1. SKIPPING A TEST DRIVE
If you haven’t bought or ever used an RV, the first step is to hire one. There’s plenty of hire places around the country that allow you to rent a camper similar (or perhaps identical) to those you’re looking at. Trying out the actual model is best, but even experiencing how much storage you get in a forwardfold, how easy it is to set up a rearfold and or what it’s like to pack up a sidefold after rain will be massively helpful. Make sure you put in a long day’s travel and see how you feel about erecting the camper when you’re tired and the light is fading. Get the kids to sleep in some cots. Get in and out of bed in the dark to trial that hurdle for when Mother Nature calls in the night. Use the kitchen to cook major meals as well as snacks. Don’t head to a motel if it’s bad weather! If you can, go with some friends who have a camper and they will be able to give you assistance. Similarly don’t be afraid to ask questions of other campers, wherever you are. This sort of experience will tell you a lot about your priorities and your choices.
2. IGNORING THE IMPORTANCE OF FUEL
Whether towing in a familiar whiparound or a newly-bought 4WD, newcomers may be startled by the behaviour of the fuel gauge when hitched up. Campers nowadays can weigh 1.5 tonnes or more, even when empty, and with an extra 400 or 500kg of personal extras on board you can easily find yourself towing over two tonnes, not to mention the extra tools or items in the back of the car. Allow that fuel consumption might rise to 15 litres per 100km or more, work out how far you can travel on a full tank and plan your fuel stops well ahead of time (that way you can avoid running empty or buying fuel from a dodgy little fuel station that potentially provides dirty fuel and thereby clogs your filter and injection nozzles). Note that trying to pour fuel from a loaded jerry can into a car can be quite awkward and messy. Newcomers buying hybrid campers will also discover the impact of headwinds.
3. FORGETTING PAPER MAPS
As good as modern GPS navigators are, there’s still no substitute for a paper map. Navigating over long distances is best done by spreading a map across your tow car’s bonnet. This won’t tell you about the fine detail you can see on your digital screen, but it’ll give you a broad-scale idea of the direction and nature of the trip ahead. Most modern maps will include contour lines or shading to depict hills, mountains and valleys. You’ll gain an understanding of why a road may appear to be diverting away from your intended direction, or whether an alternative route may be easier if it avoids numerous switchbacks and steep descents and ascents. It will give you an idea of neighbouring features, such as lakes, lookouts, waterfalls or other attractions, that you might otherwise drive past.
It’s easy to pack too much “stuff” into your new camper. Manufacturers often boast of the storage capacity of their products and provide capacious boxes and other storage space. Now that you aren’t confined to your car’s boot and/or roof rack it’s easy to give in to temptation. Start with a focused determination to limit yourself, even if there is empty space all over the place, and then keep a tab on what you left at home and should have brought with you. Add bits on the basis of necessity, not desire. Every kilogram of weight is a reduction in fuel economy, a limit on your ability to tow up a slippery slope and extra minutes extracting something from the bottom of a box that’s jam-packed.
5. FAILING TO MAKE RESERVATIONS
There is a lot of wishful thinking about free camping in the bush, when in fact the reality of travel is that much of the time you’ll find yourself staying in designated camping grounds, whether in caravan parks, council showgrounds, organised camping grounds or national parks. Most of these will require a booking at peak travel time, at least, so plan ahead. Keep an eye on websites and do your best to stick to a schedule so you can ensure you’re on track to be where you need to be on cue. Note that many well-known camp areas that require advance bookings, such as Fraser Island, actually require you to be in an allocated place, not just wherever you want. Even if you can’t organise an advance booking, take note of travel blogs or online advice about camp spot availability and make sure you are there on time, because available spaces are often filled rapidly and early in the arvo.
6. NOT BOTHERING TO CAMP LEVEL
Having a camper sit level when you’re sleeping and eating in it makes for a more comfortable time. The sink drains properly, the kitchen doesn’t want to slide back in or further out, draw slides and the fridge slide work properly without ever having to push against gravity. Sleeping with your feet higher than your head is never ideal and most people find it uncomfortable. Locker or fridge doors don’t want to swing open or closed, and so on. Don’t get ulcers about measuring it with a micrometer, but this is why most campers have a level attached to them.
7. FORGETTING ESSENTIAL TOOLS
Consider bringing the following tools and don’t just assume they’re in your camper when you head off:
- Duct tape. Carry two full rolls, as a broken windscreen can require that much to hold it all together until you can limp into a repair shop.
- Screwdrivers. Both blade and Phillips head, and small and larger sizes.
- Multi-grips. Always handy as an emergency vice (with a rubber band around the handles) or just as a pair of pliers with plenty of grip.
- Wheel brace. Don’t accept the dodgy wheel nut wrenches supplied with most vehicles; get a proper wheel brace.
