What’s new and wonderful in the world of campervans and compact caravans? We’ve looked at lots of new vans, mini caravans and trailers and come up with our favourites – and some not-so-greats – to save you the slog!
Latest update: September 2019
New trends in campervans and small caravans
Over the last couple of years, we’ve noticed a few new developments that might be of interest.
On the campervan front, there are more with removable interior fittings, some with a ‘panoramic’ rising roof and a few models with opening doors on both side of the rear cabin. There are some interesting crossovers between campervan and motorhome that might suit families.
For compact caravans, the fashion for retro seems to be nearing and end and off-road sturdiness is taking its place. There’s still a sci-fi space pod design being added into the mix. On trailer tents, nothing very new apart from a move to off-roadiness, and our favourite still stays our favourite by a long chalk.
We’re always on the look-out for new discoveries, getting nosy, clambering in and out of everything and chatting to owners and manufacturers. So, do keep following us on Facebook.
Which campervan should I buy?
If you’re looking for a brand new campervan, all the manufacturers and converters bring their star models to the shows. So, it’s still surprising that, year after year, there really doesn’t seem to be much change.
You can choose designs that look a little like hospital or office interiors with grey cupboards in preponderance and grey carpeted walls, or something that aims for difference with splashes of lime green and orange and a zillion LEDs.
Look at the details
With new vans starting at around £35,000 and more likely to cost well over £50,000, you need to be picky. And we certainly are.
Behind the swank and glamour, check the drawer fittings and the details. Too often, we find screwheads on show, sliding cupboard doors that don’t slide and odd bits of gubbins that should be behind the scenes rather than visible.
Take the stunning Westfalia Jules Verne, for example. This 60th anniversary model costs around £64,000 and has one of the smartest interiors we’ve seen, including a shower/toiler room too. But open the cupboards (using the fiddly catches) and you’ll find cheap plastic fittings. And visible screws in the lovely floor.
The Volksleisure model we looked at might win you over with the company’s logo woven into the carpet and the sleek fittings, but look a little closer and you’ll see unfinished screwholes and doors that stick and bend. Reimo’s Trio Style attracted us with some clever layouts and a pull across flyscreen on the sliding door, but why not spend some of the £45,000 your customers are giving you by finishing off the inside of cupboards properly?
Watch out too for their floor channels on models that have a sliding bed – they’re wide, deep and unprotected by a brush strip, so will soon jam with dirt and gravel.
The booby prize?
At this last show, the booby prize has to go to Vision Tech’s Beach model. A sea of ugly grey carpeting. They do other options, but why show this one?
Our advice would be to look for build quality and attention to detail. If you don’t like the mock leopard-skin panels or beige seat covers, chances are the manufacturer will let you choose from lots of different finishes. But also make a list of your must-haves – passenger seats, types of roof, parking heater, size of bed and so on.
TOP TIP: Go armed with a list so that you can compare models and prices from the same basis.
VW-based campervans and the like
Trends: The rising roof
Bilbo has made it back into our shortlist of campervans thanks to their solid interiors and choice of designs, but we also like their side rising roof, which looks neater and more sturdy. It will definitely be a clincher for some, but check head height over the kitchen area if you’re tall.
The best new development on the rising roof is the ‘panoramic’ option. We saw this on the Rolling Homes range, on a G&P and a couple of others. The roof canvas has a zip around the front section that allows you to convert the van into an open-top (more or less). Fantastic for hot climates.
Trends: Toilets and showers
It’s amazing that converters are now managing to squeeze a toilet and often a shower hose area (not exactly a shower room) into the VW or similar campervan. Westfalia do it in their Jules Verne (mentioned above), Hillside have one in their Cromford (set in a weird 1980s interior, however)
Trends: Versatile ‘pods’
Lots of manufacturers are now making campervans with removable furniture so that you have more options for how you use your van. Where you put the cupboards and bed and kitchen pods when they’re out of the van is another question!
Three Bridge (see below) make a Multivan option with a solid removable box.
Jerba’s J-Pod offers four different configurations of full campervan layout, family car, awning living (with outside service connections) and a half-in-half-out set-up.
