Caravan Buying Guide | Top 10 Buying Tips
Whether you are buying brand new, second hand or building your own, educating yourself on the basics of caravanning will take the guess work out of acquiring the right caravan for you.
Safety of yourself, your occupants and other people on the road whilst travelling is the main reason to arm yourself with the correct information before buying a caravan. Knowing a few simple tips could also save you thousands of dollars worth of upgrades or modifications down the track.
1) What is your Tow Vehicle Capacity?
It’s not uncommon for your standard family car to be considered under rated, unsafe or even illegal to tow the new caravan you want to purchase. Knowing your tow vehicle capacity or tow rating will help you decide what fully loaded weight caravan you can safely and legally tow.
When you know your tow vehicle rating/capacity, think very carefully against about buying a caravan very close to your maximum allowable towing weight rating as there are a lot of variables that can easily overload you or even de-rate/reduce the specified tow vehicle rating, this can unintentionally put you into the ‘illegal and unsafe’ zone.
The ATM (Aggregate Trailer Mass) is the total weight in kilograms of a fully loaded caravan. The maximum ATM of a caravan is set by the caravan manufacturer and is stamped on your caravans identification plate. To be safe make sure your cars tow rating is at least rated more than the ATM of your caravan.
Think of the extra possible weight (luggage, fuel, camping gear, caravan accessories, bike racks and tool boxes etc) thrown into or attached to your caravan whilst travelling, this could add up to hundreds of kilos and must be considered to comply with the maximum ATM (Aggregate Trailer Mass) of your caravan and maximum GCM (Gross Combined Mass) rating.
The GCM (Gross Combined Mass) can be found in the tow vehicles specifications handbook. This is the maximum total weight of your car and caravan combined and is set by the vehicle manufacturer.
Any extra weight applied to your stock standard car (roof racks, camping gear, boot luggage, extra spare tyres and even passengers) is added to the overall GCM which can potentially reduce the tow rating, be sure to check the vehicle specifications. As a general rule of thumb, the heavier you make your tow vehicle the less you can legally tow. Exceeding the ATM or GCM can make towing unsafe and void insurance and manufacturer’s warranty.
One last little thing to make it just a little more confusing but is also important. GVM is the Gross Vehicle Mass of your tow vehicle, this weight rating also cannot be exceeded to start with and would be wise to check before even looking at your GCM for safety, insurance and warranty reasons - check the manufacturer’s specifications.
2) What is your Tow Ball Mass and Tow Ball Weight Rating?
Tow Ball Mass is the physical downward weight your caravan puts onto your tow ball when connected. As a general rule of thumb for safe towing, a minimum 10% of your total caravan weight (ATM) should be on your tow ball. (Unless otherwise specified by manufacturer)
Correctly distributing your caravan weight allows for safe towing. Having less than 10% of your caravans ATM as tow ball mass is the major cause of uncontrollable caravan swaying.
Common causes of insufficient tow ball mass are simply by loading too much gear/weight at the rear of your caravan and mismatched height between car and caravan at the hitch point, both of which cause your caravan to ride ‘nose up’ increasing the ability to sway uncontrollably.
Tow Ball Weight refers to the horizontal pull rating of your tow ball. Make sure you check the tow ball weight rating of your tow ball that is already fitted to your vehicle, this is not always rated to match your vehicles maximum towing capacity. For Example: 2.5 tonne rated tow balls are commonly fitted to 3.5 tonne rated vehicles – be sure to check.
3) What Terrain are you taking your caravan over?
Knowing what terrain you will be driving on will determine the suspension setup. You basically have the choice of On-Road or Off-Road type suspension with all single axle caravans. Tandem axle caravans offer On-Road, Semi Off-Road and Off-Road type suspension.
Generally means non-independent and non-load sharing which is ok for a smooth ride on sealed bitumen roads. Great for touring the main ‘on the map’ destinations of Australia where Caravan Park hopping is the plan of attack for your trip. The most cost effective suspension but the capabilities are limited. Do not attempt to take an On-Road setup Off-Road - they are simply not designed to handle the varying and often corrugated Off-Road conditions. If your caravan has standard On-Road suspension from factory, then chances are the rest of your caravan may also not be designed or structurally sound enough to handle these conditions either. (Corrugated roads are a killer for On-Road setup caravans with this suspension due to the minimal resistance to vibrations and uncontrollable swaying)
A common example of On-Road, non-independent, non-load sharing is the traditional Beam Axle suspension.
For tandem axles only that generally have either load sharing or independent capabilities, but not both. It is important to identify what capabilities your Semi Off-Road suspension is designed for. Independent acting suspension is what helps your caravan track behind you, minimising the uncontrollable swaying and vibration, especially on corrugated roads. Load sharing suspension helps to spread the load evenly between the tandem axles when manoeuvring over larger dips and humps which helps prevent suspension component failure caused by overloading. (Common caravan park speed bumps can temporarily overload one axle at a time without load sharing capabilities).
Below is an example of Semi Off-Road, load sharing only suspension (not independent). Although load sharing, the extent of load sharing can be limited as demonstrated in the second picture.
Below is an example of Semi Off-Road, independent only suspension (not load sharing).
Fully independent and load sharing suspension is what is classed as Off-Road suspension. Independent means your caravan will track better through corrugations while minimising vibrations. Load sharing enables your caravan to safe and effectively manoeuvre over large dips and humps like speed bumps without overloading your axles.
Below is an example of Full Off-Road, independent and load sharing suspension.
Shock absorbers can be fitted to nearly all suspension types to help cushion the impact of sharp dips and bumps which also helps to track your caravan and minimise vibrations (Simplicity suspension may not need shock absorbers due to the reverse spring, independent and load sharing design). The addition of shock absorbers will help improve the overall performance of your suspension, but only for the conditions your suspension is capable of, or designed for in the first place. Adding new or beefing up the existing shock absorbers will improve, but generally will not allow you to take your On-Road suspension Off-Road.
