Purchasing a SmartCAMPER caravan

By: Jill Malcolm , Photography by: Photography supplied

In this monthly column, NZMCD interviews the owners of a funky little SmartCAMPER caravan on how they came to their decision

Paul Ellen, an ex-policeman and IT specialist, and his wife Faith, an artist and "maker of marvellous things", sold their house in Lower Hutt last March, and moved to Whanganui.


At the recent Steampunk the Thames event in the Coromandel, Jill Malcolm, intrigued by their funky little SmartCAMPER caravan, sat down to talk to this resourceful couple.

What was your camping/RV experience before you bought the SmartCAMPER?

Faith and ‘Coddiewomple’ 

In the’80s, I spent seven years living in a house truck, but the SmartCAMPER is Paul’s first foray into mobile home life. However, Paul and I have done a lot of travelling on motorbikes with a tent and camping gear so we are used to travelling light without the comforts of home.

Early in 2017, we bought an LDV V80 and used it as a freight van to shift our possessions to Whanganui. It had a mobile toilet and was also certified self-contained, but it didn’t take us long to realise that if we wanted to use it for travelling it wouldn’t work. I’m a maker and I need room. The space was too small for the two of us, Rex, our cat, and my stuff.

What were the features that influenced your decision to buy a SmartCAMPER?

The SmartCAMPER before it was customised

It met all our specifications and was a price we could afford. All the other caravans we looked at had too much of an ‘inside a house feel’ for us. The SmartCAMPER felt like a caravan, not a motel unit on wheels. It’s also cute. We’ve called it ‘Coddiewomple’. The fact it was locally built was important.

There are a lot of features that we like: the LED strip lighting; the double smart LPG tank holder on the front tow bar that is also a useful storage space for stabiliser pads; the way the back curves down over the bed and has an enormous window that lifts up.

It feels cosy when the weather turns nasty, and in good weather it’s lovely to have the window wide open. I also like the headroom as it’s possible to stand up straight anywhere inside.

In good weather it’s lovely to have the window wide open

The shower is amazing. To find a full-size shower cubicle and separate toilet in such a small caravan is a delight, and the water pressure and temperature are better than a lot of low-pressure domestic showers we have lived with in the past.

The builder, Craig Price from SmartCAMPER in Tauranga, chose quality components such as Dometic appliances and marine solar panels.

How did you go about researching and working out what you wanted?

The process took months and months. I had a firm idea of what I needed and what was superfluous fluff that I couldn’t be bothered with.

Paul had different ideas to mine but between us we sorted out a checklist we could both agree on. We looked at lot of floor plans online and went through a lot of caravans in dealers’ yards.

What were the biggest challenges you faced when making your choice?

To keep things simple the couple had the three-way fridge removed and replaced it with an electric chilli bin

Finding something that was minimalist enough! Every other unit we looked at had an excess of stuff in it that added to the tare weight and cut down on the payload. We didn’t want a TV, microwave, oven, or a big fridge.

Our SmartCAMPER’s tare weight is one tonne and the payload is 500kg. We looked at similar-sized CSC units and they typically had a tare of about 1.2 tonne and a payload of about 200kg. We don’t carry much with us, but if we do want to we can.

Another challenge was that Paul is 6ft 2 (1.89 metres), which meant we turned around and walked right out of a lot of caravans because they didn’t have enough head room. The SmartCAMPER even has head room for my sons, who are both knocking 6ft 5 (1.98 metres).

We had to demolish an existing lean-to style carport in our driveway to accommodate the extra height. We also had to widen our driveway gate to make the parking less stressful.

How did you find the process of buying and the handover?

The couple find the queen-size bed adequate and comfortable

Wow…. where to start? We cannot fault Craig. He drove from his base north of Tauranga to Turangi so we could have a look at the caravan. We decided on the spot that we loved it and spent a long time talking with Craig about the changes we wanted to make. On our wish list was a permanent queen-size bed with a hidey hole under it for shoes and for Rex to hide in if he became overwhelmed.

We had Craig swap out the three-way fridge and put in a Dometic electric chilly bin for refrigeration and add a few cell phone charge sockets and an extra house battery so we’d have plenty of power to charge our e-bikes.

Two gas bottles are stored on the towbar

We also added a second gas bottle in the box on the draw bar so we can hook up our barbecue to its own bottle. This gives us extra capacity when we are on the road for longer periods.

The day of the handover, Craig drove to Five Mile Bay, Taupo to drop the caravan off. He spent a good hour taking us through the extensive handbook and answering questions. Since then we have had to alter a couple of things and he’s sorted them out, without any drama.

Coddiewomple is going back to Craig again soon to be fitted with an LPG heater. A night in Eketahuna in the sleet and wind convinced us that a heater would not be an extravagance.

Did you end up buying the caravan you imagined owning?

Yes, yes, yes!

Would you do anything differently?

Paul Ellen

We added a TrailerValet geared jockey wheel, which makes it easier to move the caravan around when it’s off-hitch. I would have had this added as an option with the order if I’d realised what an advantage it is.

Is there anything about your SmartCAMPER that you’d change or improve if possible?

Well, the colour scheme was a tasteful grey and white, but I need colour and so some painting is in progress. I added rails and stash pockets to park bits and bobs like keys, cables and a sewing kit. We’ve also added mirrors for checking our Steampunk costumes.

What advice would you offer others who might be thinking along the same lines?

Be realistic about what you can leave behind; minimal is not for everyone.

What travel plans do you have?

We are home for the summer, then the next big trip will be attending Paul’s police wing reunion in Trentham. We are keen on the steampunk movement and so we’ll be at the Wellington CubaDupa street party (in costume!), then hop over to the mainland and wander south to Oamaru to attend the Steampunk event there on Queen’s Birthday weekend.

I’m keen to head north again for the winter. There was a lot we didn’t see on the first six-week trip. We’ve loved our travel so far – so many stunning places I had no idea existed, and so many interesting people with marvellous stories to tell.

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