Escaping 2020 with the 10 coolest mini campers of the year
As the world struggled to deal with COVID-19 and a "new normal" that included greatly reduced travel options, the RV surged in popularity. And what better introduction to the RV category than a mini-camper that's more affordable, more versatile and easier to maneuver on the way to camp? You give up some of the comforts of a huge motorhome or fifth-wheel, but you gain back some of flexibility and freedom that 2020 so famously took away. It's not surprising, then, that the year welcomed some of the tiniest, most innovative mini- and micro-campers we've ever seen, from ultralight trailers that expand out into comfy micro-suites, to three-wheeled campers that power over both land and water with solar-backed electric motors.
Despite weathering nearly two months of unprecedented industry-wide shutdown, US RV shipments are on pace to surpass 2019 levels this year, according to the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association, setting the stage for a potential all-time record in 2021. In Germany, Europe's largest RV market, new leisure vehicle registrations already set a new annual record in November, surpassing 100,000 in a calendar year for the first time ever, as tracked by Europe's Caravanning Industry Association. In Australia, it's been called the Golden Age of the caravan. Things have been going well for the industry.
Still, with major shutdowns and trade show cancelations hampering plans, it could have easily been a quiet year for new premieres. But it didn't feel that way at all, and the new products kept coming. All categories were represented, including huge highway and off-road motorhomes, but it seemed like there was just a little more focus on small, capable campers designed to lighten footprints and, in some cases, double as everyday drivers without major conversion headaches. We've seen some of the sized-down pickup campers that could also fit in this category, and here are the vans, trailers and ... "others."
Beauer X-Van expandable camper van
Need a camper van that drives small but lives larger at camp? The French-made Beauer X-Van, which debuted during the all-too-short part of the year in which events proceeded without a hitch, drives around as a regular midsize van but expands into a full-size van space at camp. The X-Van isn't actually a van but an electrically actuated expansion module that extends just over 3 feet (1-m) out the tailgate to create a dedicated rear bedroom. The design allows campers to leave the rear seating and dining table in place, unlike in the average midsize camper that requires folding the rear bench to make the bed. Add a pop-up sleeper roof and sleep four people. The module and kitchen work with a variety of midsize vans and debuted at CMT 2020 equipped to a 195-in (495-cm) Peugeot Traveller. Beauer's equipment removes easily when camping season ends, bringing the van back to people/cargo-moving stock form.
Easy Caravanning TakeOff pop-top trailer
Like a pop-up camper van miniaturized and lightened to towable form, the TakeOff caravan travels small, dropping below the height of a Fiat 500 at just 4 feet (1.2 m). Upon arrival to camp, its roof rises up electrically in 30 seconds, opening up a surprisingly spacious living area that maxes out at 6.7 feet (2.1 m) high. We initially expected to see a simple, teardrop-like interior with just a mattress, but Dutch startup Easy Caravanning manages to fit in a proper daytime/nighttime floor plan with a multi-position dual-bench dinette that converts to a 63 x 81-in (160 x 206-cm) super-queen bed. It even adds an available indoor/outdoor kitchen, with dual-burner stove, sink and fridge, and available portable toilet, giving campers everything they could want from a compact, 1,650-lb (750-kg)-GVWR camping trailer that tows behind small cars just as easily as diesel trucks.
Kia Ravy pop-up camper
The stars of the tiniest-of-the-tiny camper category tend to hail from Asian countries like Japan and South Korea, and the Korean-designed Kia Ravy is definitely one of this year's stars. Measuring less than 142 inches (360 cm) from bumper to bumper, the Kia Ray is an unlikely camper van candidate, but that doesn't deter converter Daon TNT. It makes the Ray a fully functional camper van by using the entire length and width of the interior to house an admirably sized 49 x 79-in (125 x 200-cm) double bed. With no interior space left over for a kitchen block, the company gives the van a rear slide-out mini-kitchen and even hangs dishes right on the window shades. The tiny camper actually sleeps four thanks to a second bed in the pop-up roof and comes complete with an onboard electrical system and heating. It's the type of adorable van build that now has us looking at every small hatchback on the road, wondering, "Could that be a pop-up camper van, too?"
Volkswagen's all-new California Caddy
Volkswagen's own mini-campervan enjoyed a full suite of bumper-to-beyond-bumper improvements during 2020. First, the fifth-generation Caddy van debuted in February, bringing with it a raft of the latest technologies, including an available digital cockpit, full-range adaptive cruise control and trailer assist. Volkswagen followed the van up with the September premiere of the first 5th-gen camper, changing its name from Beach to California to reflect the new model's full camper capabilities. That means an available slide-out mini-kitchen in addition to an updated folding bed that can operate with or without the folding rear seats installed. It also means a newly available expansive tailgate tent increasing the size of the impressive base camp. The smaller 177-in (450-cm) Caddy California launched this year, and Volkswagen plans a larger 191-in (485-cm) extended-wheelbase version for 2021.
