I’ve been on the move this blisteringly cold month. I started out in the Mojave Desert at the King of the Hammers, and I only just got home from scraping Harley bagger floorboards at a racetrack. Those stories are coming, but I want to kick it off with an awesome little camper that I got to spend almost a week with.
The Taxa Mantis Overland isn’t just a small camper inspired by a bug; it’s a travel trailer that offers an off-grid, off-road camping experience that you won’t soon forget.
(Full Disclosure: Backbone Media and Bombardier Recreational Products invited me out to Johnson Valley, California to experience the 2022 King of the Hammers. Taxa Outdoors provided me with its Mantis Overland as my home base for four days. Backbone covered more pricy expenses and snacks while I covered my own meals, adult beverages and more.)
The pandemic has led to a shift in how some go on vacation. Some who might have boarded a cruise ship are taking a road trip. Some who might have flown to a resort are now traveling in an RV. And some people are getting into off-roading and the outdoors where they might have preferred something within the confines of four walls topped by a roof.
At the intersection of off-roading and camping is the rugged travel trailer. These have been around for some time. By now you’ve likely seen teardrops rolling on all-terrain tires, and I’ve even written about all kinds of off-road rigs. Many of these are really just the rolling hotel rooms that travel trailers normally are, but built to take a little more of a beating than usual.
The Taxa Mantis Overland isn’t like those trailers, and you notice it the instant that you lay your eyes on it.
TAXA Outdoors was founded by Garrett Finney, former senior architect for the NASA Habitability Design Center. There, he got to do work on the interior of the International Space Station to make space living easier. Finney got the idea for Taxa in 2009; he wanted to make a trailer better than a tent but still connected to nature.
The King of the Hammers was more or less a temporary city of thousands of people all living out of RVs. There were all kinds of campers out there from giant Class A palaces to pop-up tent campers. None of them stuck out as much as the little Mantis Overland did.
No, your eyes aren’t deceiving you. Not a single one of those windows and not one of the lines of the walls are level. That’s just some of the unapologetic offbeat character of this camper.
The walls that make up the Mantis Overland’s body are Kynar-painted aluminum composite panels. Kynar is a resin-based coating advertised as being able to withstand some serious torture. Along with sunlight and UV exposure resistance the coating offers some resistance to fire and some resistance to abrasion.
That’s bonded to an aluminum alloy with a two-pound closed cell foam core. This adds both insulation and strength while keeping weight down.
The walls feel really good to the touch, and the fit and finish is fantastic. Steel plates make up a skeleton that add extra strength and protection from rocks and whatever else you might encounter off-road.
Stick your head underneath the Mantis Overland, and you’ll see another neat feature of this camper. Check out its Timbren axle-less suspension.
This bit of kit eliminates the solid axle that you’ll see under the typical camper. The Timbren suspension is built around a pivot arm and uses rubber for compression and rebound. Thats right, there aren’t any shocks here. Going with the Timbren gives the Mantis Overland a truly independent suspension and 14 inches of ground clearance.
Adding to the camper’s off-road capability is its Lock ‘N’ Roll hitch.
Unlike a ball hitch, which could move but only so much, a Lock ‘N’ Roll can rotate 360 degrees on three axes. The Mantis’ tongue moves on a vertical axis and you can see the two grooves there that allow it to move on a lateral axis.
The rest of the movement comes from the hitch that you slide into the tow vehicle. The hitch spins on a longitudinal axis and latches onto the trailer’s tongue.
I will say that, given the range of movement, you might think that the Mantis Overland would be easier to hitch up than a typical trailer, but we actually found it harder. Unlike a trailer with a ball tongue, there is no slipping the trailer onto the hitch even though you’re not perfectly lined up.
Another bonus is that the hitch is a form of theft prevention.
I didn’t get to tow the Mantis Overland, but it has specs that make it sound ideal. The trailer comes in at 3,486 pounds dry, 19-feet-long, 7-feet-tall and 7-feet, 6-inches wide. Some vehicles could tow this on a highway without its driver even feeling it back there.
After appreciating how the Mantis Overland’s exterior was put together, I popped open the wide door. If you are expecting luxury here, you will be extremely disappointed. You’ll either first notice the trailer’s steel skeleton or the interior’s other materials.
The steel skeleton was most noticeable for me.
It lines the perimeter of the trailer’s body where the tops of the walls line up with the roof tent. The skeleton is there to add strength, but I love the sort of industrial look it gives. There are exposed fasteners all over and holes that you can use to hang stuff like a hammock, groceries, speakers or whatever you can imagine.
In fact, much of the interior gives off a function-over-form vibe. The trailer has lots of LED lighting all over and all of it is exposed. Forget fancy fixtures and hidden cable routing. In a Taxa Mantis, what you see is literally what you get.
I like this because should these LEDs fail they should be easy for an end user to replace.
And if you’re like me, I bet you’re already thinking about the possibility of replacing these boring white strips for RGB strips.
This theme continues elsewhere in the interior. The air-conditioner, for example, is an off-the-shelf General Electric window unit shoved into a frame behind a panel that can be opened. Should this unit ever fail, you could just replace it with another window unit.
The counters are made from Wilsonart high pressure laminate. While it doesn’t look any different than what’s used in a typical camper, this stuff feels really solid. And like the air-conditioner and the LEDs, if you find a way to break these counters, I feel like replacing them will be easy; same if you wanted to upgrade them.
Storage inside is handled by milk crates secured by bungie cables. I’m not kidding, check these out:
Honestly, I absolutely love these for a storage solution. I’m not looking for somewhere pretty to keep my stuff, just somewhere that keeps things secure on the road. This does just that without any frills. And to further drill this in: milk crates are easier to replace than cabinets and cabinet doors.
