Article from 4wding Australia.
The travel and camping industry has exploded in recent years, and today there are more options for accommodation on wheels than you can poke a stick at. One of the more recent developments has been hybrid campers, which are a brilliant compromise between a caravan and a camper trailer. They tick a number of boxes from both categories, whilst being more compact and much lighter than a full blown caravan.
If you are wondering what a hybrid camper is, what to look for when buying one, who makes them, how much they cost and what your choices are, this is the ultimate guide. It is long, and I’ve tried to cover absolutely everything that you should know. For ease of reference, some people refer to these as Hybrid Caravans too.
What is a hybrid camper?
The term hybrid camper usually refers to a trailer that is part caravan, part camper trailer. In order to qualify they are lighter, smaller and more compact than a caravan, and often have a pop top. They are often lacking a permanent shower and toilet inside, although this isn’t always the case. Ideally they are less than 2 metres wide, and 2.3 metres tall when travelling, but this isn’t always the case.
In essence, a hybrid should be designed to go down a path that you can’t take a caravan due to weight and physical size. Unfortunately, this ‘hybrid’ word has become a bit of marketing term, and some companies are selling small caravans as hybrids. The exact definition isn’t defined anywhere either, but they are basically a cross breed, or a mongrel and that’s perfect for those who want a bit of both categories.
Why are hybrid campers so popular?
Camper trailers are amazing for the niche that they fill, but they can also be hard work, cumbersome and the level of luxury just isn’t there compared to a full blown caravan. The problem though is that a full blown caravan is costly, big, heavy and not able to be taken where a good quality camper trailer can be, and that isn’t a compromise that a lot of people are willing to live with.
On the flip side, whilst camper trailers are light, compact and easy to drag around they are often not nearly as comfortable to live out of compared to a caravan. They also have a heap of heavy canvas to deal with (especially when its wet), which is a common gripe amongst camper trailer owners.
Some clever cookie realised this, and brought the best of both worlds together, creating the ultimate compromise; a hybrid camper. These are not exactly new; there have been ‘hybrids’ around for many years, but today there is a range like no other, with enough options out there to leave you well and truly confused.
Being light weight and compact they are easy to tow, and use much less fuel than you would towing a full size van. Often they are the same size as a 4WD (when travelling), so they don’t create more wind resistance or problems when towing through tight tracks. When you get to camp, they expand (up or out, or both) and you get more room (but still not a huge amount!).
What do hybrid campers cost new?
Imported hybrid campers start off around the $40,000 new, with fully Australian made ones starting around the $55,000, and heading upwards to around $180,000 depending on what you want to buy.
They jump significantly in pricing levels, with the imported ones at the cheapest end of the scale, some Aussie and Chinese made in the middle, and then the remaining high end Australian made ones (AOR/Complete Campsite) and then a couple of super high end (Bruder).
Your budget is where you should start. There’s no point looking at 100k + hybrids if you don’t want to spend that sort of money! Obviously they are a whole lot nicer, and you’d expect that for the pricing difference.
Who makes hybrid campers?
There are a heap of hybrid camper trailer sellers. I say sellers, as not everyone who sells them makes them. This is important to remember; there are a lot of factories overseas making vans for several companies. Every day more add to the list, and here’s where we are today:
Mars Campers, Austrack Campers, Parks, PMX, Black Series, Blue Tongue, Far Horizon Campers, Modcon, Fantasy RV, Ezytrail, Jawa Campers, Opus, Eagle, Stoney Creek, Star Vision, Emu Campers, Trailblazers, Swag, Prime, Southern Cross, Opus. Apache, Lumberjack, Maverick and last but not least MDC.
Then, you have Jayco, Kelly Campers, Murraybilt, Vista RV, Condamine, Jurgens, Vanglass, Echo Kavango, Windsor, UEV, Noosa RV, Vision RV, Lifestyle Campers, Altitude, North Coast Campers, Zone RV, Track Trailer, Complete Campsite, Rhinomax Campers, BRS Offroad, Mountain Trail RV, Australian Offroad (AOR), SniperX, Kokoda, Lotus, Kimberley Karavan, Crzr and Bruder.
The list above starts off with the cheaper end of the market, and then moves to the more expensive ones. It also tends to start off with those that are fully, or partially made overseas, and then sold here in Australia, and moves to the fully Australian made brands. Please note the list above is not exact in those two criteria, due to the different models available. I would recommend looking further into the exact model you are looking at.
For example, the Lifestyle Iconn is made overseas, but the rest of the range that they currently sell is Australian made in their entirety. If I listed each model, this post would be much, much longer (and its long enough!).
What should you think about when buying a hybrid camper?