Lumberjack folding off-road squaredrop
An Australian Outback-grade camper trailer that expands out into an all-day living space, the 17.7-foot (5.4-m) Lumberjack Birdsville makes for one intriguing off-road squaredrop. Usually squaredrops and teardrops feature hard roofs and tiny two-person interiors filled out by a single mattress, but the Birdsville's forward-folding roof creates an integrated tent top that teams with the trailer body to create a livable four-person interior. A queen bed fills out the front overhanging section of the tent, while the rear section creates standing room next to a pair of bunk beds. During the day, those bunk beds transform into a sofa for lounging around inside and enjoying entertainment on the LCD TV and Bluetooth/CD sound system. Cooking takes place outdoors under the wraparound awning, where one slide-out packs the dual-burner stove and sink and a second slide-out provides space for a fridge/freezer.
Contravans Ford Transit Connect Family mini-camper van
An affordable mini-camper van in the United States — a real unicorn, right? Not anymore, as Contravans has been proving with its all-in-one camper kits for several years now. This year, one of its big projects saw the 190-in (483-cm) Ford Transit Connect become a five-person mini-camper with an impressively affordable price tag. The flamboyantly wrapped conversion included a camper package with folding rear bed and simple slide-out rear kitchen with portable dual-burner stove, 36-L fridge drawer and pressurized water canister. It also included a 50-Ah lithium battery and a fold-out hardshell roof-top tent from Roofnest. The model pictured was based on a used Ford Transit Connect and priced at $35,000 when we covered it earlier this year, but even a brand-new model priced in under $43,000 — an exceptionally affordable price for a US camper van.
Lux Form's all-Russian 4x4 mini-motorhome
After hearing our own Loz Blain describe his past Lada experiences, the company's vehicles would never be our first choice for joy-journeying into the great wide open. But that doesn't make the idea of a Lada Bronto 4x4 mini-motorhome any less intriguing on paper. Measuring in at a mere 194 in (493 cm) long, the Bronto motorhome from Russia's Lux Form is an impressive, little 4x4 expedition RV for two people. The interior distinguishes itself from mini-camper vans with a walled-off floor plan that includes a full wet bathroom along with a kitchen, dinette and expandable 62 x 78-in (158 x 198-cm) queen bed. Also on board are a cabin heater, water heater and electrical system. Few to zero other alcove motorhomes we've looked at offer the same level of compact, nimble off-roading and comfortable living.
Z-Triton electric trike/boat camper
Never before did we dream we'd be using the term "amphibious electric trike camper," but all it took was 2020. The 11.8-foot (3.6-m) Z-Triton from Latvian design firm Zeltini is the most bizarre camper we looked at this year, an oddball concoction blurring the lines between mini-motorboat, electric trike and two-person micro-camper. On land, the rider sits high atop the big, penny-farthing-like pedaled front wheel, relying on a combination of leg power and dual-250-W e-motor output to move the steel-framed plywood/fiberglass boat-camper along. On water, the rear wheels flip up to make room for pontoons, the vessel swings around 180 degrees, and a small electric outboard motor takes over propulsion duties. The extra-cozy interior sleeps up to two people and a small dog snugly. Since we covered the Z-Triton, Zeltini has put it up for preorder with base price listed at €10,000 (approx. US$12,200), hoping to begin production in 2021.
Outclass Suzuki Every off-road camper van
The Kia Ray may have been the most unlikely little vehicle to become a camper van this year, but it wasn't actually the smallest we looked at. That honor goes to the 134-in (340-cm) Suzuki Every van that Japanese tuning shop Outclass turned into a proper 4x4 expedition camper. Most of Outclass' work went into the outside of the van, where it added in an adjustable off-road suspension, skid protection, ruggedized bumpers, front winch, Maxxis Buckshot Mudder tires and other dirt-ready upgrades. The camper side of the upgrade wasn't nearly as extensive, or as intricate as other camper van packages, but it did have a fold-down double bed that transformed into an L-shaped sofa, plus a tent on the roof. Interior crossbars just below the ceiling kept fishing rods or skis safe and out of the way. Outclass designed it as a show van, so lifted Suzuki Every 4x4 camper vans won't likely be filling up Japanese campgrounds anytime soon.