But don’t think that the bare bones materials mean no creature comforts. The trailer comes with everything you need for a camping trip. German RV system supplier Truma provides the camper with a portable refrigerator and a climate control system.
You get a powerful propane heater, heated water and cold food on the run. You also get a sink and a functional bathroom.
Readers asked if I could use the bathroom while cooking myself breakfast. While such activities appeared to be easily possible, the Mantis that I was testing had already been sold to a customer, so I wasn’t allowed to use the bathroom.
Alright, so the Mantis is already properly wacky and minimalist, but it gets even better. Unzip the vents in the roof tent, open all of the doors, and open the windows to let the outdoors in.
The Mantis was built as a living space that allows you to still feel connected to nature, not a hotel room separating you from it. With the camper “exploded” open like this, it’s so airy that you forget just how small it is.
Having all of the portals wide open like this doesn’t just look cool, but it’s calming, too. I sometimes found myself just laying down in bed, trailer wide open and enjoying the desert breeze. When everything is open like that it does indeed feel like the inside of the trailer has become a part of the outdoors.
So I’d say Taxa’s mission is definitely accomplished there.
Forget my parents’ 40-foot-long Holiday Inn, I want to relax like this. The Mantis doesn’t have a television, radio or any other form of entertainment. Yet, I felt more decompressed and more in a state of tranquility in this than any RV I’ve tried out over the years.
And don’t worry if you plant your stakes down somewhere with bugs. The windows have deployable nets so you can enjoy great outdoor weather just about anywhere.
The Mantis Overland was my home base of operations for four days and three nights. Those nights got below freezing temperature, and high winds made things feel even colder. Meanwhile, an almost constant dust cloud hung over the area, making the solar panel on the camper work for its keep.
With the Mantis’ roof tent deployed, even some of the tallest people will have plenty of room to move around in the trailer.
The only places that will challenge your height are the front and rear sections and the side door. I never hit my head sitting on the bench or getting in and out of bed, but I slammed my noggin into the entry door a good five times. But five times was all I needed to remember to stop doing that.
The bed back there could be turned into a dining room and the couch up front turned into a bunk bed. This makes the camper able to sleep four on its own, with an additional person coming in from hanging a hammock from the skeleton.
Power in the camper was handled by two batteries and a third party solar panel. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to pull the specs from the solar panel. However, I can say that I got the trailer with the onboard voltmeter reading 12.4 Volts on Tuesday, and I returned it Friday morning with the reading at 11.7 Volts.
On the first night I used the Truma system to turn the furnace to 80 degrees with the fan set to High. I then hooked my phone, my tablet and a Bluetooth speaker to a few of the trailer’s many USB ports for charging. Voltage got down to 12.2 Volts just before sunrise. The solar panel had it topped it back up to 12.4 Volts while I was out sending a side-by-side through the desert.
However, the panel would become less efficient as it got covered in sand.
The charge got down to 12.0 Volts Wednesday night and got no higher than 12.2 Volts during the day on Thursday. I wasn’t using much power in the trailer. USB ports kept my devices fed and I used as few LED strips as possible at night. I did use the sink in the mornings, but I didn’t even need to turn on the electric water pump. The biggest draw have come from the Truma system, which worked to keep things toasty at night.
And things were extremely comfortable at night. I’m used to losing a bunch of heat to tent fabrics but that didn’t happen with the Mantis. While some heat was lost, the Truma system kept the pace, often only running for a few minutes at a time to keep the temp topped up. Taxa’s people told me that if I really needed to I could have closed the roof tent to build heat, but even when the temps got below freezing that was never necessary.
Water storage comes in the form of a 20-gallon fresh water tank and a 22-gallon gray water tank. There is no black water tank, so when the toilet’s own tank gets filled you have to manually dump it. So long as you have a good enough solar panel, I bet you could live off-grid in the Mantis for as long as your water and propane supplies last. There are so few things that use electricity in this camper that a good solar panel could keep it running indefinitely.
When I gave the Mantis back to Taxa, it still had endurance left in it. I hadn’t even used up a gallon of water, and the propane tanks had plenty of fill left. A good clean of the solar panel would have topped up the batteries, too.
The Taxa Mantis Overland is $49,950, which shocked some when I first wrote about it and will likely to continue to shock people here, too. I mean, for halfway to six figures, you get to throw your gear into milk crates and slam your head into a door frame. For the same price you could buy a 40-foot travel trailer that has three slides and looks nicer than many houses do. That same price gives you something that could actually work as a house.
However, the Mantis gives you an experience that those campers can’t: the ability to remain connected to nature. A 40-foot, 9,000-pound travel trailer is like taking a Sheraton hotel with you. Meanwhile, a Mantis is for someone who hates tents but still wants to enjoy the outdoor experience offered by a tent. The Mantis Overland is rolling proof that you don’t need recliners, televisions and big outdoor entertainment modules to have fun camping. All you need is some air, yourself and time to relax.
The icing on the cake is that this trailer isn’t just durable, but I believe that just about anyone could work on it. Campers are sometimes like boats, where the best days of ownership are the days that you bought them and the days that you sold them. My parents are experiencing this right now as a luan wall failure has caused a massive leak, itself causing horrible floor damage. The damage is bad enough that the repairs will cost nearly the value of the trailer. Taxa’s bare bones simplicity should mean that the owner of a Mantis spends more time making memories and less time making repairs.
I hope to get to try one of these again someday. I’d love to hitch one up to one of my Volkswagen Touaregs and seeing just how far I could drag one off-road.