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Buying the caravan you want might not be the one you need, and the one you need might not be the one you want! It’s a compromise, so here’s an insider’s view on buying the right caravan for you.
With many people turning their focus to domestic travel in these unsettled times, caravanning is experiencing renewed interest, often from those unfamiliar with the lingo and choices on offer. There’s a lot to consider when buying a van, including meeting your wants, needs and desires while ensuring safety and staying on budget. Here’s what we feel you need to consider to buy the right caravan for you.
Style of travel
This will be important to guide your choice of caravan and tow vehicle. Do you want to stay mainly in caravan parks or off-grid? Will you mostly stay on the blacktop or venture onto rough outback tracks? Is the sandy desert or are muddy, rough mountain tracks your thing? Remember, the bigger and heavier your van, the harder it is to get in and out of tight places, the more fuel you’ll use ($$$) towing it and the harder it is to get out of being bogged. Decide the style of travel you’re most likely to do as a starting point. Decide on the van before the vehicle if possible.
We’re firm believers that you should decide on what van you can live with, then decide on a tow vehicle, if budget allows. Tow vehicle choice can and will restrict your choice of van, particularly if opting for an off-road van. Learn all about weights and their implications before investing in a van and vehicle. Be mindful of their GVM, ATM, and GCM. That’s a whole area of discussion on its own. (But here’s a video all about it! )
Touring vans are lighter than their off-road and semi off-road counterparts. Generally, you can luxuriate in a longer van, with more space and home-style luxuries with a touring van. Their chassis, suspension and construction are lighter in overall weight. The disadvantage is smaller water-carrying capacity, and often little to no 12-volt/solar set-up. If caravan parks and their powered site and camp kitchens are your thing, touring vans are a great introduction to caravanning.
Semi-off-road vans are an intermediate option, usually on heavier-duty chassis and suspension with some solar provision, but not quite up to the ongoing physical demands of rough outback roads. They are designed to take you from caravan parks to national parks’ and free camps but not heavily corrugated outback tracks and roads. Usually the warranty is voided if you venture onto a 4WD gazetted road. That’s not to say people don’t take them on rough roads, they do, often without issue. Just don’t expect your semi-off-road to be up to the task of a purpose-built off-road van, and expect to have to undertake repairs if you do venture onto rough, corrugated roads.
True off-road vans are built tough, with our heavily corrugated 4WD roads in mind. They offer heavy-duty chassis, articulating hitches, reinforced cabinetry, reinforced undercarriage, large water-carrying capacity, great solar and battery set-ups. They are usually configured for extended off-grid camping. Those designed for sandy and mountainous tracks will be very compact. The trade-off with bigger off-road vans will be weight. The heavier duty, the higher the weight when compared to their touring counterparts.
Timber, aluminium or composite? Timber or composite floors? There are hardwood vans still in work since the 60s, aluminium is lighter and won’t rot but poor workmanship in joining can result in failure. There are advantages and disadvantages to each construction method and the choice is very personal. No matter your choice, make sure you maintain seals, look after the suspension and use appropriate tyre pressures to reduce vibration stress on your investment.
Off-grid camping for extended periods requires BYO water. Water weighs one kilogram per one litre so water capacity must be considered if planning off-grid camping. Gas and diesel are also likely to be needed. Consider how much weight water, gas and diesel you’re likely to need and consider that in your available payload. Do you have enough payload to carry the wet weight? It’s pretty useless having an off-grid van that’s unable to legally carry the weight you need for off-grid camping. We have 285 litres of water capacity, 18 litres gas, 10 litres for the diesel heater and usually carry another 20-40-litres of diesel when in remote areas. That’s 330-350 wet weight. Many vans only offer a 300-400kg payload. We had ours manufactured with a 730kg payload so we don’t have a problem, but those new to caravanning should consider their need for water in their caravan choice.
How much food are you going to need to carry? Will you buy in towns frequently or will you stay in the bush for extended periods. Take a close look at what storage you have for food and drink. Fridges come in gas and compressor. Gas fridges often have a 12v feature, to run the fridge while travelling. If the fridge runs on gas, you’ll need adequate gas bottles to keep the fridge running. Compressor fridges, conversely, run off battery power, meaning you’ll need a pretty good battery and solar set-up when not in the caravan park.
If you plan of camping in caravan parks, a van that runs off 240v power is all you’ll need. If planning off-grid, national park or free camping, you’ll definitely need a good battery and solar set-up. How much power you need will depend on what you plan to run.
Read next Caravan solar: you’re doing it wrong!
We, personally, have a 140-litre compressor fridge in the van and a 75-litre Evakool dual-zone fridge/freezer in a front toolbox. We have three 100 amp-hour AGM batteries plus 300W fixed solar on the roof. We also have a 120W portable solar blanket to help during cloudy weather. We’ve found our set-up adequate but will be upgrading to 300W of lithium. Lithium batteries can be discharged to much lower levels effectively giving you more power. You may also want to consider an inverter to run some electrical appliances in the van. If you can’t live without your air conditioner, you may need to consider a generator, but be warned, they aren’t tolerated everywhere. The central part of buying a van and tow vehicle is realising you will have to compromise on something. It may be the type of roads you travel on, the amount of ‘stuff’ you can carry, the off-grid capability or budget.
One of the constraints on storage is the payload on the van. Figure out all those items you think you’d like to take with you, from the kitchen to toiletries, gadgets and tools, awnings, annexe, outside chairs and table. Hoses, drainage hose, power cable. They all contribute to the weight you’ll carry. Weigh everything. You’ll be surprised how quickly they add up. This will also guide your van choice. What are you prepared to sacrifice and what is a must-have? What cupboards or storage options do you need to take all your stuff.
Once you nut out all of the above, start to look extensively. Take a look at different styles of vans before finalising a choice. What you think is great initially may not be the van you ultimately choose. Visit caravan parks or seek out owners willing to talk about their experience with their van. Many will be more upfront talking in person than on social media.
Remember, if the caravanning bug hits hard, your first van is unlikely to be your last. You may start with one style and progress to others as your travel and comfort needs evolve. Make the most of your van, but above all else, travel often and enjoy the wonderful country we are privileged to live in.
Words Korker Adventures Images RV Daily.