Besides length x width x height, there are other physical criteria to consider to define the specifications of the ideal, or 'Goldilocks' camper:
- Ground clearance
- Approach/departure angle
Like Samwise Gangee [ed: oh, shut up!], I'm perhaps not best placed to talk about weight. But we've got to. It's important. As important as length? Possibly.
But perhaps the key issues associated with weight are artificial - they present themselves as artefacts of the licensing restrictions for drivers. In the USA, licenses (US spelling: damn, I hate myself) are issued by states and districts, and are generally either personal or commercial (e.g. above 12 tonnes), and a candidate commercial driver will be required to answer 30 questions about map reading and the parts of the truck!
I know, right? Seems to me to be a shame that they apparently don't require truck drivers to understand what a mess one can make when hurtling down the freeway in a 40 tonne vehicle at 90 mph (and no, I'm not exaggerating). No doubt, all achieved whilst open-carrying.
In Europe, it's a bit more difficult. You certainly can't carry a gun, for starters. Then there are Class A licences and then Class B licences, then Class C, Class D... then... well, you probably get the idea. If you want to ride one of these:
Then you need a Class A driving licence. And a death wish.
Look, I know I'm going to upset half of my readers here (you both know who you are), but I don't have a clue and I don't care what sort of bike this is. It's still got no crumple zones besides your legs, and no roll-cage besides your flimsy helmet and a stiff neck. They're probably a great idea on your own somewhere; perhaps after the apocalypse? But until that fine day when the zombies swarm - what with the proportion of idiots happily surrounded by a tonne of steel and yet bearing a car or truck licence - bikes are nothing for me. OMDB, I swore, when any of my kids threatened to get one. Over My Dead Body.
If you want to drive one of the below, legally, you need a Class D. And an excellent sense of humour.
Funnily enough, some of my earliest and fondest memories of road trips survive from when I was about 8, riding shotgun with my Dad as he drove an old coach, named - and painted accordingly - The Pink Panther. He used to volunteer for the local youth group, driving the bus crammed with sailing boats, tents and various other paraphernalia from our home in the east of England, to Wales. Wales seemed like an entirely other country back then. Exciting, but slightly weird. Happily, some things never change.
Just to complete the concept (in case any of you didn't quite get it 1000 words ago), if you want to drive a large truck (Heavy Goods Vehicle - HGV - above 7.5 tonnes) in Europe, then you will be required to have passed your C or CE licence (the latter an HGV with a trailer). Complicated, right?
And the bottom line? The bigger something is, the more it costs to build. [ed: Blimey, you're a genius]
Now then, this is where it starts to get interesting [ed: finally!]; if you want to drive a car in Europe, you need a Class B licence, and are then entitled to drive anything up to 3.5t(onnes). And yes, people, that's the maximum weight (MAM = maximum authorised mass) including your vehicle, the driver, husband and kids, fuel, load, even Miss Daisy, if you're driving her home. If you want to legally drive a vehicle (no matter what its purpose - private or commercial) between 3.5t and 7.5t, you need to have passed your C1 licence. i.e. there is a definitive cut-off at 3.5t as the driver transitions towards HGV. Most European drivers only have a Class B licence.
Forget the vehicles over 7.5t (Class C) for the moment; these are very interesting as potential expedition vehicles, but not particularly relevant to us mere mortals (try parking one of these on your drive, let alone the local Tesco's; unless you're delivering fresh nappies and bananas).
The 3.5t limit is significant, because there are some physical realities to take into account. The base vehicle beneath a camper has an intrinsic 'starter mass', and the larger the camper space required, the stronger (thus heavier) the base vehicle needs to be. Let's do some maths to illustrate the point, using a common or garden panel van as an example. Check the tabs below and count on your fingers:
Hopefully, you're somewhere around the total of 2.1t? If not, try this. For the rest of you (don't worry, they won't be back), now we're going to make it really hard, by remembering the total from above, and additionally taking into account the extra requirements you need to add to make your camper liveable on this base vehicle.
So, how did you get on? What's your total?
I make it 3.6t. Meaning that we can't legally (nor probably safely) drive this camper of ours with our Class B licence.
Solution A: Go get a C1 licence. However, this doesn't change the fact that the base vehicle is dangerously overloaded.
Solution B: Use a bigger, stronger, heavier base vehicle. Now we definitely need a C1 licence; especially since we need a bigger, heavier engine to push it all along the road.
Solution C: Reduce the weight of the camper design by using the lightest materials feasible. Ditch the extra strength supports for the walls. Forget about the oven; maybe even reduce the size of the water tank. Put a smaller engine in. Make sure we get our total mass under the 3.5t limit.
In practice, Solution C is that most favoured by off-the-peg camper manufacturers in Europe. It makes sense if the majority of your potential market is restricted by a Class B licence that you make sure that you get your new camper under 3.5t. Many even take a heavy base vehicle that can handle the dimensions, then reduce the weight of everything that goes inside - then 'downplate' the registered MAM of the vehicle to make sure that customers with a Class B can drive it.
The result? Sometimes inferior strength, low power, and very average campers. If this is you - unable to consider a small camper - then seriously consider spending the time and money on the C1 licence, and get a vehicle between 3.5 and 7.5t, rather than compromising on a lightweight (and ultimately inferior) build. The price differential is minimal and, as you can see from our exercise above, 4.5t should be perfectly adequate.
For us, both being fortunate enough to already have C1 licences, we could look at the full range up to 7.5t. But for all the other reasons related to dimensions, cost, and practicality, we decided that out Goldilocks camper weight was somewhere between 2.5 and 5t.
Ground clearance and approach/departure angles
Note: (Particularly for those who failed the maths test above): a departure angel is something akin to a palliative nurse. We're gonna talk about departure angles.
So what are they?
As suggested above, you can happily drive around most US Highways or the European autoroutes with any particular monster RV. But what happens when you want to get on a campsite? Or intend driving around the hilly streets of San Francisco? Often as not, access to some locations includes a ramp of some kind, and when the back of your camper extends 4m behind the rear axle, there's a good chance you'll bottom out. The ability to avoid bottoming out is directly related to the departure angle (and analogously, the approach angle - the risk of bottoming out at the front of the vehicle ahead of the front axle).
Methinks a diagram would help.
Naturally enough, the higher the ground clearance, the greater you might expect the departure and approach angles to be. It's certainly not necessary to have a 4WD vehicle to get access to many out of the way places; far more important is clearance, and this means the ability to avoid snagging your engine sump, gearbox or exhaust etc. on every small rock. Again: potentially awkward.
We are not necessarily talking 'off-road' here (which is more often about playing in mud and sand etc.), but the logic is the same. Don't want to get stuck on solid objects attached to a very solid planet? Get more ground clearance, and higher departure and approach angles. Conventional campers with the coach body extended behind the rear axle may only have a departure angle of 5-8 degrees.
To complete our Goldilocks camper dimensions, we decided we wanted something with at least 20 degrees approach and departure angles, and a ground clearance of at least 20cm (preferably 25cm), allowing us to get up rocky tracks.
(And no, maths failures, ground clearance does not include the wheels.)