For a bit of fun I’ve taken a look at space-saving campers, researching a selection of compact yet functional ways to travel and camp out overnight. This post has been inspired by articles sent to me by Zero to Sixty … Eventually in the States and my brother in Zambia, both of whom quite rightly knew that this kind of thing intrigues me.
Way back in the early 1950s the owners of basic VW panel vans realised that their flexible midweek load-luggers could also be used for weekend camping trips. By 1952 Westfalia began producing ‘camping boxes’ – removable, portable kitchens – to serve this growing interest – and soon fully-fledged camper vans were being produced by the company in Germany. A variety of models were produced from the mid-1950s onwards with rear bench seats, kitchens, water tanks, carpets and curtains.
Over the last sixty years the camper van has been developed and refined so that to many, it is the epitome of space-saving design. And of course, it is. But it’s only one approach to compact, mobile living. What if you want something smaller than a camper van ? Or something more akin to a trailer ? Or something that isn’t motorised ? **
As I’ve discovered, the world of space-saving campers has many, many options. Some of these are still at the concept stage but others are in production. All are very ingenious (even if you wouldn’t necessarily want to buy one !).
With a huge interest in small-space living, sparked by TV programmes such as Amazing Spaces here in the UK, let me give you a whistle-stop tour of some of the designs that piqued my interest.
So if you fancy something a little smaller than a VW California, for instance, there are many different options. The small motorhome forum provides for owners with a range of vehicle conversions including Romahomes, Renault Kangoos, Citroen Berlingos and little Daihatsu vans.
The smallest I’ve seen is actually owned by my Mum ! She has a little converted Suzuki Wagon R which sleeps one, has a permanent kitchen and a pop-top roof. It’s her daily vehicle and holiday home on wheels – and as you can see, it’s pretty much dwarfed by my Cali. It’s neat, multi-functional and (touch wood!) runs pretty much trouble-free.
But if little ‘Suzie’ isn’t quite small enough for you, how about the Bufalino based on the Piaggia APE50 chassis ? A nifty conversion of the classic Italian three-wheeler will give you a bed for one, a kitchen-cum-bathroom (with a fridge), a wardrobe and a workstation. OK, so perhaps you have to be a little imaginative with all of those potential uses but the designers certainly seem to think that it’s possible. Cheap to buy, super economical to run and all mod cons – what more could you possibly want ?
OK, so maybe you’re quite happy with your daily vehicle and just want a camper on an occasional basis – so how about a roof tent ?
I’ve seen some weird and wonderful versions – some downright ugly and others ever so slightly precarious. There was a flurry of interest a year or two ago when various Mini concept vehicles were mooted. I don’t think any of these made it into production but you kind of get the idea with the picture below … sporty adventure vehicle, bike rack behind and a little ladder to go up to your bedroom upstairs. A flat roof, a ladder as you’re only exit, no storage … what could possibly go wrong ?!!
Let’s swap the idea of a flimsy tent on your roof for something a little more substantial: enter the Doubleback. This also caused quite some interest when it was launched several years ago and certainly is a very eye-catching design. At a touch of the button it extends the length of your VW California to give a light, airy and spacious living space.
As you can see from this video, the second-generation Doubleback addresses some of the (significant) flaws in the original design. Now, the layout has changed completely so that there are two seats in the rear when the van is in ‘normal’ use; at least now it seats as well as sleeps four people. The kitchen’s now bigger and in a better position, and various other design tweaks have been made. It’s definitely eye-catching but with an eye-watering price – would you get your money’s worth out of this ?
Trailer tents have been around for many decades and offer a different kind of solution. They’re practical in that they’re only needed for occasional use, leaving your tow vehicle in its usual configuration for day to day driving. Teardrop trailers provide an aerodynamic and attractive design, allowing (typically) for a bed or two inside and cooking facilities at the rear.
When twinned with a splitscreen VW it’s an appealing combination, although having had a peek inside it did seem a little cramped. Other designs, such as in the picture below, feature raised roofs and a seating area; the configurations are endless. What’s more, teardrop trailers are still being produced and there are several companies providing trailers for campers in the UK and elsewhere.
And if you felt that the examples above are too small, how about the Alto, a larger model which is much more spacious and airy ? It contains an electric, retractable roof to increase its size when camped, a double bed, kitchen with fridge, toilet and shower – certainly a modern and much more interesting twist on a conventional caravan.
Talking of caravans, many of you will recognise from the picture below the same design concept that George Clarke used in his own caravan conversion. Here, the sides fold down to give a closed awning at one side and a tranparent awning at the other. The footprint is multiplied three times when the awnings are folded out to give a modular space for sleeping and/or living.
If you’re not taken by any of these motorised campers and trailers, why not do down the self-powered route ? Bike trailers are attracting attention among designers given the availability of strong, lightweight materials and a resurgence of interest in cycle touring.
First up is a cute seaside-y bike caravan – the tiny bike camper trailer – that has a single bed and even a pop-top roof. OK, it may just be a design concept but it certainly shows what’s possible.
You might want to go more minimalist with the Foldavan. You’ll notice it also has an aerodynamic, teardrop shape, is very light and ingeniously expands widthways (up to one metre) for sleeping.
Another variation on this theme is the Wide Path Camper, a slightly more robust (but heavier) design that includes a sofa and table, and cleverly folds down to create a double bed.
Back to the future
I love seeing these ingenious designs. Many of them for me belong in the “cool design but I wouldn’t necessarily want to buy one” category. However, there are elements from these modern, space-saving designs that can certainly be used to update classic models.
When I saw this retro-inspired VW camper design concept a couple of years ago I definitely wanted to go out and put down my deposit (unfortunately it is just a design concept). If you could add some clever awnings, solar panels for power and modern conveniences to a retro VW then this would I think be my ultimate space-saving camper.
In the meantime, however, perhaps I should just save up my pennies for a timeless classic. Sometimes, it’s hard to beat a tried-and-tested design.
** For the purposes of this article I’m ignoring an obvious option which is … er … a tent. I know, I know … tents have been around for eons and are actually the bees knees when it comes to space saving living, but let’s just disregard tents for the time being and put them aside for a separate article.