5 agile 4×4 micro-RVs primed to run for the hills (and way beyond)

We don’t think we’re the only ones that spend a piece of each slow-passing afternoon daydreaming about escaping the claustrophobic din of city and suburb life to scurry and burrow deep off-grid. What purer form of social distancing is there? While there’s certainly something to be said about getting out of Dodge in a massive, expandable six- or eight-wheeled wilderness lodge stuffed with the comforts of home, what we really yearn for is something light and capable enough to tiptoe around talus fields and crawl through tight canyons. There are a few celebrated off-road and overlanding vehicles designed for just that type of travel — your Wranglers and Land Cruisers — and a few compelling examples of how they can emerge as compact, expedition-ready micro-motorhomes built to explore spaces other vehicles will never touch.

Ex-Tec Space-Tec Pop-Up Hard Tent Land Rover Defender 110

Ex-Tec's hard sides provide extra protection from wind ... and whatever else is lurking in the dark
Ex-Tec’s hard sides provide extra protection from wind … and whatever else is lurking in the dark

Ex-Tec

The idea of converting a Land Rover Defender/Series into a livable off-road motorhome is neither new nor unique. In fact, the famous Land Rover Dormobiles started rolling out more than half a century ago, not two decades into Land Rover’s very existence. But Germany’s Ex-Tec GmbH does the Land Rover Defender 110 pop-up camper van a little differently than others, using triangular folding panels to support its popped roof with hard sides. Why give up the breathability and cooling of tent canvas? The immediate advantage should be felt in sturdier, less drafty performance in windy, stormy weather, but we really like the idea of hard sides when sleeping amongst predators. Paranoia, maybe, but we always question if we’d react in time if a particularly large, vicious animal came shredding through the tent fabric. Hard sides should at least provide enough time to wake and scare the famished beast off or swing down into the driver seat and sprint away — with a couple hard swerves thrown in for good measure.

Looking down at a four-seat Ex-Tec Land Rover Defender interior
Looking down at a four-seat Ex-Tec Land Rover Defender interior

Ex-Tec

Ex-Tec offers the hard roof with bed for around €11,000 (approx. US$12,050) to start and can also convert the interior into a full camper. It has a variety of two- and four-seat interior floor plans with benches, storage cabinetry, kitchen countertops and hidden toilets, starting at €8,140 ($8,925). The zebra wood option is a particularly nice touch.

If you prefer the smaller two-door Defender 90, Ex-Tec offers a soft-sided pop-top and interior options for it. It also does factory-roof Defender campers with convertible bed furnishings.

More info: Ex-Tec (German)

Desert-Tec Alcove Roof Toyota Land Cruiser J70

Desert-Tec Land Cruiser camper van at Abenteuer & Allrad 2018
Desert-Tec Land Cruiser camper van at Abenteuer & Allrad 2018

C.C. Weiss/New Atlas

Prefer the unmatched reliability of the Toyota badge over Land Rover’s spottier rep? What could possibly be a better way to escape than with the long-running, beautifully utilitarian Land Cruiser 70 Series serving as your chariot? How about a proper Land Cruiser 70 Series camper van? Desert-Tec GbR, another German shop, creates an all-out 5-m (16.4-ft) off-road mini-campervan out of the J70 by dropping on its Alcove Roof. The robust high roof extends out to sleep two, keeping things rock-solid and breeze-free as compared to the flapping fabric of a soft-sided pop-top. The alcove that stretches forward over the windshield gives the Land Cruiser a look quite like an alcove-roof van, only with a longer, more chiseled nose hinting at the wealth of 4×4 expertise below.

Closer look at Desert-Tec Land Cruiser interior with dual-burner stove, sink, fridge, seating and storage
Closer look at Desert-Tec Land Cruiser interior with dual-burner stove, sink, fridge, seating and storage

Desert-Tec

The €10,700 ($11,700) high roof kit comes on its own with insulation and carpet paneling, and the buyer can work with Desert-Tec on a custom build with roof bed, full kitchen with dual-burner stove and sink, cooler-style fridge, seating bench, cabinets, and under-seat portable toilet. Currently in the build, a 2013 Land Cruiser HZJ78 with alcove roof and full interior conversion, solar charging, camp heater and more is listed on Desert-Tec’s website for €105,000 ($114,825).

And if you don’t like the idea of a top-heavy aftermarket sleeper roof, Desert-Tec also offers interior conversions on factory-roof 70 and 80 Series Land Cruisers, relying on convertible bench/beds in place of the roof bed.

More info: Desert-Tec (German)

American Safari Jeep Wrangler JXL

A trio of Amercican Safari JXL Wrangler pop-up campers
A trio of Amercican Safari JXL Wrangler pop-up campers

C.C. Weiss/New Atlas

Land Cruiser J70s and Land Rover Defenders aren’t as easy to come by in the US, which is a shame because, unlike in European countries where primitive (wild) camping is restricted or prohibited, free, dispersed camping is readily available on US public lands, particularly throughout the West. The Defender is on the verge of making its US comeback, but Americans also have their own off-road icon, the one that started it all. Over the years, there have been various attempts to convert the Jeep Wrangler into a small off-road camper, some more successful than others. The American Safari JXL was born overseas in France as the Gazell JK before finding its way to US shores via Texas-based Red River Rigs.

