For more than twenty years, HEMA has been mapping Australia using a solo vehicle without a trailer, sleeping in a simple dome tent or swag and cooking on a simple gas burner screwed onto a 2.5kg gas bottle.
A trailer was always seen as overkill; a restrictive ‘ball and chain’ on our freedom to explore. Just another axle and set of tyres to protect, a cumbersome weight in technical terrain which would inevitably, one day, lead to us being hemmed-in down a dead-end track with no way to possibly turn around!
But now a trailer has become essential part of all our long-haul mapping adventures, basically for reasons of workplace health and safety, specifically managing GVMs. With all the mapping gear, equipment, tools, food, water, fuel and camping gear we require, there’s hardly a solo vehicle left on the market that has the payload needed for even the most basic of our mapping expeditions. Plus, there’s the big advantage, with a camper, of being able to set it up as a base station from which to conduct trips out to local tracks and sights, then return at night to cook, work and sleep in relative comfort, getting ready for another day of mapping.
So, what does the ultimate expedition trailer look like to us — and does it actually exist?
Here’s the top five things we look for, and won’t compromise on, in our reckoning of the ultimate expedition trailer:
1. Quick setup
3. Offroad durability
4. Compact and lightweight
5. Basic creature comforts
As the old cliché goes ‘time is money’ and in our case, that’s real dollars spent on professional teams and data collection. An extra hour a day to setup and pack down is simply lost time that could be spent collecting or processing data, exploring someplace special or simply getting more sleep. A good touring trailer should take no more than five minutes to set up and ten to pack up. It’s easy to be fooled when looking over new trailers at a show — don’t believe what the salesperson tells you unless they can demonstrate it right there in front of your eyes.
It’s why I’m still such a big fan of simple hardfloor campers. Even when travelling with four young kids, they typically set-up and have everyone in bed at a roadside rest area in under five minutes. The slowest part is getting the sleeping kids out of the car and into the trailer!
You must be able to leave your bedding (including linen) in place during pack-up and know that it will remain dry and dust free as you travel to your next destination. And if the awning or extra room is not already attached to the camper – forget it!
Examples that do this well: Aussie Swag, Terra Trek, Patriot X2 and any offroad hybrid.
Why is it that when we escape to the simplicity of the outdoors we find it hard to let go of all the ‘stuff’ and complexities of city living? Equally, when designing or choosing a trailer it’s all too easy to ‘feature-up’ without considering the consequences that when things start to play up they create a cascading plethora of niggly issues that can easily detract from an otherwise-peaceful outdoor experience.
Simplicity should be an intentional and core design element, so much so that it's a consistently visible aspect across the product and brand. Take a walk around the trailer and look for simple, clean lines and features that are integrated rather than bolted on.
It’s the same reason we use a 70 series Land Cruiser for our mapping vehicles as they are such icons of back-to-basics simplicity and reliability. It’s about taking everything you need and nothing you don’t and choosing a trailer that’s been built with that exact same mindset.
Stop and think about what really goes on in the undercarriage of your trailer while you’re belting along a heavily-corrugated road at 80km/hr. It’s simply obscene and why in my view the strength and durability of a trailer starts and ends with its suspension. Independent swing-arm suspension is a must, for both technical terrain and the enduring slog of outback travel.
We only choose trailers with Australian-designed and built suspension that’s been engineered, tested and proven in our conditions, such as the new Cruisemaster suspension setup on the new Patriot X1. Get this wrong and you’re trailer may soon become the next bullet-ridden ‘signpost’ on the Gunbarrel highway.
Whether it’s a vehicle or a trailer, I always ask the manufacturer and service team what the most common issues are on their product and make sure that I either have spares or that parts are going to be easily accessed if needed. It’s another great reason to go with Australian-made suspension components. Every product has its breaking point, so even with careful driving and smart tyre pressure management, make sure yours is ready to go well beyond how far you intend to push it.
COMPACT AND LIGHTWEIGHT
Think about why kids love playgrounds and adults don’t. It’s a simple case of size, agility and power-to-weight ratio. And just like you don’t want to be stuck in the spiral slide at a MacDonald’s playground you don’t want to be caught head-first down a forested dead-end track or stuck half-way up a hill climb losing traction by the second.
If the trailer is longer than the car you’re going to have a problem negotiating any kind of technical or wooded terrain. Ideally it should be no longer than three-quarters of the length of the tow vehicle, with at least 400mm of ground clearance. But not too high that you can’t see over it or be fully aware of its extremities.
Whether you would actually drive it there or not, picture yourself towing the trailer along the Old Telegraph Track at Cape York or up Billy Goat Bluff track in the High Country. Aside from the engineering stress, steep technical terrain is where weight matters most, as an extra tonne behind you makes climbing and descending a nightmarish experience for even the most experienced adventurers.
Nothing (including the jockey wheel mount) should sit below the trailer chassis except for something very flat like a water tank or spare tyre that can cop a hammering from flying rocks spat up by the tow vehicle or being briefly dragged across bare ground. But you still want the longest drawbar possible as it makes such a difference to stability and high-speed towing as well as ensuring more predictable reversing.
A good night's sleep makes a big difference to your endurance and enjoyment of the trip, so if you’re taking a trailer you may as well enjoy a few creature comforts. A comfortable mattress, good quality canvas, insect screening and a quick-erect awning or room for shade or rain protection are essential features we look for.
A simple but effective kitchen helps with quick and easy food prep. Make sure the fridge and food storage are easily accessible and there’s a reasonably-sized bench that folds down or slides out. Good sized gas burners (installed or portable) are the key to ‘fast food’ on the road, or a roadside coffee break that’s done-and-dusted in less than 15 minutes.
At home, we take reliable, on-tap water and power for granted. On the road, they are precious and essential resources that must be monitored and managed well. You’ll want a large (100+ litres) water tank that’s centrally positioned (so it doesn’t adversely affect your centre of gravity) with simple electric or gravity flow access. Ensure lines or taps are well-protected from stone or stick damage and carry an extra water container in reserve (in your vehicle) for back-up in case you're ever stranded away from your trailer.
Power management is crucial for recharging phones, tablets, cameras and laptops. Thick charging cable between the vehicle and a large-capacity AGM battery ensures there is plenty of power on tap at the end of each day. But, if you’re planning to use the trailer as a base station for exploring further, you’ll need a solar charging solution as well. And with a good quality inverter, BCDC power management unit and gauge installed you can forget about paying the electricity bill ever again!
So, does such a trailer exist? Well, almost. There are a few that come close such as the new Patriot X1, the TERRA TREK, the Ultimate XTERRAN and the Trak Trailer TVAN. Mmm… maybe that could be the next Camper Australia ‘shoot-out’?