When is an off-road van not an off-road van?

Published: October 20, 2016
Off-road caravans loved by grey nomads

Grey nomad and unsealed road enthusiast, Phil J, finds all is not what it could be – or should be – in the world of off-road caravans

An off-road caravan should be capable of travelling off the main and minor gazetted roads. It should be robust enough to manage unsealed gazetted roads. In fact, to get truly off road the ‘van will probably need to travel on these unsealed gazetted roads which are usually rougher than the off road tracks.

These unsealed roads are stony, very often corrugated, have soft sand and bull dust, wash-outs, sudden dips and rough cattle grids. This is what we actually expect to encounter, and many of us look forward to it! Stones are thrown up by the wheels of the tow vehicle and the wheels of the ‘van. These stones are travelling about twice the forward speed of the vehicle combination and when they hit the underneath of the caravan they will eventually cause damage. Anything not protected underneath the ‘van will break.

The corrugations can cause so much vibration as to loosen or destroy anything that hasn’t been prepared to handle them. The amount of vibration is dependent on the tyre air pressures, the size of the corrugations and the speed travelled.

But all of that aside, any caravan which is marketed and sold as an off-road caravan should be capable of handling the conditions expected to be encountered. An off-road caravan should be designed to go off road (unsealed gazetted roads). Otherwise it is just a high lift touring caravan.

Sometimes in the warranty small print there is a waiver which won’t cover damage from corrugated roads. Fair enough if the waiver is restricted to careless vehicle handling or road surfaces so badly damaged they should not have been driven on. But not for ‘normal’ conditions.

The reason we buy an off-road van is so that we can go off the bitumen to places that we can’t access by staying on it. The salesman will not reveal all the hidden waivers in the warranty or invite you to check under the van and see how well protected it is. We buy these vans being assured that they will take us anywhere – nobody mentions that they will not necessarily get you back again in one piece!

There is a (are) Caravan Manufactures Association(s) which is (are) supposed to supervise the build standards of the vans. Why have they not provided suitable guidelines for off road caravans? Why is it just enough to lift the ‘van a few inches and put some stone protection around the lower front and sides? What about underneath and security of the internal fittings and appliances?

When you try to claim a warranty related to damage caused by the vehicle not being able to handle corrugations etc. the manufacturer/dealer washes his hands of the whole business.

A comment made to an acquaintance of mine by a caravan salesman was that “most people just buy an off-road van for the prestige, they will never actually take it off road”.

Most people I have met on the road (or off the road) have had troubles with their van because it wasn’t built to handle the terrain they bought it to handle.

Something really needs to be done about this situation. If the van is not truly built for ‘off-road’ use it should not be advertised/marketed as such. I am uncertain of what can be done about it. It seems the Caravan Builders Associations are not interested as long as the manufacturers are getting their sales. Fair means or foul.

Most of us are at the stage of our lives where we do not really want to face and fight the problems we are encountering, we just want to retire/travel gracefully and quietly. So who will stand up for us? As far as I can see – nobody. It seems we are alone with the problem and will have to get on with it.

I’m talking about common sense things here too. Things like exposed electric brake wires, exposed waste pipes, exposed connections to water tanks. They try to make it look good by putting a protection plate in place for the external water tap. Buyers can see that without having to look underneath!

Please, Caravan Manufacturers, we are your bread and butter. If you continue to supply us with below standard (but what standard, I might ask?) products we are not going to buy another one from you. We will go elsewhere and probably lower our standards and expectations in the process.

Or am I just being a “Grumpy Old Man”?

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Catherine Curnow
5 years ago

A great post, thank you! We’ve had excactly this problem: Paid a lot extra for a van we were assured could go off road, only to find we’ve sustained a lot of damage by doing so. Luckily my husband’s a carpenter and able to fix mist things (to a better standard than they were before the breakages). We’ve both driven on gravel roads all our lives so we KNOW how to drive off road. We are hoping to have our stove/oven replaced under warranty. Once everything’s fixed we probably won’t go off road again as it’s not worth ruining the van. However it IS annoying that we’ve paid a lot of money for a van that couldn’t do what we were told it could handle…..

