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4x4 Camper Trailer buyers' guide

By Dan Everett, 29 Sep 2019 Outdoors

4x4 Camper Trailer buyers guide feature

The ins and outs of the ups and downs of camper trailers. Everything you need to know to pick the right portable home for you.

For some people, and perhaps bears, a quick set-up is the be-all and end-all. It suits their fast-paced adventurous nature and gives just the bare necessities. For others, their off-road adventures might be a whole lot slower; camped by a billabong for a week at a time means they’ll be looking for more comfort, and they’ll be willing to trade speed to get it.

So what’s the perfect camper trailer for you? Well, my friends, that’s something only you can answer; but being the nice blokes we are, the next few pages will arm you with the intricate knowledge of the various camper platforms, their pros and cons, and, hell, we’ll even talk about the different suspension systems just so you know what keeps the whole show on the road.

So strap yourselves in as we delve deep into camper territory.

Soft-Floor Camper Trailer

No matter if you’re looking at Aussie-built or import, with very few exceptions the entry level at all points of the market is going to be the humble soft-floor camper. In essence, these are an incredibly simple design: an off-road box trailer, topped with an elaborate version of a rooftop tent, and complete with a few basic amenities like a slide-out kitchen, and maybe a few water tanks and extra batteries thrown in for good measure.

Like every camper category, you’ll almost always get more when you spend more. Quality is the big factor you’ll notice as your budget increases, but set-up times will decrease too, with many of the high-end options taking less time than a roof-topper or swag to erect.

If you’re on a budget you can get your backside into an imported soft-floor camper trailer for as little as $7000. Expect to find a rudimentary design, so things like leaf-spring suspension, beam axles and a kitchen that’ll see the local campground barbecue hot plate look appealing. There’ll be minimal spit and polish in the setup, too, so don’t expect speedy erection when you pull up to camp.

Premium Aussie options will punch in around the $30K-$40K mark, but they bring a lot to the table for the money. Expect significantly quicker set-up times through clever designs, and more extensive lifestyle items like fancier kitchens, hot showers and extensive 12V systems that’ll keep electronics running long into the night. They will also better retain their resale value, which should be factored into your budget.

Pros
• Low price (typically)
• Low weight

Cons
• Slow set-up (typically)
• Can be mistaken for a box trailer full of camping gear.

Ideal for
Campers on a budget or those looking to try their first one.

Price Range
$7000-$47,000

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Rear-Fold Camper Trailer

Campers didn’t just erupt on the scene, so there’s a fair bit of progression and evolution along the way. The logical step from the early soft-floors is possibly the biggest leap yet – rear-fold campers.

While you’re still sleeping above the trailer itself, the canvas floor is now replaced with a solid deck, typically hinged at the rear and pushed over thanks to a hand winch and some gas struts. You’ve still got the benefits of under-bed storage, but kitchens become standalone units that slide out the side. You’re also spoilt with a solid deck as the floor swings over, which is perfect for a table-and-chair set.

The raised floor also provides an extra layer of insulation from the cold, and with the climb up to the bed being divided between the floor and bed itself, rather than a ladder style in a soft-floor, they are easier on the knees.

High-end or low-end will often look similar in this category but premium versions will typically be lighter to tow due to more advanced construction methods, have better weather sealing, and be easier to set up and pack down. Those with deep enough wallets can even find their way to electric opening and closing models; although, expect to spend the price of a new ’Cruiser for the pleasure.

Pros
• Solid floor out of the elements
• Plenty of storage

Cons
• Large overall footprint
• Can be cold due to larger volume of air

Ideal for
Older couples looking for that extra layer of protection

Price Range
$10,000-$70,000

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Twin-Fold Camper Trailer

If a rear- or forward-fold isn’t big enough, and the budget doesn’t extend to a caravan, a twin-fold might be up your alley. There are no Aussie manufacturers currently producing them, but they’re often the flagship products in imported lines.

Where a forward-fold has the bed attached to the lid and sends it forward, a twin-fold is a larger unit, with twin double beds arranged on a split lid. The double beds run sideways across the camper, to increase width significantly – some examples are more than 2200mm wide, and up to six people can sleep in comfort.

Despite their size, the unique design allows a reasonably quick set-up time; though most weigh around the 1700kg mark, which is roughly 400kg heavier than some forward-folds. Like a typical forward-fold, storage space isn’t great, but the width allows fitment of two fridges up front. 

Pros
• Twin bedrooms and a separate lounge
• Twin fridges (common)
• Fast set-up speeds

Cons
• Big weight penalty
• Poor manoeuvrability on tight tracks

Ideal for
Families with teenagers, or couples needing that little bit more space

Price Range
$25,000-$30,000

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Forward-Fold Camper Trailer

Forward- and rear-fold campers may look identical, but their differences go much deeper than where their hinges are. While a rear-fold puts the bed above the box and an empty floor space on the lid, the forward-fold camper flips things around a little. Crank the hand winch over and the forward-fold lid folds … well, forwards, but this time there’s a bed attached to it. This means the box can be put to better use.

