Choosing a overland camping trailer

A quick online search will show you just how many different kinds of camping trailers there out there.  They range from the super lush 5th-wheel campers (i.e. ‘glampers’) to small home-built DIY rolling tents.  In between those extremes are a host of commercial and home-built trailers.  What I am going to talk about are some of the most common camping trailers out there for overlanding and what I believe are their pros and cons.

Poser shot of the in-progress ECOA Camping Trailer Project.

First let me say that I will not be covering what I feel are “glamping” trailers like 5th-wheels or tandem axle bumper-pull campers.  While you might see them at a field show they are more suited to RV parks and serve as portable basecamps rather than true overland adventure camping trailers.


Teardrops

The Offroad Subaru teardrop project made by TCTeardrops in Wisconsin

Probably the most common and most popular model of overland camping trailer out there is the teardrop.  These trailers get their name from the side profile having a wing-shape or a water-drop look with a rounded nose and a pointy tail.  In theory this makes them aerodynamic and helps reduce drag when compared traditional boxier built camping trailers.  Teardrops are also minimalistic in the fact that they are a bed on wheels (in the main body section) with a small basic kitchen off the back (under a rear hatch that doubles as a roof).  Access to the bed is through small doors on the sides of the trailer making them a little awkward to enter and exit, especially when there are two people and only one door.

Beyond their minimalistic base models, teardrops can be kitted out with beds are large as a king size mattress, kitchens as elaborate as that in a studio apartment, and many bolt ons like awnings, lights, and even HVAC units.  They can range in size from small super-compact units that can be towed behind a motor cycle to medium sized units appropriate for Jeeps and other smaller SUVs, up to huge ones befitting a full-size truck.  Suspensions also vary from pavement only models to ones with heavier frames, dynamic suspensions, and large off-road tires that match those of the tow-rig.  The sky is really the limit in terms of price and your imagination.

The pros:

  • Their relatively small size makes them easily maneuverable on road and off.
  • The “bed in a box” nature means little to no setup time other than leveling the trailer.
  • Variety of sizes and shapes makes them easy to buy or built one to suite your needs
  • Hard body means you can mount things to the roof such as gear storage, HVAC, and recreations toys like bikes and boats.
The cons:
  • Commercially manufactured teardrops are often expensive and the more custom you go the higher the price gets
  • Most teardrops are not designed for off-road use and those that are tend to be more expensive than their pavement pounding brethren
  • Smaller teardrops tend to be cramped and awkward to enter and exit.  This is complicated for couples who often find themselves literally crawling over each other to get in and situated on the mattress
  • Outdoor kitchen means cooking while exposed to the elements.  This is a major drawback to people downsizing from a full-size ‘glampor’ trailer to a teardrop.
As with most things compromise is everything.  Teardrops are great foundations for overlanding adventure trailers.  There is a reason they are so popular, they work and work well.
Here are a few shots of a DIY custom teardrop I saw at the American Adventurist Appalachain Rendezvous in 2015:

DIY custom teardrop that made the trip east for AA:AR and OX:E from the west coast last year.

Another DIY custom teardrop I saw at last year’s AA:AR.

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Popups:

Typical mass produced popup. I’m sure we’ve all spent a night or two in one.

I think anyone who has every done any camping of any kind has spent at least one trip in a popup type campers.  These are the classic entry-level budget-minded camping trailers that collapse down to a relatively small size (often smaller than a teardrop) making them easy to store and easy to tow behind the average mid-size SUV, station wagon, or even car (for smaller popup models).  Their compact nature makes them rather efficient to tow given their overall size once expanded.

As far as overlanding with a popup, traditional ones are usually not up to the task. The average popup on the market is rather fickle about needing to be perfectly level before being deployed.  Their lightweight nature also tends to permit a lot of frame and body flex which isn’t much of an issue on-road but becomes a major issue off-road.  That said, there are some off-road capable popups out there that are a little more stout in constructions but also come with an equally heftier price tag.

One thing that makes popups really appealing to most campers is their price.  New ones are a lot cheaper than full-size hard-side campers and often cheaper than even the most basic model teardrop.  The used market is also flooded with cheap popups ranging from fully working models in the mid-to-low $1,000’s to ones that need some TLC that can often be bought for just a few hundred.  The low price of used popups has lead a lot of DIY minded overlanders to take a bargain find popup and mount it on a custom heavy duty frame and axle combo that is up to the task of off-pavement travel.

Pros
  • Price is low making them very popular for entry level camping and budget minded campers
  • Their small compact size makes them easy and efficient to tow
  • Despite their small collapsed size, when unpacked the average popup can often sleep 4-6 people spread over two or three sleeping areas depending on configuration. This makes them popular with families.
Cons
  • Their lightweight nature also means they are prone to flexing when offroad. This can damage their frames which are usually just angle iron welded or bolted together.  The sliders for the popups and popouts often jam when tweaked.
  • The fabric walls are prone to mold and mildew.  Even with diligent maintenance rain and humidity over long periods of time (both when camping and when in storage) will lead to water damage over time.
  • Lightweight fiberglass roofs limited external cargo carrying capacity.  Folding modular insides often limit internal storage capacity to just a few milk-crate sized bins.
For me, and for most people I know that had used a popup, the major drawback to them is that you have to fully deploy the popup to use any of it.  To access the kitchen you need to have the roof up and bedslides pulled out.  At least with something like a teardrop you can pop open the rear to access the kitchen without needing to mess with anything other than a single latch.  The other major drawback is time to setup and deploy.  For long-distance trips where you’re camping in a different location each night popups become tedious and are often more time consuming than tent camping.  Where a popup shines is as a mobile basecamp for a show, festival, or park.  With that in mind, popups are a rare sight in the overland adventure world and when one is seen it’s usually a purpose built off-road capable model or a custom modified version with a DIY flavor to it.

