When a tent just isn't enough
Summer is winding down, with the cool air of autumn just around the corner which signals the end of my adventure hibernation. I was more active this year than usual, with backpacking trips in late May and hiking trips through June until the heat of July made me retreat into my den with Netflix and air conditioning. While in the safety of Wifi and cookie dough, I started looking at plans for the fall and the coming spring, brewing an epic road trip across the west or to the far reaches of the north east coast. Logistics and lessons learned from previous big trips made me start to calculate the costs of plane tickets, rental car fees, and is the going price of a spare kidney. Quickly, the total of plane tickets and rental car fees for 2 weeks would easily exceed $1200+, and if we had to stay at hotels that only raised the cost. I’ve camped out of a suitcase before, and it’s not something I plan on ever trying again. Spurred by a thought and more napkin math, I realized I could drive my truck and tow a small camper (at an average of 12mpg) all the way to Seattle Washington and back, 5600 miles, for less money.
Family history also makes the idea of using a camper on a cross country trip appealing; my great-grandparents made the trip to Yellowstone in the 1930s with homemade campers that somehow survived the journey. My grandparents spent many years towing campers, first a small Apache pop-up and later a larger 22’ camper behind various Suburbans. My dad even lived out of that camper when they first moved to SC nearly 40 years ago.
While I love tent camping and backpacking, there are times on longer trips that the comfort of a real bed, 4 walls, and a well cooked meal are invaluable. There’s several advantages that tow behind campers have which are hard to beat, especially if you like to base camp. Leaving the camper setup, you can take your towing vehicle to trailheads easily, haul kayaks to lakes, and traverse 4x4 roads that no Winnebago would ever make it down. And when you’re tired for the days activities, come back to a camp that’s far more weather protective than a tent, complete with AC and heat in some cases. The more I thought about this idea,the more I liked it, so I started researching different options that I had. My list of wants were pretty simple: I wanted something fairly short so it could be setup almost anywhere, lightweight and aerodynamic to be fuel efficient, and enough room for 2 people to sleep and eat a meal comfortably if the weather was bad.
Googling the term “off road trailer” gives you 2 kinds of results. The first are typically variants of an old military design, the M416 trailer. It’s used primarily for gear storage in the main trailer area, and if you want sleeping capabilities it is in the form of a Roof Top Tent (RTT) that mounts either on the trailer or a frame that extends out the top. Off-road capability is the main draw to the M416 design, so if you’re never going to stay in a campground or anywhere with roads, it will go anywhere your vehicle can and it’s small and light enough to be towed by almost anything. The problem is that...it’s really no different than bringing a tent with you. So you have to set up and take down the tent every time you want to sleep in it.
The other kind of “off road trailer” you typically see is some form of teardrop trailer. If you’re not familiar with what a teardrop trailer looks like, they’re typically the height of a sedan and 8-10’ long, with just enough room for a bed and maybe a bit of storage in the rear end for a kitchen. There are lots of plans on the internet for how you can build one on top of a 4x8 utility trailer, and if you’re looking for a place just to sleep in a small and efficient package it’s a great option. But the more I looked, the more I realized my 6’3” frame wouldn’t be able to sit up in most of the ones I saw. Manufactured teardrops can run into the thousands and thousands of dollars, and for something so minimalist I couldn’t justify the cost.
The next step up is the common pop-up camper that most people are familiar with. Very quickly, I crossed them off my list for several reasons. First is in National Parks out west where brown bears are prevalent, soft sided campers are not allowed. Second is the maintenance; any time the camper gets wet, it has to be setup and air dried to prevent mildew and rot before being stowed away. Finally, while AC is an option in the summer, a pop-up is less insulated than a pillow fort in the winter so staying warm becomes a concern. So while pop-ups offer a ton of space in a compact and easily towed package, they just don’t fit my needs at all.
At this point, I had an epiphany for a brilliant idea that I quickly found out several thousand other people have had as well. Enclosed trailers, with bare walls and floor, are the perfect shell for you to build your own custom camper on the inside and are available in any size imaginable. Used, they range in price from $1000 on up and depending on how creative you want to get with the interior you can have a fully fitted and furnished 7x16’ camper for less than $3000. There’s a variety of floor plans and completed projects from other people that you can flip through to get an idea of how much effort, or how little, you want to put in. One of the big benefits of an enclosed trailer turned into a camper is it doesn’t look like a camper at all, to allow what some call “stealth camping” while on the road.
The final option is the most expensive: a small manufactured camper. While these campers lack some of the offroad ability offered by other designs, they are about the same size as a New York City apartment with everything from a kitchen to a claustrophobic toilet and shower closet. Demand for small campers has surged so that the used market has almost entirely dried up and new models demand a premium. It’s not uncommon to see a basic 18’ camper run from $8,000 to over $20,000. Even more napkin math made me realize that for $8,000 I could spend 64 days in a hotel for $125 a night; for $20,000 I could spend 160 days in a hotel before the camper begins to pay for itself. Oddly enough in the used market, larger campers are cheaper than the small ones but then I’d need a larger truck and the nerves of steel needed to take a 30’ camper up twisting mountain roads.
The results of all my research and budgeting pushed me towards the enclosed trailer option. While it required more elbow grease, it could be setup just as nice as a manufactured camper for a quarter of the cost. I leveraged the power of social networking to see if anyone I knew had an enclosed trailer that they would let go at a fair price. Surprisingly, I got a message from a friend who asked if instead of an enclosed trailer if I’d just be interested in a 15’ camper at a price that I couldn’t refuse. I go to pick it up Friday, and plan to put it to use this fall and winter.
Sometimes all my planning and scheming is derailed by a deal that’s too good to pass up, but now I’ve got big plans for my little camper.