Caravan Camping Guide for Beginners

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This post is a beginner’s user manual for a caravan. I acquired a caravan a few months ago and have learned a lot of things that most of the more experienced people never explained to me, so I’m hoping that his post will steer you in the right direction.

Packing, Preparing and Tips for Planning Your First Caravan Trip

Our family (especially our two girls) were SO excited to head out on our first caravan trip. We packed our caravan and were ready to hit the road.

On our first trip, we forgot lots of essential items that would have made the trip better. I kept a list of all the things we forgot and had to buy for our new caravan that’s definitely worth looking at. I highly recommend buying a separate one of each item instead of just grabbing it from the house, or else you’ll have to remember to pack it each time. One of the biggest benefits of a Caravan is that you can leave all your camping gear packed, so you’re ready to go camping on a moment’s notice.

While there are many new things to buy, don’t overload your caravan. It’s no fun–especially in a smaller caravan–to have every inch of the ground in the caravan cluttered with things. Park the caravan out in front of your house for two or three days before your first trip and take the time to organise things into a permanent spot as you load. We took a label maker and labelled what goes on each shelf and in each cabinet before putting anything in and it was really helpful.

Quick Caravanning Tip!
Plan meals with as many non-perishable foods as possible. Bring canned foods, dry rice and beans, dried soups, porridge, etc. That way, when your trip is over, you can just bring your dirty clothes inside to be washed and leave everything–even the food–in the Caravan for the next trip.


Before you set off, take a small amount of water for things like tea coffee and washing your hands. All sites should have a water point somewhere on the site, but until you find it, it’s nice to have some water at hand for the necessities when you first pull up. There’s no need take a large amount of water as this will add to the weight of the caravan.

As you pack, remember that heavy items like suitcases and a generator (for a site without electricity) should be low and toward the front of the caravan. Another tip for weight is to check to see if you will have water where you’ll be camping.

Pitching up

First, check how much your vehicle can tow. Usually you can find this on a sticker somewhere near the driver’s door. My 2007 Jaguar x type 2.2d can tow 1500kg. The caravan will give you a few different numbers:

(1) MRO weight the MRO is the Mass in Running Order (weight of just the caravan with no equipment or personal effects in it),

(2) MTPLM Maximum Technically Permissible Laden Mass (weight with it full equipment and personal items).

You need to make sure none of those numbers exceed what your vehicle can tow.

I suggest that you give yourself a buffer of NO LESS than 450Kg between what you’re actually towing and what your vehicle says you can tow. Sometimes the vehicle manufacturers are extremely generous in their tow ratings, which means you can easily end up with a burned out transmission or a fried engine.

Before you pick up your caravan, check the type of tow bar installed on your car. Most caravan’s can use any type of tow bar. If your caravan is fitted with an ALKO stabiliser / hitch, you will need an ALKO tow bar or a swan neck type tow bar. These are easily identified and we will do a topic about these in due course:

Regular Hitch ALKO

As you begin to drive with your caravan, pay close attention to tight curves on country roads.  Remember all those caution signs with picture of a caravan tipping over?  Those signs you’ve ignored your whole life?  They’re extremely important when towing a caravan.  More than a handful of times I’ve seen caravans flipped on their sides on the road because they took corners too fast.

Quick Tip for Reversing Your Caravan
Some of you may have driven with caravans for years and are pros, but many new caravan owners struggle with reversing. Just remember two things: (1) The back of the caravan turns the opposite direction of your steering wheel. (2) Make extremely small adjustments to the steering wheel. Because the caravan will take a minute to start heading the direction you want it to, it’s common to turn too much. Just be patient with tiny turns and you’ll have better success.

Fishtailing is a common problem with towing a caravan.  There are many ways to address it, like adding a stabiliser or installing suspension airbags on your vehicle.  If you have a very lightweight caravan and a heavy tow vehicle, you could actually go without a stabiliser at first and seeing how things go, but I wouldn’t recommend this.  On my vehicle, I don’t use a stabiliser, however my hitch is an ALKO which doesn’t require one and works differently to a regular hitch.  If you notice the tow vehicle beginning to fish tail, don’t turn the wheel, don’t hit the brakes.  Just let your foot off the accelerator and drive straight.

Be careful to watch for obstructions from trees.  Also, be careful as you’re somewhere hilly that you don’t go down a steep decline.  The tongue of the trailer is likely to hit the ground on a little depression, which will likely bend your stabilizers (I’ve heard of this happening many times).

