Here's an introduction to how to choose a camper trailer that best suits your needs.
Types of Camper Trailers Explained
Before you begin planning your next big purchase, have a think about what type of camper trailer you’d prefer. Although they may appear similar, there are a few differences worth considering between hard floor and soft floor camper trailers.
Soft floor camper trailers
Soft floor camper trailers fold out similarly to a large cabin tent. They tend to be lighter, offer more internal storage and usually provide more living space than a hard floor variant. However, they take far longer to set up, the inside is harder to clean and they typically come with less internal amenities.
Soft floor camper trailers are better suited to families and larger groups of people who have the time and physical capabilities to set up and pack down their trailer frequently.
Hard floor camper trailers
A hard floor camper trailer operates similarly to a pop top caravan, where the roof raises up and front and rear sections expand out to create a suitable living space. This type of camper trailer is very quick and simple to set up – often taking less than a few minutes to be fully set up, handles inclement weather better due to being more structurally sound and generally features better internal amenities as standard.
However, hard floor camper trailers are far heavier, typically feature less internal storage and have a smaller sleeping capacity.
This type of camper trailer is often used by couples or small families who want a few more features and a fast setup time without having to physically exert themselves.
Hybrid Camper Trailers
Within the last few years, a couple of camper trailer manufacturers have begun creating ‘hybrid camper trailers’. These offer the flexibility of a camper trailer, while still providing the hard shell and additional amenities found in a typical caravan. That being said, hybrid camper trailers are priced a fair bit higher and weigh more than a standard soft or hard floor camper trailer.
Soft floor camper trailers typically give you a larger footprint to sleep and enjoy your holiday in...
Setting Your Budget
First things first, you need to decide on your budget. Many would think that most camper trailers on the market are similar in price, but that is far from the mark. You can pick up a wonderful second-hand camper trailer for a few thousand dollars, or purchase absolute luxury at the top of most people’s camping budgets.
But whatever you have available to spend, I am sure that you will find your own piece of camping heaven.
So, what should we expect to get for our money?
Often the price is reflective of the features, amenities, and style of camper trailer you can buy. For example, a larger seven-foot hard floor camper trailer fully kitted out with dual deep cycle batteries, 12V fridge freezer and kayak carrying racks will likely be more expensive than a basic soft floor model that has fewer features.
After deciding on your budget, it’s best to grab your tow vehicle’s service manual and find the vehicle’s tow capacity. That weight will determine what camper trailers you can or cannot safely tow. Larger vehicles, such as 4WDs will typically be able to tow a heavier trailer, while you may find your options limited if your tow vehicle is a family sedan.
Always make sure you are checking the camper trailer’s weight against your tow vehicle’s towing capacity, as the last thing you want is to waste money buying a camper trailer that you can’t safely tow.
Keep in mind that off-road and ‘feature-heavy’ models – typically hard floor camper trailers – will likely be heavier than most soft floor versions. If you are not sure on either a camper trailer’s weight or your tug’s tow capacity, contact their respective manufacturers for more information.
You will also not be able to tow your camper trailer without the right equipment. You will need a rear bar with a tow ball at a minimum. Some camper trailers(off-road models in particular) use an articulating hitch which will require further modification to your rear bar. If your tow vehicle doesn’t have any of this equipment yet, it will need to be included in your overall budget. Suspension may also need to be upgraded to increase a vehicle’s tow capacity
Common tow vehicles
Essentially, the lighter the camper trailer, the lower the towing capacity your vehicle needs. Smaller vehicles such as family sedans like the Holden Commodore and Ford Falcon have a towing capacity between 1500kg and 2100kg.
Medium to large 4WDs and dual cab utes such as the Toyota Prado, Toyota HiLux, Mitsubishi Triton, Mitsubishi Pajero and Volkswagen Amarok all have towing capacities between 2500kg and 3000kg.
