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Should I Buy a Caravan or Camper? The Guide for First Time Caravan Buyers

Written by

Scott Murray

Some hard truths about the costs, the upkeep, the risks and the benefits to caravan/camper ownership - before purchasing

There are so many sizes, shapes, configurations and options with caravans today, the possibilities are endless.

The problem is you could, potentially, spend untold sums of money buying what you think is going to be the dream camper or caravan, when in fact it’s simply disappointment with a treg hitch.

In this report, I’m going to be perfectly honest with you, because that’s what consumers need: Transparency, facts and the ability to make an informed decision.

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Let’s start with the basics

A caravan is just a tiny home on wheels. The thing is, virtually every small town across Australia has a caravan park. There are literally thousands of tiny plots ready for you to roll-up and make yourself at home for a few days or several weeks at a time. Caravan parks and their powered or unpowered sites are, relatively speaking and at $50 or less a night, a pretty cheap form of accommodation - on the surface.

But for every kilogram of caravan you purchase, you have to pay for fuel to pull it hundreds or even thousands of kilometres. And every dollar you spend on your caravan is a dollar you have to commit to towing somewhere and using, otherwise it just depreciates in your garage.

Whereas in those same towns across the country, there are also, typically, hotels, cabins in those same caravan parks, cottages on small farms, B&Bs and of course there’s even the possibility of stay-houses now. Think of all the places you can stay for the price of that precious caravan or camper.

Essentially, I’m just reminding you that…you don’t ‘need’ to buy a caravan. This is a choice. And I’m certainly not saying you shouldn’t buy one - they’re great fun and offer creature comforts like not sleeping in the dirt with the ants, and in some cases, a hot cup of coffee that doesn’t require Leyland Brothers’ bushcraft to make.

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In the beginning, there was ‘caravans'

These were thin aluminium or steel boxes mounted on Holden or Ford axles and wheelhubs, with temperamental electrics and lever-style imperial tow hitches. But today, they can come with panoramic glass roofs, eagle-wing awnings, dimmable LED external and internal lighting, induction or bottle-gas cooktops, solar-powered hot water systems, sophisticated dining-deck-bedding arrangements with actual hinges made from proper metal and with cushions featuring actual polyurethane foam. It’s not like the old days.

But before you get swept up in the buzz of your soonest caravan and camping exhibition at the local showgrounds, we need to go back to basics.

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Weight

There’s more to towing than just hitching up and driving off. You need to crunch some numbers.

Now, there are some terms you need to understand before dropping money on a caravan and/or vehicle to tow it with. These terms are legal requirements for weight limits you must comply with when towing your caravan. You can find these weight limits in your vehicle handbook, or by contacting a dealer with your VIN code, or searing for the specifications for your make/model on Redbook.com.au

Mass

  • GVM, or Gross Vehicle Mass, is the absolute maximum your vehicle (the one doing the towing) is allowed to weigh - including payload (luggage, food etc), passengers, accessories (bullbars, roof racks, snorkels).
  • GCM, or Gross Combination Mass, is the maximum permitted limit of both your towed trailer plus your vehicle.
  • ATM, or Aggregate Trailer Mass, is the absolute weight limit your trailer is allowed to be, when loaded. Now, with caravans, you need to be careful because caravan manufacturers aren’t always as diligent as they should be when it comes to telling you exactly what your caravan weighs when you look at varying models with varying features and additional weight - particularly when a common chassis/frame is used for different model grades. Example: a base model Jayco Finch might use the same chassis as the next two models but they all differ in how many beds, how much timber is used and how long the body is - all factors which alter the ATM weight.
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It’s extremely important to know these weight limits of the caravan you’re proposing to buy, and the vehicle you’re either planning to buy or already own.

Until you have this information, you cannot proceed to the next step of towing a caravan, safely.

Do you actually know how to tow a trailer? Not a caravan. A trailer. Little 6X4 box trailers ideal for some firewood and the lawn mower.

Can you reverse a trailer? Are you sure?

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Hitching up

Connecting your caravan to your vehicle is, arguably, the most critical part of this process.

There are two kinds of primary trailer connection: the towball and the treg hitch.

The towball is a system that connects the trailer to the towball using a tongue that slides under the ball and is held under tension by the vehicle that makes it stable.

