Here at Camper Trailer Australia we consider it our God-given mission to put every camper trailer available in Australia though the absolute ringer so our readers can make the best possible decision about where to spend their hard earned cash. In the average year we get our grubby little mitts on something like 60 rigs, hauling each one through a rigorous review process in some seriously rugged terrain to see how it stacks up. Seriously, we're at it all the time.
While there is a range of different markets within the broader camper trailer market, the one that really gets our blood pumping is the serious offroad sector. We're talking hard-core battleships that can withstand the worst any nut job self-appointed explorer can throw at them. As nut job self-appointed explorers ourselves, we're an authority on the matter and know how to sort the boys from the men.
But we're just not satisfied with an unofficial consensus on the best campers in the land; a vague notion; a retrospective analysis. Oh no. We want finality. We want spectacle. We want blood. Well, not bloody exactly, but something akin to what the Romans wanted when they entered the Colosseum all those years ago. The only difference being we wanted our competitors slightly more clothed (for the most part). You say "Boring!", we say "OH and S!" Now pipe down.
Enter Offroad Camper of the Year (OCOTY); a portable Colosseum in which we orchestrated mayhem by gathering together Australia's toughest campers and dangling a trophy in front of them, then sitting back to watch the pandemonium unfold.
In fairness, of course, it was much more civil than all of this, with camper trailer manufacturers amongst the nicest people you're likely to encounter. But underneath all the friendly banter, shared beers and campfire tales of missing appendages, laid a steadfast desire to win. Make no mistake about it, these guys meant business. It was going to be an interesting week.
There can, of course, only be one winner in each category, but the fact remains that every unit present at OCOTY represents the absolute pinnacle of camper trailer design in this country. I won't say something cheesy like "everyone's a winner", because we all know that's not technically true. What I will say is that every camper on test at OCOTY presented a winning prospect for its targeted buyer. Without exaggeration, these were all seriously top shelf rigs. The aim of OCOTY is to showcase the very best of the best; the final title is just icing on the cake.
This year we headed for the hills at beautiful Barrington Tops National Park in the Hunter Region of NSW, around four hours north-west of Sydney. This place of contrasts offered us undulating, golden hills punctuated with meandering creeks (and some very hairy cows), which gave way to unspoilt subtropical rainforest and, as we climbed higher, subalpine woodlands where wild horses played among the snow gums. Not too shabby, eh?
Proving to be not only a landscape of contrasts, Barrington Tops delivered us a rather quirky array of weather conditions, too. We'd planned to kick the event off at Gloucester River Camping Area, but this was foiled by Mother Nature (or Joe Pyromaniac - we're unsure which) who fought us off with bushfire. Not dissuaded, we quickly formed a new plan and, with our air-conditioners cranking, headed into the pleasantly smoke-free northern reaches of the park.
Here we were surprised to find crisp subalpine air, icy despite the pending summer. But that was tolerable compared to the relentless mountain drizzle that descended on the latter half of the trip, interspersed with torrential rain. Confused? We were too. Lucky Barrington Tops is so damned good looking; despite its temperamental nature we were completely smitten. Funny how that works, eh?
Faced with the challenge of testing 11 campers in five days, we broke the group down into four categories: $15-25k, $25-35k, $35k+ and hybrid. The $15-25k and $25-$35k competitors battled it out over the first two days, and we've dedicated this issue to them. The $35k+ and the hybrids threw their weight around over the last couple of days, so stay tuned for the next issue of CTA for all the action on that front.
The lower end of the camper trailer market can be a convoluted battle field of inexpensive products of varying quality interspersed with some top-notch, rock-solid rigs. As an entry point for many new-comers to the wonderful world of camper trailers, this can be confusing indeed.
Fear not, CTA has done the hard work for you by selecting two of the best examples from this field. Both very different campers, the Johnno's Dreamtime Off Road and the Conqueror UEV-345 emerged as the top two candidates in the budget division.
Back in the competition after taking out this category last year, Johnno's presented its entry-level Dreamtime Off Road for the 2013 awards. A lightweight, Australian-made rig with a focus on build-quality and simplicity, the Dreamtime Off Road impressed the pants off our judges with its diamond strength and resulting extreme offroad ability. At just $16,400, it proved you needn't fork out a mint for a quality Aussie-made product, nor should you settle for anything less.