There’s lots of things to look for in a good quality hybrid camper trailer. The thing to remember is that you won’t get everything you want. There will be some form of compromise required, and getting something that is perfect in every way isn’t going to happen. You could say that a hybrid camper is the very definition of a compromise.
What do you want it for?
The first, and by far most important thing to think about is what you want the hybrid for. If you are looking for caravan luxuries in an Australian made trailer that will go anywhere you want it to go without breaking, this narrows your searching down dramatically to a few companies that can offer this.
If you just want some caravan luxuries along with a smaller footprint to explore some more of Australia off the beaten track, then your options expand considerably.
Stop to think about how you are going to use the trailer, where you want to take it, how long you are going to live in it for, how long you plan on keeping it and whether its really going to do what you have in mind.
Nothing is worse than buying a trailer and finding it doesn’t actually do what you need it to, and then having to sell it after just a couple of trips away. Unfortunately, some of this knowledge only comes from use, and its a big commitment to buy a trailer that you aren’t sure about.
For us, we wanted a trailer that was tough, as light as possible, that was nice to sleep in, cook out of, had plenty of storage and was easy to travel with. We don’t spend a huge amount of time at camp anyway, and wanted something simple, easy to use and robust. Others might want air conditioning, fancy lights and a toilet inside, and that means you are looking for something totally different to us.
I cannot stress this point enough; you need to match the trailer that you buy to your requirements, or you’ll be going through the same process again in a few months or years time. Not fun. To make this more relatable, you can read the post we wrote – Why we moved from a soft floor to a hybrid camper.
Indoor/outdoor kitchen and setup
The most common setup on a hybrid is to retain the outdoor kitchen. In many conditions, its nice to sit outside and do your cooking there. Of course, when its windy, raining, dusty or there’s nasty bugs around this is certainly not the case, and having a small indoor kitchen is greatly appreciated.
In fact, in these conditions, being forced to cook outside isn’t much fun at all, and I speak from experience. There are times where we’d much prefer an indoor kitchen, but its simply not possible in our setup.
The kitchen setup, space and user friendliness is one of the most important parts of a hybrid. Cooking is a big part of camping, and a poorly designed kitchen is asking for a bad experience. It needs to be easy to use, reliable, have plenty of easy to access storage, and if it offers some level of protection outdoors its even better.
On the subject of your kitchen, where your fridge is located is important. If its inside, and you are cooking outside, you have to make a trip in each time to get food. If its outside, and you have an internal kitchen, then the same applies. Small things, but it does make a difference to the overall comfort.
Consider if you need a freezer too, and if you actually have the option to split your fridge into one. Alternatively, does it have room for a secondary one somewhere else, and do you have the electrical system to run it?
Again, the kitchen location ultimately comes down to space. You cannot have bunks, an indoor kitchen, toilet and shower and a queen size bed without getting a much larger trailer (or one that expands), so you have to pick what’s most important.
Limited weight and size
The whole point of a hybrid is that its a compromise, and it should be significantly lighter and smaller than a full size van. I’ve seen a lot of hybrids that are not much smaller, and certainly not much lighter than a full size van, and then you have to question why you’d get one in the first place. Of course, if your intention is only to stick to the better roads, and you just want something with a smaller footprint then its a still a good option.
There are trailers today being sold as hybrids, which weigh 2.3 tonnes empty. I wouldn’t specifically call this a hybrid; they are really too heavy to be so. Sure, you’ll be able to get it into some tighter spots, but you will have huge difficulties trying to drag it through anywhere serious when its loaded up.
There are a couple of hybrid campers that weigh around 1200kg empty, with a more common weight for a fairly basic Australian made unit at around 1600kg empty. From there, it goes up considerably, with the rest weighing in at 1800kg to 2200kg empty, and that’s getting pretty heavy once you load them up. Interestingly, all of the Chinese units that I’ve seen are heavier than the Australian made competitors.
On the other end of the scale (excuse the pun!), the width, height and length play a very important role too. After helping my Dad navigate his 18ft full size off road van into a private riverside camp at El Questro, you have a new appreciation for a compact unit. If you have air conditioners, or vents, or antennas to catch tree branches it makes life much harder off road.
The lower it is when travelling the less fuel you’ll use, and the less likely you are to collect a tree branch overhanging. Width is an obvious one, with a wider trailer much more likely to get dented or scratched up off road.
The longer the van, the worse your entry and departure angles will be, and the more likely it will have a different turning circle to your 4WD. Anything over 16 foot though, is really going to make it harder to take to the less accessible locations. Does this really matter though? Only you can answer that!
Is it actually off road compatible?
There’s a lot of marketing spiel that goes on in the camper trailer, hybrid and caravan market. Off road does not necessarily mean its actually designed for off road. Every warranty will have fine print telling you what its actually covered for, and some ‘off road’ trailers are not meant to be taken beyond a gravel road.
