Hitchin' a ride: The camping trailers and toy haulers of Overland Expo East

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Trailers on display at Overland Expo East 2016(Credit: C.C. Weiss/New Atlas)

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Trailers were really the story at this year's Overland Expo West show back in May, and we found things were much the same on our first-time trip to Overland Expo East. If anything, the wide trailer field was a bit more diverse out in North Carolina, encompassing the usual rugged, expedition-ready teardrops, boxes and beds we were expecting, but also including affordable, barebones street trailers left to the buyer's imagination, well-established imports launching in the US market, and even the car-hauling Nuthouse Acorn. It appears the US trailer industry is doing just fine, from the purple mountains, through the plains, onward to the Atlantic Coast.

Overland (and sea) from South Africa

One of the interesting trends we noticed at the show was tried-and-true gear from overseas markets making its American debut. Places like South Africa and Australia are known for building some of the most rugged off-road trailers and campers available, but many of those models and makes don't have much, if any, presence in the US market. That's changing, at least for a few notable brands ... and the marketing for "safari-" and "outback-" proven trailers all but writes itself.

The two trailer imports we looked at were from Conqueror and Imagine, both South African companies showing some of their first models to roll onto the American market. Both companies' trailers are compact polygonal blocks that blow up into generously sized outdoor living spaces via slide-outs, pop-ups, fold-downs and awnings. Bringing them over to the States hasn't been just a matter of dropping them onto a ship and carving out a piece of the market: each trailer had to be thoroughly reengineered around US-market specs and governmental regulations. For example, the electrics had to be changed over to 110V, and Imagine also mentioned having to add an extra safety component to the propane system to meet US regs.

Conqueror Urban Escape Vehicles

Conqueror's UEV models were the first trailers we looked at at the whole show, and they remained among the most impressive throughout. Conqueror is actively getting its lineup to the US as we type, offering the UEV-310 Extreme, UEV-390 Extreme, UEV-440 Extreme and UEV-490 Extreme. The models follow the Australian-market naming convention, not the South African, and the three largest models' numbers line up with their approximate lengths (tongue all the way back to outside of the spare tire) in centimeters. The UEV-310 actually measures 370 cm (12.1 ft), as diagrammed on Conqueror's US website. At OX East, the company had both a 490 and 440 on display.

The 4 to 5 berth 490 is the Conqueror flagship. The distinctive shape of the electro-galvanized steel body shell stands out amongst the boxes and teardrops more common on the American market and offers an optimized departure angle via the sliced lower rear. It rides on an independent suspension system with Tough Dog heavy-duty shocks.

The pop-top interior lies behind two entry doors with fold-out steps, housing a dinette that converts into a two-person bed (it can also work as dual single beds) and a front fold-out double bed. The included "rally tent" with side walls and available wraparound bat wing awning offer more sheltered space outside the trailer shell, including over the kitchen, where a modular slide-out with 90-liter National Luna refrigerator, Dometic stainless steel two-burner cooktop and wash basins combines with side cupboards, drop-down worktops and included cutlery and crockery to prep, make and clean up meals. There's also an electro-plated BBQ grid mounted to the spare tire.

Other standard features include a cabin pressurization system to prevent dust leaks, fold-out shower tent and 130-liter water tank. Options include diesel and propane heaters, air conditioning, solar power, lithium battery, portable toilet and bunk bed for use in the tent area.

While we said South Africa is known for tough off-road trailers, we didn't say it is necessarily known for cheap ones. The UEV-490 Extreme starts at US$42,650 before optional extras, while the UEV-440 lists at $38,750, the 390 at $27,750, and the 310 at $17,820. The company's North American operations are based out of Ohio and can be found online here.

Imagine Trailvan

Another impressive, little wheeled lockbox from the southern tip of Africa, the Imagine Trailvan is a compact off-road caravan, measuring in at 12.5 ft (3,820 mm). Thanks to two fold-outs and a full pop-top, it can accommodate three or four within its modest footprint. The four-adult model simply swaps out some wardrobe space for a two-person bed in the side fold-out. Both models include a primary two-person bed in the separate front fold-out, and the three-person (two adults and a child) model, which was the one Imagine showed at Overland Expo, has a single bench bed located in front of the side fold-out.

