Should you get a Trailer or Roof Box? Getting your gear to the campsite

If you’ve not already done so yet, you will get to a point where you just can’t fit any more into your car and ask yourself “Should I get a Trailer or Roofbox?”

If there’s one thing we’ve learnt about having kids, it’s that their stuff just keeps on multiplying. Not just their stuff though, everything has to get bigger, and in more quantities.

This presents a big problem when going on camping holidays. Your tent is bigger, and you have to take a lot of stuff. Add to that other things you might like to take (bikes, canoes, surfboards)….where will it all go!!!

We’re a family of 5, and like to camp from early to late season. Even five 3-4 Season sleeping bags is going to fill a lot of cars.

So we’ve put together this guide, based on the lessons we’ve learnt, so that you can see what may work for your family.

A bigger car?

Should you get a bigger car? Or get a roof box, or get a trailer?

The first obvious question is: do you need a bigger car?

Now getting a bigger car is a lot more expensive than just a roof box or trailer, but with a growing family this may be something you’re having to consider.

We’ve gradually traded up to bigger and bigger cars. You may also find that you are being a taxi for your kids and their friends too.

Our main family car (currently a Grand Picasso) is called “the bus“. And do you know what? It’s still not big enough.

So you probably do need to get a bigger car, but you will still need to decide on a roof box/trailer for all that camping gear……unless you get a van….

Should you get a van?

VW Camper VanIf we could afford one (and had the space) we’d get something like a VW T5 just for our weekend adventures. (An old Dub would be cool too…but way too expensive).

We wouldn’t sleep in it as a camper van (though this family of 5 do), and in fact, a T5 transporter would suit us as we’d use the front 2 thirds as a bus, and the last third as a van.

I’m seeing more and more families with T5s doing this. They no longer stay in the van, but use the van to transport the family tent and all the gear.

Unfortunately I have seen a couple of campsites say “No vans!” – I assume that doesn’t apply to small camper vans 😐

So back to the roof box…

Assuming a van is not within your reach, a roof box may be an obvious way to extend the space you’ve got.

And yes, this makes sense. It was the first ‘extension‘ to our car that we made. However, there are some drawbacks:

  • They’re not as cheap as they should be (in my opinion), plus you’ll need to get some decent roof bars to take the weight.
  • Most cars can’t carry much weight on the roof, even with decent roof bars. So if your tent is big and heavy, that will have to go elsewhere.
  • OK – so you’ll put sleeping bags in the roof box? If you do, make sure they’re water tight. We found a few times when driving to the West Country is some really wet and horrible weather that the roof box wasn’t completely dry. Mucky road spray would work its way in.
  • Getting things in and out is not always that easy. Our roof box is a ‘cheap’ Halfords one (the biggest I could afford), and there are better Thule designs than ours. However, if you get a bigger car (or a “bus” like us), the roof box could be very high up. You could always take some steps to help get things in and out, but the purpose of getting a roof box is to reduce the amount of stuff you put in the boot…so where are you going to keep the steps?
  • When you are not using the roof box, where are you going to put it? I have in the past left the roof box on from Spring through Autumn, but with rising fuel prices I worked out that my “laziness” was getting quite expensive.
    Our roof box now suspends upside down in the garage above the trailer.

Where do you put your roof box when not using it

Having said all that, the roof box is still useful. Wet tarps, beach gear, surf boards, some of the inflatable kayaks, folding paddles, wet suits, etc., all go in the roof box.

Getting a Trailer

You will need a tow ball fitted to your car (obviously). There are a number of places that can do this (we negotiated it with the price of the car when we bought it second hand).

But before you go out and buy the biggest trailer you can afford, you need to check what weight the car can pull.

There will be a towing limit, and also a maximum downward weight on the tow bar.

The trailer we bought was a Caddy 530, with side extensions to make it bigger. This trailer takes a lot of gear.

Leave your trailer packed full of camping gear so you can just hitch up and go for a quick weekend getaway
A big advantage of getting a trailer (if you can keep it in a garage), is leaving it packed full of camping gear all the time, which makes it a lot easier to get away for weekend breaks. Simply hitch up and go.

Here’s a quick video of our trailer (and very full garage!)