Just because it runs mud terrain tyres and has lots of clearance doesn’t mean its actually designed to take a beating off road. There are lots of different variations of off road, and while some may call a rough gravel road off road, others refer to it as climbing rock steps and crossing deep, sloppy creeks.
The chassis design and material is a good place to build, as is dust suppression, suspension design, framing material and design and the list goes on and on. The structural side of your hybrid is hugely important, especially if you are going to load it up and work it hard off road.
What’s the warranty?
Going further than the above point, make sure you read the warranty in its entirety. If it snaps a chassis on the Gibb River Road, will they cover you? If the door falls off, or you get water damage through the roof after doing the Victorian High country will it be covered, who can you take it to for repairs, and where are they located?
Is it water proof, for crossing waters? Will you be covered if the suspension fails on a gravel road? Ask as many questions as possible, and if you aren’t happy, turn around and walk away. Of course, the warranty only has to be as good as what you want to do with the van. If you have no intention of flogging it down a 4WD track, then a more basic warranty is perfectly acceptable.
If you look very deeply into the difference between Hybrids, you’ll often discover some interesting component differences. Sometimes this doesn’t matter too much, and other times it can bite you, badly.
Let’s start with a few basic examples:
Independent suspension seems the norm for hybrid campers today. Cruise Master appears to set the standard in this field, with a few other well known brands out there. Almost every hybrid out there will run Cruisemaster, or a direct copy of this. I have seen some nasty failures of the copies, and its an integral part of your van, so pick wisely.
This is not to say that if its not Cruisemaster Suspension its no good, but you want to have evidence either way before committing.
On the subject of suspension, air bags are becoming more and more popular, and they can be extremely useful, but are not necessary. The ability to level your van, and lower it while travelling on road is fantastic, but not a necessity.
Thankfully, a most hybrids sold today are being done so with decent hitches. The DO35 seems to be the most popular, and they are a great hitch. Do not accept a trailer with a red poly block hitch. They are garbage, and fall apart. A true hybrid will not run a normal ball hitch either.
Tyres and rims
Part of the marketing with hybrids is to fit fancy rims and mud terrain tyres. This is a bit of bling, and makes the trailer look fancy. In actual fact, there isn’t really much benefit to running a Mud Terrain Tyre over an All terrain tyre on a trailer, but that’s a story for another day.
You should check the brand of the tyres, and see if you recognise it. A huge number of trailers today come with cheap, imported tyres. Given what rides on them (excuse the pun) its worth ensuring the tyres are up to scratch.
Again, some less recognisable brands are OK, but if they haven’t been proven you can risk a lot.
Batteries and bearings
The same can be said for batteries, and bearings. There are some top quality imported products, and there are some absolutely rubbish ones. These are critical parts, and you want them to be high quality, and easily replaceable when the time comes. Aim for well known brand name items like Full River, Renogy, Enerdrive, and Revolution for batteries and Koyo, Timken, NSK for bearings
It pays to keep a spare set of bearings with you too, as some are non standard, and trying to get them when you are in the middle of the bush is quite the challenge. This is a tell tail of a good manufacturer too; if they can’t get you a set of spare bearings quickly, you have a warning flag.
Again, there are lots of copies out there when it comes to water pumps. This might seem frivolous, but if you have full water tanks and can’t get it out easily, you can have a pretty significant problem.
Where is the steel made, that keeps your potential hybrid from falling to bits? If its not regularly tested, and suitable for an off road hybrid you can have nasty chassis or suspension structural failures, and that’s not good at all.
Where is it manufactured, and what is the backup service like?
Part of your due diligence in researching a Hybrid Camper Trailer should be to find out where it is made, and what options you have for repairs and servicing. A massive number of hybrids are made entirely overseas (usually in China) and shipped over for some basic checks and licensing before being handed to their owners.
Some are fully Australian built with as much Australian produce as possible, and others are made in China but assembled here (and then sold as ‘Australian made’). Others just have the plumbing and electrics done here, but they all vary from each other. Now, where it is made doesn’t have to be a deal breaker, but it is a sensitive topic.
There is a lot of overseas gear that comes in that exceeds the quality of Australian gear. However, there’s also a huge amount that doesn’t, and it can be downright dangerous and frankly atrocious when you are talking about 2 tonne plus of trailer hurtling down the road! Of course, we encourage support of the Australian economy if you can especially due to what has happened over recent months, but at the end of the day its your choice to make.
Should something go wrong though, do you have to drive 4000km across the country to get it fixed, or is there a dealer nearby that can help? One of the advantages of using components that are local to Australia is that products business usually has local support.
