Imagine opening your garage to see a sparkling off road camper primed for adventure!
The sight can send even the most focused minds into a daze of endless beaches, tackling crocodile inhabited river crossings or climbing rocky mountains one wheel at a time.
Off road campers come in all styles, shapes, and sizes, which can make choosing one feel like rocket science!
Many buying guides over complicate the decision, when in reality its a straightforward one when a simple methodological order is followed.
Before trying to decipher the nitty gritty, you should decide on a broad style of off road camper. This will resolve many issues up front, side stepping the need to get tied up in technical details.
That’s how we can help!
The Off Road Camper Buyers Guide
This article provides everything you ought to know about different styles of off road camper.
We use a simple approach to highlight which style suits you, linking the off road camper to your personal situation and requirements.
First of all, let’s get familiar with the basic off road camper styles out there today.
Off Road Camper Styles
What this articles covers:
- Slide on campers
- Camper trailers
- Hybrid caravan/campers
Slide on Campers
Slide on campers are camping units which sit directly on the tub or tray of your vehicle. There are a few different classes, which are explained in our article ‘how to choose a slide on camper’.
Here we use this term to cover the well known hard and soft floor fold out camper trailers.
We use this term to cover small caravan style off road trailers which can also incorporate some camper trailer features such as pop top, but also they can encompass compact hard roof camper trailers.
Why focus on just these?
The reason we are focusing on these styles is because they provide the most well rounded camping options for off road adventures, and are increasing in popularity.
We don’t cover roof top tents, or full size off road caravans.
Narrowing the Search – Stepping Out Your Travel Plans, Requirements and Personal Situation
Ultimately, your ideal off road camper is something that will make it to your ideal destination and make the experience the best it can be. For many of us, the ideal off road camper is only found after buying the wrong one.
You can avoid the mistake of others by answering these key questions:
- Where do you want to go?
- How long are you going for?
- How many passengers/occupants?
- What activities are you planning?
- What will suit your vehicle?
- What is your budget?
Now lets explore these questions in more detail and find the off road camper for you.
Step 1: Where do you want to go with your Off Road Camper?
Have you got one of those camping spots you regularly go to sooth the soul? Or are you determined to tick off some legendary tracks and destinations like Fraser Island, the Kimberley , Kakadu or Cape York Peninsular?
Firstly, will your destinations allow trailer access?
Sometimes a trailer just isn’t an option.
Conservation and Road Condition Issues
Trailers cause more damage to roads and terrain than a single vehicle (while also increasing risk of break down). For this reason, many top destinations and small side tracks don’t allow trailer access to prevent additional environmental damage and to reduce track deterioration caused by the extra weight and wheels.
Unknown Access Problems
Sometimes your internal explorer will compel you to turn down that little interesting side track branching off to who knows where, but what if there’s no turn-around room for your trailer?
Maybe there’s a fallen tree across the track, an unpassable washout, or a vehicle coming the other way down a steep slope, and you have to reverse all the way out with the trailer behind you?
It will be much easier to reverse out or turn around with a slide on camper instead, allowing you to continue on with your exploration quest! You can tackle those intriguing side tracks knowing you will safely handle most obstacles.
So, what if a trailer won’t get in?
If trailers are not permitted or will not pass the likely obstacles, then you can:
- buy a slide on camper; or
- leave your trailer behind when you want to take tracks with no trailer access – in which case you’ll need extra gear in your vehicle.
What conditions will an off road camper handle?
Basically, you need to match your off road camper to the harshest terrain you plan on tackling. Because you are essentially dragging extra axle, wheels, brakes, suspension components through tough terrain in the case of a trailer. The key risks are:
- mechanical or equipment failure
- flat tyres
- reduced vehicle control, traction and manoeuvrability
- Personal injury
Let’s discuss some of the more common terrain and off road camper performance.
Corrugated Dirt Roads
Camper trailers and caravan/camper hybrids built to a good quality will handle corrugations without a problem. However, poor quality builds will be exposed. It’s not a matter of “if”, it’s a matter of “when”.
Hundreds of kilometers of corrugations make quick work of poor quality workmanship and components.
Will a Camper Trailer or Caravan/Camper Hybrid handle the Constant Battering?