Locking your trailer

In addition to the size and weight, you want to consider the type of top that goes over your trailer.  We have a canvas cover which gives some flexibility when packing, but isn’t lockable. You will not want to leave your trailer unattended at motorway services for example (campsites have never been a problem though).

In fact, motorway services are a particular issue. It’s not uncommon for thieves to just unhitch a trailer from a car and drive off with it.

You can get a few locking mechanisms for when the trailer is attached to your car, but to be honest, it’s probably easier to just not leave it unattended when travelling. This will limit any stops you make on your journey though.

The Trailer Lock
A locking mechanism we have fits to the trailer when it is unhitched and prevents anyone hitching the trailer and taking it away. I recommend you get one of these too. View the Trailer Lock on Amazon

Here’s a little video on how the trailer lock works.

Packing your Trailer

Make sure you put heavy things over the axle. Your trailer should be well balanced.

We put our heavy Dutch Oven in the centre of the trailer.

We can easily and pull our trailer by hand (on the flat) when it it is fully loaded, and is balanced quite well.

Remember to always secure your load.

Driving with a Trailer

Watch your speed

Remember you will be going slower with a trailer, so take that into account for your journey to the campsite.

Don’t be tempted to go fast if you have a small trailer. Small light trailers will bounce around and could become very dangerous.

Trailers whose load isn’t balanced will also behave erratically; dangerously so at speed.

Watch your Sat Nav

Another thing to watch for is your Sat Nav as those scenic little detours over mountains and small lanes that they like to give could be problematic with a trailer. Reversing to a passing point on a narrow mountain lane when you have a trailer on the back is no fun at all.

Now do it backwards

Reversing has got to be the biggest thing to master when driving with a trailer.

We find this particularly difficult in our car as the trailer is lower than the rear window and narrower than the car. So when you come to reverse, it can be hard to see the direction the trailer wants to go.

To go straight backwards, the trailer must be in a perfect straight line with your car. If the trailer is at a slight angle to the car, the trailer will go in a different direction.

Effectively, when reversing, you have to steer in the opposite direction that you want the trailer to go.

Reversing with a Trailer

Trailer Maintenance

It goes without saying that you need to keep your trailer in good condition.

Secondhand neglected trailers aren't worth it
When we were looking to buy a trailer we looked at buying second hand. You can pick up a good trailer secondhand…but there’s also some rather neglected trailers. I would avoid those.
Thats the trailer packed. Who's coming camping?
We bought our trailer from new, and got a package that included a spare wheel and even a grease gun to keep the wheel bearings in good condition. I’m very pleased that we get the trailer from new.

Maintenance has been very simple: grease the wheel bearings, check all nuts are tight, check tyre pressure and tread, check electrics, etc.

Taking bikes and a trailer

If you have a trailer on the back of the car, then bikes could go on the roof of the car.

However, if you’re like most family campers, you will have got (and filled) the roof box on the top of the car. (Plus, if you have a tall car like ours, getting bikes up there is a bit of a challenge.

You can get roof bars for trailers, and you can fit a bike rail to the bars on the trailer – as long as you keep within the trailer’s weight limit.  This is probably the best way to take the bikes.

There is an alternative though…but not one we’ve tried yet, as you’ll see why.

Bike rack and trailer
We bought a bike rack that can fit onto the tow bar, but leave the tow ball free so that you can still take the trailer.

The bike rack has a plate that fits onto the tow bar, behind the tow ball. The rack just simply slots and secures to the steel plate.

This is great. Apart from being an affordable bike rack, it’s lightweight, quick to fit, and folds away. However, we’ve not used it when camping yet for the following reasons:

  • It can really only take 3 bikes, at a squeeze. There’s five of us and most of the bikes are now getting bigger.
  • You need to be carful of your tow bar weight limit. You’ll have both the bikes and the trailer to take into account. You could easily exceed the mounting point for the tow bar.
  • With more bikes on there you have less clearance between the car and the trailer. Tight turns (or when reversing goes bad) will mean squashed bikes.
  • You can’t open the boot with the bike rack attached.

So, as of yet, this great bit of kit has only been used without the trailer, despite buying it to use with the trailer :-/

Bike rack that works with trailer
If you don’t have as many bikes as us and are within the tow bar weight limit, this is a great little bike rack to get.  View bike rack on Amazon

Here’s a little video showing how the bicycle carrier fits with trailer attached.