If you are looking to tow a seriously heavy camper trailer, a dual cab ute or 4WD with a very powerful engine and upgraded suspension would be ideal. The Holden Colorado, Ford Ranger, Toyota Landcruiser, Nissan Patrol, Nissan Navara, Jeep Grand Cherokee and Land Rover Discovery all have a towing capacity of 3500kg.
New or Second Hand?
Deciding if you want one fresh off the showroom floor, or are willing to save a bit of cash by purchasing pre-loved trailer will likely come down to your budget. However, if your budget is fairly flexible, it is worth considering the benefits to each type of sale.
Benefits to buying new
There's definitely a level of ‘assurance’ when buying new. You know that this camper trailer has never touched the outside world before and should be in perfect mechanical condition. Alongside this, dealers will often provide longer warranties and further after sale support to owners who buy new.
If you are looking at buying new, heading over to one of the major caravan and camping expos is a great idea. Not only will you get to compare all the different models up close and personal, but you’ll be able to speak to a range of sales reps about any special deals or questions you may have on the day.
Benefits to buying used
Buying used means having to either purchase a camper trailer through a dealer or private seller. Although sometimes a risk, buying second hand can save you a bucket-load of money that can be spent on your next adventure instead. You may find many previous owners have already modified and upgraded particular aspects to a camper trailer, which may save you money if you had planned on adding those accessories yourself.
It’s always good to test how easy it is to set up and dismantle the awning.
How To Buy A Used Camper Trailer
Many of the elements you need to inspect when looking at a used camper trailer, are similar to when you’re buying a used caravan. You need to be thorough in your checks to find any issues when inspecting a second-hand camper trailer, as the previous owners may not be telling the whole truth...
It is important to find a camper trailer with a suitable interior layout for your next adventure. If you plan on taking the whole family along, you will need to find a trailer that has enough bedding to sleep everyone comfortably. Alternatively, if you will be travelling solo or in a pair, you will be able to trade more beds for more internal features.
Bedding: Are the beds in good condition? Do they fold out easily? Are they comfortable? If the bed is raised, does it require a ladder to get to?
Interior Storage: How much storage is there? If you are taking particularly large items with you on your next trip, is there room for them? Do the storage compartments lock or are they open?
Interior Electricals: Does the lighting work? Do all the power sockets work? Do all the inbuilt electronics work (eg. radio, resource management panel, etc.)?
Interior Trim: If there is a couch, is it comfortable? Is the interior in good shape overall?
Don’t forget to inspect the spare wheel when you’re checking the tyres!
Knowing what to look for is half the battle when inspecting the exterior of a camper trailer. Rust, leaks, cracks and broken seals are all factors that may point to previous damage and misuse of that camper trailer. Don’t be afraid to bring a torch to take a peek under the camper trailer, as it will often portray how the camper was used.
Canvas: Does the canvas have any holes in it? Are there any signs of wear or rubbing? Is it waterproof? Is the roof flat? (This may lead to water pooling in the middle)
Awning: Is the awning easy to set up? Are there any missing poles or struts? Is the awning stable? How large is the awning? Did it come with the camper or is it a later modification? Is the velcro still sticky? Do the zips work still?
Kitchen: Is the kitchen made from timber or metal? Do all the burners, hot plates and grills work? Is there a fold-out side table with the kitchen? Do the tap and sink work? Does it come with a single or dual zone fridge freezer?
Keep in mind, some camper trailers (hard floor ones in particular) may have an interior kitchen instead. However, you will still be able to perform checks similar to those made on an exterior kitchen.
Water System: How big is the water tank? Does it come with a fresh water and grey water tanks? Does the hot water system work if installed? Is there a water pump located on the exterior of the camper trailer?
Bathroom facilities: Does the camper come with a toilet? Is it inside or outside?
Chassis: Is it straight? Any dents, fractures or bends? Is the finish in good quality? Is there any rust patches?
