Off Road Caravans

This article discusses the features and advantages for off road caravans and in what circumstances you should consider the additional expense of a specialised off-road van.
Created: February 2007
Revised: September 2009
Latest Feedback: January 2015

Why Choose an Off Road Caravan?

There are many advantages for choosing an off road caravan and these include: having the freedom of going to places that a road based caravan couldn’t go, having independent equipment for extended stays away from civilisation and having a caravan that’s durable and tough for off road conditions.

Freedom

The main reason that folks would consider buying an off road caravan, is the freedom of going just about most places the 4WD can go. Instead of being limited to caravan parks and gravel tracks – you can take that off the beat ‘n’ track and head towards your favourite fishing spot or maybe search for a gold lead on a prospecting expedition. The choices are great and varied and it’s nice to know that you have added a few stars to your accommodation in the process.

There is an unfortunate dilemma that people can face when it comes to road based caravans and caravan parks in the peak season. Depending on the popularity of the tourist area, supporting caravan parks may need to be booked in advance because of overcrowding. Freedoms can be eroded due to this scheduling so having the choice of staying at a caravan park or going off the bitumen where permitting is a bonus.

Extra Equipment

Manufacturers realise that people will most likely take their off road caravan away from towns and shopping centres, so they usually incorporate extra amenities and upgraded equipment. These may include:
  • Bigger fresh water tanks

  • Upgraded communications

  • Bigger and/or spare batteries

  • Bigger and/or spare solar panels

  • Bigger and/or spare gas cylinders

  • Bigger grey and black water tanks

  • Upgraded recovery gear and servicing equipment

  • More storage areas

TIP

Some manufacturers can deign custom layouts and add optional extras based on your specific requirements.

Built Tough for Tough Conditions

Off road caravans are designed and built tough for the bumps and knocks that it may be subjected to on or off the tracks. They are designed to work well with the tow vehicle and have a great deal more articulation – meaning it can be positioned or navigated at a sharper angle than a road based caravan. The chassis is built much stronger and sits higher off the ground to provide better ground clearance. This design plus a strong departure angle at the rear provides confidence for towing the caravan through deep ruts and over river banks without bottoming out. Many off road caravans are designed with waterproof doors, windows and compartments to prevent water from seeping in during flood or creek crossing. This design also helps reduce bull dust from entering the interior.

Types of Off Road Caravans

There are a few types of off road caravans available on the market today and these designs are continuously evolving. The three basic types are the full or standard off road caravan, the pop-top off road caravan and the compact off road caravan.

Full or Standard

This is a fully enclosed caravan with solid sides and a solid roof. It is considered the strongest of the frame designs and generally caters for thicker wall and ceiling insulation for better interior comfort. They are designed to allow full height clearance for someone to walk comfortably inside and provide good storage space for overhead cupboards, etc. 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. These types of caravans are typically heavier; however manufacturers are constantly working towards lowering overall weight, whilst increasing overall strength.

Pop-Top or Pop-Up

Since these off road caravans are lower in height and are generally lighter than full off road caravans, they provide the tow vehicle with better fuel economy and assist in easier and safer towing. 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 canvas or vinyl is used. This canvas or vinyl skirting ensures a waterproof and windproof seal and usually has zippered sections with flyscreens that allow airflow through the caravan. Pop-top off road caravans may be lighter and have a lower centre of gravity than full off road caravans but at the end of the day, it’s near impossible to build the framework as strong as an off road caravan with a solid roof.

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.

Constructing for Off Road

There seems to be two major camps that promote there construction methods as the best and this section does not want to discredit or argue the points but rather highlight the differences. It is up to you to gain further research and decide for yourself.

Chassis

The chassis is made of premium strength steel beams that are either hot dipped galvanized or painted. Some of the products that manufacturers use are Duragal and Supagal to protect the chassis from rust and corrosion. Some options that can be included on the chassis include: steel mesh fitted to the ‘A’ frame, tow eyes, jack points and jerry can holders to name a few.

Framework

The framework for the off road caravan is also important to provide paramount strength with as minimal weight as possible. The two main materials that are used for the frame include timber and aluminium.

Timber

The manufacturer may use timber such as Meranti or any long-grained flexible plantation grown timber which is treated against wood rot. Timber can work well in absorbing road related stresses because of its natural resilience. As long as quality sealants are used, this cheap construction material will last a very long time.

