Expansion Plans: Pickup Campers & Folding Trailers Evolve

Manufacturers created more space for sleeping and dining, use a new construction material that’s designed to reduce water damage, and introduced another way to open and close pop-up pickup campers.

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Pickup campers (campers) and folding trailers are the smaller siblings of the RV market, but some of the latest campers in particular have more space than ever before. To make this happen, manufacturers in the past 4 years added more slide-out room extensions to their most expensive models to create more living and dining space.

You also will encounter the first campers that have a composite material that’s part of the interior-wall construction that makes the camper more resistant to moisture, as well as campers that have heated floors or solar panels as a standard feature, so you can power creature comforts, such as a TV. Furthermore, one manufacturer introduced the first pop-up camper for pickups that you can open and close automatically rather than manually. Although we found virtually no new features on the latest folding trailers, we found that financing terms are particularly attractive in 2014. For instance, interest rates dropped as much as 3 percentage points since 2010, RV financing experts say.

SPACING OUT. Although slide outs on hard-sided pickup campers aren’t new, the number of models that have at least three slide outs increased to four from two in the past 4 years, and manufacturers created first-of-its-kind floor plans as a result of new slide outs.

In February 2013, Chalet introduced the first camper that allows you to add an optional fourth slide out. The TS116FB ($52,751) has three slide outs as part of its standard floor plan, and they make room for a sofa, a U-shape dinette and an overhead storage compartment in the galley kitchen. The optional fourth slide out in the overhead sleeping compartment accommodates a king-size bed and additional wardrobe storage. This slide out adds $2,275 to the price and 150 pounds to the 4,700-pound camper.

Chalet introduced the first models that have three slide outs in 2010, but in 2012 Adventurer followed suit when it began to produce the Eagle Cap 1165 ($43,043). The camper has a slide out for a sofa, a dinette that converts to a full bed for two adults, and a refrigerator and a three-burner cooktop. The kitchen slide out that’s on the 1165 creates enough space for the manufacturer to add a kitchen peninsula.

Even if you can afford the TS116FB, which is the most expensive camper that we found, or the 1165, which is the least expensive model that has three slide outs, you’ll have to deal with other factors that might dissuade you from buying a camper that has at least three slide outs. For starters, campers that have at least three slide outs weigh at least 4,588 pounds. By comparison, the lightest camper that has two slide outs weighs 3,339 pounds. (These dry weights don’t include filled water tanks or your food, clothing and other cargo.) As a result, you’ll have to have a really big pickup to tow a three-slide-out camper. For instance, Greg Tucknies of Adventurer recommends that you use a 1-ton pickup that has dual rear wheels and a long bed (typically 8 feet) for the 1165.

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The other problem that we found is that it’s more difficult to access interior areas of a folded camper that has at least two slide outs than it is on models that have one or no slide outs. You typically have to open at least one of the slide outs at least partially if you want to grab a sandwich from your camper’s mini fridge or use the camper’s bathroom. Some manufacturers advertise that you still can get into their campers regardless, but dealers say it’s a tight squeeze if you aren’t a child or a thin adult. This problem is particularly true for slide outs that are in the back of the camper, because they take up space in front of the entry door.

As a result, if you want to pull over to the side of the road or into a parking lot to grab a snack or use the camper bathroom, you might not have enough space to expand the slide outs and, thus, complete your task.

We wouldn’t be surprised to see more models that have multiple slide outs hit the market in the years ahead. Manufacturers won’t tell us whether they plan to introduce such models, but David Yavelak of RV dealership Galaxy Campers says sales are strong for campers that have multiple slide outs. Consequently, he believes that you’ll see more campers that have at least two slide outs in the years ahead.

ROOM TO GROW. Chalet's largest pickup camper has an industry-first fourth slide out as an option.

ROOM TO GROW. Chalet's largest pickup camper has an industry-first fourth slide out as an option.

Chalet RV

In January 2014, Chalet also introduced the first and, as of press time, only hard-sided folding trailer that has a slide out. The lower wall slides out in the XL 1936S ($21,308), which has an A-frame design. As a result, the cooktop and sink can slide back an extra 18 inches, and the mini fridge can slide back flush against the slide-out wall. The slide out adds about 8 extra square feet of floor space and includes an outdoor storage compartment. The slide out also adds about 235 pounds to the camper and about $610 to the cost, says Art Deeds of Chalet. It’s unclear whether other manufacturers will add slide outs to their hard-sided folding trailers.

CAMPER COMFORTS. Manufacturers also now make campers that are drier, cozier and easier to use than ever before. Two manufacturers incorporate a new construction material that’s designed to make their campers more resistant to water damage, including rot and mold. Lance Camper and Livin’ Lite insert a composite material that’s made of reinforced plastic between the exterior fiberglass siding and their aluminum frames. The composite replaces a plywood product that’s called luan, which is what other manufacturers use.

Water leaks are a common problem for all types of campers and trailers, and the composite liner is less prone to warp, mold or rot than is luan, manufacturers say. Similar composite liners are used in other types of RVs, including travel trailers and fifth-wheel trailers, and the dealers whom we interviewed say the material delivers as advertised.

Lance and Livin’ Lite tell us that any additional construction cost that’s related to the use of the composite liner won’t trickle down to consumers, because the manufacturers absorb the extra cost. However, we found that pricing for models increased by at least $1,533 during the year after the composite liner was added to such models, although it’s unclear what factors beyond market inflation contributed to the price increase.

When it comes to staying cozy, you should know that Chalet introduced a radiant-heated floor as a $1,770 option on all of its campers in 2014. Deeds says heated floors are a “creature comfort” and won’t eliminate the need for a furnace. Based on our socks-off evaluation, we found heated floors to be a toasty luxury, particularly for those who camp in cold climates.

Meanwhile, in September 2013, Northern Lite became the first manufacturer to include a 95-watt solar panel as a standard feature on all of its Northstar campers. Northern Lite says the solar panel charges the camper’s 12-volt battery, which generates electricity for the camper’s fans, lights, stereo and TV. A solar panel is appealing for camping at sites that have no access to electricity, such as at an off-road site. Most conventional campsites provide electricity as part of the daily fee, which is typically $40.

However, Northern Lite campers cost as much as $14,565 more than do campers that have a similar size and weight, although the cost premium has little to do with solar panels, because solar panels typically cost $826 for a 100-watt panel when they’re purchased separately for other manufacturer’s campers.

Finally, the only recent innovation that we found among pop-up pickup campers arrived in September 2013, when Palomino added the first motorized operation that allows you to lift and lower the roof of the camper via an interior control panel or via remote control. On all other campers, you have to turn a crank that’s located on the exterior of the camper to raise and lower the roof. The motorized-lift feature is standard on all Palomino models, but the optional remote control costs $175. You typically spend at least 5 minutes to lift or lower the roof with a hand crank, whereas motorized operation takes care of it in 30 seconds, Palomino says. Other manufacturers of pop-up pickup campers are expected to incorporate the feature in 2014, says Bob McCarthy of Rieco-Titan, which is the company that makes the motorized control. That’s good news, because it will give consumers a welcome lift.

Terri Blazell-Wayson has written about RVs for 14 years. She has written about motor homes and travel trailers for Consumers Digest.

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