Jul 01, 2023
Tested: Happier Camper HC1 Studio Review
The Happier Camper HC1 Studio isn't just pretty Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members!
The Happier Camper HC1 Studio isn't just pretty
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! >","name":"in-content-cta","type":"link"}}">Download the app.
I knew the small camper I’m towing behind my truck was adorable because everyone—from soccer moms outside of the grocery store to bikers at the gas station—kept telling me it was.
The Happier Camper HC1 Studio definitely has a unique mid-century modern vibe—picture what the Jetsons would sleep in if they went camping. It is cute as hell and seems to be designed specifically for making your Insta page pop. But just because a piece of gear looks wonderful in a photo doesn’t mean it performs well in the field. And, starting at $39,950, it better be good. So, I spent three nights living in the HC1 Studio in and around Joshua Tree National Park in California to see if it was more than just a pretty picture.
Happier Camper hit the scene in 2015 with their first trailer, the HC1, which quickly established their distinctly retro exteriors. On the inside, a modular system of cubes can be rearranged as benches, seats, a bed, sink, stove, and even a toilet. Each cube clicks into place, fitting tightly into grooves molded into the trailer’s fiberglass floor, or can be removed from the HC1, so you can set up a comfortable camp outside. Alternatively, you can leave the cubes at home and use the HC1 as a gear trailer thanks to the floor’s four burly D-rings that let you secure unwieldy gear. The trailer itself is light as hell: the dry weight of the HC1 is 1,800 pounds. The shell is made from two layers of fiberglass with insulation in the middle, like a bathtub, which means it’s light enough to be towed with a Subaru or small SUV, and is warm enough for winter camping.
In November, the company released the HC1 Studio, which keeps the modular bed and table system but adds a stationary kitchen with a two-burner stove, sink, and Dometic drawer refrigerator, as well as a bathroom with a shower and toilet. It also comes standard with propane and hot water heaters and a lithium ion battery that powers the fridge, interior lights, and the USB ports. You can also upgrade to a package that includes solar (from $49,950), which doubles the stored battery capacity, adds an air conditioner, and gives you the potential to stay off the grid longer.
The addition of the kitchen and bathroom do eat into the interior space and limit your ability to use the Studio as a gear hauler. But it should go without saying that having a kitchen and bathroom in the camper is incredibly useful and turns camping into a more civilized affair. I like cooking outside, so I would probably prefer the modular kitchen that you can use inside or outside, but having the bathroom was clutch. I asked the founder of Happier Camper, Derek Michael May, why he added the HC1 Studio to their quiver and he was blunt: “Because some people want four walls around them when they poop.”
It’s true. It’s hard to overstate how great it is to have a bathroom in the trailer. I particularly like it when I was camping on BLM land without pit toilets. The dry flush system Happier Camper uses is great, since it eliminates the need to deal with waste water. Basically, a battery-operated flush system sucks your waste into a bag that you dispose of in a dumpster. To save space, the toilet is located inside the shower, which is pretty common for RVs. Is it weird to sit on the toilet when you take a shower? Yes. But is it worth it to be able to shower when you’re deep in the desert miles from the nearest running water? Absolutely. (The Studio has 17-gallon fresh and gray water tanks.)
A big part of the appeal of Happier Camper’s trailers is that they’re small, which makes them easier to tow and maneuver. The Studio is small enough to fit into a single parking space, which is great when you’re on the road. It’s also not much taller than a teardrop-style trailer, so it doesn’t act like a sail the way some taller campers do. I drove through the windmill fields of Southern California during high-wind warnings and barely felt a wiggle behind me.
The flip side is that the interior can feel a little claustrophobic. It has 73 inches of headroom in front of the kitchen, which is plenty of height for most people to stand upright, and roughly the same amount of width as the queen bed, so most people can sleep in there with no problem. But I’m six foot, three inches tall, so I had to hunch and sleep at an angle. Even if you’re under six foot, you’re going to want to be really enamored with the person you’re sharing the camper with, because space is tight.
Still, the interior is very well designed and I was perfectly comfortable during my tenure in the Studio. There are lights where you need them, charging ports everywhere, and enough space for two people to occupy the bench seats and table when I transformed the bed into the living room configuration. And there’s plenty of storage for gear. Each cube pulls triple duty as a seat, bed support, and organizational bin. There’s no wasted space in this thing at all—every angle within the shell seems to hide a drawer or cubby. Being able to pack all of your gear away (one cube for kitchen tools, another for clothes, etcetera) allows you to declutter the interior and maximize the living space. And because the interior footprint is compact, you can be standing outside of the camper and simply reach in through the door to access the fridge for a beer. I found that particularly handy.
Personally, if I didn’t have a budget, I’d get the upgraded version. You get amenities like an awning and a sound system, plus solar panels and two lithium Ion batteries with a power inverter for AC. The model I tested had AC outlets in addition to the USB ports, but those outlets could only be used when plugged into shore power, like at an RV resort. I spent my whole weekend worrying that I was draining the battery life by keeping my beer cold in the Dometic fridge, and in fact, ran out of power on my third night in the desert. I woke up to warm beer and no power for lights or my phone.
Because it’s so damn cute, I was worried how the Studio would handle rough roads. It doesn’t look like a burly overlander, and it isn’t, but it has 14 inches of clearance and you can upgrade to larger all-terrain tires if you know you’ll be exploring questionable roads. I had the stock tires, and the Studio handled the washboard backroads of Joshua Tree with no problem. I wouldn’t take the thing rock crawling, but I have no doubt it’s tough enough to survive the majority of Forest Service and BLM roads out there.
The coolest feature on the Studio is the large rear hatch, which opens and forms an awning. After a hike or trail run, I could pop it, sit on the bed with my legs hanging out, and enjoy the breeze and some shade while drinking a beer. I woke up early each morning, opened the back and watched the sun rise over the mountains while sitting there drinking coffee. Maybe more importantly, the ability to basically remove a wall creates the illusion of more space when you’re sitting inside the camper.
My wife and I have an ongoing argument about whether we need a camper or small RV. I’ve been dead set against them because if you’re going camping, I believe you should be outside. I don’t want to drive an RV to a campground and sit in it, eating microwave popcorn, and watching TV while sitting on a couch. My wife counters with the very simple and logical statement, “It’s OK to be comfortable, even when you’re camping.”
Happier Camper might just be the middle ground that couples like us are looking for. I’m not opposed to sleeping on a comfortable bed when I’m camping and there’s nothing wrong with being able to shower and poop in private. The HC1 Studio gives you those amenities without enticing you to ignore what’s outside its fiberglass walls. And yes, it will look great in your social media feed.Graham AverillBryan RogalaStephanie PearsonBrent RoseDrew Zieff