What is an off-road travel trailer?

When it comes down right to it, the concept of traveling off-road is rather simple. Traveling from point A to point B without the use of pavement. Simple, right?  

The type of vehicle we are talking about has many implications as to the capabilities and ability to travel in an off-road environment.  What do you have to give up when designing for off-road – and what should you be looking for if planning adventures to locations that are only accessed by dirt roads?  

Let me start by clarifying that this is not an article about all travel trailers.  There are many types, sizes, and capabilities when it comes to off-road travel trailers.  So, I’ll clarify by describing what type of travel trailer we are evaluating as it relates to what I am referring to when I describe the best off-road travel trailer.  There are all sorts of vehicle types these days that are designed to go off-road and support spending extra time in more remote locations. The recreational vehicle industry has countless vehicle types with all sorts of different amenities that enhance the travel experience. All of these are uniquely positioned to travel off-road, or not.  

The simplest and most basic type is essentially camping.  One level up from sleeping out of your own off-road truck or any car for that matter, this is one extreme of a travel trailer that is purpose-built for off-roading.  Ultra-small, lightweight, and minimalist – there are very few amenities and optimizes for off-road adventure travel at every turn.  This is the most off-road friendly simply by virtue that there is very little you need to take with you to accomplish this type of travel. After all, putting a blowup air mattress in the back of a truck may be considered off-road travel, but it is in no way a sustainable full-time experience.

This type of travel represents an entire industry is referred to as Overlanding, and it takes many forms.  Typically restricted in the higher-end luxury amenities department, overland vehicles are high on capability and off-road ability. Travel trailers in the Overland industry are basic at best.  I want to clear that right out of the gate as I am not disputing that a purpose-built Overland trailer will absolutely perform the best when you purely optimize for one thing – off-roading. If you are looking to hook up your jeep wrangler to an ultralight off-road trailer and prefer to camp in a very small space or even a tent, this is not a guide about Overland trailers.  

The type of travel trailer I am focusing on here is what is most commonly understood when you think of an RV-style travel trailer – a vehicle that contains the many luxuries and amenities that we have come to expect as standard in the recreational vehicle market today. A travel trailer is fundamentally a space that allows you to continue experiencing the many modern-day amenities and conveniences that come along with our post-industrial, technological age. We value and expect warm and comfortable indoor environments no matter the weather outside, abundant running water with working shower and bathroom systems, storage of energy resources for heating & cooling, cold food storage, abundant storage capabilities, technology, WiFi, entertainment, and so much more.

The real challenge in a travel trailer is to recognize the union of both amenities and off-road adventure as a perfect marriage. This article is all about discovering what makes the best off-road travel trailer that functions as both a luxurious travel and living experience with all the capabilities of off-road travel to ultimately support a great adventure. This is where the real magic happens or the idea of compromise in your mobile living environment is minimized wherever possible with the ultimate goal of maintaining a great quality of life.  With the right vehicle, this is possible in some of the most remote and beautiful locations.

I have personally lived-in dozens of different shapes, sizes, and types of mobile spaces, most of which being traditional travel trailers over the past decade as we come to the 2020s.  I have personally designed and built over 400 custom mobile spaces during that time.  Spaces for all different types of uses through my former business Hofmann Architecture, a mobile space design and specialty upfitting firm.  With this wealth of knowledge, I share my humble experience with you in what makes the best off-road travel trailer.

Come 2021, the best off-road travel trailer is an entirely new marketplace that is opening up that will allow Americans to explore our great country we call home.  We are fundamentally challenging the way we have been living for the last hundred years or more. This exciting time is seen all sorts of technologies come about to support these two functions that are seemingly at odds with one another. I have identified six major areas to focus on in your search for the best off-road travel trailer.

off road travel trailer hauled in front of a canyon

Build Quality & Durability

I start with this category because it is by far the most important.  All other features and points discussed later in this article are rather useless without quality. This is particularly important when it comes to off-road travel. After all, if you ever enjoyed traveling off-road and a car or truck, you already understand the types of bumps, vibrations, and what I would call “general 9.0 earthquake” that’s going on at all times. There is no amount of suspension, off-road tires, or any other silver-bullet associated with off-roading that will make an ounce of difference if the quality is not at the forefront.

