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Katherine Donnelly | 11.04.2018

Unless you've had your head in the clouds, you've likely noticed the very quick rise of the "adventure rig" across the country. Sprinter vans and Westfalias are fetching top prices, #vanlife seems to be forever trending on social, and everyone is looking to outfit or upgrade their vehicles to take on the great outdoors. Regardless of how you feel about this shift, there's no doubt that it is spreading - and with the evolution of any trend comes the inevitable innovation of products and brands within a given market. It's inevitable, and as you may have seen on your own trips to the mountains or to work, these adventure rigs come in all shapes and sizes. 

So how do you find the right camper setup for you?

I have long been ogling people's rooftop tents, trailers, and campervans, but it wasn't until reading a recent article, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Trailer Life, that I decided to take the plunge and explore what I had always considered glamping. And I have to admit that when I began my search, I found myself extremely overwhelmed. There are so many choices out there, all with a long list of pros and cons that can vary based on your needs, desires, and specific situation or trip planned. What I had originally thought would be a fun process quickly grew into a daunting to-do list.

And as my online research accrued, anyone who learned that I was looking to upgrade my set of wheels also gave me their two cents on the matter; this was much appreciated, but not necessarily helpful. On multiple occasions I have found myself on the verge of pulling the trigger on a purchase: I have been minutes away from purchasing a custom AWD Astrovan on Craigslist, and I have also come very close to getting a rooftop tent for my current Tundra truck. Both times I was 100% certain that I was making the right choice, and then a friend or family member would catch wind of my decision, call me up, and tell me I was making a giant mistake. Again, appreciated input, but not necessarily very helpful. 

Now before I continue, I want you to know that I have yet to decide on the right camper setup for me. I am currently going through some changing circumstances (got married, have a 130-pound dog, might be buying land in Washington, the list goes on...), and I want to wait until things settle down a bit before making the final decision - and investment. But over the past year or so of searching, I've learned a huge amount about how to find the right camper setup that may help someone just entering or struggling with the process of narrowing things down.

First, make a list of your must-haves and nice-to-haves

Before even starting the process, there are obviously some questions you need to answer to guide your search. What are you planning on doing? Where and when are you going? How many people are coming? Will this be a daily driver or only used for adventures? Do you need off-road capabilities? Where will it be stored and parked when not in use? What is your budget? The list goes on. The point of this article is not to guide you through these questions, but rather to show you the larger picture behind shopping the camper market. 

Know that your list will likely change or continue to grow as you move along with your search. It is a work in progress, and that's okay. As an example, here is my current list of information and requirements for my future camper:

  • Primary use: weekend road trips for mountain biking, skiing, and general adventure travel; possibly a new vehicle to be used as a daily driver or an upgrade/add-on to my current car
  • Budget: As little as possible, but as much as $20,000 for the right fit
  • Requirements
    • 4x4, clearance of at least 6 to 8 inches, and off-road capabilities
    • Room for two to sleep comfortably, including my husband who is 6 foot 4 inches
    • Room for three to four to fit while driving
    • Space for a large dog to join in
    • Amenities needed: shelter is the top priority
    • Able to accommodate a hitch bike rack setup
  • Wish List
    • Easy to setup
    • Ruggedized design and build
    • Fridge or electric cooler
    • Power generator
    • Sink and potable water storage
    • Solar energy/charging setup
    • Good and efficient storage, if possible
    • Towing ability
    • Pop-up roof or high ceiling inside (again, 6 foot 4 inches)
    • Furnace or heating ability would be nice, but not necessary
    • Decent gas mileage
    • Able to navigate normal traffic around a city

I can tell you that even while I wrote this list out, I made even more tweaks and additions to the list. Your vision for what you want can continually change and revert, just as your options out there will also be continually changing. Which brings me to the next step in my process...

Second, consider the options available to you

This is where the online search really comes in handy. Start diving into the world of camping information and camper setups, and you will quickly see just how extensive the list of choices can be. Roof-top tents, truck bed canopies with custom outfitting, camper vans, teardrop trailers, truck camper, fifth wheels, pop-up campers, motor homes....Who knows, maybe you have a family of four and are looking for a rig for those family outings to a lake campground. A larger RV might be a fast front runner in your search, and now all you need to do is narrow down the exact specifications, brand, and model. 

But if you're in my shoes, you can find yourself face to face with several very different options that all make sense when held up to your list of needs and wishes. Welcome to my current predicament: rooftop tent vs. teardrop trailer vs. truck camper vs. just buying a truck bed canopy and finishing a custom outfit myself. They are all very different in terms of price and amenities offered, but each has it's ability to meet all of my needs with different variations from my wish list included. So where do I go from here? How do I narrow down my search before taking the plunge in one direction or another?

Last but not least, try before you buy

With the rise of the adventure rig has come the subsequent rise of the adventure rig rental company. RVs and campers have long been available for rent, but the market has boomed as of late, and you can now find every kind of camper setup and adventure rig out there for rent. The majority of renters are likely those looking to have the experience of glamping without absolutely breaking the bank, or they have a particular road trip in mind that they are tackling. But as I began to hear more and more stories from friends who had rented a four-wheel drive SUV with a rooftop tent or a campervan for a weekend, I realized that these same outfitters could help tremendously in my search for the right camper purchase. 

Enter Wonderland Expeditions. They are a Portland company run by an adventurous couple with a love of life on the road, and they have a unique selection of vehicles available for rent. Nowadays there are many businesses serving this same market, but what appeals to me about Wonderland is the fact that they offer a variety of all 4x4/off-road ready rigs that all fall on my original list. By renting from them, I can effectively try all of my contending options before I buy. Rooftop tent on an SUV, check. Teardrop trailer, check. Truck camper, check and check. 

And so as I started to prepare for a recent bike trip to Utah, I realized this was my chance to start trying them out. I rented Hank for the long weekend trip, a Ford F-150 with a truck camper in the bed. Five days and nights in the Utah desert biking and exploring, and I can tell you in full confidence that the trip would have been a lot more difficult - and likely less adventure-packed - if we had stuck with our original plan of flying down and tent camping. I am not quite sure yet if I truly need all of the amenities that come with a truck camper like Hank; the furnace, indoor kitchen and sink, shower, and overall comfort were way beyond any camping experience I had ever had before. But to be able to put five days into trying it out made me realize that, while they may not be requirements on my list, they do allow for more flexibility regarding when and where you can go with your camper.

Now, I am writing this before trying my other options out, and no decisions have been made yet. But believe me when I say that doing a test drive - and by test drive I mean a few days and nights of testing - is by far the best way to see what it's really like to use a given setup. The fact is that these trailers and campers don't come cheap. And personally, I would much rather experience each option and make my final purchase knowing I made the absolute right choice. Wouldn't you? 


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