Happy father and daughter on a field next to a caravan
Vehicles

A beginner’s guide to caravans

What to look for in a modern caravan and what makes a good tow vehicle.

By Shell on Dec. 14, 2021

With international travel still in flux and local accommodation options booked out for months, now is the perfect time to be hitching a caravan onto the family car and exploring this great backyard called Australia. But before you join the record numbers of Aussies hitting the open road, you have a bit of caravan research ahead of you. First you need to get to grips with the range of sizes, layouts, construction styles and features on offer. Then something even tougher – reconciling it all with your personal requirements, wishes and budget. Not sure where to start? Here are five things to think about before you start shopping.

1. Size and layout

The key question – how many people do you intend to accommodate? Most Australian buyers tend to shop in the volume 6m-van segment and this size of van generally offers enough room for a smaller family or couple and for today's mandatory comforts. But if you've got a larger family, or are a solo traveller, you'll need to look up or down the size range.

At the bottom of the range, a small pop-top could save you a bundle if you can live without a toilet, shower and other space-eating luxuries. Spend up on a large model with slide-out sections and you'll be getting the proverbial home away from home, along with a greater choice of internal layouts, core features and other details.

2. On-road or off?

Do you intend to venture off the tarmac? If so, an off-road van's heavy-duty suspension and underbody protection could justify its extra cost. The best models will also throw in bigger water tanks, sophisticated solar/battery systems and other features for true off-grid living.

3. Suspension

More basic vans still use a time-honoured leaf-spring arrangement, but off-road vans and a growing array of on-road models will have a smoother-riding trailing-arm setup. Air suspension is also now widely available, offering an even gentler journey and ride-height adjustability. Even if you're not heading off-road, the long-term benefits of not shaking your caravan to pieces on rough surfaces can justify the added initial cost.

4. Construction

Many vans still use a traditional aluminium/timber-framed construction, but a growing number have one-piece walls, roof and floor made from a composite 'sandwich' material. While often costlier and more susceptible to age-related yellowing without polishing/protection products, composite vans offer better insulation from the elements and are less prone to leaks and long-term rotting issues.

5. Features

Beyond size, the cost of a van is closely related to the amount of core features it packs. A smaller van in the entry-level sub-$50,000 realm will typically offer sleeping for up to four, a kitchen, dinette, shower and toilet, but little in the way of luxury. Spend closer to $75,000 on a family-sized van and you can expect roomier individual spaces, heating, cooling, TV and other trinkets. Start looking at $100,000-plus top-of-the-line vans and full kitchens, washing machines, trick solar/battery setups, the best suspension systems and safety gizmos like electronic trailer-sway control come into the frame.

What makes a good tow vehicle?

Your first port of call is to check your vehicle’s owners’ manual – that will tell you the maximum amount of weight you can tow. If you drive a large, diesel 4WD, it’s probably going to be good news. Why? Because towing ability is directly related to vehicle power, weight and traction, and your car's hefty mass should equal an above-average maximum towing capacity. That means the strong low-rev power of your diesel engine and all-wheel-drive traction will not only allow you to tow the heaviest caravans legally, but do it easily and safely in all conditions.

Small, front-wheel-drive petrol cars are the least naturally effective for the task because their weight limits towing capacity, they tend to develop power higher in the rev range and the extra weight at the back deprives the front wheels of traction, limiting their abilities on unsealed or slippery surfaces.

Rear-drive cars fall into the middle, tending to be bigger, heavier and more powerful than your average front-drive and also having their traction enhanced by the weight on the back.

Disclaimer

Viva Energy Australia Pty Ltd (“Viva Energy”) has compiled the above article for your general information and to use as a general reference. Whilst all reasonable care has been taken by Viva Energy in compiling this article, Viva Energy does not warrant or represent that the information in the article is free from errors or omissions or is suitable for your intended use.