When we set out to buy a new camper trailer, most of us start with at least a broad image of what we want. Maybe we’ve seen a particular camper we really liked the look of in Camper, on a video or at a campground. Maybe it was nothing more than a glimpse of a trailer being towed the other direction on the motorway, maybe we got a few seconds to look it over when we stopped next to it at a set of lights. Whatever the source of our inspiration, there are a bunch of features we’d love to say were a part of our very own new camper. These are usually prompted by glossy pictures on the internet and in magazines and which logic seems to insist are worth paying money for.
But do you know that many of these features could or, in fact, probably should be left out of your camper if you are seriously looking at a proper offroad survival machine, or just a fun weekender?
What we’re talking about here are those features that reduce the duration and flexibility of your time off the grid. These are things that consume more water, squander gas, waste your time and energy, or make life more difficult when what we’re ultimately talking about here is enjoying ourselves. Take a look at these ideas for starters.
From the days of Ford versus Holden around the Mountain at Bathurst or hyper-sports cars costing a major slice of a million dollars we have it drummed into us that big technical tyres are the go. We see them representative of a tough persona, able to deal with all emergencies, capable of handling whatever life throws at us.
On your 4WD it is arguable that that might be the case, though if you take a look at the offroaders of the locals when you get out into the bush they all have relatively narrow rims and tyres because for most of the time that’s what works and is most cost effective. The ones with big rubber and wheels are usually the blow-ins from the big smoke.
An aggressive tread pattern on a camper tyre is pointless. On a car it enables a tyre to get a grip in heavy sand or mud and to help push/pull you through to solid ground, but on a trailer a tyre is basically just something to keep the rim and camper from dragging on the ground. A chunky tread pattern will simply do a better job of picking up stones and gibbers and flinging them about under the trailer, resulting in more stone damage and the potential of clobbering a vehicle travelling the other way or following too close behind.
Forget about what looks good, think about what actually works.
HOT AND COLD PLUMBED TAPS
It’s nice to think that we can take all the comforts of home with us when we go camping. Whether it’s our favourite inner spring mattress, a heater, an air conditioner, filtered water tap, lithium batteries and a huge array of solar to supply a seamless flow of electricity or a full range of high tech entertainment and communications gear, these days we want it all. One of the most common of desires is plumbed hot and cold water in a mixer tap at our kitchen.
It seems a simple enough desire, to have hot and cold water available at your sink, but how much water do you waste every time you want some hot water from that tap? The water in the hose from the heater system — which may be up to five metres away from the tap as the hose has to run — began to lose its heat the instant the tap was last turned off and will likely be cold when you turn it on next time, so you run that water out into the sink while you wait for the hot to arrive. If, minutes later, you want cold water you may have to run the hot out of the line to get rid of it while you await the cold.
If you give me an argument that either of these scenarios only happens once or twice every day then you’re also giving me an argument that for those one or two occasions it’s essentially just as easy to boil a kettle — your water will be hotter so you’ll use less of it and your tank full of water will last longer.
Save water, boil a kettle.
A big sink in a stainless steel kitchen looks just like your designer kitchen at home, but have you ever thought about how much water it takes to satisfy a usable depth? A standard sort of camper sink has a bowl size of around 370 x 370mm. To fill it to a depth of 100mm will require 11 litres of water. If you reduce that sink size to 320 x 270mm that 100mm depth will require approximately 8 litres.
It’s unlikely any camper manufacturer will want to fiddle with the size of their campers’ sinks but if your camper choice comes with a large bowl in the kitchen it’s a smart idea to get yourself a smaller plastic tub that you can drop in the space. There might be the odd large pan or pot that will be a little more difficult to wash up in the small volume sink but you can make reasonable savings in water with a smaller sink.
A four-burner cooktop might appear impressive, but if you look at them they are usually equipped with quite small burners that are required to fit them all in the limited space that’s available (we’re not talking about domestic cooktops with heavy cast iron grills over the burners). Small burners on a regulated low pressure gas cooktop can be of advantage if you just want to sustain heat in something you’re cooking, but if you have a large pot of water to boil a mass of pasta or a large wok you’ll find them next to useless.
It’s much more practical to have two or three reasonable size burners that can do a decent job of heating the items you want to cook.