Aluminium

This construction material is slowly gaining more popularity with the framework for off road caravans. It can provide excellent overall strength as long as the aluminium channels and tubes that are used are thick enough. It is reputable in the industry to double rivet using high tensile steel rivets and weld where appropriate. It is also known to overlap the joins in places, therefore doubling the material thickness which provides added strength in crucial areas.

Tyres, Brakes, Suspension and Coupling

Tyres

When it comes to tyre contingency in an off road situation, it is generally recommended to use off road wheels and tyres that match the size and stud pattern of the tow vehicle. The main reason for this is so the tyres on the caravan can be interchangeable with the tyres on the tow vehicle. This provides up to four spare tyres, if you have two for your 4WD and two mounted on the caravan. Off road caravans usually have 15 or 16 inch wheels and tyres which are interchangeable with the tow vehicle and an 8 inch jockey wheel with additional jockey wheel clamp.

Brakes

There are some problems associated with standard electric brakes when it comes to travelling over dusty tracks, corrugated roads and outback terrains. These conditions can be detrimental to standard electric brakes and cause premature wear and tear. There are electric braking systems available that have been specifically designed for off road and especially Australian outback conditions. Off road electric brakes incorporate high tech materials that help reduce vibration and wear. They can also withstand the higher temperatures that are emitted in heavy braking purposes.

Handbrake

Look for a proper locking handbrake that has a solid design with excellent leverage for ease of use and provides a confident and positive braking action.

Suspension

There are many suspension types and designs available for vehicles, campers and caravans and discussed in our Suspension Upgrade article. Some are designed for general applications whilst others are for more specific. One of the better designs that suits an off road caravan is a fully independent and load sharing suspension system.

Standard Suspension

Some of the problems which are associated with traditional beam axles (not independent) are:
  • It does not allow the wheels to travel in a smooth manner that follows the road surface because one side influences the other side and can introduce problems like tyre wear, bump steer and braking and handling issues.

  • The un-sprung weight of the axle doesn’t allow it to follow road undulations smoothly without placing excessive stress and loads into the chassis.

  • The axle reduces ground clearance which is not good in off road situations.

Independent Suspension

With an independent suspension most of these problems are alleviated due to the fact that the system breaks up harmonic motion. This motion caused by undulations on the track can be amplified with ordinary suspension systems and needs to be cancelled.

Load Sharing

This system is generally incorporated into the suspension design and assists in reducing the shock to the off road caravan when the wheels hit obstacles. It works by transferring destructive energy back and forth between the wheels. As the front wheel first moves over an obstacle, it articulates and transfers energy to the wheel behind which also articulates and transfers energy to the front.

Tandem Vs Single Suspension

Tandem suspension has many advantages over single suspension in particular to off road scenarios. The unfortunate fact for a single suspension system is that it usually has a mind of its own and wants to fish tail around by nature. The wheels on a single system wants to dig into soft ground on its own accord which can lead to swaying, whilst a tandem system will track behind the tow vehicle no matter what. Some other advantages are outlined below:
  • Wheels from a tandem system, covers twice the area on the ground, therefore halving the weight density and making the caravan less likely to get bogged.

  • Halving this weight pressure on the wheels also provides less chance of getting tyre punctures.

  • The design of the tandem system is utilised for independent load sharing suspension.

  • Tandem suspension systems are generally safer systems for towing when you consider issues such as major tyre failure.

  • Some tandem systems don’t require jack down legs.

Coupling

Off road caravans should have an off road tow hitch which has a broad articulation angle. A standard ball coupling has only limited vertical movement with only around 15 degrees up and 15 degrees down before the tongue bottoms out and breaks something. Consider heavy duty off road hitches that are specifically designed by the manufacturer for this purpose. Some of these hitches can provide 360 degree articulation and are rated at an impressive 3,500kgs. Others can offer the option of a handbrake fitment and the ability to fit a padlock.

