My wife Sue and I have spent the past two years visiting many types of camper facilities in our quest to find the perfect camper for our needs. We’ve toured the factories at Sportsmobile, Four Wheel Camper, XP Camper, EarthRoamer, Hallmark, Outfitter, and Phoenix, and we visited the Overland Expo last year.
In the process, we’ve documented and written up each of those experiences in separate posts to provide you with an insider’s guide to purchasing a camper. Our goal was to do the hard legwork ourselves so you wouldn’t have to, and to document what we saw with honesty and transparency. In this post, I’m summarizing what we’ve learned in this two year journey. Hopefully, you’ll find this guide a useful tool in your decision making process.
First, a bit about us and our priorities:
We have been looking for a camper we can live in for an extended period of time (6+ months) while also having a vehicle we can still use as a daily driver. We’re looking for a camper that we can easily take on weekend or week-long trips, as well as a vehicle that we can take offroad on medium-difficulty trails (like that hard-to-reach deserted beach).
After visiting the Sportsmobile factory (our first stop) and feeling like the vehicle wouldn’t quite work as a daily driver, we quickly realized that a truck camper gave us the best all worlds: The ability to have a “home away from home” for an extended period of time paired with a very capable off-road vehicle, and the ability to take the camper off and use the truck as a daily driver. We then honed in on pop-up campers specifically due to their low profile which would allow us to leave the camper on when we were using the truck as our daily driver, if we wanted to.
I’ve written up specific posts about each facility we visited. In this post I’ll compare and contrast the various manufacturers while segmenting your options by price point and utility. Let’s get started!
Budget Under $10,000: Weekend Warrior
If you have less than $10,000 to spend, your pop-up truck camper options are a bit limited. You can either buy a new mass-produced truck camper, or you can buy a used version of some of the campers listed below.
As far as new campers go, the market is dominated by the Palomino Bronco. We found this power seller on eBay that sells new Palominos in the $7,000 range — about $2k to $3k less than anywhere else we’ve found. Although we’ve only exchanged a few emails with him, he has a solid positive rating on eBay and he’s been selling Palominos at this steep discount for several years now. (Note: Because he’s selling at under MSRP, he can’t show the brand names, but most of the pop ups are Palominos.)
Even if you think you might want one of the more expensive campers, it’s not a bad idea to start with a Palomino so you can really learn about what you do & don’t like in a pop-up camper. This is an approach that Sue and I strongly considered. However, we’ve moved away from it because of something we realized is true of all the truck camper manufacturers priced under $50k: They’re built as RVs, not as true expedition-grade vehicles.
What I mean is that all the manufacturers use less expensive building methods and materials than we’re comfortable with. You’ll find framing that’s held together with staples, lots of caulking to cover seams, and other typical RV industry quality of work. This isn’t to say that this approach isn’t valid: The RV industry thrives on making its units just good enough, and if you’re only taking your camper out for the occasional weekend trip, or maybe an extended trip of a week or two, then the approach would likely be fine.
But that’s not what we wanted: We wanted a camper we could be confident taking to remote parts of the world for an extended period. We wanted a camper that we knew wouldn’t leak — and even if it did leak, that it wouldn’t matter, because water wouldn’t ruin the framing. We wanted a camper that avoided the typical RV build quality approach and instead used marine-grade components throughout (the boating industry, due to the harshness of the salt water environment, typically has to use much higher grade materials than the RV industry).
We found that to achieve this level of quality, we’d have to spend over $50k on a camper. That’s a lot of money for a weekend vehicle, but it’s reasonable if you’re looking for a home for an extended period of time, like we are.
So, in sum, at this cheapest price point of $10k or under, you’ll get much of the value that you will with any camper under $50k, which really means that you’ll get much of the same lack-of-quality. So, spending $7k to get started in the camper lifestyle isn’t a bad idea, and in fact there are many people who love their Palomino Broncos and have had them for years.
The other option at this price point is to get a used camper from one of the brands listed below. The manufacturers typically will have a few used units on hand for sale on consignment, or you can use the nationwide Craigslist search tool AdHuntr to perform some searches.
