The age old question; is it better to travel Australia in a camper trailer, or a caravan? You’ll get people on either side of the argument who will swear black and blue that they are right. In the end, it comes down to your requirements, and trying to match those as best as possible to what you tow.
Before we start though, I’ll be completely honest with you; whether you buy a caravan or a camper trailer, it will not be the perfect arrangement. I guarantee it will let you down in one way or another. There is no perfect camping arrangement. The only thing you can do is get it as close as possible, and be able to accept the downsides of what ever way you go.
I also want to point out that the line between Caravan and Camper trailer is quickly becoming grey, with a lot of amazing designs out there that are hybrids. Camper trailers vary a lot too, and can’t always be brushed with the same stroke. You can get pop top camper trailers that are pretty much a small Expanda caravan. Do your research, take your time and find out all of the options, as there are more than ever available today.
Lets look at a few of the things that you should be considering
What can your tow vehicle tow?
The first, and most important factor, is to see what your tow vehicle can safely tow. You wouldn't be the first person to go out and buy a nice big caravan, only to realise your vehicle can’t legally tow it.
Here’s what you need to look at – maximum tow rating, maximum tow ball weight, vehicles GVM and GCM. Look carefully into all of these; you might be OK in the maximum tow rating department, but be over your vehicles GVM, thus rendering the whole setup illegal. I've written an easy to understand post about this - A simple towing guide for keeping your 4WD and trailer weight compliant.
What’s the price differences?
Camper trailers in general are substantially cheaper. That said some of the high end camper trailers cost all the way up to about 90 grand, and there are a lot of caravans cheaper than that.
I can’t decide your budget, so you need to work out what you can afford, what you are willing to spend and then narrow your search down to that. Soft floor camper trailers tend to be cheaper than hard floor, as do on road vans over off road vans.
Where are you planning on travelling?
Where you want to travel plays a huge role in what is going to suit best. If you plan on heading to the snow, or doing a lot of camping when its raining, there’s no doubt that a caravan is much easier. There’s no canvas to get wet, better insulation when its cold (or hot) and limited setup time while the rain is pouring down.
There’s no doubt that having no canvas is a benefit when its wet. Packing away wet canvas is not fun, and it can easily wet gear you don’t want wet (like your bed!)
On the flip side, if you want to explore the less beaten tracks, and head down narrow 4WD tracks then a Caravan is extremely limiting purely because of its physical dimensions.
Caravan parks, or free camping?
Whether you have a caravan or camper trailer, both of the above scenarios are more than possible providing you set the trailer up accordingly. If you plan on hopping from caravan park to caravan park with only the occasional free camp, then having everything setup with 240V power is fantastic; you pull in, connect the water and power and bobs your uncle.
On the other hand, if you want to stay off the grid, you need a good 12V system with quality batteries, solar (or generator), water supply and enough gear to make up for the lack of amenities at a caravan park.
A lot of Caravans and camper trailers are not equipped for long term off grid camping, so have a think about it before you put your money down.
Setup time and effort
Caravans will almost always win this battle, except for a few camper trailers that are very fast to set up. Most vans can be ready to sleep in (excluding levelling and unhooking) within a couple of minutes. There are some camper trailers that will rival this, but not very many.
Camper trailers often take more effort, or muscle to set up as well. Our soft floor has a stack of room, but its hard work getting it set up!
What luxuries do you ‘need’?
If you can’t travel without a shower and toilet, oven and microwave, you are limited to a select few camper trailers, or a caravan. These days, caravans are amazing; nicer than many homes in Australia, and if that’s what you want, go for it. That sort of finish is not found in too many camper trailers.
Number of beds required
Bedding will make or break your camping arrangement. Sleeping 6 people in a hard floor camper trailer is pretty hard to do, without a lot of extra mattresses, and another room setup.
There are many caravans that do this with ease.
There are very few camper trailers that have showers and toilets on board, ready to use without having to set something up. Caravans on the other hand will often have one or both, which does make travelling easier.
Hot water on demand is getting pretty common across both platforms (not the real cheap end of the scale) as is diesel heating, electric water pumps and lots of electrical outlets.