If your Cruisemaster suspension needs attention, there are dealers all the way around Australia. If you have issues with your Redarc Battery Management system, their customer service is next level, and you are in good hands. Of course, its all a balance, and you can’t get the top quality brand name gear and support without having to pay for it!
Clearance, entry and departure angle
For us, one of the major attractions of a hybrid was that you got extra comforts and still maintained a reasonable level of off road ability. I’ve seen Caravans scrape on a normal curb, and that renders them almost useless for anything but a bitumen road. Of course, that’s fine for some people, depending on what you want it for.
If you intend on taking it onto the beach, or on 4WD tracks, you need to seriously consider how much clearance it has, what is likely to hit and get damaged, and how its entry and departure angle is. One of the reasons ‘off road vans’ are so tall is that in order to give them any real entry and departure angle with the lengths they are being made at, you have no option.
Some hybrid vans come with scrub bars, or sliders, so if you do hit something they take the force and not the actual van panels themselves. This can be a good idea, depending on how strong they are, where they are mounted and how much they reduce your clearance.
It’s obvious which hybrids are truly built for off road work though, with everything up high, allowing you to have quality clearance, entry and departure angles.
One of the most important factors to consider when buying a hybrid is the way the weight is distributed. This is important off the factory floor with no load, and even more importantly once its loaded up.
A good van when loaded will have the majority of the weight located down low, and near the axle lines. It will also have somewhere between 6 and 15% tow ball weight, and this is achieved by having the axles in the right location! For more information about why this is important, have a read of What is tow ball weight, and why does it matter?
If you don’t know what the tow ball weight is unloaded, and loaded (get firm figures on this, from a scale), then don’t buy it. I’ve seen hybrid vans (that aren’t even that heavy overall) with 330kg tow ball weights, and that is going to break something off-road, and if it doesn’t, it will dramatically increase the stress applied to your 4WD.
Pay careful attention to where the water tanks are located, and the bulk of the storage, and make sure you know what the unloaded ball weight is before you buy. We looked at a couple that were 180kg unloaded, and they were only going to go up when loaded. I wanted something lighter than this, and that hugely reduced our options for a hybrid van.
Today, even with a 3500kg towing capacity vehicle, its so easy to be over weight because of the amount of gear that is taken, poor weight distribution and heavy tow ball weights, and its even worse on dual cab Utes.
Welds and Galvanising
One of the first things that I look at when checking a camper trailer out is the welds. If they are tidy, have good penetration and you can’t see what looks like bird poop everywhere, you are off to a good start. Weld quality is one of the most important parts of a hybrid camper trailer, as it literally holds it together.
Next up, take a look at the galvanising, which should have been done for the chassis. There should be holes allowing both the inside and the outside of the chassis to be hot dipped, and there should be no evidence of welding done after this. If there are fish plates, or chains, or hitch mounts welded on after the galvanising has been done, its substandard work.
In an ideal world, you should be able to take your hybrids wheels off, and put them on your 4WD, and vice versa. This essentially doubles the number of spares you have, and makes life much easier when things do go wrong. If you are buying new, this should be a simple option that often doesn’t cost any extra.
The actual rims and tyres don’t have to be the same, but the offset, stud pattern, brake clearance and overall diameter should be if possible.
Is it suited to your vehicle?
Before you lay money down, your van of choice should suit your tow vehicle. By this, I mean that it is able to legally tow it, and that the tow ball weight isn’t too heavy, and that the motor isn’t going to work too hard.
Buying a Mitsubishi Pajero to tow a hybrid with a heavy tow ball weight would be a mistake for example, as many models are limited to 180kg on the tow ball. Likewise, if your vehicle weighs 3.2 tonnes with a GVM upgrade, and you buy a van that is 2.3 tonnes empty, you are going to have a very hard time staying under GCM.
Also consider where you plan on taking the trailer, as the bigger and heavier it is, the more powerful of a 4WD you will need to get it to certain places. Soft beaches for example, are possible with a vehicle that has plenty of power, but if you have limited grunt towing a hybrid on a soft beach is a recipe for disaster.
How much Canvas is there?
I detest canvas in a camper trailer, and this comes from owning a soft floor camper trailer for years. That said, it is a part of many hybrids, and you need to think about how that is going to affect you. It is heavy, takes time to dry and can be painful to pack away wet.
Today, a lot of people are using PVC instead of canvas, which doesn’t absorb water, cleans easier and can be packed away wet with much more ease. Either way, just think about how much work is involved in setting it up and packing it away, especially when its wet. Will your bedding get wet if you pack away the camper when its raining? Are you happy with setting it up each time?
Can you legally tow it?
Going on from the above point, just because the van weighs less in its loaded state than your towing capacity does not mean you can legally tow it. There are 7 items that you need to comply with, and the towing capacity is just one of those. Fore more information, check this out – Towing Capacity; a simple guide to keep you legal.
