GETTING OFFROAD IS desirable for many keen travellers, but the weight and size of a fully fitted-out offroad van is a daunting prospect. At the opposite end of the spectrum, tent-based camper trailers are a lighter option, but sometimes lack a few necessary comforts.
An excellent compromise developed in recent years is the hard shell camper trailer. Slightly smaller than a full-size caravan, yet still a good towing prospect and easily manoeuvred across undulating terrain, they represent an excellent compromise.
I recently looked over a very good example of such a unit, a Topender XLT from North Coast Campers on the Sunshine Coast, Qld. As well as campers, the company makes a wide range of RVs, including fifth wheelers.
From the outside, the Topender XLT looks like a very low and short caravan, which is sort of true, but the pop-top roof gives a considerable amount of space inside. The pop-top roof is one of very few items that require setting up on this rig, and even then, it is lifted by the simple flick of switch. Unlike some pop-tops I have seen, this one comes with a conventional (Fiamma) awning.
It is refreshing to note that there isn't a piece of timber finish to be seen. Instead, glossy laminates in muted greys and whites are the order of the day.
Given the relatively small size of the interior, the layout is quite simple, but it does include a shower and toilet in the front offside corner. A queen-size bed fills the entire rear area, leaving room for a small offside kitchen and dinette opposite. Ceiling-mounted LED lights supply night-time illumination.
At 1.95m (6ft 5in), the Topender is narrower than a conventional caravan which means the bed takes up almost the entire width. That means no walk-around space, but that is not a problem as the bed is a north-south configuration - just hop over the end to get in and out.
Bed-area storage is quite simple: two cupboards and a couple of shelves in the bedhead, plus two storage bins under the offside window. There are also two large drawers under the bed - much more useful than just an empty space.
Both bed occupants have a gooseneck reading light and 12V socket. Windows either side and in the pop-top gusset above provide an excellent amount of ventilation.
Not surprisingly, the kitchen bench is quite short but it is still a very workable proposition with a two-burner cooktop, stainless steel sink/drainer (mounted sideways) and a Vitrifrigo 130L fridge. That leaves room for a bit of benchtop working area and three drawers. There is also a floor locker, although it is mostly taken up by the fridge compressor and the 14L hot water heater. The end of the bench is used as a mounting point for the hot water switch, battery charger controls and water tank gauges. It's also where the TV swivel arm is mounted, such that it can be seen from either the bed or the dinette. The overhead tea-towel rail is a nice touch.
Two people can sit quite comfortably at the dinette. It has fairly basic seat backs and cushions and a simple, swivel-arm-mounted table in between. The area under the rear seat can be accessed quite easily from behind or even while standing outside the door, while the front seat storage area has external access.
Getting a little shower cubicle into an RV the size of the Topender is a bit of a trick but it's been done here. There's enough space for a Dometic cassette loo and a flexible-hose shower. Also fitted to the roof is a good-sized Fiamma extraction fan.
From the outside, the Topender XLT is quite a striking camper, with its dull silver aluminium and alloy checkerplate finish, along with the markedly cut-off rear end. Seitz windows with inbuilt screens and blinds are a standard item, as is the purpose-built entry door.
The camper is built on a hot-dipped galvanized chassis that rides on fully independent suspension complete with trailing arms, coil springs and shock absorbers. Directly above the chassis, galvanized sheeting protects the timber floor.
Up front, the Hitchmaster DO35 hitch handles the essential business but the drawbar also has the other essentials: handbrake, flip-up jockey wheel, mesh stoneguard, and two 4.5kg gas cylinders on the nearside. Balancing those is a jerry can holder on the opposite side and in between is a decent-sized storage bin. There are two more jerry can holders at the rear.
A feature of the Topender XLT is its generous external bin space, including two pole holders (front and rear), front and rear nearside bins and a rear offside bin. In our review model, the two nearside bins were taken up by a Weber barbecue and a full slide-out kitchen, with two-burner cooktop and stainless steel sink. There was also an extra drawer fitted above the slide-out kitchen bench - but you'll need to remember to lower the sink tap first.
The barbecue and external kitchen might seem like overkill, but for travellers who prefer to do all their catering outside, it is a good setup.
In the power department, the Topender is quite well set-up for extended bush stays with two 100Ah batteries, a 40A battery charger, two 300W solar panels and a 150W pure sine wave inverter. The latter is not a particularly high rating but could be used for small battery chargers. A better idea might be to have everything wired for 12V because there are five sockets in different locations.
The entertainment unit beside the door, complete with radio, 12V socket, control switches and speaker, sits low, but it's easy to operate from outside.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Compared to a convential caravan, everything is downsized slightly in the Topender XLT but certainly it's still a very usable unit. The external slide-out kitchen in particular adds significantly to the flexibility of the internal living space.
For someone with a mid-sized 4WD and who likes bush camping a in little bit of style, the Topender is sure to be a real winner.
Source: Caravan World Jun 2012.