CARAVAN SAFETY AND MAINTENANCE
A breakdown, fire or a mere flat tyre during a caravan trip is nobody’s idea of fun, but some basic preparation can prevent a nightmare situation and make breakdowns less of a chore.
HAVE AN EMERGENCY TOOL KIT
A basic toolkit is a must-have item on your trip. You will need tools that will suit both the vehicle and van, so check that sockets and screwdrivers can work on fixtures on both. Make sure that your vehicle has all its wheel-changing tools, such as jack, jack handle, wheel brace, locknut removal tool (if required) and hubcap removal tool (if required).
Other basic toolkit essentials include a safety vest so other motorists can see you when you’re on the side of the road; a warning triangle, so that other drivers can easily recognise that you are pulled over ahead; and a torch, for use during night-time breakdowns or during power failures.
PRACTICE CHANGING A WHEEL
If you’ve never used your jack to change a wheel, now is the time to do a test run. You don’t want to discover that the jack has a bent shaft when you're stranded 200km from the next town.
Also, make sure your jack can actually lift your caravan, as it’s unlikely your tow vehicle jack will do the job. Not only that, but not all caravans come with wheel-changing tools. The specific AS-compliant Trail-A-Mate and Sidewinder jacks are available on the accessory market. Some manufacturers, notably Roadstar, fit them as standard items.
TRIP SAFETY PREPARATION
Some trip safety preparation can be done when the caravan is stored at home. The coupling should be greased, and if the van is left standing unused for more than a month or so the caravan should be set on stands so the wheels are off the ground.
Tyres can have flat spots if left standing with the weight of the caravan on them for too long, which could make them unsuitable. UV light is also damaging to tyres. Replace tyres which are more than five years old, or any tyres with cracks or bulges in the sidewalls or with tread reaching the treadwear indicators. Make sure the replacement tyres have the correct load and speed rating for your caravan. Prior to leaving, check tyre pressure, as under-inflation is one of the most common causes of tyre failure. Regularly check your tyres when you’re away, too – buy a reliable tyre pressure gauge to get accurate readings.
A week before you leave, check that all bolts on the caravan coupling and the towbar are tight and, while the caravan is jacked up (provided you have some mechanical ability), re-grease and check the tension on wheel bearings. When the van is back on the ground, check that the brakes and handbrake work properly.
POWER AND ELECTRICS MAINTENANCE
Batteries need to be charged regularly, and should not be allowed to become fully discharged. Even if you re-charge a completely flat battery, it will usually not hold its power for as long. It can also become unreliable.
Disconnect the battery when the caravan is being stored and trickle-charge it every month. Also, check and top up the electrolyte level with distilled water if it’s not a maintenance-free battery. 36 hours before a big journey, trickle-charge the battery again to make sure it's in peak condition.
In the week before you leave, check there are no malfunctions with the electrical system, too, so connect the trailer plug to the vehicle and test the lights. If you are unsure about doing some of these safety checks, ask a caravan specialist to do it for you. Inside the van, turn off any pilot lights before travelling, and make sure you have a smoke alarm fitted and a fire blanket and a dry powder fire extinguisher.
Gas bottles should have their connections facing away from the van, and check the security of the gas bottles and the connections when you are setting up after a drive. Splashing soapy water over the connections is the easiest way to check for gas leaks.
Also refrain from cooking or using heating appliances in the caravan or enclosed annexe without some form of ventilation.
A thorough check and service by a caravan specialist is always good insurance. Remember, book well ahead of time if it's during a holiday period, as that’s when service agents are at their busiest.