Learn everything you need to know when purchasing a caravan.
Whether you're looking for a touring caravan to take to a rural holiday park or something you can haul off-road to remote campgrounds, here's our guide on picking a caravan.
Storing your caravan
First, you need to think about the practicalities of owning a caravan.
Space is always an issue when it comes to caravans. You'll have to choose a model that fits your chosen storage location, whether you are going to use a driveway or a secure caravan parking site. There's nothing worse than owning a touring caravan that only just squeezes onto your driveway. It adds a lot of stress when hitching up and when returning from your trip. To avoid this, grab a tape measure and check the dimensions of your driveway and don't forget to ensure you have sufficient overhead clearance if you plan to park your caravan under a carport or in a shed. Also, make sure you allow for the swing of the caravan body as you turn since the back edge will travel in a wide arc.
Practicalities and ergonomics
With the external dimensions nailed down, you should start to think about how you'll use the caravan. How many occupants do you plan on taking? For a couple, a 15-foot caravan may be plenty. For a family of four, with 2 younger children, there are 20-foot models sold with bunk beds. If you plan on doing a lot of touring, you might want to go for a caravan with a permanent bed, as the act of having to make a bed up every night can get wearisome.
Longer caravans will also typically feature an enclosed bedroom, providing an amount of privacy.
An awning is pretty much a must. It nearly doubles the living space available by creating a covered outdoor seating and cooking area.
Once you've nailed down the size of the caravan body you can work with, you need to visit a dealer and look around as many interiors as you can. This way, you'll get a really good idea of the interior layout that will work best for you and your family. You may find you prefer one manufacturer over another simply because of how they position and develop their caravans.
Roaming and free camping
If you intend on doing a lot of touring around Australia, perhaps free camping or trekking to remote camping grounds, you'll need a caravan that is self-sufficient. Look for a model that has solar panels for electrical power, adequate gas bottle storage and large onboard water tanks.
Off-road or not?
Deciding whether to go for an off-road caravan (or outback model as some manufacturers call this configuration) is a necessity. While you may really like the look of the off-road caravans, if you're unlikely to ever venture over the rough stuff, you could save money by sticking to a more road-based caravan.
Build and construction quality
Purchasing a new or used caravan is quite an investment. The last thing you want to happen is for your van's condition to rapidly deteriorate with time. You can minimise the chance of that ever occurring by choosing a manufacturer renowned for building strong, solid caravans. Generally speaking, a body with fewer joints between panels will mean there's less likelihood of leaks forming. You should also pay attention to the owner's manual on caravan maintenance and keep the interior ventilated to reduce humidity and moisture levels.
Other plus points to look for include independent suspension, especially on off-road models, for improved handling. Make sure the chassis underneath has no corrosion and that the welds are sound.
Caravan towing capacity
To find out your car's towing capacity, first check your owner's manual. It will be listed there. Bear in mind though that this is the maximum weight your vehicle can haul.
What can my vehicle tow?
You own a Ford Ranger double cab 4x4 ute, which has a maximum gross combination mass (GCM) of 6,000kg. This means the combined total weight of your packed vehicle and whatever you are towing cannot exceed 6,000kg.
This vehicle has a gross vehicle mass (GVM) of 3,200kg, which is the maximum weight the vehicle can carry, including all occupants and cargo, before we add the towing load. The kerb weight (the weight when the car is empty but fuelled) for this model is 2,057kg.
Subtracting the kerb weight from the GVM means you only have 1,143kg of payload remaining. You then need to factor in all the weight carried in the vehicle. Start by subtracting the tow bar download of 170kg, which takes us down to 970kg of payload remaining.
Two average adult passengers each weigh 85kg, meaning we need to deduct 170kg, leaving 803kg of payload. Onboard gear, including a BBQ (15kg), charcoal (15kg), food (25kg), water (20kg) and clothing (30kg) takes us down to 698kg. Two mountain bikes take a further 30kg. An onboard toolbox weighs around 30kg, leaving 638kg. This gives the vehicle a GVM of 2,562kg.