Conqueror, meanwhile, wheeled in some serious artillery in the form of its UEV-345; a serious offroad rig whose army styling accurately conveys its tough fighting spirit and never-say-die attitude. Weighing in at 550kg, the UEV-345 had a serious case of Small Camper Syndrome, ready to smack the smirk off the face of anyone who dared question its abilities. Such an individual would be rendered a fool in any case, because this rig capitalises on every inch of available space and its strength of construction enabled it to dominate the worst that Barrington Tops could throw at it.
But which of these little rippers would claim top honours?
The mid-range camper trailer market is a place where quality Aussie-made rigs really shine. It caters for families looking to get off the beaten track in comfort, as well as those looking to upgrade from their entry-level rig to something with a few more bells and whistles. With such broad appeal it comes as no surprise this was the most hotly contested category of OCOTY, with four premium Aussie-made rigs jostling for prime position.
Mountain Trail entered its Escape softfloor camper into the fray this year, wowing judges with its quality finish and obvious commitment to ease of use. And while we didn't have a spare moment at OCOTY, the boat loader would have been the perfect way to transport a couple of kayaks to explore Barrington Tops' beautiful network of creeks; we saw a few fat trout hiding in there waiting for a bait.
The Adams brothers from Trackabout towed the brand's Safari SV Extenda down from sunny Brisbane; a rig that was almost as gung-ho as the boys themselves with its massive ground clearance and fully independent suspension. Its stylish kitchen and solar as standard demonstrated an eye for detail, while the remote controlled LED lighting served as a handy party trick over a beer at the campfire.
All Terrain once again demonstrated an ability to live up to its name with its new Walk Up Extreme Off Road. Built on a rock-solid trailer, this rig was full of added niceties that hinted at the brand's focus on making camping as comfortable as possible for you and your family. It even allows you to sleep 'under the stars' from the comfort of your queen innerspring - a poetic extra that struck a chord with the judges.
Complete Campsite brought its Jabiru softfloor this year, which certainly wowed us all with its taught, perfect canvas and exceptional finish on every well-placed detail. The Jabiru also signalled the death of the nudie run thanks to its internally accessed ensuite, a feature that a few of us might have welcomed as we copped wolf whistles from the campfire during the towel-clad mad dash.
With four supreme examples of Aussie camper trailer manufacturing on their hands, our judges sure had their work cut out for them determining which would claim the prize. Unsurprisingly, the scoresheet reflects just how tight this category was. Nonetheless there was a winner; turn to page 70 to see for yourself.
We worked hard this year to refine the scoresheet that the campers were judged against, introducing a detailed 10-point system aimed at evaluating the many different components that go into making a truly great offroad camper.
1. Suitability for intended purpose
Judging camper trailers can sometimes be like comparing apples with oranges, with different rigs aimed at different markets - the weekend warrior, families, couples, grey nomads etc. This point allowed judges to assess how well each camper did what it said it would do.
New features and options are highly regarded at OCOTY!
Yes, we made that word up. Basically it refers to how long a camper will sustain you for in the bush. Things like water and power capacity are important here.
4. Quality of finish
The quality of fittings, welds and paint can mean the difference between a good camper and an exceptional camper.
5. Build quality and construction
The structural integrity, engineering quality and durability of the camper's components, including canvas, are assessed here.
Alright, you got us again - we made this one up, too. Clever, aren't we? How well the camper holds up offroad is, of course, one of its most important factors.
7. Specifications and comforts
Let's face it, camping is more like 'glamping' these days, and we're perfectly okay with that. The added extras that make your time in the bush more comfortable are judged here, including the kitchen, bedding arrangements, electronics, hot water etc.
8. Ease of use
Our judges are a lazy bunch, so they were looking for rigs that were quick to set up, and easy to use once erected. Campers with efficient layouts and speedy set up times rated highly.
9. Value for money
We want you to get what you pay for, as well as a tidy resale price if you should ever choose to upgrade.
The hardest point to articulate, here the judge decides if the camper just has that certain something. Call it 'wow factor' if you will, either way, it's important.
STUART 'STUPOT' JONES
CTA's most lovable grey-tinged ranga, Stupot is an OCOTY institution. While all our other judges ventured into this year's soiree for the first time, it was Stu's fourth event, earning him the revered title of Lord Mayor of OCOTY. And boy did he rule with an iron fist! Don't let his quiet, unassuming manner fool you.
