Endless Possibilities with Happier Camper

Sep 18, 2020 | Interviews

Endless Possibilities with Happier Camper

By Nathan Paul Swartz

a small, fiberglass travel trailer being pulled by a Crossover SUV near the mountains

Car-towed, modular camper that’s redefining “endless possibilities.”

Around a decade ago, Derek Michael started up a trailer rental business in Los Angeles.

His life had already left him with titles like DJ, record label owner and graphic designer when he found himself working on his music career while paying the bills doing work as a Flash developer.

Then the world of smartphones came along, specifically iPhones and iPads, which put an end to Flash as a development platform.

“It,” Derek speaks to the Adobe software which once blanketed the web but has now gone the way of the pager, “became dead media. So combine that with a 2008 market crash and I was completely out of work and broke broke…”

“Being a clumsy musician,” he continues, “means I trashed lots of expensive equipment, so when I saw the iPad for the first time, I knew I would use it, but I also knew I would probably break it… So I came up with a unique drop-proof case for tablets I called ‘iBallz,’ basically a bungee cord with nerf balls that fit onto the corners. I made a prototype and shot a little video the same day the iPad was announced and because it was on topic, lots of news sites shared the crude but useful device. I put a ‘Buy Now’ link on the website and soon had a bunch of orders. So my friend Lee and I started a little company making accessories for tablets.”

With more potential customer interest in their product than startup cash in their pockets, they hit the trade show circuit hoping to get the business going. This was, essentially, the beginning of Happier Camper.

“We needed a way to transport things and a booth, so my father suggested we restore his 1968 Canadian made ‘Boler,’ the original ultra-light fiberglass travel trailer.”

Derek’s father had been restoring vintage trailers simply for the joy of it for years and continues to help others who are doing the same to this day. He also advises Happier Camper when it comes to new designs.

“He sent it over to me,” Derek continues, “and we painted it our signature turquoise blue color and off we went to these shows trying to make a buck selling our little products.”

They did, as he puts it, “We did OK… not great, but OK.

“But what happened was, I absolutely fell in love with the little trailer.”

his 1968 Boler travel trailer at a trade show

That original 1968 Boler trailer at a trade show, pushing iBallz.

He pulled it–with a Honda Element–through national parks, over rivers, up mountains and onto beaches, sharing BBQ afternoons with friends and solo adventures all along the way. A love became an obsession, and his life would never be the same.

“Suddenly doors into things I never dreamed of were opened. I could go anywhere, do anything and it was freeing. So I started finding more vintage fiberglass trailers and restoring them. Back then they were not very popular so I could find some great deals, they may have a tree growing through the floor, or a family of raccoons living inside, but I could see past that and bring them back to life. My father was a contractor, and I worked with him pretty much every summer from 13, so I could work with my hands well enough to make things happen.”

Soon enough, Derek found his apartment’s driveway overflowing with vintage trailers and unhappy neighbors.

“I didn’t know what to do with them,” he recalls, “So I started renting a couple of parking spots from my Volvo mechanic.”

That mechanic’s customers began putting in offers on the trailers, though they weren’t exactly on the market at the time.

“I didn’t want to sell them, but one day while I was out cleaning them a couple came by and said ‘We don’t want to buy it, we just want to rent it for the weekend.’ I was flat broke, behind on bills, so I said why not. I made a couple bucks, and they were super happy. The next day I put up a ‘For Rent’ sign, and Happier Camper rentals was born.”

A few years later, his trailer rental business had grown to a small fleet of unique vintage lightweight trailers.

“Most were made in the 60s and 70s,” he says, “Bolers, Trilliums, Burros, Perris Pacers and Fiber Streams, all unique in their own way. A couple were stolen, I had a few setbacks and major growing pains, but customers loved them, and I found a business that I loved to do. I listened to the renters, and heard what they liked or didn’t like, what they wished for, or what they wanted to see. I wrote it all down. What I discovered was that in such a tiny space, you just can’t have it all in a permanent set up. It was impossible.”

Uhaul CT, Trillium, and two Boler trailers parked at a rental facility that looks like a vintage gas station

Some of his original trailers: Uhaul CT, Trillium, and two Boler trailers. Having two of these trailers stolen–and never recovered–was part of the early setbacks in the origination of Happier Camper.

“That’s when I started thinking about the modular interior of the trailers and invented the Adaptiv™ modular system.”

With customer demand high, and plenty of experience under his belt, he knew exactly what people were looking for.

The trailer rental company cruising along, he began working on designs for what would eventually become the HC1 and their Adaptiv™ modular interior. Borrowing from some of the trailer designs on the rigs he’d restored, he took inspiration and came to what he found to be the perfect design.

