Modern Camper / Trailer Construction is Garbage

kraythe

New member
Since I conceived my project of building my own expedition 4WD camper from scratch, there have been a parade of people on several forums implying that I should just buy a camper from a retailer; asking why bother. Well, I will answer why bother and I hope its not too much of a rant. :)

Ok, I know this might sound a bit arrogant and sorry in advance for that. However, after owning or using several campers and trailers, I am convinced that the modern construction techniques used in these vehicles is ... well ... garbage. Its cheap garbage that if it isn't designed the have them fail in 5 years to buy a new camper, it sure does a good impression of being done on purpose.

Evidence? Ok, lets take some cases in consideration. There are several companies on the market that find 1940s era Spartan trailers and then buy them. They are in need of window replacement, asbestos purging, replacing wood rot inside and so on. So these companies gut the trailers, rebuild the interior with modern wiring, reseal the aluminum skin with modern sealants, pull the old cellulose insulation, spray in foam and then add solid wood fixtures. They sell these trailers for a bundle, catering to high dollar customers. Alas I cant afford the services of these companies. The point is that the trailer itself, the shell, the frame, the window framing and so on, are actually so well built that they can be gutted and renovated even though they are 60 to 70 years old.

Now contrast this with the 10 year old fiberglass vacubonded construction. Usually a 10 year old trailer or camper is a MESS. Any slight impact to the trailer will cause a hole that has to be fixed by replacing the whole wall or doing some half baked fiberglassing job. A window failure (which I have had in 2 trailers) can often crack the wall itself. They ALL seem to leak all over the place from the "modern" rubberized roof through to the internal structure. Helping a friend fix his camper we found a ton of wood rot below the window but we couldnt do much at all because we would have to cut out half the wall and didn't have the equipment to vacubond a fix. I don't even want to think about what the price of a quote to repair the camper from a manufacturer would be. He might as well buy a new camper (which he eventually did). If you want to be really scared about your camper, pull off a window and look into the area around the window. Not only is there virtually no sealing around the window (tell them to run to home depot and get some "great stuff" but the actual wall construction will scare you.

So the question pends, "Why do they build them this way?" Well, lets put aside nefarious purposes for the moment; such as wanting it to break so they sell another camper. Assuming that isn't the case, most manufacturers will tell you that labor is the highest cost they have. Little wonder with all the unions in Indiana and workers being paid 50$ an hour plus benefits that no small business can easily afford to lay up fiberglass. So they build the trailers to reduce labor as much as possible and that means going as cheap as they can. When it comes to materials they skimp as well. They have fancy names for what amounts to little more than cardboard in strength; they call it "Luan Board". They use OSB and MDF all over the place to save money because, although solid wood would be lighter, the MDF and OSB is cheaper. I am also convinced that Vacubonded Fiberglass construction is either a Trailer salesman's wet dream or devised solely for the purpose of saving money, not making superior walls. What modern trailer wall doesn't leak heat like a sieve? Even the manufacturers don't want you to know how little actual framing is in the walls so they wont give you stud blueprints so you can do something as exotic as hang a picture of your kids on the wall without using half a roll of duct tape. They come up with all sorts of reasons of "trade secrecy" in not giving the blueprints but the reality is that is all BS; as if the manufacturers don't all build almost the same way.

Now if you go really expensive like an airstream you get good craftsmanship but it is going to cost you. An airstream that can sleep one man, a dog and a small bird will cost you upwards of 60k. But thats the market they cater to and I can neither afford them nor do they build truck campers anyway.

So I plan to build my own. Put in a lot of craftsmanship, overbuild it for off-roading in the hunting back country, outfit it with a Kimberly Gassifier Wood Stove, have double insulated tanks and all sorts of stuff that I will never get out of any line assembly manufacturer. In the process I plan on filming the whole thing (after the design is done) and posting what plans I make in my cad system up on this board. I am not an engineer or an architect, I am just a guy that wants a good product built "the old fashined way".

Ok, maybe it was a rant. :) Please feel free to leave your feedback and rants below.
 
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Philp100

Observer
I have to agree with you on overall quality of these units. Whenever I have to open a cabinet on my TC which is a fleetwood product and see those wires hanging loosely I cringe. Fortunately my uses are very mild so it works for what I use it for. I have considered building my own camper but when I look at the amount of labor and dollars to do it nicely I think the Airstream trailers might just be a bargain! What construction methods are you thinking of using? More importantly when does the build start? I'm looking forward to the build thread. Back to quietly lurking.....

Phil
 

VanIsle_Greg

I think I need a bigger truck!
Agreed.
We own a 2009 Coachman Clipper 108 ST trailer. It is loaded with all the goodies, power, water, toilet, fridge/stove/kitchen in and out, 2 queen beds and sleeps a total of 7. It is also held together with glue, staples and the odd poorly installed screw. If I were to give it a 1-10 rating for build quality, I would give it a solid 4.