Suspension, Brakes and Wheels: Does the suspension appear to be in good condition? If it uses airbag suspension, make sure it works using the controller. Do the brakes have any rust on them? Are the wheels in good condition and feature little to no scapes on the rims? Do the tyres have plenty of tread left on them?
Gas Cylinders How big are the gas bottles and how many are there? Are they securely fastened to the vehicle? Are all the seals and connections airtight? (This can be tested by putting soapy water over the seals and looking for bubbles coming off them.)
Batteries: How many batteries are on the system? Is there room for additional batteries? How big are they? How can they be charged? Are they compatible with solar power?
Stone Guard: Does the camper come with one? Does it adequately protect the front of the camper? Does it protect the gas bottles? Does the mesh have any holes in it?
Exterior Storage: How much storage do you get? How big is the front ‘toolbox’? Is space used efficiently for storage? Are the compartments secure and feature airtight seals? This will stop water and dust from entering these compartments.
Set Up and Pack Down: How easy is it to set up the camper trailer? If inspecting a hard floor trailer, are you physically capable of raising the roof and extending the sides? If inspecting a soft floor trailer, how long does it take to set up? Is it complicated and does the winch work smoothly to fold it out?
Tow Hitch: Does it come with a standard 50mm tow ball or does it feature an articulating hitch? It the jockey wheel able to fully extend? Are you able to move the camper trailer while the handbrake is engaged? Does the electrical connection adapter work with your vehicle? Do the brake lights and indicators function when connected?
Accessories and Modifications
If accessories have been added to a camper trailer, it is important to make sure they have been installed correctly and function as intended. Spare tyres, solar panels, roof racks, electronic brakes, extended awnings, larger water tanks, a second battery, DC sockets, TVs, audio systems and upgrading the bedding are all common modifications people make to their camper trailers.
Finding one that already has all the upgrades you want may be difficult, so compromise where you can. That being said, many buyers opt for a completely stock camper trailer that they can upgrade and change to their liking.
Questions to ask the previous owners
Before committing to buying a camper trailer, you should ask the previous owners a few questions to learn more about its history. This can be done before, after or during your inspection.
Where was it stored? Was it under cover or out in the elements?
Where was it purchased, and when?
Where was the majority of its use? (For example, did it do a big lap of Australia, or was it a weekender to local areas?)
What aspects have you changed while it has been in your possession?
When was it last serviced? Is there a record of maintenance? Who performed these tasks? A good idea is to ask to see receipts of any work and accessories added to the camper trailer.
Why are you selling it?
Nothing like that new camper trailer smell...
How To Buy A New Camper Trailer
Unlike buying a second-hand camper trailer, you won’t have to perform as many vigorous checks, as the model you will be purchasing will be brand new. That being said, it still is important to check over a new camper trailer to make sure it is right for you.
Decor: Do you like the layout and look of the interior? Is it big enough for your group? Are there other furnishing options and how will it affect storage and sleeping capacity? Can you choose the pattern of the furniture fabrics, curtains and table tops?
Bedding: Is it comfortable? What types of bedding layouts are available? If the bed is raised, does it require a ladder to get to it?
Power sockets: Does it come with them? Does it come with other types of adapters such as USB plugs or 12V cigarette lighter adapters?
Storage: Can it hold everything you need to keep inside the trailer? Do the compartments have locks on them?
Always check the connections on the gas cylinder and in the kitchen when inspecting a camper trailer.
Much like the interior, it can be safely assumed that this camper trailer has not experienced the wide open road yet. This means many aspects such as the brakes, suspension, tyres and paintwork should be in perfect condition. However, it still doesn’t hurt to check these aspects.
Set Up and Pack Down: Is it easy to do? Are you confident that you are physically capable of doing it many times over your trip? Does it take one or two people to do?
Aesthetics: Do you like the paint job? What options do the exterior colours and decals come in? Do particular finishes cost more?
