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Back to Basics: Buying a Van

Buying a caravan might sound like a simple task.

If you’re looking for the perfect van to fit your adventures, personal taste and day-to-day requirements, there are more than a few boxes to check. But be not afraid, we have collated some tips to start you down on this imposing but not impossible task.

For newcomers to the field of buying a caravan, the advice from almost all caravan owners and members of the industry could be summarised down to ‘do your research’. There is no one-size-fits-all caravan that can make the process simple for you, particularly if you intend to make it your regular holiday home on wheels. Scouting the field and checking out as many caravans, hybrids and campers as you can before you lock yourself into one is the best way to ensure you get the best option within your budget.


Setting yourself a budget and only looking at models within that price range is the best way to avoid heartache. Depending on whether you’re buying preloved or new, the price of a caravan can fall anywhere between a few thousand dollars for a basic camper to somewhere in the triple digits for a premium feature-packed offroad caravan.

If your budget is under $40,000, your best bet will be to look at preloved vans, where you can often find a great deal, albeit more compact and potentially lacking features as an ensuite. Moving upwards from this mark, your caravan options tend to get bigger and fancier depending on how far you budget will stretch.

Budgeting is important, but you still want to get the best bang for your buck. Make a list of your requirements of the van, including your basic needs and non-negotiable features. This help ensure you come away with the ideal van within your price point, and it will also help you avoid paying for features you don’t need or won’t use. While that full-sized fridge or washing machine might seem like a premium luxury, if you’re only planning on weekend trips, is it really necessary?

But while you’re budgeting, it’s important to note that necessary items are not always included in the cost of the van. Many caravans will have a base model price with extra add-ons to allow customers some flexibility depending on their needs. So, make sure you allocate a portion of your budget to any of the additional necessary features you might want included.

Also, don’t blow your entire savings on the van itself – if you’re planning to hit the road you’ll need some cash set aside for travel costs, including any paid accommodation, fuel, not to mention the insurance and registration of the van itself before you get going.


Once you have set your budget and start looking at vans, you should keep an eye on the different ways that caravans are constructed, because this will play into the overall cost. Timber frame is a good option, being lighter and easy to fix in the case of accidents. It is also cheaper to build, meaning the overall cost of the caravan can be cheaper. However, the caveat with timber is that if water gets in it is susceptible to rot. Alloy frames and composite panels are your other main options, both strong and will not be damaged by rot. Composite has the additional bonus of being lightweight and offers good insulation.

Type of touring

Once you dip your toe into the caravanning, you’ll soon realise that there are plenty of caravans targeted at different kind of travelling. Knowing the kind of touring you intend to undertake will help narrow down and understand your options when buying a van.

If you intend to take your caravan offroad, you’ll want to ensure it has adequate external protection. Check that the undercarriage is well protected, and that no integral elements such as the electrical and plumbing lines are exposed to flying rocks or rough terrain. While you’re at it, check that the tyres and suspension are suitable for offroad travel and won’t leave you stranded or bounced into a daze.

If you’re thinking of going off-grid, check what features the van has and how they will keep you self-contained. In addition to the offroad checklist, make sure the caravan has got adequate solar power, battery management system and plenty of fresh and grey water storage. Extra storage for your generator, food and any other gear you might need would also be advisable. You’ll likely also want to opt for a van with an ensuite, otherwise you’ll need to carry around extra gear that will need to be set-up every time you stop to camp. But there is something to be said for washing under the stars.

If your touring lifestyle leans towards the road more travelled and staying in caravan parks, there are some other features you might be more inclined to remove or include to add to your must-have list. Since you’ll be able to enjoy the facilities and extra comforts of caravan parks or resorts, you can consider opting for a lighter van without the ensuite. These bathrooms can take up roughly 1m of length in the van and add up to 400kg to your overall weight. You can also ditch the heavy-duty independent trailing arm suspension and all the electronics necessary for going off-grid if you’re planning to stick to the highways and parks. Instead, some features that might interest you more are a full-sized fridge perfect for extended stays in one location, and perhaps check the tv is in a comfortable spot for when the weather takes a turn.

If you find that your travelling lifestyle is a bit more unpredictable, other options to consider are campers and hybrid caravans, both of which are compact and more lightweight options that can still offer the necessary luxuries whether you’re on or offroad.


Generally, caravan lengths fall between 11ft and 24ft, with a range of layout and feature variables depending on the size you go for. But the choice comes down to your travelling requirements. How do you plan to use your van? Will you be outside more than in? Then if so, do you really need the complete interior kitchen and spacious lounge? If you’re travelling with your family, how many beds do you need? Do you want enough bunks for all the kids so that you’re ready to go at the end of the day, or is a convertible lounge okay? 

It is often tempting to get a bigger van so that you don’t feel like you’re playing a game of sardines indoors, especially those travelling with their families. But remember, while you might enjoy all the perks that come with a spacious layout, it all adds up to the overall weight you’ll be towing and how much fuel you will use. A large van can also be tricky to manoeuvre and can limit you on what destinations you can physically get to, particularly if you don’t have a lot of experience under your belt.

Likewise, you might be tempted to downsize to the smallest space possible. But remember, the weather (and Australia’s mosquito population) isn’t always friendly, so having an interior space that realistically suits your needs must be considered.  