Kerb weight (2,057kg) + payload (505kg) = Gross vehicle mass (2,562kg)
It is surprising how quickly the numbers add up. Throw in two kids and their stuff and a slightly larger caravan and you're starting to get quite close to the maximum weight your dual-cab will support. If you have a roof rack, side rails, additional spare wheels and bull bars, you'll also need to add these into the equation.
Now we need to think about the caravan. The 16-foot caravan has a tare weight of 1,795kg. When loaded with water, toilet fluids and other items, you may be looking at 2,200kg.
As mentioned, the Ford Ranger has a maximum gross combination mass (GCM) of 6,000kg. This is the total amount of operating weight between the vehicle's GVM and the weight of anything it is towing.
The GVM, in this case, is 2,562kg. The gross trailer mass is 2,200kg. Adding them together gives you a GCM of 4,762kg, which means we are within the maximum allowable amount as stated by the manufacturer (6,000kg).
The most accurate way to calculate your vehicle's mass is to head to a weighbridge. Load up your vehicle and caravan as though you're going on a trip.
At the weighbridge, determine your gross trailer mass (GTM) when hooked up to your tow vehicle. This figure needs to be within your caravan manufacturer's specs.
Next, weigh the loaded vehicle alone to determine the gross vehicle mass (GVM). Adding the GVM to the GTM will tell you your GCM. You should also weigh the unhitched caravan to find out the aggregate trailer mass to ensure you haven't exceeded the recommended weight.
A caravan dealer should be able to measure your tow ball download using some scales. It is important to load the caravan so it doesn't exceed the maximum rating for your tow ball as specified by the manufacturer.
It's a good idea to also weigh the mass imparted on each axle. The maximum allowable weight for a Ford Ranger front axle is 1,480kg. The rear axle can support 1,850kg. It is a good idea to use a weight distribution hitch to equalise the weight between two axles. This will raise the rear of the car and improve handling.
Caravan and trailer loading
Loading your caravan correctly is crucial to maintaining full control of your vehicle and making long distance driving comfortable and less tiring. The video below demonstrates the dramatic effect loading has on the handling of the tow vehicle.
Incorrectly loading your caravan can result in poor handling, an ABS system that doesn't operate correctly, increased fuel consumption and control problems.
Loading a caravan
Place heavy items down low, near the axle. You can place medium weight items slightly further away and lightweight items (like clothes) in lockers higher up and further from the axle. Proper loading will improve your caravan's resistance to swaying and snaking. It will also be more stable at speed and in crosswinds.
Maintaining your caravan
A caravan's weight will dramatically affect your car. If your caravan blows a tyre, you may have a job trying to keep things in a straight line. It's a good idea to keep your caravan well maintained before and during your trip.
Before leaving checklist
|Ensure the tow hitch and ball are the correct type and size. Check to ensure all pieces function and work as designed.||[ ]|
|Make sure the caravan is properly secured to the towing vehicle hitch.||[ ]|
|Make sure the safety chains are attached with load-rated shackles and that they do not hang low to the ground or become overly taught when turning.||[ ]|
|Make sure all lights are fully operational and that the electric hook-up is secure.||[ ]|
|Make sure the trailer brakes are serviced, fully working and not binding. Give them a low-speed test before leaving.||[ ]|
|Close and secure all caravan doors and windows.||[ ]|
|Make sure the caravan is properly loaded.||[ ]|
|Ensure the caravan and vehicle are not over any manufacturer specified weight limits (trailer and vehicle axle, trailer ball, gross vehicle mass, gross trailer mass and gross combination mass).||[ ]|
|Inspect vehicle fluid levels.||[ ]|
|Set tyres to proper pressures.||[ ]|
During your trip
|Take regular breaks. Towing a caravan requires full concentration.||[ ]|
|Check your fluid levels every few hours.||[ ]|
|Check your tyre pressures often.||[ ]|
|When travelling interstate, know the local laws on towing.||[ ]|
|Drive in a way that allows for the extra length, weight and size of your vehicle.||[ ]|
|Leave extra room between you and the car in front.||[ ]|
|Make controlled, smooth and gentle throttle/braking and steering inputs.||[ ]|
|Expect cross-winds on bridges, when overtaking larger vehicles and when travelling along flat plains. Slow down as needed.||[ ]|
|Avoid overcompensating if your caravan begins to sway. Instead, you should maintain your speed or increase it slightly. If you're having repeated problems with swaying, re-check how you've loaded your caravan.||[ ]|
|Use your gears on downhills to let engine braking control your vehicle's speed. This helps reduce brake fade or overheating.||[ ]|
|Allow more time for overtaking and manoeuvring in general.||[ ]|
|Have someone to guide you while reversing.||[ ]|
Towing rules and regulations
Towing laws vary from state to state and if you plan to travel interstate, you'll need to make sure you understand the local road rules. Trailer design specs are set out by a nationwide regulation, bulletin VSB1. Specifically, you need to be aware of the local speed limits placed on caravans.
