By: Brendan Batty

The roads that lead to some of WA's most incredible natural wonders may be rough, but there's no need to sleep rough on the way there and back.

Of the 187,500km of road in Western Australia, roughly two-thirds is unsealed. Among those unsealed stretches are some iconic driving routes including the Gibb River Road and the Canning Stock Route, plus the countless kilometres of remote, sandy coastline that you can drive right onto and explore.

More than anywhere else in Australia, WA rewards travellers who can get off the beaten path, even a little bit. That, among other reasons (international travel restrictions, mostly), is why there’s been a surge in demand for off-road caravans.

Off-road caravanning isn’t exactly a modern phenomenon, though. After all, the first caravans in Australia didn’t have bitumen roads to travel on. We could go back as far as 1886 to Australia’s first documented caravan, but even in 1939, caravan builders were making promotional trips to the Top End to prove their durability.

Western Australians can take some pride in the popularity of the phenomenon. The home-grown Coromal Caravan’s Seka XC was the first production-built off-road van, and its independent suspension, cutaway rear end and all-round hardiness set the benchmark for the affordable, reliable off-road caravanning we enjoy today. If you find one second-hand, snap it up.

Today there’s an off-road caravan for just about every appetite and in almost every shape and size. If you want to say goodbye to the civilised world for weeks at a time down the end of a track no map even remembers, the right caravan won’t be hard to find.

At the other end of the scale, if you just need a caravan robust enough to follow you that last kilometre down an unsealed track to a beachfront campsite, there’s plenty to choose from.

RELATED: Tips for buying your first caravan »

Caravan driving down dusty road

On-road vs off-road: What's the difference?

What sets off-road caravans apart from on-road models essentially boils down to ground clearance, structural strength and self-sufficiency. Take, for example, Jayco Caravans, Australia’s largest manufacturer of caravans by a long way. It offers three levels of off-road ability – Outback, All Terrain and full off-road Hybrid caravans, which broadly represent the three of the four unofficial levels of off-road ability.

Outback models represent entry-level off-roading. They have increased ground clearance and minor protection against stone damage and the ability to camp off-grid for at least a night or two.

All-terrain models take it a step further. They’re capable of being towed on rougher, corrugated roads thanks to stronger chassis and internal fittings. Off-grid ability is extended to a week or so in good weather, or usually until it runs out of water. A caravan like this should comfortably tackle the Gibb River Road.

Full off-road caravans take things another step further. Real consideration is put into underbody protection and high performing suspension components. Electrical systems are top-of-the-line, and batteries should rarely run out of charge.

Extreme off-road caravans are often custom-built and combine everything you need for serious off-grid adventures but do it without adding weight.

With each step away from the bitumen, the ground clearance increases so that the suspension has more range to deal with rougher tracks and is less likely to get stuck on something. The chassis, bodies, and fittings are strengthened so that bits don’t crack, undo or fall off on rough and demanding roads. And each caravan’s capacity to store water, gas and electricity increases because these three things are the mainstays of modern comfort.

Of course, other companies specialise in caravans for remote adventures. Western Australia’s only two caravan builders, ExploreX and Elross, both dedicate themselves to the off-road. Their vans take the issues of ground clearance, strength and self-sufficiency to extremes rarely seen in mass-produced recreational vehicles.

Car towing a caravan
Image credit: Elross Caravans and Mobile Solutions

But, in general, adding off-road ability adds significant cost, weight and complexity to a caravan. That is often compounded by a ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ mentality and excellent marketing initiatives, which have convinced so many of us that we need the most capable off-road van possible for ‘just in case’ scenarios and a bit of campsite one-upmanship.

Keep in mind that the increased ground clearance can contribute to poorer road-handling characteristics due to a higher centre of gravity, while the increased weight will have a negative effect on braking performance and vehicle wear and tear. Finally, the complexity of its onboard systems can be harder and more expensive to maintain and repair, not to mention use.

