08 August 2023
The perfect camping set-up is an elusive thing. Editor Martin explores why a trailer conversion may be the perfect solution
Camping is brilliant, isn’t it? There are few things better than getting away from the daily grind and into the great outdoors, be it for a night, long weekend or, if you’re really lucky, longer. Fresh air, freedom, good food and a phone that’s either got no signal or is switched off completely all add up to help us reset. And fewer vehicles lend themselves better to outdoor living than Land Rovers, right?
Well, yes and no. Like most things, going camping with a vehicle has good and bad points, and you often have to make choices that end up with the solution that works as best as possible for you, but is still far from ideal.
A good example of this is the roof tent. Rooftop tents have exploded in popularity in recent years, and it’s not hard to see why – pitch up anywhere, and a few clips and buckles later you’ve got fully prepared sleeping quarters that you can jump into and grab some kip with minimal effort and prep. Ideal.
Roof tent on the trailer leaves you free to roam. Adjustable top rails will take most types of roof tent
But they do have their downsides. Leaving the tent on the roof of your Land Rover when not in use has an impact on fuel consumption, and wind noise at speed can also be a problem. The extra height when fitted to the roof bars or rack of most Land Rovers will also mean you have to be extra careful of height restrictions, and when they’re removed to get around the aforementioned issues, they can be bulky and awkward to store, depending on where you live.
Okay, so what about your traditional ground tent? After all, these were used by everyone long before roof tents existed, so what’s wrong with them? On the face of it, not a great deal. Compact, easy to store, and for the most part, affordable. They are a bit of a faff to set up and pack down, though, and far more susceptible to being infiltrated by the cold and damp of the British weather, and the hungry wildlife further afield. Obviously, this is because they are on terra firma, as opposed to on a roof.
Cavernous lockers swallow up camping gear with ease
Sleep in the Land Rover then? Plenty of people do it; fast to set up, relatively secure and reasonably comfortable. Well, unless you’re 6ft tall and drive a 90. Or need the loadspace to carry other things like children, dogs, chairs, a stove, pots and pans and all the other stuff you take with you for a weekend away.
It really is quite a quandary. If only there was a modular object with a tent that’s quick to set up and pack down that doesn’t require more than one person to remove, allows you to carry the family or a load of mates in the vehicle in comfort, and can be left at home when not needed so you’re spending less time and money at the pumps. Well, there is, and you’re looking at it.
Penman’s factory-fitted steady legs make levelling easy
Camping trailers have been about for years and traditionally they fit into two camps, for want of a less obvious pun. At the lower end of the market are the home-made type, often based on a Sankey trailer with a platform or box body built onto the top, with cupboards or lockers to keep your stuff in and a ground tent either stashed away somewhere inside ready to deploy or a roof tent mounted on a platform above the tub. Nothing wrong with this at all – in fact, there have been some cracking home-made efforts produced over the years that are put to good use on a regular basis.
At the other end are the sort of trailers that are so laden with every amenity possible and are based on a chassis so vast and with so many functions that they look like something out of Thunderbirds, and also come with a price tag that looks like it should be attached to something capable of going into space. For convenience, a manufacturer’s warranty and maximum campsite cool points is the ultimate overnight travel accessory for those who don’t have a budget to worry about.
The Camelbac trailer we have here today sits somewhere in between. In fact, it spans the gap quite comprehensively because you can do as little or as much to the base trailer as you like right off the bat, and gradually add more features as you venture further afield or take more time away from home, as funds allow.
The evolution from standard Penman to top box and tent, to flagship CamelBac
‘‘The base trailer is an ex-military Penman, which can be bought online from around £1000,’’ explains Andrew Harrison-Smith, owner of Nene Overland and the brains behind this impressive unit. ‘‘They have a stainless steel tub, leaf-sprung suspension, Land Rover pattern wheels and are designed to be towed off-road, so they’re ideal for camping and overlanding. You can put a top box and tent on and enjoy it with quite a basic set-up, or go all-out like this one. How far you take the mods is up to you.’’
As well as the aforementioned, the Penman trailers benefit from hydraulic brakes and adjustable steady legs as standard, making them a breeze to tow and get set up level when the time comes to make camp. The jockey wheel also folds up to lie flush with the drawbar, giving excellent off-road clearance. ‘‘They’re very over-engineered as standard, so great for modifying,’’ says Andrew. ‘‘And the stainless tub is a real boon. No need to worry about the rot setting in like on the old Sankeys.’’
A couple of things you will need to change on the base trailer include replacing the 24v military lighting with 12v bulbs or different lamps, which is a simple enough job and provides the perfect opportunity to upgrade to LEDs. The lights used on this Camelbac are the same footprint as later Defenders, making the swap very straightforward and allowing the Land Rover theme to continue onto the trailer. You’ll also need to adapt the electric plug to a 7- or 13-pin one to suit your Land Rover’s towing electrics and, as all Penmans use NATO loop attachments, you’ll need to set your tow vehicle up with a Dixon Bate pintle hitch (part number NRC2051 if buying new) and the necessary adaptor plate.
With these small jobs out of the way, you can start to convert your trailer into exactly what you want from a camping set-up. ‘‘We can build a top box to your requirements ready to fit,’’ says Andrew. ‘‘The extra space and security is one big bonus, but even better is the rail system that goes on top of the box. You can have a roof tent on there like this one, or if you prefer you can carry bikes, kayaks or a roof box for extra storage. You can also mount a roll-out or foxwing awning which gives you loads of sheltered outdoor space.’’