Budget Under $30,000: Hallmark, the best of the soft-sided Pop-Up Campers
For $20,000 to $30,000 your options expand to several much more custom pop-up truck camper manufacturers, including Outfitter, Phoenix, Four Wheel Campers and Hallmark, all of which we visited and did extended factory tour videos of.
The choice was stunningly clear after visiting: Hallmark makes the best camper in this price range, hands-down. Their build quality is far superior to either Outfitter or Phoenix. Their shop is bigger, busier, and cleaner. Hallmark uses one-piece roofs that can easily lift and hold 500 lbs of gear, floating walls that aren’t bonded to the sub-structure, and a wide range of exotic materials including Coosa and bamboo. Matthew, one of the owners, was very accommodating in answering a series of emails from me over a period of several months, and was obviously proud of Hallmark’s product.
Outfitter has some great camper designs but the product quality was poor in some instances, and I didn’t see the same attention to deal as I did with Hallmark campers.
The Outfitter facility was small, messy and disorganized — a stark contrast to Hallmark’s facility. Four Wheel Campers take a more basic camper approach, and some people love them for their simplicity and ruggedness, but again we saw a generally low quality of craftsmanship and material choice that permeates the RV industry at large and keeps all of these campers from truly being expedition-ready vehicles. Phoenix campers, while fully custom, seemed to have the lowest build quality overall from all the campers we saw.
One of the most interesting things for campers in this category is the framing material choice: Outfitter swears by aluminum, as does Four Wheel Campers, while Matthew at Hallmark prefers wood. There’s a great video in the Hallmark write-up where Matthew talks through the pro’s and con’s of wood vs. aluminum vs. Coosa.
UPDATE 12/2013: There's also a new, smaller & cheaper XP Camper called the "V2" based on a Tacoma or Tundra chassis that's coming on the market. Sue and I have been test driving it pretty extensively. Below are some pictures, and you can find a full gallery of V1 and V2 pics here. It costs under $40k and might be worth considering in this price range. We'll do a full writeup at some point -- if you want it sooner, please ask for it in the comments below! You can also read up about it in the XP Forum.
Budget Under $100,000: XP Camper is an Expedition-Ready home away from home
If you can stretch your budget up towards or just past $100k, then you enter territory where the dynamics completely change. I’d strongly suggest finding a way to get to this target, even if you think it’s unattainable. For example, USAA offers 100% financing specifically for pop-up campers, at a 5.25% interest rate. If you only have $30k to spend on a camper and you’re willing be aggressive with financing (not for everyone), I’d suggest considering the following: Put that $30k into an interest-bearing account with GE Interest+ (the highest-paying interest rate I’ve found on a checking account) and plan on spending approximately $752/month on a camper payment for a $70k camper over a 10 year loan (you could also spend $560/mo for a 15 yr loan). Your $30k will give you over 36 months’ worth of camper payments. Then, in 36 months, you may be able to sell the camper for the $52k you’ll still owe on it (74% of the original price) since demand will likely outstrip supply for the XPs for the foreseeable future. Again, this is a more aggressive strategy, but just something to get you thinking creatively.
Sam & Erica were leaving on a trip and let me take this video tour of their XP V1. You can find their travel blog here.
I consider XP Camper V1 to be the best value in this $100k-range category, and indeed the best value overall at any price point. I wrote up a detailed post about XP Camper's V1 uni with over an hour of video and many pictures showing the design decisions the owner Marc has made when designing the XP Camper from the ground up to be expedition-grade.
Here’s one example: The XP has a 75 gallon fresh water tank. Other pop-up campers have a 20 to 30 gallon tank. With an XP, you can stay on that beautiful, deserted beach for 2 to 4 times longer than you could with any other pop-up camper without running out of water. In fact, two people using 1 gallon of water each per day could boondock for over 30 days in an XP camper, vs 10 to 15 days in any other pop-up.
