One of the many joys of caravanning is that you can take a lot more of your clothes, belongings and accessories with you on your travels. However, to make the most of this, you have to work out how to load a caravan in a way to make the most of the available space.

Having just got back from a four-stop US road trip – without a caravan – I can vouch for the fact that trying to fit even basic family requirements in suitcases into the boot of a car is an almighty challenge, and inevitably, some essentials had to be left behind at home.

Modern caravans, by contrast, are simply packed with brilliant storage options: there are overhead lockers, external hatches, and underseat and underbed spaces. In addition, if you’re canny with your tow car choice, you can use that to carry extra kit and distribute the weight more safely.

Weighty matters

The starting point is to determine your van’s MTPLM (the maximum weight it can be towed at) and MiRO (its empty weight, which includes a gas bottle and fluid allowance – but, strangely, not the leisure battery). The difference between the two figures is your allowable payload: the weight of clothes, food, pots and pans and so on that you can carry in the van when you are towing.

A typical family four-berth caravan might have a MiRO of 1400kg and an MTPLM of 1550kg. This gives you a payload of 150kg. While that sounds like a lot, it is soon eaten up. For example, if you transport an awning at, say, 35kg, and you have a motor mover fitted, weighing about the same, that’s almost half your allowance gone already. Add your leisure battery at 12kg and a bag of clothes for each person at 15kg, and you are almost at your limit – and that’s before you add food, drinks, a TV and crockery.

This illustrates the challenges we face, especially heading off for longer breaks.

To raise the stakes further, it has been known for the police to set up temporary weigh-station checks at motorway services (particularly on the M5 and around the west country in summer), to carry out random checks on caravanners.

Those found to have transgressed the weight rules are obliged to reduce the mass of their tourer by removing items before they travel any further. Not the best way to start your holiday! So we have to be smart about our packing, and that’s where our handy advice comes in.

Shifting some weight

For starters, we can alleviate part of the kilogram conundrum by moving a portion of the weight out of the caravan and into the tow car.

I always start with the awning, which I put in the boot right behind the back seats, so that the weight is over the axle. It fits neatly and frees up a big chunk of useful payload.

I also transport our barbecue and patio gas cylinder in the car. That still leaves plenty of room for my camera bag and other valuables in the security of the car.

Balancing act

Loading your caravan has to be done with weight distribution very much in mind. There are some simple rules to apply:

  • Heavier contents should be stored on the floor of the caravan, to maintain a low and stable centre of gravity.
  • This also negates the risk of weighty items falling out of the overhead lockers and potentially causing damage.
  • The heaviest items should be placed close to, or right over, the axle in the middle of the tourer. By doing this, you should eliminate any see-sawing effect when towing.
  • Caravans should be slightly nose-heavy on the road, as this delivers the most stable and controllable tow. Usually, the weight of items in the front locker (gas bottles and so on) will deliver this.
  • The noseweight is ideally 5-7% of your caravan’s laden weight, and is measured with a noseweight gauge. Otherwise, at a push, you can use bathroom scales on the ground under the tow hitch, with a piece of wood located in between.
  • Many island-bed caravan layouts have a huge storage space under the double bed at the back of the caravan. You should load bulky, but not heavy, items in here, as excessive weight in this position is likely to cause a pendulum snaking effect. Things such as duvets and sleeping bags are ideal for being stored under the bed.
  • While it is not crucial, try to keep your load roughly even on each side of the caravan, bearing in mind that there’ll be a heavy battery on one side.
  • Underseat storage space is often very useful in tourers, but always pack your most-used belongings where they are going to be easy to access.
  • External lockers are particularly useful on beach holidays, because wet and sandy gear (bodyboards and deflated dinghies) can be securely stored in them without being traipsed through the van.
  • We like to use those blue Ikea bags for carrying our clothes when we head off in the caravan. They are capacious, cheap, lightweight and strong, and last forever. We each take one and they will handily squash into underseat storage spaces.

Picking a tow car

Choosing the best tow car for your needs will be a crucial part of an enjoyable experience on the road.

For families who are going to need lots of storage space, an estate car or MPV people carrier is likely to be the best bet for towing the caravan, although today’s saloon cars and hatchback SUVs often have huge boots. But bear in mind that if you overfill the boot in a hatchback of any type, you might not be able to conceal the contents of your car from prying eyes.

Transporting your pets

Are you taking your four-legged friend to a pet friendly caravan park? Then be sure to factor this into your arrangements. If you can’t travel with your pet on the back seat, you could lose valuable hatch space. You’ll need to plan for this when you choose your tow car.

