Posted by Graham | Nov 09, 2023
“There’s no WAY that little thing is worth $45k! OVERPRICED!!!”
“Buddy, who are you fooling with that price tag? Such a rip-off”
“The cost of these things is getting absurd.”
These are the types of comments that I, as a dealer for several brands of off-road camper trailers, have heard for years. People point out all the time how expensive these little campers are. And of course, I do realize there is sticker shock, and most people, sometimes consciously, sometimes not, compare these types of units with other, more traditional mass-produced campers, and they just don’t see where the price is coming from. People tend to implicitly compare the price of a $55,000 Conqueror, a $42,000 Boreas, a $46,000 Patriot, or even a $120,000 Bruder to the price of a $16,000 Sunray, or a massive 40-foot $49,000 Jayco with three slideouts. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been at a trade show and heard something like “$50,000!?! I could buy a fifth wheel for half that!”
As someone who has experienced this side of the industry for a long time, I would like to give a bit of perspective as to why you should expect to pay more for a smaller product.
First and foremost, when it comes to off-road campers, there is just no comparison between the build quality of the campers in this class, and a typical Palomino or Coleman that you would find at Camping World. If you plan on living your camping life entirely on paved roads, at paid campgrounds, with full hookups, then you’ll probably be happy with a Forest River or Keystone. But, even then, plenty of people who do much camping in one of these will tell you that they often don’t hold up well over time. You can generally tell when touring one that the materials being used are lower quality than those of most overlanding campers. Thin plywood walls, particle board cabinetry, cheap foam cushions, and flimsy veneers are the norm.
As I’m fond of telling my customers, the very nature of having such a rugged, trail-eating camper like the ones we sell, means you will have a camper that will outlast everything else on the road, several times over. Even the act of taking a camper down a slightly rough dirt road is the equivalent of a low-grade earthquake. That’s the kind of thing that starts to pull rivets out and pull seams apart. Even if you never take your Mission Overland camper rock crawling, you still have something over-built that can handle those smaller challenges much better than a traditional RV can.
And by the way, just because a bigger camper company comes out with an “off-road” line of campers, doesn’t necessarily mean they are upping their build game. They will often take their same style of manufacturing and try to adapt it to an off-road way of life, whereas in reality, if you’re looking for off-road capability, you should be looking for something that was designed from the ground up to handle the backcountry. It’s a totally different environment that demands a totally different build concept.
Overlanding units are all-around better quality, made from higher quality materials, and you should always expect to pay more for quality.
- Economies of Scale
This is a big one that often gets overlooked. It is a commonly understood reality among economists that large-scale manufacturing is naturally more efficient, and therefore cost-effective per unit, than small-scale manufacturing. This has to do with the fact that streamlining the build process means fewer man-hours, and it becomes easier to find more efficient ways of doing things.
Big manufacturers are also able to negotiate lower costs to them from material suppliers. Buying in bulk doesn’t just help you at Costco. Large manufacturers have a huge ability to negotiate lower prices on bulk buys, in a way that smaller camper manufacturers cannot. This essentially means that materials to smaller builders are more expensive per unit, and that results in a higher price on the finished product.
Jayco produces around 50,000 campers per year. Airstream builds around 20,000. Most of the smaller brands in the overlanding industry produce anywhere from 30-200 units per year. Needless to say, bulk materials such as steel, fiberglass, aluminum, wood, and especially smaller components you might not think much about, such as wiring, fasteners, door latches, and glues, are all more expensive per unit for smaller manufacturers.
There are two main ways for companies to earn a sustainable profit: margin and volume. You either earn a good profit through a higher percentage margin on the cost of the unit, or you will need to compensate for a lower margin with sheer volume. Your neighborhood RV superstore probably pumps out dozens of units a month, and sometimes up into the hundreds for bigger dealerships. They can settle for lower profit margins because they are selling so many units. This applies to the manufacturers as well. Their margins per unit are low, but they sell so many that they can afford it.
Overland camper builders simply must operate on higher margins in order to survive. This translates to higher prices on the end product. That’s just the economic reality. And profit is not a dirty word. It is what must be earned by every company that has ever existed in order to justify that company's existence.
This is a smaller point, but one worth making nonetheless. Everything is getting more expensive these days. Off-road campers are no exception. But due to the economies of scale that benefit the price point of traditional RVs, they have a little bit more room to absorb the effects of inflation, and pass those savings along to the consumer, in a way that small builders cannot. It’s not a lot, but it is something.
This is something to keep in mind, especially when buying a camper built overseas. It costs money to get a camper from point A to point B. Again, economies of scale come into play. Major manufacturers in Elkhart have a lot more leverage in negotiating with shipping companies than do smaller manufacturers. If you’re buying an overland camper built in Oregon and you live in Texas, you’re going to pay more per mile to get that camper to you. That all factors into the final price.
And if you’re buying a camper made in Australia or South Africa (or even China), it obviously costs a lot to get it in a shipping container and put on a boat to get here (not to mention the added price of brokerage fees, import duties, etc.).
Eventually, someone will figure out how to mass-produce a truly rugged and capable off-road, off-grid camper at a lower unit price than what you find on the market today. You will see the market respond to the demand for high quality, high performance, and low price campers. They will still never be as low-priced as other mass-produced units made of lower quality materials, but if the demand is there, the price will come down as well, in due time. But for now, you will have to consider the cost to you as a consumer. If you are looking for a sturdy, off-grid-capable camper trailer, your cost will either come in the form of money (you will have to pay for what you want to get), or quality (you will have to settle for lower quality, or perhaps a design or layout that isn’t exactly what you want).
And even if/when someone starts putting out masses of cheap but well-made overland campers, there will still always be a market for niche brands with the designs, features, and amenities that you may be looking for. Just keep in mind, there will be a cost to it. It’s not a bunch of greedy builders trying to cash in on the latest hot craze. It’s just economics. So can you go out and buy a massive fifth wheel for half the cost? Perhaps. But you’ll get what you pay for, same as the guy who bought that flashy but smaller rig who made it a few miles further into the wilderness than you. Vote for what you want with your dollar, and let others do the same.