So you want to be a Grey Nomad

How are you going to do this

For a neophyte the choices are bewildering. You can choose sleeping and sheltering in the back of the car, a swag, a tent, a rooftop tent, a ute and a slide on camper, a camper trailer, a small caravan, a complete palace on wheels or a motorhome. Do you want to tow something or not ? Is set up and pack up time a limitation ? What are you physically able to do in the way of set up and pack up ? What vehicle are you using and how much can it carry and / or tow ? Are you going to be living in your rig full time or for extended periods ? Do you envisage rough and extended outback trips ? Are you only going to use the rig a few times a year for holidays ?

Once you get into the realm of travelling by bicycle or motorbike or camel or on horseback or something else, the choices become even more bewildering. I’m going to limit this post to the choices concerning a car of some description and some sort of camper trailer as that is the area that I have experience in. The rest is in the province of people with more experience than I.

See, lots and lots of questions and this is only the tip of the iceberg.

Doing it by car or How We Did It

I’m assuming that you’re going to be using a four wheel drive vehicle of some sort towing a camper trailer of whatever variety.

At this stage you’re faced with two big unknowns. What are you going to tow and what are you going to tow it with. If you have a bit of a think about it you really need to know the answer of one before you can know the answer to the other.

Now is the time to put a lot of thought in to your expectations for the vehicle and the camper. Are you going to stick to the bitumen or are you going to try the likes of the Tanami and Gibb River Roads or the Birdsville and Oodnadatta Tracks ?

We decided on the latter which meant that we needed to be looking at campers that can take a lot of punishment. A strongly built and durable camper is going to weigh a bit so we needed a vehicle that would be able to tow it. This is where past experience came to our aid. I’ve had a lot of good times with Land Rovers and over the five that I’ve previously owned I’ve never, ever, been left stranded. They’ve always managed to get me home so we hunted down a manual Discovery 2 Td5 diesel. Whilst towing a Discovery 2 has a good Gross Combination Weight, a maximum towing weight of 3,500kg and will support a ball weight of 250kg.

After much searching and many test drives we found a good one that was cheap. It had a couple of issues that needed seeing to which still made it a cheap car.

Now came the search for a camper.

So how did we decide on a forwward fold camper

Well, first of all we decided that we wanted to travel on roads that are questionable to say the least. The Birdsville, Oodnadatta and Strzelecki Tracks and the Great Central, Gibb River and Tanami roads for a start. That meant a small-ish caravan that needed to be solid in the extreme. There are such caravans on the market but the price – oh dear. We are on limited and fixed incomes and to spend the amounts being asked would just about clean us out and leave us living in poverty. Even second hand would be beyond us. Scratch that idea.

So we started looking at camper trailers. We looked at a couple of soft floor campers and whilst they satisified our requirements concerning size and weight they had a lot of constraints that we weren’t willing to live with. Time and effort to get set up and to get packed up, the issue of dust and mud being tracked inside, etc. We looked at a lot of youtube videos of setup and packup and decided that a hard floor was the way to go.

We thought that a cheap second hand camper of either rear of forward fold design would be a good starting point so the scouring of the classifieds started. Eventually we stumbled across a very affordable Indigo rear fold camper and went to have a look at it. The seller had maintained it very well and had really looked after it so money changed hands and we took it home.

Indigo Camper

It was light, easy to tow, waterproof and easy to set up. The drawbacks were many including that there was no storage for the fridge, no real kitchen, no pantry storage space, etc. The lack of storage meant that were right on the edge of the car’s GVM so we had to be really careful with what we packed. We had some great trips with that camper until the chassis broke. It gave way while we were getting set up at Bourke and thankfully we were able to get it welded up enough to get us home on bitumen roads. Although the welding was a solid job we couldn’t trust it to get us to and from where we wanted to go so it had to go.

The search then started for our “forever” camper.

We decided what our budget was and started looking at all sorts of hard floor campers. We found a lot in our price range too. The second hand, name brand, campers all appeared to have had a hard time and had defects that would need attending to before we’d be happy with it or they were cheaply built and the asking price was unrealistic for what they were. We looked at a few name brand new campers too and the price was above our budget or they were cheaply built. During the search we looked at a few forward fold campers and we liked the storage space and the interior lounge area with a built in table and seating so we started to concentrate on forward fold campers.

Once again the second hand market had the same issues as the rear fold second hand market so we started looking at the new market. After much looking and rejecting, usually due to cheap and nasty build and materials we stumbled across Balance Trailers.

A lot of the new camper sellers seemed to need to supervise us while we looking – crawling around underneath, poking around the inside, measuring storage spaces, etc.

