16/09/2012
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Folding Campers - everything you need to know

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Without wishing to offend parties from either, er, camps, I think that there really is little to choose between a folding camper and a trailer tent. Or is there?

This subject actually led to what could almost be described as a full-blown argument between the judges at the first ever Camping Awards.

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Our criteria is now officially:

Folding camper: The cabin unit is freestanding in use and does not require any pegging out. Of course, any optional awning (or underbed room) used has to be pegged down.

Trailer tent: Some have a one-piece canvas that covers both cabin and living area. Others have a living area awning that zips onto the cabin canvas. Regardless, all sections have to be pegged out before use.

OK, so that highlighted one crucial difference. The next regards price. This tends to reflect the luxury features that folding campers boast and that price tag can be seriously off-putting.

Conway’s Cruiser Platinum and Crusader Platinum, topping out near £10,000, but marketed by Pennine as ‘convertible caravans’, are joined for the coming season by the four-berth Countryman Platinum – an instant success, says Pennine, further to its debut at October’s International Caravan and Motorhome Show in Birmingham. At the other end of the scale, Pennine’s Fiesta is a real stalwart, and starts the 2010 season at a fiver under seven grand.

In fact, Pennine’s Sales and Marketing Director Steve Blakely confides:

 

Pennine's Group sales levels have outstripped all previous October event figures and both Countryman and Crusader Platinum models are now in extremely short supply. Certain models are now being quoted with 3-4 month lead times.

Pennine Group (which covers the Pennine and Conway brands), is by far the largest player in the folding camper market. There’s also worthy units from Trigano and Combi-Camp and… that’s about it.

Yet folding campers continue to represent a small but significant niche in the world of camping. They’re probably the closest you’ll get to a caravan whilst retaining basic tent camping tents.

Owners tend toward die-hard aficionado status (just get them talking on site), and it might be worth a reminder of what’s so good about a folding camper:

  • Easy and economical to tow, making them definitely greener than ‘tin tent’ caravans
  • Acceptable on most campsites (including the Caravan Club’s Certificated Locations, which are usually a no-go area as far as tents are concerned)
  • Generally, easy to pitch – once you get the knack. Until then you need the help of a structural engineer to put one together. For many, it’s the promise of ready-made beds that’s the clincher.
  • Easy to stow, too (although see later notes).
  • Luxury features

If you saw Camping's article on trailer tents, it’s well worth referring back to this for other key pointers on ownership. There’s little different between these two modes of accommodation when it comes to towing, the trailer, maintenance etc. Meanwhile, read on. . .


Why buy a folding camper?

Camper interior

(Photo courtesy of )

You love tent camping. You enjoy sleeping under canvas, but don’t like to be on cold, hard ground. Like trailer tents, you get loads of living space and you also benefit from on-board beds with mattresses – many boasting sprung wooden bases for comfort and condensation control.

However, we then have one of the two crucial differences already mentioned. The folding camper tends to be more luxurious. You get kitchens within the main body of the unit, plus superior equipment such as hob, fridge, even a flushing toilet, wardrobe etc. Full electrics, heating and hot water often feature in the larger units. In fact, dare I say it; this takes camping a tad too close to caravanning for some.

Folding campers are indeed easy to tow, although there are restrictions on speed and overtaking in the third lane of the motorway, for example. They hold their value well, too, and second-hand buys can be quite hard to come across, although there’s still a good sprinkling of specialist retailers around the country – and now’s as good a time as any to start looking.

With second-hand buys, make sure there’s an opportunity to pitch to check all folding mechanisms are in working order. This will also allow you to check the condition of the canvas, trailer and that all items of equipment are there. Reputable dealers can normally be found advertising in Camping.


