The day our beloved hard-floor Odyssey camper trailer was declared a technical write-off following a traffic accident and towed away to that big campground in the sky was a very sad one indeed. Being thrown back into the market for a replacement, over a decade after our first foray, presented an overwhelming array of options that were just not available the first time around.
In looking for her successor, new-for-old wasn’t an option – they don’t make that style of Odyssey anymore. Almost ten years on our circumstances, and tolerance for packing up wet canvas, had changed too. Finding our new perfect match was going to be a slightly different ball game.
What had previously been passing glances at camper trailer and caravan reviews in magazines now became serious studies in needs and wants. Having so many years of travelling experience behind us, it was quite a different process to when we first lost our trailer virginity. We knew what worked for us and what didn’t; we weren’t dazzled by the checker plate cladding and fancy paint jobs. Strength, quality and a design that understood the needs of remote campers were top of our list.
The non-negotiable was that the new unit had to be off-road capable. We weren’t planning on just staying in caravan parks, we wanted something to get us to the remote places we’d rather be. And when we got there, we wanted to be outside enjoying it, cooking under the stars, not sitting inside watching satellite television in a lounge chair. As soon as you look for real outside cooking facilities (as opposed to a drawer for a Baby Q) most of the caravans, off-road or not, get struck off the list.
We were looking at a big investment, so we were also keen to future-proof our purchase as much as possible. We spoke with like-minded travellers who were at different stages of life to us to see what had changed for them. Not necessarily having to accommodate the kids indoors was a big thing. Already our kids were getting all grown up and independence in a swag or tent was starting to press their buttons more than bunking in with Mum and Dad.
Time for a hybrid upgrade
Another big consideration was how much longer we’d be able to tolerate canvas, as well as have the associated physical strength and dexterity required to pack and unpack it. At present it wasn’t an issue but would likely become one quite a while before we were ready to down tools and succumb to stationary life. True future-proofing would require serious consideration of the physical capacity our future selves would have for the set-up and pack-up.
Taking just those few points into consideration significantly reduced the number of options available, and the 'hybrid camper' category emerged strongly. They generally sleep two comfortably (though some can squeeze a couple more in with a bit of shoehorning), and they have some indoor facilities, but meal preparation and cooking are predominately outdoor activities. Each model then varies slightly in what features they offer and where these are located. The search was on.
Build quality, size and weight become more and more important the further offroad you intend to travel. If you plan to stick to the bitumen and the occasional gravel road, you can get by with a standard build. But when you plan to torture your camper trailer like we do, expecting it to follow wherever you're game enough to point your 4WD, a robust build is essential. Dodgy welding goes from being simply unattractive to downright dangerous. Under-body protection prevents disasters like dropping all your water when a pipe cracks from a stone hit. Good suspension goes a long way towards keeping everything on track and not shaken to pieces. Less visible things like dust proofing aren’t always noticeable on the bitumen but spend a day on the gravel and it becomes an essential feature (unless you have a cleaning fetish in which case nirvana is yours). As to things that leak when it rains, let’s not even go there.
What is a hybrid?
Size and weight dictate where you can go. I don’t care how much checker plate they put on it, a 30-foot-long 4.5 tonne caravan is not ever going to be truly off-road capable. This is where the more compact hybrid camper trailers come into their own. They are relatively smaller and lighter, and manage to do away with a lot of canvas whilst still packing in a lot of features.
Size significantly affects the possible layout, and what gets included is really down to personal preference. Will you be sitting down to eat inside the trailer or outside? Do you prefer to cook indoors or outdoors or both? Where do you want your fridge? What size and orientation of bed? Can it be left made up? Where is the storage and how much? Cupboards or drawers? Internal or external ablutions? Permanent or porta-potty style? If these are external, can you access them from inside the trailer, or will you be streaking? Do you need space for the kids to sleep inside for a while yet?