A dog sitting in the boot of a car
Think about how your pet will travel when choosing a tow car

Extra storage

Roof rails

Roof rails are available for almost every car on the market. They allow you to safely carry a huge range of items; everything from bicycles to boxes and even skis.

It’s vital that roof rails and any other accessories are securely fitted to the car, which is why I recommend choosing custom-designed systems rather than universal or generic ones.

I had a rather scary incident with a pair of universal roof bars and a canoe, on a trip to Northumberland a few years back – not something that I’d want to repeat!

These days I use Thule products, which in my opinion are brilliantly designed and solidly made. They cost a little more than many other types, but they last for years and have never let me down. Thule and Halfords sell roof rails that are aerodynamically designed to reduce wind noise and minimise fuel consumption. Some have to be bolted to the car, while others have built-in fixing and locking mechanisms. Obviously the more sophisticated systems will cost more, but you’re paying for ease of use and convenience.

A pair of roof rails
A pair of roof rails from Halfords

HandiWorld has a smart alternative to roof rails, the HandiRack. These easy-fit inflatable straps simply fit around the roof of the car and are then inflated with the supplied double-action pump.

They are ideal for transporting bags, canoes, surfboards and so on, and can be fitted or removed in a minute or two. Strong and durable, they can carry up to 80kg loads, yet deflate and fold up into a small drawstring bag when not in use.

Roof boxes

I’m a big roof box fan, because they free up a lot of space inside the car, making longer journeys more comfortable. Roof boxes come in various shapes and sizes, in both hardshell and waterproof fabric styles.

I have a Thule Motion 800 roof box, which has proved very handy on our caravan breaks in France. Not only can we store lots of stuff safely inside it while on the road, but it’s also great for securely storing our wet and sandy beachwear and seaside accessories once at our destination, allowing us to keep the tow car as dry and clean as possible.

A caravan and tow car parked on a road
Roof boxes add to the amount your tow car can hold

There is one drawback with hardshell roof boxes, however – what do you do with them on site (if you remove them)? More importantly, where do you store them at home? Mine is around six feet long and three feet wide, and because I don’t have a garage, I keep it hanging on a rail on the side of the garden shed (it won’t fit inside).

Big is good, but remember you have to store it for most of the year. This is where a tough fabric bag such as the HandiHoldall comes into its own, as they can be folded up and stowed when you get home.

HandiHoldalls are available in three sizes – 175, 330 and 400 litres – and are made from a hardwearing 600D polyester, with waterproof PVC backing.

Another important point to remember is that your roof box might make your tow car too tall to fit under car park barriers – especially if you drive a tall SUV.

I keep a note of all of my caravan and vehicle dimensions, taped to my driver’s side sun visor for quick reference.

Bike racks

Bicycle carriers come in three main designs: tow car-roof mounted, rear window mounted and towball mounted (although of course, the latter can’t be used when towing).

Roof mounted is in many ways the easiest to use, because the bicycles don’t get in the way if you need to access the vehicle’s boot or hatch. It can be a stretch to place and retrieve bikes from the roof, however.

A roof-mounted bike rack
Options for carrying bikes include roof-mounted racks

Some tourers have bike fixings fitted permanently on the back. However, experts I have talked to about this say these should be used with caution, because having extra weight on the back of the van can lead to a snaking caravan.

If you’re looking for some inspiration, our guide to the best caravan bike racks could help, as we share our pick of the standout options currently on the market.

Internal storage

In addition to its external storage options, HandiWorld also produces a couple of very good items for use inside the tow car or caravan. I particularly like the Car Boot Organiser, a cleverly designed folding polyester storage system that’s as at home in underseat or underbed storage as it is in the boot of your car.

Likewise, the Car Back Seat Organiser is super useful for long towing trips, when you need to keep all of the children’s stuff close at hand in the back of the car.

  • If you enjoyed reading this, take a look at our guide to caravan weights, where Sammy Faircloth outlines the key facts and figures

Future Publishing Limited, the publisher of Practical Caravan, provides the information in this article in good faith and makes no representation as to its completeness or accuracy. Individuals carrying out the instructions do so at their own risk and must exercise their independent judgement in determining the appropriateness of the advice to their circumstances. Individuals should take appropriate safety precautions and be aware of the risk of electrocution when dealing with electrical products. To the fullest extent permitted by law, neither Future nor its employees or agents shall have any liability in connection with the use of this information. You should check that any van warranty will not be affected before proceeding with DIY projects.

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