Where to Start

This non-biased article provides a practical outline of the major features to consider when contemplating buying a caravan (new or used) and should help you settle upon your main requirements before you start doing the leg work.
Created: June 2008
Revised: September 2009
Latest Feedback: May 2013

The Caravanning Lifestyle

Caravanning has been an Australian favourite past-time since the days of the old Kingswood. What a better lifestyle than to take your home with you when travelling, knowing that you always have shelter and a place to rest your head at night. Imagine the freedom of being able to take your time travelling around Australia, taking in the beautiful sites and being able to stay at the many numerous caravan parks across the country. The lifestyle is no longer intended just for the baby boomers or the grey nomad, it is also gaining popularity with young families and couples.

When buying a new or used caravan, you are faced by an ever-increasing variety of caravan types which can often be quite confusing to newcomers. With caravan types such as: full or standard, pop-ups or pop-tops, off-road, 5th wheelers, A’vans and even camper trailers – it can be difficult to decide which caravan to consider. By taking the time to thoroughly research the types of caravans out there as well as determining your caravanning requirements and budget, your final decision should be made easier.

Deciding Caravan Requirements

There are a variety of reasons for buying a caravan; family holiday, regular short trips, extended bush travels or extended retirement travels. They are all a bit different but not necessarily mutually exclusive - it's just a matter of determining your priorities and how much comfort you wish to live in whilst you travel. A 16ft caravan is an easier towing proposition than a 22ft caravan but the latter will certainly give you much more living space. So if you are planning lengthy travel but with relatively short stays then the shorter van may have more appeal. However, longer stays might mean a longer van!

Having a family with the necessary space might result in a caravan that far exceeds the budget and tow vehicle capabilities. However, a camping trailer with slide-out ends is much cheaper and can easily be handled by the family sedan. Having said that, It’s important to consider the aerodynamics and overall weight of the caravan. Some of the things you could ask yourself in regards to choosing a larger caravan are:
  • Does your current vehicle have the towing capacity needed or would you need to purchase another vehicle?

  • Are you prepared to spend a little more on the extra fuel needed to tow a heavier caravan?
There are also reasons in regards to comfort and luxuries for choosing a caravan that has more interior space and features. Some of these questions you may ask yourself are:

  • How many beds would be adequate for your caravan?

  • What sort of sleeping arrangements do I need - end double bed, island bed or single beds?

  • Am I planning on having visitors, children or taking grandchildren along?

  • How do I like to cook - making heavy use of the microwave oven or by a conventional oven and separate grill or all of the above?

  • Are you prepared to spend a little more for your creature comforts and luxuries?

  • Do I want a shower and toiler on board? Many caravans these days have a shower and toilet but that adds both weight and length and if you are planning on staying mostly in caravan parks, then will you want those items?

Caravan Types

Full or Standard

The full or standard caravan is most people’s traditional idea of what a caravan would look like. Basically, a full caravan has a full frame with solid sides and a roof and with glass or acrylic windows throughout. These caravans are simple to position and level on site, quick to set-up and easy to connect to amenities such as water, power and drainage systems. Being a tall caravan with substantial headroom, allows folks to walk safely and freely within the caravan. Not only do these caravans have a generous amount of living space, they generally have more room for storage and features such as shower compartments. Many modern full-caravans have strong construction without many moving parts. Caravan sizes range from 10 feet to more than 10 metres and although some can be quite weighty, many are designed to be aerodynamic to assist in easier and safer towing.

Pop-Top or Pop-Up

These caravans are built along the same lines as a full or standard caravan except that the roof can be raised and lowered. To allow the roof to be raised and lowered whilst still providing interior protection, a 300 to 400mm gusset, which is typically made of vinyl is used. This vinyl skirting ensures a waterproof and windproof seal and commonly has zippered sections that can be opened to allow airflow through the caravan. These are made with flyscreens – similar to tent window screens, which are used to keep out mosquitoes, flies and other insects. The roof mechanism utilises either gas struts or easy lift handles and it doesn’t take that much longer to set up than a full caravan. Similar to a full caravan, there is a lot of head room when the roof has been raised; however, there is a less door height and limited wall cupboard space. The main advantages of the pop-top or pop-up caravan is listed below:
  • Lower centre of gravity to assist in easier and safer towing

  • Less wind resistance to assist in easier and safer towing

  • Slightly less weight than a full caravan

  • Good ventilation and air-flow in the ceiling area

  • Can be parked in areas where height may be of concern

Pop-Top Variation

These pop-top extendable caravans have single or double pop-out ends and hence its name, are designed to be extended. This design usually accommodate bedding at the ends and being extendable, provides much more living space without the increase in towing length. These hybrid-type caravans have solid walls just like the standard pop-top versions and some of the larger models can amazingly sleep up to seven people.