5 years ago

We have a top of the range off road van and have had it truly off road many times. Through wash outs, through rivers and on many corrugations. Never any problems, not even a flat tyre. We drive to the conditions and I do believe you get what you pay for.

Neridah Armstrong
5 years ago
Reply to  Maura

Hi Maura, we have just brought a traveller Predator off road van, now I truely hope it is. What is the make of your van?

David Little
3 years ago

Hi Neridah, I am wondering how you feel about the off road capability of your Predator after a years use.
We purchased a Predator and took delivery back in Jan 18 And had to have a few issues resolved which I am pleased to report were attended to without hesitation by the dealer & backed by Traveller.. Our first trip of the last couple of months has been only on blacktop but country Qld roads and other than a few minor items to be attended to at the next service, all has been good. Does need to be towed with large vehicle with WDH. We are Melbourne based.

2 years ago
Reply to  David Little

We are looking at a traveller Predator off road van
what vehicle are you using to tow it?

David L
2 years ago
Reply to  Al

Hi Al, Towing with a LC200 4.5L twin turbo diesel. Have fitted air bags to rear suspension & pump up to 20psi & tows level. Also fit the weight distribution bars but only pull up until they take a little weight. Tows great & very stable. Be careful of how much you load the van as the Predator can load up the tow ball which reduces what can be put in & on the LC200. Very happy now & we have the aluminium chassis.

4 years ago
Reply to  Maura

What type of van do you have?

Keren Bashford
4 years ago
Reply to  Maura

Looking at buying an offroad van but very dubious of make. What is yours and year. Regards Keren

Kevin O'Beirne
5 years ago

I’m disappointed that the various RV magazines and Web sites which write reviews on these products only say what the manufacturer wants them to say and not the indepth apprisal their readers need to hear.

John Saunders
5 years ago
Reply to  Kevin O'Beirne

Yep, Kevin, I’m with you on this one. We’re in the pre-purchase process at the moment and I have largely found magazine reviews to lack the rigour one would expect, to simply sprout the manufacturer (read “advertiser”), and to “road test” the van for a weekend…if that. You really have to go to the shows, do factory tours, and know what you’re looking for if you don’t want to get trapped.

5 years ago
Reply to  John Saunders

John, there are website forums set up by users of various van brands. These often explores issues van owners have had and queries from potential buyers on aspects of the product; worth checking out before purchasing.

Robyn Davies
5 years ago

So Catherine, I am not sure if your post is saying the caravan was damaged or the interior fittings. If the caravan itself is not damaged then it meets the off road standard. If the stove/oven requires replacing then it is the stove and not the caravan itself that was damaged. Unfortunately, try as they may, some manufacturers cannot give a 100% guarantee that the stove they have built in will not come loose from its’ footings. That is why some are now using airbags in suspensions to help alleviate some of the problems with cabinetry.

5 years ago

I totally agree with your article. There are not many vans we have seen on our around Australia travels that are truly off road. We have taken our van onto some unsealed gazetted roads as were told ours was semi off road….higher, larger chassis, checkerplate etc but unfortunately what you say is correct these vans are not suited to anything other than bitumen as the internal cupboards etc are not made to stand up to this treatment. The external tap protectors are not real ours snapped off before any dirt road. What’s to be done? We become smarter and share our stories so hopefully people won’t be conned by manufacturers advertising.

5 years ago

I agree with Maura’s comments above. Drive to suit conditions and vehicle and you get what you pay for. I have a well known manufacturer van thats name indicates it is suitable for all manner of roads but the reality is it is not. I knew that buying it and have taken measures to ensure underbody protection, dust sealing etc is improved. It was however $40K cheaper than a ‘true’ offroad van so I’m happy to put in some work. I will go places that I feel the van can handle and travel at a speed that minimises potential damage.

