Have you (and your van) got a weight problem?
If you’re a novice caravanner and you ask the question “how should I load my caravan?”, you’ll likely be told to keep heavy items loaded low down near the axles, medium weight items further towards the ends and light items up top. But if you try to apply that to just about any modern caravan, the storage areas don’t seem to match up, leaving you just as confused as you were when you started out.
The truth is, on first glance, most modern caravans are designed more for creature comforts than they are for practical and safe towing. However, when you look at a well-designed caravan and understand what it is you’re actually loading into it, it is possible to achieve a practical and comfortable layout with good load-carrying capabilities.
In this chapter, we want to give you an idea of what to look for in a well-designed caravan, as well as the best ways to load it in order to adhere to safe towing practices.
There are two types of A-frame trailers commonly found on our roads. There are dog trailers, which have an axle group at each end of the trailer, and there are pig trailers, which have an axle or axle group near the centre of the trailer. Dog trailers are quite stable and have near zero weight at the towball. Because of this, they have little effect on the stability of the towing vehicle. Pig trailers do transfer some of their weight to the tow vehicle, generally around 10 percent. This does affect the handling of the tow vehicle. Pig trailers have a tendency to be unstable if not designed and loaded correctly. In other words, they can be a pig to tow. All caravan and camper-trailers are pig trailers.
When looking at caravan design, you should be looking for a layout that has the axles positioned slightly towards the rear so that approximately two thirds of the trailer is forward of the centre and the remaining third is rearward. This ensures a slight weight bias towards the towball. Too much weight at the back and away from the centre can increase the chance of trailer sway.
When buying, stick to a reputable manufacturer. These guys take great care in designing their caravans for proper weight distribution and they will not allow you to fit options that will upset the balance of their vans.
The next thing you want to look at is the cargo capacity of your caravan and that requires an understanding of what’s written on the VIN plate and it will have the following data recorded on it:
TARE: The (supposed) weight of the caravan when empty.
GVM: The maximum weight that the axle or axle group can carry.
ATM: The maximum weight of the trailer.
Basically, to determine how much cargo you can store in your caravan, simply subtract the Tare from the ATM. If you have a single-axle caravan, it’s likely to be around 300kg. For double-axle caravans, the norm is about 400kg. Now that’s not a lot. If the van has two 90-litre water tanks, there’s 180kg in water alone leaving you with just 220kg for everything else. This is why it is so important to discuss cargo capacity with the manufacturer before you place an order for a new van. If free camping is your thing, and doing the big lap is on the agenda, you are going to want to have around 500-700kg cargo capacity.
Keep track on the weight of items you carry
Once you’ve determined how much cargo capacity you have, the next thing you need to do is start to add up the weight of all the items you want to store in your van. Start with the heavy items first.
Water: Every litre of water weighs 1kg. As we mentioned earlier, fill up all your water tanks and you could easily have 200-300kg of water aboard.
Groceries: Whether you intend to go away for a week, a month or a year, you will be stocking up on groceries before you leave and it’s not hard to accumulate 80-90kg, especially when you take into consideration the slabs of beer and a few bottles of wine for happy hour. Soft drinks, bags of spuds, glass jars – it all adds up.
Cooking appliances: Despite having a well-appointed kitchen in the van, we all like cooking outdoors. This may include a two-burner stove, a camp oven or two, a Weber or Ziggy BBQ, and perhaps even a portable fire pit. Don’t forget pots and pans. Individually, these items may not weigh a lot but all together could easily be 40-50kg.
Gas bottles: Remember that Tare weight we talked about earlier? It’s a good bet the Tare of your caravan doesn’t include the weight of the two 9kg gas bottles sitting on your drawbar. And don’t get fooled into thinking they only weigh 9kg each. That’s just the weight of the compressed gas inside. These bottles are made of thick steel. Factor in about 15kg for each bottle.
Generators: Our online social media lifestyles means we are taking more and more electrical devices with us on our trips and, often, a generator is a necessity on most caravans. An average 2.5kVA generator can weigh upwards of 25kg.
Personal items: You could probably fit everything else into this category. Clothing, bathroom stuff, bedding, towels. If you have a dog or dogs, you’ll need to include their items as well. It’s hard to determine exactly how much this will all weigh but imagine how much you may pack into a small suitcase for a trip overseas and its likely it will weigh 15-20kg. It would be quite easy to accumulate 40kg – 60kg of personal items for two people in the caravan.
Start to add all this up and, even at the low-end estimation, you’ll be loading 450-500kg. And we haven’t started to look at some of the other items you may want to carry. Jerry cans for fuel, bikes for the family, you may even want to take a small boat or kayaks. How on earth are you going to pack all this stuff into your caravan so that the weight is distributed evenly and safely?
Packing your caravan
A good caravan manufacturer will mount the water tanks close to the axles of the van. That will ensure your water is kept in the right place. If you have multiple water tanks, consider only filling sufficient water for the time you need and fill the tanks closest to the axles first.
In the kitchen, pack pots and pans, jars and heavy food items, like bags of spuds, in the lower drawers and keep the upper ones for cutlery and lighter packets of food. If you have a pull-out pantry, pack jars and tins on the bottom and plastic containers up top.
If your bed is a north-south configuration, pack heavy items at the foot of the bed and lighter items at the head.
In the fridge, pack from the bottom up. Fill up as much of the lower sections as possible. Keep drink bottles down low. Don’t unnecessarily overload the freezer.
Reducing the weight of the items you carry
When choosing camping gear such as chairs and tables, look for items that are light and pack away for easy storage. Those full reclining chairs might be comfortable but can weigh 12kg each. There are plenty of comfortable folding chairs that weigh less than 7kg.
Choose a top loader washing machine rather than a front loader. Front-loading washing machines require a heavy ballast to keep them stable. This can make them extremely heavy, up to 50kg. Top loaders are cheaper and weigh considerably less.
Consider fitting lithium batteries. Lithium batteries are light. A single 100Ah AGM battery will weigh around 45kg and most vans have at least two fitted. A single 200Ah lithium battery will weigh just 30kg.
If you want to carry a generator, do you really need one that can power a small town? A small 1000W generator sufficient to power a battery charger could save you 15-20kg.
Don’t overstock on groceries. Buy only what you need and consider carrying enough to keep you going between towns. Buy groceries along the way. This will save you weight and it also helps to support local businesses.
Keep in mind that it is not necessary to fill up the caravan with all your gear. You’ve got a perfectly good tow vehicle that can take some of the load. Since the majority of grey nomads are travelling two up, there’s the whole back seat and floor area of the car that can be utilised for heavier items.
For heaven’s sake, don’t go adding toolboxes to the front or rear of your van. It was never designed for this additional weight and it will almost certainly upset the balance of the van. If you do have to add a toolbox, add it to the drawbar and only use it to store very light items.
Most bike carriers hold as many as four bikes and these combined can weigh 80kg or more. That’s a lot to have hanging off the back wall of the van or over the towball. If you must carry bikes, consider evenly distributing them back to front or buy fold-up bikes that can store under the bed.
Don’t pack any more than what you will actually need and use. A good tip is to mark everything you use with a dot of red nail polish as you use it. After a year in your van, pull out everything that doesn’t have a red dot on it. You will be surprised at how much stuff you initially packed that you never used.
Before you leave
Once you have everything packed and ready to go, we strongly recommend you take your fully loaded rig to a weighbridge or to an industry organised weigh-in to ensure you have not exceeded the weight limits of either the tow vehicle or the trailer.