The main reason I start with this point is that the recreational vehicle industry is notorious for building poor quality products. I encourage you to take a look and do your own research. Pick any manufacture, any name-brand you see in the RV industry. You’ll find a blog full of owners complaining about units that started breaking down the very first day, backed by poor customer service and warranty support system.  The reliability of most new recreational vehicles in the industry is well below what I would expect in the manufacturing world for 2020. The issue here is quite basic. So, I ask a poignant question: “If you have a little confidence traveling more than an hour drive away from your nearest service center, how will you ever be able to travel off-road to a remote and beautiful destination?  After all, off-roading is all about getting out there. Very rarely is there a Camping World or other major RV service center located at the end of that off-road trail, adjacent to that beautiful lakeside BLM or National Park.

I have started this blog series with an article all about quality when it comes to luxury RVs. I go into depth about the many things I consider quality and what to look for in that article.  I encourage you to read that if you haven’t already.  Check it out here.  Again, if you don’t start with quality – I highly recommend not traveling off-road, ever.  

That being said, there are a few quality-related items that are particularly important when it comes to traveling off-road.  Like any well-built house, you need to start with a strong foundation. It doesn’t matter how great the quality of the house itself is if your foundation is built on sand.  Even the best quality house will be washed away with the first storm of the season. When it comes to a home on wheels, the chassis is the foundation of a travel trailer. I highly recommend an all-aluminum chassis that is fully welded and exposed for regular inspection.

Take a look under your next travel trailer and I can almost guarantee you will find the entire underside covered with what resembles an arts and crafts type product reminiscent of elementary school presentations and science clubs covering up the entire chassis.  While steel has its place in chassis construction, it should be used sparingly where additional support is required – specifically at the chassis to axle connections.  This is what I call a “hybrid chassis design.”

Homes in the United States have traditionally been built with “good ol’ wood” due to the affordability and mass availability of this product. Plus, carpenters understand how to build homes with wood.  It’s tough to cut a metal beam with a skill saw.  Using materials like steel and aluminum is much more expensive and cumbersome to work with.  Even if you see a home with a steel frame, it is highly likely to use wood products elsewhere in the structural system. Now, this may be perfectly fine for most homes though travel trailers are a whole different story. 

Unfortunately, when travel trailers took off in the 1940s, the product that most people understood with how to build a traditional residence made its way into this emerging industry as well. In a travel trailer, wood is the “beginning of the end” from a structural point of view.  The automotive industry abandoned wood as a product in vehicles almost a century ago. When was the last time you saw a wood-framed car after all?  Why wood has continued as the primary building material for over a century in the RV industry it’s beyond confusing to me. Wood is the single primary reason responsible for almost every RV manufactured in the last century having a useful product lifespan of no greater than a single decade.

Wood expands, shrinks, does not hold fasteners, delaminates, comes apart, requires friction to stay together by use of “mechanical fasteners,” ie. staples.  No kidding, most wood-based RVs built these days are held together with no more than staples. On top of all this is a high likelihood of water infiltration due to the poor exterior finish details and craftsmanship of most RVs, wood as a building product is extremely susceptible to mold and other air irreparable damage. Put simply, stay away from wood in the structural system wherever possible!

As we move up from the chassis the structural system of the walls and roof are extremely important. At this point, it may go without saying, but I’ll say it again - stay away from wood! By far the best structural system is aluminum.  Frankly, aluminum should be used with as much componentry as possible. Aluminum is lightweight, does not rust, and is extremely strong. Aluminum is a great product for interior and exterior finishes, framing materials, cabinetry and so much more. As I’ve discovered the more aluminum found in a trailer is typically a direct correlation to the quality of the unit itself.  I’ve written another blog that goes into the power of Aluminum.  If you want to read more, check it out here

Finally, when it comes to off-road travel, the interior of the unit will be regularly exposed to that 9.0 earthquake every time you kick the pavement and venture towards a dirt road. The way materials are assembled on the inside must be deliberately designed and engineered to withstand these regular and often violent motions while off-roading.  Learn more in my other article about quality.  

a child playing in front of a travel trailer that is off road

Suspension System

This topic is a sensitive one, to be sure!  You will find lots of very passionate, dedicated, and well-informed off-road aficionados with all sorts of opinions when it comes to suspension systems. When I see this type of diverging opinions in the marketplace I always resort to experience and data to make an informed decision. In our modern-day world where media is taken at face value and as fact, the opinion of an individual, well posted with an adequate following can be taken as fact time and time again.  To find clarity here, focus and thoughtfulness are required. 