RELATED: Getting your caravan's weight distribution right »

Choosing the right off-road caravan for you

Before setting your sights on a particular off-road caravan, it can be helpful to think about the type of travel you enjoy. There is little to gain, apart from bragging rights, by purchasing the biggest, most extravagant Kedron Caravan if all you love doing is parking your van on the beach at Warroora Station while you fish and snorkel away the days.

A Kedron caravan being towed

For wonderful, destination-based travel, high clearance and extra strength could easily be substituted for slower, more careful driving for the few kilometres of dirt after five hundred kilometres of bitumen. A simple, Outback-style caravan might be all that’s needed. And the money you’ve saved can be spent on large water tanks, plenty of solar panels and bigger fishing rods.

On the other hand, if you’re dreaming of camping on every beach possible between Cape Le Grand and the Dampier Peninsula, the robust, tall nature of a dedicated off-road caravan will be invaluable over rough access tracks and endless corrugations.

Once you know what sort of travel you want to do, you can narrow down the specific features you’d like in an off-road caravan.

Like all caravans, you need to work within the limitations of your tow vehicle. Presumably, you have or are planning to get a four-wheel drive, so check out the towing limits and shop accordingly. Given the demanding nature of off-road towing, search out the smallest and lightest van you’d be comfortable in, rather than the biggest and heaviest your vehicle can tow.

The next important feature is the floorplan. There is no point in buying an awesome, go anywhere, camp everywhere caravan that’s so cramped inside your family of four can’t all eat at the same time. You’ll spend far longer sitting and sleeping in your caravan than you will towing it, after all.

Interior of a caravan

Off-road van features and add-ons

With an idea of the weight and length you want to tow, and floorplans you think will work, you can now consider some off-road features, like suspension.

Gone are the days where your choices were leaf springs or sprung over leaf springs; today, you can get caravans with app-adjustable, independent airbag suspension with different height settings for different terrains. But you don’t need it. For lighter off-road duties, leaf springs are great. For heavier off-road duties, leaf springs will still do the job and often handle load-balancing better. But independent, trailing arm suspension with coil springs is the norm and is great if you hitch the caravan to be level rather than nose up or down.

Suspension coil beneath a caravan

Just as important as the suspension is the caravan’s capacity to carry everything you’d like to take with you. If your off-roading is limited to a few national park campsites intermingled between caravan park stays, large water tanks might not be as crucial as bike racks and somewhere for surfboards.

On the other hand, extended forays across the outback demand larger water capacity, big pantries and fridges and somewhere to put the firewood you picked up along the track that day. Gauge the storage needs you have and the weight you’ll need to carry and narrow down your choices with that information.

Electrical capacity is also a key consideration. Very few caravans come without a house battery and roof-mounted solar panel these days, which is usually enough to keep the lights on and appliances running for a few days unplugged. If your needs extend past that, look into expanding your solar capacity so you can charge the battery faster, and add more battery storage as needs arise. Lithium, or LiFePO4, batteries are great if you need to save weight, but they’re not a ‘must-have’ piece of equipment yet.

Off-road caravan maintenance

Finally, consider your ability to perform basic fixes and maintain the more complicated systems in an off-road caravan. The reality of caravan travel is often a lot of ‘fixing caravans in exotic locations’ as much as it is travelling to amazing places.

The more remote you go, the less outside assistance you’ll get if things go wrong. It’s worth knowing how to change a tyre, repack a bearing and diagnose electrical faults.

In the end, though, whichever off-road caravan you choose, it’ll open up a whole new world of travel opportunities. You’ll be able to explore just a bit further and a bit wider to experience Western Australia in all its natural glory.

Inspired to head off-road? 

Make sure you're prepared. We're running free caravan safety training sessions in Perth and regional WA to help you travel safely.

Find out more

Image credit: Tim Campbell Photo, Exploring Eden Media
Last updated: April 2021