Camper trailers normally have heavy duty eye to eye leaf springs, while caravan/camper hybrids normally have coil springs. Should either type fail, the box/cabin can drop onto the axle, potentially causing a disaster.
Effects of the Trailer on Your Vehicle
A trailer can also cause big problems for the towing vehicle. They tend to bump around on the tow ball, putting tremendous strain on the towing vehicle’s running gear (e.g. gearboxes, differentials and axle bearings).
The towbar and ball is the pivot point between trailer and vehicle, and as it moves up and down, it can drastically increase the weight exerted by your trailer on that point tremendously.
The up and down motion of corrugations, potholes, washouts and ruts, combined with the vehicle’s suspension compression can momentarily lift the pivot point, then bring it crashing back down with nearly three times the weight!
For example, if your trailer has a tow ball weight of 250kg, this can result in 750kg slamming down on the very rear of the vehicle’s chassis.
Something’s got to give eventually. There is a good article on 4×4 Australia about this.
Think About Weight Distribution
The problem is made worse by poor weight distribution in the trailer, putting too much or too little weight on the tow ball and making every bump feel much bigger.
How will a slide on camper handle it?
Slide on campers are only as good as the vehicle underneath, and the way they are attached to it. Slide in campers, which are campers that slide into a tub of a styleside ute rather than on a tray, can result in the tub fastenings sheering off in bad corrugation.
Slide on campers attached to a tray and secured with nuts and bolts are much more secure, because they leverage the vehicle’s suspension in a more cohesive configuration.
Check out our recent article which compares slide on campers verses slide in campers.
Sandy Tracks and Environments (beaches, dunes etc.)
Camper trailers can act as an anchor in sand. Imagine driving up a dune with an anchor hanging out the back. Or a 1-tonne weight. It’s doable, however, the last thing you want is to stop half way up. The trick is all about momentum.
Unfortunately momentum is not conducive to environmental conservation. Hence why many tracks are closing to trailers.
They’re still a viable off road camper option so long as you have the right gear to pull yourself out of a bog (e.g. max tracks, snatch strap and a powerful winch). Always ensure you are travelling with another vehicle. Otherwise be prepared to shout a few beers to fellow travellers who tug you out too!
A caravan/camper hybrid is the heaviest off road sand anchor available, and not recommended if you’re planning lots of sandy tracks.
The best option for sandy environments is a slide on camper. The absence of a trailer is a huge advantage and will result in less bogs. And generally, a lot let work on long trips both physically and cognitively.
Trailer buying tip for sandy conditions
Make sure the axle width of a trailer matches the vehicle. This will reduce the number of times you sink, as a trailer axle wider than the vehicles will increase the anchor effect.
Get something as lightweight as possible, this will help reduce friction with the sand and general impact on your vehicle’s drive gear.
The main concern when tackling rocky terrain with a camper trailer or caravan/camper hybrid is the extra running gear to break (e.g. extra axles, suspension, and tyres).
Towing an off road camper also increases the level of difficulty because there is a delay between what you see in front of you and when it hits your trailer wheels at the rear.
Trailer buying tips for rocky areas:
- A good off-road articulated hitch can help to deal with awkward terrain
- Match the trailer’s rims and tyres to the vehicles so they are interchangeable should the worst happen
- The rule of thumb for remote off road travel is have one spare tyre per axle (this applies to your vehicle as well). So a typical setup would be 3 axles, so 3 spare tires.
A slide on camper will reduce the risks
You have fewer components to go wrong, and you can focus on the terrain in front of you. There is less cognitive load when navigating through difficult terrain.
When considering this option, we recommend a slide on camper over a slide in camper due to a lower centre of gravity and thus more stability when driving at odd angles.
Slide in campers have less room in the tub of a ute and forced to carry more weight up higher, lifting the center of gravity and reducing stability.
Also note that some slide in campers generally non-removable legs that hang out from the wheelbase, and tend to hang low. These can be torn off or bent on off road tracks. Where as a slide on camper generally has removable legs.
Slippery Climbs and Descents
Any steep climb or descent can be slippery with morning dew or after rain. In these situations trailers can be quite dangerous.
If you lose momentum on the way up, you can slide backwards a lot faster. If you go too fast on the way down and tap the brakes, you may slide forwards. In both situations, an off road camper trailer can jackknife, and that’s a situation no one ever wants to be in.
