Pros: Functional, well laid out, good looks
Cons: Craftsmanship questionable, furnace inadequate, skimpy mattress
My wife and I bought our 1999 Caribou in April 2000 from a dealer who was on the edge of bankruptcy (and subsequent fraud charges ? he?s presently in jail for three years). Here is our story so far.
The purchase of the camper was far from hassle free. While the invoice stated that a tow hitch extension was included with the unit (11.5 foot model requires it if you have any plans of towing anything), it was nowhere to be found. I was forced to call the factory to confirm that it should, in fact, have been included when I took delivery. Anyhow, to make a long story short, I had to really get in their face before the dealer paid an RV shop to fabricate one for about $180, in which they picked up the tab. The sink-fitted cutting board was also missing at the time of delivery, but appeared after I pointed out the deficiency. Probably the most irritating problem that presented itself at delivery were the overhead bunk-doors. My particular model, the 11L side-entry version, has a bunk/cabinet combo that converts from one to the other by folding one-half of the bunk surface either up (cabinet) or laying it flat (bunk). When it is in the cabinet configuration, there are two doors fitted to the main surface that are secured solely by really flimsy, plastic latches. When the bunk is laid flat, the two doors are oriented horizontal to the floor and the only thing stopping them from flying open from gravity are these cheesy latches. They were completely inoperable at the time we purchased the unit and were still hanging open when we showed up to take delivery of the unit after it had been fitted to our truck (?99 Dodge 3500). They were replaced under warranty, but it was kind or irritating that they had not been fixed to begin with.
I should stop here and say a few words on camper installation for those of you who have never bought a truck/camper combination before. When a dealer includes all of the hardware and installation necessary to attach the camper to your truck, be very aware of what type of hardware and the method of attachment is used. There are generally two types of anchoring systems: Happy Jack and Belly Bar. The Happy Jack system is where the front of the unit anchors to the truck through brackets mounted to the front of the truck box, about a foot up from the bottom and sticking out about four inches. The brackets look like little triangles with a hole in the center for your turnbuckle attachment. The rear brackets are mounted to your existing bumper. This is a problem if you didn?t get a rear bumper with your truck (an option on some). The Belly Bar system has a similar rear-anchor configuration, but instead of brackets attached to the front of the truck box, the front of the camper attaches to a bar mounted horizontally to the bottom of the frame and located flush with the front of the box. Your choice on which to use depends on your personal taste. I prefer the Happy Jack system because of it being less of an eyesore when the camper in not installed, and it also prevents the chance of banging my shin against a steel belly bar (about the same pain as walking into your draw bar ? which everyone does at some point and time). With the Happy Jack System, you?ll need to have a steel bar mounted to the inside-front of the truck box, where it will be placed horizontal and parallel to the brackets sticking out of the side. This bar provides extra strength for the brackets. It also serves as a good stop for your camper when sliding it in. Some campers come installed with rubber bumpers on the front of the camper. These work fine unless you do what I did the first time I removed the camper. Not realizing that the bumpers were under the bar, I ripped the bumpers right out of the fiberglass when I raised the unit. It was my fault, but the installation was poorly planned because this result was almost inevitable given the configuration. The solution was mounting the bumpers directly to the truck box itself. I would recommend that you instruct your dealer to do this if they?ll be doing the installation.
Now on to the camper itself. My wife and I chose the side-entry model because we liked the idea of not having to jump over a trailer tongue every time we wanted to get in or out of the camper while stopped somewhere. We also liked the idea of being able to walk out of the unit directly under the awning, where you can have chairs, etc. set up. If you get the rear-entry version, you have to get rained on between the door and the side. We also liked the floor plan a little better.