The guys at Balance Trailers were different. They gave us a sheet of paper with all the specs – weights, dimensions, etc. and said that they’d leave us to it to have a good look. The fit and finish was excellent, the welding was neat and clean with no evidence of angle grinder marks and it was built like a brick outhouse. We had a load of questions which were all answered without any if’s, but’s or maybe’s. We asked about the setup and pack up and the demonstrated that for us and the asked us to pack it up and the set it up while they watched. They supplied a certificate of electrical safety as well as a gas compliance certificate. They also supplied recent weigh bridge certificates for tare and kerb weights – axle and tow ball weights separate.

At no stage were we asked about money or pick up dates. It was a total, no pressure sale. In the light of subsequent events these guys also stand behind their product too.

So we went ahead and got it – after a bit of price haggling of course. It was within our budget and has proven to be exactly what we were after.

Camper from the rear
Camper from the front

 

All set up

It’s a quick and easy set up – ten minutes from pulling up to having the kettle on. About another twenty minutes to put the annex up – we don’t use the walls though.

There you go. That’s how we ended up owning a forward fold camper.

 

How to stay warm in the camper with a diesel heater

Our Diesel Parking Heater

A while ago we got a cheap Chinese diesel heater – it was called a Parking Heater and is similar to this.

A heater similar to ours

Ours is a 5KW model which I reckon is overkill so it should heat up the camper very well. They are available up to 8KW in the same packaging. We’ll just put the heater under the camper and run a length of heater duct into an unzipped corner of the rear window.

When we got it there were no instructions at all – not even Chinese. After much Googling I managed to find a manual online. The English was execrable and almost impossible to understand. My gibberish is pretty good but this was in some unknown dialect.

According to the gibberish there are two modes. Thermostatic or manual and apparently older people like the manual mode. Of course there were no clues as to how to change modes. Enter Youtube. A few videos later and I’d got it worked out. Disregarding age I wanted manual mode as the heater was going to be outside and thermostatically controlled means that it would try to heat the entire outdoors using the warm air blowing into the camper. The thermostat is in the heater control panel which will be outside. Manual mode meant that we could just set the heater to “High”, “Medium”, “Low” or some place inbetween.

After much experimenting and Youtubing I worked out that setting the maximum fan speed to 5,000 rpm and minimum fan speed to 2,000rpm with the maximum pump pulse rate to 5Hz and the minimum to 1Hz was just right although that’s subject to change when we use it in anger. According to various user groups running it at 1.5Hz is just right for a camper running it at over 3Hz will heat a camper up very quickly indeed. Once the camper is heated it can be turned down to 1.5Hz or so. The fan speed looks after itself.

The next adventure was getting the little remote, pictured with the heater and hoses, paired with the controller. More Youtubing and I had that done. I wonder how I would’ve got on without Youtube and the work that others had put in making the instructional videos. Thank you one and all.

Resource consumption is quite minimal. It draws less than 20 watts while it’s running but about 100 watts while it’s going through the startup routine and about the same when it’s doing its shutdown thing. It only uses about 100 to 150ml of fuel / hour so about seven to ten hours of heat per litre and about 1.5 to 2Ah / hour from the battery. Seeing as we have about 200Ah of battery capacity we’ll have over 100 hours of heating provided we can keep the fuel up to it. The inbuilt fuel tank and our batteries can easily keep it going for a whole day and night if required provided we don’t go overboard and have the camper at sauna temperatures.

The next thing I need to do is to get a silencer for the exhaust as it makes a howling whining absolute din on all but the lowest settings. The mufflers are cheap but they come from China so delivery will be a month or so away. Apparently it’ll be worth the wait as they are purported to be very effective.

That’s our heater. When our Land Rover has returned from the gearbox doctor and the COVID-19 restrictions have lifted we’ll be off and while we’re away I’ll take a few photos of the heater in operation and post them to this page as well as a report as to how effective it is.

Problems and issues

Of course given the types of roads and the distances we've covered we've had a few problems. All of them have been sorted out by the people at Balance Trailers. These guys really do stand behind their product.

Poles and hoops and water leaks

Our first issue was the top, main hoop failing and a few water leaks at the corners of the canvas. I spoke to Balance Trailers and was asked to bring the camper down to them This is an inconvenience for us as it’s almost a day trip there and back and another one to pick it up. Anyway we took it back to  them. They replaced the pole no problems but the water leaks were a bit more of an issue. It was identified that some Velcro loops along the seams inside the camper had been incorrectly sewn so the canvas had to come off so it could be resewn. The job was done and new waterproofing applied and it’s been happily waterproof since.