So, I’ll redirect my attention as to what I am optimizing for in my focus. When it comes to off-road, I am looking for a suspension system that is high-performing, extremely reliable, very simple, and highly capable of carrying a great amount of weight. Now there are great examples of suspension systems out there that can support 1,2 or 3,000 pounds but that is not what this is all about. Remember those ultralight overland style travel trailers? The type of travel trailer that I am focusing on is designed for quality, liveability, and luxury.  This type of trailer will likely be in excess of 10,000, 15,000 pounds, or even more.  Think military-grade and size.  There are very few suspension systems in this category that fit the bill.

Looking to data alone, I always enjoy exploring what the US military has optimized for and why they have chosen a certain product. By and large, military trailers are fitted with a product called torsion axles. In the spirit of “keep it simple stupid,” torsion axels are by far the most reliable axle system out there for all surface conditions – both on-road and off.  Current versions of NATO and US military trailers are equipped with torsion axles. The long-standing reliability in all conditions is what sets the system apart.  

Now I’m not saying there aren’t “better” options out there. But when it comes to critical safety and performance systems, I always default to tried and true methods that have been verified over years and years of precedent.  I’ve seen very progressive split-axle systems, mainly developed over time in the Australian Outback to take travel trailers off-road.  These systems are highly interesting to me, and I likely will go this route one day with my recommendation.  At this point, it’s just too soon to tell.  Most of these systems are produced by smaller, progressive, and new on the scene manufacturers.  Time will tell. 

Arguably, more important than the type axle and suspension itself is the quality and performance of the manufacturer. There are all sorts of smaller manufacturers with known quality issues that surface regularly.  These “new kids on the block” often come with the latest and greatest product.  I adore innovation and readily welcome challenging industry standards, but, we’re talking about a critical system – something that MUST perform in all conditions.  I’m just not ready to take a leap until I have personally experienced a product for an extended period of time. All that being said, I can highly recommend Dexter as a great maker of torsion axles. Not only are they the primary supplier to the military, but I have also personally experienced Dexter axles for well over a decade with all sorts of mobile living environments that I have traveled with both on and off-road for well over 100,000 miles.  

A torsion axle is a simple system and has an internal steel member that is separated from a steel casing by rubber.  It’s so simple, it’s beautiful.  There are frankly very few mechanical parts that make up the system. This is my favorite part about what becomes the very base of every off-road travel trailer. The simple design does have its limitations, however. The weight of the trailer must be loaded at least 75% of the actual rating for a torsion axle to function properly. There are also longevity concerns with torsion axles.  (I say that with a caveat…  kind of!)

Having renovated many Airstreams from the 40s and 50s, I found early on that torsion axles eventually wear out. That being said, if your suspension system needs to be replaced every 50 years or so, I think that’s a major win!  Coupled with the fact that this type of axle system is easily the most available and cost-effective, I ultimately view the entire suspension system as a sort of consumable similar to that of a tire, but with a much longer lifespan.  Torsion axles are a simple bolt-on replacement and the axle system itself is not expensive.  No suspension system is designed to last forever and taking this into consideration at the beginning is a key factor.

tavel trailer that is off road

Brake System

When traveling off-road arguably the most important safety feature is the ability to stop when needed. Say honey, is that a cliff ahead?

They’re all sorts of brake systems and a couple that I can recommend based on experience. Traditional electric brakes on travel trailers are very common, and they work well. Independently controlled, electric trailer brakes have a certain level of redundancy built-in where if one brake fails for some reason, the others will remain functional. In the spirit of redundancy, I recommend dual axles for this type of off-road environment as there is not only the redundancy built-in to the axles themselves but each tire has an independent brake system that will continue to function should a mechanical issue happen with any one component.

Electric brakes do have their limitations, however. I have found when you have a trailer way north of 10,000 lbs., electric brakes are not as effective and require something more powerful, even when sized appropriately. Like almost every automobile these days, a proper trailer braking system is a four-wheel independent electric-hydraulic disc brake system. There’s a reason the entire automotive industry uses this technology. Heck, you could even look to other modes of transportation such as motorcycles or mountain bikes. This is standard technology nowadays and is equally important, if not more so in an off-road travel trailer. Disc brakes provide significantly more stopping power and the confidence that this provides the driver while towing is tangible. I encourage you to go out and try two similarly equipped travel trailers at the same weight with both electric and disc brakes. One test drive is all you need to understand why disc brakes are by far superior.