Agree with the theme of the article with regards to how vans are marketed/sold but I do feel for the manufacturers as you can’t warrant against stupidity of the operator. How much more would we all be prepared to pay for a warranty that covers ‘Johnno’ for repairs cause he wants to drive at 100km/h on a badly corrugated road.

Fred Grenioulle
5 years ago
Reply to  Cameron

“You get what you pay for” oversimplifies the problem and suggests it is the buyers fault, if a caravan fails to live up to the makers claims if they buy anything less that the most expensive.

Some makers have been producing caravans where lack of quality control or inability to handle rough conditions, is only part of the story. In some cases it is more akin to outright fraud, dangerous incompetence in electrical installations, incomplete installation of insulation, lack of adequate or any sealant in critical areas, poor welding of chassis components, all these things are shown graphically in the “horror stories” thread of another major caravan web forum, amply illustrated with “skin off” pictures of “naked caravans” by a Queensland caravan repair business, that repairs many of the disaster cases from the shonky makers. People should not be exposed to such fraudulent conduct, for that is what it is.

5 years ago

It is like a manufacturer takes your money (135k), the when you call them multi time to ask about something they seem to think it is ok to ignore you for 3 months now

5 years ago

Class Action against a builder will fix/scare the hell out of manufactures. That is what is required. I purchased a small van that by its name and reviews suggested it was OFF ROAD. Before we left the seal road a shocky had broken, the trailing arm suspension had failed! It was only 3 months old and when I contacted the dealer he said quote who are you, I dont recall selling you a van unquote. A group of us take action against a dealer and or manufacture and you watch things change then. If the price of vans goes up so what? It may fix a very big problem within the van manufacturing industry.

5 years ago

You get what you pay for. Most travellers could name the few genuine, true, off road vans. You only have to look at the price difference between these and the ones that claim to have beefed up their on-road version to “make” it off road, or added an “off road pack” – to realize there must be significant differences between the genuine articles and the pretenders. We had a proper off road van for years ,and it really did stand up to the tough conditions and bad roads. It is also worth noting that a large van with all the bling is unlikely to be a real off roader!

David MacDonald
5 years ago

We purchased a caravan advertised as “off-road” specifying to the dealer we intended to travel extensively on dirt roads such as Gib River Rd. We have owned caravans since 1972 & travelled extensively. Our last caravan although not a true off road van performed adequately in these conditions. Although the suspension & chassis handles conditions OK, the attention to detail is abismal, poor dust sealing, glue on walls, bad plumbing (water will not run uphill), badly applied fittings, no clean up off swarf & sawdust after production, I could go on & on. What happened to pride in product?

Mack Carson
5 years ago

There are three classes of vans.
Road. SEMIoffroad, and OFFroad.
Any decent quality van can do the first.

Any PRPERLY made semi van is that.
SEMI offroad.
Dirt roads. Light corrugations. basically structurally stronger.

I’ve always bought the SEMi offroad. as anything longer than say 15ft. is physically incapable of being a FULL offroader.

The semi. Using my examples (Roadstar, I’ve had 3 plus a Compoass)
all semi. I buy for two main reasons.

The chassis is beefed up I buy the double 4in rails.
double 6in is too rigid on rough roads without super soft or air suspension.
Plus the body is stronger. Stifffer with thicker materials. aand bOLTED as well as screwed and stapled.
Most standard and a lot of off roaders are, at most. screwed and primarily stapled.
Go to a caravan repairers and look inside the framework of most builders. You’ll die
I’ve towed my SSEMI offroaders all over AUStralia.
Where sensible caravanning can occur. WITH common sense.

You going bush. real bush.
You use a 14 ft Phoenix. 12/13 ft Supreme offroader. or a serious camper trailer. Anything else is just TOO BIG.
But Preferably a roof tent.
I’ve had my 6.5mtr Roadstar in dams and such where I’ve misjudged and had to winch out. (My fault.)
But mainly I buy that model of van for the EXTRA physical framework/chassis strength = longevity and less problems.
Apart from these modern vans (I don’t know them)
There’s around 4 I’d use as well built corrugations capable mFG’s.

