Ok, well let’s start with the first question you’re probably asking yourself about off-road caravans:
What is the difference between an off-road caravan and a ‘normal’ caravan?
What makes an off-road caravan any better (or even different) than a normal one?
Well, all gimmicks aside… you may be surprised to know that there’s really only 3 things that make off road caravans different to normal.
If you include all the gimmicky extras, then yeah, there’s LOTS of differences, and any good salesman will rattle off as many of these as possible… but there’s only 3 things that actually make a real difference, and they are the only 3 things you actually really NEED to go offroad in a caravan.
Those 3 things are, higher ground clearance, better suspension, and more sturdy construction, both inside and out, to withstand all the miles of corrugations, flying rocks, and thick billowing clouds of red dust.
So let’s go into these in detail first, because most people would agree, that even if there are more things you might need in an off roader, these 3 are the most basic and most important ones to prioritise over anything else.
1. Higher Ground Clearance
This is an obvious one to most people.
When you’re going off road, you’re going to be driving over much rougher terrain, and encounter much more lumps, bumps and obstacles, so naturally, just like when you chose the vehicle to tow it with, you want something that can get over those lumps and bumps without bottoming out and destroying the underside of your precious living quarters.
I mean, you don’t wanna tear a hole in the bottom of your bath tub and lose all that nice hot water do you?
What? You don’t have a bath tub in your caravan?
We won’t dwell too much on the ground clearance because it’s pretty obvious that you want it to be higher off the ground so you can drive over all the lumps, bumps and shrubbery you’ll no doubt encounter out in the bush.
But before we move on, there’s something that falls under this first category that not many people think to consider… and that is:
Now that your caravan is higher off the ground, with all those extra lumps, bumps and hills you’ll be driving over, you will need to consider the type of coupling you’ll need.
By that I mean, the part where your caravan connects to your vehicle’s towball (and/or tow hitch).
There’s dozens of variations of tow couplings, but they generally fall into 2 basic categories: Road & Off-Road, and most off-road caravans will come with the appropriate one off the shelf anyway, but it’s just something to check for if you’re looking at buying one.
A normal coupling is designed to be able to swivel left and right, but has minimal up and down movement.
But when you’re going up and down creek beds and banks, etc. you will need a lot more of that up and down movement than usual… so a purpose built off-road coupling is pretty much a necessity if you’re doing any moderate to hardcore off roading.
2. Off Road Caravan Suspension
The 2nd main requirement of an off-road caravan is, again, a pretty obvious one to most 4WDers looking into buying an off-road caravan, but at the same time, a little more technical than the first one.
So let’s look a little deeper into it. After all, this blog’s whole purpose is to provide info for newbies and less experienced people who JUST NEED SOME INFO and don’t necessarily wanna read about someone’s life story and travel diaries.
So when you go off-road, as we discussed in the first point, you’re going to encounter a lot more lumps and bumps. But just because you have higher ground clearance now, doesn’t mean the caravan is 100% safe.
You won’t be bottoming out now, but unless you can somehow cushion the impact to the caravan from all those lumps and bumps, you’re still gonna destroy your caravan…
So just like your 4WD vehicle, it’s gonna need some more high tech and purpose built suspension to drastically reduce the impact forces of each lump and bump.
Corrugations are only tiny little bumps, but because there’s always thousands of them, all spaced a few centimetres apart, it’s like taking a jackhammer and hammering away at your caravan.
Things are gonna break.
This post is intended more to just get you aware of what’s necessary and what’s not when looking into off-road caravans, but if you want to get into depth about the finer points of caravan suspension, there’s a good article HERE that goes into the different variations of suspension and their advantages and disadvantages.
Meanwhile, you now hopefully have a grasp on why purpose built off-road suspension is one of the 3 main factors when considering your own off-road caravan needs.
So let’s talk about the 3rd main difference in an off-road caravan.
Specifically: Durability of the design, and of the construction materials.
Even the highest ground clearance and the best suspension in the world isn’t going to reduce 100% of the impact and vibration damage that your caravan will suffer as a result of long hours on rough terrain.
It will greatly minimise it, but will never eliminate it 100%… so the 3rd most important thing to consider is the external design and construction of the body and the internal fixtures.
Let’s start with the external issues.
Being off road, you are naturally going to be flinging up more sticks, stones, dirt, and mud from the tires of your tow vehicle, so you will need some outer protection on the caravan…. Especially at the very front.
A lot of off-road caravans have that nice shiny army tank looking checker plate steel panels around the outside to protect it from flying solid objects and tree branches that jump out and attack you as you drive past them, but you will find 99% of these impacts are at the front.
So whether it has checker plate steel panels or some good thick tough mesh type material (not that weak flimsy looking stuff)… you will need at least something at the front of the caravan to protect it from flying debris.
