Before You Begin Journey There Some Are Important Things That Must Be Considered
So you’re thinking of hitting the open road and escaping reality for a while are you? You’ve decided that now’s the time to explore our great sunburnt country. Good on you! Australia’s a country that must be explored, and you won’t be disappointed. But where to start?
The first step is to decide how you’re going to travel. It’s not as easy as just running out and buying the first shiny new caravan you see. There are important things you must first consider. And that’s what this guide is for.
You may think that a good place to start looking for inspiration is your local caravan and camping show, but before you get excited by the huge range of tow vehicles, gadgets, and gizmos, there’s a whole list of things to consider. It’s a good idea to create a ‘travel file’ before you begin shopping. This file can include sub-sections like:
Where do you want to travel?
Will those destinations lie on main routes or will some off-roading be involved? If you intend to whisk off into the wilderness, your choice of rig should comply.
Who will you be travelling with?
Is it just two of you or is the whole family coming along? Taking the kids means buying a larger tow vehicle that concentrates on bed space rather than lifestyle.
How long will you be travelling for?
Are you planning to take lots of short trips around the country or do you intend to be gone for some time?
Where do you plan to park your vehicle?
If you plan to stay in caravan parks with good facilities, you can afford to scrimp on some of the caravan luxuries like a built-in shower. If you’re planning on staying in free camp spots, you’ll need to consider additional capital costs such as extra water carrying capacity and power generation.
Where will you store your vehicle?
A caravan or motorhome is a big piece of equipment, and if you plan on keeping it at home you’ll need to ensure that you have enough room. You may have to otherwise consider self storage options.
What’s your budget?
Budget plays a very important role in what kind of vehicle you choose, with options ranging from a few thousand dollars to upwards of $200,000. Don’t forget there are then the on-road costs to consider.
Do you have a sturdy towing vehicle?
Caravans and camper trailers require a towing vehicle that’s authorised to carry enough weight. This weight will be calculated on the weight of your rig, its contents, and the people travelling.
What are your personal preferences?
Do you like luxury and space? Do you need a queen sized bed? Do you like to cook in your own kitchen? Decide what your bare minimum requirements are for making your trip comfortable and enjoyable.
When setting off on adventures around Australia, you’re not just limited to travelling in a caravan. However caravans are probably the most common choice of vehicle, largely due to their ease, speed, safety, and comfort. Caravans are available in both off-road and bitumen styles, making them suitable for most Australian roads. Another huge benefit of driving a caravan (over camping, for example) is the fact that you can leave them behind when exploring rough terrain or popping to the shops for some milk. But caravans aren’t your only option. Some other vehicles you can consider travelling in include:
Camper trailers (soft and hard floor)
Soft floor camper trailers are the next step up from a good tent, and are generally pretty economical. They can range anywhere from a few thousand dollars to $50,000 for a luxurious camper. Soft floor campers offer quick sleeping quarters and plenty of storage.
A little more expensive than soft floor styles, hard floor camper trailers offer the benefit of being up off the ground and usually come with built-in cupboards and additional extras.
- Pros: Campers are the cheaper option, generally more suitable for off-road travel, lighter, and are easier to tow.
- Cons: Can be difficult to pack up and down, especially in wet weather.
Motorhomes carry a great deal of weight, meaning you can bring more everyday items with you on your travels. You can also choose to tow an object behind your motorhome, so this can be a great option if you intend to bring along a boat, smaller vehicle, motorbike, or even a light aircraft! The choices are limitless. Motorhomes also tend to be more secure than caravans, which can be an easy target for thieves due to their lightweight construction.
- Pros: Their sturdiness and strength means they can handle long periods on the road quite well. They are secure and allow excess carry weight.
- Cons: Motorhomes can be hard to manoeuvre and require a special driver’s license, consume more petrol, and have limited flexibility.
Campervans are recreational vehicles attached to the chassis of a van and can be custom-built to suit your requirements. They generally feature a cooktop, fridge, lounge area, bed, and sometimes a toilet. They’re more compact than caravans or motorhomes and therefore a lot easier to manoeuvre.
- Pros: Campervans are great when stopping at multiple locations in a short amount of time, they come in a variety of sizes, and are easy to drive.
- Cons: They often have limited flexibility and storage, and a somewhat cramped living area.
Buying new vs second-hand
Buying a new caravan, motorhome, camper trailer, or campervan gives you the reassurance that pretty much everything will work out as it should. While there may be a couple of teething problems on the way, it’s good to know that these will usually be covered by the manufacturer’s warranty.
Buying a secondhand rig doesn’t come with these same reassurances, but the good news is that this is reflected in the price. Buying secondhand can save you a significant amount of money.
To choose between new or used is simply a case of considering factors such as budget, capabilities, and personal preferences. Some prefer the luxuries of something brand new, while others feel comfortable with a bargain that they don’t mind doing some damage to. New versions might promise to be more accommodating to rough terrains, but older vehicles may have already proven themselves as withstanding these environments. It really just comes down to your own choice.
The important thing to know is that, no matter whether you buy new or used, there are certain questions that should be answered before you buy. Things to consider include:
- How much will this cost me?
- What are the running costs?
- What is my own travelling experience?
