Nigel HutsonSee other Advice articles filed in ‘General caravan advice’ written by Nigel Hutson
It’s grabbed your attention, it has been nagging away at you and, eventually, you decide to investigate things further.
But what at first appears to be simple turns out to be an absolute minefield. There’s lots to learn and there are so many caravans for sale of all shapes, sizes and weights, so where do you start?
Practical Caravan is here to help.
Let’s start with the tow car
Before splashing out on a caravan, you need to know what you will require in terms of a tow car – and it doesn’t have to be a massive SUV.
Of course, common sense will tell you that a city car isn’t going to be capable of safely towing a big twin-axle caravan, but if you have a reasonably sized family car, what will it comfortably tow?
For a beginner, both of the UK’s big caravanning clubs (The Camping and Caravanning Club and the Caravan and Motorhome Club) recommend that the maximum weight of the caravan should not exceed 85% of the car’s kerbside weight.
Unless the car’s towing limit is less than the 85%, you can pretty much forget that. I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve heard a car’s towing limit quoted (which in many cases is heavier than the fully laden car!) or someone at a caravan dealership saying, “the car dealer says that my car will tow two tonnes”.
It may do, but that figure is derived from the testing that manufacturers carry out to evaluate the structural and mechanical durability of any vehicle, not what might be safe or sensible to tow on the road.
Good caravan dealers are switched on to this, and I have known one to refuse a sale to someone who was arguing that point.
Preparing your car to tow
The first and most obvious thing is to fit a tow bar and its associated electrics.
Have the tow bar fitted by a reputable company, as most modern cars will need to have their own electrics programmed to ensure that everything works properly – things like the reversing sensors cutting out when the caravan is connected.
If you’re given a choice of the earlier twin electrics (known as 12N and 12S) or the later 13-pin type, go for the latter. If you buy a caravan with the earlier type connections, adapters are readily available.
Let the person fitting the towbar know that you intend to tow a caravan, as it should ensure that you have all the necessary electrics installed – fridge connections, battery charging and so on.
You’ll need to know what the noseweight limit for the car is. Put simply, that’s the vertical weight onto the tow ball. You should be able to find this in your car’s handbook.
Buying a caravan
Do not spend a fortune!
Shiny, new models are very tempting, but costly, and a 10-year old caravan will have pretty much all the comforts of a new one.
If after a season you decide that caravanning isn’t for you, or you find that you really do like it and you’d like to upgrade, if you’ve started at the more affordable end of the spectrum you’ll probably get most of your money back.
Now comes the hard bit, and that’s finding the right model for your needs, with a layout that works for you, in a caravan that’s within your car’s capabilities.
If there are four of you, then you need four beds (or berths). It sounds obvious doesn’t it?
If you’ve got a couple of teenage offspring, buying a caravan that has two double beds isn’t going to be very popular with them, but at the same time many bunks have weight restrictions and are only meant for young children.
Don’t be tempted to go along the route of buying a two-berth and believe that attaching an awning will provide the extra bedroom. It might.
But what happens if you arrive on-site, having been delayed on your journey, and the rain is coming at you sideways? The last thing that I’d be doing in that weather is putting an awning up.
Visit a few dealerships and have a look around their ‘used’ section to get an idea of what’s available. Get in the vans, think how you would live in that space to see if that floorplan will suit you.
Scour private adverts, too, as well as Practical Caravan’s used caravans for sale pages.
When you think that you’ve found the right caravan for you, take an experienced caravanning friend with you to have a look and to give you a second opinion as you’ll no doubt be in holiday mode with the rose-coloured glasses on. We’ve all been there.
What caravan accessories to buy?
Of course, you don’t want to go crazy and buy loads at first, just in case touring isn’t for you. But there are some essential caravan accessories.
Sometimes you might be lucky, especially with a private sale, and find that the seller is including most of the equipment you’ll need.
Dealers often supply a ‘starter kit’, too, which will have some of the essentials. However, you’ll probably need most of the following accessories for comfortable touring:
- Towing mirrors – if your car’s body (excluding the mirrors) is narrower than the caravan, you will not have the legally required ‘adequate’ view along the side of the caravan.
- Number plate to attach to the rear of the caravan.
- A spare wheel for the caravan – be sure there is one.
- 12V leisure battery.
- Mains hook-up lead.
- A gas cylinder (at least one) and associated connectors – seek advice from the dealership or a knowledgeable friend on this.
- Fresh water container (the type that roll are best as you might be sited quite a way from the nearest tap).
- Fresh water pump/pipe to connect the supply to the caravan.
- Waste water container (one with wheels).
- Waste water pipe(s).
- Corner steady winder.
- Levelling ramp.
- Wooden blocks to place under the corner steadies in case you’re on soft ground, or sited on a slope and the steadies don’t quite reach the ground.
- Toilet fluids.
- Noseweight gauge (to ensure that you’re not overloading the hitch/tow bar).
- Crockery, cutlery, pots and pans (but be mindful of excess weight!).
- Wheel and hitch lock (often an insurance requirement).
- Spirit level.
Your first caravan holiday
Whatever you do, don’t be too ambitious on your first trip.
Towing takes some getting used to and at first can be quite tiring, so restrict yourself to a drive about an hour from home – it also means you don’t have far to come back if something goes wrong.
If possible, before you venture out, familiarise yourself with the caravan’s various systems. Most things are explained in the handbook, but if not, do a search online. Don’t rely on luck when you arrive on-site in the dark!
Also, be sure to practise hitching and unhitching.
How to hitch and unhitch your caravan
We’ll begin with unhitching because when you collect your caravan you’re likely to have had help with the hitching, but now you’re on your own.
The main thing to remember is the breakaway cable, which is the red plastic covered cable that’s attached to the car.
When hitching, this should be the first thing that’s attached and, when unhitching, the last thing to be detached. It’s a safety device, after all. So, what’s next when unhitching?
- Apply the caravan handbrake.
- Disconnect the electrics. If it’s a 13-pin connection, twist the plug through 90 degrees anti-clockwise and it should come out.
- Release the jockey-wheel clamp and lower the jockey wheel until it’s a few inches from the ground, then unwind it so that the wheel is on the ground. If you simply lower it to the ground, the wheel will not pivot as the arms will remain in the locating slots, plus you might need the leeway if you’re parked on a slope so that you can get the caravan level.
- If you have a hitch stabiliser fitted, lift the handle as vertically as it will go.
- Then, whilst raising the hitch handle as high as it will go, wind the jockey wheel until the hitch detaches from the car’s tow ball.
- Finally, detach the breakaway cable.
Hitching up is basically a reversal of the above. When attaching the caravan to the car, raise the hitch handle, and it should remain up until the hitch is lowered onto the tow ball of the car, when it will click down.
With this done, wind the jockey wheel back up so that the caravan hitch lifts the back of the car. If it does, you know that it’s been coupled properly.
You’ll need an assistant to check the caravan road lights for you, and then to help you set up the towing mirrors correctly. For the latter, you need the outfit to be straight.
Just the beginning…
There are so many things that we haven’t been able to cover in the space available here, this is just a brief introduction. And remember, caravanners are generally friendly folk so if you have any doubts, ask.
Look through the advice pages on this website and you’ll find the answers to many questions and expert advice articles on topics including buying used caravans, correct loading, decoding your caravan’s plates, speed limits when towing, cleaning your caravan, essential tow car checks, sourcing spares and much more.
We’ve all had to start somewhere and there’s no such thing as a stupid question. Above all, take your time and enjoy your new freedom.
Oh, and finally, remember to wind the corner steadies up before you tow!
And if you have any more questions, don’t forget to head to our friendly forum.