A treg hitch uses a rotating block and pin system which offers greater articulation of the join, ideal for off-road caravans and campers where complex angles may be required of the trailer.

It’s important for the tongue to locate itself under the towball when you lower the jockey wheel. Making sure some light spray lubricant is used in the coupling handle to ensure it’s easy to lift and lock open, not only to prevent personal strain but also to ensure you’re not damaging the tongue when it snaps into place. Remember, a trailer coupling is a joint, so a very light amount of grease on the tongue will ensure you don’t have full metal-on-metal contact filing away at the tongue over time.

Make sure the handle has dropped down into place and the safety latch has locked down over the pin receiver hole. It’s a good idea to use a spring safety pin to keep this latch locked, to ensure the coupling doesn’t bounce itself loose.

Chains

Next, chains. These are so much more important than they’re given the respect they deserve. Chains are part of a redundancy system, they’re your Plan B if somehow you’ve been an idiot by not locking down the coupling handle, or if you’ve hit some speed bump so hard it bounces the trailer off, or if the towball itself somehow fails.

A thread and nut on the top of the trailer coupling allows you to adjust the tension the tongue puts on the towball. This shouldn’t be routinely changed, only to readjust if it gets too loose. Overdoing this nut could mean the tongue does not seat properly underneath the towball and risks popping off the first time you hit a bump.

Chains need to be long enough to enable tight angles between the trailer and vehicle, but short enough so they don’t drag on the ground constantly. Why? Because if they’re engaged suddenly, to restrain the vehicle, if they’re too long the trailer risks thrashing around and pulling the vehicle off-course or simply acting as a pendulum swing around on the road.

Overly long chains are also a spark risk, which is bad in a system where you’re dealing with fuel, fumes and heat. It also damages them, obviously.

Chains which use a D-shackle should be finger tightened, with one tiny degree of rotation with pliers. This means they can’t vibrate loose (because remember, they’re dangling there). Some very light spray lubrication is also okay, because ultimately you have to eventually undo them.

It’s vital that chains are attached to the dedicated loops on the towbar, and not simply hung over the top of the towball because, obviously, the decoupled trailer hanging from the chains only needs to bounce once in order to unloop its chains and spear across the road or simply stop dead in its tracks begging to be crashed into.

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Tyres

Tyres on any trailer are easy to cheapen out on. This is not wise if you plan to spend a long time on the road, or towing particularly heavy loads.

Let’s get this clear. Tyres are literally the only physical connection your trailer, camper, caravan, whatever has to the road. All the grooves and channels in the treadface of those tyres are designed to direct water away from the tyre and allow the tread blocks (the actual blocks of rubber touching the road) to contact the road.

The better or worse the tyre’s groves and blocks are designed, in addition to how you load your trailer, will determine how those tyres handle behind you.

Air pressures in your caravan tyres are critical. Not just for wear and tear, but for fuel economy and grip.

Under-inflation means the tyre will sag, causing increased rolling resistance, which means burning more fuel to pull it along the road. It’ll dramatically accelerate the wear of the tyre’s outer shoulders as they spend longer touching the road during every rotation, which is a huge increase in friction, meaning greater heat stress in the tyre, making it more susceptible to punctures and cutting damage from sticks, rocks, cracks and potholes (like the ones you cannot avoid).

Under-inflation also means the likelihood of a blowout increases if you’re heavily loaded because the tyre sidewall flexes more than it should, which means the air inside the tyre is being compressed harder and therefore getting hotter than it would if more air was taking more of the load. When air gets hot, it expands. Tyre goes bang in aforementioned circumstances.

Over-inflation means you’ll prematurely wear out the centre of the tyre’s treadface where the majority of the water dispersion happens, meaning you’ll much sooner have a trailer that is likely to aquaplane in heavy rain where it might have just ploughed on had the tread been in better condition. It also means you’ll be butchering one narrow section of the tyre while the shoulders remain in good nick - but the tyre still needs replacing early owing to the tread depth being reached sooner than it would’ve been had the whole tyre face been doing all the work.

It’s important to inflate your caravan or camper tyres when they’re cold, because that’s when their pressure measurement will be most accurate.

Tyres

Towing

Right, this is not professional advice, because I’m not a trained instructor. But I have been towing trailers long before the Victorian government deemed I was of legal age. I was towing trailers on public roads on my Learner’s Permit in very-rural Gippsland back when John Howard was still running the shop.