Hopefully you’ve found that a useful little guide to getting a trailer (and roof box) for camping.

If you’re already using a trailer, share some tips in the comments below.

 

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Gav Grayston
Father to 3 kids, who loves getting out and about (hiking, running, camping, cycling, canoeing...) Co-founded Get Out With The Kids to help other parents enjoy the outdoors with their family.
Gav Grayston

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Gav Grayston
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13 Comments
  1. Hi, can anyone advise please, I have a Skoda roomster 1 and need space for camping gear, my boys legs are getting too long to use their footwell now! Which roof box and bars to fit it would be best, safest option? Julia

    5:22 pm on April 12, 2017
  2. Hi Gav,

    We are seeking a bit of a European drive/cycle adventure for a few weeks. My husband has a highly impractical Saab convertible and we fancy bundling in the grouchy teenagers, putting the hood down (so we can’t hear them moaning & it feels less like prison) & heading around France. Unfortunately – there is no space for anything once filled with people. Thinking about purchase of a trailer for luggage/camping gear and wondering how to take 4 adult size bikes attached to it. Would be very grateful if you could please advise – so that I can get the ducks in a row and avoid blame (if that is possible). Can you attach ordinary bike rack to back or ontop of a trailer? Much appreciated. Michelle

    10:28 am on March 29, 2017
    • Hi Michelle,

      Yes, that’s exactly what I would recommend for 4 bikes: attach a bike rack to the top of the trailer.  Some trailer comes with special bars for that purpose. Of course, it does make getting into the top of your trailer a little more difficult.  Some examples of trailer bars can be found here: http://www.ebay.co.uk/sch/i.html?_odkw=erde+roof+bars&_osacat=0&_from=R40&_trksid=p2045573.m570.l1313.TR0.TRC0.H0.Xerde+roof+bar.TRS0&_nkw=erde+roof+bars&_sacat=0

      Some more expensive trailers have solid roofs with bars already fitted.  This is a better option than a trailer that just has a tarp cover as sometimes the tarp no longer fits properly when trailer bars are attached. 

      I hope that helps.

      10:42 am on March 29, 2017
      • We have a roof box AND a bike rack (Thule) on top of the car. Roof box slightly to the side, perfect fit for a light bike (dad’s).
        Still haven’t decided about a trailer though. Our Peugeot 5008 is big, but not big enough… and when switching to the Montana 6SA we need more space…
        Actually thinking to get a Thule box for the tow bar bike rack.

        12:09 pm on July 17, 2017
  3. I drive a mini cooper with two children. I’ve got a roof box now but my first camping trip was done without. I don’t know how I managed! I don’t know how I’m going to manage this year so I’m car hunting too.

    11:29 pm on March 14, 2017
  4. can you tow a trailer and have a roof box at the same time

    2:44 pm on June 27, 2016
  5. Great website, thanks for the information!

    1:13 pm on June 23, 2016
  6. Hi Gav, thanks for all the information, very useful. How are you getting on with the Caddy? We are going to get a trailer for our camping trip this year but can’t find any trailer reviews. It really is the only way we can fit all of the stuff in. We went for the roofbox, then the bigger car, now the trailer. Probably van next year!

    2:51 pm on January 18, 2016
    • Hi Natasha,
      Yes, our Caddy is still doing really well despite plenty of use, and taken down many an uneven muddy track.
      If I could afford it, I would also get a van. Something like a T5, but not as a camper, just as a ‘bus’ to take the kids in with a big van ‘boot’ at the back 😉
      Cheers,
      Gav

      6:06 pm on January 18, 2016
  7. Hey Gav, great post. Really useful. Last weekends camping trip with three kids was a bit of a joke. We have bikes on the roof but the car was so full we could just about see their heads poking out from all the cushions, sleeping bags and stuff that was piled up over them. I think a trailer is the only option now (well, till I can get a bigger car in a couple of years time). Cheers.

    8:06 pm on May 27, 2015
    • Hi Marcus. I know exactly what you mean.
      The only thing you have to watch with a trailer is taking more and more stuff. We’re now looking for a bigger car too!

      8:10 pm on May 27, 2015

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