One of the more intriguing tiny campers in the modern surge of adventurous teardrop trailers, the Escapod Topo combines rugged construction, compact design and killer graphics. A few months after we discovered it last year, we took one out for a long-weekend adventure, cruising down interstates, rambling over dusty track and snaking through sunset-red canyons to see what the teardrop camping craze is all about.

Not only does Escapod build and sell trailers, it also operates a rental operation out of its quaint headquarters in the even quainter town of Wanship, Utah, a highway-side hamlet of 400 people about 20 minutes outside of the year-round adventure paradise of Park City. This makes the Topo teardrop an interesting option for Utah tourists looking to visit the state's five national parks, wheel through the mountain bike mecca of Moab, head north to Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks, or enjoy any of the other innumerable outdoor recreation opportunities within a few hours' drive. It's also a good opportunity for those looking to try before they buy, and Escapod offers to credit up to three rental days toward a trailer purchase.

The journey

"Is that thing hooked on?" The question echoed around my head as Escapod's hometown disappeared away in the rear-view, the same rear-view I kept checking to ensure the Topo was indeed hitched up. Not particularly accustomed to towing a trailer, I had expected the 12.5-foot-long (3.8-m), 1,800-lb (816-kg, with water) Topo to make itself known immediately and always, but as I accelerated onto the interstate, it instead glided along quietly and effortlessly, only reminding of its presence with a slight tremble over bumps.

It's this type of light, easy towing that's driven the teardrop and small trailer craze, with a big assist from the healthy growth in camping and recreational vehicle sales in general. Gas prices in flux, cities growing ever more clogged, climate change hovering like an ominous storm cloud – trading in that heavy-duty pickup or eight-cylinder SUV for one of the many small, light, urban-friendly crossovers storming the market is continually looking better and better. And when you want to escape to the wilderness, small teardrops are a much more natural fit for such vehicles than massive fifth-wheel toy haulers.

Escapod doesn't merely build lightweight, nostalgic teardrops optimized for the simple, affordable vacations of yesteryear. Just like a number of fairly new competitors, including Timberleaf and Oregon Trail'R, it takes the teardrop, slaps on some seriously rugged armor and releases it unto the adventure-seeking masses, allowing folks to explore places that would leave lesser trailers gashed and axle-less and larger trailers dangling off mountain switchbacks. And exploring those types of places is what camping is all about, if you ask us. So why camp in something that can't get there?

Escapod starts things off with a 2 x 2-in steel-tube ladder frame that it hand-welds in its garage. That frame gets powder-coated and secured to a 3,500-lb (1,588-kg) Dexter torsion axle to cushion the 17-in Mickey Thompson wheels wrapped in Goodyear Wrangler Trailrunner 265/75/17 all-terrain tires. The plywood trailer body is skinned out in aluminum before the colorful and aesthetic vinyl gets wrapped on. The rugged steel fenders are built to step on, making it easier to access the tent or cargo up on the curvy roof. Long story short, the Topo is definitely not as cute as it looks.

Knowing the ins and outs of its hardwearing build ahead of time, we made sure to skip the paved auto tours of places like Zion or Arches national parks, opting instead to mine the gorgeous canyons of Southeast Utah's San Rafael Swell, a 1-million-acre hunk of BLM-managed painted desert, burrowing slot canyons, crumbling badlands and primitive campsites that sits northwest of Canyonlands National Park. Interstate 70 bisects the Swell into northern and southern sections, and it's just over a three-hour trip between Escapod's headquarters and the heart of the northern section we visited, a beautiful destination for a long-weekend camping trip in the spring or fall, offering the type of scenery you see in the backdrop of any off-road camper advertising (including Escapod's own materials).

The Topo continued to tow smoothly throughout the entirety of the drive south, and it attracted plenty of attention along the way, inspiring double-takes, smiles, waves and even a honk or two. Veering off the pavement for the dirt didn't interrupt the smooth towing much at all, and the Topo maintained its low profile on the bumpy gravel and dirt road to camp, save for the occasional tremble and rattle when rolling over bumps or ruts.

