Outdoor tech: Camper trailers

By Dean Mellor 8 December 2015
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Want an outdoor family getaway but want to keep everyone comfortable and dry? A camper trailer could be the solution.

IF YOU’VE EVER dreamed of loading up the car and taking the family bush for a few weeks, then you’ve no doubt questioned where everyone will sleep. There are loads of options from swags and tents through to caravans and even hotels, but the former can offer limited comfort and the latter can dictate where you can travel and also be prohibitively expensive. 

Somewhere in the middle of these extremes is the camper trailer, which offers a very portable accommodation option that can be ideal for those whose trip itineraries feature a bunch of one-night stopovers, or for those who like to settle in to a camping spot for a few nights before moving on to new horizons. 

There’s a variety of different styles and sizes of camper trailers on the market, and choosing the one that will best suit your needs will depend on the vehicle you drive, where you intend to travel, how big your family (or touring party) is and, of course, your budget.

Soft or Hard 

Most camper trailers can be split into two categories: soft-floor and hard-floor models. Soft-floor models, which are often a large tent atop a box-trailer, generally offer the most amount of space, so are well suited to larger groups or families. Hard-floor camper trailers are those that flip open and offer a hard surface on which to stand when you’re in the tent section.

Soft-floor campers are generally lighter than hard-floor models and they offer more floor space without the need to add on additional rooms. A well-designed soft-floor camper will be easy enough for one person to set up by removing the tent-section’s tonneau cover and pulling the canvas out. The tent will likely have an internal frame and only require a couple of guy ropes and tent pegs to erect the main section. Of course, additional awnings and annexes will add to set-up time and whether you use these or not will depend on the size of your travelling party, the weather conditions, and how long you intend to stay at the one campsite. 

The main advantage of a hard-floor camper is that’s it’s very quick to set up: simply flip it open and voila! Additional awnings and rooms add to set-up time, but if you’re only doing an overnighter, and you don’t have too many kids in tow, you can have the thing ready in a couple of minutes, and pack-up time the next morning is also minimal. The hard floor itself is also an advantage, especially if you’re camping on soft or uneven ground, or it’s wet and muddy. And when packed away the hard floor means your trailer has a hard top, which when fitted with the appropriate accessories can be a good platform for carrying items such as kayaks, bicycles and other equipment.


Whether a soft-floor or a hard-floor model, nearly all camper-trailers offer a double mattress or bigger, which is what makes them so much more comfortable than a swag or tent. They also offer slide-out kitchens, which usually consist a sink, workbench and cooktop, as well as easy access to your portable fridge/freezer. 

The specific design of the camper trailer will have a huge bearing on how easy it is to live with. As well as ease of set-up and packing away, features to take note of include the quality of the tent canvas, stitching and fittings (such as zippers and fly-screens), the number of doors, windows and vents, and the method by which additional tent sections and awnings are attached and set up. Other considerations include availability of tropical roofs for warm climates and annexes for weather protection. 

Make sure to check out the size and location of storage areas; you’ll want easy access to the fridge and pantry areas when you’re using the kitchen, for example, so you’re not constantly having to walk around to the other side of the trailer. And being able to access the kitchen when the tent is packed away is also a plus, for that all-important roadside cuppa. 

If you’re going to be camping in caravan parks, you’ll want to be able to hook your camper trailer up to a 240V DC supply to power your fridge and lights, but if you’re going to be camping in remote areas, you’ll need your own power supply. As well as a dual-battery set-up in your vehicle, many camper trailers have their own power supplies, by way of deep-cycle batteries, solar panels, monitoring and charging systems, isolators and inverters. 

Remote area travel will also mean you’ll need your own water supply, so make sure your camper-trailer’s water tank is going to be big enough for your entire camping troupe for the duration of your trip. It will also need the facility to carry gas bottles for your stove and potentially jerry cans for extra fuel and/or water.

Trailer design 

By the time you have fully equipped a camper trailer it can be quite hefty, so you’ll need to make sure your vehicle is capable of towing it. Even a soft-floor camper trailer can way upwards of 1000kg, and once it’s loaded up with gear, food, water, gas bottles, jerry cans and whatever else you want to carry on it, weight can easily exceed 2000kg. All camper trailers will have a maximum loaded weight (gross weight) which must never be exceeded, so you’ll have to put it on a weighbridge to ensure it’s within limits when loaded and ready to go. 

Your vehicle will also have a maximum towing capacity, both for unbraked and braked trailers, which can be found in the handbook or stamped on the compliance plate. Again, this weight must ever be exceeded; it’s not only illegal and will void your insurance, but an overweight trailer can cause serious vehicle damage or result in an accident. 

Trailer weight has a big bearing on vehicle performance, dynamics and fuel consumption. If the trailer is too heavy, your vehicle will struggle to tow it, especially in off-road conditions for those with a 4WD vehicle and an off-road camper trailer. Likewise, if the trailer is not correctly balanced, with too much or too little weight on the vehicle’s towing hitch, then it will adversely affect the vehicle’s handling and braking performance.
On-road camper trailers are more lightly built than off-road camper trailers. The latter have beefier chassis designs and suspension, and are often fitted with an off-road coupling that allows for better movement at the hitch point for undulating terrain. A galvanized chassis will help protect against corrosion, which is vitally important for those who wish to camp on the beach.

It wasn’t that long ago that the suspension design on most trailers was a simple as that on a horse-drawn cart; a solid axle with leaf springs. These days, most modern camper trailers will feature independent suspension with coil springs and shock absorbers, ensuring a better ride and improved handling for both the trailer and the tow vehicle.
Wheel and tyre choice is also an important consideration, as is the trailer’s track (the width between the wheels). Matching the wheels and tyres to that of the tow vehicle is always a good option, as it gives you more flexibility if your vehicle or trailer suffers tyre damage, more likely in off-road scenarios. Also, matching the wheel track as closely to your tow-vehicle’s wheel track will aid towing dynamics and minimise the chance of tyre damage, particularly on off-road tracks. 

Most camper-trailers that have a gross weight of more than 750kg will come standard with trailer brakes, either actuated by an override system or electrically. If they’re electric trailer brakes, you’ll need to fit your vehicle with a brake controller.

How much?

Some cheap imported camper trailers can be bought for as little as $5000, but remember, the Australian Outback is littered with trailers that have not gone the distance. At the other end of the scale, some fully optioned top-spec camper trailers can easily exceed $40k. One of the best places to inspect and compare camper trailers is at an industry caravan and camping show, of which there are many all over the country, all throughout the year. 

Back to school

Although camper trailers aren’t all that big, you still need some specific knowledge to successfully tow them, especially in off-road conditions. There are a number of towing courses around the country that can give you great advice on properly setting up your camper trailer, as well as arming you with the knowledge to tow it safely. 

Getabout 4WD Adventures has offered a Nationally Accredited Tow-Ed course for a number of years that covers towing subjects including safety and maintenance, loads and loading, types of hitches, driving and manoeuvring techniques, braking techniques and, of course, reversing. Check out www.tow-ed.com.au for details.