Embarking on an all-roads trip in charge of a rig measuring up to 15m-long with a combined weight of, perhaps, 6t can be more challenging than making it out of a croc-infested creek unscathed. Apply an additional Bear Grylls factor if you haven’t done this sort of thing before or were office-bound in your ‘other life’ and have never had to handle anything heavier than a case of wine.
I’m not talking about anything specifically risky here, just the sort of thing increasing numbers of Australians are doing on a regular basis. But, unless your van is also your home, caravanning probably isn’t something you are doing every day, so it’s easy to forget some of the seemingly ‘common sense’ safety tips.
Yes, caravanning can be ‘risky business’ for the unprepared but, through the school of hard knocks, I have learned to minimise these risks the more I travel. Even though I tow caravans regularly, I have a safety procedure I go through each time I hitch up. My best advice is to make a list, keep it in your van and refresh your memory with it before you travel. It might just save your life!
Here are my personal ‘Top 10’ safe caravanning tips to help you survive your holiday.
BE RIGHT ON THE BALL
Take it from me – towing a properly balanced caravan is not only a primary safety measure, but the peace of mind it will give you is priceless.
The ball weight is usually in the range of 8-12 per cent of the empty weight of the caravan. If you are purchasing a new caravan, your dealer should have grilled you about what you are planning to do with your van, how much you intend to load in it and what you are planning to tow it with.
But what if you change your tow car or buy a second-hand van? The DIY solution is to tow your van to a public weighbridge and adjust its load manually until you get the ball weight to around 10-12 per cent. The simple rule is to place the heavy stuff low and around the axle line and the lighter stuff higher. If this doesn’t work, take it to a caravan repair specialist laden, as you intend to travel, and have them balance it correctly before you set off.
HITCH UP SAFELY
The average 18-20ft touring caravan can do some serious damage to you, your home, or your tow car if not properly secured while unhitching.
On most tandem-axle caravans, the handbrake only operates on the leading wheels and, unless it is perfectly adjusted, the van can skew and roll as it is unhitched, often with dire consequences. Wheel chocks in front and behind at least one of the wheels on either side of the van, plus another behind the jockey wheel, are a must.
SET CORRECT TYRE PRESSURES
The importance of setting the correct tyre pressures cannot be overstated. Under-inflated tyres can overheat at highway speeds on bitumen, while over-inflated tyres will shake your van apart on corrugations.
There is no one-size-fits-all pressure guide and this is where a tyre pressure monitoring system, such as the US-designed in-tyre sensor system from Inawise is invaluable, as a rapid build-up in pressure or temperature can indicate under-inflation.
FIT GOOD MIRRORS
A major cause of caravan accidents is failing to see what’s going on behind you, or where your van’s wheels are tracking. I have grown heartily frustrated with towing mirrors being blown in by passing trucks, but I have just completed a trip to far north Queensland with a set of Clearview towing mirrors fitted to my Land Rover Discovery 3 and had no trouble at all.
There are pros and cons to different mirror systems and everyone has their own preference but, regardless, this is a vital safety area and you should not let cost compromise the safety of you and your family.
TAKE FIRE PRECAUTIONS
Most caravans use gas to power their cookers and, where there is a flame, there is a potential fire danger.
While most manufacturers fit a fire extinguisher, there are no hard and fast requirements for you to check it periodically to ensure it is in proper operating condition. Any fire station should do this for you, but the DIY solution is to check the bottom of the extinguisher for its date of manufacture and replace it if it is older than four or five years.
A great supplementary measure is a fire blanket, which is a quick and much less messy way to put out a cooktop fire. Hang it on the wall near the cooktop for quick access as a fire can quickly destroy you trip, not to mention your caravan.
DON’T RELY ON OTHERS WHEN REVERSING
I’m going to get into trouble at home over this, but don’t trust your partner, helpful friends or fellow travellers in the caravan park ‘dress circle’ to guide you safely when reversing or hitching up unless you know them and their hand signals well!
I recently lost a roof-mounted antenna from the top of a van because my willing helpers were so busy guiding me into a very tight space they forgot about the bushy tree above. Even if you have a reversing camera, the only way you can really appreciate your surroundings when reversing is to get out and look for yourself.
It would also be great if everyone used a universal set of voice or hand signals to tell you exactly how far you have to go, as the sequence usually goes, “Bit more, bit more, bit more, OH (expletive deleted) – TOO FAR!” But that is hoping for far too much…
KNOW HOW TO USE YOUR JACK
A flat tyre can be a real hassle, and there are several rules to follow here. First, ensure your spare wheels are properly inflated before you travel. Then, make sure you can get to them. A large 4WD wheel and tyre can weigh up to 40kg. Can you access and handle it? And, importantly, do you know (a) where your tow car and caravan jacks are and (b) how to work them? Get them out before you travel and make sure they work and that you know how to use them.
If you do have to change a tyre, securely chock the caravan and check it will not slide off the jack before you commit to a wheel change. If you have pulled off a crowned road and the car or van is on an angle, there is a real potential for this to happen.
CARRY A TYRE INFLATOR
For a variety of reasons, you may have to reinflate a tyre on the fly – perhaps after repairing a puncture or to reinflate your tyres after lowering them for corrugations. A compact portable air pump that runs off your tow car battery is a ‘must-have’ in these situations.
If you are pulling on to the side of the road to reinflate a tyre, it can help to have a warning triangle that you can put back along the road to alert any following traffic that you are there.
PACK A GOOD FIRST-AID KIT
This sounds obvious, but caravan manufacturers don’t fit them as standard and plenty of travellers don’t think to carry them, which means if you cut your hand badly, get a bad sting, or collect a big splinter, you’re in trouble.
You can buy a good portable first-aid kit from any major motoring club office, such as the RACV or NRMA, or from an automotive spares shop, major hardware chain or chemist. Never leave home without one!
STAY AWAKE WITH TALKING BOOKS AND PODCASTS
Not every co-driver does a great job at keeping the driver awake or offers to take the wheel when they should. That’s why you need a strategy to ensure you are awake and alert when your fellow travellers aren’t.
My wife and I subscribe to several different podcasts, from ‘Conversation Hours’ to items that interest us and keep our minds sharp and alert.
Talking books are also a great way to while away the kilometres and you can hire them from libraries, or purchase and download them to enjoy more than once.
The full feature appeared in Caravan World #542 October 2015.