The Topo's 18 inches (46 cm) of ground clearance lent plenty of confidence in clearing obstacles (our Nissan Pathfinder only has about half that). Even my wife, who gets a bit skittish when driving off-highway, let alone towing, raved about the smooth ride. Happy camping starts with a happy ride.

Around camp

One of the great things about camping in a teardrop trailer versus a tent or complex RV – set-up is virtually non-existent. If it's dinner time, you pop the tailgate and get to work. If it's earlier or later, you pop the tailgate and grab a drink. If it's much later, you leave the tailgate closed, slide in one of the side doors and go to bed.

Our family of four had the optional Freespirit Recreation roof-top tent aboard the Topo roof to set up before dinner and spent about five minutes folding it out and getting it ready so we wouldn't have to mess with it later on. The stand-on fenders were a definite help during this process, as they were during teardown.

After that, the only set-up left was to pull a set of chairs out of the interior storage bin, pop the tailgate, grab a drink out of the cooler and sit down to take in the scenery.

Escapod equips the Topo with a kitchen that is noticeably simpler than some other teardrops. It relies on a Yeti Tundra 65 cooler in place of a standard electric fridge and an available hose and bucket in place of a hard sink. At first we thought this might be a downside, but it actually worked out quite well, at least for our three-day trip.

A teardrop galley is cramped enough when preparing a main course and sides for dinner, so the longer worktop freed up by the lack of inbuilt sink was put to good use in holding food, serving plates, utensils and other necessities throughout the process. A lid over top an inset sink could have served much the same purpose, but we preferred the uninterrupted flow of the stainless steel.

The wash bin, meanwhile, worked out just fine for cleaning the dishes, as you could easily stand it on the fender right next to the hose, then towel dry the dishes or place them on the galley counter to air dry. It wasn't perfect, as the hose tended to get caked in red dirt when it slipped off the fender – not ideal for cleaning water and less ideal for drinking water – but it was a trade-off we got used to. We also had a separate 27-L canister of drinking water handy, so we didn't use the Topo's 79-L water tank for drinking.

For customers who really don't like the lack of sink, Escapod can custom-build a Topo with hard-plumbed kitchen sink and other add-ons, but company founder Chris Hudak explained that he prefers to leave internally routed plumbing out of the build to avoid any problem with freezing and leaking. Basically, the smaller, the simpler, the better.

For longer off-grid expeditions, campers might prefer a fridge, but for our shorter trip, the cooler worked just fine. The Dometic dual-burner stove provided fast lighting and reliable cooking/boiling during our time with it, and it was the only means of cooking we used for the trip.

Bedding down

The Topo includes a door on each side, giving each of the two adults it's designed to sleep dedicated access in and out. Our family of four (two adults, two young children) was able to squeeze in all together, and our 90-lb (41-kg) Labrador retriever even managed to slide himself under the cabinets to sleep at our feet. The 5-in-thick (13-cm) mattress measures 80 x 57 in (203 x 145 cm), just 3 in (8 cm) narrower than a proper residential queen.

We only managed to get the whole family inside when sitting up and relaxing ahead of bedtime, though. Lying out to sleep all together would have been too tight, and we originally planned to split two and two, but instead the two children were able to enjoy the comfort of sleeping with mom, complete with a trusty lab at their feet, while dad stretched out all alone in the roof-top tent. Everyone slept well, and packing three people + furry friend into the insulated cabin provided natural warmth enough to fully combat outside temperatures dipping into the low 40s F (low single digits C). Dad's a warm sleeper so no issues upstairs, either.

The Topo interior includes upper cabinetry above the foot of the bed and a slim chest for the folding camp chairs at the head of the bed. This storage space provided plenty of room for flashlights and headlamps, a Bluetooth speaker, other miscellaneous camp supplies and dry, non-perishable food that didn't quite fit into the kitchen pantry. The Topo doesn't have as large a panoramic skylight as a trailer like the Timberleaf Classic or Vistabule, but the standard sky window strip over the head of the bed does let you fade to sleep while enjoying the majesty of the night sky – one of the true joys of camping.

A light strip behind the slim storage chest provides soft atmospheric lighting inside, while "porch" lights over each of the exterior doors light up the perimeter and make it easy to find your way in and out. The galley has an overhead light strip on the underside of the tailgate. The trailer includes a dedicated Interstate deep-cycle battery, and a 100-watt Renogy suitcase solar charging system is available optionally.

