Caravans are growing larger as manufacturers continue to add modern features and functionality. This has equated to increased weight, to the point where it’s common for tare alone to exceed tow vehicle weight and for vans (once fully loaded) to push or surpass ATM limits.
Owners can use weighbridges and tally up the weight of their individual items, but the inconvenience of this clearly puts many off. In a police blitz in Gippsland a few years ago, police report only two van owners of the 71 they pulled over knew their overall combination weight. More than 50 per cent were overloaded.
Excess weight places stress on both vehicle and caravan components, including suspension and the chassis, which are not necessarily rated to handle it. Furthermore, heavy weight on the tow ball can cause the vehicle’s rear end to sag while lifting its front axle, compromising steering control, handling and braking. If the van is especially heavy behind its axle, it may even reduce rear-wheel contact.
Addressing the issue of overloading begins with the original van purchase. If possible, look at vans first, determine the weight of the one you’ll purchase, and use this to inform your choice of vehicle so you don’t end up trying to pull a B-double with a pushbike, so to speak. Be aware that tare is not necessarily accurate on the plate, especially if additional aftermarket accessories or options have been added by stockists. When adding accessories, also be aware of their impact on the manufacturer’s carefully considered balance equation and assess whether they’ll allow you to bring the luggage you’ll need.
It is a well-known rule of thumb to have 10 per cent of the weight on the tow ball (this can be gauged with a tow ball weight scale). When loading your van, do not place too much weight on the nose or too much at the rear. Place the heaviest items low down and above the axle/s and distribute light to medium items toward the ends, placing only the lightest items up high (e.g., in cabinets) if necessary. You might also want to consider a weight distribution hitch to level out ride height and place weight back onto the vehicle’s two front tyres.
Sway refers to the phenomenon of the trailer’s rear end snaking from side to side while in motion behind the vehicle. Once sway sets in, it can tend to exaggerate, with the fish-tail movement gaining speed and distance from side to side. This can ultimately result in a rollover or loss of control as commonly seen on the evening news or YouTube.
Electronic Stability Control or Sway Control is a popular and relatively straightforward way of handling sway events. One in two new vans sold now feature it and it can easily be retrofitted to existing vans. Its method is surprisingly straightforward. Added sensors monitor lateral movement and apply the trailer brakes if this becomes extreme – which ‘pulls’ the trailer back into line.
In terms of your own driving during a sway incident, it is generally advised that you ease off the accelerator and lightly apply the trailer brakes using internal controls. As a prerequisite of this, you’ll benefit from having your vehicle equipped with a quick-and-easy electric brake system requiring just one press or turn to operate. As a general rule, do not slam on the vehicle brakes or accelerate, nor attempt to make corrections to the steering wheel to stop sway.
To avoid sway in the first place, reconsider driving in wet or windy conditions. Keep your speed under 100km/h, or even less. Avoid overtaking trucks because their draught (i.e., wind buffeting) can initiate sway, and slowdown in anticipation as large vehicles approach. Avoid overloading and follow proper load distribution methods.
Old gas bottles, accessories and plumbing are vulnerable to developing leaks, so it makes sense to monitor the age of your gear. You can start today by checking the dates imprinted on your gas bottle and regulator. Leaks can also occur in newer accessories, as evidenced by numerous recalls in recent years. In an ideal world, you should be contacted if affected by a recall, but it also pays to monitor the ACCC website and news sources like Caravan World.
An internal gas leak can result in dangerous, potentially deadly levels of carbon monoxide within the van. Obviously, never store your spare gas bottles inside and only ever use proper, designated holders. Ensure the hot water system, gas fridge or other external flues are unobstructed. Consider leaving a window open and/or having the main door open and the screen door closed while operating appliances and when the gas is on. Whenever you leave, turn off gas valves on the bottles and any that are inside. If you detect a smell, particularly that distinct rotten egg smell, have the culpable appliance serviced by a professional.
Some appliances allow you to use either gas or electric sources. Do consider using such appliances on gas occasionally, as disuse can lead to degradation, becoming problematic when you may have to use the gas option at one point (e.g., if battery power is low).
Authorities advise you should never use a portable gas heater inside (as these have no external flue to divert fumes). Absolutely don’t use it when you go to sleep, as this is when you are most vulnerable to undetected carbon monoxide poisoning. Only use proper connections, never any home-made jobs, and regularly have gas appliances serviced by a gasfitter. Make a habit of checking the tightness of connections and the condition of washers and O-rings if confident to do so. Now and then, conduct the ‘bubble check’ by spraying water mixed with detergent/soap over connection points to observe for any air bubbles that indicate leaks. And hey, stunt man, never check for leaks using a lighter or a match.
Purchase a carbon monoxide alarm from a caravan or hardware store and fit it in accordance with the instructions. Have an expert install it if you lack confidence.
It's a good idea to weigh the van once loaded
ELECTRICAL AND FIRE SAFETY
Like gas, electricity in your van is governed by compliance rules and standards. As such, it’s best to have an electrician manage any additions. Faulty appliances or outlets, overloaded power points and deteriorated wiring and cabling are common causes of van fires, so keep an eye out for these risks and bring in the professionals for occasional check-ups.