Slide on campers do not have the same level of risk in steep muddy situations. You may lose traction and slide, but nothing is going to jackknife and jeopardise the entire rig other than driver error.
When considering a slide on camper, be sure to consider its weight and its weight distribution. It is absolutely essential that you don’t exceed your GVM.
And ensure it carries it’s weight is as close to the center of the wheelbase as possible, rather hanging out past the rear axle. See this illustration about weight distribution considerations:
Step 2: How long are you going for?
So now you know where you want to go, how long are you planning on hitting the road with your off road camper?
Frequent weekenders? A two or three week break from reality? A once in a lifetime trip around Australia / or the world? Or indefinitely?
The three key considerations are:
- ease of set-up and pack up
- storage capacity
- access to gear
What Are Your Requirements?
You want a quick pack up and set up time. Storage is not a big issue as you should be able to take all necessary gear in a single vehicle.
You only need to access most your gear once, when you arrive at the camp spot.
A few weeks to 3 months
Once your trip approaches a few weeks, storage space is more of an issue. Extra water, fuel and gear become essential, especially if you’re going remote.
You are still limited by time and therefore quick set ups and pack ups are essential (unless you’re camping in one spot the whole time).
More than 3 months
If you’re planning a trip three months or longer, then we’re all jealous! But also awesome!
You need as much storage space as possible. Long setup and pack up time is a reasonable trade off, as you will be able to relax in places for longer.
Easy access to gear is also a great thing to have. It will most definitely reduce the number of camping domestics!
How Do The Off Road Campers Stack Up?
Set up/pack up times
Camper trailers generally take half an hour to fully set up. Soft floors will take longer than hard floors. Manufacturers often quote shorter times, but this relates to simply popping open the camper. It does not include adding an awning and setting up all the other creature comforts.
Caravan/camper hybrids are much quicker with simple pop or wind out out compartments.
A slide on camper minimises set up and pack up time, with some taking as little as 5 minutes to set up comfortably!
What off road camper style has the best storage capacity?
Camper trailers and caravan/camper hybrids provide the most storage space.
However, slide on campers still provide sufficient space for most trips, and would suit the minimalist when on extended trips.
Certain slide on campers make more efficient use of space due to the way they attach to the vehicle (i.e. whether it slides in a styleside tub or on to a tray-back). If it’s a styleside tub ute, the camper has to battle for space with wheel arches and the tub itself. So it is impossible to have storage compartments down low.
What off road camper provides the easiest access to gear?
Many ‘canopy style’ slide on campers have incredibly easy access through the side panels. Check out our article on finding the best slide on aluminium ute canopies.
Most camper trailers also provide very simple access through the top and tailgate, while caravan/camper hybrids can be more complex.
Step 3: How many passengers?
Are you an adventurous single, a pioneering couple or a touring family? This step is all about beds and living space.
Matching an off road camper to your family situation
Off Road Campers for Singles and Couples
Lets not beat around the bush – a slide on camper is the way to go (Unless you’re seeking extreme comfort). They all sleep two people comfortably and some can sleep up to four.
A caravan/camper hybrid will provide more spacious and luxurious living quarters if that’s what you want, but as with a camper trailer, it is often a trade off in excess weight for the luxury.
Off Road Campers for the Family
Once kids come into the picture, it makes a camper trailer look a whole lot better! Caravan/camper hybrids can also provide the most comfortable indoor environment for rug rats.
I Want A Slide On But The Kids Won’t All Fit?
There is always the option to teach them a valuable life lesson – how to pitch a tent…. Haha.
There are also sleep out options similar to a camper trailer to add additional canvas rooms to some slide on campers, but not all.
Step 4: What activities are you planning?
Is your trip all about fishing? Kayaking? Hiking, or simply exploring? Its likely a bit of everything, and you may need to use your vehicle to get to places nearby camp.
If you will, then you really want an off road camper which can detach from your vehicle. You don’t want to be setting up and packing up every time you need to go for a little drive.
Which Off Road Campers can detach from the vehicle?
Both camper trailers and caravan/camper hybrids, once unhitched, are your temporary base and free up the vehicle.
