James StanburySee other accessory reviews written by James Stanbury
A reversing camera can be super-handy for caravanners and wireless kits make them more affordable than ever – we put 10 to the test to see what's best
If there’s one aspect of caravan ownership that almost all of us would appreciate a bit of help with, it’s reversing the outfit when hitched up.
Granted, after a couple of weeks away, angling your car one way to point the caravan the other starts to feel a bit more natural.
But after a few months without towing, those skills soon become rusty – making a dread of going backwards all part and parcel of those first few days away.
And while learning how to manoeuvre your car to direct – or correct – the van is a skill that only comes with practice, one of the biggest issues that afflicts all of us is the inability to see what’s going on behind the van, unless the car and tourer are dead in line – allowing wing mirrors to be used.
This is where an electronic eye, on the back of the van, becomes invaluable.
A wireless revolution?
Reversing cameras have been around for many years now, and even wireless models are far from new.
But wireless models that genuinely deliver a good, usable picture, thanks to digital rather than analogue technology, are something of a recent innovation. And, now they’re here, they could potentially revolutionise the market.
You see, fitting a camera to the back of a caravan and plonking a small monitor on the car’s dashboard, or windscreen, is well within the DIY scope of most of us.
However, fitting a camera and screen, then running cabling all the way from the back of the van to the front – somehow engineering a removable link between caravan and car – and finally running the cabling from the back to the front of the car, is normally a job that would be farmed out to professionals, usually at a prohibitive cost.
In short, decent wireless systems make reversing cameras infinitely more affordable.
Put to the test
We began our tests with the obvious: picture quality.
We checked each system in daylight and darkness, at varying distances between the back of the van and monitor, and based our results on viewing angle width, overall clarity and graininess.
Screen size played its part, too, and arguably one of the most important factors is whether the monitor is able to flip the camera’s naturally mirror-imaged output or not.
If it can’t, the view in the monitor is horizontally flipped. In other words, what’s on your right appears on the left, and vice versa – unlike a normal mirror.
As well as these factors, we considered ease of installation both on the caravan and in the car.
Fully or partially wired?
Some systems are fully wireless, in that both the camera and monitor have integral transmitters and receivers respectively.
Other systems have wired cameras and/or monitors, and use separate transmitters and receivers. And while transmitters are relatively easy to hide in a caravan’s under-seat storage, receivers are more of a problem at the car dashboard end.
That said, wired components with transmitters/receivers can be beneficial because they can be converted to fully wired at a later date – should you suffer issues with wireless operation.
It’s even possible, with this set-up, to wire the camera to a transmitter in the front of the caravan, and position the receiver at the back of the car – just using the wireless signal to jump the gap between.
Some camera systems are more advanced than others, and we looked favourably on set-ups that allow extra cameras to be added – such as hitch, side, or even interior cameras.
Sound transmission is another easily overlooked advantage. If somebody is physically guiding you into a pitch, it’s handy to be able to hear them easily in the car without them having to yell.
Is DIY really an option?
In a word, yes. But how do you fit a wireless reversing camera?
Mounting a camera on the back of a tourer is a doddle, though obviously different approaches will need to be taken depending on whether the caravan is still under warranty or not.
Drilling a large hole to surface-mount a bullet-style camera, for instance, could invalidate any warranty claim, particularly related to water ingress through the van’s walls.
Numberplate mounts with integral cameras are one of the least-invasive methods of fitting these devices, with magnetic models perhaps being the ultimate.
And, if you’re wondering how on earth you can get a magnetic camera to stick to a composite wall, the simple answer is to place a powerful neodymium magnet, of the opposite pole, on the other side.
As well as physically fixing the camera in place, there will obviously be a bit of electrical work.
Combined cameras and transmitters are a bonus here, because you only have to worry about bringing a live feed to the single, externally mounted component.
On systems with cameras and separate transmitters, both will need power, and there will be a signal cable between the two.
Usually, standalone transmitters aren’t weather-resistant, either, meaning they will have to be mounted inside the van.
You've got the power
As for the power feed itself, on cars this is normally taken from the reversing-light circuit. This means that the camera only transmits a signal when reverse is selected, and monitors are normally designed to go into standby, with a blank screen, unless they detect a suitable signal.