Trends: Twin sliding doors
This is a nice feature to have because it makes the interior of the van lighter and airier, makes it easier to keep cooking smells at bay and gives you more options for chatting with the family when they’re outside.
We liked the Hembil swing-out kitchen and it made the rather functional-looking interior make a lot more sense – a van for being outside doesn’t need to look like a 1990s hotel inside. It was interesting to see how many people at the last show pressed on it to test its weight-bearing ability. Melamine plates rather than cast iron, maybe!
Auto Campers, for example, have designed their award-winning MRV with two opening sides, one of which reveals a kitchen that can be used both from inside and outside the van. Rolling Homes are another opting for twin sliders. Designing that inside-outside cabinet is a tricky business and some do it better than others. There’s a height-issue when you’re standing outside and the units are built from van floor level. Some attach a fold-down table or pull-out to make better use of the outside space. And it needs to look as good from both sides – you don’t want to be looking at the unfinished back of a kitchen unit.
Although we aimed to look at campervans no bigger than the VW T5/6, we did have a peek at the first Crafter to be converted. Hillside’s Heatherton costs around £60,000 and is the size of a small motorhome.
They’re rather hefty beasts on the outside, but what stood out about the Heatherton was the unusual interior – crafted wood in a stylish design with a smart kitchen area, toilet and even a shower.
Shame about the internal plastic fittings in the cupboards, the white plastic window frame and the rather difficult to use pop-out doorknobs, but there we go again with our pickiness. For someone feeling constricted by usual campervan sizes but put off by the size or weight of a motorhome, then this will be tempting.
Another newbie to the UK is the Rangder – the R535 (5.4m long and 2m high, with a loo and small washroom.) and R499 (4.9m long, 2.03m high) options. They’re built on the Fiat Talento (replacing the Scudo) and start at around £42,000.
Solidly built and very well-equipped, if a little unadventurous inside, they should attract people who want a more motorhome feel but still want to be able to park at the Co-op.
VW’s own Grand California
Hot news is that VW now offers a Crafter campervan, or the Grand California.
It comes with underfloor heating, a bed that can be heated and cooled, a retractable wet room, chemical toilet, full kitchen with hob, sink and fridges, plus a living and dining area. Much of the technology on board can be controlled via a tablet or its own app. This includes controls for the lighting, music and opening and closing the panoramic roof.
Up close, it’s VERY tall and, I have to say, a bit of a squeeze inside. The finish, however, is like no other van (perhaps we should be comparing with motorhomes, though). Everything is flush and ingeniously arranged. I’m sure there will be some niggles after spending time on the road and campsite with it, but that’s true of any van.
We did find the living/dining area possibly a bit small for a family, and the side kitchen over the side door means there’s no lounging around sitting on the threshold of the wide open door of the Ocean or Beach. Prices start at around £65,000.
We’ll be test-driving one as soon as we can, so do follow us on Facebook if you’d like an update on this and other articles now and then.
Some companies convert the small VW Caddy. G&P’s model has some very odd-looking floor-level single beds and possibly the ugliest brown units we’ve seen.
You might want to keep an eye out for Nissan’s own NV200 and NV300 campervans, which include an electric model. They’re not available in the UK at the moment, but in Spain (where you can buy them), they’re some of the cheapest vans we’ve found and come with lots of options for specifying your equipment.
The VERY best campervans
No surprise that our first choice would still be the VW factory-built California.
Last year, our close second was the stunning Rolling Homes range, which beats all contenders for well-made interiors. This year, Three Bridges is our second choice. Third may surprise you…so read on.
Volkswagen California – Ocean and (possibly) Beach
The appeal of the California is that it comes off the VW production line as a campervan. None of that cutting off the top with an angle-grinder and lining the sides with carpet! It’s fabulously well-designed for cooking, storing, sleeping and sitting, and it looks more contemporary than many of its rivals.
A new Beach model (and we’ll come back to that) starts at around £45,000 and the Ocean at around £55,0000. Preloved ones retain value well. The latest news is that there’s soon to be a T6.1 version with updated interior spec and, it seems, the kitchenless Beach may no longer be available to us in the UK.
