Deciding to get a caravan is a brilliant decision and one you won’t regret! A caravan lets you explore and holiday in a fun, exciting way, on your own terms and wherever you please. Go offgrid, stay in a new place every night, or set up camp in a picturesque beachside holiday town and just relax.
But there can be quite a lot to think about when you’re new to caravans. There are a lot of different brands and models out there that choosing the right one, when you’re not quite sure what to look for, can be a daunting prospect. You have to take into account what capabilities you will need from the caravan, as well as your price range. You’ll also want to learn all the ins and outs of the maintenance and upkeep associated with owning a caravan. They’re pretty straightforward, but there’s still some crucial elements that need taking care of.
Not to mention things like caravan accessories—what’s essential and what’s overrated—and caravan activities. This might seem like a lot, but never fear. Here at RV Solutions WA we know a thing or two about caravans. We’ve made this beginner’s guide to help you dive into the fine art of caravanning with confidence and competence.
Choosing A Caravan
The very first thing you need to do is decide which caravan makes sense for you to buy. It can be overwhelming at first when you look at the sheer number of options available to you—from touring to overnighters, camper trailers to full blown 4×4 off-grid monsters. There are a few factors you can use to narrow down your search and make deciding a bit easier.
Start by establishing your price range, you can always leave it a little bit rough but setting a ballpark is a great way to stay realistic and find something great. Caravans vary wildly in price, from cheap, poorly built vans to high-end, premium-luxury models. Remember that you can always find an incredible, renowned caravan for a much smaller price. When setting your budget, first ask yourself how often you plan to take your caravan out? If you’re going to be getting more use out of your caravan, then it makes sense to spend more. By purchasing a higher-end, new caravan you are paying for the fact that you know exactly what you’re buying, and can even customise it to a certain extent. If you only see yourself using it once or twice a year perhaps a more basic option at a lower price point would be better.
Secondly, how fancy a caravan are you after? If you are happy with something simple and don’t mind roughing it a bit on your holiday then you can get by paying less, and it’s better to make that call now. If you’re looking for something more luxurious, tricked out with all the latest features to help you relax then it will of course cost more. The trap for new players is getting enticed by a fancy features list on a caravan that seems like a ‘great deal’, then realising why it was so affordable later down the line (when things don’t quite hold up like they should).
Where are you planning to go? The kind of terrain you will be driving on makes a big difference. Different caravans are built for different kinds of driving, an on-road caravan won’t like the rough stuff and will likely get damaged if you end up taking it offroad. If you never plan to hit dirt roads, or proper tracks, this won’t matter of course, but it’s worth thinking about now. Even a short stint on a corrugated, rough road can be catastrophic for a lightly built caravan.
The next step up is a semi-offroad caravan, which can handle a bit of a rougher ride but still isn’t built to withstand true offroad driving. These are perfect for the occasional gravel road, or even just long kms in more remote locations. They’re generally tougher built with beefier suspension, meaning they’ll handle rough roads a lot better.
Full offroad caravans are the option for people looking to really get out there and drive on rough terrain, they’re built to go wherever the tow vehicle will go. However, they also do get more expensive as their offroad capability increases, of course. A full offroad caravan is defined by its rugged, fully independent & coil-sprung suspension, great ground clearance, beefy chassis and aggressive approach and departure angles. These are the only choice when you’re dead keen on exploring the great outdoors and tackling gnarly trails, but if you’re happy cruising the bitumen, you likely don’t need one.
While size will obviously be impacted by how many people you intend to sleep in the caravan, it’s also dependent on your list of requirements. Working out the size of your caravan is generally done better in reverse, figure out how much space you’ve got to store the caravan in, and what size you’re comfortable towing. If you’re short on space, you might need to specifically look for a van that packs a lot in a small shape. Bunks can be an excellent space saver, but if you need something that fits 5 and has great off road capabilities, for example, things can get tricky. You’ll probably need to compromise on something; features, cost, size, etc, which is why figuring out your constraints early is super important.