The water tank

On our way up to the Birdsville Races at the south end of the Old Strzelecki Track we saw that we had a pretty severe leak along one of the bottom seams of the tank We lost about 100 litres of water and had to improvise for the rest of the trip. When we got home I had a good look at the leak and it appeared that one of the folded and rolled seams had let go. Probably due to the “oil canning” from 100 litres of unrestrained water.

When we got home we contacted Balance Trailers again and they, of course, asked us to bring the camper down. They had a look at it and suggested welding it up. I was opposed to that as a solution as welding stainless steel can make the surrounding metal brittle and it would probably crack and we’d be stuck with a leaking tank again. Nevertheless it was welded against my wishes. Our next trip was a pretty smooth trip with only about 100km’s of dirt road. Of course the tank split and we lost our water. Again we called Balance Trailers and they, this time, offered to replace the tank. One catch. A new tank had to be fabricated and it would take about four weeks. Oh well, what can you do.

We now have a properly baffled and lined tank as well as a new bash plate and mounting straps. The new tank looks a lot better made the the original.

The suspension

While Balance Trailers were replacing the water tank they noticed a couple of minor cracks in the suspension trailing arms. They were replaced without them asking us. They also welded some reinforcement around where the cracks formed on the original arms. It should be bullet proof judging by the appearance and the quality of the welds.

Losing a wheel.

Just outside of Hawker in SA this happened.

The wheel studs had sheared off. Probably due to a design fault illustrated in here.

We had repairs done in Hawker which got us home.

When we got home I called Balance Trailers and, of course, they asked us to bring the camper down. They replaced both brake drums and hubs as well as the wheel bearings. Eventually they refunded us the cost of repairs in Hawker as well as the retrieval.

Another feather in the cap of Balance Trailers.

Modifications to the camper

Batteries and charging

Since we got the camper we've made a few modifications. They've all been to the 12V system so far. Due to a past association I've been able to get Victron stuff at a very keen price so it's all Victron, of course.

First thing that we did was to fit a DCDC charger. The camper had an Anderson plug installed that connected directly to the batteries. A Victron Orion-Tr Smart DC-DC Charger  was chosen and duly installed in the cabinet with the distribution panel. I simply cut the cables from the Anderson plug to the batteries and wired in the DC-DC charger. It can be configured and monitored via a Bluetooth app.

The next step was to put a decent solar regulator in. The regulators supplied with most solar panels are cheap and nasty affairs that would be better off in the spares box for emergency use. Again I chose Victron. I installed a Victron Smart Solar MPPT 100/20 which does the job very nicely. Installing it was dead easy - solar input via a red Anderson plug, the load connected to the power input of the distribution box and the battery output connected to the batteries. This controller also gives you the ability to controlled the load via a Bluetooth app.

Next cab off the rank was a 240V 12V battery charger. Again Victron was chosen. This time it was a Blue Smart IP22 Charger from Victron. Installation is dead simple. The output to the batteries and the input to a 240V mains socket that is already wired into the battery cabinet. Again this is able to be configured and monitored via a Bluetooth app.

The next step was to have a look at the batteries. We have two 100Ah AGM's in parallel which gave us about 100Ah usable capacity although we have been guilty of running the way flatter than that - down to about 10%SOC. While there is nothing wrong with the AGM's - they're only about three years old and haven't been overly mistreated - we'll stick with them. When the time comes to replace them, in five or so years I reckon, I'll be replacing them with the relevant Victron LiFePo4 offerings.

By having good charging capabilities and good battery monitoring we can manage our power off grid much better. We can last about four days without a recharge as our power requirements are modest. With our 250W and 100W panels connected in parallel on a full sun day we can be fully charged well before lunch so we have a considerable comfort margin. If we have a series of zero solar harvest we can always start the car and use it to get at least enough charge to keep us going.

The kitchen tap

In our slide out kitchen we have a cold water tap. With the pump turned on if you lift the tap the water flows. There are a couple of issues here.

  • If you’re trying to do the dishes and you lift the tape to get it up and out of the way you put more cold water in the sink.
  • Lifting the tap is quite hard and tends to turn the tap mount up so that the kitchen slide can’t be closed.
  • The switch for the pump is at the distribution panel on the other side of the camper which is a pain if you need to turn the water on or off when you’re at the kitchen.

Fortunately there is an easy solution. The pump is in the storage box under the seat in the rear of the camper right next to the kitchen. It was an easy matter to put an external waterproof switch right next to the kitchen slide. All I needed to do was to drill a hole for the switch, cut the +ve wire to the pump, crimp on a couple of female spade connectors and connect it all up. Now we can turn the pump off from right next to the kitchen sink. Much better.

