By: Brendan Batty
Australians have been hitting the open road with their caravans since the 1890s.
Today it's grown to become one of our most popular forms of travel, providing freedom and the chance to disconnect and escape from suburbia.
It’s also an incredibly inexpensive way to travel once you're set up. And it’s no longer the domain of retirees. These days families make up more than 50 per cent of all caravan and camping travellers, as parents look to show their kids the experiences they had growing up.
If you’ve decided that towing your holiday house around is the perfect option for you, here’s the low down on the ins and outs of caravans and camper trailers and what you’ll need to know to tow one.
Choosing a camper trailer
Camper trailers come in all shapes and sizes with varying levels of off-road ability, sleeping arrangements and setup procedures, but they can be roughly sorted into three categories - soft floor, hard floor and wind-up.
Although not the cheapest of options, the wind-up campers are the most popular, largely thanks to their caravan-like comforts and the sheer volume of them sold by Jayco. This design was popularised in the 1970s when fuel was expensive, and they have been a mainstay of campgrounds and caravan parks ever since.
They generally have a lifting roof, canvas walls and slide-out beds. Some can comfortably sleep six people, so they're a great option for families who want maximum comfort but aren't keen on the hassles of towing a large caravan.
Often the cheapest and simplest option is a soft-floor camper trailer. First invented by Cub Campers back in the 1970s, they get their name because the tent’s floor is PVC, like the floor of a standard tent. In their most basic form, they are a box trailer with a canvas tent that folds off the side and has a mattress over the load area. They, too, are well suited to families stepping up from traditional tents.
Rear-, forward- and double-fold campers are often all lumped under the ‘hard-floor’ category because when set up, the living area has a hard floor. All of them have a hinging lid which folds in the direction stated, revealing the tent, bed and, in many cases, a lounge area. Rear and forward fold campers are best suited to solo or couple travellers, while double-fold campers – which have a bed each end – are best for families.
Choosing a caravan
In contrast to camper trailers, caravans are far more simply classified. There are really only two types - the pop-top or the full caravan.
Full, solid-walled caravans have been a mainstay of caravanning since the 1920s but in WA pop-tops were popularised by Coromal’s Aussie Low Line.
Pop-top caravans have a roof that lifts up when parked and a canvas or vinyl sleeve to keep the weather out. They were developed in response to the smaller capacity vehicles and fuel shortages of the 1970s as their lower towing profile improves fuel economy.
Full-walled caravans, on the other hand, require almost no setup apart from unhitching and winding down stabiliser legs. With higher walls they often have more storage and can be better in extreme climates as they’re usually better insulated.
The big choice to make in caravans isn't whether it's pop-top or full-walled, though - it's mostly about length and off-road ability.
In smaller caravans (less than 20 feet), it's often in the kitchen and dinette area that you'll lose out most. Tall fridges are great because you can fit more in them, but they usually impinge on bench space. So, if you like plenty of cooking space, a longer caravan might be for you.
But longer caravans are heavier and are often less able to travel down rough roads, need more powerful cars to tow them and are more expensive to buy. Shorter caravans are often more nimble, able to be towed to more places off the beaten path and can be more economical.
On or off-road?
Caravans also have various levels of off-road ability. On-road caravans (and camper trailers) are designed for leisurely jaunts down south. They are often lighter, have smaller wheels and low-ground clearance, but should be fine to tow down a well-maintained dirt road into a national park.
Semi off-road caravans will be a little higher off the ground and have a stronger chassis and some protection from stones that could be flicked up at them. They might have heavy-duty leaf springs or a coil spring, independent trailing arm suspension system underneath. They are designed for occasional driving on remote dirt roads, but something like the Gibb River Road might be a bit more than they're up to.
Full off-road caravans are specifically designed to travel to the most remote areas of Australia and, from the ground up, should be made to cope with corrugations, dust, water and self-sufficient living. Expect them to have high clearance, coil spring or air spring, independent suspension and cabinetry that won't shake itself apart.
Although caravanning and camping is an incredibly affordable way to travel, the initial outlay can be quite considerable, so it pays to do your research. Dedicated caravan magazines are still a great way to get information on the latest trends and read expert reviews. That information can be supplemented with insight from owners on Facebook groups or within owners’ clubs. You can also try before you buy with a peer-to-peer rental website like Camplify who have a huge arsenal of caravans and campers available for hire.
Remember, a long warranty is a good sign the company backs its product. Caravanning and camping is in boom, and many companies have sprung up to take advantage of demand. Some are genuinely good, but make sure you do your homework. Finally, look to the manufacturers using the most modern construction techniques. Timber is on its way out as a construction material.
Choosing the tow vehicle
The caravan or camper is only half of the equation when you’re in the market. An equally important consideration is what’s going to tow it. Any load added to the tow bar of a vehicle will change how it handles, rides, steers and stops.
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All cars have towing limits, which are set by the manufacturer and exceeding them is illegal. These put a cap on how much weight you can tow (maximum braked towing limit), how much downward weight the trailer can apply to your tow ball (tow ball weight), how much your tow vehicle can weigh (Gross Vehicle Mass), how much your loaded caravan can weigh (Aggregate Trailer Mass) and how much the combination of your car and trailer can weigh (Gross Combination Mass).
What complicates matters is that the Gross Combination Mass is often the most limiting factor. Let’s say you’ve got a Toyota Fortuner which has a GCM of 5450kg and a 2750kg GVM. If you’ve filled your car to the limit for a trip and have the heaviest caravan allowed (2800kg), 2750kg plus 2800kg equals 5500kg, which is 100kg overweight. That’s not even accounting for tow ball download, which doesn’t affect GCM, but will affect GVM. Many people have bought caravans only to discover their current car can’t tow it. An expensive mistake. If you are unsure, head to Time To Roam and check the weights yourself.
All that bulk messes with a car’s weight distribution over the four wheels, too. Adding a trailer’s tow ball weight to the back of a car creates a see-saw effect that lifts weight off the front wheels and shifts it to the back. It’s wise to use a weight distribution hitch to help even that out - it makes a big difference to handling and braking. For example, an Isuzu D-Max can come to a complete stop from 60km/h in less than 15 meters. With a 2500kg caravan on the back, and using a WDH, that will increase to 25 meters. Without a WDH, it increases to 28 metres.
Similarly, how weight is distributed in a caravan affects how it tows. Too much weight at the back will cause sway, while too much on the front could put the car over its limit, so load heavy items in the middle, over the axles and down low in the caravan. Caravans shouldn’t sway, so if yours is, something’s wrong. If it does sway while you’re driving, don’t accelerate. Instead, apply the caravan’s brakes using the override function on your brake controller to slow the caravan down.
The good news is, caravanning and camping isn’t hard. To tow a trailer, you just need to understand that you’ll need more time to stop, more space to turn and to keep your speed down. Caravanning and camping is an exceptionally rewarding way to travel that will take you to places and introduce you to experiences you never imagined.
Relax with local caravan insurance
Before you hit the road, get covered for the unexpected with local RAC Caravan and Trailer Insurance.
Last updated: April 2021