Any power points you are plugging your van into ought to be equipped with a residual current device to shut off electricity in the case of a fault. That will not always be the case, or even possible to verify, so consider buying a cord with in-built RCD or surge-protection functionality.
Bring extension cords rated at 15A, as it is unsafe to use a 10A-rated cord at a 15A outlet. You should regularly check cords for damage, uncoil them before use and lay them out in straight lines without kinks before plugging in. Furthermore, you should wrap the cord around any tie-around fixture on the power box so it can’t be yanked out by a rogue toddler.
Ideally use only one cord to reach the van, but if you do use two, cover where they join with a waterproof connector. Avoid using a power board to connect your lead with the power point, favouring instead a single extension lead; and use a different lead for each of your van’s inlet sockets if there is more than one.
Electricity and gas are two of the most common causes of caravan fires. Compliance requires a fire alarm be fitted but it remains everyone’s responsibility to ensure that it’s the best, most serviceable sort (Fire and Rescue NSW advise the alarm to be photo-electric and feature a 10-year non-removeable, non-replaceable battery), and that its battery is in good health. Press the test button to check.
The main fire risk exists around the kitchen so ensure this remains clear, that oil is wiped up from previous meals, and that an in-date fire extinguisher and a fire blanket are close at hand. Many vans only have one exit (the door) but assess whether you have a second elsewhere. If you have a suitable window for emergency escape, consider carrying a window breaker tool. Ensure that any heating inside, be it gas, electric or diesel, has a clear, unobstructed vent, away from furniture and any power points or electrical accessories.
DRIVING TECHNIQUES AND MAINTENANCE HABITS
The safest travellers will go through a mental (or written) checklist before departure from camp. Steps may include checking that the TV antenna is in its travelling position, the door is locked, anything external is properly secured, the taillights are working, water and grey water points are disconnected, the stabiliser legs are up, the hitch connection is sound, the chains are crossed under the A-frame, and so forth. All the obvious stuff.
It also pays to imagine the less-obvious disaster situations and to ready yourself for them by ensuring you’re carrying the correct equipment and, just as importantly, that you know how to use it. Such items may include a PLB device, an appropriate spare tyre and a jack that’ll work with your van, tools that boost your leverage to remove rusty wheel nuts, a first-aid kit, and so on.
Know your van’s width (awning included), height (solar and antenna included) and length (spare tyre and bikes included) in case there is a narrow stretch or an overhang/ underpass. Fit towing mirrors and, if you wish, also use circular convex mirror add-ons to give you a wider picture. A reversing camera works best in conjunction with a spotter. Perhaps most importantly of all, practise in a controlled setting prior to game day.
Safe drivers follow best practices to ensure that they arrive in rude health. These are many and myriad and come naturally with experience, but here’s a shortlist: use low gearing on downhills to reduce brake overreliance and overheating; allow for the van’s corner cutting by taking a wider path around bends; and take regular rest stops and driver swaps to allow for the additional fatigue of towing. A towing course can ingrain these principles in a shorter time.
Regular maintenance and servicing start from the ground up with your tyres. Regularly check for even wear, for remaining tread depth and to confirm casings are not cracked or brittle. Regardless of wear, it is generally advised that van tyres only be used within six years of their manufacturing date. This date appears on all tyres as a circled four-digit number (4115 would mean the tyre was made in the 41st week of 2015). Don’t forget to assess the spare, which can evade the spotlight for years.
Regularly check tyre pressures so you can correct them back to manufacturer-recommended levels, detect issues early, and ensure best possible traction and stability. You can even have a tyre monitoring system installed that will provide live alerts in the cab if there are changes in tyre inflation.
Another lesser-known safety issue is the risk of sheared wheel studs and loosening wheel nuts. To monitor the tightness of wheel nuts, you can fit clip-on teardrop-shaped plastic indicators to each wheel nut to provide a visual cue of loosening. These issues are most likely to occur when aftermarket wheels and nuts are in use, when these are incompatible with the RV’s components in terms of diameters (including PCD) and other technical attributes.
On long downgrades, use low gears to assist the brakes
Brake drums are hard to access and service for the regular Jo, but it’s vital to know that in time they can wear down, peel away from the shoe, or even be chewed up by stones that have crept in. Just as importantly, they may have shifted out of proper adjustment, which can reduce braking smoothness and effectiveness. Furthermore, the wiring running under the van can also come loose and be damaged by a moving suspension, stones or water, inhibiting the van’s braking. You may also wish to place the back of your hand against each wheel at rest stops now and then, as overheating may indicate that your wheel bearings need regreasing or that your brakes are sticking.
Handbrakes may over time lose their tension, which is probably the case if you have to pull your handbrake particularly high (e.g., three quarters of the way) before it kicks in. Some people will be comfortable making adjustments themselves with basic tools (please use wheel chocks!).
For your breakaway system, keep in mind the battery expiry and condition, and regularly ensure the cable is properly connected.
For new buyers out there, the quality and the compliance of the van with Australian Design Rules and Vehicle Standards remain paramount. It is a good sign for a van manufacturer to freely participate in a quality assurance program such as the RV Manufacturing Accreditation Program (RVMAP), recognisable by its key-shaped logo.