A new jockey wheel

we quickly discovered that the original jockey wheel sunk into soft ground a LOT so we started the hunt for something better. We eventually ended up getting Ark XO 750 jockey wheel.  Here’s a pic.

ARK XO 750 Jockey Wheel

This new jockey wheel allowed us to easily push the drawbar sideways to line up the poly block coupling. It’s got a heap of vertical travel which makes it easy to get the camper level on uneven ground before we put the stabiliser legs down.

My view is that if you’ve got a pretty heavy ball weight and a poly block coupling this is the jockey wheel for you.

A winch to help closing the camper

Neither Jenny or I are what you’d call tall or strong so closing the camper posed a problem.

Being a forward fold camper the bed end needs to be lifted over the centre and down onto the lounge section. Using muscle power alone we can get it up to about 30deg from horizontal but no further – we simply don’t have the height or strength. It’s alright for the boys at Balance Trailers (where we got the camper) – they’re six foot balls of muscle.

A cheap, 1000lb winch from ebay was the answer. The boys at Balance Trailers made up a bracket and fitted the winch mounting, the winch and an anchor point for us.

Winch
Anchor point

It was a simple matter to wire it into an Anderson plug and use a fly lead from the battery box. The big advantage was that the winch has a remote control which enables us to quickly fold in the canvas as it goes up and over.

Once it goes over the vertical it falls into place and we go around pushing the canvas in and then close the camper up.

Here’s a couple of pics. One of the camper erected and one of it closed. I reckon you’ll be able to see the issue for us shorties.

Camper when erected
Camper when closed

 

Our camper

Our camper is a 2017 Balance Trailers forward fold.

Balance Trailers BT20HF forward fold.

As can be seen it’s a pretty large affair. It’s pretty heavy too weighing in at 2 tonnes GTM (Gross Trailer Mass). The end nearest the draw bar is a queen sized inner spring mattress bed while the rear of it is a sort of lounge room which can be converted to a double bed so it can sleep four. The canvas is so called Bradmill Kordux Lightweight. I’d sure like to steer well clear of their Kordux Heavyweight canvas. It’s treated against just about everything up to, and possibly including, nuclear holocaust.

It has a slide out kitchen consisting of a sink with a cold water tap and a four burner stove.The four front lockers hold our Engel 40 litre fridge / freezer which is unbelievably good – it was able to keep the frozen stuff frozen during a string of days over 45 degC. The other three lockers hold plastic tubs for food, cutlery and crockery, the pegs and poles for the annex and our BBQ oven as well as a couple of extension leads and lights, 250W solar blanket, etc. There’s also a narrow full width locker that holds the steps which we need to put the annex up because we’re short. Once the camper is up we can’t open that locker.

On the other side are two more lockers which give access to a 2,000 watt inverter, the 240V battery charger, the DCDC charger and the solar regulator. It’s all Victron and can keep us in power for as long as we like as long as we get no more than four days without any solar panel action or have any other means of charging the batteries. The batteries are also Victron. Two LiFePo4 12.8V 160Ah in parallel.

The water tank under the rear holds 100 litres and there is one 12V pump for the kitchen sink. That’s enough water for us for a week if we are careful to not go overboard.

It all sounds a bit complicated but it really isn’t. From the time we pull up to the time we can get the kettle on is about ten or fifteen minutes. If we take the time to put the awning up it takes another twenty or so minutes. If we do the whole monkey puzzle thing with all of the poles it takes about an hour but we usually don’t. As long as the awning is up the kitchen is covered and if we want to stay out of the weather we go inside rather than put the full annex up. We usually don’t even take a lot of the canvass with us.

Here’s a few photos of the camper both folded up and set up.

Brand new and folded up in the front yard.
And from the rear
A wonky old setup at Bradley’s Hut in the Kosciusko National Park
Set up at Pilaga Bore NSW

Well, that’s our current camper. Before this camper we had an Indigo rear fold camper which we sold for a couple of reasons.

1. It didn’t really suit our needs It was small and light but it was too small and had bugger all indoor room to sit and relax or eat, etc.

2. The chassis broke in Bourke NSW which we managed to get repaired but it left us feeling that we couldn’t trust it.

3. The kitchen really wasn’t a kitchen. No built in stove or sink or drawers, no tap and very small.

Here’s a few photos of it.

Set up at Marla

As you can see the fridge and food boxes needed to live in the back of the car which was not ideal.

Getting down and dirty on the Oodnadatta Track.