How to join the nomad brigade
Caravan, motorhome or camper? Here's how to choose your home on wheels, and an essential pre-trip checklist for nomadic holiday-making.
There are essentially three types of nomads roaming Australia’s wide brown land: the caravan cruiser, the motorhome expeditioner, and the adventure camper.
There are traps for all players but it is important to first decide which group you fit into.
And just remember that, unlike camping shows typically filmed in the loveliest conditions, your expedition might encounter an elemental mixed bag. That outdoor barbecue that slides out from a canvas pop-top won’t look so pretty in a gale force wind or tropical downpour.
The vision: Caravanners envisage gently exploring the land towing something that resembles a miniature version of their house. The goal is to set up their replication of suburbia in various idyllic locations and to then have the freedom of their tow car for short trips exploring or going to the shops.
Reality check: There is a risk of falling into a herd mentality, travelling in packs and at peak times being squeezed into uncomfortable proximity in cattle yards purported to be caravan parks.
The vision: Motorhomes generally appeal to those who like the fitted-out cabin nature of a caravan and to drivers comfortable with larger vehicles, but who dislike the length and manoeuvrability of an articulated (towed) trailer.
Reality check: Space is compromised by the driveline while larger ones are typically only suitable for good roads. Like a snail, everything you have is on your back and goes everywhere you do. A sub-group of smaller off-road 4x4 and slide-on campers typically suit the camper trailer buyer, but with less set-up complexity and no towing.
The vision: Camper trailers are for those who traditionally enjoyed the basic life-under-canvas approach and lugged a tent to remote bush or beach campsites. Only now the camper is a small, garden-sized trailer, sitting neatly folded ready to be flipped open in seconds and deliver such things as a hard floor and slide-out drawers with inbuilt cooking facilities, sinks and storage.
Reality check: Some don’t just pop out, but require poles and guy-rope set-up, and as with a tent you’re more exposed to the weather. Adventure campers travelling the outback need a trailer built for 4x4 or off-road conditions.
CHOOSING YOUR HOME ON WHEELS
Why you would
Choosing a caravan allows you to free up your everyday vehicle when the van is set up in a park.
They typically have everything you want already in place. You can pull up whenever the mood takes you for a cuppa or a snooze on a bed that’s already made up.
Modern vans can provide every comfort, from a hot shower or a toilet to independent solar/battery power for sustained off-grid remote camping, and of course there is a variety of high-riding heavy-duty chassis or off-road 4x4 versions.
Why you mightn't
It is tempting to seek out the most accommodating and comfortable van you can afford, but size and weight are your enemy.
Check your tow vehicle's capability and suitability before you buy a van. (Travellers stopped and checked interstate have had to leave their vans until they return with an appropriate tow vehicle.)
The vehicle’s maximum towable weight, provided by the manufacturer, must not be exceeded and this means when the van is fully loaded for a trip with full water tanks and gas bottles. Put the van over a weighbridge when loaded and allow a margin for things you may acquire.
Also check the manufacturer’s specified tow ball load – the weight pressing down on the tow ball. Some vehicles, mostly European, have a particularly light tow ball load which is not compatible with large Australian vans. There should be a load rating plaque on the vehicle tow bar and on the van draw bar.
Why you would
Most of the advantages of a caravan, in terms of permanent accommodation set-up and the ability to stop and relax at will, also come with a motorhome. Some drivers want to avoid towing, and the sense of driving your kitchen, lounge and bedroom wherever you want extends from the humble VW Kombi pop-top to the latest Mercedes van.
Why you mightn't
If you own anything larger than a VW Kombi or Toyota Troopy, you’re unlikely to use it as a daily drive and it will sit for much of the year while you incur the costs of owning and driving two vehicles.
Even the largest motorhome won’t provide the space of a similarly sized caravan because of the engine and driveline, and potential overloading is always an issue.
Smaller motorhomes and 4x4s with pop-tops are easily damaged in strong winds and buyers need to think about access to the camper in bad weather. Can you slide into a ready-made bed to ride out a storm?
Sub category: slide-on campers
There is an appealing selection of self-contained campers, like mini caravans, that slide on to the tray of a 4x4. They are relatively low cost and you can free up the vehicle by leaving the slide-on standing on extendable legs when not required.
The principal issue here is weight. Most fully loaded slide-on campers will take the vehicle close to or beyond its manufacturer’s stipulated gross vehicle mass, which usually means upgrading the suspension.
Why you would
Small, lightweight camper trailers are also an appealing option for the more traditional style of touring and camping under canvas.
They’re typically a cheaper option, are easy to tow, handle and store, and the latest versions have clever design features for simple erecting or folding, along with integrated cooking, washing and clever storage facilities.
Why you mightn't
Because they include a trailer and are fully fitted out they’re a little more expensive than might be expected.
Depending on the design, on the road you won’t have instant access for a quick cuppa or a nap.
Despite modern design convenience, set-up can be complex, and you’re still living under canvas which makes weather more of a factor.
Maximum tow weight
- Aggregate Towing Mass (ATM) is the vehicle manufacturer’s maximum trailer weight specification. Find it in the handbook.
- Check on a weighbridge while fully loaded.
Maximum tow ball load
- This is the vehicle manufacturer’s specification. Check with the manufacturer.
Safety chains and D-shackles
- Safety (or breakaway) chains are load rated and supplied with the trailer. Owners must ensure the attaching D-shackles are stamped with a load rating at least equal to the chain.
- A specification and load rating plaque is mandatory on both the trailer and the vehicle tow bar. They show the maximum working limits of the trailer and hitch, and may be checked on the road by authorities.
- VicRoads advises that a normal driver’s licence applies for caravans and motorhomes up to 4.5 tonnes. Above that weight a driver requires a heavy vehicle licence.
So, now all you need to do is, check your tyres for loaded pressures, load rating, age and tread depth. Think about balance as you load the vehicle and trailer, check your trailer brakes and lights are working, pack the mosquito repellent and sunscreen and away you go!
The author of this article, RACV vehicles program leader Ernest Litera, travelled Australia with his wife and two children in a VW Kombi pop-top in the 1990s. The three things he insists on in a mobile home are:
- The ability to stop and make a cuppa without any set-up other than a pop-top.
- A bed that is always made up and doesn’t require reconfiguring tables, benches or linen.
- Room to stand up to dress, and comfortable access to the camper in bad weather.