Trailer tents, folding campers and lightweight caravans explained
See also: Buying A Tent: Ultimate Guide
Trailer tents and folding campers offer the freedom of a tent combined with the luxury of a caravan – they are the best of both worlds.
If you want to upgrade from a regular tent but don't want to to buy an expensive caravan, campervan or motorhome then you should think about a trailer tent or a folding camper.
But what is a trailer tent and what is a folding camper?
Packed away in their trailers, they look almost identical, but a simple way of explaining which is which is that if it looks like a tent when it is pitched then it is a trailer tent and if it looks more like a caravan with a canvas top, then it’s a folding camper.
A trailer tent is a unit where the roof and all of the walls are made out of canvas or another type of heavy duty fabric. The fabric is folded out from the trailer and pegged out in much the same way as an old-style frame tent. In fact a frame tent is exactly what a trailer tent looks like when it is fully erected.
Inside, trailer tents have off-the-ground beds with mattresses that usually fold out from the trailer and can be used as a seating area during the day. In larger units you’ll find further inner tents in the awning for more sleeping space and some trailer tents allow you to increase the sleeping accommodation by fitting underbed compartments.
The living area is usually in an integral awning, which offers plenty of space for tables and chairs and other camping furniture. Some models have their own built-in groundsheets, while others are open to the ground. Higher-spec trailer tents have their own kitchen units while with more basic models you’ll have to bring your own camping stove and other gear. Storage compartments can often be found in the main trailer unit.
Some of the brands to look out for when searching for a trailer tent are Camplair, Isabella Camp-let, Raclet and Trigano.
Folding campers are a bridge between traditional tents and caravans and provide comfortable accommodation for campers who want a bit more luxury but aren’t quite ready to go the whole hog and buy a ’van. They are also lighter and easier to tow than caravans, which means you don’t have to invest in a new car to pull your mobile home.
They are built on a trailer unit that looks like the bottom half of a caravan. In storage and when it’s being towed, a heavy duty tarpaulin covers the inner workings of the camper and on site the bedroom units fold out at each end and overhang the front and rear of the base. Many modern folding campers, such as the Pennine, have hydraulic struts that make opening it out much easier, while the self-inflating Opus Air can be put up at the touch of a button.
Inside you’ll find what looks like a compact caravan, with a cooker, sink, fridge and sometimes even a toilet. Most campers have bench seats with a table at one end that can be converted to a double bed. Some folding campers, like the Opus, are as luxurious as a caravan, the only difference being that they have fabric walls and roof. With the addition of an optional awning the living area can be vastly increased.
These are becoming increasingly popular, especially for couples. They range from cute little ‘teardrop style’ pod trailers that basically give you enough room for two people to sleep, through larger micro-caravans to even bigger, but still relatively light, ’vans.
NEW OR USED?
The decision to buy new or used usually comes down to price and budget. Most trailer tent specialists will carry an extensive range of new stock and some sell a good selection of used tents as well. Buying from a dealer costs more than a private sale but it gives you more protection if something goes wrong.
Buying new can be a more convenient option than going second-hand and takes a lot of the uncertainty out of the process. Even if you do decide that trailer tenting isn’t for you, you should still get a significant proportion of your money back when you come to sell.
When buying new, on some budget models, items like the corner steadies, spare wheel and kitchen unit are extras – so do check with the dealer rather than assuming that they are included.
Some dealers will include a full gas bottle to clinch the deal and you might want to haggle to get a camping grade extension lead to provide power if your trailer doesn’t have a hook-up point.
By far the widest selection of used trailer tents is to be found online, where selling sites like eBay, Gumtree and Facebook Marketplace do a roaring trade. You’ll find dozens on offer – from barely serviceable scrappers for less than £100, right up to nearly new ex-demonstrator models.
The same rules apply to them all. Know what you’re looking for and never bid without seeing the tent erected and the electrics working. Don’t bid on anything you aren’t 100% certain about.
Make sure the vendor still has the manual and instructions and, if possible, ask them to connect it to the car to check the lights.
Whether you buy privately or from a dealer, check the wheels, tyres and hitch for any signs of damage or excessive wear. On older models, look for cracks in the tyres’ sidewalls, as these will often degrade before the tread wears out.
Check the poles are straight and any mechanisms operate smoothly without the need for excessive force. Check all the seams for unravelling threads or other signs of stress and also inspect any stains or fading. If you find any signs of damp, walk away.
Be wary of any electrical or gas items and get them checked over by an accredited fitter.
Second-hand trailer tents from major manufacturers like Isabella Camp-let, Raclet or Combi-Camp still command hefty premiums on the used market and tend to be harder to find.
With some searching, a good-quality, vintage folding camper from a brand like Pennine or Conway can be picked up for less than £1,000 second-hand, but they will hold their value so there’s a good chance you’ll get your money back if you decide to sell.
TOWING A TRAILER
Q Can I tow a trailer without having to take a special towing test?
A The vast majority of motorists holding a full Category B driving licence are entitled to tow a trailer tent without taking an additional test. The only exception to this rule relates to people who passed their test after 1997 who want to tow an unusually large trailer tent with an especially heavy towcar. If the combined weight of both car and trailer exceeds 3,500kg, a special towing test needs to be taken, but in practice, few trailer tent/car combinations are likely to weigh more than this limit.
Q What are the speed limits in force while towing a trailer tent or folding camper?
A On dual carriageways and motorways, trailers are restricted to 60mph, while on single carriageways, the limit is 50mph or as indicated by speed limit signs. Trailers are not allowed in the fast lane of motorways.
Q Does my trailer tent need its own independent braking system?
A If the trailer together with any payload being carried weighs less than 750kg, then it doesn’t need to have an independent braking system. Anything over 750kg must have its own braking system. Additionally, trailers weighing less than 750kg must have a robust backup coupling (usually a chain) to keep them attached to the towcar if the hitch fails. Trailers over 750kg must be fitted with a breakaway cable which, in the event of a hitch failure, applies the trailer brakes before swerving.
Q I’ve only got a small car – can I still tow a trailer tent or folding camper?
A Check your car’s manual and consult the section dealing with payload capacities and towing. Some car manufacturers expressly state that their small cars aren’t designed for towing and to do so would invalidate the warranty. If this is the case, it’s inadvisable to tow anything, but the majority of cars should be capable of towing a trailer tent of up to 750kg. As a rule of thumb, as long as when fully laden, your trailer weighs no more than 85% of the car’s kerbweight, you should be able to tow it safely. The trailer’s noseweight is the force exerted by the hitch on the tow hook and again, the noseweight limit stated by the manufacturer should not be exceeded.
Most car insurance policies will cover the trailer for third party claims as long as it’s attached to the car identified in the policy. There are exceptions to this, however, so check the small print in your policy before hitching up.
Your insurance policy is unlikely to cover the trailer for damage or theft suffered on the road, on the pitch or in storage, so it is worth considering taking out additional insurance cover to protect your investment.
TRAILER TENT MAINENANCE
Click here to find out how to look after your trailer tent or folding camper and make sure your investment stays in good condition for years to come
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