Pop-top caravan


There are numerous issues first-time buyers need to consider when getting a camper, caravan or motorhome. As with a crossword puzzle, getting all the individual bits right will result in success, but if one significant element is wrong things won’t quite work out. There are dozens of alternatives in the ranges of motorhomes, caravans and campers. Asking yourself and others plenty of questions before laying down your money for an RV may slow the selection process somewhat, but the result will make your efforts worthwhile.





Will your RV be used for long-term travel, or for short holidays? If you intend to travel for a long time, you’ll need more space for things like seasonal changes of clothes, extra footwear, plenty of spare parts and perhaps special things that you want to have near you. This may steer you toward a slightly bigger outfit to live in, but the trade-off is that bigger usually means more expensive. The larger your outfit, the more costly it will usually be – first to buy, then to maintain and travel around in.



You may plan to spend a lot of time up north, or perhaps further south in more temperate places. The weather generally gets warmer and more humid as you head north. Close to the coast the humidity is even higher and conditions are more uncomfortable during months close to the wet season, so ventilation becomes an issue. Pop-top caravans have increased ventilation. Air-conditioning might be something to consider in warmer climates, and some configurations lend themselves more easily to air-con than others. Pop-top roofs, for instance, can become very heavy when fitted with roof-mounted units. The alternative is a side-mounted air-conditioner, but smaller rigs are often strapped for wall space.

In places that we assume are always hot, like Alice Springs, daytime and night-time temperatures can be vastly different. While the day might reach 45ºC, overnight can drop below zero. In such places well-insulated rigs are a blessing. Canvas walls, for example, are poor insulators, while pop-top vans and camper trailers are cooler because cold air moves under the floor. Quality tents can be warmer in such circumstances.

Consider what kind of accommodation will be satisfactory during periods of heavy rain, such as those either side of the monsoonal wet season in tropical Australia. Bear in mind that with some camper trailers and other fold-up rigs with large canvas areas, the wet canvas must lie somewhere inside the rig during
travel – sometimes the only spot for it is on a bed. Examine each outfit to discover how it is organised for wet weather.



Think about whether you’re likely to stay on the bitumen, or whether you might be tempted to venture offroad. If you are happy to cruise the highways and byways you have an enormous range of outfits to choose from.

But if you are seeking rugged adventure then the choice comes down to only a few caravans or motorhomes, and a greater number of camper trailers. For tough going, buy only makes or models with a reputation for durability and reliability, along with aftersales back-up. You might decide to restrict yourself to manufacturers that belong to the RVMAA (Recreational Vehicle Manufacturers Association of Australia), as members are required to meet specified standards, including a warranty on their products.

Highway caravans can be lighter in weight and thousands of dollars cheaper than so-called ‘offroad’ vehicles, because the demands on their strength and suspension are not as severe. Lighter weights bring with them the benefits of lower fuel consumption and generally lower upkeep costs. You can also tow them with lower-powered cars.



How many travellers will your RV need to accommodate? Are you a family of five, or just a couple? If you head towards bunk beds for a family, beware the size of those bunks. Actually try every bunk for fit, rather than merely looking – occasionally, bunks appear to be fine but access requires the skills of a contortionist. And, for the young ones, allow some growing room for the next few years.

Also, take a critical look at family demands – for instance, make sure the dining suite seats all occupants; check there’s wardrobe and drawer space for extra clothes; ensure that everyone, when seated, can see the TV… these are common sense requirements that can be overlooked in the hurry to make a purchase.



You will always have a spending limit. Prudent buying says that if the RV will be used for only two or three weeks per year, it isn’t a clever use of funds to pour a lot into it – renting a vehicle or even holiday accommodation would be cheaper for special occasions. On the other hand, if the unit is to become your home for years to come, then skimping will likely lead to dissatisfaction with your mobile accommodation.

As resale value varies according to particular makes and models, paying a little more for a unit that will hold its value makes economic sense. The only way to reliably assess retained value is to browse sales venues such as websites, caravan yards, Red Book valuations (ask your insurer about values for nominated models), auction houses and the like. But there is a trap in a methodical approach: some makes have long waiting lists for new customers, and the used units sell by word of mouth – they are only rarely advertised.



Do you expect to be remote camping? Being self-sufficient places different demands on the RV, and you will require facilities that allow for remote locations. The electrical requirements for lighting, a water pump and other accessories will demand that batteries are able to be recharged. A petrol generator can assist, but fuel for it must also be carried.