How much gear do you take?
This is a very, very important thing to consider. Every trailer has a ‘payload’; the amount of weight you can add to the trailer before it is overweight. To work it out, remove the Tare mass from the ATM.
A lot of caravans have a payload of about 300 – 400kg, which is absolutely ridiculous. All the cupboard space in the world, and no payload there to use it. Think about all of the weight you add; gas in the bottles, full water tanks, pots, pans, food, clothing, bedding and the list goes on. Very quickly you’ll fill the 300kg up, and then its game over!
You can look into getting this increased through the manufacturer (this is the easiest way) or an engineer, but it can be time consuming, costly and frustrating.
Camper trailers also have the same limitations, although many of them have a much higher payload. If you want to take a boat, outboard, 200L of water, bikes and a whole heap of other gear, you need a caravan or camper trailer that is designed to do it.
Travel overweight and you risk getting a nice big fine, as well as voiding your insurance if you have an accident.
Off road ability
There’s no doubt that a light weight, small trailer is much less limiting than a big, heavy caravan. The most impractical part of a van is their physical dimensions; trying to tow a van down many 4WD tracks is impossible because they physically wont fit in height, and in width.
Beyond that though, trying to tow anything that weighs over about 1.5 – 2 tonnes on a soft beach is nigh on impossible, even with a nice, powerful 4WD. The heavier the trailer, the harder it is to go off road, and therefore, the less far off road you go!
If it fits, and you don't get stuck, you can just about tow a van anywhere but it is much harder than a smaller trailer.
Length is also a huge issue; ever wondered why so many full off road vans are hugely off the ground? It's because they need to be that tall to get any reasonable entry and departure angles. A longer trailer also makes it extremely difficult in tight tracks.
There are a lot of easier setup and more luxurious 'camper trailers', like the pop tops, but they are only suitable for light duty off road tracks. If you really want to smash a trailer around, you need to look for something different.
Again, the bigger the trailer, and the heavier the trailer, the more fuel you are going to use. It’s simple physics. People towing big vans either suck it up and drive at 100km/h, or try and mitigate some of their costs by doing 80 or 90km/h.
A diesel 4WD that does about 9L per hundred kilometres around town without towing will use around 15 – 22L/100km doing 90 – 100km/h and towing a big caravan.
With the same token, a small, light weight camper trailer will create much less wind drag, and weighs a heap less, so your fuel consumption is much, much better. Add this up over a lap of the country and you might be surprised at how much extra it costs!
Protection from the elements
There's no doubt that a Caravan is a much nicer place to be when it comes to rain and wind. You have a much better barrier between you than a camper trailer, which is just canvas. When its hot, the caravan is pleasant to be in, and when its cold the caravan stays much warmer too.
The moment you shut your door, you are in an insulated, water tight box. You can't say the same for a camper trailer!
Eventually, you'll have to park your trailer up for a while. You'd never fit a Caravan on our block, and many people have similar restrictions. Whether its space, height or shire requirements, storing a caravan is much harder than a camper trailer.
In general, caravans are more secure than camper trailers. It's nice to be able to lock your doors at night in a caravan knowing that for someone to get in they really have to break something. A camper trailer is a bit easier to get into, especially if it is canvas.
Pick better access or better comfort
Ultimately, this is the choice. You either have less comfort and a wider range of spots to stay at, or you have more comfort and less access. You pick your poison; you can't have both.
To make life even more complicated, if you want the luxury of a high end camper trailer, you have to pay for it!
What do we travel in?
For now, our compromise is a relatively cheap soft floor, Australian made camper trailer. It's got lots of room, takes plenty of water and solar, weighs very little and will follow us anywhere we want to go.
It'd be nice to have a few more luxuries, but we don't want to sacrifice the financial commitment at the moment, and are not willing to reduce our accessibility to remote beaches and amazing destinations by getting something bigger and heavier.
In a few years we will no doubt move to a hybrid, but with a young kid (and another due very shortly) its not practical.
What do you reckon? Is a caravan better than a camper trailer?