Aside from the cabinet problem I mentioned previously, and another cabinet that suffers from equally flimsy latches, the interior features have held up relatively well. (My solution to the continuous latch-failure problem was to buy a good supply of replacement latches and keep them on hand in the camper. Aside from mounting a metal hasp to the outside of each cabinet, I could find no other solution.) The CD player wiring was not securely fastened at the factory and had to be reinstalled after our first trip out. It was not defective, but it got me wondering as to what other details Fleetwood forgot to take care of that are out of sight (in the walls, behind cabinets, etc.). All the appliances work as they should for the most part. The propane stove takes some experimenting with in order to bake successfully (the temperature set is not what is actually produced); although this is a common problem with these stoves and happens in $100k coaches as well. The Dometic 3-way fridge works great (sometimes freezing our fridge-food if turned up too high), but sometimes has a problem priming itself. When first arriving at the camp site and switching the fridge from DC to propane, I sometimes have to turn on the high-flow burner on the cooktop in order to get a good flow of propane moving in the lines. This usually solves the problem and the fridge pilot fires up. The hot water heater works great and will produce a full tank of blisteringly-hot water in no time. The electronic ignition is an absolute joy (as opposed to having to manually light an external pilot). The bathroom fixtures and all of the plumbing work as they should and I?ve had no problems. The air conditioning could be a little stronger, but maybe it?s just me (I ride with my windows down in the winter). Our unit has an on-board Generac 3.4kw propane generator for our microwave, air conditioning, and AC power needs. While a good generator, using a small amount of propane per hour, it is certainly very noisy. It is barely acceptable while inside the camper with the door closed, and is completely unacceptable if you are anywhere nearby while outside. At approximately $2500 extra, I would definitely opt for a portable Honda gas generator. You wouldn?t have the convenience of simply pushing a button to start the unit from inside the camper, but your camping neighbors, your ears, and your wallet will thank you. The mattress included with the Caribou, pushed as their top of the line model, is simply not up to par. If you lie on your back all night, it?s ok. But if you like to lie on your side at all, your hips are going to hurt. The mattress, while of the innerspring variety, is simply not up to standard. Fleetwood was definitely skimping here. I know for a fact that other manufacturers use higher quality (and thicker) mattresses in their campers. We?re going to have to put about 4? of foam underneath just to make it bearable. Last, but not least, my big gripe is with the furnace. A major selling point of this unit to us was it?s claiming to have duct-over heating up into the main sleeping area. The unit does, in fact, have a vent located in the sleeping area. However, the furnace is completely unable to force enough air to make it effective. The only way I could determine that air was even getting through was to put my cheek directly over the vent and wait ? it?s that faint. When I finally got the unit into our service dealer, I was told that this performance, or lack thereof, was normal for these campers. The manufacturers knowingly put inadequate furnaces into their units, knowing full well that they?re not up to the task. Don?t get me wrong, the 15k BTU unit in mine will cook the entire inside of the camper, but the poor soul sleeping on the couch will be in a sauna. This was quite a disappointment for my wife and I, as our 3-yr old daughter sleeps below when we go camping. Obviously, cooking her out so that we can have a bit more heat is not an option.
Exterior features have worked as they should. The power Atwood jacks are a bit slow to use, but hands-down beat using a manual jack system. If you buy a camper and don?t get power jacks, you?re going to be wishing you had. Buy them as an included factory-installed option with the camper. If you don?t, you?ll pay a small fortune later to have all of the wiring done. I consider these to be a necessity. The Carefree awning also works very well and is a joy to have. The Caribou graphics on the front of the unit have begun to peel off, but I?m not too worried about that. The fiberglass sides wash extremely well and look great. I?ve seen no indications of de-lamination so far. The rubber roof (EPDM) has worked very well so far and I?ve seen nothing to be concerned with.
My ending recommendation: while the Caribou is a decent camper, I think that other manufacturers have a better product. Personally, I would have bought an Alpenlite model, as their fit, finish, and quality is very good. The only reason we didn?t buy their model was that they didn?t offer a deluxe side-entry version at the time. Their fold down bunk is an actual bunk that rides on springs and is rated to hold an actual person and not just small children, unlike the Caribou whose bunk area is better used as a large storage loft for blankets, pillows, and other bulky items. I would stay away from Lance as their craftsmanship is less than Fleetwood. All of the warranties offered are two year, so that really isn?t a deal-maker.
One final note: regardless of what type of slide in camper you get, if you decide to go with a model over 2300 lbs dry weight (which often works out to 2500-3000 when full), you should definitely look to put it into a 1-ton truck with dual rear wheels. While a 3/4-ton truck will meet this mark (barely), you?ll be swaying all over the road and will be risking your safety. My unit, when fully loaded for a trip, weighs in at about 4300 lbs and I haven?t even added my trailer yet. Even with the 1-ton truck, the camper still squatted the rear end to a point where the front end was elevated above it and caused the steering to ?swim? all over the road. Not a good situation. Firestone Ride-Rite Air Springs solved this problem. Generally speaking, if you want a slide-in camper with a bed-length longer than 7 feet, you should really consider the 1-ton, long-bed. The dealers will put their camper on whatever truck you bring them (assuming it fits), but they don?t have to live with the consequences ? you do. Anyhow, I hope this helps you in your decision.