The un-hitching and re-hitching process can be quite difficult, especially on soft ground and sometimes it can test the bonds of any relationship. The weight placed on a tow ball can be hundreds of kilograms and thus pretty hard to move by hand if needed. Ensure there is one or two high quality jockey wheels to assist.
Some slide on campers can be supported by legs or poles, and the vehicle driven out from underneath in as little as 6 minutes, making them very good options. Avoid any that are fixed to the vehicle, such as canopy campers with roof top tents which are not slide on / off.
Do you want to take a boat?
What’s the best way bring it?
With a camper trailer, the boat should be stored on top of your vehicle (i.e. a car topper), otherwise you have to take it off everytime you open the camper.
But this also means you have to take the boat off the vehicle roof every time you want to use it.
A slide on camper provides an additional option. The tow ball is up for grabs! This allows quick and easy boat launching without affecting your camping set up, which is waiting for you back at base (with the right type of slide on camper that is).
Slide on campers are thus the recommended option for dedicated fishing trips.
Step 5: What will suit your vehicle?
Do you have your heart set on a vehicle, but it’s not suitable for the off road camper you want? It can start to feel like the old chicken and egg scenario. Maybe you already have your wheels?
The vehicle/off road camper relationship seems like a complex one, but can be easily unpacked.
An Important Tip!
Your vehicle should come first. It is your ticket to the world’s most beautiful places. Purchase your ticket (new, second hand, doesn’t matter), then worry about your off road camper options.
As this is not a vehicle buying guide, we will assume from here on that you own or are looking at buying a certain vehicle.
Your vehicle will not only affect what type of off road camper you can buy, but will also limit its weight.
I own an SUV or a Wagon
In this case, you must immediately rule out slide on campers and focus on a camper trailer or caravan/camper hybrid. There is always standard tent camping or roof top tent options, but they aren’t covered by this article.
I own A Ute!
You’re in luck! All off road camper styles are on the table. Importantly, it opens up the option of a slide on camper.
Choosing a slide on camper to match your ute is important. There are options to suit almost any need, including for single cab, extra cab or dual cab vehicles, as well as tray-back or styleside tubs.
Check out our recent article ‘how to choose a slide on camper’ for more information.
CRITICAL: Drilling further down to off road camper weight
Regardless of the off road camper style you choose, you will need to calculate what your vehicle can legally and safely freight, and whether the off road camper your looking will make the cut.
We are warning you now, this section will start to get quite complex. The key take home point we are trying to communicate is:
To ensure ensure everyone’s safety, protect your insurance and warranty and abide by the law, you need thoroughly discuss your weight allowances with all of the following experts:
- the vehicle’s manufacturer
- your mechanic, and
- any potential off road camper manufacturers.
Okay, let’s dive in!
It is all about GVM and GCM
Each vehicle make and model has a limit to the total weight it can support (its own weight + everything else it can carry and tow).
Manufacturers have two metrics to measure this, the first is the gross vehicle mass (GVM) and the second is Gross Combined Mass (GCM).
So the real question is, what can your vehicle carry without exceeding its GVM and/or GCM?
If you exceed your vehicle’s specified limits, not only is it ILLEGAL, but it could:
- Void your vehicle’s insurance cover and potentially its warranty
- Significantly increase risk of breaking chassis, suspension components and axles
- Significantly increase risk of injury or worse for you, your passengers and other people on the road around you.
GVM AND GCM IS YOUR RESPONSIBILITY!
It is entirely your responsibility to not exceed GVM or GCM limits as far as the law is concerned.
It is actually really easy to exceed these, because many recreational vehicle manufactures (caravans, slide on campers, camper trailers) don’t necessarily build the products to be within the limits of all Australian utes. So, know your numbers!
How to Estimate Your Off Road Campers Ideal Weight
To ensure you do not exceed your vehicle’s GVM, your ideal off road camper weight can be calculated using the following method.
- Find out your vehicle’s stock empty weight
This should be provided in your vehicle manual. If not you can always call the manufacturer, sometimes called Kerb Weight.
- Estimate the weight of any aftermarket accessories
This includes things like bullbars and undercarriage armour that are not part of the vehicles stock release.