The Trailvan has two individual kitchen pull-outs. The long, horizontal one includes a sink, dual-burner stove, worktop lids and drawer, and the second holds a refrigerator. There's also a cabinet above the stove/sink area with sliding drawers, swing-out shelving units, foam inserts to keep breakables in place when rolling over bumpy terrain, and a flip-up cover.

Trailvan standards include an 85-liter water tank with pump, 102-Ah deep cycle battery with charger, LED lighting, aluminum camping table, awning and front load box. It rides on a hot-dipped galvanized steel chassis and leaf spring suspension with shock absorbers.

The model on display at Overland Expo East, which included extras like the awning side walls, was quoted at US$24,000. Other pricing is available upon request through Imagine's US import logistics partner, PA-based D.T. Gruelle Company Group, which can be found here.

Highland Expedition Outfitters T3

One of the lightest, simplest off-road expedition trailers of the show, the T3 from Tennessee's Highland Expedition Outfitters packs a HEO roof-top tent over top a lockable storage box. The aluminum-framed trailer weighs just 550 lb (249 kg) dry and comes standard with the 56-in tent, LED lighting, tongue box, and 31-in tires around steel wheels. It offers 32 cu ft (906 L) of storage capacity, so you can load it up with camping gear and roll out to your destination without adding too much weight or complexity behind your bumper. Options include awnings, Rotopax gas and water containers, a solar power package and Timbren Axle-Less suspension. Base price is $7,995. Contact HEO here.

Wee Roll MPV

The HEO T3 may have been the simplest, most affordable off-road camping trailer we spotted, but it wasn't the simplest, most affordable trailer. That would be the Wee Roll MPV, a tough but basic double-door trailer with an open interior that can be used to haul toys through the outdoors, move furniture, carry work equipment, sleep in or do whatever else you might do with a 4 x 8 x 4-ft+ (1.2 x 2.4 x 1.2-m+) trailer.

Florida-based Wee Roll bills the MPV as a "shark cage on wheels," highlighting its tough construction, which includes a 2 x 3 steel tube frame, welded steel backer plate, welded axle hanger between the leaf springs and frame to reduce stress on the frame itself, and diamond plate stone guards. The roof and sides are insulated, and a 5,000-BTU Frigidaire air conditioner comes standard.

Buyers also get interior/exterior lighting, their choice of Shaw Stainmaster wood-look flooring, a roof vent, side windows, a side door in addition to the double rear load doors, power outlets and TV wiring, a smoke/CO detector, 15-in wheels/tires and rear stabilizers. Beyond that, the MPV is a blank canvas – fill it with furniture, worktops and camping gear to use it as a camper or leave it empty and haul cargo. It appears plenty tough, but Wee Roll's lineup doesn't include an off-road-specific model ... yet. After making a last-minute decision to attend the off-road-focused Overland Expo, Wee Roll's Tom Cafaro seemed to be actively scoping out the other off-road trailers of the show and mentally planning his own super-tough version.

Prices for Wee Roll's three models range from $2,995 for the 4 x 8 x 4-ft model to $4,995 for the 6 x 8 x 5.5 ft (1.8 x 2.4 x 1.7 m), and financing is available. Weeroll can be found here.

Blue Ridge Expedition BRX1

A trailer in the much-loved off-road teardrop style, the BRX1 from Blue Ridge Expedition Trailers is a steel-framed, aluminum-skinned off-road "teardrop on steroids." It has the familiar layout of (queen) mattress-filled cabin and rear tailgate galley, though it goes about some things a little differently. Instead of hard-plumbing a stove into its trailer, Blue Ridge offers a slide-out drawer/worktop designed to accommodate a portable camping stove. That isn't so much to cut costs but to add more flexibility, allowing campers to use the stove at different angles, move it out of the way completely, etc.

Other standard equipment includes interior cabinetry, LED galley/cabin lighting, charging ports, a front gear box, 12V battery and ventilation fan. The trailer rides on Timbren Axle-Less suspension and 18-in wheels. Options shown on the display model include the cabin air conditioner, roof-top tent and Camp Chef exterior wall-mounted shower.

BRX1 pricing starts at $15,900 before options, and the Overland Expo East model was quoted at $24,900. Like many trailer companies, Blue Ridge also works with the customer to custom-build a trailer around his or her needs. Blue Ridge Expedition Trailers can be found here.

Check out our full photo gallery for all the exterior and interior angles we were able to photograph of the above trailers and the others around OX East.

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