270-degree awning and under-tent room increase usable space
The biggest advantage of a dedicated trailer over many of the other set-ups is the ability to park and set up camp, then unhitch from the Land Rover and have the use of a fully independent vehicle to go out and explore before returning to your living space with no hassle whatsoever. Nene Overland’s flagship Camelbac takes this one step further – you can also take a motorbike with you. ‘‘We extended the front of the chassis, moving the drawbar further forward to make space, then added a frame and lashing eyes to keep it secure. There’s a removable ramp that latches on to make rolling the bike on and off easy, and various tie-down points.’’
You can take your two-wheeled toy along for the trip
Andrew has brought along his Honda enduro bike today, but tells me the trailer will take a full-size adventure bike without problems. Joining us on this camping trip, LRM ad manager Steve Miller’s ears prick up – as well as Defenders, he owns a Honda Africa Twin. If you don’t need to carry a bike but instead want extra carrying capacity, there’s the option to fit a big demountable front box, ideal for longer trips.
With a camping spot selected and the bike unloaded, we start the trailer’s transformation. First up, the side doors are unlocked and twist handles released, and the doors rise smoothly on gas struts revealing huge storage compartments. Out come the camping chairs, cooking gear, a fire pit, the zip-on attachment for the base of the roof tent. Next, Andrew drops the trailer’s steady legs onto some plastic ramps to stabilise it, then whips the cover off the Eezi-Awn roof tent and folds it out. A ground sheet is unfolded beneath the side of the tent and the zip-on attachment goes on and is pegged down, giving ample space for changing clothes and showering.
Hot breakfast on a cool morning – does it get any better?
With sleeping quarters taken care of, the awning is unfolded, encasing the side and rear of the trailer and giving plenty of space for cooking and chilling out in the evening. Talking of cooking, a twin-burner gas stove built into the base of the side locker gives loads of versatility whether you’re cooking just for yourself or the whole family, and the kitchen is lit with tasteful LEDs all-round.
The 12v electric system is well worth a mention, actually. It’s simple but highly effective, using a single 12v leisure battery which runs a fuse board, with power splicing off to the various interior and exterior lighting as well as 12v sockets and USB charging ports to keep all your tech topped up. The battery is kept out of sight in a compartment at the front of the trailer and charged by simply plugging it into an Anderson plug mounted on the Land Rover – the tow vehicle’s alternator charges it as you drive. Due to the low draw of the LED lights, the leisure battery’s level doesn’t tend to drop much at all.
The ‘hat versus no hat’ debate raged on long into the night…
With the trailer all set up, a fire going and a cold beer in hand, I step back to admire it. Behind a Land Rover of a similar colour, it looks properly cool. This one has been decked out with wide-offset D-mod wheels and 265/75 R16 rubber to match the Defender’s width, with the standard arches extended to suit, and it makes a huge difference to the overall look.
Of course, it’s easy to get carried away – you’ll need somewhere secure to keep the trailer, and your Landy will need a NATO hitch and the correct electric hook-ups. It takes longer to set and strike camp then a basic set-up, but then this doesn’t pretend to be travelling light. Oh, and you might need some reversing lessons...
With dinner on the go, we’re relishing tomorrow’s day of exploring greenlanes and scoping out future camping spots in the Defender and on the Honda bike, safe in the knowledge that the accommodation and kitchen are ready and waiting back at base. And when we’re done and ready to move on, we just need to fold everything away, stash the gear back in the lockers, head home and park the trailer up ready for the next adventure.
From mild to wild
A standard Penman is over-engineered from the factory which makes it ideal for upgrading into your perfect camper; leaf springs, plenty of ground clearance, hydraulic brakes and a tough stainless-steel tub all lend themselves well to life as a camping unit behind a Land Rover. Expect to pay £1200-£1600 for a good one.
Once Nene Overland’s basic top box unit is added (around £2500-£3000, depending on spec), you’re well on your way to a modular, detachable base camp that tows beautifully and can be left parked on campsites and stored back at home until it’s ready to go exploring again. They’re surprisingly easy to manoeuvre around by hand, too.
Finally, the top-of-the-range Camelbac represents everything you could possibly need from a camper trailer. Top-mounted roof tent, loads of storage, a foxwing 270-degree awning for sheltered outdoor living space with gas, water and power on tap and even provisions for bringing a motorbike with you – expect to pay £30-40k all told.
Want one of your own?
Of course you do. Nene Overland has basic Penman trailers in stock, and can customise them to suit your wants, needs and budget. From a simple top box to get you started and carry on modifying yourself at home, to electrical installations and kitchen fit-outs or a full-blown set-up like this one with all the trimmings, the team would be glad to discuss your requirements. Give them a call on 01733 380687, email [email protected] or browse their website: neneoverland.co.uk.
Like to have your own Land Rover library?
Try our Budget Digital Subscription. You'll get access to over 7 years of Land Rover Monthly – that’s more than 100 issues plus the latest digital issue. All issues are fully searchable so you can easily find what you are looking for and what’s more it’s less than 10p a day to subscribe. Click here to find out more details and start enjoying all the benefits now.