Americans began taking to the road in teardrop-shaped trailers in the 1930s, a way to sleep in comfort near national parks and the beach. These little homes away from home provided a liberating experience from the demands of life, travel that didn't involve high-priced hotels or sleeping on hard ground in a tent. Decades later, bigger trailers entered the market and eventually grew into massive RVs, but now there's a nostalgic and eco-conscious return to the original models.
"My husband and I wanted to find a hybrid between rough camping and glamping, something that didn't take away from the nature experience," says Jennifer Lee, 31, a fashion designer in Los Angeles and a recent convert to the trend. "I like the old-school retro style, and I'm into sustainability."
The mid-century modern craze accounts for some of the resurgence, those in the business say. Tiny campers also dovetail with the tiny house movement, a lifestyle change focused on simplifying things and leaving a lighter carbon footprint.
A Vintage VW Bus Look"People are looking for a family activity they can do on the weekend and not have to travel too far and spend a lot of money," says Heather Gardella, whose Oregon-based company Dub Box USA manufactures lightweight, 12-foot-long fiberglass campers in the style of vintage Volkswagens. They come equipped with a full-size convertible couch, a kitchenette with commercial-grade appliances and an outdoor shower. Prices start at $22,000. In August a scaled down "Dinky Dub Box" will roll out for $15,000.
Gardella, 45, says she had been "a Volkswagen nut" since high school and founded the company in 2012 with her longtime friend, Shane Medbery.
"Dub Box really taps into my love to create and build things," she says. "There's something about spending your day making people smile. When you drive one down the road people are honking and waving."
In their 18,000 square foot factory outside Portland, Gardella and Medbery oversee 10 employees who turn out one new, retro-style camper every five weeks. There is a six-month backlog of orders, some of them from food cart and craft beer entrepreneurs who want to take them to festivals. Customers get to decide their own colors and personalize the campers with special features, from berths for children to solar panels, plus choosing flooring and fabrics.
"When you drive it away we want you to feel like it's an extension of who you are," Gardella says.
Adorable Retro Looking Campers to Pull — Or Just Keep in the BackyardPre-orders have also piled up for Derek Michael May, owner
of the Happier Camper in Los
Angeles. His entry into the tiny camper business came about by accident. His
father, Mike May, lent him a restored 1968 Boler trailer for business purposes
and it was so adorable people kept asking to buy it. May loved it too much to
part with it but agreed to rent it to a couple for the weekend. That went fine
so he put up a little 'for rent' sign and soon there was so much demand he
added another vintage trailer and another, eventually owning a fleet of ten.
Prices range from $125-$150 per night.
Two years ago May, 38, started building a new trailer from the axle up and called it the HC1. He has a background in making art installations and product design, having invented the iBallz, a drop-proof protection case for iPads. His HC1 is light, stylish and built to last for generations, like a fiberglass boat. The feedback he got from rental customers was invaluable in figuring out how to refine the design. The campers are assembled at his plant in the desert outside Palm Springs. Right now he has 1,400 on a pre-order wait list but can only make two trailers per week so the wait is a long one.
Jennifer Lee and her husband are Happier Camper renters, taking one up to the Big Sur area recently. "We could plug in at campgrounds to use a portable stove and charge the iPod to listen to music," she says. "The camper was really compact, the perfect size for us, and we didn't have any difficulty navigating the narrower necks of the road." They loved the experience so much, in fact, they're considering buying one.
"I don't know how I'm going to fill all the orders," May says. His father is semi-retired and is moving from Windsor, Ontario to California to help out.
What makes the HC1 unique is its versatility. The basic box starts at $13,950 and can be constructed according to an individual's specifications. The modular interior can be switched out to fit a big bed for two people, a longer bed for a tall person or a smaller one for the sportsman who needs room for equipment.
"You can use it to haul your aunt's couch, take it on a fishing trip, open a mobile dog wash or park it in the backyard and use when friends come to stay," says May. The HC1 is run by solar power and batteries, its lightweight structure inherently environmentally-friendly.
"At the end of the day my campers are taking people from the city into nature and maybe it will make them take care of the environment a bit more," he says.
Sleeping on the GroundAnother California company, Sprouting Sprocket Studio, is
busy manufacturing the Hütte Hut, a bespoke, dome-shaped trailer launching at
the end of July. Husband and wife design team Brian and Katrina Manzo are
having them constructed in the Santa Barbara area, made of wood, a light
aluminum chassis and a canvas roof that can retract for gazing at the stars.
Base models begin at $63,900.
"A lot of people like the idea of camping but they're not the most avid campers," says Brian Manzo, 31. "We wanted to build a small space that could be very comfortable at home in the backyard or on the road, a place to unwind."
And for campers like Jennifer Lee, a little distance between her and nature is just fine. Last year, when she and her husband camped in a tent at Big Sur, raccoons overran the campground at night. "I couldn't sleep because I heard so much rustling," she says. "One brushed up against my arm and totally freaked me out. After that I asked my husband to try something different and a small camper was a good compromise."
Hütte Huts are small enough to park on a mountaintop or by a lake and its double doors swing open to afford panoramic views. "The main concept is to blur the line between indoor and outdoor space," Manzo says. "Mid-century modernism was at the forefront of the movement but we see ourselves as more contemporary."
These tiny caravans of dreams are designed for the avant-garde, adventurous traveler who wants to get off the grid for a weekend or even a year. Jennifer Lee says her husband's dream is to hit every national park across America. No longer an unhappy camper, she'll be along for the ride. "I like having amenities at times, running water and a mattress, a sense of security," she says. "A lightweight camper allows you the freedom to do that without spending tons on gas."
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