Phoenix. SMALL SUpreme models. Trackmaster.
and believe it or not. A lot ofof the smaller older mfg’s vans
They built like brick S–houses.
If you buy and update. they as good as and a lot cheaper
than modern vans that aren’t as good for multiple times the price.
Just check Chassis froor and framework fine first.
rewire with LED’s. SUpply on demand HWS with outside shower.
Inside tut. Stronger (Maybe) axle\springs
Add Shockers.
Strip and reseal all external joints. reset windows.
And you’ll have a van that will go anywhere just about and
Get you back again.
It’ll look a thousand times nicer than these grey. Yellow. Black square aluminiun boxes perched up in the air above chassis rails and susp.
Ugly as.
Mobile horse boxes not fit for, and TOO big for anything but Bitumin and dirt roads.

Dealers have got all these people conned. that BIG is beautiful
(Thank you. Thank you as the extra $$$$’s roll in)
When actually anything offroadish. should be MAx, around 17ft 6in.
Serious offroad. max 14ft, preferably 12ft6 to 13 ft6.
Even they have problems getting serious places “OFF ROAD”..
That’s where the serious Camper trailers come in. But not those
$50-80odd grand things. They just show pony’s.
6×4/ 7×5 box trlrs with raised and proper suspension under with tent on top is the go.

just my opinions after 50 odd yrs doing it. From dirt bike with tarp,
Round Aust lap, up.

5 years ago
Reply to  Mack Carson

Couldn’t agree more with you about length. It is a dilemma for builders of proper off road vans that they have to build what the customer wants, but privately they will tell you 16 foot absolute max if you want to travel bush tracks and the like.

Anton de Vent
4 years ago
Reply to  Mack Carson

Mack, we have a 20′ Bushtracker and we go OFF ROAD, fully off road at times. If it will fit between the trees, we will go and have done so. We have had no failures other than a couple of drawer catches in the early days. We have done about 20,000 kms of outback “roads” including Oodnadatta Track, Tanamai Desert Track, the Darling River Run, Gibb River Road and out to Kalumbaru. 20′ is fine if you have the skill and the gear.

Greg Matthews
5 years ago

We bought an on road van and then had it beefed up to cope with anything we throw at it. After five years of off road travel on some of the worst roads in the outback it is holding together very well I we are pleased to report. No major probs at all. Tyre pressures are very very important on both the van and tow vehicle. Would highly recommend the manufacturer of our van.

Graham Ayton
5 years ago
Reply to  Greg Matthews

What’s the make of your van please Greg.

Mack Carson
5 years ago


That’s one I forgot.
and probably the best value for money on market.
as an ALL roads van
THEY really do go everywhere. AND back again.

Along with Barry’s new models.
“Sunland??. I think they are.

Greg Matthews
5 years ago

To Mack Carson, our van is a Roadstar, and it is very well built.

John Saunders
5 years ago

I heartily agree with the article. As I said in an earlier “response” post – my wife and I are in the pre-purchase process, and I have been on a steep learning curve. Magazine reviews are next to useless (see my comments above). On the outside all the vans virtually look the same – it’s what you generally can’t see that matters. Having bought a camper trailer from a “good Aussie family business” and then being burnt, with a potential outlay upwards of $70,000…we, let’s say this time we’re being VERY careful. What appalls me is that there is no apparent standard enforced (or even suggested) by the manufacturing industry, let alone regulators. If you don’t do massive amounts of homework, then, quite literally, you’re stuffed. And, it shouldn’t be that way. This is where the fella with the class action is right on the money, because at the end of the day, that’s all it’s about for many of the manufacturers – money, profits and better margins.

Ahhh, I feel better now!

