When you can’t find it, make it: I’ve come to realise that is a saying not everyone lives by. But to my husband, Sean, and I, it was the saying that drove us to build our own slide-on camper – one that pops up with hard sides and is capable of being off-grid for two weeks at a time.
Both of us have always been big fans of road tripping. Before we met, I’d travelled around Western Australia, hiring campervans to explore the countryside. In 2011, Sean took off on his 250 motorbike planning on a whirlwind adventure around Australia, only to end up one state over – in South Australia – for a stint working at a station in the remarkable Flinders Ranges. We both knew we wanted to see more of Australia, but it wasn’t until Christmas 2016 that we were suddenly bitten by the travel bug. I remember saying to Sean, “Let’s just buy a camper!”
The majestic Wilpena Pound in the Flinders Ranges
We scoured Gumtree, eBay and caravan websites and visited a few slide-on campers up for sale that just didn’t fit the bill. Too old. Too heavy. Too pink (yes, the cupboards in one of them were a delightful shade of “eww”). But then, low and behold, I thought we’d found the pièce de résistance; a very classy camper with a fierce tiger decal and the name “Tiger’s Den” stamped across the back of it.
In hindsight, the decal might not have been the best idea, but the camper had potential. Sweet retro interior, kitchen, fridge, shower cubicle – all for about $1500. It wasn’t until some deep exploration of the camper that we found serious water damage that had ruined its foundation. There’s no simple fix for that. So we took to our formerly promise-filled camper with multi-tool and hammer and soon it was no more. RIP Tiger’s Den.
Sean gets to work on the camper
Off we went (again) on our slide-on search. I must admit, it was really tempting to just buy another secondhand one. But the further we got into our research, the more we found that unless you’re willing to pay for something better, you’ll end up with a slide-on with a heavy construction and a clearance that prevents trekking into the some of the best off-road tracks. We wanted something we could take almost anywhere, that would be equipped well enough to allow us to happily spend a couple of weeks off-grid. Not too much to ask, right?
So, after much thought and planning, we decided to bite the bullet and make our own camper, designed to sit low on our ute tray and fold open like a box when we stop for the night. We opted for a fibreglass/foam sandwich panel construction. These panels offer excellent insulation and are extremely lightweight. And the best thing about them? You order the panels cut-to-size and glue them together yourself.
I still can’t believe how many things you need to buy to make your own mini home. We started buying the bits and pieces early on and I’m so glad we did. I remember buying our 110L Waeco 12v fridge/freezer. Our house fridge had died and we were desperately trying to find a replacement. Gumtree had heaps of ads for fridges so I began calling people. Surprisingly, every single one of them either picked up their phone and said “sorry, it’s sold” or didn’t answer. I wondered why I was having no luck.
It's important to make sure everything is perfectly aligned
Running out of options, we started looking at 12v fridges instead, knowing we’d need one for the camper anyway. We rang this sweet, jolly man who was selling his Waeco. He was happy for us to come straight away and have a look at the fridge.
By the time we arrived, it was night and his property was dark (and not in the nicest suburb). I was relieved when we were met by the man who led us down the side alley of the house to a huge concreted backyard with an enormous shed at the rear. He was a typical Aussie bloke, in his thongs and with a full beard and broad accent. Turns out he was selling the fridge because he and his son used it on their trips together. Tragically, his son had passed away.
Both Sean and I are a little caravan/camper-obsessed and, since we’d noticed a campervan parked by his shed on our way in, I asked to have a quick squizz. “If you don’t ask, you don’t get” as my Mum would say. With enthusiasm, the man told us how each year he drives the campervan to the sparse salt lakes of South Australia and races his motorbikes. I can imagine him now, on the open road, window down, belting out some Cold Chisel. Good on him!
Needless to say, we bought the fridge. The strange thing was, over the course of the night – driving there and back and chatting for a good hour or so – there was not a single return call or text from the Gumtree calls I made. I don’t know about you, but I can’t believe that was a coincidence.
The camper's sides fold down like a box
After a year of collecting, we’ve picked up almost all we need for our camper including 560w of solar panels, a 200 amp hour 12-volt lithium iron phosphate battery, plumbing for an inside shower and toilet, an instant gas hot water system and a gas-only oven and stovetop that we painstakingly restored. We store all the bits and bobs for the camper in the dining room, and to be honest, there’s so much stuff there it looks like a bomb exploded.
It’s been a hard slog so far but we’re almost there. We’ve just about finished putting the fibreglass panel shell together, then onwards with fitting out the inside! Once that’s done, we’re off on our trip around Australia. Our trip is so close I can almost taste it!
I think the saying “When you can’t find it, make it” is definitely easier said than done. But I’m glad to know that all up it’s costing us under $20k for a fully-equipped, off-grid home-away-from-home that folds open to let us go places only 4WDs can go. If you’ve ever thought about building your own camper or caravan, trust me, it is possible. It’s an experience that will leave you with not only knowledge and a sense of achievement, but also something unique, made by you, to be proud of.
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