- Estimate the weight of your travel and camping gear, full supplies/resources and passengers
After running through the previous steps in this article (establishing your destination, trip duration, number of people travelling and the activities you want to undertake) you can estimate the potential weight of your gear and supplies.
Make a list of everything you will need, including maximum water and fuel supplies, then estimate the maximum weight of all your supplies, as a rule of thumb for the off road sector – you need to allow at least 350kg for things like food, water clothes, recovery gear etc. Add yourself and all other passengers to the list.
It’s better to overestimate than underestimate.
- Sum up the weight so far
Calculate the sum of the items from steps 1 to 3.
- Identify your vehicle’s GVM
This is usually found on the compliance plate in the engine bay.
- Calculate your off road campers maximum weight
To do this, simply take away the number calculated in step 4 from the vehicle’s GVM. The remaining number tells you how much more weight the vehicle can take before it reaches its GVM.
This is your slide on campers maximum weight, OR it could also be considered your maximum tow ball weight (TBW) for trailers
For safety, it is best not to tread the line, and stay well within the weight limit. So, your off road campers ideal weight is actually less than the maximum you have calculated.
If you are too close to the limit and want a bit more wriggle room with weight, you can easily get a GVM upgrade for your vehicle to allow for a bit more payload.
Example calculation of maximum slide on camper weight
Disclaimer box: This is an example only, using all hypothetical figures, and you must do your own research and factor in your own figures.
1. Vehicle stock standard weight: 2100 kg
2. Off road accessories (bull bars, winches and undercarriage armour): 150 kg
3. Estimated weight of gear and supplies for off-road trip (including passengers, water, batteries, fuel, luggage): 400 kg
4. Sum of the above: 2100 kg + 150 kg + 400 kg = 2650 kg
5. GVM: 3200 kg
6. Maximum off road camper weight allowance: 3200 kg (GVM) – 2650 kg = 550 kg
So now I can just find an off road camper to match the weight allowance of my vehicle?
Don’t rush in just yet! This is worth putting some extra thought into.
For slide on campers, as demonstrated above it is pretty straightforward. You just need to focus on the empty weight of the camping unit when looking at specific models, and whether this will fit safely within the weight allowance. While also considering weight distributions.
Also keep in mind that manufacturers don’t always include all camper accessories in their quoted weight. For example the weight of the campers legs (to free-stand the slide-on camper), fridges, batteries may be left out.
Make sure you ask “what’s included in the campers dry-weight?”
Dry-weight is normally the weight of the functional camper with no-load, which includes things like the legs, the water tank without water, the fridge without beer and cupboards without food.
Some types which slide on and hang over the cab will be far too heavy for your weight allowance. Make sure you read how to choose a slide on camper.
The best slide on options when weight allowance is tight are the ultra lightweight aluminium camping slide ons which we discuss in our article ‘aluminium slide on ute canopies’.
It is much more complex for trailers!
When looking at off road camper trailer options and their ideal weight, you also need to consider all of the following to prevent issues with insurance, warranty, safety and the law:
- gross trailer mass or aggregate trailer mass
- tow ball weight
- tow capacity or rating
- tow bar rating
- gross combined mass.
Gross Trailer Mass (GTM) and Aggregate Trailer Mass (ATM)
GTM is the maximum weight limit of the trailer + contents when the trailer is hitched. ATM is the same thing, except when it is unhitched.
Tow Ball Weight
This is a measurement of how much weight the trailer will exert on the vehicle’s tow ball when hitched. It is used to factor into your vehicle’s GVM (instead of the direct weight of a slide on camper).
TBW is generally 10% – 15% of the trailer’s total weight.
For example, let’s say you fill a hypothetical off road camper trailer up to its GTM limit of 1 tonne. It’s tow ball weight will be around 100 to 150 kilograms. Factor in the overhang of your vehicle’s towing point, and it will likely add 130 – 190 kilograms to your vehicle’s mass.
Tow Capacity or Rating
This is the maximum weight that can be safely towed by your vehicle, determined by your vehicle’s manufacturer. It is expressed by a weight limit for your trailer.
It also relates to your vehicle’s GVM, but a number of other factors are taken into account by the manufacturer.
Tow Bar Rating
The maximum weight your tow bar can safely support. This can be different to your vehicle’s tow capacity.
