Which is best for long term travellers – a caravan and 4WD or a large motorhome?
Of course there is no “right” answer. Much depends on what you intend to do with the vehicle, where you plan to go and of course how much money you have to spend. For the purpose of this article I would like to narrow the criteria – I will be looking at the advantages and disadvantages of caravans and motorhomes for long-term travellers (ie permanent living) while exploring as much of Australia as possible. I am not talking about following the bitumen from one caravan park to the camping ground in the next town. I’m talking about really seeing the country – visiting the out-of-the-way places and sea-side and outback camps accessed via rough, un-sealed roads and 2WD tracks (in a nut shell, the stuff we have been doing for over eight years).
Clearly the fundamental difference between motorhomes and caravans is the ability to separate the “driving bit” (the car) from the “living bit” (the caravan) and many people focus on this fact alone, missing all the other important differences. I have broken the discussion down into seven categories where I think the differences are major.
(1) – Smaller driving vehicle
This is big one for most of the caravan proponents – the ability to leave the caravan behind and drive off to explore (or just to get a bottle of milk) in the towing vehicle. Let’s face it; having a second vehicle with your motorhome is a major deal. You have to either:
- A-frame it
- Put it on a trailer
- Put it inside the motorhome (as we do with the Moke)
None of these options are cheap or easy, but they all have a big advantage over a 4WD towing a caravan … you have a real second vehicle! If your 4WD caravan-towing vehicle stops when you are in a remote area, you have no choice but to call for help, there is no driving to the next station to seek help or to the next town to get parts (as you can do when you have a second vehicle). This fact provides great security when you are really outback.
A second vehicle with a motorhome setup is typically small. It is likely to be a far cheaper and more economical vehicle to run than the big V8 that you need to tow a good sized caravan. The fuel it takes to take your F250 to the nearest town will many times out-weigh the cost of the milk you went there to get.
However, A-framing or trailering a vehicle has a number of disadvantages:
- The whole setup becomes much longer and harder to manoeuvre around towns
- A trailer requires another yearly registration and insurance
- It is hard to reverse (although probably no harder than reversing a caravan unless you are a-framing, in which case it is nearly impossible)
- If you choose a trailer option, the trailer needs to be as robust as the motorhome with very good quality suspension
(2) – Weight carrying ability A large motorhome has the ability to carry many times more weight than any caravan. If we are talking about converted buses, they are typically designed with a GVM’s (gross vehicle mass) in the order of 12 – 20 tons. When you plan to live on the road full-time for months or years, you need a lot of gear. If you are travelling remotely you need tools and spare parts, extra fuel and communications equipment. If you plan to stay somewhere for a while you will need water … lots of water. Our bus carries about 500 litres of water and we can make this last for about 3 weeks – I would really like to carry a little more than this. Half a ton of water is nothing to the bus – it is a big deal to a caravan. Batteries are very heavy – we carry a lot of batteries because we need them – we could not carry our battery system in a caravan. A motorhome will carry many times more weight than a caravan.
(3) – Towing ability If you tow a caravan behind your car, clearly you can’t tow anything else (unless you are a road-train). You could argue that if you have a car towing a caravan you don’t need anything else – but what about a boat? I have seen a micro-light aircraft in a trailer behind a motorhome, I have seen entire workshops, laundry’s, garages and even offices being towed by motorhomes. In our experience more than 50% of large motorhomes on the road in Australia are towing something.
(4) – Security Firstly let me say that in eight years of travel and freedom camping around Australia we have never had any real security or personal-safety issues. Once or twice we have been unhappy with what was happening outside the bus (normally intoxicated people) and decided to move. A large motorhome is typically a big intimidating looking vehicle with very high windows that are very difficult to see into. With a bus, nobody can tell if there is a just little old lady inside, or the entire Australian football team. In contrast to this a caravan typically says “older couple”. It has low (often plastic) windows and its light-weight construction makes it trivial to break into. Furthermore, if you do feel threatened you’re going to have to get out of the caravan, and perhaps crank up the legs before you can get into the car and leave a bad situation. For this reason, above any other, we feel that a motorhome is a far better option if you intend freedom camping and/or using road-side stops. The other thing to consider is what the scene looks like when you are not there. If you come across a caravan and there is no towing vehicle around, it is a reasonable bet that there is nobody in the caravan. A motorhome whose occupants have driven off in their a-framed vehicle gives no such clues to its emptiness and potential vulnerability.
(5) – Robustness Even the most expensive, “outback” type caravan will never be as robust as a well-constructed motorhome. Having less of an issue with weight means that things can be built stronger and therefore more likely to cope with rough roads. However – all that added weight can be an issue in itself. If the motorhome suspension has not been designed to carry the weight of the vehicle and all of the contents, it is going to be very unhappy with corrugated roads. We have broken springs and snapped off shock-absorbers on rough roads. Each time we have made repairs to suspension parts we have made sure that the replacements were stronger and more robust. Since adding airbags to the rear and replacing the rear springs, we have had no issues despite becoming even more adventurous and taking on rough roads (like the Great Central Road (twice)). When we crossed the GCR in 2010 we saw the remains of many caravans that had met their end on that road. While I am sure that motorhomes have met a similar fate on that road, we saw none.
(6) – Separation issues There are quite a few times when you would really like to separate the “house” from the “horse”. This is where caravans win every time. Here are a couple of examples of times when we would have liked to have had a caravan…
- When we have to have work done on the motorhome, we have to leave the motorhome at the mercy of whoever is doing the work. If the work takes longer than one day, you need to either stay elsewhere or arrange to stay in the motorhome inside the workshop or yard.
- Our bus has a front-mounted engine. When I do work on the engine it is more or less inside our living room (mid-mount would be worse). Not many people like having greasy parts and black exhaust bits in their living room.
(7) – Driving
Driving a bus or large motorhome is a little different from driving a 4WD with a caravan on the back. If the vehicle weighs more than 4.5 tons you need a light rigid licence. If it is over 8 tons you need a medium rigid and if it has more than two axles you will need a heavy rigid licence. None of these are difficult to obtain.
When I first started driving our bus I found it quite mentally tiring. You have to think much further ahead, you have to focus more on when to change gears and you have to be aware of your height and length. It was not long before all of this became second nature and now both Tracey and I enjoy driving our bus. The elevated driving position provides a great viewing platform from where to enjoy the surrounding landscape. We prefer to keep our daily drive times to around 2 – 3 hours, but the odd times when we have elected to make bigger hops have not been a major issue.
As I said at the beginning of this article – there is no single right choice. Depending on what you plan to do, where you plan to go and how much money you have to spend, there is a right choice for you.
We are very happy with our choice. While I can’t say that we would have been less happy with a caravan and a 4WD, I think in our case the advantages of living and travelling in a motorhome have far out-weighed the disadvantages. We were very fortunate to have found a fairly special motorhome that allowed us to have a second small vehicle (the Moke) without all the hassles of towing.
Whatever vehicle/bus/caravan/motorhome you decide upon, I can guarantee you will love it! The most important thing is not to leave it too late (as far too many people do) – life is for living.
As Frankenfurter (and Rob Gray) said “Don’t dream it – be it”.
Have you made your choice? What did you choose – caravan or motorhome? What was the deciding factor for you?
Are you still deciding? Why not ask a question – I am sure we can help. Use the “leave a reply” box at the bottom of this page to leave your thoughts or questions – we would love to hear from you.