Consider the storage space that your numbers might need – but stick to the essentials. It’s best to pack sparingly and for the appropriate season. You won’t need enough space to always have your swim gear, bikes and winter wardrobe onboard with you. But keep an eye out for storage spaces that will fit the items you know will always be coming with you – is there a handy storage boot for your camp chairs, or any and all gear you’ll need for off-grid camping? And don’t forget to think practicality; there might be good internal storage, but you don’t want to keep having to trudging back indoors every other minute when you’re setting up your outdoor living area.

Choosing a van to fit your tow vehicle

Before you get your heart set on a caravan, you also need to make sure it is suitable for your tow vehicle. Understanding the rules about towing weight is a lengthy and frequently confusing topic, and one that John Ford will be delving into on page 48 in more depth. But in basic terms, when choosing a caravan, you need to consider that your vehicle’s tow capacity must cover not only your van weight, but everything that will be aboard it. This is often the catching point with newcomers, who do not know to take into account the additional weight that luggage, food, camping gear, bikes, and especially water will add to the overall weight of the caravan


Between caravans, hybrids and campers, there are countless layout options on the market, each targeted towards a certain market – whether that be family, couples, solo, offroad warriors, grey nomads … the list goes on. Layouts can be monumentally different, or a simple rearrange to avoid having the entrance by the bed.


The orientation of the main bed is one of the most frequent differences in caravan layouts. Your choices will generally be termed either ‘east-west’, with the bed running across the width of the van, or ‘north-south’ meaning along the length of the van. East-west layouts are practical as they tend to save space (allowing for more compact vans) and allow easy manoeuvrability through the internal living areas. But on the downside, some east-west beds will be flush with the wall on one side, meaning partners need to climb over each other to get in and out.

North-south configurations, on the other hand, allow for more storage around the bed and you are assured easy access on both sides. The downside here is that, depending on the size of the van, the bed can eat into the interior living space – which might be fine for couples travelling, but something to consider for any larger groups.

The common arrangement of family vans is to include the bunks to the rear of the van, either running vertically along one wall with the bathroom on the other, or with a full width ensuite and bunks on either side of the ensuite entrance, although this latter option will tend to add to the overall length of the van. It is also important to note that if you go down the route of triple bunks rather than double, you will lose under-bed storage.

You should also pay attention to where the door is located and how this impacts your main walkways and sleeping areas.


The size of kitchen, dining area and ensuite all come down to the size of the van. Many smaller or more compact vans may opt for removing the ensuite entirely or downsizing to a combined shower/toilet wet room. Minimising the internal kitchen and relying on an external one is also a tactic throughout compact hybrid caravans and campers and allows for more beds or larger dining space.

The ensuite versus no ensuite debate is becoming less common, with more people adding ensuite to the absolute necessity list, rather than a nice-to-have feature. Having an ensuite does allow a private luxury no matter where you stay, but it might have the side-effect of needing grey water storage for wen staying in National Parks or council areas overnight. An ensuite also adds weight to your van and requires cleaning. If you’re planning to stay in caravan parks, you might not see it as a necessary item. But on the other hand, if you have no ensuite and you want to go away for extended periods, you will need to purchase and store extra gear, such as a portable toilet and shower. But lack of ensuite does allow for roomier interior living spaces or a compact van that can get anywhere, which some may find more preferrable.

Another important layout component to consider is the kitchen. Many caravans will come with some level of internal and external kitchen, while others might lean heavily into one area or the other. Campers and hybrids will often rely entirely on an external setup and awning cover, allowing for a more compact unit overall. The choice is really down to you and your caravanning lifestyle – do you need an internal kitchen with all the comforts of home, or are you a ‘sleep indoors, live outdoors’ kind of traveller? Many campers will also readily admit preferring simple outdoor meals over their usual home-fare, meaning the full internal oven and large cafe lounge often goes unused.

If you’re relying on an external kitchen, keep an eye on the external storage for your fridge and cooking necessities, and make sure there’s enough bench space to keep you happy. Perhaps an electric awning as well, just to make set-up even simpler?

Slide-outs and fold outs

Another thing to know is that caravan, camper and hybrid designs aren’t limited to their basic four walls. Slide-outs are built-in sections of the van that extend out to increase the internal space, allowing for dining or lounge areas in otherwise compact vans. Think of it as having your cake and eating it too – extra space indoors, but you don’t have to tow a van that feels too big. And when used in conjunction with a pop-top design (where the roof lowers down while towing) or a camper style, the overall van you end up is much more spacious than it looks while on the road.  

Fold-outs give extra flexibility layout wise, and many different brands will use them to different advantages. Look at Jayco’s Expanda range for example, a pop-top design with fold out beds on both ends – allowing for two queen beds as well as bunks – perfect for family touring. Other designs might give east-west beds the extra space they need or allow for a more substantial lounge and dining area.

Some common layout bugbears:

  • The height of certain items. For tall passengers, look out for hazardous low points: overhead storge, light fittings, showerheads, air conditioners. For those on the shorter side, check if items such as the microwave are at a practical and safe height
  • Kitchen safety: make sure you’re happy where the stovetop is located, out of the way of people entering or exiting the van who might bump into you or hot items
  • Seating: make sure the lounge is a comfortable height and width

Parting advice

It can’t be said enough – do your research and look at as many caravans as you can. After all, knowledge is power. There are plenty of companies that hire out caravans, so perhaps it’s time to take one for a spin before you hand over the big bucks?