If I am towing a well-equipped off-road trailer down a steep mountain grade, you can bet I want disc brakes equipped on that unit to easily silence that twinge in my head about the reliability of the trailer brake system.  Well-designed disc brakes provide a great level of confidence and safety to the off-road travel trailer experience.

all terrain tires on a travel trailer

All-Terrain Tires

Similar to suspension systems, off-road style tires on a travel trailer are often met with all sorts of opposing viewpoints.  I love this discussion because everyone and their unique opinion are founded based on not only their personal history of experience but what their current use case is and what they are optimizing for. Some say off-road tires are completely useless when it comes to travel trailers as there is no motor on the trailer wheels they do not require a more aggressive trailer tread design. This may be appropriate for light off-road use but when it comes to all-weather travel, my firsthand experience has convinced me that there is a wealth of benefits with aggressive trailer tires.

While there is certainly no power driving the wheels of a travel trailer, there are some significant forces at play here that make an all-terrain style tire advantageous for a travel trailer. When the braking system is engaged the only contact the trailer has with the ground is through the tire. How much traction that tire has against the ground in all sorts of driving conditions is the one factor that determines how well that trailer will stay connected to the ground before losing friction and starting to slide. If traveling in winter or wet conditions, I have found all-terrain or mud-terrain tires will provide better braking performance for both the trailer and tow vehicle in an emergency stopping event.

Braking performance is in the direction of travel. You press the brake, the tires react with the ground surface and create friction to resist movement in the direction of travel. To the same degree, there are forces pushing to the side of the trailer in certain conditions that are equally as important. Specifically, when traveling in icy and snow conditions, I have found trailer tires with more aggressive tread patterns will perform better in a sideslip resistance: meaning the propensity for a tire to move sideways because it loses traction. This side-slip condition can be accentuated with a crosswind or a cross slope. This occurs if there is a significant amount of wind perpendicular to your direction of travel pushing you off to the side of the road. In the same way, the road could be slanted sideways exacerbating this condition. Aggressive tread tires are a great way to mitigate this and significant design considerations go into tire specification.

Again, the final and perhaps most important point when it comes to tires is the manufacturer of the tire itself. Just because a tire looks to be off-road capable doesn’t necessarily mean it will perform well in an off-road environment. My recommendation is to stick to US-based manufacturers as a gold standard for all tires. That being said there are a couple that I have significant experience with and can highly recommend. Brands like Goodyear and Toyo have great performance reliability and traction and all sorts of environments. I can’t tell you how many times a Chinese manufactured tire has simply “disappeared” while traveling on a highway. No joke, I just get to my destination and one of my tires is simply missing, apparently shredded to bits at 55 mph hours back on the freeway.  Whether you choose on-road or off-road tires, make sure you optimize for quality first. After all, the tire is the only point the travel trailer touches the ground.  

Tires are one of the best indicators of quality for the rest of the RV.  If you find cheap, import tires on a travel trailer, that’s a very clear RED FLAG! If the manufacturer doesn’t care about quality tires, be very, very suspicious.  

a dog in front of an off road travel trailer

Ground Clearance

When publishing specifications, trailer builders are likely to tout the ground clearance of the underside. While important, ground clearance is just the beginning when it comes to a full-size travel trailer.  Yes, ground clearance is important. It is a direct indicator of how big the rocks and debris you were able to travel over. However, in my experience, once you get above a certain degree of clearance, excessive height actually works against you. 

Your primary goal is to design an off-road travel trailer with heavy systems low and centered between the axles. Things like batteries and water can weigh in excess of 1000 pounds alone. A full-size travel trailer inherently has its limitations. This is not about sport traveling or showcasing your off-road abilities. For example, I do not perform rock crawling in my travel trailer. It doesn’t make sense. If I want to do this I disconnect and go have fun in my Tow Vehicle, well equipped for such an adventure. The off-road travel trailer is all about getting from point A to point B, setting up and exploring that destination. It’s very rare to find any sorts of rocks greater than 6 inches or so. After all, off-road is really just “off the pavement.”  I almost always stick to dirt roads and very rarely travel over undisturbed earth. It just doesn’t make sense to me and it destroys a pristine environment.  Tread lightly!

Most importantly for off-roading is what I would consider the departure angle.  When traveling off-road it is far more common to have undulating surfaces up and down in short order. If I go down into a creek bed and I need to quickly go back up to continue, the trailer will be experiencing some significant angles with the backend likely to rub against the earth on the accent. 

