Older travellers are becoming increasingly adventurous, as illustrated by the surge in popularity of off-road caravans.
A good off-road van allows you to get off the beaten track and take on roads that you wouldn’t otherwise be game to. They boast a strengthened chassis and frame, heavy-duty suspension and increased ground clearance.
Most are also geared for extended stays in the bush and include a solar panel and battery setup, extra water tanks, extra spare wheels, and gas bottle holders.
Be warned, though … some vans are more off-road than others. A little extra ground clearance and a beefed-up suspension system isn’t going to stop a van from shaking to pieces on corrugations.
As in all areas of life, you generally get what you pay for. A truly off-road caravan set up for extended trips down seriously rough tracks is going to cost a pretty penny. It can, of course, be great value … but only if it’s used for the purpose for which it is built.
The first thing any soon-to-be grey nomad needs to look at when buying an off-road caravan – or indeed any caravan – is how they are going to use it. If it’s just a matter of being prepared for those well-graded dirt roads into a national park, then it may be that there are cheaper options than buying a vehicle designed to cope with the most rugged conditions that Australia can throw at it.
These genuine off-road caravans can be seen everywhere from Cape York to the remote regions of the Kimberley. It’s worth noting, however, that all of this quality makes for a heavy van and it is this weight, rather than anything else, that ultimately limits where they can be taken.
The key building block is, of course, a seriously sturdy chassis. While the strength of steel has long made it a logical choice to be the main component of the chassis, its relative weight has sparked something of a shift in recent years. Some manufacturers are now using a combination of materials, such as steel and aluminium, making it that bit lighter without overly compromising on durability.
With the road ahead likely to be rough, rocky and rutted, another crucial element of a ‘real’ off-road van is its suspension system. An upgraded, independent system, along with shock absorbers, typically helps to keep the ride comfortable, and reduces shake, rattle and roll on the worst of the worst.
It almost goes without saying that any serious off-road caravan needs extra ground clearance, and that all of the ‘goodies’ stored underneath are well protected. Often galvanised sheet metal is added to the underbelly to ensure that the likes of the water tanks, PVC plumbing, electric wiring, and the suspension system are well protected.
Given that off-road vans will be going up and down steep inclines that are often littered with rocks and the like, a bigger rear departure angle is useful to avoid scraping … or worse! Many vans have a raised rear end or a full cutaway to give off-road vanners that little bit extra to play with.
Similarly, the rigours of the off-road require something a little bit extra in the hitch and coupling set-up. An off-road tow hitch offers a much bigger range of both vertical and horizontal articulation than a standard ball hitch does. This makes it less likely that the tow vehicle will take the van with it in the event of a rollover. An off-road tow hitch also ensures a solid connection between the two vehicles so they don’t become separated when travelling along extremely bumpy roads.
While it’s comforting to know that the structure of your shiny new off-road van isn’t going to fall apart when you get it out in to the ‘real world’, travellers also want to be confident that the interior isn’t going to look like a war zone after a spin out to the Mitchell Falls.
To that end, cupboards need to be made from the right material and secured in the right way to ensure they don’t fall apart after a few hundred – or a few thousand – kilometres of driving on heavily corrugated tracks. Materials such as marine ply are preferred by some manufacturers over the likes of MDF or chipboard, and they cabinetry is glued and screwed, and heavy-duty hinges and locks are used on doors.
Of course, it’s one thing being able to get out to the very remotest parts of Australia in your van, but you’re also going to need the wherewithal to stay there for a while and enjoy it. Again, travellers need to think long and hard about how long they might want to be truly independent. Key considerations will be how large a battery capacity will be required, the solar set-up, and the size of the water tanks.
One of the most easily overlooked aspects of buying an off-road caravan has nothing to do with the van itself … it’s to do with the vehicle that will be used to tow it. The ‘tug’ needs to be designed to go to the same rugged country as the van is, and it needs to have the grunt to safely pull what is likely to be quite a heavy set-up.