In almost all situations the internals of the box will be filled with a wrap-around lounge of varying quality. With a little shuffling this wraparound lounge can be transformed into a second bed; so a well-designed forward-fold offers camping for families of four to five with incredibly quick set-up and a seating/dining area out of the dirt. As the camper sets up in its own footprint, you also don’t need to hang your 4x4 half onto the track to allow room for the set-up.

As there’s a lounge in the main body, storage can be more complicated; although, you’ll still be able to stow some things under the seating area. Keep an eye on weights in this category, too – as designs become more complex, inferior engineering tends to throw material at the problem rather than the clever solutions you’ll typically see in locally produced offerings.

Pros
• Faster set-up times
• Raised living space and second bed

Cons
• Expect a price increase
• Mattress comfort can suffer due to folding arrangement
• Reduced storage space

Ideal for
Adventurous families looking for room for four

Price Range
$18,000-$38,000

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Compact Camper Trailer

Trading comfort for capability, compact campers typically resemble a tradie’s site trailer with armour plating and tyres that’ll roll over anything. Entry-level offerings typically have a few basic amenities in the side boxes, with a rooftop tent and a roll-out awning if you’re lucky, and very little fit or finish.

As a result they typically weigh in around half the weight of a forward- or rear-fold camper. Bump up the budget and things get a fair bit more thought-out, with diesel heating, air suspension, extensive kitchen setups and hot and cold running water making them more on par with an inside-out caravan than a box with a tent.

Your budget will typically be going towards off-road ability rather than creature comforts or living space, so compact campers are best suited to solo travellers who can’t afford to get caught out by a large camper, or people looking to push the boundaries of family camping.

Pros
• Small towing footprint
• Large storage volume
• Serious off-road capability

Cons
• Fewer creature comforts
• Less covered area to weather a storm

Ideal for
Couples and long-distance travellers who want the ultimate off-road ability

Price Range
$15,000-$50,000

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Hybrid Camper Trailer

With more and more camper manufacturers vying for your business it’s no surprise there’d be another huge leap forward in terms of comfort and options. This time the result is what’s rather ambiguously known as the hybrid camper, which is something that straddles the line between camper trailer and caravan, with no clear defining guidelines on what it needs to be.

Prices range from the $30,000 mark to more than $100K, and the designs are just as varied. We’ve seen complicated, heavy, clunky imported offerings that don’t offer any convenience or space over a camper. Then there are space-age designs built out of composite materials that offer lightweight construction and interior fit-outs that’d rival some five-star hotels.

With a hybrid, expect to find yourself under a hard roof with an external kitchen and full-size sleeping arrangement. Some hybrids also offer sleeping arrangements for kids; although, this segment is typically aimed towards older couples looking for that next step of comfort and ease rather than a good way to house a swarm of little tackers.

Pros
• Caravan comfort in a camper package
• Enough options to suit everyone’s needs

Cons
• Minimal sleeping options
• Compact internal space
• Poor designs can have cumbersome set-ups

Ideal for
Couples looking for a step up in comfort from a camper

Price Range
$35,000-$120,000

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Off-Road Caravan Camper Trailer

While hybrid campers seek to bridge the divide between off-road capability and serious comfort, off-road caravan manufacturers have been working hard on the same angle, although with a twist. Where the caravans of old were rudimentary units of corrugated sheets and cheap timber interiors, these days manufacturers are using high-tech construction methods and making them lighter and tougher than ever.

Budget offerings will give budget results as always, with imported units typically giving you a basic bed and en suite with off-road suspension, while pushing up around the six-figure mark will net you a dust- and weather-sealed home on the road complete with internal and external kitchen, multiple sleeping options and fully functioning bathrooms with washers and dryers. Sure, you won’t be punting one through the Tele Track too often, but if your aim is to live at Loyalty Beach for a month it’d be a hell of a way to do it.

Pros
• Instant set-up
• Fully dust- and weather-sealed
• Space for the whole family

Cons
• You’re towing a block of flats
• May push the budget
• Often require larger tow-rigs

Ideal for
Families or couples looking to take on the long-haul

Price Range
$40,000-$150,000

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Independelty Verified 

A phrase you’ve probably seen slick-haired camper salesmen throw around is independent suspension, but it’s important to know exactly what you’re getting. There are typically two types of suspension you’ll come across in a camper, no matter the budget.

The first is the trusty old leaf spring and solid axle. These have been around for a million years and are functionally similar to the rear-end in most modern dual cabs. They’re easy to fix trackside, and easy to find parts for. The downside is the suspension can’t cycle at high speeds, so corrugations will make a mess of your eggs. They also have a lower ground clearance in the centre, which can cause issues in deep ruts.

Most campers that run an independent suspension typically have a trailing arm on either side of the camper with a spring and shock arrangement. The benefit of a lighter independent setup with a coil or air spring is they can cycle much fast giving a smoother ride, and therefore minimise stress on the tow vehicle. While twin shocks are great redundancy for travelling in remote areas, some manufacturers can use them to mask poor mounting angles that reduce the shock’s effectiveness.

You’ll want to keep an eye on the trailing arms themselves, too. Cheap offerings have been known to use poor suspension designs or materials that can lead to catastrophic failure in remote back country.

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