By law, all travel trailers are required to have a maximum of a 22-inch height of the rear bumper to the ground. This is required by RVIA and DOT code so that if some poor soul rear-ends you when driving on the freeway it is not a decapitation event.  Think the back end of the travel trailer takes off the top half of a car (and everything inside). Take a look at every semi-truck out on the road next time you hit the freeway. You will find a bumper that drops down to this 22-inch requirement. In the same manner, travel trailers are required to meet this standard in order to operate on the public road system. If you find a travel trailer that is higher than 22 inches, it is not built to code and is a safety violation for so many reasons. 

In this regard, I find the best solution is the best of both worlds.  I recommend a removable back bumper, similar to those found on a semi-truck, that drops that distance on the rear end down to what is required by law. This is a “have cake, eat cake” situation and gives you both the flexibility to be on-road compliant while having the flexibility to turn off-road and head for the hills to be able to travel on dirt road OHV conditions.  Just store that bumper!

Off-Road vs. Off-Grid

While not technically required for an off-road travel trailer I have found that off-grid is somewhat synonymous with off-road. After all, what’s the point of an off-road travel trailer if when you get to your destination you are limited and have to turn around due to lack of resource sustainability. 

I have published another article specifically about off-grid travel trailers and welcome you to read this as it is particularly important in my experience. Now in this regard, there are many different levels of what I would consider “off-grid.” For the purpose of this article and what I am optimizing for is a self-contained, highly livable vehicle that does not require connection to utilities in order to function.  Getting off-grid is easy, just unplug!  Boom, you’re off grid.  The key is “how long can you stay off-grid.”  

On the surface, this is a rather easy requirement to meet as almost all travel trailers or touted as being self-contained. However, the devil is always in the details. Here are a few examples. How big is that water tank? Until we see travel trailers with self-generating water capabilities, what water you take with you can be very limiting.  How big is the holding tank for that toilet of yours?  Energy is it the core of all off grid adventures. Without energy we have no access to the luxury systems we expect for our day-to-day living. Energy powers the heating and cooling system, cold food storage, outlets for technology, appliances, entertainment and so many other things that support our day-to-day life while traveling in the offered environment. 

Again, I am not optimizing for an overland style of traveling where minimalism and “roughing it” is synonymous with grit and achievement. I’m talking about an off-road adventure that leads you to beautiful destinations.  Once you get there you can enjoy the life you are accustomed to.  Looking for extreme off-road adventures?  Just unhook that beautiful new tow-vehicle with upgraded suspension and get busy!  One of the main reasons I can’t stand motorhomes and much prefer travel trailers. 

After all, starting 2021, most of us are now presented with many opportunities to evolve the way we are living our lives in a more flexible and nomadic way. I have spoken with countless professionals, executives, and newfound telecommuters who will never have to go into work for the foreseeable future. And for this simple reason I highly value off-grid use as a key thing to look for in an off-road travel trailer.

Is it even allowed? The “Warranty”

Time to share a dirty little secret from the RV industry.  

I have presented a number of points above that help you understand what is and isn’t a great off-road travel trailer. Whether you agree or disagree with my experience, not much of this matter at all if the RV you are considering is prohibited from off-road use. 

I encourage you to take a look at a warranty on most travel trailers on the market today. Heck, this is not limited to travel trailers.  Most recreational vehicles are actually prohibited from off-road use by the manufacturer. Most travel trailers I have owned had a small exclusion in the warranty, which prohibited any off-pavement use and would result in the warranty being void. In the end, this may be the most important factor to consider that most manufacturers will hide from you until it really matters. Will your desire to travel off-road fundamentally void your warranty and limit any support and service from the manufacturer?

Some manufacturers will skirt the issue by referring to off-road travel as “misuse,” or applying strict limitations to any damage that occurs off-pavement.  After all, what’s the point if your manufacturer won’t stand behind an RV when traveling off-road?  Chances are that the unit was never designed for off-roading in the first place.  

Manufacturers are in the market to sell RVs.  Come 2021, there will be more demand than ever to get off-road and get off-grid.  Carefully consider the marketing showing photos of that travel trailer, off-road, and in the most beautiful environment.  Did anything really change in the last year to actually make the trailer more off-road capable? 

In the end, it’s best to choose a manufacturer that not only approves off-road use but encourages it by the design and support system that embraces the realities of your off-road adventures.

So, get off-road and get out there!  Take your time and carefully consider what may very well be one of the most influential, life-changing purchases of your life.  It’s up to you to create what adventures lie at the end of that dusty dirt road.  Your off-road travel trailer should be purpose-built to help you get there.