Then comes features, which would have to be the most subjective category of all. This is where budget restraints really bite and you have to be ruthless and realistic with what are needs and what are wants. Do you need a fully enclosable annex and ground sheet, or will an interchangeable side wall be enough? How long will you be off-the-grid and what does this mean for extra water carrying capacity and power options? What things are best fitted during the build, and what can be added on later? One gas bottle or two? Heating, cooling, washing – the options on the want list can be endless.
We haunted showrooms and caravan and camping shows, flitting from one camper trailer to the next, comparing and contrasting. We interrogated sales people and other owners. We trawled the internet and chat rooms and blogs of many manufacturers. How were they built? Where have you taken it and how did it hold up? What options were you glad you had fitted or in retrospect wish you had done? Is it a comfortable all-weather unit? As in can you ride out a few stormy days in comfort or will you be fleeing for dryer climes?
The pressure's on
Investing in this level of camper isn’t a decision to be taken lightly. If you’re like us it’s likely to require a serious chat with your friendly bank manager before you take the plunge. So you want to make sure you make the right decision, and it remains the right decision for many, many years to come. Once you’ve done all the research and chosen the new camper that looks right for you, there’s one final important thing to look into: what is the after sales service like?
A well built trailer should have very low failure rates, but even the most rigorously tested won’t have encountered every conceivable condition, so things do occasionally go wrong. A good manufacturer will respond positively to warranty (or even more tellingly, out-of-warranty) claims, viewing them as opportunities to improve their product; they’ll respond positively and in a timely manner. That’s not saying that they should just fix everything, but a helpful attitude, genuine care factor and thoughtful suggestions go a long way.
That said, good after sales service shouldn’t be a safety net for a poor build. A camper trailer should fulfil its marketing and promotional claims, and the customer expectations generated by these. Even if the manufacturer patches up your supposedly offroad capable camper after every trip, the relationship will eventually become rather strained. On the flip side, you need to make a selection which is fit for purpose and not expect a unit to perform beyond what it was designed for. We will always hold in high regard the sales rep who, upon hearing where we intended to travel, politely told us that their product wasn’t the right one for us.
There is no one perfect camper trailer that will suit everyone; we all have different needs and wants and even these change over time. Having a clear idea of how you camp and where you want to go will allow you to sift through the smorgasbord of different camper trailers on offer to find the one that suits you best, be that for right now, or maybe as your (hopefully) forever camper trailer.
For us, after extensive research, comparing, umming and ahhing, it was build quality, layout, features and after sales service that saw us back at the same place we started all those years ago when we chose our Oddy – with Australian Off Road Campers.
A happy ending
We knew from our own experience that they knew how to build a trailer that stood the test of time. Winning a customer is hard, keeping them happy over almost a decade when they test your product to its extreme limits is harder still, and yet here we were, back again. The fact that we would often bump into their other models in the remotest areas reassured us that they all shared the pedigree to get us to the places we’d rather be. They seemed to have captured the balance that suited us between strength, weight and features.
Some of our needs with respect to layout had changed from our initial foray all those years ago, while others remained the same: queen sized north/south bed (no climbing over someone in the dark to get in and out); outdoor cooking; space for a toilet / porta-potty; loads of storage; ergonomic kitchen; quick and easy setup; dust- and bug-proof; not much wider or higher than the tow vehicle.
Having now been-there-done-that, we were much more decisive on the features we needed. Extra tanks for loads of water carrying capacity; self sufficient power; two gas bottles (nothing is worse than cooking dinner in the middle of nowhere and having your sole gas bottle run out); wheels and tracking to match the tow vehicle; extra-heavy-duty jockey wheel; wood rack for collecting fire wood. There were quite a few standard features that we considered 'wants' rather than 'needs' – diesel heater, fans, indoor table and seats – but in retrospect these have proven to be features that encourage you to get out camping no matter the weather, knowing that you can easily be comfortable to ride out the storm and still be there to enjoy the place when the weather breaks.
We took the plunge and are now the proud owners of a hybrid camper trailer, Lucy Q4, our new Quantum Series IV Super Camper. I look forward to sharing our travels with you in the future as we see if she can fill her predecessor’s very big shoes and become our new perfect camper trailer match.