The ultimate guide to using a caravan or camper trailer
If you are looking into the caravan or camper trailer space, and hoping to get something for yourself, congratulations. It opens up a whole new world of comfort, entertainment and adventure.
However, there’s a lot to learn, and in this ultimate guide we cover absolutely everything you need to know from how to buy the right setup, trailer weights, dealing with grey water, towing mirrors, maximum speeds, servicing your trailer and the list goes on and on.
Buy a setup that suits you
I cannot stress this point more. Before you lay down your hard earned cash, make sure the setup suits you. It doesn’t have to be the same as your best friends, or your neighbours, or your uncles best mate. It has to suit you. Some people love having a caravan, and for others its the worst possible setup.
The right setup goes where you want it to, can be legally towed (which many people don’t get right) by your vehicle, gives you the level of comfort you need and essentially fits your criteria as best as possible.
This will always be a compromise; there is no perfect setup out there, and what ever you buy will have drawbacks in one area or another. Find out what they are, and determine if you are happy to live with them.
Don’t buy anything without doing significant research behind whether its going to suit your requirements. Our primary advice would be to hire a unit similar to what you are going to buy for the weekend or longer, and see how it goes in real life.
If you are in the market for a camper trailer, we’ve written the ultimate guide to buying a camper trailer. This covers soft floors, hard floors, Chinese vs Australian made and heaps more.
If you are in the market for a hybrid caravan, we’ve written the ultimate guide to buying a hybrid camper. This goes into weights, storage, Chinese vs Australian, quality of components, what you are using the trailer for and heaps more.
If you are in the market for a caravan, we’ve also written the ultimate guide to buying a caravan!
Again, before you lay your money down you need to be completely certain about trailer weights. This is a topic I’ve been passionate about sharing for many years now, and it goes well beyond understanding what GVM and GCM are (but that’s a good start). I would take a punt and say at least 50% of those towing heavy trailers on the road are not legal in one way or another, because they are overweight.
There are 7 categories that you need to comply with, and if you are over on any of them, you are not legal. If this is the case and you have an accident your insurance can decline or reduce your claim, and you can even be criminally liable if you hurt or kill someone.
You need to avoid being in this situation, and with a clearly written post you can easily understand the requirements, and check your own vehicle. Lucky for you, we have that guide; A simple towing guide to keep you legal.
Next, its critical that you get your load distribution right. Just as Dual Cab Utes were never intended to have all of their load past the rear axle (or you can get a bent chassis) when towing a camper trailer or caravan you need to have good load distribution.
This means you have the majority of heavy weight down low, close to the axles and the correct tow ball weight. If you have under 5% tow ball weight you are probably pushing the friendship, and if its over 15% you are likely to break something. Despite what people say, you don’t need exactly 10% tow ball weight, but its become the go to figure over the years.
There’s a lot of people on the road who should have towing mirrors and don’t. If you haven’t heard of them before, they are essentially mirrors that stick out further on your vehicle, and allow you to see behind your van.
There’s no grey area with towing mirrors. You either need them, or you don’t. This depends on the vehicle and trailer width, and how much your factory mirrors stick out. Put simply, if you stick a tape measure through the driver and passengers door, it needs to be a wider measurement to the outer edge of the mirrors than the width of your trailer.
If its wider, you’ll be able to see behind your van, and that is necessary for safe travel, and a roadworthy requirement. You can, and will get fined for not having towing mirrors when you should have them, and it makes everyone else around you even more frustrated.
There’s a range of towing mirrors on the market from full replacements through to extension mirrors, clip on mirrors and the list goes on.
Understand the essentials of towing
There’s a myriad of items that you should know before towing something. Many are taken for granted for those that have been doing it for years, but if you are new to this you need to learn the below before you take off on a trip!
Hooking up and detaching
Attaching your trailer to your tow vehicle correctly, and then detaching it when you get to camp, or back home is critical. Do you know how to lock the tow ball in its down position, and why you cross trailer chains, and where your Anderson plug goes in?