When he's not bossing people around at major awards events*, Stu passes his time as circulation manager for the portfolio of magazines published by ACP Trader. Nobody understands what our readers want better than Stu; he is a dab hand at market research and knows what works and what doesn't. He's not an oracle, however, so please refrain from posting him your big life questions. He'll probably just tell you to buy a camper trailer and run away from it all.
Stu's been 4WDing for more than 25 years, and could hammer a tent peg before he could write his own name. He just loves the great outdoors and gets amongst it as much as possible. Stu reckons there is no more comprehensive way to fulfil your dreams of an off-the-beaten-track adventure than by hitting the road with a camper trailer in tow. We don't dare disagree.
The only thing that Nick Mannell likes more than Wild Turkey American Honey is drinking Wild Turkey American Honey by a campfire in the middle of bloody nowhere. He started camping and 4WDing as a youngster and quite literally hasn't stopped since, having forged a career out of his love for all things with four wheels. A mechanic by trade, Nick cut his teeth getting dirty on the underside of vehicles before opening his own business in 1996; Mannell Motors in the Hills District of Western Sydney. Not content with just one successful, petrol-scented operation, Nick later opened ARB Penrith in 2006, a move that ultimately led him to CTA.
As a major sponsor of OCOTY, we asked ARB which of their team members they reckoned would make the most qualified, scrupulous judge at the event. Without a moment's pause they answered, Nick Mannell.
Nick loves being out in the bush exploring the most remote corners of the country, so you can imagine how hard we had to twist his arm to convince him to spend a week playing silly buggers with the best campers in Australia at the delightful Barrington Tops National Park.
Anita is a freelance photographer and graphic designer with over 20 years' experience in print media. As an Adelaide girl, Anita often caravanned with her family at The Coorong and on the Fleurieu and Yorke peninsulas.
Anita's first car was a 1971 short wheel base Series 2A Land Rover, which she punted around the dunes of Port Victoria on South Australia's Yorke Peninsula, much to the distress of other Toyotas and Nissans that lacked the flexibility of the smaller Landie. Her latest Nissan Patrol marks the seventh 4WD she has owned and the most capable by far.
Anita also cut loose from her job in 2011 for the big lap with Mike. Their travels were followed throughout the year in CTA, with the best destinations featured each month.
An active member of her local 4WD club, Anita is a self-confessed offroad junkie with a wealth of experience under her belt. In addition to her bubbly nature and endless enthusiasm, Anita brings a discerning lady's eye to the judging of OCOTY.
Mike is a qualified accountant who, like many people, grew up holidaying in a Jayco camper with a roof top tinnie, exploring beachside holiday destinations like Eden and Mallacoota.
An interest in exploring places off the beaten track led to his first foray into offroad softfloor camper trailers. Over the years he and wife Anita have progressively updated their trailers to accommodate their growing needs, advancing to a hardfloor camper and, more recently, to a hybrid.
Mike quit his job in 2011 to travel around Australia with his wife Anita, and traversed the continent picking up WA's far south coast, the Pilbara, the Kimberley, the Top End, the Gulf, Cape York and down the east coast. They also managed to pick up the Tanami Track to Alice Springs and the old Ghan Line to Mt Dare to cross the Simpson Desert.
Since returning from his lap Mike has been a regular contributor to CTA, reviewing camper trailers and products and writing stories from his travels. He is a member of the extended CTA family, and was invited to OCOTY for his hands-on experience and knowledge of what works on extended offroad trips.
JOHN 'BEAR' WILLIS
John joins CTA with a strong pedigree. Better known as Bear for his propensity to dole out bear hugs, John is also famed for his boating escapades through the pages of CTA's sister magazine, TrailerBoat.
Bear is no stranger to the world of offroad adventures. He has enjoyed camping since he was a wee cub and has had various campers and caravans throughout the years. He was also trained as a boat builder, gaining experience in fibreglass, timber and canvas construction with a critical eye for detail.
In yet another life he was responsible for developing a very successful range of industrial trailer mounted machinery and hence is well qualified to comment on engineering quality. John is acutely aware of the attributes that will see a trailer perform through the rough stuff.
Our cuddly Bear likes his creature comforts and has little patience for poor design and intricate assembly procedures. Bear brings a fresh attitude to OCOTY, and knows how to evaluate products that combine all the essential elements while still presenting great value for money.
Like what you see? Check back next week as we walk you through the various contenders.