Setting Up Your Caravan at the Camp Site

You have to park your caravan on the flattest ground possible. There are several reasons for this: (1) It can actually damage your caravan’s fridge if you use it while parked on an incline or decline this is fine, but never on a significant slope. Also, it will feel weird in the caravan when things aren’t level and the caravan will bounce around more as you walk.
Next, unhook the tow vehicle. Personally, I think it’s a lot easier to set up the trailer when it’s not hooked up to the vehicle because all the stabilizers will hit the ground and you won’t have to match them to the height of the hitch. Also, your tow vehicle is now free for driving kids to the beach or exploring the town.
Then, you need to put the stabilising legs down. There are usually four of them. The legs stop the caravan from rocking forwards and backwards whenever someone walks in the caravan. Unless you want the whole caravan shaking or tipping up when your kid turns over in bed on the other side of the caravan, be sure to lower the legs.

Pro Tip!
It takes a long time to manually crank down all of the legs when you get to a camp site. An easy cheat is to bring a cordless drill with a 3/4″ attachment to lower the legs in a jiffy!

If you’re at a campsite or somewhere that you’ll have power, you have to make sure you have the correct electric adapter for the job. Most caravans are designed for a maximum current of 16 Amp, some sites limit the maximum current per caravan to a lower figure, usually 10 Amp in the UK and sometimes 5 Amp or less. Without the right adapter, you can’t hook up to the campsite’s power. You can also get an adapter to run your caravan off a regular house outlet.

All About Caravan Power & Heating

The power system in a caravan took me several holidays to fully work out.  There are some not-so-obvious things to learn in this section, so don’t skip it.

First of all, the 12-volt leisure battery in your tourer (not any old car battery) will not power your multi-cooker or kettle.  You must be plugged in to the campsite electrical hook-up or own your own portable generator.

When connected to the campsite hook-up or have a portable generator, you may find that you can’t do more than turn on the TV and one or two lights before it trips the campsite electric.  Running the microwave at the same time as the kettle would require a large generator.

When you set up your generator, I recommend taking it out as far away from the caravan as possible to keep things quiet.  Some generators run nice and quiet, so it can be peaceful in your caravan.  Others can be so noisy that it makes camping no fun at all.

The microwave, the kettle and many of your regular power outlets will only work when you’re plugged into power or plugged into a running generator.  However, the little things like lights can run off the battery.

The lights in your tourer, the fans for the heater, the slide, powered jacks, the ceiling vents and anything else will work on battery power; however, you may find that the battery doesn’t last nearly as long as you’d expect.  We take one battery with our caravan and we are thinking about having some kind of setup in the car to charge the battery while we are out and about exploring.

First Trip Quick Tip!

I highly recommend you go to a campsite with electrical hook-up for your first trip in your caravan. True, it’s not as private and serene as going off the beaten track in the forests or countryside, but it will ease you into learning the caravan while you have electric and water hook-ups to make things stress-free. Leave remote camping trips for a little later down the line.

The fridge in most caravans can be run either on propane, battery or electricity.  Usually I run mine on the car hook-up (battery) while I’m on the road, but if I plug into electricity at a campsite, then I’ll switch to electric.  Some have an “auto” setting which will choose the appropriate setting automatically depending on if there is power plugged in.  Some motorhomes and fifth wheels recently have been manufactured with “residential fridges.”  While they are larger and more luxurious, it’s very limiting to not be able to run it off propane.

If you are planning to camp off the beaten track or in a field on your trip by using a portable generator instead of camping at a campsite where you can plug into power, you should know that most generators of about 3,000 watts will take 7 litres of fuel to give you 4 hours of power.  Be sure to bring along plenty of extra fuel.

Using the Water System While On Your Trip

Caravans have two portable tanks for liquids: the fresh water tank (a rolling barrel is more expensive but easier to use) and the black tank.  The fresh tank stores fresh water that you put in from the campsite water point.  The black water tank is where the waste water goes from your sink / shower.

Caravans come with a variety of different water capacity tanks.  Even though a larger tank will be fine for me, my wife, and our two girls, that’s plenty of water to cook with and drink from for a couple of days.  However, it’s not enough to shower with for those for those days.  We can really only last 1.5 days if me and my wife take short showers one morning.

The water in a new tank can have a tendency to taste a little plastic until you run water through it a few times, but it’s okay.  After a caravan has been stored, unused for the winter, you have to run lots of water through the system with sterilising tablets (used for wine or beer making).  Still, it can have a lingering strange taste for a while.  If this bothers you, you could bring bottled water to drink.

I recommend getting hand sanitiser for your caravan to reduce how much water you use.  Also, with brushing teeth, turn off the sink while brushing.

Common Newbie Mistakes to Avoid

Post-Trip Clean-up

When you get home, LEAVE THE CARAVAN PACKED!  I like buying extras of all the cooking and other supplies to leave in the caravan.  This makes it MUCH more fun to get home and just walk inside and be done.  No need to go through two hours of clean-up.  Just bring in your dirty clothes and perishable food and you’re ready to watch some Saturday night films.

Hope you found this post helpful.  If you did, you’ll also like my post on 15 things I had to buy after getting a new caravan.

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