5 years ago

Another big tick for the Roadstar caravans.
Ours is a 2004 Trackvan and despite many many klms of dirt roads it is still in very good condition.
Preventative maintenance, low tyre pressures and driving to conditions are only some of the essentials for a good trip.
But let’s not forget good ol common sense.

4 years ago
Reply to  Bill

To Bill re Trackvan. Have a 2004 Trackvan goes well though weght an issue. Tare 2000kg though weighs 2200. GTM upgraded to 2250, ATM 2650 heavy on ball at 280 when lightly loaded. Fill the tanks and its over weight??? Do you have wieght issues/solutions?

Bob Richards
5 years ago

What’s the difference between off road and All Terrain. I notice that Kedron class there vans as All Terrain.

5 years ago

Depends what you classify as an off road van? Jayco sell off-road vans under $50k however recommend they are used as a base station only and don’t go off reasonable gravel roads. Unless you buy a full off-road van at $100k + to $150k+ you are going to have problems. Unfortunately you only get what you pay for!

Terry Ryan
5 years ago

Hi there, does anyone have any comments on the Roadstar Safari Tamer as an off road van. We are looking at one of these(new). We plan to do the big lap and are not sure what we will need but certainly don’t want to be scared off from driving roads like the gibb river, just because we got the wrong van.

Garry Preston
5 years ago
Reply to  Terry Ryan

Ditto to Terry’s question, I need to purchase before November 2017. We’ll be upgrading in prep for prolonged grey nomad experience …very exciting as it’s taken 67 years to get here. We’re into bush free camping. No intention of doing the Gibb River road or the like. Thanks for your gutsy comments Mack Carson …greatly appreciated. Gutsy because you gave van names and models etc which is what we need when we’re about to purchase our home for the next ten years or so. My focus is Roadstar Safari Tamer. Your comments would be greatly appreciated. Gaza.

Ken Nizam
4 years ago
Reply to  Garry Preston

Hi Garry

The Safari Tamer is specifically a full off road van more than capable to travel along the Gibb River beaten track. It’s not only a full off road van with solid build quality and design but luxury and comfort that follows with ease with towability. I can provide you with many owners who will highly praise the model that have travelled along the Gibb River and back without a problem.

You can also read comments from our face book page of Safari Tamer owners and their feedback. We currently uploaded a photo of a 2009 Daintree by Glen Harris and his experience. apparently whatever Glen touches he breaks but no evidence on the Daintree which is in no way comparison to the Safari Tamer.

I also appreciate the above comments by members of the forum and experience of Roadstar owners that have highlighted their experience, and guidance of expectation including owners responsibility. That said I also agree a van that is purchased for a purpose must be capable to handle the terrain and unexpected conditions to withstand problems encountered when remote.

Roadstar welcomes you to do a factory tour where we will highlight differences, and non visible features and benefits before even listing what makes a true off road van, Safari Tamer and benefits with assurance and peace of mind.

Ken Nizam
4 years ago
Reply to  Garry Preston

Hi Garry

I also like to make mention that most popular length is the 20’6″ layout. Glen’s Daintree was a 21’6″ family layout and had no problens travelling along the Gibb River beaten track despite punished during travel for fun. Restriction of length with Roadstar is not a concern as we’re always ready for full time off road adventure.

David McGillivray
4 years ago
Reply to  Terry Ryan

After 40 years of travelling on out back dirt roads we reckon any van can go anywhere if you travel to the conditions – like slowly.
On a recent trip to Cape York we saw two commodores towing aging 17ft caravans returning from their trip – they made it ok with no damages or even a flat tyre – how did the do it – they let their tyres down and travelled bloody slow. It’s not a race we don’t have to be first into the next camp ground.

4 years ago

Mark and Greg
We are looking at the Roadstar voyager 2001 offroad camper. Can either of you give me any advice or opinion. I can not find jack all info on them

Greg Matthews
4 years ago

I can only speak for the Roadstar vacationer that was beefed up for our use. Independant suspension, heavier chassis, 16 in wheels etc. No problems worth mentioning. Gibb River very easy, but have been on a lot worse, still no probs. 5 yrs old now, will soon look at another Roadstar.