“The Trillium’s molded part lines gave me the crucial math for modular components. The Boler’s rounded shape, the Burro’s double hull construction, the Perris Pacer’s long curbside window, the Uhaul’s integrated upper cabinets. I also rode a motorcycle, so we needed a rear hatch!”

It took a few years, but the first HC1 was sold in 2015, and over 400 have shipped since.

The end result was a small trailer which, most importantly, people could connect with, but which also could easily be customized–on the fly–to suit the needs of their owners and be towed by most 4-cylinder cars.

“Not all cars,” he clarifies, “because there are some funny looking cars out there powered by who knows what. However, most 4 cylinder cars can easily pull the HC1. We suggest a tow capacity of at least 1500 lbs.”

The HC1 weighs in at 1100 lbs before being loaded. Always check your owner’s manual and utilize common sense when towing any trailer. But Derek has towed one across the country with a Fiat, and an S Model Mini Cooper.

“It’s not always the weight of the trailer,” he explains, “but the distribution of the weight, and balance, having a good horizontal pull or using electronic brakes. Every vehicle, just like every trip is different.”

Perhaps the most unique feature of Happier Camper’s trailers is the way they can have their layout adjusted to not just meet different travelers’ needs, but any given camper’s needs as they evolve. Taking the family out for the weekend? Setup the beds. Going on a solo trip the next weekend? Use it as a toy hauler.

“It’s designed for one person,” Derek is referring to the ease involved in rearranging the layout, “any age, and size. Most components are super lightweight and easy to move around. Some components like the kitchenette or fridge can be heavier, so you may need a friend to help. The components have finger holds for easy maneuvering inside and out.”

the HC1 being towed by a Mini Cooper.

Towing with a Mini Cooper?

Seating, for example, can be moved outside to make more space once you’ve found your perfect campsite.

This applies to the kitchen as well.

“One thing I learned with the rentals was that nobody likes cooking inside, they always like to cook at the campsite outside.

“So the kitchenettes in the rentals would always just be used as a luggage rack. So I made the kitchen modular and removable, so it can be used outside.

“Or people with small cars always had their entire trunks full of camping chairs and tables. So I made it so the bed cubes can be used outside by the fire, or the table tops can be used outside, or stacked onto cubes to become bar tables. All this stuff makes it easier for people to get on the road and think less about what to bring, its all in the trailer!”

various components from couches to a bed, kitchenette and so on in the HC1

The HC1 interior, or one example of a possible layout.

Growing up near Detroit, two five gallons buckets full of Legos helped Derek while away long winters. And it shows in his design.

Vintage trailers and Danish toys weren’t his only inspiration, though.

“I think the modularity of Adaptiv also came from my time living in a tiny apartment in Japan, and the need to use a small space in many ways. I always had a hard time in the tiny cramped trailers and RVs. Smelly carpet on the walls…”

Buying one off of their website typically means you’ll choose from tried and true layouts, but the modular nature means the combinations are nearly endless. Adding, subtracting, rearranging, and moving pieces inside and out are simple and limit what any given camper can do only to their own imagination.

“A child can do it,” he claims, “Components are made from super durable and lightweight rotomold composites, these materials won’t deteriorate and are designed for outdoor use.”

“Double beds, queen size, full kitchen, fridge, toilet, tables, and bars,” are some examples of available components and configurations. “Everything converts and flips around for hundreds of setups. The beauty of that is flexibility in a small space, you may use it one way one weekend but completely different on your next trip.”

Custom options are also available.

“[From] basics like your choice of color, full color or half, choice of Sunbrella fabrics or your choice of wood finish, light ply with Formica, or sustainable bamboo.

“We also have add ons and upgrades that customers love. Heaters and air conditioners, awnings, lifted packages, solar and battery packages, rear hatch screens, mattress toppers, iPad mounts, Bluetooth speakers. All the goodies can be put in there.”

The trailers don’t just look pretty and hold up when it comes to their interior components, they’re also built with the modern-day boondocker in mind.

“100%. We use a heavy-duty torsion axle, this is the same axle you would find on a horse trailer. It’s super rigid and designed to take the bumps.

view of the modular components in an HC1

Interior of an HC1, via @happiercamperowners.

“You have about 10′ to the bottom of the axle, the frame sits about 16″ from the ground. We also offer a lifted packaged that is more set for off-road use and clearance. It gives you an extra 2″ lift and comes with aluminum wheels and 14” AT tires.

“It loses a little of its cuteness,” he admits, “but you can take it out to way more places. The places you want to go, next to the river or on the back roads.” All of that said, he wants to make it clear that–all cuteness aside–the HC1 is designed for off-road adventure and utility.

“There is nothing as strong and light as double fiberglass, there are no unneeded screws, rivets, nuts, and bolts to fall apart, or deteriorate. Fiberglass will last forever and is impervious to all the elements.

“It’s forever.