Do you understand what is needed if you run a 3 way fridge in terms of turning the gas off, and swapping over to 12V? If you run weight distribution bars, do you know how to set them up? Is the hitch at the right height to keep your towing setup level? If its not, you might be able to flip your hitch.
Changing a flat tyre
I read a post this morning from a family who headed off on a big trip, and when they pulled up for lunch found they had blown a tyre on the van and were completely unaware. They jumped on the phone to RAC, and had someone come out to replace the tyre.
That person was getting hammered online for not knowing how to change a tyre on their van, and if we are honest I don’t think they had the gear to do it either. You should know how to change a tyre, and you should have the gear to do so on your own. Australia is a big place and waiting for someone to come from hundreds of kilometres away isn’t a feasible strategy.
You don’t need to know how to swap suspension out, or do anything overly complicated, but replacing a tyre should be knowledge you have before you head off.
How do your brakes work?
Anything over 750kg will have brakes, and if they are electric you should know how to use them, what settings to have them on and how to engage them in an emergency. Countless caravan roll overs can be avoided if people engage their van brakes using a brake controller.
Towing works your vehicle much harder. This is amplified as the size and weight of your trailer grows, but its not uncommon for a vehicle towing a big, heavy trailer to be working twice as hard as not towing.
This means that your vehicle needs to be in excellent health, or you will do expensive damage. Maintain a good service history, replace parts that are on their way out and ensure that you have a good set of tyres.
If you run an automatic transmission, its a really good idea to monitor the temperature of the oil and fit an automatic transmission cooler if its getting warm. Some come as a factory fitment, but many do not. This is all part of caring for your automatic transmission, as they can be somewhere between $6000 and $20,000 for a new gearbox, and they fail quickly when they get hot!
Speeds to travel at
When you are towing a trailer, there are often different speed limits. In WA, you cannot exceed 100km/h if you are towing. The regular maximum speed limit is 110km/h which means there is a difference.
Some caravan owners have a habit of sitting on 80 or 90km/h, which helps to conserve fuel and they don’t mind the delay in arriving somewhere. The issue arises when a huge line of traffic builds up behind the caravan, and eventually creates a safety hazard.
If you are going under the speed limit, you should be keeping an eye on who is behind you, and allowing them to pass as safely and easily as possible.
There is nothing worse than someone towing who does inconsistent speeds, especially when it comes to speeding up at an overtaking lane. If you want to really upset people, change your speeds often and speed up in the overtaking lane.
Please remember that there are commercial drivers on the road too. Many of these are on the clock, and cannot be behind the wheel for more than a certain number of hours a day due to fatigue. They earn their livelihood transporting items all over the country, and when you make it hard to do their job you will cop abuse.
Remembering your new size
The moment you hook a trailer up behind your tow vehicle, you need to be very aware of your new size, and how it handles. This applies for everything from parking to overtaking, and reversing into a caravan site.
Caravans in particular are significantly larger than many of their tow vehicles, which means they are much more likely to hit a tree branch, or back into something. Trailers also follow in a slightly different ark to your vehicle, so if you cut a corner expect to have your trailer cut it even more, and do damage.
When you pull into a fuel station, or are driving in tighter areas remember the height of your trailer, and that it will swing differently to your car. I’ve seen people enter too tightly without taking a wider arc and end up with their van pressed hard up against a bollard, or sometimes even stuck inside a bollard with the rear of the van!
If you are going off road this issue is amplified much more, as any minor change in angle of the ground makes your 3.3 metre van lean over significantly, and damage is so much easier to do. Start slow, in bigger areas and you’ll eventually get familiar with your trailer.
Where can you stay?
So, you’ve got yourself a new home on wheels and you want to find places to stay? Most people start off at Caravan Parks, and when you are comfortable you can branch out to low cost, national park and free camps. To do these, you need a certain level of self sufficiency, and you need to meet the requirements of each camp site.