A Jeep brand “mini popup” available through local Jeep dealerships.
A bit too small to be practical if I’m honest,
but it would probably work for a solo overlander who travels light.

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Cargo Trailers: Box

Small cargo box trailer, with RTT, used to haul white water kayaks.

Considered a “poor man’s teardrop” by many, there are a lot of converted box trailers on the trails these days.  The range in size from small 4×6 models all the way up to huge 8×10 or larger models.  The most common are usually the 5×7 and 6×8 single axle models allowing for just enough room for a double or queen mattress and a small modest kitchen.  Like with popups most conventional box trailers aren’t suited for extended off-pavement use.  That hasn’t stopped the DIY’ers from stiffening the frame, thickening the floor, and beefing up the suspension and axle sets.

Pros
  • All the pros of a teardrop at a fraction of the cost
  • Can be used as a ‘stealth’ camper which draws little attention when done as a basic rolling “bed in a box” type trailer.
  • Lots of used and inexpensive new box trailers on the market makes them very easy to come by
Cons
  • There are no commercially produced box trailer campers out there.  That means the only way to do one is buy a used one that’s already been converted or go the DIY route. This means having the tools and skills to do the work yourself.
  • The DIY nature of the trailer conversion means starting from scratch
  • Lightweight body and frames means lots of modifications to get them off-pavement worthy
With the pros and cons weighed and measured, it’s easy to see why cargo box trailers are so popular.  They are cheap, custom, and often serve multiple functions.  Many people use them as toy-haulers putting their ATV, SxS, or dirt bikes in the back.  I’ve even see a few (like the one above) kitted out by boaters with racks for carrying canoes and kayaks inside.  With a lot of imagination, some scrap paper to sketch out some ideas, and the blank canvas of a box on wheels I’m sure we’ll all be seeing a lot more converted cargo box trailers on the trails.
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Cargo Trailers: Flat

M101 like mine only set up with a raisable RTT and DIY canvas awnings.
Stay tuned for a writeup on this trailer.

The other type of cargo trailer that has become super popular in the overlanding community are flat trailers.  These include utility trailers, pickup truck bed trailers, and of course the super popular surplus military trailers.  Just like with box trailers the possibilities and options for an overlanding flat trailer are endless.  Flat trailers are often cheaper than their boxed brethren and also a lot easier to modify when ti comes to access to the frame and main floor.  Flat trailers also make great foundations for custom teardrops.  Another common sight are flat trailers with a small frame for a roof-top-tent.  By placing the RTT on the trailer it mitigates many of the drawbacks to having the RTT on the overland vehicle.  It also converts the RTT to a basecamp style system when mounted on a trailer.  These types or trailers are also becoming super popular in the overland community.

Pros
  • Their lightweight nature means even the smallest of SUVs can easily pull one on-highway, on-road, and off-road
  • Perfectly customizable making them as unique as the owners that build them
  • Basic nature makes them easy to upgrade for novice level shade-tree mechanics.
Cons
  • Skeletal nature of the trailer means more exposure to the elements for gear and personal when using a “rolling tent” configuration
  • As with box trailers, building a DIY flat trailer requires a lot of skills, tools, and materials
  • Most commercial flat trailers are flimsy requiring modifications to frame, flooring, and suspension to withstand off-pavement duty
With specific attention to military cargo trailers, there are a lot of advantages beyond commercial cargo trailers.  Their frames are more stout and the bodies are able to withstand off-road use and abuse.  They are super popular and there are countless examples out there.  The smaller quarter-ton M416 “Jeep” trailers are also now in reproduction by a few aftermarket companies with many of the necessary upgrades already made.  The larger three-quarter-ton M101 and aluminum M1101 trailers are now hitting the markets are can picked up rather inexpensively.  The only drawbacks are the military paint can be toxic to work with (highly recommend getting them professionally sandblasted and primered before working on them at home) and they often have heavier brake and axle assemblies than are needed for the average overlander.  However, with a few modifications the excess fat can be trimmed lightening up the heavy trailer into something usable behind the average 4×4 SUV on the trails.

In the shade of an Adventure Trailer Chaser trailer with RTT at the MOAF.
The Chaser is based off the M416 ΒΌ ton military trailer designed to go behind Jeeps.
Smaller and lighter than the M101s, M416’s and M616 clones like this are super popular.

The M1101 is the aluminum bodied successor to the steel M101.
This one features a custom truck-style cap with rear barn doors and windows all around.

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Conclusion
Whether you have the deep pockets for a brand new purpose built overland camping trailer, plan on taking a budget minded DIY approach, or splitting the difference somewhere in between there are many advantages to choosing a camping trailer for your next adventure.  Quicker set up time and the ability to set up a basecamp make them very appealing.  A overland camping trailer also means that the dual-purpose “daily driver” adventure rig can be kept lean and free of camping related clutter when used as commuter or grocery getter.  A trailer also means the smaller compact overland vehicles like Jeeps, smaller Toyotas, smaller Landrovers, and the like can carry more gear for longer trips or a slightly more plush stay when they are out camping.

Up next, a build update on the ECOA Camping Trailer.

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