Next is the construction of the shell (or body) itself.
When travelling over rough terrain, especially corrugations, the constant vibration is going to, slowly but surely, begin to loosen screws and nails, and anything held on by hinges, like doors, windows, etc.
You might have the best suspension in the world, but no one wants to pull up to camp and find they have no doors or windows anymore, and find that the walls are about to fall apart… and find your bed and furniture coated in a thick layer of red dust!
So the construction of the walls, doors, windows, vents, etc need to designed to withstand constant vibration and not be able to come undone while you’re travelling.
Again, I won’t go into specifics on what should be done and what materials should be used because this could turn into way too big an article.
Just be aware of these things and look for them when checking out caravans, and ask specific questions when talking to dealers and sales staff.
Then you have the internal issues…
Surprisingly, a lot of supposed “off-road caravan” manufacturers have not given too much attention to what happens on the inside of the van during those long rough trips, so the drawers, cupboards, and other storage spaces are either, not fixed to the walls properly and end up falling off, or their locking mechanisms aren’t sturdy enough, and can break or come loose, resulting in your cutlery, crockery and kitchen utensils being strewn all over the inside of the van.
The plumbing needs to be extra tough too. A normal pipe or hose fixture can easily be rattled loose and you can end up with water spilling out into your dwelling and make for a miserable time when you really just wanna be relaxing after a hard day’s driving.
So basically, everything inside the van needs to be fixed and secured with extra precaution and more solid designs and construction materials.
If you’re looking at buying an off-road caravan, those 3 things are the main things you must consider. Look at everything inside and out and think to yourself, would that survive a jackhammer?
If not, then keep looking.
Read The Fine Print
If you’re on a manufacturers website, always read their fine print. Some companies will actually have disclaimers saying that their off-road caravans are not designed for prolonged off-road use and some even say they are not designed for those “4WD only” tracks.
If you really wanna go hardcore off-road, just remember that an off-road caravan is still just a big heavy box being dragged along behind you.
Just because some slick salesman tells you it can go anywhere you want it to go, doesn’t mean it actually can. Remember, you’re still towing a giant heavy box behind you.
So if it’s hardcore, 4WD only, rugged outback, bush camping you wanna do, then maybe look into an off-road Camper Trailer as opposed to a caravan.
The fact that you can fold a camper trailer down into a neat, solid, low lying box makes it much more suitable for serious off-roading….
But that’s opening up a whole other can of worms that we just don’t have the time and space for here in this post.
But if you want to read more about Off-Road Camper Trailers, I’ve got a post coming soon and I’ll add the link in here as soon as it’s done.
You may have already noticed there are so many opposing opinions out there on off-road VS road caravans, but just remember, they are opinions, not always facts.
You could take 2 seperate groups with identical caravans and send them along the exact same track….. but at different times of year…. and you’ll get 2 totally different opinions from each group.
For example, if you send one group out at the start of the dry season… the roads have just been graded, so they’re nice and flat and have minimal corrugations, and that group will be singing the praises of their awesome off-road caravan that got them through thick and thin….
But then you send the other group out towards the end of the dry season when all the corrugations are at their worst and the roads have been hammered by hundreds and hundreds of other outback travellers and their 2 to 3 tonne rigs, and you will hear a totally different story from them.
So just remember when you’re reading opinions online, consider what conditions they were in, and what conditions you will be in, and try to keep an open mind.
But mainly, just remember that an off-road caravan is still a caravan and is still just a big heavy box that has to go where you tow it and doesn’t have the luxury of choosing it’s own line through boulders and obstacles.
Just try to stay focused on the 3 main factors above…. ground clearance, suspension, and durable design inside and out, and you will have the most important issues covered right there.
One more thing we should touch on, seeing as you’ve come this far, is…
You would think it would be wise to have the cabin completely sealed so that those never ending clouds of thick red dust don’t find their way in through all the vents…
When it comes to certain appliances, like refrigerators and freezers, gas stoves & ovens, etc. there are certain laws requiring certain amounts of ventilation for certain types of appliances in order to prevent things like over heating, and the build up of toxic and/or flammable gases inside the cabin.
So keep that in mind and maybe do some research on the finer points of those specific laws if you really wanna get deeper into it. But just know that you’re unlikely to find a caravan that is totally sealed off… unless it has no appliances… ie, is just a portable bedroom.
Well, by now, you should have a good idea of the most important, and in my personal opinion, the only things, that really matter in the best off-road caravans.
If you like what you’ve read here and you wanna know even more about all things road tripping around Australia, then we just happen to have another blog post you will definitely be interested in called:
Just click the link above and everything you could ever need for your trip is covered in one big huge blog post so you can come back and refer to it over and over, as you need.
It’s constantly being updated with the latest info too, so make sure you check back regularly.