Some will require you to be completely self sufficient, including the collection of your grey water, supplying your own toilet and leaving no trace.
A great place to start is to download Wikicamps. You’ll get 14 days free, then its about $10 for a lifetime membership. It will pay for itself 100 times over, and make your travelling much easier and more enjoyable.
You aren’t allowed to camp in a huge number of places in Australia, and you will get fined for doing so. Find a legal place to stop, follow the rules and leave it pristine for the next people to enjoy.
Do you need to collect your grey water?
If there’s a topic that’s going to start a debate, its around grey water. This is the water that you generate from washing dishes, having a shower and cleaning your hands. Its basically any water that you use that does not end up down the toilet.
Traditionally, you’d just let it run out onto the ground in a responsible way, but there’s more and more talk about collecting it and disposing of it in a different way.
The ultimate conclusion is that every camp site is different, and will have different ways they want you to deal with it. In our experience, 95% of camp sites are fine with you responsibly disposing your grey water directly onto the ground near some vegetation, or down the drain in a caravan park.
There are a few overnight stays and random camp sites that require you to contain your grey water, but they are few and far between. What makes it even harder is that some require a fixed grey water tank, so you can’t even take a portable unit with you.
Where can you empty grey water and toilet waste?
Eventually (and often quite quickly) you’ll fill your toilets up, and grey water tanks (if you have them). Australia has a fantastic setup with dump points all over the place, and you should be dumping your toilet waste into these. They have blue lids, and normally have a hose for you to rinse your toilet cassette and clean up.
Grey water that has been stored for more than 24 hours should also be dumped down here, or down a designated grey water dump point. Alternatively, where can you empty grey water?
You’ll find these dump points on Wikicamps all over Australia.
Where can you fill water tanks up?
If you’ve never lived off grid before, you’ll very quickly learn that water is extremely precious and you cannot live like you do at home. If you do, your water tanks will be empty in a couple of nights and you’ll be driving around looking for somewhere to fill up.
You can fill your water tanks up at a huge number of places; caravan parks, fuel stations, private properties, shire run camp sites and paid (or free) water filling stations. The only thing you need to do is ensure the water is potable (drinkable) and you have permission to take it.
Yes, you can get anti tamper keys that will allow you to take water from anywhere, but are you actually allowed to take the water, or are you stealing? Keen to know more? Where can you fill water tanks up on the road?
Caravan and camper servicing
Like vehicles, your caravan and camper trailer needs regular servicing. For the most part, its just wheel bearings, brake and suspension adjustments, but you may need to have hot water units serviced, replace batteries and solar panels and the list goes on. Find yourself a reputable caravan repair place, or if you are competent some of it can be done DIY.
Like anything, if you look after it, then it will look after you. Don’t be the person that is on the side of the road waiting for a tow truck because their wheel bearings failed on the annual trip south and you haven’t serviced them in 5 years!
How old are your tyres?
Tyre age is one of the more neglected topics when it comes to trailers, and its hugely important. At the end of the day the only thing keeping your trailer on the ground is a few small patches of rubber. This rubber needs to be decent quality, rated for the weight of your trailer and most importantly not too old.
I’ve seen people with Caravans running tyres that are 15 years old, and often they’ve sat outside for the entire duration too. Tyres deteriorate with age, and if you have tyres on your caravan or camper trailer that are older than 5 – 7 years you should be getting them swapped out.
Planning your trip
We live in the best country in the world when it comes to planning a caravanning or camping trip. There are more camp sites around the place than you could explore in a lifetime, and so many world class destinations you can check out for the day.
Again, Wikicamps gets a mention here, closely followed by Facebook and other social media. Join the groups that discuss travel and camping for each region and you’ll be blown away by the opportunities that present themselves.
Where to refill gas
Inevitably, your gas bottles will run out and you’ll have to either fill them up, or swap them out. You generally have two options. If you own your gas bottles, you can take them to a location that will refill them, pay the money and wait for it to be done.