4) Free Camping or Powered Caravan Park Sites?
Knowing whether you are free camping or having the convenience of a powered caravan park site or both, will determine the lay out and configuration of your caravan.
Powered Caravan Park Sites
This option gives you the most variety of choice with choosing a caravan as you don’t necessarily have to be self-sufficient. Toilets, showers, laundry facilities, electricity, BBQ’s, internet, TV reception and running water can all be provided depending on the caravan park. The most basic of caravan setups can still provide a great holiday providing the daily caravan park site fees fit within your budget.
The longer you travel the more savings and freedom you get with free camping as you are not spending your money on caravan park site fees. The catch is you must be correctly setup to enjoy the same conveniences of a caravan park which can come at a considerable initial expense.
More thought and consideration is required of your caravan layout to include the space for the use and storage of your utilities and appliances.
Things to consider:
Electricity will require the provision for solar panels and batteries fitted and/or possibly a generator depending on your requirements. Toilet, shower and kitchen will require water tanks and pumps installed. A Satellite for TV reception and a BBQ, grill or stove/oven for cooking, not to mention the washing machine and dryer for the complete free camping setup.
Of course all of these things can already be installed when purchasing your caravan, it’s just a matter of working out what things are considered important to you and your family and having the correct information to make an informed choice when buying your caravan.
5) Size of Your Caravan
There are a lot of things to consider when determining the size of your caravan.
Size/capacity of tow vehicle.
Number of people to sleep.
The need for space invading utilities: shower, toilet, kitchen etc.
The need for space invading appliances: TV, washing machine, microwave etc.
The height of caravan for storage in a home garage.
Fuel economy in general - the smaller, lower and lighter your caravan, the better for your towing vehicle fuel economy.
Ease of towing.
General living convenience.
Quality of construction and its weight.
Generally when choosing the size of a caravan, there is almost always a compromise. It is best to work out what you can’t change or control (like the minimum number of beds or the maximum height to fit in garage) as it will quickly form a platform to base your decisions.
By writing down your ‘necessities’ followed by your ‘nice to haves’ you will be surprised how narrow the choice of caravans becomes the further down the list you get.
6) Materials & Construction of Caravan
Depending on your needs and budget, the materials and construction of your caravan can vary significantly in quality and price. There is always going to be a caravan that is bigger and better, but the trick is to find the caravan that is built and designed to an acceptable standard for the purpose you intend.
Once you have worked out where you want to take your caravan, you can confidently match the engineering requirements to suit. There are always new products and technology being introduced in the manufacturing of caravans (especially wall, ceiling and floor materials) which all have their advantages and disadvantages. It is a good idea to familiarise yourself with what has been tried and tested over the years to help compare with new technology that may be considered suitable for your needs.
A few simple tips
Wood frame vs aluminium frame - Wood frame caravans are popular as they are generally cheaper to build and repair, but generally lack strength, are prone to wood rot and are slightly heavier compared to aluminium framed caravans.
Composite panel, fiberglass, sandwich board, foam infill and other similar type wall construction - These wall construction techniques definitely all have their own advantages, generally (but not always) strength, reliability, insulation and weather proof qualities. The disadvantage is that it is generally more expensive to buy and repair these materials and can also be heavier than the cheaper more common alternatives.
Aluminium cladding -Is used in conjunction with wood or aluminium frame caravans and isthe most common type of cladding due to availability, ease of installation and repair, and the relatively low cost of material, but are prone to dents and scratches.
Chassis construction - A good solid engineered chassis is a critical component for any caravan, but with a solid construction comes added weight. Hot Dip Galvanising will help preserve the structural integrity in the longer term by preventing rust.
Suspension - Match the terrain you wish to travel (Bitumen, corrugated dirt or full Off-Road) with the capability of the suspension, simple as that.
7) Read reviews of similar car and caravan setups
It pays to read any comments or reviews by caravan owners with similar setups. There are always both positive and negative reviews, tips and tricks that might give you that extra inside information that may persuade you to buy confidently or sometimes more importantly not to buy, saving you time and money.
8) Condition of Caravan
Unless you are buying brand new, it is a good idea to get a thorough pre purchase inspection from your local caravan service/repair centre. This will give you a good idea of the condition of the caravan and possibly save you thousands of dollars down the track. You can even get professional hitching, towing and combined car and caravan advice.
There are a lot of pit falls to be wary of, here is a list of common things to check:
Make sure it is not stolen - View the registration papers, validate the owner and compare the (VIN) number matches documentation.
Any signs of water leaks or damage should be professionally inspected for wood rot.
Rust and other structural damage is a definite red flag.
Inspect the general condition of the caravan for its age as a guide to how it has been treated. If it’s extremely good condition for the age or price, inspect the possibility of the caravan being superficially repaired and rule out any further structural damage.
Don’t be left red faced (or worse) if something was to go wrong whilst towing your newly acquired caravan. Get insurance before you tow the caravan away to protect yourself from those unavoidable outcomes we call ‘accidents’.
Just remember that the insurance policy won’t be worth the paper it’s written on if the legal requirements regarding caravan hitching and towing are not adhered to – check the manufacturer’s specifications on your car and caravan before towing.
Read your policy, ‘full comprehensive accident cover’ and ‘manufacturing fault cover’ are 2 different things - make sure you are covered for both, especially when water damage caused by improper sealing is concerned.
10) Regular Maintenance
Visit your local caravan and service repair centre before venturing on those weekends away or touring holidays. The professionals are there to make sure your car and caravan is correctly setup, functioning properly and in road worthy condition ensuring a safe journey for you and your family.