What sort of payload does it have?
Every hybrid van you buy comes with a payload, or a figure for how much weight you can add to your trailer. To start with, locate the nameplate on the drawbar, and get the ATM (Aggregate Tare Mass) and Tare mass, and take the latter away from the first. For example, if you have a 2600kg ATM, and a 2300 Tare mass, that means you can add 300kg to the trailer, before it becomes illegal.
However, there’s no guarantee that the tare weight is actually what the trailer weighs empty, so this needs checking first. Ultimately though, a bigger payload is better, as its very easy to add more weight than you might think.
Most hybrids come with 150L of water storage, so that’s half of a 300kg payload gone already, without factoring in food, full gas bottles, jerry cans and all the rest of the gear that comes with you.
Many hybrids have around 400kg of payload, which is just enough if you are very careful (dependent on the number of people you are travelling with), but pushing the friendship for many. Some go all the way up to 1200kg payloads, and that is significant. A payload of under 300 – 400kg is simply unacceptable.
Before you pick your van up, ensure that the seller gives you a weighbridge certificate and that it matches what is on the compliance plate. In this way, you can’t get ripped off by a van that weighs more than they told you it would. Alternatively, put it in your contract; the van upon arrival must be within 3% of the Tare, or you don’t take delivery.
One of the primary reasons we sold our soft floor camper trailer and went to a hybrid was the setup time. Don’t commit to buying anything until you have physically set the hybrid up yourself, so you know what needs doing, how hard it is and how quick it is. I’ll repeat this; you need to set it up. Don’t watch someone else do it; do it yourself and make sure you are happy with what needs doing, and how much effort it requires.
A Hybrid should be quick to set up, but some are not and require beds to be made, pillows to be moved, fly’s to be set up. Generally these are ones with a smaller footprint, which is great for travelling; another compromise that you have to decide on.
Take the time to check out the awning too, as these can be difficult and time consuming to set up.
Storage, and locations
When you are travelling on the road, you need to take a fair bit of gear. Some people take far more than they need, but regardless of your situation you will need storage space, and a fair bit of it. The amount of storage is important, but of equal importance is how easy it is to access, and where it is located in terms of weight distribution.
If you look at a lot of the hybrids on the market today, they have huge storage compartments at the front of the hybrid. Fantastic for room, and you have good access to it, but its absolutely terrible in terms of balancing your trailer correctly, and maintaining some sort of reasonable tow ball weight.
You don’t want heavy items high, or too far forward, or rearward of the axles, as its a recipe for disaster for towing safely.
Think about both external storage, and internal. Where will you keep your clothes, toys for the kids, electronics, towels, dirty washing and anything else you might have with you. The flip side of having a small trailer is that your storage options can be limited.
Seating and bed suitability
There are lots of different setups inside hybrid campers, and that’s awesome. The trick is to make sure that what you are getting suits how you want to use it. For us, I wanted permanent seating that didn’t interfere with the bedding. I didn’t want to have to make beds each night, and then convert them back into seats during the day. I wanted somewhere that I could sit inside and work, whilst the kids slept.
A lot of hybrids have the seats convert into bunks, which means you can eat/sit up while the kids are awake, but if they need to sleep you lose your seating options.
In terms of beds, are they actually suitable for your requirements? A lot of hybrid bunks are only 1600 – 1800mm long, and 600mm wide and that’s not long enough for older children (although its common for older children to sleep outside in swags or a tent on their own).
If you are tall (like me) and you get a shortened bed (like most that are in caravans), are you going to be happy with your feet dangling off the end every night? I know I wouldn’t be!
Showers and toilets
Some hybrids have internal toilets and showers. If they are inside, most are the dual setup with a shower slightly to the side of the toilet, due to space restrictions, but you can get them separate if there is enough spare real-estate. Obviously its awesome to be able to go to the toilet and have a shower inside your van, but there are lots of disadvantages of this too, and the more common setup is to have them outside.
Our Reconn R2 just has a normal portable toilet (which lives in the storage hatch) and an outdoor shower. The previous owners fitted a shower/toilet tent which makes it easy to get privacy.
Yes, you have to get out of the van at night to go to the toilet, and yes, its harder to have a cleaner shower and get changed, but it gives you more room inside and you don’t stink the van out. We’d rather it inside, but its not physically possible without getting a larger trailer, and that’s not something we were prepared to budge on.
There is no doubt that an internal shower and toilet is nicer to have, but it all depends on whether you can fit it in. Some people complain about having the two together, and obviously a separate toilet and shower ensuite is the best, but it also takes up even more real estate.