Compact

Compact off road caravans are in a class of their own being extremely small, hard shelled caravans - often consisting of a body extension mechanism to increase the size of the living area when setup. There are some compact caravans that can be parked and entered into straight away. Others that may need a few stabilising jacks pulled down before entry, and finally those that require some sort of action to extend sections out. Whatever the case is, they are designed to provide a quick setup which is usually in a matter of minutes. Although predominantly seen in soft-road or even 2WD models, these caravans are now also being manufactured for the off-road market, as seen by the Kimberley Karavan and the All Terrain Little Robin Mini.

Camper Trailer

Some caravans can equally be called camper trailers. The caravans in this category usually utilise a wind-up mechanism to open and setup the living space. They are designed to be very compact, although it does take a little time and effort to set them up. Other models have pop-out ends, designed to accommodate beds creating much more living space without the increase in towing length. Often these models are inexpensive to purchase, making them suitable for young families, and because they are relatively light weight in comparison to full or pop-up caravans, they can be towed with medium-sized conventional vehicles or the popular soft-road 4WDs. Since these campers sit lower than most tow vehicles, the centre of gravity and the wind resistance will be considerably lower.

There are many styles of camper trailers on the market with each having their own advantages and qualities. Other designs include the A’van folding caravan that’s shaped like an ‘A’ when erected and the generic camper trailer with canvas sides. Click here if you would like to learn more about Buying a Camper Trailer.

Fifth-Wheel

Fifth-wheel caravans are similar to larger caravans, however, they have an extension on the front that extends over the tow vehicle and a horizontal plate that looks like a wheel (hence the name "fifth wheel") that rests on the tow vehicle for support. Typically, full-size pickup trucks serve as tow vehicles for fifth wheels and are outfitted with a fifth-wheel hitch (also known as a gooseneck hitch). The hitch arrangement makes towing easier by placing the trailer load in the centre of the tow vehicle instead of behind it. This creates a stable towing proposition with the opportunity of obtaining so much more living space in comparison to a standard caravan.

On Road or Off Road?

There are many caravan manufacturers throughout Australia; however, there are only a handful of manufacturers that actually warrant their caravan for proper off-road use. If you are after a true off-road caravan, then by all means – go the whole hog and make sure you understand everything in the manufacturers’ warranty.

Off-road caravans are built tough for the bumps and knocks that it may be subjected to on or off the tracks. The chassis is usually built to fine specifications, with interlocking components that are designed to be light, whilst providing maximum strength. All steel components that will be subject to the elements are usually hot dipped galvanised to prevent corrosion such as rust. Depending on the caravan manufacturer, some off-road caravans will have strong framework built from timber, whilst others may have framework built from galvanised steel or aluminium. To better handle the bumps and dips on or off the track, a heavy duty suspension system is often used and the clearance from the ground to the bottom of the caravan is increased. To compensate this extra height, 15 inch alloy wheels and specific off-road tyres may be included. It’s common to find some form of stone protection such as chequer plate on the underside, front and lower sides of the caravan itself.

Some other things you should expect with any off-road caravan are spare items, such as: spare wheels, extra gas and jerry can holders and additional water tanks. Any energy-efficient features like: additional solar panels and batteries, LED down lights and strip lighting, low-powered pumps and diesel powered water heaters will be an absolute bonus, especially for outback travel.

Interior Design

The size of your caravan will play a huge part in the interior layout and balance for furnishings and living space. When it comes to comfort and extra features, you would think the bigger the caravan the better. This is not always the case as it really comes down to clever design and utilisation of space. Manufacturers are always coming up with new and clever concepts for balancing the interior space for living, furniture and storage as well as keeping the weight down and creating an inviting and aesthetic appeal – a lot of things to think about!

