Telescoping wooden caravan raises the roof on small living
Woodenwidget has managed to put a very interesting spin on the classic pop-up camper. It's designed a sort of wooden gypsy caravan with a two-part body that rises up at camp. The ingenious, little Slidavan tucks low to ride behind the car, then grows to full size to provide a comfy place to cook, eat, sleep and live. And Woodenwidget doesn't want to sell you a Slidavan; it wants you to build your own at home.
Like so many that end up building their own camping trailers, Woodenwidget founder Robin Benjamin, who's better known simply as "Benjy," started his journey somewhere around the intersection of frustration and disappointment. He was searching the market for a light, simple and affordable camping solution that would also be spacious and comfortable enough to not only sleep in, but to stand up and cook in. Large, heavy and/or expensive trailers were out. Teardrops were out. Claustrophobic or poorly designed caravans? No and no.
Being a boatbuilder and designer of some pretty innovative crafts for land and water, Benjy decided to rely on his own skills and design the perfect camper himself. He set out with a central goal of keeping weight below 1,100 lb (500 kg) to avoid added European regulations on larger trailers. He then let practicality, simplicity and functionality lead the way.
Benjy began his journey with a simple Norauto trailer chassis, thinking, sawing, fastening and finishing his way to something that fits comfortably between a pop-up trailer and a tiny home.
When you specialize in wooden creations meant to be replicated by DIYers with basic tools and materials, you learn to think about things in a different way than you might if you were building something exclusively for yourself or something to sell at an RV dealership. When it came to the Slidavan, that meant throwing out complications like a flawlessly rounded, aero-optimized shell. A more basic box-shaped body was chosen for its simplicity to build and ease of interior fitment - all right angles and straight lines.
"If the initial design is too complicated then the plans will be too," Benjy explains on his blog. "If I couldn't make the Slidavan aerodynamic, I could at least make it reduce in size when being towed. If you can make the caravan the same size and height as the tow car, you can cut down on drag massively."
So that's where he went with the design, rejiggering the idea of a pop-up roof as more of a pop-up body shell. The main body structure is an 8.4-foot-long (2.6-m-long) box with an upper half nesting over top the lower half during transit. At camp, the upper half rises from 5.6 feet (1.7 m) to a full height of 7.7 feet (2.3 m), opening up 6 feet (1.9 m) of interior headroom. The body is made from a sandwich construction of plywood and extruded polystyrene (XPS).
To get the upper to easily lift, Benjy first looked at the hardware on the Hi-Lo trailer but decided against an integrated hydraulic lift. Again, he wanted a simple design that people would be inclined to look at and say, "I can make that!"
So, the Slidavan uses a lead screw-based system that sets up in front of the dinette set, translating rotational motion into the linear motion needed for raising the roof. Torque comes from a simple battery-operated drill. The system stays in place with the roof lowered, so it's ready for immediate lifting at camp, then stores away under a bench when camping. It takes roughly 40 seconds to lift the upper half up, and four bolts then hold it in raised position. Benjy says the lift system weighs about 6.6 lb (3 kg).
The one slightly complicated part of the Slidavan design is the curved roof, a combination of wooden beams and waterproof PVC fabric. The curved shape was chosen to give the design more aesthetic appeal, open up headroom and help with moisture flow.
Campers enter the Slidavan through a rear split door, which also allows for easy loading of bicycles and other large cargo. A small kitchen flanks the doorway, offering space for a two-burner stove and sink. Benjy has left the other side more open for storage but mentions you could choose to add another worktop or a shower. The dinette can serve as two 6 x 2-foot (185 x 60-cm) beds or as a 6 x 5.3-foot (185 x 160-cm) bed when the middle is filled out with the seat back cushions. A removable table secures between the benches for dining.
Benjy has painted the front interior wall white, which helps illuminate the interior. It also doubles as a 60-in projection screen for watching movies - the type of thing for which you might have thought you'd need a rugged, US$55,000 pop-up. Simple LED strips hooked to the same 18V batteries that power the drill provide interior lighting at night. Those batteries also power USB ports.
All in all, the Slidavan weighs 661 lb (300 kg, 441 lb/200 kg for the camper unit, 220 lb/100 kg for the trailer) and measures 10.7 feet (3.3 m) in total length, including the trailer. That leaves 441 lb of potential payload to remain within the European-regulated 1,100-lb (500-kg) number that Woodenwidget designed around. Benjy works with a payload of 220 lb so as not to overwhelm his Fiat Panda 4x4.
Benjy has been testing the Slidavan out around France for weeks and says that it tows and handles with ease. On fuel consumption, he says, "Since I have owned Bernie [his Panda 4x4] I have never managed to average better than 7.4 L/100 km (32 US mpg). The Panda 4x4 was never a very economical car with it's lofty stance, fat tires and 4WD system, but after 1,000 km (620 miles) of varied driving, I was surprised to see that my average had barely increased to 7.7 L/100 km (31 US mpg), and that's not just towing the Slidavan, that's with a well loaded car."
Benjy promises that even inexperienced builders can handle the Slidavan build, though it will take some time - about 200 hours' worth. The 100-page plans walk you through it with full instructions and more than 250 photos. Those plans cost £50 (US$64) and are available for immediate download upon payment. Benjy estimates that brand-new materials would run around £3,000 ($3,850), less for secondhand materials, though costs could obviously vary depending upon where you are and what you're buying.
The Slidavan is Woodenwidget's first vehicle that relies on motor power, but it's not its first caravan. It's also designed the equally innovative Foldavan – a 66-lb (30-kg), teardrop-style bike trailer that compresses like an accordion for storage and transport.
You can see more of Woodenwidget's collapsible wooden vehicles on its website, linked below. And for a fuller account of the Slidavan build, you can have a read of Benjy's blog, a particularly good idea if you're mulling over the prospect of taking the build on yourself.