Generally, you should ensure the following:
- Your vehicle and caravan are road worthy and legal.
- You're not over any weight limits, whether that be the tow bar hitch weight or the manufacturer's recommended weight limit.
- All loads need to be secured and locked down in transit.
- No one can travel in a caravan while it is in motion.
- You need to adjust your driving to accommodate towing the extra weight.
- You should take extra precautions and stop to inspect the vehicle for signs of overheating or failure.
Below we've compiled a list of each state's caravan road rules. We've also included a link to the relevant state government's caravan and trailer road rules.
ACT caravan towers can travel up to the speed limit, but not exceed 110km/h.
In the Northern Territories, caravan owners can travel up to the speed limit, but not exceed 110km/h.
Queensland specifies that caravan owners can travel up to the speed limit, but must not exceed 110km/h.
In South Australia, drivers who are towing must not exceed 110km/h or the prevailing speed limits.
Tasmania caravan haulers must observe a maximum towing speed of 100km/h.
When travelling in NSW with a caravan, drivers who are towing must not exceed 110km/h (or the speed limit for slower roads). If your gross vehicle mass (GVM) exceeds 4,500kg, you mustn't exceed 100km/h.
In Western Australia, you must not exceed the speed of 100km/h.
If towing a caravan in Victoria, you are able to travel up to a maximum of 110km/h where the speed limit allows.
Here are some abbreviations and definitions you should know:
- Tare Mass (or weight)
This is the total weight of your vehicle when empty (but including 10 litres of fuel).
- Kerb mass (or weight)
This is the total weight of your vehicle when empty (but including a full fuel tank). Excludes accessories like bull bars, roof racks, extra fuel tanks etc.
- Gross vehicle mass (GVM) or weight (GVW)
This is the maximum your vehicle can weigh when fully loaded. The owner's manual will contain this figure. It can also be located on a plate or sticker on the driver's door sill.
This is the maximum weight you can carry, as defined by your vehicle maker. You can also calculate this figure my subtracting the kerb mass from the GVM. That figure includes everything from passengers to luggage and the trailer ball download.
- Gross vehicle axle mass (or weight)
This is the maximum allowable weight that the vehicle's front and rear axle are certified for. Again, these figures will be written in the owner's manual. The figure will typically exceed the GVM, allowing for a margin of safety.
- Tare trailer mass (or weight)
This is the caravan's unladen (empty) weight. This weight excludes the weight of filled water tanks, onboard gas or toilet chemicals.
- Gross trailer mass (GTM) or weight
This is the maximum loaded weight of the trailer imparted on the trailer axle, when hooked up to the tow vehicle. This will be listed on a plate somewhere on the caravan, usually on the towing frame near the tow bar.
- Aggregate trailer mass (ATM)
This is the combined weight of the trailer and its payload when not coupled to the towing vehicle. Typically, this will be 4-500kg more than the tare weight.
- Gross combination mass (GCM) or weight (GCW)
This is the maximum weight of the tow vehicle and caravan added together, according to the car manufacturer.
- Tow bar download (TBD)
This is the amount of load a trailer or caravan places on the tow bar of the towing vehicle. The load varies depending on each trailer's frame length, load and axle positioning. Generally, this will be 10% of the maximum towing mass.