“You’re not going to go rock crawling, but you can stack all the ‘off-road’ trailers made from wood and metals together, and none will outlast or outmaneuver an HC1 off-grid,” he smiles, “and we get to do it in style!”

If you were wondering, the HC1 starts at just under $25,000.

someone sitting in an HC1

Inside an HC1.

Living, or even weekend camping, in a small trailer isn’t for everyone. So the HC1 got a big brother, the Traveler.

“The new Travelers path came a few ways,” Derek explains, “but primarily we wanted a larger unit that fit a more conventional market. The HC1 is perfect for weekend warriors and quick getaways. The Traveler is designed for longer trips, more home comforts and a bigger footprint.”

Those start at just under $40k.

And then they began considering the #vanlife market.

“Adaptiv for Vans is still new,” he speaks to the same modular approach, applied to your existing van. “However it’s a fully self-contained bolt-on system. It’s designed to be installed in just a couple hours. It’s easy to put in and take out and designed to work with your vans’ already established floor bolt holes.

“Just drop it in and load in your components. It won’t void any warranty, and there is no cutting, drilling or changing to your van’s already awesome design. It will work easiest on passenger vans.”

The concept has already taken off with the van-dwelling crowd, and even though the product isn’t even available just yet, Happier Camper has a waitlist for the first units once they are.

sneak peek at the Adaptiv for Vans concept, several of the components placed inside and out of a Sprinter van

sneak peek at the Adaptiv for Vans concept.

“We are perfecting everything just right before we fully push the product. We think Adaptiv for Vans will be popular for a segment of the market that wants the flexibility of using their vans for trips but also work and utility.

“It’s perfect for van life and will be a much longer-lasting and competitively priced solution. It’s not meant to compete with the luxury van build-outs and should fit into its own little niche nicely. I have used it on many awesome trips and I’m excited to share it with others!”

Derek regularly uses his own products.

“I plan ‘photoshoots’ often, it’s a good reason to get out and try new things.

“Southern California is the best place on earth for outdoor adventures and we have the best sunsets. I like the two hour, close drive weekenders, I work a lot and don’t have a ton of free time, so I get out where I can.

“Around LA, I love to stay in Big Bear Lake in the summer, the air is crisp and my dog Lulu loves to swim in the lake.”

He also makes time to tour the desert, “There is an epic off-road trail that goes from Big Bear to Pioneertown with the most amazing Joshua Tree you’ve ever seen.”

Grabbing a beer from the infamous Pappie & Harriet’s, snagging oranges off the tree in Ojai and spending time on the beaches north of Santa Barbara make his short list of favorite places to camp.

He’s been all across the West, but finishes his list with “My personal favorite is Sedona, Arizona. We have a beautiful continent and you can just drive there and live in these places for little money.”

Existing customers are falling in love as well.

“We get to live through our customers’ experiences,” he speaks to seeing folks posting their trailers across social media, “We have so many awesome customers taking their trailers everywhere, they tag us and we share it. We are a still pretty small company with limited resources, so we don’t have any marketing department or advertising.

“We rely on our customers as our sales force, and their word of mouth goes a long way.

“They write our stories and they are our photographers. Get out our IG feed and you can see how they all use our trailers in unique ways. My favorites are the ones that use the trailers for their businesses, maybe a cookie store or coffee bar.

“We have a customer in Japan who uses their HC1 as a hot tea bar and they set it up really cool.”

He admits that his customers come up with new layouts and ways to use their Happier Campers in ways he hadn’t even imagined.

“One customer posted a photo of when they used the HC1 to move their kid to college, or one has a collection of vintage motorbikes. We have one at a football stadium serving beer and one as a mobile massage parlor…

“And then the camping, the adventures we live through our customers. They are the best.”

From here, even with the current strange state of affairs constantly barraging the world and leaving much of the future hard to predict, Derek is optimistic.

“We’ve got lots of good things happening,” and though he’s keeping the details close at this point, he reveals “I have 2 new models of the HC1 in development that I think are going to be popular.

“They have some unique features I think customers will love. I’m also further developing Adaptiv components, currently working on a modular self-contained, heated and pressurized shower component, you can use it inside or out. And also a new Deluxe kitchenette that I think the Adaptiv for Vans folks will love.

“On the bigger picture I think Happier Camper is a technology company at its core, we are always coming up with new designs that fit into people’s mobile lives. I see a clear future for us in line with autonomous vehicles and electrics. I think the need for sustainable lightweight mobile modular living space will only grow with these new technologies and I want Adaptiv to be a household name for that. I want to make products that fit into our customer’s dynamic lives and still touch their heat.”

RVs that drive their campers to destinations unknown without a human at the helm? Emergency shelters for future natural disasters? A tailgater’s paradise parked in your home team’s lot? The possibilities already seem endless, and with a guy like Derek Michael’s behind the company’s wheel, who knows what the future will bring?