You’re going to be towing your caravan, so you need to have an appropriate vehicle for the caravan you have. Heavier caravans will require more power of course, so make sure you’re exactly aware of your current vehicle’s limits before you start shopping. There’s nothing worse than finding the perfect van, then realising you’ll need to upgrade your car too. It’s not just about power either, but about weights and towing capacity too. Towing limits exist for not only your safety, but also the safety of everyone around you. Remember that an overweight caravan or a car towing a caravan that is too heavy is dangerous and can void your insurance. One of the best things you can do is familiarise yourself with your current vehicle’s numbers and then speak with a caravan dealer to really understand your options. Here are the main weights you have to be aware of.
Understanding the different abbreviations around caravan weight can be tricky. In a nutshell, there’s the Tare Mass, which refers to the weight of the empty, brand new caravan. This will be specified on a plate somewhere on the caravan (generally on the A frame or in the tunnel boot), and is detailed by the manufacturer. Then there’s Aggregate Trailer Mass (ATM), and this refers to the tare mass plus the maximum payload the caravan can take. Payload is all your luggage and supplies, including water, food etc. You can calculate your maximum payload, by subtracting the caravan’s tare mass from its aggregate trailer mass. This ATM is also specified on the same sticker you’ll find the caravan’s tare mass, and it’s illegal to exceed it. Finally, Gross Trailer Mass is the weight limit of your fully loaded caravan minus the weight supported by the jockey wheel or vehicles’ tow ball—so it’ll be a little less than the caravan’s ATM.
If you’re unsure or it’s not making sense, feel free to drop by or give us a call!
Your vehicle’s weight limits follow the same format as the caravans. Kerb weight is the weight of the brand new vehicle with a full tank of fuel, ready to go, but with no one in it. Tare mass is very similar, but with specifically only 10 litres of fuel. Gross Vehicle Mass is the same as GTM for caravans, the maximum the vehicle can weigh fully loaded. This includes everything, even fuel—if you drive the vehicle onto a weighbridge, this is the absolute maximum it can legally weigh at any time.
The most important weight restriction to keep in mind when it comes to towing a caravan, is the Gross Combined Mass. As it sounds, this is the maximum your vehicle and caravan can weigh combined.
This refers to the maximum weight of the trailer that the tow car can pull while remaining safe and stable. Many factors go into this such as the vehicle’s power and torque, the grip of the tyres and how durable the frame is. This is a designed number, meaning that like the GCM and GVM, it’s printed on the sticker and a legal limit. Keep in mind that there are two different weights here. Braked towing capacity is the maximum weight you can tow if your trailer or caravan has its own brakes.
If your trailer or caravan does not have its own brakes, then you’ll need to refer to your vehicle’s unbraked towing capacity. This is generally a much lower number than the braked towing capacity as it puts much more strain on the vehicle’s brakes to stop an unbraked trailer than an independently braked one. As a result, your stopping distance is increased—meaning less time to avoid an accident if you were to load up that unbraked trailer.
This is essentially the maximum weight that can be applied vertically on the tow ball without the risk of taking too much weight off the front wheels and making it harder to steer and brake. It is a separate measurement because a lighter caravan that is more front-heavy can be too much for the towball in a given situation. In general, towball capacity is approximately 10% of towing capacity.
It’s important to pay attention to your caravan’s towball weight, as it’s a pretty good indicator of weight balance. You want the weight biassed towards the front for good stability on the road and under braking, but not so far forward there’s excessive weight on the towball.
This is the weight rating of the towbar itself. This can feel a bit confusing because the maximum towing weight of the towbar can be different to the maximum towing weight of the vehicle. Whichever towing capacity is lower between the towbar and the car is the one you should go with. A good rule of thumb is to make sure your towbar is rated equal to or higher than your vehicle—then forget about it—and refer only to the vehicle’s numbers.