If your caravan doesn’t have reversing lights, or has an older-style plug that doesn’t support them, power can be taken from the leisure battery.
Just bear in mind that the camera will transmit continuously, so you’ll have to manually switch on the monitor during reversing, and off again afterwards, if you find continual coverage distracting.
Though it could be argued that a continual record of what’s happening behind is no more distracting than a rear-view mirror in normal driving – particularly if the monitor clips over the rear-view mirror. These behave just like a mirror until a signal is received, at which point it becomes a screen.
Before you buy...
While there’s no doubt that reversing cameras make a huge difference to manoeuvring a caravan, the simple fact is that there’s now a better option.
So-called ‘look-down’ systems, such as the Omni-Vue, take the outputs of three or four wide-angle cameras – one mounted on each side of the vehicle – and use computer wizardry to calculate an accurate view from above.
For the driver, the view on the screen is much as if the caravan had sprouted a 100ft pole from its roof, complete with cameras looking down from the top.
Most users quickly become converts and maintain that there is no easier system for manoeuvring caravans or other large vehicles.
But, predictably enough, such intelligent systems come at a premium. Leading Omni-Vue agent Trailervision can install the cheaper Omni-Van system onto a caravan for around £834 – considerably more than even a professionally fitted reversing-camera system.
Durite 0-776-41 – five stars
Practical Caravan Editor's Choice
- Price: £265.66
Predictably enough, our winning system provides by far the clearest picture on the screen.
It’s absolutely excellent in daylight and at night, when the infra-red LEDs kick in, the images on screen are still incredibly detailed – even if they have a slightly blueish hue to them.
The giant 175mm monitor aids the viewing experience further, and being able to hear what’s going on at the back of your outfit is surprisingly useful. But the screen’s size also rules out simple stick-it-on-the-windscreen mounting.
Durite supplies two forms of dash mount, and both are permanently attached to the dash-top. Other bonuses include very simple installation and the flexibility to easily add a second wireless camera.
Digi-Lite Deluxe – four stars
- Price: £349.99
Digi-Lite is probably one of the neatest ways of installing a reversing camera system onto your caravan. You simply remove the numberplate, fit Digi-Lite’s special numberplate mount in its place – complete with integral camera and night-vision LEDs – then clip your numberplate back into the mount.
The caravan doesn’t get away completely unscathed, however: you will need to route the cable from the mount inside, in order to get power to the camera and to transfer the camera’s output to a tiny wireless transmitter – which also needs power.
Although this system lacks the absolute clarity of the winning Durite, it’s still extremely impressive and actually boasts a slightly wider viewing angle than our overall winner.
HIDS4U Mirror View Monitor Kit – four stars
- Price: £89.99
Our highest-scoring budget kit really does deliver a lot for the money. The small bullet-style camera is a doddle to fit, and the kit even includes a suitable hole saw.
In the car, there’s a swish and generously sized 170mm mirror screen, which simply slots over the car’s existing mirror. However, stashing the receiver box out of sight, and getting the signal and power supply up to the mirror, is a bit more of a challenge.
Visually, we were pleasantly surprised by both the screen and camera. Or at least we were in daylight. At night, the camera’s infra-red LEDs only illuminate items very close by in any degree of detail, and the whole screen display becomes something of a blue murk.
HIDS4U Quad View Monitor Kit – four stars
- Price: £129.99
Visually, this is just the same as the HIDS mirror-mount kit: very acceptable performance in daylight, but night-time viewing is compromised to say the least. And this is no surprise given that both systems utilise the same bullet-style camera.
Inside the car, though, this system’s 178mm screen is one seriously powerful piece of kit. It can support up to four cameras and, utilising inputs from the indicator and reversing-light circuits, it switches the screen to the relevant view at the right time.
The only trouble is that this all has to be done with cabling, because the simple wireless transmitters and receivers used cannot be made camera-specific; they only work with single camera set-ups.
