Buying a Used Motorcycle Camper -- Part 3: How to Inspect

If you’ve looked in the right places and asked the right questions, the chances are better than average that the used motorcycle camper you’re preparing to go see, and maybe purchase, is a solid deal.

This last installment covers some of the same points you asked about over the phone. But pictures an owner sends can only tell part of the story. And sometimes, the answers you get from an owner may overestimate things (like condition) and underestimate others (like that gaping hole in the tent fabric).

This list of questions may not cover every minor detail but a camper that passes all of these visual checks is likely to perform well for you.

Do they have the title in hand, and does the camper have a VIN that matches? You would have asked the owner ahead of time if they had a clear title. Before anything else is done, it’s time to see it. Locate the VIN sticker on the camper and compare the numbers. If you can’t find the VIN on the camper or the paperwork and camper VINs don’t agree, stop here. You could have trouble getting this unit registered. (Pennsylvania, for example, goes to great lengths to verify the VIN.)

Where is it stored? A camper that’s stored in a garage or other well-built structure is optimal. Not only is the exterior less exposed to the elements, it’s less exposed to critters. A camper that’s kept “under the deck out back” or outside but covered may be okay as long as it hasn’t been exposed to too much moisture. A camper sitting alone, under a tree, uncovered, is not a good sign.

How does the unit appear on the outside? You would expect a motorcycle pop-up camper to show some wear. After all, they’re built to be used. A little wear on the jack stands, external floor stands, some nicks or dings on the exterior finish would all be normal for a unit that’s a couple years old or has been used a lot. Again, a unit stored in a garage will generally show less wear, especially less dulling of painted or gel coat surfaces, because it’s had less exposure to the sun’s UV rays.

In what condition are the tires? Four-ply camper tires are usually good for about 20,000 miles and four or five years. If the camper’s old than that and has its original tires, the sidewalls will likely show some cracking from UV exposure. Rubber also cracks a bit as it dries with age. Figure on replacing those, for safety sake. Good tires aren’t expensive, about $40 each.

How well does it set up? Beyond the external cosmetics, it’s time to see how much “pop” is in your prospective pop-up. Have the owner show you how to set it up. It’s better if you do the setting up and they tell you how. You’ll get a better feel for how the camper unfolds and you’ll instantly become aware of any problems that an experienced owner might, errr, gloss over, as they set up the camper. For example, when you set up the leg supports on the roof of the Time Out, you can tell by how they extend if they’ve been bent over the years. That’s not a deal breaker, and it doesn’t need to be fixed. But it’s better to know the sum total of all the quirks in a used tent camper before you hand over your hard earned moola.

How does it smell? How does it smell, indeed. This may be the most critical test in your evaluation. The tent fabric and soft parts in motorcycle camping trailers are sensitive to dampness. And it’s not that unusual for someone to come home from a long ride with a camper that’s a little damp, dump it in the garage, and go in the house for a long soak. After which, they totally forget to open the camper and let it air out. Until they decide two years later to sell it. Oops. So, when you crack open the top and start setting up the camper, pay attention to what you smell. Mildew isn’t easy to get out. Neither is smoke. If the odor is faint, you might be able to air it out well enough.

Is it clean on the inside? Does it show excessive wear? These are subjective measures of course, but as you know, a clean camper is likely to be a well-maintained camper. One that has a funky odor and dinghy fabric, well, you’d just as well spend your money at Motel 6. You’d be getting the same thing, only with a shower and a toilet.

In what condition is the tent fabric? After smell, this is the next most critical thing to examine. I had a fellow contact me having just purchased a 1994 camper online who said, “I got it home and the zippers are missing from the windows.” Oh boy. Replacing the tent fabric is expensive, and that’s assuming it’s still available from the manufacturer. Setting up the camper will give you the chance to look at every zipper, every screen, and identify any rips or tears. If the camper canvas folds at any point, look for stress tears. Also be aware--untreated nylon tent fabric with a lot of exposure to UV rays will become faded and brittle over time.

Is all the hardware present? Does the camper have all the poles it’s supposed to have? If the tent fabric snaps around the base, are all the snaps working? You don’t want to get home and find that the owner forgot to include the poles to set it up or forgot the awning. Speaking of which, set up the awning, too. If the camper has options like a cooler or an AC stand, insure those are present and in good working order too.

Are the suspension and bearings in good shape? There isn’t much to the suspension on a motorcycle camper, but you want to look for obvious problems. The camper should be level, meaning, one side shouldn’t be measurably higher or lower than the other. You can set the camper on its jack stands to get the wheels off the ground. Tug on the top of the wheel. There should be an absence of movement in and out. Any movement other than in the direction of travel could indicate loose bearings. If you’re planning to tow the trailer home and the owner can’t verify maintenance on the bearings, it might not be a bad idea to pop off a wheel, pull the dust cap, and check the condition of the grease. Generally speaking, wheel bearing replacement isn’t expensive, so the need to replace bearings isn’t a deal breaker. You just don’t want to tow a camper a few hundred miles with dry or worn bearings.

Do all the lights work? Aside from weather exposure to the soft components, electrical issues are about the only other common issue with any lightweight tent camper. It’s not unusual for an owner to change the plug on a camper, so make sure it’s in good shape. Ask to see the camper’s lights in action. You might choose to bring a 12 volt source with you (like a used bike battery), just to test the lights in case the owner no longer has the ability to demonstrate them. Camper wiring is not complicated, but some folks can make a mess of it if they get into it and start modifying it to add auxiliary plugs or tack on extra lights.

What other modifications has the owner made? Finally ask the owner to point out any modifications they’ve made. Some may be obvious, others not as much. This will just give you some idea of the history of the camper and whether there are more things that need to be maintained than you were aware of originally.

Well that’s all that comes to mind, but when you look in the right places, ask the right questions, and do your due diligence when you check out a camper, the camper you settle on should bring you good service for many years.

Of course, if you decide you’d like to consider a new motorcycle camper like the ones I sell from Time Out and Mini Mate, I’d welcome the opportunity to speak with you as well.

Thanks for your time. Hope these tips will help make you a Happy Camper!