9KG GAS BOTTLES
It would seem on the surface that two — or even one — 9kg gas bottles would be better than two 4.5kg gas bottles. However, the issue with 9kg bottles is that they are large and heavy. And having a single bottle, of any size, has the risk that if you run out of gas then you have no reserve. With two bottles you can run one bottle to fully empty then switch to your spare bottle while you await the opportunity to refill the other.
A 9kg bottle when full is heavy and is just that much more difficult to handle when removing from or inserting it into its mount. A 4.5kg bottle will still last you many days of use unless you’re cooking, heating water and space all with gas and is much more easily managed when refilling. The simple safety requirement of mounting gas bottles on the front of a camper, away from the risk of the camper being rear-ended in traffic, means that extra weight in fittings such as gas bottles will feed into excess ball weight and ultimately the load on the tow vehicle’s rear suspension.
Keep it small and keep it simple.
A huge area under canvas may look impressive but, let me assure you, handling a large amount of canvas when wet is no easy or pleasant task. Before you rush to buy the biggest possible tent, think about the number of poles, ropes and spreader bars required to support it, all of which have to be carried somewhere and erected and packed away at each camp. There are also limitations placed on where you can camp simply by having a larger footprint, and you will realise that a more modest tent that permits a comfortable degree of shelter is usually a preferable option.
A smaller tent is a lot less work at any time.
DUAL SPARE WHEELS
It looks kinda cool to have two spare wheels on the back of your camper, but is it really necessary? Touch wood, but this author has never had to replace a blown tyre on a camper despite many tens of thousands of kilometers of travel on corrugations, gibbers, sand and dirt tracks because I take care with tyre pressures and don’t try to run heavily worn tyres in extreme conditions.
So why are there so many campers with dual spares? The answer, generally, is simply because they can. These are generally imported campers, where government subsidies in the country of origin permit wheels to be landed here for prices way under the cost of local replacements and if you want to reduce an otherwise excessive ball weight a simple option might be to counterbalance it with a second spare on the rear. Do you see AOR, Complete Campsite, Ultimate, Patriot, Vista, Cub or other leading Australian brands with two spares? The short answer is no, because if you match wheels with your tow vehicle (highly recommended) you have two spares anyway, and one spare rim with tyre will weigh around 25kg, plus the weight of the mounting, so that’s a big chunk of weight you can remove from your overall trailer mass.
Less is more in spare wheels.
On the topic of household comforts in a camper, a king size bed is one that is right up there. The bed space may seem worth it when you come to getting some sleep, but if you like to have the interior of your camper looking good — in case somebody drops in on your campsite — or just like to keep things ship-shape then that will mean making the bed each morning and that’s when you might begin to think a queen sized bed is a better option.
Once again weight is a collateral gain, but the big advantage is the room down each side of the bed. A king sized mattress is defined as being 183cm wide, which pretty much is a wall to wall dimension for the interior of any camper. That means that the mattress is hard up against the sides of the camper. If you don’t make the bed each day it might not matter to you, but if you are the one who gets to tuck the sheet/blankets in each day you’re soon going to decide that the more practical option is a queen sized mattress (153cm wide), which will give you 10cm down each side which can profitably be used for smaller item storage (glasses/books/tissues/torches/medications/water bottles and other items which will make your life easier).
Once again, less is more.
HUGE STORAGE BOXES
If you look at most camper trailers they have a storage box on the front where all manner of items live: spare canvas, ropes and pegs, tools, axe, ground cover and so on. Given the almost endless list of things which you might want to carry it might seem obvious that the bigger the better. However, smart camper manufacturers will tell you that they put limits on the size of the storage boxes they supply because the bigger the box the more “stuff” you will carry — that’s a natural law as profound as the laws of gravity or evolution — and that means excessive ball weight, loads on the tow vehicle suspension, threats of GTM weight limits and stresses on the camper’s construction.
Listen to what these smart people tell you and learn to limit what you carry. Life will be much happier.
It’s unlikely that in 2020 you’re going to come across too many campers with beam axles — unless you’re buying a true budget trailer or one from South Africa, where beam axles are still popular — but if you are at the lower-priced end of the market, or are shopping around for something that’s second hand, don’t panic if what you see doesn’t have independent suspension. There is little that’s wrong with a leaf spring/beam axle suspension set-up under a camper trailer, and they do in fact have some advantages. They can be fixed easily just about anywhere they break (compared to your fancy limited-run trailing arm independent) and once set up won’t go out of adjustment and scrub tyres. They can take you pretty much anywhere you want to go in perfect safety and functionality. Don’t let a beam axle put you off.