Gross Combined Mass
The maximum combined weight of your vehicle plus anything being towed. This becomes more important when towing with a heavy off road vehicle, as it can leave less weight allowance to play with a big trailer.
Note, there is a ceiling for the GCM and GVM in most states and territories within Australia. That is the maximum GVM and or GCM you can drive on a standard license.
What if I really want a certain off road camper but it will exceed my GVM or towing capacity?
You will require vehicle modifications. The required modifications will depend on the vehicle and how much more weight it needs to legally support. This is not covered by this article.
This is quite a complex topic and warrants another full post. For example, every vehicle has caveats when it comes to GVM upgrades, as does every state and territory.
Some allow a second stage manufacturing upgrade, something you can order when you purchase a new vehicle before it is registered for the first time, this is regulated at the Federal level.
And some allow an aftermarket GVM upgrade, which is regulated at the state level.
Need a breather yet?
See how confusing this all starts to get? It is often overlooked by travellers due to its complexity, and that’s a scary thought!
As we said earlier, the key point here is that you need to thoroughly investigate your limits if you plan on buying an off road camper.
Talk to your vehicle’s manufacturer, your mechanic, and any potential off road camper manufacturers to ensure you will not jeopardise your safety, or anyone else’s safety.
And remember, the outback is predictably unpredictable!
There is a difference between on-road weight and off-road weight
Off-road driving can apply unpredictable and extremely high stress and force to your vehicle. Even though you may be within GVM or other manufacturer limits, heavier rigs will usually suffer more wear and tear.
The lighter, the Better
In general the lighter your off road camper the better off you’ll be. Your vehicle will love you more, especially when tackling the hard off road yakka!
Step 6: What is your budget?
Off road camper price variation is huge!
Matching an off road camper to your budget
The below ranges can be used as a general guide for each off road camper style:
- Slide on campers: $6000 – 50,000 +
- Camper trailers: $10,000 – 60,000 +
- Caravan/camper hybrids: $30,000 – $100,000 +
More bells and whistles will drive up the price, regardless of the off road camper style. For example, the starting prices above for slide on campers and camper trailers will not include many accessories. They will be solid off road camper platforms and living spaces ready for you to fill.
To get an idea about price range within a single off road camper style, check out our ‘how to choose a slide on camper’.
You must factor in the hidden costs associated with each style.
What Are The Hidden Costs in Off Road Campers?
|Hidden Cost||Camper Trailers||Caravan / Camper Hybrids||Slide on Campers|
|Additional registration fees (potentially hundreds of dollars per year)||Yes||Yes||No|
|Running gear maintenance (frequent maintenance will be required due to dust, rust, brake ware, tyre wear, bearings etc.)||Yes||Yes||No – no extra running gear|
|Repairs (when travelling through rough terrain, there will be repairs required at some stage)||Yes||Yes||Yes (although less chance with less running gear)|
|Upgrades like electric brakes or a more powerful winch||Yes||Yes||No|
|Additional fuel costs||Yes||Yes||Minor|
|Additional costs of remote rescue (some recovery operations will charge thousands of dollars per axle in remote location like the Gibb River Road in the wet season).||Yes||Yes||No|
A Quick Recap
By stepping through this process, you have hopefully formed an idea of your ideal off road camper style, and you can now focus on a model.
We have summarised the results below:
A camper trailer will provide a great option for long family trips on semi rugged roads.
To get to the best destinations you will likely have to leave the trailer behind somewhere.
You will need to thoroughly consider your vehicle’s weight allowances and towing capacity to ensure you are within GVM and GCM limits.
A boat will need to be stored on the vehicle and moved off and on regularly if fishing.
Much the same conclusions as camper trailers. The differences include more luxurious living spaces, quicker setup and pack up, less ability to access rugged areas (for heavier models).
Slide On Campers
These are the most suitable option for the greatest range of trips.
Camper weight can be easily calculated and factored into your vehicle’s GVM/Payload limits.
You will be able to access more areas or tow a boat if desired.
It provides the cheapest off road options if budget is your defining factor.
The variation within this style of camper will provide a solution to almost any situation.
For an idea of available options check out our article how to choose a slide on camper.
We hope this article has helped narrow down your perfect off road camper!
Au revoir! Drive safely and best of luck reaching your dream destinations.