Build Quality: Are you confident in the quality of this camper trailer? Are there any obvious design flaws that may lead to issues down the track? Are the seals, zips, velcro and stitching strong? Does the manufacturer use well-known branded products (eg. Al-Ko suspension) in its design? Where was the camper trailer built, Australia or overseas? Some imports do not comply with Australian Design Standards.
Manufacturer: Are you able to view the factory where it is built? Are you confident in the process they use to build it? Are you buying from a trusted manufacturer? Have you looked online for any previous reviews about the model you are looking to buy and the brand? Is the camper trailer built for Australian conditions?
Features and Optional Accessories
Your decision will likely come down to the features and accessories included in your camper trailer. So when you have narrowed down your search to a few different models, begin comparing the features of each of them. You may find one that stands out from the crowd with a great list of features.
Many manufacturers offer a huge range of optional extras that can be added to your new camper trailer at an extra cost. Roof racks, solar panels and upgraded suspension are a few of the most common optional extras people get with their camper trailers. If you are good at negotiating, you may even be able to get a few included when you buy your camper trailer from a dealer.
Questions to ask the salesman
Much like questioning a private seller about a used camper trailer, it is important to ask the salesperson you are dealing with a few questions about your potential new camper trailer.
After Sales Support: How long is the warranty for this camper trailer? What does it cover? Do you offer roadside assistance or other services for my camper trailer?
Opinions: Why should I buy this camper trailer? What are the problems with this model? Ask a few questions to try and gauge the salesperson's opinion and attitude towards a particular model, as it may uncover things they might not have previously disclosed.
Negotiating: Do you have any promotions on with this model right now? How is this camper trailer priced against other local dealers? Can I get any extras added into the deal if I buy from you?
Researching before you begin price discussions is crucial at this stage. Know the prices from other dealers for that exact model and what you get with it. If this dealer isn’t able to give you what you want, try somewhere else. Many dealers will give you a counter offer within a few days if they really want to sell to you. Keep in mind you may want to negotiate price after you have taken it for a test tow.
Be sure to check that all doors and drawers can be securely fastened when you take it for a spin...
Regardless of whether you are buying new or used, you should ideally be able to give it a tow behind your tug. However, some dealers and private sellers may not wish for you to do this. Although you can buy a camper trailer without giving it a tow test, we strongly recommend you do not, as you can learn many make or break characteristics about the trailer this way.
Here are a few things to consider when you’re giving it a test tow:
Stability: Does the caravan sway or wobble when on the road? Does it begin to feel unstable at high speeds? Does it bounce around over bumps? If you are looking at a more ‘off-road’ focussed model, try to take it down an unsealed road to see how it performs (if the seller allows).
Braking: Do the brakes work well? How long is the braking distance? Does the trailer list to the left or right under heavy braking? Do the electronic brakes (if installed) work?
General Driving: Is it easy to reverse? How good is your sight behind the trailer? Will you need [extended mirrors] to see past it? Was it easy to hitch the camper to your tug? Does the camper make any unusual noises when being towed?
Towing Vehicle: Does it feel like it is straining your towing vehicle? Does the trailer connect to your existing hitch securely? Do your tow vehicle’s electronics interfere with the trailer? Will your tow vehicle’s suspension need to be upgraded to tow the camper trailer safely?
Finalising Your Purchase
Once you have found your perfect camper trailer, it is time to get back on the computer and do some research into insurance and comparing the value of your future home-away-from-home.
Even if you have your heart set on one particular camper trailer, it is still worth researching other models in your area to see if you can get a better deal. For example, it may be worth enquiring with a few of your local dealers about a price quote you received to see if any will beat it. On the other hand, if you are searching for a used model, you may be able to find a similar camper trailer from a different seller that offers better value for money.
For a more comprehensive analysis into bargaining with a dealership or private seller, insurance and how to finance your camper trailer, check out tips in our used caravan buyers guide in the ‘Finishing the Deal’ section!
After reading this guide, you will be equipped with the knowledge on what to look for when buying a new or used camper trailer. Just try to hold in your excitement and not buy the first camper trailer you see!