Digi-Lite – three stars
- Price: £329.99
This is in essence a cheaper version of the Digi-Lite Deluxe, featuring a smaller 90mm monitor unit instead of the Deluxe’s mirror screen. And, in some ways, this is no bad thing.
The smaller monitor has an integral receiver, and power comes from a lead with a cigarette-lighter plug. So it really is plug-and-play – or at least it would be if a screen mount was supplied as well as the adhesive dash-top bracket.
As with the dearer Digi-Lite, you get the excellent numberplate-mount-style camera. And, visually, the two systems are almost identical – with a very clear and wide-angled view of the world as standard.
The biggest drawback is this smaller monitor’s inability to convert the camera’s output from mirror image to the usual way around.
Digi-View Portable System – three stars
- Price: £399.99
This is the most expensive system in the group, but also potentially the easiest to install, important if you’re worried about how to fit a wireless reversing camera.
And the really good bit is that this is a kit that requires absolutely no permanent modifications to be made to your caravan – a real bonus for owners of new caravans that are still under warranty.
So, how does this wireless reversing camera work? Well, a separate weatherproof power pack has an ultra-strong magnet in its base, meaning that it can be attached to any ferrous brackets or components under the caravan.
And what about the camera? Well, that also has a nifty magnetic mount, or it can be screwed in place. Inside the car, there’s the same small monitor as with the standard Digi Lite. It works well, but the screen is permanently mirror-imaged.
HIDS4U Pop Up Monitor Kit – three stars
- Price: £99.99
At the camera end, this system is basically identical to its HIDS4U siblings: you simply use the tool provided to drill a mounting hole, then set the reversing camera into it, tighten an external collar until the camera is securely located, and get a power supply to the camera and its separate transmitter.
Inside the car, though, the monitor screen permanently sticks to the dashboard top, but it utilises a clever flip-up/flip-down design to look a whole lot less conspicuous once it is in place.
To the untrained eye, the unit looks like little more than a dash-mounted glasses case when the screen is folded down.
At just 106mm across, the monitor is not quite as easy on the eye as the other HIDS4U systems, even if, optically at least, it’s just as good.
Dolphin Micro Reversing Camera & Mirror Monitor with Wireless Upgrade Kit – two stars
- Price: £139.98
Dolphin’s problem here is that its mirror-screen system is quite a bit dearer than HIDS4U’s, and it’s nowhere near as good. Visually, daylight performance is noticeably grainier.
And forget using the system at night – unless you have powerful reversing lights on your caravan – because there are no infra-red LEDs built into the camera.
In the car, the mirror-screen kit is a much more basic unit than those in the Digi-Lite Deluxe or HIDS4U systems.
Most critically, the image cannot be flipped, meaning that you are stuck with mirror-image viewing. And, unlike the other mirror screens, only a small portion of it – 110mm corner-to-corner – is actually screen.
Dolphin Reversing Camera & Dash Monitor with Wireless Upgrade Kit – two stars
- Price: £119.97
At first glance, this looks like a really easy-to-install plug-and-play system. The monitor is little bigger than a small sat-nav, and it comes with both dash mounts and screen mounts.
But then there’s the issue of power. And not only for the screen itself, but for a radio receiver as well. Plus, you’ll need to find a way of hiding the cables that bring the picture from the receiver to the monitor.
As with the previous Dolphin system, visual quality – though reliable – really isn’t great. Daytime viewing is acceptable, if a fair way behind other brands here. But night-time usage is impossible unless your van has reversing lights or the area behind is otherwise well-lit.
HIDS4U Pop Up Monitor HQ Camera Kit – two stars
- Price: £99.99
Our final system is the premium version of the pop-up monitor kit we looked at earlier.
In theory, this one’s cubic high-quality camera performs much better than the other system’s bullet-style model, thanks to its superior CCD rather than CMOS sensor. But, in practice, we’d definitely stick with the cheaper version.
Whereas the bullet-style camera can be installed on any fairly flat rear panel, the top-mounted flange on this cubic camera needs something protruding outwards to screw it into – not always an obvious option with the rear wall of a caravan.
Worse still, image quality is noticeably poorer with this camera. And, as with the Dolphin units, a lack of infra-red LEDs makes this system practically unusable at night.