If you do for an internal toilet, you can choose between the normal toilet with a cassette that you empty, or go for a composting unit, which is becoming far more popular.
The one thing that will send you back to town is a lack of water. Gas, and battery power should last for a very long time if its set up correctly, but without a reverse osmosis unit (which you actually can get, and some people even run when camping) its pretty hard to get your own supply of water!
If you want to use the van for off grid camping, you need at least 150L of water, and more depending on the number of people and how often you want to have a shower. Our Reconn has 270L of water, and combined with the Dmax’s 50L water tank and a couple of jerry cans, we can comfortably camp on the beach for 2 weeks, with showers every day or two for our 4 person family.
If you plan on heading to remote places like Steep Point and hanging there for more than a couple of days, water storage becomes very important.
Another important consideration is the ability to fill your tanks up from a creek. Many hybrids come with this facility as standard (or you can install it yourself). Consider the water filtration setup too (even for mains water) as dodgy water can take you into a very, very bad place!
Type of construction
There are some amazing materials available today, and the composite panel industry has exploded in terms of caravans and camper trailers. Its strong, light weight, insulates well, can be purchased in large sizes and doesn’t absorb water.
Timber has always been the common product, but if you can get a van with as little timber as possible, its better. Even if you do have a water leak, it won’t cause you an issue. Consider how your framework is put together too; is it steel, aluminium, or something else?
Grey water tanks
The water that comes from your dishes, showers and brushing your teeth is considered grey water, and a lot of hybrid vans come with a small tank to collect this. The idea is that some places don’t allow you to tip grey water onto the floor, and you must take it with you.
In WA this isn’t pushed very hard just yet, but it is common over east and these are important for free camping in Australia.
If there’s one thing that can vary hugely when you purchase a hybrid, its the electrical system. This will change the way you camp, and can cost you a small fortune, so get something that is going to do what you need it to. On the basic end, these start off with one or two AGM batteries, a solar panel or two, basic regulator and various lights, USB and cigarette charger outlets.
From there, you move up to DCDC battery chargers, 240V chargers, 240V wiring throughout (as in you have power points in the van that you can use when plugged into a caravan park), lithium batteries, substantial solar systems, inverters to run 240V items off your batteries, air conditioners, fans, and everything in between.
You can comfortably spend $20,000 and more on the electrical system in a hybrid if you really desire, and a setup like this would allow you to run air conditioners, microwaves, coffee machines, air fryers and induction cook tops off grid (but still not like you can at home).
It is critical that you get an electrical system that is going to suit your requirements. If you want to run a coffee machine, a fridge and freezer, and run a business from your hybrid, you will need something vastly different to someone who just runs some basic lights and a fridge.
In general, the starting point is deep cycle lead acid batteries, and once you move into the higher end you can go for 12V lithium batteries, which have exceptional properties, and weigh very little (but cost a lot more!).
Match it correctly and you’ll have an enjoyable time camping, and your gear will last for a long time. Get it wrong though, and you’ll kill your batteries quickly and always be stressing about power. These things can be retro fitted after the purchase, although some of it is significantly easier to do during the build (like 240V wiring!)
Beyond what is installed, there is a lot to be said about a well designed and fitted out electrical system in a hybrid. What cable is used, how its secured, how the joints and terminations have been done, what safety items are in place should things go wrong and how easy it is to fault find all form part of a quality install. If you aren’t sure, speak to an auto electrician to get more information on the hybrid you are looking at.
Have a look at how many lights are spread around, whether they can dim, where you turn them on and off from, how many USB, cigarette and Anderson outlets are available, and whether they are in a location that is functional.
Dust, and moisture ingress is a huge problem for hybrids and caravans. The best way to ensure what you are getting seals well is to talk to other owners. If you are getting water leaking through anywhere, you are going to hate the product real fast. Where water leaks in, dust will too, and that can be even worse if you intend on taking the van off road significantly.
A lot of hybrids come with dust suppression systems, where they pump filtered air from the outside and into the van by way of a fan, whilst you are driving. The positive pressure means that nothing can make its way into the van while you are driving, regardless of any little gaps or holes. Essentially, the positive, filtered air stops any dust (and even water to an extent) from weaselling its way into your van. It’s important to know that these can use a fair bit of power!
Some of the better quality hybrids out there do smoke tests, and pressurise the hybrids before they are sold to ensure that there are no holes where dust and muck can work its way inside.
What is standard, and what is an option?
When looking at the hybrids, make sure you pay careful attention to what comes standard with the unit, and what you have to pay extra for. Front rooms, extra batteries and water tanks, solar panels, heaters and fans often come at additional cost, and it is extremely easy to spend significantly more spec’ing up a hybrid from their factory condition.
You can easily spend 15 – 40k in upgrades, so choose wisely!