Because the use of generators is either prohibited or limited in many parks, silent methods of power generation must be investigated, such as solar and wind options. Solar panels generate the most power when they have strong sunlight on them, so camping in shade reduces their recharging capacity. Some types are more efficient at generating in dappled light, so consider your likely parking spots before deciding on a panel.

Small wind turbines, found on almost all yachts, are an option, but mounting them on an RV can be awkward.

When remote camping, you’ll also need to carry your own water for drinking, bathing and washing. Water is heavy, so self-sufficient camping time will be limited by how much weight your vehicle can carry and how much water you consume daily. Authorities are becoming more alert to the issues surrounding the disposal of waste products, such as washing water from campers, and regulations enforcing the capture of all waste are becoming more common. It is now necessary for campers in an increasing number of places to have tanks that hold all grey water (bathing water) and black water (toilet waste) until the vehicle can access an approved dump point. Retro-fitting such tanks to some units would be near impossible, so bear this in mind.



If you intend to migrate from caravan park to caravan park then you will be able to manage your travels in a lighter, less expensive vehicle than those with inbuilt toilets and other space-gobbling features. Additional accessories such as solar panels, large batteries and chargers will not be needed, and a small gas cylinder would be sufficient for an RV with electric cooking facilities. For park-to-park travel very little water is needed, which is another weight saver.

The inclusion of a combination shower and toilet can add roughly 700mm to the length of a caravan and about 250kg to the weight. A separate shower, toilet and vanity requires about 1m in length and adds up to 400kg. If you add a shower you might also need to haul more water – that’s another 100kg at least, not to mention the extra cost for installation. A hot water service will hold 20L of water all the time, and will take about 20 minutes to get up to operating temperature from ignition, which means you have to wait before it can be used. These are costly options!

Visit Turu.com.au to book your caravan park accommodation.



There are laws governing the load that can be hauled by a tow vehicle. The two weights of importance are the total weight of the vehicle being towed, and the download weight on the towball (the loads imposed on an installed towbar must also be within the limits of the towbar manufacturer’s specifications). This means you must buy a caravan or trailer that is within the capacity of your existing tow vehicle, otherwise you will need to purchase a tow vehicle that has the capacity to pull the caravan or trailer you select.

While you're at it, check out our guide on matching tow vehicles with caravans.



Is travel economy a big factor for you? When you travel there are several fields in which money can be saved, and the ones you select will have a bearing on the type of rig you should buy. Preparing your own food and eating in saves money, but to do that you need appropriate cooking facilities, refrigeration and food preparation space in your RV.

Travelling in a smaller unit generally saves on fuel, tyres, registration and insurance, and those savings can certainly add up. Free camping also saves, but to do that a greater level of self-sufficiency is required, and as water and other goods must be carried, the savings may work out to be less than anticipated.

Choose your preferences early on to achieve the right balance between your rig and your travel style, in order to save money in the long term.



Being tall has its down sides. Pay close attention to the internal height of a van, taking into account low points such as light fittings and air-conditioners, to be sure you can walk freely inside.

Beds are another concern – while some beds are aligned along the length of the RV (north-south), others run across the width of the vehicle (east-west). This means that access from one end of the vehicle to the other might be blocked by the bed. Some beds telescope with the aid of a two-part mattress to improve access. You need to be confident that the layout will work for you, especially if you are tall, or have mobility issues.



Many buyers want to add bike racks, at least one awning, a TV, more than one spare wheel, jerry cans, a firewood rack and even a washing machine to their vehicle after they have purchased it. These must be factored into the total weight of the vehicle, and it is fairly easy to overload your vehicle until it becomes illegal. If you happen to have an accident and your vehicle is found to be outside the specified weight, your insurance might not apply, as technically the vehicle does not conform to legal requirements.



These are just a few issues to get you thinking about your RV purchase. For more tips, and to make an informed decision, make sure you investigate as many magazines and books as possible that deal with caravanning, camping and motorhomes. Clubs and associations are useful places to pick up more hints, and renting an RV for a week will help to clarify some issues. Don’t lay down your dollars until you are confident you have done enough homework – because after your purchase it’s too late to find out what you should have already known!


Lloyd Junor is the author of The Australian RV and Caravanners Guide, available from www.aussiepublishing.com.au


Originally published in the 2011 Caravan World Yearbook

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