If you’re willing to spend a bit over $100k then you could go the Sportsmobile route. A huge advantage of the Sportsmobile is its pass-through design — where a pop-up camper is a separate unit from the truck, a Sportsmobile is one contained unit and the camper area can be easily accessed from the cab. However, to us, this was also the biggest drawback of Sportsmobile and the reason we took it off our shopping list: You always have to carry your camper with you. We wanted the flexibility of being able to use the vehicle as a daily driver, or for hauling, while still having an expedition-grade home that we could drop in.
UPDATE: 1/14: I wrote an update detailing why the XP Camper won for us over the Sportsmobile on Expedition Portal. The thread got pretty heated, with lots of opinions! If you're considering a Sportsmobile, I recommend you read through the thread to get opinions on both sides.
Another option in this price range is a used EarthRoamer. When we visited the EarthRoamer factory, there were two used units for sale between $100k and $125k. Again, due to the permanence of the EarthRoamer camper on chassis, it wasn’t the right fit for us, but it’s a very good option in this price point. We would pick a used EarthRoamer over a new Sportsmobile if we were going to go this route.
Budget $200k and above: True Expedition Luxury
We didn’t explore this price point in detail because it doesn’t interest us too much — we’d rather put our hard-earned money into traveling vs. into a vehicle to the extent possible. However, we were pretty impressed when we visited the EarthRoamer factory. Maybe someday we’ll revisit a camper in this price point, but for now we feel the XP Camper provides much of the value of an EarthRoamer at a fraction of the cost. In fact, one of the things we like about the XP is its airy and open floorplan, which you don’t get on an EarthRoamer. Having the cab passthrough on an XP would be nice, though.
There are other manufacturers in this price point that we did not explicitly review since we’re not planning on buying in this price range, including Global Expedition Vehicles and Unicat. You may want to research these in more detail if you want to buy in this price point.
Conclusion: XP Wins in almost every category
The choice for us is a no-brainer: The XP Camper V1 is the clear value choice despite its increased cost over the other pop-up camper alternatives. XP also wins on security, since it has a hard-shell design and the windows are rendered inaccessible when the top is down. The XP has the highest quality components, the largest water tanks, the shell is waterproof by design (and even if water enters the unit, it won’t damage the frame since it’s a true vacuum bonded monocoque composite fiberglass and kevlar design), and it has copious amounts of storage. It even has heated floors due to its single-fuel, super efficient Webasto forced air design.
Although the XP Camper is the least customizable of all the pop-up campers due to its construction as a vacuum composite monocoque shell, the design choices XP made are perfect for us, so we don’t feel that any modification is necessary. That says a lot about the XP, because with every other manufacturer we were looking to do a lot of customization. However, if you want to make a number of changes to the design, the XP may not be the right choice for you.
We love that with the XP, we get an 8’9? camper on a 6.5? bed truck, as XP makes a custom flatbed that’s 8’10? long even when the original bed is just 6.5?. And since the XP is built from the flatbed up instead of having to sit inside a traditional pickup truck bed, we get a substantial amount of increased storage and living space with the XP. Add in marine-grade components, single-fuel all-diesel functionality by way of that very efficient Webasto unit, a huge skylight above the bed that opens, the ability to fully sit upright while in the bed, and a myriad of smart design decisions and quality construction, and the XP just completely distances itself from all the other options.
If we weren’t as sold on the XP, then we would be considering a Hallmark camper, for us specifically the Milner model, which is Hallmark’s most compact model.
UPDATE: 12/13: Sue and I have bought "Panda", a 2008 Dodge Ram 3500 Dually, to be the platform for our XP Camper, which we've now put a deposit down on. More to come!
I hope that writeup helps. Since I’m so impressed I am by the XP Camper, it’s very likely I’ll dedicate some of my time and resources to help the owner Marc make XP a better known option, and it’s also very likely that Sue and I will buy an XP ourselves, although we haven’t yet. So in the future, you’ll likely see a lot more involvement from me with XP, which may influence your perception of this article. So let me just state for the record that as of the time of this post I have no financial connection to any of these manufacturers, and no incentive to promote one over any of the others.
Take the time to make your own informed choice, which should include a visit to all of the manufacturers if possible — or at least, watch all of the videos I took when we visited ourselves — so you can really evaluate each of them for your needs.
Lastly, good luck, and I’ll see you on the trails!