A quality awning
You need protection when travelling. Whether this is from the sun, the rain or just to block the wind, having a good awning is a must. Unfortunately, there seems to be a significant compromise here too. Generally the ones that are fast to set up aren’t very strong, and those that are solid are difficult to set up.
Double check whether the awning covers the fridge too, as this is a common complaint from hybrid owners.
We are not happy with the rope edge awning on our Reconn R2, and would love to move to something that is permanent, easy to set up and that will handle the wind and rain. I’ve just yet to find something that suits!
What’s going to get damaged underneath?
A proper hybrid will have zero exposed plumbing, wiring or gas underneath. It will also have nothing else that is likely to get damaged. Many manufacturers opt to keep all of this above the chassis, or inside the hybrid (where possible), and then guard the rest of it.
My folks took their off road van down the Gibb River Road not long after getting it, and we didn’t even make it 50km down the road before a rock flicked up, and smashed a water fitting off causing a heap of water to be lost. It wasn’t the biggest problem in the world, but little things like this get picked up real quickly when you go off a bitumen road.
Jerry cans, bikes and firewood storage
If you are travelling long term, there’s a pretty good chance that you’ll want a couple of jerry cans (of fuel, or water) along with somewhere to keep your firewood. Many have dedicated locations on the drawbar, or in a box on the rear, but if you have to put wood or fuel in a location it wasn’t meant for, its easy to do damage, or have a leak.
On the same subject, lots of people like to take bikes with them on a lap of Australia, and you need somewhere suitable to do this (if that’s your thing – we won’t bother).
Where are you going to keep your Hybrid?
Most people have limitations for storage. If you have a big block, with undercover space available that’s the ultimate solution. For many though, space is a premium, and especially if its undercover.
Make sure you measure and ensure its going to fit where you want to keep it, and that you can back it up and park it up easily and safely. Our Hybrid fits onto our driveway by about 10cm, and we can only just pop the roof up without it hitting the houses gutter.
Heating and cooling
Australia is a pretty diverse place in many ways, and the weather can be included in this. It can be stinking hot, and pretty cold as you travel around, and there’s a good chance you will need some form of heating and cooling.
On a basic level, a cheap diesel heater and fans will get you comfortably doing most of Australia. If you want to move to a higher level though, you can get airconditioners that either mount to the roof, or under a seat. To run these though, you need a significant solar and battery system, or a generator.
We just use fans, open the windows up completely and when its cold, a portable diesel heater, which has been a total game changer.
What’s the downsides of a hybrid?
Every choice you make will have downsides. Some people are happy to discuss them, and others just brush it to one side, and say they have the best setup ever. Hybrids are not perfect by any means, and because of this, they only suit a select portion of people.
There are those who will not like a hybrid at all, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Here’s a few things where hybrids can be a pain in the backside. Make sure you are comfortable with these, or you’ll be looking to swap to something else in no time.
Setup time and effort
There are some amazing Hybrids on the market, but some take a significant amount of time and effort to set up. If you have to pop things out, make beds, set up external ensuites and kitchens, it all takes time. Make sure you are happy with how long it takes to set your hybrid up before you lay any money down!
A Hybrid is a compromise. By their very nature, they are small, and that means the inside is going to be tiny too. Some are pretty good all things considering, and others are big enough for one person to get changed at a time (like ours!)
External cooking and ensuites
There’s a lot of hate towards outdoor kitchens, and when the weather is foul its pretty obvious why. If your kitchen is fully exposed (as in no cover, and not inbuilt) you will hate it from time to time, when the weather is bad. If you have an inbuilt and semi covered kitchen its not so bad, but its still not nearly as nice as being inside.
The same applies for external ensuites. We have one, and yep, it works, and yep its the best compromise for us, but we still have to pull the toilet out each time (which can be pretty heavy) and set the tent up. You then have to walk through the dirt back to your camper, which isn’t ideal. If you are on the toilet outside, dodging inch ants makes it a whole new level of entertainment.
Does this matter to you? Only you can answer that.
Hybrids are not great for insulation. They are not as bad as a camper trailer, but they are let down by the pop top section, which is always at the top where your warm air rises. In winter, it means the temperature inside is always colder than you’d prefer, and the difference between a full size van and small pop top hybrid inside on the same night is astounding.
In summer, hybrids work reasonably as you can just open windows, but they will still get warmer than a van with full insulation and walls in summer, and colder than a van in winter. They do however, seem to cool down and warm up faster than a van.
Beware of owner reviews and sales people
When you start looking for a hybrid camper trailer, you’ll read all sorts of opinions. They can be very helpful, and they can also be extremely unhelpful, due to owner bias.