Day trips

One of the great things about a trailer, as compared to an RV built into or attached to the vehicle, is how easy it is to lock up, unhitch and leave at camp, something we did several times as we set out in daylight to explore various trails, pictograph sites and other points of interest. The trailer has a tongue weight of 125 lb (57 kg), and an integrated jack makes adjusting it on and off the ball hitch a straightforward process.

The lowdown

Prior to testing the Topo, I really wasn't at all intrigued by the idea of towing a camping trailer. I preferred to travel with an all-inclusive vehicle footprint, without anything rattling behind the bumper. A trailer seemed like it would become an inconvenience when traveling rough or narrow dirt and rock, limiting what I could do and where I could go. I also wasn't sure if I'd like trading my usual camping equipment (stove, cooler, etc.) for the stock kit on the trailer.

But the Escapod really outperformed all expectations and proved itself a great alternative to tent and motorhome camping, providing much-needed extra cargo space on the ride, offering a simpler, pick-up-and-go experience, and providing a more comfortable night of sleep than a tent, without losing the feeling of camping. It never felt like a sacrifice, and while we didn't drive it over anything that a stock crossover couldn't tackle, we wouldn't have hesitated, based on the hard-edged build and how it drove the rest of the way.

The choice between tent, roof-top tent, motorhome, large travel trailer, teardrop, etc. is one that generations of camping enthusiasts have faced, and the decision is different for everyone. A small trailer won't meet everyone's needs, but as a family that likes to get off the beaten path for primitive camping, we found much more "pro" than "con" to Escapod's teardrop.

Rolling forward

Our test came toward the end of the first-generation Topo's run, and Escapod was actively building some of the initial second-generation models while we were in the shop dropping off our test trailer. The rock-solid foundation remains the same, but Escapod has made some small but intriguing changes that promise to improve life at camp.

It's an overused cliche that's even found use as a custom camper van name, but the new 2019 Topo really is something of a camping Swiss Army knife, with several multifunctional components making it more capable and comfortable than before. The new kitchen cabinet design does away with the sliding doors in favor of pop-off HDPE doors. The larger door removes and secures to tracks on either trailer side to work as an outdoor table for prep, dining, dishwashing or whatever you need. It includes a leg for support., and the smaller door doubles as a cutting board.

The step-on fenders were already a handy convenience on the 2018 model, and the 2019 model has a lower first step at the front of each fender, making it easier to climb up. We did notice the fender required a bit of a stretch or small leap to get up on, so this addition will make things easier. Down below, Escapod is switching over to Dick Cepek Trail Country tires.

Another functional 2019 addition is the multipurpose interior cabinet door that quickly drops down to convert into a tablet holder/laptop desk for watching video or getting some remote work done. I'm a little embarrassed to admit, but I would find this addition quite handy for helping the kids wind down with a cartoon before bed.

The headboard has been angled to provide for more comfortable lounging, and its top now has leather-lined storage trays for everyday carry items like wallet and keys. Also stored here is the small remote control for the new lighting strip with incremental dimming. Access inside the headboard cabinet is now provided via a drop-down front panel rather than a top lid.

Beyond that, the updates are primarily cosmetic, starting with a smoothening of the roof curvature for an even more attractive teardrop shape. That's complemented by a slate of new multi-color options and accent routing on the interior cabinetry that matches the exterior topography theme.

The 2019 Escapod starts at US$16,500, well north of the $13,800 base price we reported in April 2018. The price is certainly competitive with other off-road teardrops, but buyers will want to pay close attention to options and standards, as Escapod makes certain things standard that are optional on other trailers and vice versa. For instance, the Yeti 65 cooler, awning and roof cross bars are all standard, but the water tank and dual-burner stove are optional add-ons. Other options include a cabin heater, water heater and shower system, fridge/freezer and various gear racks.

Lead time is currently about 13 months, and Escapod emphasizes that it's best to contact it directly for the most accurate build time estimate. Topo rentals cost $125 per day and come fully stocked with cookware and bedding.

The video below runs through the new 2019 features, providing a closer look at how they work.

More info: escapod.us

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