Off Road Caravan Interior

The interior for an off road caravan is very similar to the interior of a road based caravan except the manufacturer may use more durable and wear resistant materials. For example, some manufacturers use full polyester finished paneling instead of the paper finish paneling. This finish is mar resistant and cleanable and will not wear after a few episodes of scrubbing. Look for cabinets that are constructed from timber with hard wood frames. Timber cabinets that are solidly constructed using dovetail joining and not just glued and stapled provides paramount strength. It’s a good idea to learn as much as you can and take considerations into the finer details, construction methods and hardware quality such as marine grade locking latches, real drawer rollers and nylock nuts for vibration resistant securing.

Electrics

An off road caravan should have a full 12 volt system throughout and it is highly recommended to have a solar powered setup that includes two or more maintenance free batteries. An example is illustrated below:
  • 3 x 130 watt solar panels

  • 3 x 110 amp hour deep cycle and maintenance free AGM batteries

  • 40 amp automatic battery charger

Energy Efficient Lights

Since power is something to be conserved when out in the outback, energy efficient lighting such as 12 volt fluorescent and/or LED lights are adequate. Some off road caravans come with a portable petrol or LPG generator that is stored in a pullout tray.

Appliances

Some appliances to look out for include:
  • 240/12 volt compressor fridge that is preferably over 100 litres

  • Microwave oven preferably stainless steel and around 20 litres

  • LPG stove with oven and grill

  • 12 volt rangehood

  • Reverse cycle roof air conditioner

  • 17 inch or more flatscreen TV connected to a windup TV antenna

  • DVD/CD/radio with multiple speakers

  • Deep stainless steel sink with drainer

Doors, Windows and Security

Good security is not only a ‘must have’ when you’re in a caravan park but also when you’re in the middle of nowhere. You may want to leave your caravan to explore around in your 4WD for a while and good security gives good peace of mind. Look for:
  • Multi pin security entry door

  • Locking security windows

  • Lockable compartments and water fill points
Water proof doors and windows sealed with marine grade Sika-flex provides adequate protection against water and dust. This provides an added barrier against these elements when driving through floods and creeks. Proofing against water and dust is an important issue because keeping these elements out of the panel and floor cavities as well as the interior will greatly prolong the lifespan of the caravan.

Off Road Caravan Exterior

An off road caravan looks tough on the outside with it’s elevated chassis, large 15 inch wheels and it’s chequer plate armour. Most exterior features come standard in an off road caravan and these may include:
  • Roll out awning

  • Pullout aluminium door step

  • Twin 9kg gas bottles

  • 74 litre heavy duty water tanks with protectors

  • External 240/12volt power outlets

  • Entrance handle and light

  • Mud flaps

  • Rear mounted spares

  • Large front boot

  • Two rear jerry cans and holders

  • Dove-tail designed rear with strong departure angle

  • Protector shades to front and rear windows

  • Annexe light

Armour and Protection

When traveling through the bush, the lower metre of the off road caravan is the most critical and therefore the most prone for damage. There are two main types that exist for body armour and this includes powder coated or painted steel and aluminium chequer plate. Armour and protection for an off road caravan includes: side protection and chequer plate brush paneling, heavy duty front and rear bumper bars, side protection brush bars and aluminium or steel protection for water tanks and lights.

Stone Guard

A stone guard is used to deflect rocks and gravel away from the van and preferably away from the tow vehicle as well. They are designed to absorb the energy from the missile and deflect them downwards.

Quality and Warranties

If you are considering purchasing either a standard plan or a custom designed off road caravan, then take your time, research extensively, gain advice and learn as much as you possibly can on the subject. It is always a good idea to research the company or manufacturer and seek out all the pros and cons. Find out things like:
  • Does the off road caravan come with a warranty?

  • Does it have any independent reviews?

  • Has the off road caravan or manufacturer won any awards?

  • Does it follow Australian design and safety guidelines?

  • What do other people think? (search on the internet and on forum boards, etc)

  • What materials are used in the construction?

  • Is the workmanship highly regarded and reputable?

  • What size off road caravan is safe to tow with your vehicle?
There are many more questions then the above examples and it’s a matter of research. Gather as much information from the dealer or manufacturer as you can such as brochures and DVDs. Some manufacturers are quite happy to give you a factory tour whilst explaining the processes involved in construction. You could also find out when the next caravan and camping show is in your nearest city and find out everything you need to know in the one place.

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.

TIP

Some manufacturers may offer an Australia-wide warranty on the workmanship for the off road caravan but the appliances and other components may be covered by a separate warranty.

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