Power Storage and Charging
We all love disconnecting from society, completely checking out and focussing on the moment, but power isn’t just important for keeping your phone charged. You’ll need power for lights, fridges, music and more. The modern caravan often has washing machines and dryers and microwaves, simple conveniences that enable you to enjoy your escape more fully. There’s nothing like spending weeks on a remote beach but always having clean undies, hot food and cold beer whenever you need it. For this reason, you’ll want to pay attention to how you store and acquire power. Thinking battery systems, solar and generators.
There are a lot of power sources available and it is a good idea to have more than one in mind as a backup can be very helpful in a pinch. Some popular power sources include main power, solar and generators. Solar power is good because it allows you to charge using the sun and as long as you have the solar panels you don’t need to connect anywhere. Apart from the initial install cost, solar is also free! However they can be a bit less reliable depending on the weather and the location. A little too much shade can completely kill your solar power supply. A few days of overcast conditions and rain can quickly drain your power supplies with no way to recharge them.
If it has a battery, mains power is straightforward and simple, and involves hooking up to a main power supply and filling up much like a fuel tank. But of course, there’s no mains connections in the middle of the Sandy Desert, up at 80 Mile Beach or halfway down the Gibb. If your intended caravanning holidays are unlikely to stay too long outside of caravan parks you’ll be totally fine, but if you’re going off-grid then you’ll need to prepare adequately. Generally, more than a night or two away from mains power will deplete most of your battery reserves.
A great compromise, and one that requires the least set up, is a generator. Where a solar system will require electrical infrastructure to support it, a generator can be unwrapped from the box, fired up and plugged into your mains connection in minutes. Keep in mind that a lot of parks won’t allow the use of generators after dark though, and they’re not the most serene thing to have going when you’re out bush.
The main categories of batteries to choose from are lithium and lead-acid batteries. While there are a variety of options within the two categories, the main thing you need to know is that lithium batteries are the better choice for pretty much anything including weight, capacity and how long they last. The only real downside is that they cost more than lead batteries. For a deep dive into different batteries, check out our article on Lithium vs AGM vs Lead Acid batteries, where we cover the whole lot in detail.
The two main categories of chargers are AC-DC chargers and DC-DC Chargers. Different power sources are compatible with different types of chargers. AC-DC chargers are necessary if you want to charge your batteries from a mains power source, and will charge your batteries up the fastest. DC-DC chargers are used for solar power and when charged batteries from something that’s also running on DC power, such as your car’s alternator. They also work with a wider voltage range, making them a bit more flexible.
Caravan Parks vs Off The Beaten Track
So, where are you going? Most caravanning falls into one of two categories. Staying in caravan parks and camping in more remote locations. If you’re planning on touring from town to town, staying in proper sites then you won’t need the self-sustainability of a fully setup off-grid rig. Parks have everything you need right there, power, water, ablutions and often even a laundromat. With everything on hand and petrol stations and grocery stores nearby, you really don’t need to carry a lot with you. Virtually every caravan off the showroom floor will be perfect for this style of holidaying, however if you want to really go remote, you’ll need to upgrade a few things…
If you’re dreaming of weeks on an isolated beach somewhere in the far North West of WA, you’ll need to bring literally everything with you. Some of the more structured places to camp include basic ablutions and somewhere to buy fresh water, but mostly you’re on your own. To really make the most of this kind of adventure holiday, your caravan will ideally need to be equipped with enough water storage, (fresh and grey) and power to last your intended duration + a little extra for a safety margin. If you’re not sure exactly what you’ll need to invest in to make this happen, we can help. Off-grid adventures are our specialty, and we can help you into a ready-to-go van, or fit out your current one to be up to the task.
Don’t worry if this was a lot to take in. You don’t have to rush and it’s always good to take your time and do your research so that you make the right decision. Here at RV Solutions WA we’re more than happy to have a chat with you and give you any advice or clarification you need to make all your caravan dreams come true. If you’re yet to make your exciting new purchase, drop by in store or online to explore our current caravan sales Perth. If you’re already set with your new caravan, come in and get a full check over/inspection, service or repairs before you take off!
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