Caravans come in a substantial variety of lengths and interior designs. Be aware, however that not all manufacturers measure their caravan lengths the same way. Although the Caravan Industry Association (CIA) recommends using an external body measurement, some manufacturers use an internal length measurement, which can be confusing. Before embarking on the lookout for your dream caravan, a good idea is to bring a camera and a tape measure along.

Caravan interior designs and layouts come in a very wide variety of choices. Most of the larger manufacturers have standard layouts and will offer a certain amount of custom layout flexibility, whereas the smaller "boutique" manufacturers will often only have custom layouts – with a price to match.

Generally speaking, the three most popular design layouts for standard caravans and pop-tops are:
  • Rear kitchen with front bed

  • Front kitchen with rear bed

  • Mid kitchen with either front or rear bed
These days, a good majority of the caravan industry is working to supply the 'empty nester' and the baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964). The result of this is that family type caravans with bunk beds for the kids are somewhat more difficult to find. These caravans are somewhat available, so if that's what you’re looking for, then some persistence is often necessary!

Windows and Doors

Windows

A caravan with lots of windows seem to bring more of the great outdoors inside. Whether the windows are made of acrylic or glass, they provide more views to the scenery outside and bring more light inside. This in turn, creates a brighter interior that makes the room seem bigger, more vibrant and pleasing.

Installing keyed window locks to all accessible windows will not only help keep burglars out, it may also reduce your insurance premium. If your caravan has glass windows, you could enquire about getting them window tinted. Window tinting will help reduce heat, glare and UV rays and will increase comfort and pleasure for the occupants inside. It may also protect the interior components such as vinyl from UV damage.

Doors

Solid doors are a good investment when it comes to privacy and security. Doors that are solidly constructed for bathroom and bedrooms are usually lockable, which will give you more peace of mind. Doors also assist in keeping cooking fumes and shower steam from transferring between rooms within the caravan.

Floors and Walls

Floors

Caravans should have durable flooring for the high amount of wear it will experience from time to time. This flooring needs to be easy to clean and maintain because when you are out on your camping trip, the last thing you want to do is be on your hands and knees scrubbing the floors.

Keep on eye out for good quality plastic tiles, timber laminate flooring or heavy duty linoleum (lino). Kitchen and wet areas such as bathrooms and toilets should have tiles or linoleum, whilst living areas and bedrooms could have high-wear carpet. You can also consider carpet or vinyl runners for heavy traffic areas such as isles or hallways for extra protection.

Bedrooms and Bathrooms

Bedrooms

Caravan bedrooms are quite restricted in layout options mainly because once the bed is in place, there is not too much space left for other furniture. There are, however, some clever and innovative designs that focus on utilising this space in a very efficient way. Examples include: overhead lockers, compact side tables and vanity cabinets, mirrored wardrobes and under bed storage compartments.

Beds

Island beds are the most common bed layout style that is currently found in caravans. It is simply a bed that can be accessed from three sides with the top of the bed against the wall. A bed that has two sides against the walls of a caravan will provide a difficult and cumbersome task to change the sheets. Another problem arises when two people are sleeping on the same bed because the person near the wall will find it rather challenging to get out of bed without disturbing the other.

The bed itself may be a single, double or a queen size, although a king size may be found in some large luxurious caravans. In regards to comfort, it should not be too much to ask, that the mattress comes with a quality inner-spring system.

Bathrooms

Bathrooms are predominantly built into larger caravans and consist of a hand basin and a toilet as standard. There are some caravan manufacturers starting to include showers as standard also. Either way, these compartments are classified as wet areas and are usually floored with either ceramic or vinyl tiles or linoleum. Some bathrooms and/or shower units are made entirely of fibreglass and provide a highly sealed unit that’s very easy to clean and maintain. Bathrooms are commonly found near the rear of the bedroom or within close proximity to the bedroom, which is a similar concept to bathrooms found in houses.

Toilets

There are many types of toilets that are installed in caravans, RVs and motorhomes. Most of these toilets use water for flushing from an external water holding tank. Toilets need to store the waste in another tank and this is either a toilet cassette or what’s usually termed a black water tank. Whatever tank is used, the waste should be disposed of thoughtfully at numerous dump points around the country.