There are some beautifully clever touches, such as the stowaway outside table and chairs and rounded edges on the fixtures. The camping chairs in the tailgate, by the way, are the comfiest we’ve found for eating and relaxing. On the negative side, after the cost, the interior feels fragile – perhaps the preciousness would wear off with the newness but, at this price, would you ever feel relaxed about scuffs and scratches? But isn’t that true of all campervans – complex beasts that they are.
The new California T6.1
Not enough substantial change to merit a T7, but there are details that existing or previous owners will like – more comfortable beds, cupboards and storage units with better latches and handles, positive catches on the lids for the hob, sink and fridge. A touchscreen unit to control the camper-specific features has been added with details of battery charge, water tank capacity, heating and lighting and even spirit-level.
The Multiplex board (parcel shelf) is now a modular platform that can be raised, lifting the head of the bed for lounging. The roof canvas is darker for sleeping in after dawn!
The T6.1 Beach will come in a Camper and Tour version, the former with an ingenious fold-out kitchenette but…so far, it doesn’t look like it will be available in the UK. The Beach has long been our favourite, so hang on to your old model! And keep your fingers crossed for the new one.
How do campervan prices compare?
While the prices above are for the very basic models, there isn’t much of a difference these days between the price of a California and those of some of the better conversions. We did find a couple of new campervans for around £35,000, however.
A couple of years ago, two of the Campfire team decided on a California and were finally won over by the versatility (and cost-saving) of the Beach. It has two double beds (one in the roof), an awning, swivel seats, storage, a table and outdoor chairs, just no kitchen to cart around. Add in your own fridge (see our guide to choosing a camping fridge, cook outside on a Cadac or go to the pub and you have a versatile campervan that’s also a daily car and workhorse.
A close contender to the VW for factory-built campervans is the Mercedes V-Class Marco Polo. This is an elegant van with real refinement, but it’s expensive (starting at around £50,000) and somehow the glamour doesn’t sit comfortably with the realities of camping and campsites. There’s also (not in the UK so far) a Beach-type variant called the Horizon.
This Buckingham-based converter brought a £65,000 Infinity model to the NEC show and its curved interior was definitely a crowd-pleaser.
The finish is lovely and the top-end conversions include some high-tech extras. They offer a range of models, however, starting at around £35,000, and including a Multivan option that gives you the ability to use your works van as a camper with a removable pod.
Some of Three Bridge colourways and designs are a little too glitzy for our tastes, but they do bespoke conversions so anything is possible.
The Rolling Homes brochure doesn’t do this Shropshire-based company any favours, but see the vans in real life and you’ll be won over.
Interiors are handcrafted (using real wood in many options), corners are rounded and, even in the ‘starter’ model at just under £40,000, there are touches like a fantastic curved cupboard to maximise space.
There are, as with all companies, endless customisations and options to choose from, and base vehicles can be either a Mercedes, the VW or a Ford. We loved the twin sliding door option and the roof fabric that unzips to give you an open-top camper (when stationary, of course).
And third place goes to…
There really isn’t much to choose between the rest for third place. So…maybe it’s time to consider a homemade option?
Think how much you could do with a good base van for half the price of the cheapest new conversion (Devon Conversions’ very basic Ford Transit based Firefly and the Hillside Birchover at around £36,000).
Have a look at what you can do with just a Berlingo people carrier and a few hundred pounds, for example (as basic as it gets!).
Cheaper still…have a look at our article on how to camp in your car.
The most interesting caravans
We didn’t look at any of the big white boxes and turned our attention to compact caravans that are more likely to compete with campervans. If you’re still wondering which would be best, take our campervan or caravan test.
The retro caravan craze has led to lots of new rounded shapes with amazing space inside. Unlike many of the campervans, these have stunning interiors.
Adria’s Action is fabulous inside and has a brilliant panoramic glass roof. Sleeps three, includes heating and has a bathroom, yet it costs only £17,500. Comparable is Swift’s Basecamp (starting at £16,500), designed as a sporty caravan, if that’s not an oxymoron. Clean and practical inside, it’s light and spacious, has a lovely kitchen and shower-room, great storage and a range of graphics to show it’s not your ordinary tin tent.