Gas bottle refilling is easy in the major cities, but once you head more remote it becomes significantly more difficult, and costly. Our gas bottle tends to last about a month, so once you run one out, you start planning for where you are going to fill it back up again.
The alternative, like we have is to use the swap n go options, which Caltex service stations, Bunnings and a whole heap of other places have. You simply take your empty bottle in, and exchange it for another full bottle. There are pro’s and con’s to both methods, and you’ll have to work out what serves you best. Want to know more? Check out the post we wrote on Gas bottle refills.
What battery system and solar do you need?
One of the most common caravanning questions today relates to battery size, and number of solar panels needed. This will vary hugely depending on what you want to run.
You can have a simple 100 amp hour lead acid battery and an 80W solar panel that will run your lights and water pump, or you can spend upwards of 15k on batteries, solar and an inverter and be able to run microwaves, toasters and even a caravan air conditioner for a couple of hours a day.
We’ve got a heap of articles that go into this in more detail, so we’ll leave this section short.
How to run 240V appliances when camping
What’s the best Caravan Battery System?
Solar panels vs solar blankets
Maintaining battery health
Sizing your battery bank correctly will result in a long, happy life of your batteries, and no stress on your part. If you get it wrong, they’ll get hammered and you’ll have a short battery life, and a lot more stress trying to balance consumption against battery health.
If you have a traditional lead acid battery, its important that you don’t run them too flat, or you reduce their lifespan dramatically. Lithium batteries are more forgiving, but still have their limitations. You can read more about this here; are you damaging your 12V batteries?
3 way vs compressor fridge
Traditionally, 3 way fridges have always been the most common in caravans, with camper trailers and 4WD’s mainly using a 12V only, compressor fridge. Today, you can get 12V caravan fridges that don’t have the option of running on gas, and a lot of people are moving to them.
If you have a decent off grid setup you can ditch the 3 way fridge and run a straight compressor one, but if you don’t, stick with the 3 way. They are generally not as good in terms of performance, but they run on the smell of an oily rag, and if you operate them correctly they’ll do a decent job.
Make sure your destination and season matches your setup
When you head off, its wise to match your destination and season together. For example, the Kimberley is best explored between late April and the end of August. You can visit outside of this, but it will be hot, potentially raining and with the chance of a cyclone coming through.
Likewise, if you head to the bottom of Australia in the middle of winter expect it to be freezing, and not the weather you want for jumping in the ocean for a swim! There is some flexibility here, but if you get it wrong it will be unpleasant.
Wind is another factor that a lot of people forget about, and especially on the West Coast, its important to pick your timing for each destination. It can be seriously windy in any month that doesn’t have an R in it, especially further north. The best times for the WA coast are May, June, July and August, and you’ll find these anomalies all over the country; so take the time to find when the best time to visit is.
Taking your caravan or camper trailer off road
In our opinion, the best places in Australia need a 4WD to get you there (in general). If you are buying something with the intention of taking it off road, it needs to suit the terrain you want to go on, and you have to get used to towing it off the bitumen.
From there, you need to be on the ball about its actual capacity, size and what can go wrong. The first time we took our folks van off road nearly every single cupboard handle rattled loose, and we opened the van to see a million handles rolling around on the floor.
Start small, get used to it and pay attention to how the trailer is going. You should have your tyres deflated accordingly, sit at a suitable speed and show some mechanical sympathy.
Don’t over think, and just enjoy it
It’s really easy to get stressed out using a caravan or camper trailer. Take a breath, slow down and enjoy what you are doing. Life when you are camping and travelling should be a slower pace, and if you are stressing over little things you won’t enjoy it.
Book what you need to, and leave some room for adventure and finding random places; they are often the most enjoyed.
What have we missed? Do you love heading away in your caravan or camper trailer? We do, and can’t wait to head off on a big lap of Australia!