Caravan, Motorhome or Camper Trailer?

A COMPARISON OF RECREATIONAL VEHICLES & TRAILERS - Caravans & Fifth Wheelers

  1. Introduction, Motorhomes
  2. Caravans & Fifth Wheelers
  3. Campervans & 4WD Campers
  4. Slide-On Campers & Camper Trailers
Caravans
car towing a caravan

For decades Australia has embraced the caravanning lifestyle with country towns, tourist hotspots and roadhouses providing specialist facilities such as waste dumps, specialised parking and national park fee discounting. New motorhome sales are on the rise but the humble caravan still captures the lions share of the RV market and experiences around 10% growth per year.

The ability to hook up the van and head off on a whim is part of the attraction. Getaway's can constitute a quick weekend away or 'the big lap' - the result of years of planning which may extend to years on the road

The choice between a caravan or motorhome often comes down to driving preferences, cost and practicality.

If you already own a suitable tow vehicle and only plan to tour intermittently then buying a caravan can make a lot of sense. The ability to park a van up and forget about it until the next adventure and the fact that caravans traditionally hold their market value makes them an attractive investment.

Historically caravans consisted of sleeping quarters and a kitchenette with ablutions being dealt with 'bush style' or in caravan park facilities. Modern caravans can be equipped with the style and luxury once seen only in motorhomes and larger vans can accommodate a toilet and shower as well as an array of electronic gadgetry.

Towing a large caravan can create matrimonial stress. Big units are difficult to reverse or park and a new skill set needs to be developed in order to manoeuvre these monsters around. A fully loaded 24ft dual axle rig is a large mass that restricts overtaking, limits vision and can be an uncomfortable proposition behind the car. Big caravans coupled to a large 4x4 can see you parking long distances from shops and attractions and forsake a regular petrol station in favour of a truck bay.

For all their drawbacks it's the positive aspects of caravanning that continues to draw large numbers to the vanning fraternity each year.

The ability to 'set and forget' is probably the most attractive drawcard. Find your camping spot, set up shop and then unhitch the tow vehicle and go sightseeing, unencumbered by your home. For many people the tow car will be a four wheel drive that can open up a whole new world of off-road discovery.

The history of the caravan is steeped in the traditions of Europe's nomadic Gypsie's. Wooden, horse drawn wagons have made way for todays wide choice of styles and configurations including pop-tops and off-road caravans.

Pop-tops offer a more streamlined towing package than conventional full-height vans with the added bonus of easier storage. Their low profile keeps the bulk of the van out of the wind and helps reduce fuel usage. When it's time to pull up they create a little more work as the roof needs to be raised although the modern pop-top has evolved to include innovative jacking systems which efficiently raise the roof.

Off-road caravans can't really offer all their name promises. The chassis and suspension strengthening required to drag a van through rugged terrain works against them in the weight stakes and off-road caravans can only dream about going places a nimble camper trailer can go. Large vans, even with raised suspension, can never create the approach and departure angles required to cross deep gullies and acute hills. For gutted outback roads and the odd river crossing they work well but off-road caravans aren't designed for extreme, trail-blazing four wheel driving.


Pros

  • The ability to separate the 'ride' from the 'house'.
  • Lower depreciation than motorhomes with good resale value.
  • Large vans can contain the same levels of luxury as a motorhome.
  • Lower initial outlay if you already own the tow vehicle.
  • Better proposition to store when you're not travelling.

Cons

  • Towing, towing, towing.
  • Additional vehicle registration and insurance.
  • Fuel consumption.
  • Caravans require more work - stabilising, raising the awning etc.
  • Not built as robustly as a motorhome.
  • No living quarter access while mobile.
  • Can act like an anchor - always having to return to the 'house'.

Fifth Wheelers
fifth wheeler

The fifth wheel concept has been around for centuries incorporating a circular hitch above the front axle that helped to steer horse drawn carriages. This type of goose-neck hitch also aids in coupling and decoupling trailers and creates a more stable towing platform. This increased stability occurs because weight of the trailer is placed over the rear wheels instead of behind them. Fifth wheel couplings are those seen on prime movers towing trailers and road trains.

The Australian RV market is embracing the fifth wheel concept. Perceived advantages are easier coupling, reduced drag due to the trailer being closer to the tow vehicle (and consequently reduced fuel usage), improved towing, a better turning circle and the ability to shorten the overall length of the towing combination.

Fifth wheel couplings also allow for much heavier loads to be applied to the tow vehicle and in the RV world this means bigger trailers and more living area. This living area is normally a bi-level arrangement with the main sleeping quarters located above the fifth wheel.

The major drawbacks with this arrangement are cost, size and flexibility. Fifth wheel trailers are traditionally BIG and towing rigs need to be suitably matched in size. The fifth wheel hitch is a custom coupling that is added to your tow vehicle which needs to be a flat top truck, ute or pick-up. Fifth wheel trailers are expensive, big towing rigs are expensive and vehicle modifications are expensive. The lack of flexibility arises when your mate Joe can't borrow your van because he can't tow it (perhaps a positive) and you lose the storage capacity of your ute due to the fifth wheel. The coupling can be removed reasonably quickly from the tray back once the trailer has been decoupled but while you're towing it's a no-go zone.

Big fifth wheelers offer an extended living area which equates to a greater level of equipment fit out. They take up a lot of real estate and make a big statement. Thankfully, the positive aspects of fifth wheeling are creeping into the marketplace and smaller, lighter trailers are becoming available that don't require a small truck to tow them or a paddock to house them in.


Pros

  • Bigger payload means potentially more living area.
  • High levels of fit out and luxury.
  • The ability to separate the 'horse' from the 'cart' and use the tow rig independently.
  • Much better towing proposition with improved handling and stability.
  • Easier to reverse and manoeuvre than a caravan.
  • Reduced drag should equate to better fuel consumption.
  • Big rigs make a big statement.

Cons

  • Cost.
  • Requires a dedicated tow vehicle.
  • Big rigs need lots of room to make camp or store.
  • Smaller resale market.
  • No living quarter access while mobile.
  • Can have head clearance issues.
  • Big rigs make a big statement.


Next - Campervans & 4WD Campers ►

available now

◄ The Complete  

Guide To 4WD

and     

The 4WD ►

Campervan Guide

To Outback Touring

Subscribe to our Newsletter