The Airstream, as you might expect, takes the prize for beautiful interiors and exteriors. The smallest, though (the single axle Missouri) cost £79,000 upwards. People are buying these now to plant in their gardens for use as a home office, but the same is true of our under £25,000 favourite too!
The prize for tiniest goes to the GoPod micro-tourer. It starts at £10,000 and offers a kingsize bed in a mini space.
Hymer’s Eribas are lovely things, and their 60th anniversary model has the GT pack of silver finish, alloys, external storage and other bonus features. Prices are from £18,500 to £24,500 (plus £1,200 delivery from Germany) from tiny to bigger, but all amazingly spacious inside. They’re well-made and hold their value. You get to sleep in a big bed and use a proper kitchen. Ones from the ‘80s are still going strong.
The cheapest caravans are the Freedom, and these are a peculiar breed. Retro outside and retro (in a bad way) inside as though they’ve been found stockpiled from the ‘80s in a hangar somewhere. Cheap and light, though.
Then there’s the German-made Teardrop, which has a double bed, a sort-of-kitchen you get to from outside and is light enough to be towed by almost any car. It costs around £10,000, but there are nicer ones available.
The newest this time around is the TripBuddy. It’s external styling won’t be to everyone’s taste, but the inside is superb. Designed and made in the UK, it’s absolutely customisable and is lightweight. Prices start at around £25,000.
Have a look at our Why Pull Dull? article for a full round-up.
Our caravan choice
We loved the Barefoot. It’s a beautiful, small-but-perfectly-formed combination of retro and modern.
It’s not flashy, just well-designed, well-built, easy-to-use and remarkably spacious. £24,000 will buy you a fully fitted model with shower-room and great kitchen, but you can also buy a ‘naked’ version to fit out yourself as a home office, catering business and so on. There’s a wait of around five months from order to build, but they’re upping production to meet demand.
Have a look at our feature on vintage caravans too.
Our Why pull dull? article is a great round-up of all the unusual trailer tents and caravan hybrids out there. And our winner, by a wide margin, is the utterly fantastic Opus.
Many trailer tents are so enormous and complex (Conway, for instance, is like a bungalow in a box) that you may as well buy a caravan and not have all the setting up to do. Others are nice and small for towing, but fold-out to little more than a tent.
So, why the Opus? Well, for its looks, its ease-of-opening, its build quality and its all-round versatility. Price isn’t bad either (£13,000 to £18,000). In appearance, it’s a mix of safari tent and sci-fi – airy, spacious and with options and accessories to suit family size (four- to 10-berth) and your camping and outdoor life.
The kitchens are beautiful, the beds comfortable and the sitting/dining room made for socialising. What’s more, the new Air Opus inflates itself in two minutes. It’s lightweight and low-profile and the racking system means you can load it with bikes, kayaks and more for your travels. An off-road model is coming soon!
Do have a look at the other trailer options too, though!
What about a tent?
Camping is fabulous – the being outdoors, the ineffably happy-making things like the routines you get into, chatting to people in campsite washrooms and the simplicity of it all.
But for some, there comes a point when the pleasure-pain balance of camping tips just a little too far to the negative…all that faff and the making-do. It’s not surprising, then, that a campervan or caravan starts to look like the best of both worlds. You’re still camping, but you’re sleeping off the ground and bad weather isn’t a problem.
The downsides? Well you could end up with two vehicles instead of one, or something heavy to tow and store. Then there’s the cost, the depreciation, the cost, the cost. So, if you’re still thinking tent…
One of our favourites is the Coleman’s Cortes Octagon tent, for having a real, hinged door. It can also be used as a screenhouse/gazebo without the inner tent and looks cool. Our favourite brands overall are Zempire and Robens for style and clever touches.
But there are some simply lovely new tipi-type tents around that are surprisingly easy to put up and have lots of space – especially the outstanding Robens range. We also love Khyam tents for their quick-pitch features.
You can find plenty more in our quick-pitch tent feature.