- A socket set including adapters and extensions. For an emergency it can be a cheapie set, but a nice quality tool is a good investment.
- A Leatherman or Swiss Army-type multi-tool.
- Bungee cords with hooks in a selection of different lengths and strengths.
- Hatchet that doubles as a hammer.
- Head torch with spare batteries.
- Gloves for picking up rubbish where you’re camped, handling firewood or working with sharp tools.
- First aid kit. Get a good one, read all the instructions and do a course so you know how to use it.
- Old towels. Inevitably useful for wiping dirty hands, drying water spills or giving that last wet spot on the canvas a dab.
- Cable ties in a selection of different sizes and lengths, and in black as they are stronger and more UV resistant.
8. LEAVING STABILISERS DOWN
After you’ve finished camp there can be a real temptation to hit the road in a hurry. That rush often results in campers leaving stabiliser legs down. Stabilisers aren’t designed to withstand much in the way of sideways loads, so driving off with them still in the downward position can bend them badly. If you’re new to camping with a trailer, make yourself a checklist for do’s and don’ts on set-up and pack-down, until you can do it all without referring to the list.
9. LEAVING THE JOCKEY WHEEL DOWN
As with the stabilisers, leaving the jockey wheel in contact with the ground is a common failing for newbie campers. The jockey wheel is generally a more brittle structure, with less resistance to unplanned loads. It will be guaranteed to bend, and that can be the end or certainly a major hurdle for your holiday, as you won’t be able to unhitch the camper until you have a replacement. Remember the check list, and get two people to run through it separately.
10. FORGETTING TO CARRY EXTENSION CORDS
Connecting to mains power is not spoken of in all the hype about off-grid camping, but if you’ve had a run of bad weather, your solar regulator is playing up or you don’t have the luxury of a DC-DC charger to ensure you are getting the maximum benefit of your alternator’s input, then you are going to need an occasional boost from mains at a caravan park or similar. For this you will need a 15 amp lead, and while you are at it, buy the longest possible (generally 25 metres). All commercial van parks with powered sites are required to provide 15 amp outlets. And if you have a mains outlet in your camper throw in a power board so that you can be charging several items at once.
11. FORGETTING TO CARRY A TYRE COMPRESSOR
Switching from asphalt roads to dirt tracks requires the lowering of tyre pressures, which is easily done with the aid of a tyre pressure gauge, but when you have to go back up to highway speeds and pressures you’re going to need a compressor. Many beginners have found themselves with lowered tyres and no way to fill them back up. You can’t exactly breathe into them like balloons. So, buy a compressor of good brand – though it doesn’t have to be the largest capacity available as these will be physically larger and take up more space. Make sure that the power lead is long enough for the compressor’s hose to reach from your car’s battery back to your camper’s tyres and, if not, make up an extension lead to do the job. Choose a good brand of tyre gauge as well, and don’t trust the gauge on the compressor.
12. CAMPING NEAR BUSHES AND SCRUB
Bushes and scrub can harbour mosquitoes and ticks, as well as, in damp environments, leeches. If you have a choice look for campsites in a more open environment and don’t allow the kids to play in the scrub too much, especially in areas where mosquitoes can carry diseases such as dengue fever, Ross River virus, Barmah Forest virus and Murray Valley encephalitis. And give them a close check for ticks and leeches each night.
13. CAMPING UNDER EUCALYPT BRANCHES
Large branches on eucalypt trees are justifiably known as widow makers. They can drop from the tree at any time, even in the stillest weather, with no forewarning and complete silence until they hit the ground, or your camper. And it’s not just eucalypts that can do this. Some other species, such as Moreton Bay Figs and paperbarks, also have a bad reputation for sudden drops. If you want to camp in the shade do it to one side of the tree, not directly underneath.
14. CAMPING IN CREEK BEDS OR FLOODWAYS
Creek beds usually don’t have trees or much in the way of grass growing in them, for the same reason that all those rocks are rounded and smooth and there’s lots of sand and mud about. These are places heavy rains can send surging torrents of water down at any time. And the rain doesn’t even have to be where you are. It may have rained many kilometres away, without you even realising. The first you will know is when a wall of water pushing a pile of logs and branches in front of it comes rolling down that channel. Always camp high.
15. TRUSTING A KANGAROO OR EMU
Despite the workings of natural selection, frequent collisions with cars have still not taught kangaroos or emus to stay away. These creatures will react in a thoroughly irrational manner to you and your vehicle. They can start to flee from your car as you drive along then suddenly and for no obvious reason double back on their tracks, diverting straight towards the side of your vehicle or into its path along a road or track. The best plan is to avoid driving at dusk or dawn (or night time if there are wombats about) and if you see kangaroos or emus in proximity slow right down and assume that they are about to do something dumb.