Diary of a caravanner: Top tips for a first-timer

For the past five years, we’ve been getting an education in all things caravanning and camping.

I still recall that fateful day when we attended our first caravan and camping show. What an event! A bedazzling, cornucopia of caravans all promising a chance to experience the great Australian dream.

Polaroid-like imagery slowly developed in my mind. There I was, watching Uluru dance with colours at sunset; swatting flies while camping on the banks of the mighty Murray River; and chasing the sun on an epic Australian road trip.

A Newhaven sunset

The mere thought of escaping life’s routines and responsibilities to travel was hypnotically tantalising. And, if we so desired, we could opt for bundles of luxurious extras to ensure we did it in style … enter the glorious wine chiller!

All jokes aside, I totally admit to being wide-eyed (OMG, they have an outdoor heated shower!) and slightly naïve (it’s how much?) when it came to actually finding the right caravan for our family.

Whether it be a basic camper trailer or a pimped-up rig, it’s so easy to overlook the most important things. Such as:

  • Can we actually afford it?
  • How much weight can our car tow?
  • Where the heck will we store this beast?

As you can well imagine, the fancy-pants van was very much beyond our modest budget range. Instead, we acquired a much-loved, retro camper trailer enthusiastically dubbed the Freedom Fighter. Yep, cheap caravans can be a thing.

The Freedom Fighter!

This van and our family have seen many adventures. We’ve covered about 15,000km and we’ve met wonderful travellers on the road, from young families to grey nomads (or silver schoolies).

As you can see, we’ve had a bit of an education when it comes to caravanning capers. So, with that in mind, here are some things we’ve learnt about how to caravan that we thought others might benefit from.

Find the right van for your family

There are so many things to consider when you’re in the market for a van. Budget obviously defines a lot of what you will get but knowing the weight that your car can tow is very important. You don’t want to be in a predicament where you have to upgrade your car, too.

If you are okay with trudging off in the middle of the night to the shared camping amenities, you certainly don’t need the luxury of a toilet and shower. But you should consider whether you’ll need extra beds for guests or an annex to store stuff when it rains.

In fact, there are so many things to consider, but luckily there are loads of resources out there to assist. Yep, there is a whole collective of caravanning and camping folks eager to provide advice.

Joining a caravanning Facebook group online is a good start. Or reading the printed camping mags. And for adventure junkies, TV shows like Patriot Games are enough to wet the whistle. We found YouTube videos really helpful, especially when learning how to set-up our van safely.

Decisions, decisions…

Safety, plus some!

This point is super important. Crossing your chains is a thing! You can get fined if you don’t hook up your van to your car properly.

Also, the distribution of weight needs to be considered when you’re packing everything into your van and hitting the road. The majority of the weight needs to sit over your wheels.

Avoid packing heavy items in the back. You don’t need a swaying van attached to your car. We are pretty pedantic about safety checks before we leave. It’s easy to set up a routine with someone doing a walk around and checking lights are working, ensuring chains are fastened, the van brake is off, water and power caps are closed, etc.

It’s so important to do regular safety checks.

Kit up

The dollars quickly add up when you get a van. You don’t just need insurance and registration; there’s all the stuff required to live in your home on the road.

Essentials like a kettle and toaster, bedding, cutlery, and dinner sets are standard issue. We actually bought new items for our house and moved the second-hand stuff into the van.

We soon realised there was a lot more to kitting out a caravan – and so began an ever-increasing list of items, from water hoses and connections to an outdoor barbecue.

Camping with a mob of kangaroos
I think Skippy liked our outdoor set-up.

Get ready to choose your own adventure

It’s a great idea to have a test run. We did so for three nights on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula. This helped us with learning what not to do!

Like, don’t just leave the caravan keys anywhere. Or better still, have an extra set cut. Choose one designated place where you keep them – ours is inside the car door – otherwise you may suffer from having to put the van back up to find them.

This kind of trip is all about baby steps, and you will likely find fellow travellers who are more than happy to help out. The communal vibe is tangible.

We certainly don’t consider ourselves to be experts in any way. But after experiencing an eight-week road trip, and then all of our other shorter family adventures, we’ve reached a point where we feel pretty confident.

In saying that, we all have our Achilles heel! I seem to be cursed with forgetfulness when it comes to remembering to remove the hose connector at holiday parks. Luckily this is a common occurrence – as I’ve learnt – and most parks have a box full of ‘those that were left behind’ accoutrements to borrow.

So, best of luck with your caravanning adventures! Please do say hi if you see us around the traps. Just a heads-up though, we’re upgrading our van. We’ve realised the caravanning life is our kind of life.

This article was commissioned by BIG4 Holiday Parks, December 2018.

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