- How self-sufficient can I be?
- How much does it weigh and what kind of tow vehicle will it need?
- Is warranty included?
If you’re buying used, you’ll need to ask additional questions, such as:
- Are there signs of dampness?
- Are all the seals intact?
- Have the floors weakened or is there any sign of sagging?
- Do the gas and electrics comply with safety standards?
- Are the tyres in good condition?
- Is there any cosmetic damage?
- Are there any cracks in the chassis?
- Does it meet legal road-weight limits?
Remember, don’t just simply ask these questions, but find the answer to them.
Preparing for the worst
No matter how much preparation you do before your trip, there’s still a chance that something could go wrong out on the road. Careful planning and regular safety checks will limit your chances of disaster significantly, but you should still prepare yourself in case of an emergency.
Before you leave, make sure you double check the essentials on your vehicle, even if you just checked them the day before. Things to check include:
- Fluid levels (brake, coolant, oil, clutch, automatic transmission, power steering, water);
- Lights (headlights, high-beams, reverse, indicators, brake);
- Windscreen wipers;
- Fan belt;
- Coolant hoses; and
- Tow bar and connections.
You’ll also need to check the essentials on your rig:
- Tow fittings, couplings, and safety chains are correctly fastened;
- Number plate and registration is visible;
- Loads are evenly distributed;
- Electrical connections are secure and lights are working; and
- Trailer brakes.
Even after years of experience, you can still miss a thing or two when hooking and unhooking a caravan or trailer. In creating a checklist you limit the risk of something important being overlooked. Your pre-hookup checklist should include ensuring that:
- Awning is locked;
- Aerial stowed;
- Clothesline stowed;
- Windows closed;
- Top vents closed;
- Inside doors are closed;
- Loose items stored;
- Water pump off;
- Power cord disconnected;
- Water hose disconnected;
- Waste hose disconnected;
- Fridge turned off;
- Hot water system off;
- Support legs removed;
- Step raised; and
- Front door locked.
Your post-hookup checklist should include making sure that:
- Drawbar is securely clipped to tow ball;
- Safety chains are connected;
- Jockey wheel removed;
- Housing retightened;
- Van handbrake off;
- Weight distribution hitch connected;
- Electric brake emergency breakaway cable is connected;
- Wheel chocks are removed; and
- Mirrors connected.
Preparing for your conditions
If heading to a remote location, it’s important to pack these essential items:
- First aid kit;
- Tool kit (jack, winder, wheel brace, spanners, screwdrivers, spare fan belt, hoses, and fuses);
- Tow rope;
- Water, at least 35L;
- Fire extinguisher;
- Shovel, in case of bogging;
- Maps in case the GPS stops working;
- Communication equipment for when you’re out of range;
- High lift jack;
- Snatch straps; and
Preparing for sudden disaster
Knowing how to quickly react to a situation can prevent a major problem from arising. Be sure you know what to do if you suffer from the following:
- Tyre blow out;
- Foot brake failure;
- Shattered windscreen;
- Car stalling; and
Driving at night
Driving at night requires more skill and concentration than at daytime due to your restricted vision. Make sure you’re well rested, and leave a bigger gap between you and the car in front of you to allow for a delayed reaction time.
Generally your caravan or trailer is covered by your car insurance (providing it’s within the legal limit), but this doesn’t always include roadside assistance. If you need towing (especially from out in the sticks), you’ll likely need a premium cover roadside assistance package. If you’re worried you might be ‘oversized’, taking out insurance with the Campervan and Motorhome Group of Australia (CMCA) will ensure that you get towed when and where you need it.
When a caravan begins to sway (technically known as ‘yawing’) due to a gust of wind or sudden movement, it’s usually stabilised with the van’s yaw inertia. If you have an electronic stability control system fitted, even better. But sometimes the sway can be too big to overcome, and that’s when driving skill comes in. Knowing how to react in circumstances like this is vital. Professional caravan driving skills are invaluable on the open road.
Soft, unstable ground isn’t always apparent until you’re stuck in it, and it’s easy to lose traction. If you react the wrong way, your tyres will spin you into further trouble, and you’ll quickly find yourself bogged. Should this happen:
- Resist the urge to panic;
- Apply the handbrake, put the vehicle in park, turn off the engine, and get out of the car to gauge the situation;
- If in sand or loose soil, partially deflate your tyres to help them gain grip before gently trying to drive out;
- If not successful, lower the jockey wheel, unhitch the caravan, and try again;
- If there’s still no movement, collect sticks, rocks, and foliage and dig the earth around the bogged tyres;
- Place a board under the lift jack to raise the tyre and fill the gap with foliage and sticks to help create a solid foundation;
- Once your tow vehicle is clear, use a winch to pull the caravan to safe ground.
It’s important to load your rig correctly to ensure it tows well. Be sure to:
- Keep the centre of gravity low by putting heavy items near the floor and, where possible, over the axle/s;
- Keep the weight within Aggregate Trailer Mass/Gross Vehicle Mass and ball load limits;
- Balance out heavy loads;
- Reduce weight as much as possible;
- Install rubber matting or foam on shelves to stop items from sliding; and
- Carry safety tools in an easy-to-reach spot.
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