4 years ago
Reply to  Greg Matthews

Hi Greg my husband has been looking at Roadstar vans. We only have a pajero and we are thinking of a smaller van say 17 foot. What do the weights of the Roadstar vans look like?

4 years ago

This forum is so interesting. I like the Roadstar Little Ripper but my husband says that the payload is not enough. We tow with an Isuzu D Max. He says that only leaves 100kg for stuff in the van. That sounds heaps to me. Am I being unrealistic?

Tony Kendal
3 years ago
Reply to  Cath

Cath, you are being very unrealistic.
Buy your meat and veg for 3 weeks at home and weigh it.. Bingo – 100kg. Gornski. Now add ‘drinks’, water, walking and camping gear, a few pairs of shoes (each) , dutch oven and pan, BBQ + plate and bottles– oops, there’s another 60 kg gorn.
UNless you have plastic plates and glasses, knives and forks + cooking pots/pans, another 15 kg. Batteries, lap top and chargers, camping books and other ‘essential stuff”. say 5 kg.
When we loaded our 22’ Kokoda X-Trail van, without blinking an eye we added 350kg and the 300 liters of water tanks were still empty..

3 years ago

Great post. Problem with most of this is that the meanings of words are in the people and not in the words themselves. For example, I don’t regard the Oodnadatta Track as “off road”. I regard it as a gravel road that sometimes could do with some maintenance. Others may regard it as off road, but off road to me resembles something akin to fire tracks. Our van has Simplicity suspension yet it is called a semi off road van. There is a video on Youtube of Simplicity suspension doing things I would never ask my van to do. Despite careful driving I have been greeted at the door by our stove when arriving at William Creek from Marree. It made me have a much better look at construction particularly when I noted that the stove was secured to the van by screws into the end grain of particle board. The table is secured by screws through 3 ply. These things aren’t going to secure on road fixtures let alone the bounces of gravel roads. I have since addressed these problems with aluminium angle and self tappers. Frankly I think I’ll go back to an off road trailer. At least I know what I’m getting.

Paul Winterton
3 years ago

well said and so true once out of the yard, got your money too bad word of mouth gets around so builders look after your customers and give them what they want

Len Sorrell
2 years ago

We bought a second hand 19′ Paramount off-road van in 2010 and towed it around Australia for 15 months and covered 35,000 km’s. The worst track we encountered (other than the road to Cape Laveque and the Tanami) was the Great Central Highway with it’s endless miles of corrigations, deep sand, rocks and clay pans and deep wheel ruts. On the whole trip we only had one puncture. But the door opening forward when vibrating tended to flap open a bit and act as a scoop and each time we pulled up the van was full of dust, sand and small gravel. We now have a New Age semi and on the Darling River run recently, hardly had any dust enter, but had two cupboard door hinges let go.All in all we are pleased with our semi van.

Ron Micallef
1 year ago

I am in the process of buying a 2014 Roadstar Little Ripper single axle with independent suspension.The tug is a 2015 Nissan Navara NP300 diesel..Will I need to use WDH ?Also, should I get a wheel alignment prior to hitting the road. The underside of the van is fairly “sandblasted ” and I am wondering if anyone can recommend a coating specialist in Melbourne in either the Somerton area of the SE suburbs ( I live in berwick ) ?

Ron Micallef
1 year ago

Some additional questions about my purchase. The van ( Roadstar Little Ripper ) I am purchasing is being sold on consignment. What ( if any ) procedures are in place in regard to the dealer preparing / checking the van prior to me handing over my hard earned? Is this something the seller would pay the dealer to do?

2 months ago

Does anyone know what type of suspension went on the 2015 Single axle Kokoda Platinum Endure it is independent but what make. I need to replace bushes on swing arm


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