If you’re looking to buy a caravan that can take you off the grid, away from the crowds and into the wild, then an off road caravan is the way to go.
Off road caravans offer the same creature comforts as on-road caravans, however unlike standard caravans you can travel on unsealed roads and in harsher environmental conditions for extended periods of time.
With stronger frames, independent suspension and extra water storage, off road caravans are renowned for their strength and durability, without compromising on comfort. Off road caravans built by Australian manufacturers are also designed specifically to withstand the harsher Australian climate and rugged driving conditions.
So before you dive in and snap up a caravan that looks tough enough to handle off road travel, make sure you check out these 9 key features:
1.The right caravan type
Caravan size and model does matter in terms of the type of roads and trails you can travel on, the sites you want to set up at, and the level of comfort you expect when off road.
- Standard off road caravans offer the strongest frame of all the models, they are versatile, quick to set up, offer a good level of comfort and mod cons, and are great for any distance and duration of travel. They are heavier to tow, however, so parking in small sites needs to be navigated more carefully.
- Pop-top off road caravans are more lightweight, aerodynamic and easier to tow. They are good for travel on highly corrugated roads and easier to navigate in hard to get to sites. They do, however, have smaller interior spaces with less storage and creature comforts than standard caravans, and are suited for shorter term travel.
- Compact off road caravans are ultra compact, lightweight and easy to tow, however, there is a big compromise on interior space, storage and creature comforts and therefore more suited for short-term trips.
2. A strong raised caravan frame
Look for caravans that are raised and have strong reinforced frames that can endure the rigours of off road travel and absorb the vibrations from travelling on unsealed roads, particularly over long distances.
Aluminium or wood frames are standard the days, and wood in particular is used by many manufacturers for its strength, flexibility, lightness and durability. Off road frames are also raised higher off the ground for greater clearance for things like bumps and ruts in the road and water crossings.
3. Steel chassis & components
The chassis is the base frame of your caravan and foundation to its entire construction.
Off road chassis types typically include independent suspension, ground clearance, rear cutaways for river crossings and have been treated with duragel to protect them from rust. Strong steel components are also critical to the longevity of your caravan’s life and the types of roads you want to travel on.
4. Heavy duty tyres
For off road travel you want durable tyres that can withstand sharp rocks, corrugated sections and continual exposure to hot, wet and/or dusty conditions. Look for 15 inch wheels and tyres with a heavy duty tread. Make sure that the size and stud pattern on your off road caravan tyres match that of your tow vehicle.
Also ensure that all the tyres on your caravan and vehicle have mudflaps fitted, the correct inflation pressure before using, and that all spare tyres are the same type, tread and size as the caravan’s other wheels.
5. Brakes & suspension
Look for electric brakes specifically designed for off road conditions and the harsher Australian environment. These systems are designed to reduce vibrations and withstand higher temperatures in outback conditions.
If you are travelling off-road over long distances, independent suspension is recommended for smoother driving and the durability of your caravan. Tandem suspension is also favoured in off road conditions, working with independent suspension to help your caravan track directly behind when towing and to prevent it from getting bogged into soft ground.
Caravans should also be fitted with electronic stability control for emergency braking situations. Using this system, ensure that it is fully calibrated and customised to your caravan’s specifications and for off-road conditions. In extreme 4x4 conditions, automatic braking can sometimes occur from the constant jolting movements, and may require deactivation, this, however, should only be done after consulting an expert.
Other essential safety features that will make your drive smoother and safer, include:
- shock absorbers on each wheel
- heavy duty leaf springs, load sharing rocker
- drop down stabilisers at each corner
- jacking points at rear of wheelbase
- caravan breakaway unit.
6. Off road ball hitch for towing
Off road caravans need a tow hitch with a broad-range articulation angle far greater than the standard 15 degrees. Make sure you look out for this. Greater articulation will give your caravan a wider range of movement, making it easier and safer to tow, particularly on corrugated roads.
Also ensure that the tow vehicle is also suitable for your caravan. The tow ball/tongue weight of your tow vehicle needs to be at least 10% more than the weight of a fully-laden caravan. The tow vehicle itself also has to be at least 30% the weight of a fully laden caravan. Any caravan wider than 2.3m, may also require a commercial license to tow.
Some vehicles may also need to be reinforced with suspension and load distribution devices to safely tow a caravan, including:
- fit load levelling devices
- electrical connections to caravan brake lights
- brake controllers and connection
- additional mirrors for visibility
- extra-transmission oil cooler for automatic transmission vehicles (if not already fitted).
7. Armour and protection
Armour and protection is essential to maintain the integrity and quality of your caravan’s exterior and interior. Features to look for that will give you extra protection from stones, rocks sticks, dust, mud and anything else that may come your way, include:
- heavy duty bumper bars that extend underneath
- checker plate on the exterior to protect the bottom of your caravan
- a rear stone guard to deflect rocks from your caravan and tow vehicle
- guards to protect water storage and plumbing
- full dust proofing to protect the interior from dust.
8. Off-grid power sources
Off road caravans should offer power alternatives for when you’re going off grid and you can’t depend on mains power. The main options you should look for, include:
- Solar panels: great for the environment, quiet and cheap (after instalment), they make a perfect energy alternative. They can, however, be expensive and require full sunlight to be effective.
- Rechargeable batteries: a good backup for when you’re not on mains and when other alternatives run out, they do however require recharging every few days.
- Diesel generators: a good alternative when you’re off-grid and want to run appliances such as dryers, heaters, air-cons and refrigerators. Cheap to run, they can, however, be noisy, heavy to transport, take up a lot of room and can emit fumes. Look for ones that are small, light and can be stored away easily.
The ideal situation would be to have a combination of the three on hand to supplement each other when one runs low and the other needs to be recharged or refilled. Also look for energy efficient lighting options and appliances to keep your energy use at a minimum. This will allow you to stay off grid for longer while still maintaining a good level of comfort.
Also check your vehicle’s batteries when towing and ensure you have:
- extra deep-cycle battery for backup when towing
- a battery management system to monitor vehicle’s main battery and ensure it doesn’t go flat
- battery stabilising unit, to help start a battery from the caravan’s battery if it has run low.
9. Extra gas bottles and water storage
This obviously goes without saying and most off-road caravans come with a standard twin gas bottles, rear jerry cans for water/petrol storage and heavy duty water tanks with protectors. Also, look for good front boot space for additional storage capacity to keep extra water, petrol and other essential supplies.
Buying new or second hand
If you buy new, you also have the option of customising your caravan to be the ultimate off road weapon, with all the essential features mentioned plus more! In the customisation process, you can decide all the details and watch the build take shape from the ground up. If you buy a second hand, keep an eye out for newer models that take advantage of modern design innovations for off road and tend to be lighter, more robust, better equipped and use more energy efficient lighting and appliances.
With a new purchase, check the warranty and make sure it matches the type of road use your caravan is intended for. There are also implied warranties that include things like the caravan does what the seller tells you it will do (such as off road travel). Every state is different and it’s important you find out these differences from your dealer before buying.
Now you know what to look for also keep in mind that your caravan needs to match you style in terms of interiors, finishes and appliances. Make sure you visit a licensed dealer and take a full tour of the caravan so you can get a feel for the interior space, the quality of the finishes and the sturdiness of the build.
Your holiday adventure will be more fun if you love the space you inhabit and you feel its up for the challenge of taking you into some of the wildest parts of Australia.
Want to find out more about off road caravans and other caravan types? Download our free guide to buying the ultimate caravan in 2016 and start planning your next off road adventure!