In my opinion, one of the best places to get advice is the owners Facebook page (as long as its independent to the manufacturer). For example, there is a ‘Lifestyle Camper Trailers’ group on Facebook, that is independent of the business itself, and the actual trailer owners are free to put up honest feedback and discuss common modifications and issues.
If you are going to trust someone’s review, you need to know the history. I’ve seen people raving about hybrid vans that they’ve ordered, and haven’t even received yet.
People will always recommend what they’ve spent their money on, and that sort of advice is completely and utterly useless. You want to talk to someone who’s used their van, is not loyal to the brand and is happy to give you some real life feedback.
A great example of this is our Reconn R2 review, which is completely non biased, and has been done after spending about 80 nights in it (with 6 weeks ahead very soon!), and owning it for nearly 2 years. It’s certainly not perfect, and we are more than happy to admit that. The trouble is not everyone likes to point out faults in things that they’ve bought.
On the other side, sales people are notorious for misleading potential customers either by giving incorrect facts, or by not expressing everything that they should. I dearly apologise to those sales guys who do a good job, but I’ve been around too many sales people who’ve given you a bad name. Ask specific, relevant questions and check the answers you get. If you find a good sales person, hang onto them!
Are Chinese Made Campers rubbish?
Australians have been purchasing Chinese made camper trailers for years and years now. Initially, some of the products that came through were average, at best. As a whole, they have been improving hugely, and today there are some very decent Chinese Hybrids on the market (that easily compete in the Australian market).
There are thousands of hybrids that have been imported and that get used every day in Australia. Whether they suit your requirements or not will depend on what you have planned.
However, there are still some very average ones out there, and with more and more sellers popping up you have to be careful. You’ll find direct copies of Australian made campers on the market, where someone has had an Australian product shipped overseas and copied, and that’s poor form to begin with, without even looking at the quality of assembly.
On the flip side, just because you buy Australian Made doesn’t guarantee you are going to get something of amazing quality either, so you need to look carefully regardless of where it comes from!
This is where independent reviews from those who use their trailer in a similar manner to your intentions become invaluable. I’m not going to tell you to buy one or the other; its a personal decision, and you should buy what you can afford, and what suits your needs (after thoroughly investigating your chosen hybrid before putting any money down!).
Hire before you buy
A super important step before you you lay a huge chunk of money down is to hire the setup you are thinking of buying. Use it for a weekend, or longer if possible, and it will put your mind at ease. If it costs you $400 – $1000 for the privilege, consider it money well spend in that you aren’t throwing 100 times that away on something that doesn’t really suit.
Specs on paper are very different to real life performance, and you wouldn’t be the first person to hire something and walk away at the end feeling very glad you didn’t actually buy it from the get go.
The most common place to hire a hybrid van from is Camplify, but there are others that do it too.
The second hand market
Like cars, you’ll find a huge range of Hybrid Campers for sale. Some have been heavily used, and others have been used once or twice and the owners have realised its not for them. Our Reconn R2 was second hand, and we like this solution as you can save a bucket load of money.
Absolutely do your research and find the campers you like, and then set up alerts for second hand ones in your area. They can be hard to find, but if one pops up that suits you, its a brilliant way to keep the bank account looking healthier!
Every hybrid is a compromise
In case I haven’t made it clear enough, every single Hybrid on the market will require you to make some sort of compromise. Beyond that, the perfect hybrid for me will not be the same as the perfect one for you, or your neighbours. You will have to pick and choose, and be willing to compromise in one way or another. Below are the most common items:
Size, weight and setup time
Hybrids are supposed to be small, and light weight. The more gear you want on board, and the more space you want, the bigger and heavier its going to be. You can’t have a roomy interior, with bunks, an internal kitchen and pantry, internal ensuite and somewhere to sit without getting a significantly bigger trailer. Somewhere along the way you’ll have to trade your comfort, for space and weight, or vice versa.
If you want more internal space, you can get the pop out hybrids, but it comes at the cost of more moving parts, more likelihood of leaks and a greater setup time. No choice will come without its fair share of negatives!
Cost and where its manufactured
Everyone wants Australian made for the price of a Chinese imported hybrid, and again, its just not possible. Your budget will inherently dictate where your camper comes from, and often the quality of the product. It also influences the amount of luxury that you get, and that’s important when you are buying a hybrid. There’s no way around this.
What else have we missed?
Hopefully this guide has pointed you in the right direction when choosing a hybrid camper, and given you some questions to ask and think about. I would have loved to read something like this when we first started looking. On the flip side, we’ve been doing this for a long time and know what works, and what doesn’t so it was easier. If you haven’t been exposed to the camping world too much then its a whole new learning curve, especially if a hybrid is your first method of travel!
If I’ve missed anything, let us know below and we’ll add it.
What Hybrid do you use, and how do you rate it?