselves in the middle of nowhere. We want to go to places where there’s no-one else around; to lose ourselves in complete and splendid isolation.”

Recent statistics released by Australian camper trailer peak body, the Caravan Industry Association of Australia (CCIA), reveal some interesting insights. While all age groups experienced ‘visitor economy’ growth for the year ending in September 2018, it was the 20 to 29 year-old age group that witnessed the most eye-catching changes in recreational habits, with gains of 16 per cent (300,000 visitors) upon the previous year. 

The term ‘visitor economy’ refers to everything associated with serving ‘visitors’ as they transit through a designated route — accommodation, food, attractions and the like. This 16 per cent gain suggests that more 20 to 29 year olds are opting to use 4WD and camper trailer touring as a preferred means of holiday recreation. Perhaps the European or North American ‘gap-year’ is on the nose? Who knows? 

What it suggests to us at Camper is that domestic overland 4WD touring is perhaps becoming hip, no longer the exclusive domain of grey-nomads and petrol-heads in souped-up rigs.

“Yeah, I’m not entirely surprised,” says Johns in response to these figures, “I mean those older guys sort of realised, before anyone else, how excellent it is exploring what’s in front of our eyes, they are sort of the trailblazers. Without them maybe we wouldn’t know as much about touring our own backyard as we do now.”

As well as the trailblazers, perhaps younger Australians are increasingly turning to domestic adventures rather than heading overseas? Of course at Camper, we understand the fun and satisfaction domestic off-the-beaten-track tourism provides more than most, so we’re hardly surprised. But what is surprising, in a way, is cold, hard, statistical evidence suggesting that more 20 to 29 year olds are hitting the dirt in rig and tow tug.

The time seems ripe to build and sell expedition-ready campers that appeal to an adventurous, devil-may-care spirit; expedition-ready campers that perfectly describe both a culture that resonates with a wider market and one that generates cool ideas, enthusiasm and insight on how to go about exploring parts of Australia previously baulked at.

Enter Johns and fellow Zone Director, Dave Biggar. 

Johns and Biggar first journeyed into splendid isolation while at sea. Both cut their manufacturing teeth building boats. Both their first adventures were aboard yachts and boats, either cruising or racing, so it’s no surprise the creative inspiration behind Zone flows from these experiences: punching through blue ocean swell; dropping anchor in secluded coves; basking in the bliss of being somewhere magnificent, alone and far from another living soul. Having the right equipment and then using it to make a concentrated effort to get lost comes naturally to those who have spent a lot of time at sea. 

When the weather turns unexpectedly foul at sea, it’s confidence in personal capability and in equipment at hand that becomes of paramount importance. Everything else becomes suddenly redundant. And it’s this that drives the Zone mission: to produce the ultimate offgrid, totally self-reliant, tough but beautiful, comfortable overland camping powerhouse.

“Zone’s expedition camper philosophy is akin to how we like our boats — strong and light,” Johns says.

“What excites us about producing truly offgrid expedition-style campers is the same as what excites us about ocean-going boats; both enable access to remote and beautiful parts of the world.”

As well as capability, the other key aspect of ocean-going boats that Zone have transcribed over onto their campers is a requirement for comfort and efficiency. 

On a boat, everything has a place and purpose. Everything must be efficient and ‘ship shape’. If ever crewing on a boat, especially if rough sea and weather are probable, you’ll likely be implicitly aware of the role expected of you, which includes keeping valuable space and equipment tidy, well-maintained and at the ready. And if not aware of these things, the captain will either appraise you of his or her expectations, or throw you overboard.

“People want to be able to get to where they’re going, safely and efficiently, and then kick back and start relaxing. There’s no greater mood-killer than having to fiddle around setting up a campsite and then pack it all up and start the process all over again every time you move,” says Johns. Everything should be at the ready as soon as you arrive at your destination. Johns bristles at the idea of having to stuff about with canvas and poles as the sun sets.

“It’s just not good living,” he says. “Zone wants to create good living conditions, even if you’re far from any roads or services.”

“Some people may not mind having to set up and pack up all the time; the Zone philosophy will not be for everyone, and that’s fine, but we want to create something nimble and immediately ready and agile. We aim for zero minutes set-up and pack away time.”

Indeed, when Camper asked Johns where he saw the future of camper manufacturing heading, he said without hesitation: “convenience and ease of set-up and pack-up”. 

He wants people to use their campers, not be put off by the hassle of prepping, maintenance and then dreading having to move around, from place to place once on the road.

“I mean, people want a high quality product as well — one made with light-weight, top quality super-strong composite materials, no shirking on energy storage and generation, superb offroad engineering underneath and all the comforts of home, but ultimately they don’t want to fiddle around with guy ropes and poles either.”

“We aim to build what the world wants, and we think the world wants high quality expedition-ready campers that are exciting, comfortable and able to go anywhere in style.”

Enough said. 

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