Red River Rigs offers the American Safari JXL with a convertible dinette and a basic cooking platform
Red River Rigs offers the American Safari JXL with a convertible dinette and a basic cooking platform

Red River Rigs

Old-school CJ purists who bristle every time the Wrangler grows a couple inches might be none too happy about adding an extra 15 in (38 cm) of length to the Unlimited’s bumper, but that space is put to very good use in creating a family camper that sleeps four on a combination of convertible dinette and roof bed. Sink, shower, portable toilet, fridge, storage and worktop options turn it into a full-blown camper. The conversion is available for 2007 to 2017 JK Unlimited models, and a version for the new Wrangler JL Unlimited is also in the works. Red River suggests calling to get a custom build price estimate, but the price it ballparked for us when introducing the American Safari JXL in 2018 was $19,260 for the extension, pop-up conversion and dinette.

More Info: American Safari JXL

EarthCruiser G-Pro Escape

EarthCruiser G-Pro Escape
EarthCruiser G-Pro Escape

EarthCruiser

Land Rover Defender, Toyota Land Cruiser, Jeep Wrangler … feels like something’s missing. And that would be the German legend that very much belongs in the same distinguished company, the Mercedes-Benz G-Class. G-Classes tend to be rarer in the off-road camper rig space, but not impossible to find, especially when you rise to a section of the market that no longer considers price a primary concern. In 2018, EarthCruiser brought the G-Class to Australia’s piece of that high-rent market when it launched the G-Pro Escape. As a G cab with chassis-mounted motorhome module, it’s not quite as small or nimble as the integrated options above, but it’s definitely a smaller, nimbler breed of EarthCruiser, a brand that counts large Unimog- and Fuso-based outback-bound expedition trucks among its primary innovations.

The EarthCruiser Escape features a full camper interior with wet bath, kitchen and convertible dinette/bed
The EarthCruiser Escape features a full camper interior with wet bath, kitchen and convertible dinette/bed

EarthCruiser

With its yacht-inspired, fiberglass-composite independent living module, the Escape is roomier and comfier than snugger 4×4 campers, ready to deliver a taste of residential-grade living. It packs a small dinette that converts over into a double bed, a kitchen with upright fridge, and a wet bath with toilet and shower. The full-length pop-up roof opens up plenty of headroom, and a pass-through lets occupants easily move between driver cab and motorhome. Also on board is a powerful electrical system with 500Ah lithium battery and 540 watts of solar charging. Options include a portal-axle lift and a central tire inflation system. With bigger size and comfort comes bigger price: When it launched in the second half of 2018, the Escape priced in at AU$320,000 ($194,650). Not a bad mix of compact size and civilized living for those who can afford it, though.

More info: EarthCruiser Australia

Alu-Cab Canopy Camper

The Alu-Cab Canopy Camper's roof and walls can be used to carry gear
The Alu-Cab Canopy Camper’s roof and walls can be used to carry gear

Alu-Cab

Want an option that isn’t quite so vehicle/market-specific? South Africa’s Alu-Cab has dealers on five continents, and its Canopy Camper pickup pop-top can be dropped on a VW Amarok in Europe, a Toyota Hilux in Australia, or a Chevy Colorado/GMC Canyon in the US. It also works with a few other pickups, including the Ford Ranger and Toyota Tacoma.

The Canopy Camper is one of Alu-Cab’s latest releases, and in the US it joins other lightweight pickup canopy campers like the Leentu Sunzal and Go Fast Camper. Simpler, lighter and cheaper than a complete slide-in pickup camper, the rugged aluminum-shelled Canopy mounts to the upper edges of the pickup bed and relies on the pickup floor and walls as part of its interior. The wedge-shaped pop-top houses a double sleeper bed, but the rest of the inside is open and left to the buyer’s imagination. It starts as a sleeper truck more so than a complete camper rig, but the owner is free to install or load up anything else needed for camping and overlanding, making it an affordable, versatile vehicle-camping choice. Depending upon market, buyers can add factory/dealer options like solar power, outdoor shower and canvas organizers. The 550-lb (250-kg) Canopy Camper starts at $9,375 in the States, as listed by OK4WD, a NJ-based dealer.

Alu-Cab Canopy fold-down bed
Alu-Cab Canopy fold-down bed

OK4WD

Those looking for more of an all-in-one package might prefer Alu-Cab’s Khaya, a fully enclosed slide-in pickup pop-top available as an empty shell or fully equipped camper. Alu-Cab also does its own Land Rover and Land Cruiser pop-up roofs.

More info: OK4WD

The Future

Will Tesla jumpstart the electric camper market next?
Will Tesla jumpstart the electric camper market next?

Tesla

Things have been rolling forward quite smoothly for the compact camper truck/4×4 market. During the last year alone, we have started to see some of the first Jeep Gladiator pickup modules, including a trio from AT Overland; have gotten early previews of simple, all-electric Rivian and Tesla truck campers; and are now eagerly awaiting the return of the Land Rover Defender and Ford Bronco, two prime candidates for overland motorhome conversions of their own. And who isn’t hoping to see a 1,000-hp e-Hummer pickup camper?

Now that the COVID-19 pandemic has taken hold, however, the future is much murkier. Declining RV sales are used as an indicator of an impending recession, and we can’t think of a good reason why the impending recession isn’t the harbinger of declining RV sales. Hopefully things will bounce back sooner not later so we can see some of those potential new compact camping off-roaders on the lot and in the dirt.

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