Other advantages include:

  • Lightweight: You won’t need a big car and you’re unlikely to need any driving licence enhancements, even if you opt for a folding camper at the upper end of the weight scale. However, some of the American Coleman models – normally only a second-hand purchase – will push the limits on smaller cars so check towing limits.
  • Storage can be straightforward: Even the largest units should fit in a garage, although some owners are happy leave them outdoors all year round. They’re fairly easy to manoeuvre by hand.
  • Solid bodywork: Often comes with the ability to handle a bike or canoe rack.
  • Generous living quarters: Apart from having your beds above ground, there’s lots of living space (and headroom), especially if you also use an awning.
  • Extra features: Can include fridges, cookers, 12V and 230V electrics, sinks and drainers etc, even heaters. There’s also locker and, usually, wardrobe storage, plus there will be extra stowage space for transporting items inside the folded unit.
  • Can use hardstanding pitches, car parks, drives…
  • Warmth: The insulation provided by those solid bodies, often backed by heating systems and full electrics, open up the camping season into the winter months.
  • Travelling abroad? These units are easy to take on a boat or train.
An pitched tent

(Photo courtesy of )

Disadvantages:

  • Price: May be cheaper to buy and maintain than caravans but expensive compared to tents and even trailer tents.
  • Pitching times: Get longer the more you go for options such as awnings, extra bedrooms etc. And remember that the furniture requires assembly every time it is used. This can be quite a chore – certainly difficult until mastered.
  • Flat pitch: You’ll want to find a reasonably flat surface for pitching on. Not as crucial as a trailer tent as the kitchen and living room are part of the trailer so it is easier to level.
  • Storage: Despite what I said earlier, if you haven’t a garage or space alongside your home for keeping your folding camper, it can be a challenge – especially if you take the next point into account.
  • Maintenance: You need room and as per all forms of camping, there will be an occasion (OK, more than one) when you’ll have to pack away your unit when it’s still wet. Allow it to dry fully at the earliest opportunity, is the key advice here. One of the big advantages of the Conway Platinum series is their acrylic fabric, which make them far more water repellent than normal units.
  • Mastering pitching: At the risk of sounding repetitive, practise putting your folding camper up before you take it out in the field for the first time. It will be a hard learning curve.


Layout

A typical folding camper usually has two, two-berth beds and a large living area/kitchen. The living area often consists of two comfortable bench seats that sit each side of a table which can sometimes be dropped down to create yet another two-berth bed – although the couple sharing the adjacent double will find it difficult to get out at night when the spare bed is in use.

The kitchens normally have sink, running water, three-way fridge and plenty of neat storage in the form of cupboards and shelves. There is often a wardrobe and you can get a washroom in top models – often boasting a flush toilet.

In fact, all you need to add are a few personal possessions, bedding, food and kitchen utensils before you hit the road – everything else is provided in a neat package ready to hook onto your towbar.
 


Buying tips

  • Visit as many exhibitions and showrooms as you can to see as many units pitched as possible.
  • Ask the retailer to pitch it with you before you buy so you are sure you can do it on your own.
  • Inspect the unit you are buying. Check for damage and design faults like sharp corners on the trailer body.
  • Make sure that there is a pre delivery inspection and that everything works when taking receipt. Especially important if you have mains and gas systems.
  • Check out after sales service and spares availability.
  • Insure your unit.
  • Remember, some units do not include spare tyres in the basic price – check what comes as an optional extra.
  • If buying second-hand make sure there’s an opportunity to pitch to ensure all canvas is in good condition, zips work and there are no cushions missing. Check the body for damage and the frame for rust.


The usual stuff

An pitched folding camper

(Photo courtesy of )

Key folding camper manufacturers includes:

Combi-Camp
Tel: 01844 215900

Flip the lid over to create the living area floor for a simple, top-quality freestanding folding camper. The kitchen sits outside, undercover of the awning.

Visit the website  
Pennine Group
Tel: 01254 355704

The Pennine Group is by far and way the market leader in this sector and a British manufacturing success story in its own right. Full range of folders under the Pennine and Conway names, with a good distribution network, too.

Visit the website  
Raclet
Tel: 01438 821544

Competitively priced units from the Trigano stable (see below).

Visit the website  
Trigano

Usually benefit from high levels of equipment and reasonable prices, thanks to the sheer buying power you get when you’re part of the mighty Trigano Empire.

Other names to watch out for include Comanche (Spain), Coleman (USA) and Dandy (UK). You may well pick up second-hand examples of any of these and others.

Visit the website  

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