What Makes A Good Rough Road Caravan

We spent almost a year looking at caravans. We went around caravan parks and bush camps talking to owners about what they liked and disliked about their vans. We also visited numerous caravan dealerships. We received good advice from some dealerships but utter rubbish from others. Remember that most caravan salesmen will not have actual experience of using vans in remote areas and they are salesmen after all, it is their job to sell you a van.

Beware the van that has “Off Road” in large letters proudly displayed on it. It probably means that the manufacturer has added a bit of chequer plate.  One dealer pointed at a van in his yard and stated “That will go anywhere a car will go” probably correct if he was referring to a family sedan not a 4×4.

Rather than “off road” I prefer to talk about “rough road” or “remote travel” when talking or writing about caravans as I think these terms more relevant.

Following are issues that I believe should be considered before purchasing a van for travel in remote areas.

Size: Size does matter. Going down a dirt track the van should, ideally, be the same width and height as the car. However this is not always possible, but the smaller the van the less likelihood of damage. I have been told by several people within the caravan industry that the industry is geared around selling a 17 foot van without shower and toilet and 21 foot with shower and toilet. Of course there are much larger and even smaller vans on the market. Personally I think most vans sold are far too large, but to the caravan dealer the larger the van, the higher the price and therefore the bigger the profit margin. If you are going to have one of those roof top air conditioner units then don’t go down tracks, you will lose it to overhanging branches.

Weight: There are several manufacturers who make what they claim to be the toughest vans made. I certainly would not contest this statement however I do make the point that if you get bogged in soft sand or mud it is a lot easier to extricate a 1.5 tonne van than a 3 tonne van. A single axle van is far easier to manoeuvre than a dual axle.

Suspension: By far the largest number of vans sold have leaf springs with a solid axle. This is purely done on a cost basis as it is the cheapest option for the caravan industry. I have yet to see a car that doesn’t have shock absorbers with its springs. If the wheels are to stay in touch with the road then the springs must be dampened by shock absorbers. Forget so called rebound leaves in the springs they just make the springs stiff and the springs don’t function correctly. So if you must have  leaf springs at least have shock absorbers as well. By far the best option is independent suspension and I would not even consider a van without it. Our van has trailing arms with coils and shocks. These ensure the van tracks behind the car in even the worst conditions.

I would be wary of IRS (independent rubber suspension) axles. Whilst these are claimed to be suitable for off road use I personally would not have them on an off road van and believe they are better suited to bitumen travel. If they go faulty there is no way to repair them. You must replace the axle and this could entail a lengthy wait. I meet a couple in Derby who had had an IRS axle fail and they had to have their camper trucked 400 kilometres to Derby and three weeks later still had not received a replacement. I hate to think what the cost would have been.

Wheels: Obviously the larger the wheel diameter the better the clearance. More importantly, if at all possible your wheels should be the same size as your vehicles and the stud pattern the same. This allows for interchange between the caravan and vehicles wheels. We carry three spares for six wheels.

Tyres: At a minimum you should have ATR (All Terrain Radials) in LT  (Light Truck Construction). LT tyres give a slightly harsher ride but have much stiffer and stronger side walls and are therefore less vulnerable to side wall damage. Beware of some mud tyres as the spacing between the lugs can make them susceptible to punctures.

Drop Hitch

Drop Hitch

Hitch: There are numerous off road hitches on the market and as long as your hitch allows the rotational flexibility required for steep entries and departures then it should be fine. The standard caravan hitch does not offer this flexibility. The Tregg (or Trigg) hitch is in common use in off road situations. This hitch once coupled is rock solid and is now the hitch I use. The Hyland hitch has the advantage that it is like a standard ball coupling and all you need to do is put the ball underneath the coupling and lower the coupling. Very simple. However I changed from a Hyland hitch as the Hyland appeared to have movement between the ball and coupling that produced a continuous “clunking” sound on corrugations. Elsewhere on this site I make comment about the advantage of your van being level when hitched to the towing vehicle. With a high clearance off road van this is sometimes difficult, if not impossible, to achieve if the caravan manufacturer has not installed a drop hitch. Common practice has the hitch mounted on top of the A frame. A drop (or dropped) hitch is when a plate is welded to the bottom of the A frame and the hitch mounted on top of this plate.

Construction: Just like a car there are various degrees of off road worthiness.  There is no formula that says this van’s construction is suitable for remote area travel but this one is not. It is very much up to the buyer to ascertain whether in their opinion (and not the salesman) that this van’s construction is suitable for its intended purpose. There are several manufacturers in Australia who make vans intended for more than bitumen travelling. It is not difficult to find these on the Internet. As in most things it is very much “you get what you pay for”. Following are a few things to look for:

  • The A frame needs to be stronger than normal;
  • All underneath framing should be galvanised;
  • The underneath van floor should be metal, if iron galvanised;
  • There should be no protrusions underneath that could be damaged by rocks;
  • A standard way of building van walls is inside plywood then the wooden frame then cladding. This is inherently weak. It should be at least plywood then wooden frame then plywood then cladding.

Water Tanks: Some water sources in remote areas can be suspect and it maybe that you need to take on water from such a source without contaminating your remaining drinking water. A van should have two water tanks with separate fillers and valves that allow water to be drawn from one or the other. A drain valve should also be fitted to each tank so that tanks can easily be drained or water can be obtained if the water pump should fail.

Load Equalizers: Load equalizers can be hazardous when used in off road situations. If using equalizers when crossing steep dips or creek crossing there is the potential to sheer the towbar off or bend the A frame. I have seen a bent A frame at Cape York as a result of this, I have also seen in a video a towbar snapped off. Load levellers can exert tremendous pressure.  I do not use load levellers at all, my van when coupled to the tow vehicle does not depress the rear of the tow vehicle more than 2cm. My van and vehicle ride straight and level. This of course is the result of a combination of the ability of the caravan manufacturer to produce a van with suitable stability and tow ball weight, how the van is loaded and very importantly the choice of tow vehicle. As the size of vans increase so do the likelihood of their needing load equilizers.

Clearance and Departure and Entry Angles:  A van intended for use on dirt roads needs sufficient height front and rear to allow appropriate clearance when negotiating step dips. There is no exact angle required but by drawing a line from the bottom of the rear wheel to the bottom of the rear of the van an angle of departure is the angle between this line and the ground when the van is straight and level. Do the same for your vehicle and see if they vary. It is no use having one twice the other but your vehicle should have a greater angle of departure. A look around at vans will show some off road vans that, due to a poor angle of departure, would scrape their rear ends when negotiating dips on say the Gulf roads. On the other extreme some van manufactures put such an extreme angle on the rear you really wonder what they were thinking.

Lighting: This is simple, every light inside or out should be LED. There is no excuse (price excepted) for using incandescent bulbs in caravans. Make sure the lights are correctly positioned i.e. are there reading lights over the bed and table. Ideally you should inspect the van you are intending to purchase at night to check the lighting.

Stone Deflector: Whilst such a device will certainly save the front of the van from stone chips it will also minimise the chance of a rock rebounding and shattering the rear window of the towing vehicle. Don’t consider using a van on dirt roads without an effective stone defelector.

Pressure Hatch: The theory here is that this little hatch forces air into the van and builds pressure in the van, thereby preventing dust entering lower down. I am still not convinced of this, especially when passing a roadtrain but in hot climates it definitely keeps the van cooler. Make sure it has a fly screen.

Updated 27/01/2012

goldstream, goldstream explorer, goldstream caravan, off road caravan, outback travel