Don't get me wrong, we love the trailer, and it has served our family well. We looked at a TON of comparables, and the one thing that stood out, all were built the same...poorly. Actually many are built int he same place even. It works great, it is warm and dry and comfortable, but it is not built to take a beating. I would NOT haul this on an extended gravel road or FSR, it would not fare too well I fear. The one thing I will say, the exterior vinyl for the pop outs is superb! It is backed with fleece like fabric, it will not mold, sweat, leak and it is rated at 25 years in direct sunlight for UV protection (I still hit it with 303 spray). Great stuff and looks new 4 years later.

Build your own, be proud and use appropriate construction adhesives and lots of stainless screws!!
:)
 

kraythe

New member
Well I am still working on a design for the frame that will be easily constructible and yet still have the strength and flex to do the job right. I am considering a number of construction ideas from space frame based to standard aircraft rib and skin. I don't really have the plans set at this time. They all have their pros and cons. I could go with a space frame based structure using closed tube, or I could go with a C channel structure. There is also the question of aluminum vs steel. Aluminum is lighter but once you build to the strength of steel you might as well use steel and put in 1/3 of the weight of steel. I will be posting a build thread soon once I figure out the right direction and get something going in my cad system.
 
As a aircraft mechanic by trade I love airstreams. I have often thought of building a slide in pop up camper built with stringers and frames. Only problem is time to fabricate the whole thing, it would take a few years. So far I like XP campers and look forward to seeing the one built for a Tacoma sized truck. It is a composite sided camper and fortunately I have the ability to do vacuum bonded repairs if it gets damaged. I have visited the 4 Wheel Camper factory in California and was not impressed with the manufacture process. Very little use of sealants, siding was stapled in areas and poor insulation. I look forward to your build!
 

spd2918

Observer
I feel your pain. The cost of doing business (which will now be going way up) means these companies have to cut corners and invest less into research and design. Going your own way is fun, but know it will be expensive. The mistakes you make will cost you time and money, but in the end you will have created something unique. Good luck and post up your experience for us all to learn from.

I like the shell and roof system on Four Wheel Pop Ups. I bought an older model and will be redoing its interior counter and cupboards. For the money I spent I cannot build anything like its aluminum frame and skin. That might be a good starting point for you.
 

kraythe

New member
Well fortunately I have some skills in welding and blacksmithing I can call on. I am now planning on making something akin to a space frame as the main frame of the trailer. Basically this means that everything is triangulated such that all forces in the trailer are either in tension or compression rather than bending. This will allow me to use thin walled round tubing and still retain strength. The question is whether to use round tubing (stronger but harder to cut right) or square tubing (not as strong but easier to cut properly). The other question is whether to use aluminum (much harder to weld but much lighter) or steel (heavier, though not requiring as much as aluminum) and much easier to weld correctly.

I dont get why stud framed (i.e. house construction) is so predominate in the RV industry. Stick and plate construction for houses is designed for static structures, not things under dynamic loads. So I am going another route.
 

oldnslow

Observer
You have something in common with them

"I am not an engineer or an architect, ..."

I think you have at least two things in common with the majority of people who design those commercially made campers.
 

kraythe

New member
"I am not an engineer or an architect, ..."

I think you have at least two things in common with the majority of people who design those commercially made campers.
Nice! :)

Yeah I am looking at the frame pictures I can find online and it seems like a house framer was put on wheels. I don't believe that is entirely appropriate to creating durable vehicles, off road or otherwise.
 

Jeep

Supporting Sponsor: Overland Explorer Expedition V
I agree fully. It's profit driven like any other business catering to quantity. Bigfoot, Northern Lite, Airstream are the exception but pricey. I built my own rig out of aluminum framing and composite panels on a F-700 4x4 chassis after shaking apart 2 campers, 2 motorhomes, and a holiday trailer on nothing more than mild gravel roads. Aluminum is very easy to weld and work with, plus a lot cleaner and you don't have to worry about rust protection, if you forget everything you know about steel you will probably pick it up pretty quick. I also built a really nice unit for a Peterbilt truck using steel, the owner wanted to be able to do a bunch of work himself and was familiar with steel. It is definitely heavier even utilizing light wall materials and the design was using less footage than it would have if it were built from aluminum but it worked very well for the application, cost will be about the same once we powdercoat the entire frame/super structure, once it gets to that point. It's a fun project, be ready to put in a lot more time than you think, but have fun building it.
 

kraythe

New member
what composite panels did you use? How much were they? Where did you source them? And can they follow around curved corners (would like to make my camper a bit more aerodynamic.
 

Jeep

Supporting Sponsor: Overland Explorer Expedition V
They are Diabond panels, nice and light, strong, they will curve on a single plane. They weren't bad for money, I quit keeping track of costs after I added up the first batch of receipts! They were sourced through a large plastics distributor and they are heavily used in the commercial building and sign industry.
 

Ponyracer

Adventurer
I'm rebuilding my fiberglassed reinforced plywood box. I figure going to 3/8's from 5/8's will shed a few pounds. One question, what is everyones thoughts on mounting? I'm using a flatbed, and I'm on the fence about making a "soft" mounting system.

Thoughts about longterm durability of a camper that is hard mounted vs springmounted? I'm guessing that a soft mounted camper would last alot longer no matter how poor the construction.
 

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