Storage Solutions

Kitchen Storage

Consider kitchen pantries that are designed for storing items such as, canned foods, cartons and spices, etc. Storage cupboards and pantries with adjustable, display type shelves are ideal especially if they can be easily removed for cleaning. It is important that any items such as, cutlery, pot, pans, plates and cups be secured as much as possible during transit. This prevents damage to both the item and the storage unit. A good idea is to look for kitchen units that have dividers, tie downs or any other innovative solutions to keep these items from jumping around.

TIP

Leave all your round plastic containers at home and instead bring square or oblong shaped containers. These will fit together better and will therefore use space much more efficiently.

The Tow Vehicle

Modern vehicles, being either four wheel drive or two wheel drive (as in most sedans) make excellent towing vehicles. You may have heard a saying in the vehicle industry that "there's no such thing as a bad tow vehicle". This statement is generally correct, although the problems that can occur from time to time is a bad tow vehicle choice!

Caravanners need to be aware that various tow vehicle and caravan combinations can behave in slightly different ways and certainly different from just driving the tow vehicle itself. Today's caravans have all the creature comforts desired and those comforts all add weight, which does affect towing. To ensure safe journeys therefore, it is necessary to have a tow vehicle and caravan that are compatible and use the best towing equipment.

One of the most important aspects of ensuring total enjoyment of the caravanning lifestyle is having the right tow vehicle. Whilst this article title generally refers to choosing a new tow vehicle, it can apply equally to ensuring a vehicle already owned is suitable for the proposed towing task.

In days of yore, that is, before the Holden Kingswood, the only consideration with a tow vehicle was the size of the engine - basically the more "cubes" the better! However, with the advent of things like coil spring rear suspension, front wheel drive and monocoque vehicle structure, factors like the engineering strength of the rear end became equally important.

If purchasing a new vehicle, then give some thought to what is planned to be towed. Neither a 5.0 litre V8 sedan nor a Toyota Land Cruiser is needed in every towing situation but a tow vehicle that is working well within it's power and engineering limits is going to be a more comfortable drive, than one that is being worked hard. There are many other factors to consider before hastily choosing & setting up a tow vehicle, so it's a good idea to take your time and learn as much as you.

Caravan Safety Features

This section will outline some safety features that you may consider when purchasing a caravan. This section is only a brief outline, so you may wish to enquire further or seek some more information on any safety features regarding caravans and caravanning.
  • Smoke detectors

  • Over pressure relief valves on gas cylinders

  • Electric brakes on the wheels

  • Fire extinguisher

  • Fire blankets

  • Residual current device – also known as an Earth leakage detector

  • Gas leakage detector

  • Water purifying filter

  • Security locks on doors

  • Window locks

  • Trail-A-Mate jack

  • Spare tyres and tyre changing accessories

  • Temperature limiting valve

Caravan Shows and Dealerships

Caravan Shows

A caravan show can be an eye glazing and mind numbing event, given the amount of vans on display but it is also a good way to see many caravans in a short space of time. If you are serious about buying, then some preparation is required, especially if you are considering buying one of the 'show specials' which are often available. I'd recommend two show visits. The first is your reconnaissance sweep. Take along pen, notebook, tape measure and a small backpack for all the brochures. Go through all the vans, making notes about features and prices and then go away to think about it all. Your second visit, a day or two later can be a more limited but intensive look at a selected choice of vans, along with serious negotiation, if you are buying. Try and make at least one of your show visits on a week day when there will be less people around and the dealers will be less harassed! One more tip for show buying is to have visited all your local dealers beforehand, so that you have a very good idea of prices.

If you are not buying at a show, then it is still a good opportunity to see exactly what is available and decide on your design preferences for later informed discussion with your chosen dealer, especially if you are planning on a custom built unit.

Caravan Dealerships

Part of your RV buying research should certainly include a visit to all your local dealers. Be prepared to spend time doing this. Get a feel for various designs, sit inside them and go though all the motions of living in your choice of caravan - packing, cooking, eating, sleeping and showering. Little things like narrow walking space around the bed, might become a major irritation, so don't ignore items like that. If you like to read long into the night, then where are the reading lights? If you want to access the quality of a van, then have a look in all the cupboards, pull a few drawers out, run your fingers around some inside edges and generally have a good poke around.

Ask the dealer all the questions you can think of - don't be hassled about taking your time. Dealers will, for the most part, expect this. The more astute ones recognize that someone who is happy and contented with their purchase is their best (and often cheapest) advertisement for their next sale.

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