First thing’s first

Trailers do not simply follow your vehicle. The tow vehicle (your car) pulls the caravan in this weird kinda-straight arch. One wheel on your trailer turns a corner on a shorter radius than the other, depending on which way you’re going.

So, when you navigate roundabouts or hairpin turns or even just avoid obstacles, you have to change your approach angle slightly and steer your entourage in a much more pronounced arc in order to not hit with your ‘inner’ caravan wheel.

For obvious reasons, adding two tonnes of weight to the back of your vehicle is going to affect performance, most importantly - braking performance. So you’ll need to maintain - keyword: maintain - a safe braking distance to anything in front of you.

To do this, pick an approaching roadside marker and count the time between it passing the leading vehicle and reaching you. One…two… Okay? Now take that two-second gap and make it three or four seconds.

When it comes to using trailer brakes, if you’re fitting a controller, you obviously don’t want to adjust them to the point of locking too easily, but you want them to engage sufficiently to help slow everything down. Trailer brakes will also reduce wear and load on your vehicle.

Towing

When it comes to adjusting your mirrors, do not turn them inwards so you can see your vehicle down the inside. You only need to do this when you’re reversing. More importantly, you need to see into your blind spots which grow larger when towing a trailer, so keep your mirrors turned out. Strictly speaking, you generally don’t need towing mirrors, but some state road laws may require you to have them - so check.

Reversing

Backing a trailer is something of a fine art if you’ve never done it before. I’d suggest finding an empty, open carpark in a Sunday afternoon, take two cardboard boxes or even just two sticks and practice threading your caravan between those two markers.

The method is: turn the steering wheel left to make the trailer go right, and turn the steering wheel right to make it go left.

This happens because the bum of the car is pushing the nose of the trailer in opposite direction to the bum of the caravan.

Trailers rotate left-and-right on their axles. So when you push the caravans nose right, this will rotate its bum left. Push the nose left and it’ll point the bum right.

It’s important to do this process very slowly and remember to start the process as straight as possible, with your vehicle’s wheels pointed straight when you commence reversing.

So get everything straightened out and mentally lock that position in as neutral. Turn your door mirrors inwards to see the caravan down the inside.

Use slow, gentle movements to point the caravan’s bum where you need it to go. If you need it to go left slightly, give a tiny bit of steering lock to the right.

Practice, practice, practice

If at this point you’re completely bamboozled, it’s worth investing in some proper driver training to teach you the intricacies of reversing a trailer in regards to changing directions, straightening the vehicles in a turning radius and how to avoid jackknifing.

Keep practising until you get the rules locked into your muscle memory. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll start thinking with reversing your trailer in mind as you drive along and start mixing with the public roads and parking. Make it something of an obsession with watching tradies back their tool trailers and appreciate truckies who can thread their big heavy rigs like

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Fuel

Just to point out the obvious, your fuel consumption while towing a caravan is going to increase substantially.

The best way to reduce your exorbitant fuel bill is to simply change your driving style. Keep your tyre pressures up, but simply reduce your speed. I know everybody wants to get to the campsite as fast as possible, but there’s no significant advantage to getting there 10 minutes later, when driving at 90 will save you hundreds or even thousands on fuel over however many endless miles you do.

Dialling back your speed not only makes you more stable, but means you have already started slowing down in an emergency stop.

Fuel Card

Maintenance

You’ll need to keep spare globes for your trailer’s brake lights, indicators, parkers and reverse light. And it’s a good idea to know how to replace those globes, whether it’s unscrewing the lens covers, or perhaps accessing the globes through a housing or the camper body etc.

It’s a good idea to have tools for changing a flat caravan/camper tyre, keep your axle and wheel bearings greased, semi-regularly keep the brake pads for adequate depth, and just generally try to keep everything clean and nothing dangling or flapping.

Car Maintenance and Servicing

Ready to see what type of caravan you can afford?

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This includes all the little details like fees and restrictions, so you can find the offer that suits you best, for the caravan you want.

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About the Author

Scott Murray from BestFamilyCars.com.au

Scott

Murray

Scott Murray

BestFamilyCars offers honest information & discounts for your next new car. Our lives depend on cars, but most reviews don’t answer the real questions. I live with the cars I test, to report their strengths and weaknesses, ad free