By Gregory Daurer | Jul 25, 2022
Kelsey and her husband, Keith, are avid mountain bikers and backpackers. But when they'd take their vehicle off-road, they got tired of setting up their camping gear rather than enjoying those outdoor pursuits. So, they looked into purchasing a camper to attach to their truck bed.
Kelsey and Keith checked out both new and used campers. Some weighed too much, which would make it difficult to navigate to the types of scenic spots where they wanted to head, once off the road. In used models, they could clearly see the water damage caused after screws and rivets loosened following successive heating and cooling cycles, allowing water to leak in. Many campers looked dated to them -- oftentimes adorned with deer or bear motifs. Sometimes, it came down to the couple not liking the appliances.
"We decided we could build something better on our own," says Kelsey. And that's exactly what she says they've done with Supertramp Campers: "We made our prototype unit, and then we launched the product in August of 2021."
Their one model -- the Flagship LT -- pops up with the press of a button to six foot and nine inches in height. There's a queen bed with plentiful storage space underneath. Solar panels on top contribute to the energy saving. "I think we've created a layout that feels comfortable to hang out in after doing a great outdoor activity," says Kelsey. At the base price of around $53,000, all the electrical and plumbing comes included, including refrigerator, toilet, and kitchenette.
Given that Keith is a materials engineer, an expert in sheet metal, he first considered using aluminum before hitting on the method they ultimately chose to produce their camper parts: vacuum infusion. "He jumped into learning about composites for over a year and doing just test samples in our garage," says Kelsey. "We built a 10' x 20' curing oven in the garage and really started diving in with that."
Vacuum infusion is commonly employed by manufacturers of "boats, blades for wind turbines, aerospace -- [those are] really the only other industries using that process." As Kelsey says in a company video, "Vacuum infusion allows us to achieve the maximum strength-to-weight ratio, so that you have a super-strong camper when you're taking it off road, but also really lightweight. There are no rivets, no screws or wood used when making the shell of our camper."
The company builds molds for each main piece, using different composite materials to actually form the different parts: "We use about six to eight different weaves of fiberglass for different strength properties in different areas. We use carbon fiber in strategic locations, as well." Thanks to the State of Colorado, Supertramp Campers has also received a $250,000 Advanced Industries Early-Stage Capital and Retention Grant, allowing the company to upgrade and revamp its vacuum infusion technology.
For the pop-up portion of the camper the company employs linear actuators: durable components commonly found within farming equipment, which gets continuously raised and lowered on a sometimes daily basis.
In addition to fabricating the campers at its Golden facility -- which houses its CNC machine, paint booth, curing oven, rolls of fiberglass and carbon fibers, and "bright orange molds for every piece of the camper" -- the company installs the Flagship LT camper onto trucks for its clients there. The installers use a "proprietary system" that clicks the unit into place. "With two people you can probably do it in 20 to 40 minutes," says Kelsey of the installation.
In terms of sales, Panich says, "We are booked out for a year and we're ramping up our production and our team. More people are getting into the camping industry than at any time. If we had 12 campers sitting in the parking lot we could sell 12 campers today."
Supertramp Campers derives its name partially from musical group Supertramp -- whose album Breakfast in America one can imagine the couple listening to in some remote spot -- in addition to the message imparted by the book-turned-film, Into the Wild, whose central figure renames himself "Alexander Supertramp" and sets out on a series of outdoor adventures. Panich says, "We really enjoyed that story -- living life to the fullest. We also love the band. They're pretty stellar. And it rolls off the tongue: It's pretty fun to say!"
Challenges: "Hiring people right now," says Panich. The company is looking for skilled seamstresses to help assemble the three layers of insulated fabric which are part of the pop-up portion of the camper. And they're trying to find technicians who know -- or are willing to learn -- about building composite parts: "If we were in Florida or California -- or anywhere they're making boats frequently -- it would probably be a lot easier," admits Panich.
Opportunities: Building other types of products in the future, using the skill sets they've developed by making the molds and creating the composites for their Flagship LT camper. Panich says, "We're going to be pulling things from the automotive industry, pulling things from the aerospace industry, mating that together, so that we can be a long-term competitive company here in the United States in manufacturing."
Needs: A "skilled and enthusiastic workforce," says Panich. "This year, I'm hoping that we can bring on another five to 10 employees."