I’m a Caravanner Again

caravan (1)In August 2012, I thought about buying a caravan but needed to see if I was allowed to tow one. I found out that I was and in December 2012, I took the plunge and became a caravanner.

Unfortunately, I had to sell my trusty Coachman Minge Mirage for various reasons at the beginning of 2014, but have been pining for a new one since.

I’ve missed the fact that at any time, I can just drive 10 minutes down the road, connect the caravan to the car, have all the bits I need already in the caravan and then bugger off pretty much wherever I wanted to go.

Sadly, I also had to sell my trusty Mitsubishi at the end of 2013. Although it was incredibly reliable and comfortable to drive, I couldn’t warrant the £500.00 VED cost each year to keep it on the road. The bad fuel economy wasn’t the worst in the world but it was pretty piss-poor compared to every other car on the market. The Mitsubishi really was the perfect towing vehicle and I took my caravan to many places with it, but I had to go with my head instead of with my heart.

I replaced my Mitsubishi with a sensible Volkswagen and although I still miss my old car, my new one is probably my favourite car of all the ones I’ve owned. It has many more creature comforts (with cruise control being my favourite) and is far more comfortable to drive than the old car. The only thing it didn’t have which the old car had is a vital piece of towing equipment… a tow bar.

I started to seriously consider getting a new caravan in August of last year and in April of this year, I found myself in a situation which would allow for me to finally get one again.

Firstly, I had to get a tow bar fitted to my car as it didn’t have one.

Prices vary massively, depending on what exactly you wanted to achieve. Firstly, you need to choose whether you want a detachable or a fixed tow ball and whether you want it to be a swan-neck or a flanged tow ball. The detachable tow ball obviously comes off and evidence that it exists will be minimal, but it will cost you more to have this type.

Secondly, you need to decide which type of wiring you want for the tow bar electrics. Up until recent years, caravans had two types of electrical systems; 12N and 12S. 12N electrics are required as a minimum because this is what activates and powers the caravan’s external lights, such as the indicators, tail lights and brake lights. 12N electrics are used to charge the caravan’s battery and to power the fridge whilst you’re driving which comes in handy but isn’t absolutely necessary.

Since around 2008, 12N and 12S electrics have been phased out and replaced by a single, 13-pin socket, which is already more widely used in the rest of Europe. This is supposedly more reliable and makes it quicker/easer to connect your trailer or caravan up to the car.

Finally, you need to decide whether or not you want a universal wiring kit (which just splices onto the existing wiring at the rear of the car) or a vehicle-specific wiring kit, although you can’t have a 13-pin universal wiring kit as this type only comes as a vehicle-specific kit.

The benefits of the vehicle-specific wiring kit is that towing a trailer or caravan will work better with the car you’re driving. For example, any stability programs built in to your car will recognise the fact that you’re towing a trailer, so will adjust and act accordingly for this. If you have reversing sensors, connecting a trailer or caravan will disable these as otherwise, reversing with a trailer will drive you crazy! Connecting a trailer or caravan will also disable the reverse and fog lights on your car, so that you don’t get dazzled via your rearview mirror from these bright lights against the white surface of the caravan! If the trailer or caravan is fitted with reverse and fog lights, these will work correctly when activated.

After much consideration, I wanted a detachable swan-neck tow ball with 13-pin, vehicle-specific wiring and a 13-pin to 12N & 12S adaptor so that the electrics would be compatible with anything. The reasons for these choices were aesthetics and functionality- given the choice, I felt it was far safer to have electronic safety systems which accounted for a caravan at the back of the car. I also wanted to make sure that my reversing sensors didn’t send out random morse-code messages every time I tried to reverse with something on the back of the car!

The visibility of a detached, detachable tow bar varies from car to car but there’s always been some indication that it exists. I was pleasantly surprised by the installation on my car as the 13-pin socket swivels up when not in use and once this is tucked away, you’d never guess that my car had a tow bar fitted.

As mentioned previously, I have to be careful with the combined weight of my car and caravan. As per the DVLA/government website, I can “tow a trailer over 750kg maximum authorised mass (MAM) as long as the combined weight of the trailer and towing vehicle is no more than 3,500kg“. Another part of the DVLA/government website tells us that MAM “means the weight of a vehicle or trailer including the maximum load that can be carried safely when it’s being used on the road“. Just to confuse things, MAM is also the same as maximum technically permissible laden mass (MTPLM). I’m sure the rules used to mention that the MTPLM of the trailer or caravan cannot exceed the unladen weight (which is the same as kerb weight) of the towing vehicle, but I can’t find any reference to that now.

Basically, as my car has an unladen weight of 1,529kg, I can only buy a caravan with a MTPLM of 1,500kg as a reasonable maximum. This would give the car and caravan a combined weight of 3,029kg and leave an allowance of 471kg for passengers and their luggage. Remember that a caravan’s mass in running order (MIRO), which is the weight of the caravan when it leaves the factory, is less than the MTPLM, so there’s an allowance for items to be stored (safely) in the caravan.

My old caravan was 21ft long and had an end-bathroom, meaning that although the bathroom was a nice size, there was less “living” space inside the caravan. The front seats could be converted into a double bed and a small ‘dinette’ in the middle of the caravan (opposite the kitchen area) could be converted into bunk beds, which definitely weren’t suitable for adults!

This time, I wanted a caravan with a fixed  double-bed at the rear to avoid the faff of making it up every night and tidying it away in the morning. With this type of layout, you either get a narrow bathroom to one side of the fixed double-bed which makes the most of the “living” space or a bathroom behind the fixed double-bed which allows for a larger bathroom but gives slightly less “living” space.

I looked at a few 21ft caravans within my price-range with a fixed double-bed but although they had the bathroom at the side, the “living”space felt a bit cramped (cramped for a caravan of course, which is in it’s very nature cramped when you compare it to, say, a house).

There was another caravan to look at, which was a 23ft Swift Accord 500. It had the necessary fixed double-bed, the side bathroom and a very spacious, airy feel to the “living” area but it was a bit out of my price range. I fell in love with it instantly and knew the moment I stepped inside it that this was the caravan I wanted. The MTPLM of this caravan is 1,403kg so totally fine, weight-wise (the MIRO is 1,199kg, allowing for 205kg to be carried in it).

It’s recommended that a trailer or caravan only weighs 85% of the towing car’s weight for maximum stability, but this is just a guide and not a legal requirement. My new caravan weighs 92% of my car’s weight, but reviews of the same (and similar) combinations are all good in terms of reference to power and handling. My car can tow up to 1,800kg anyway, so I knew it would be fine.

Car & Caravan Match

The following describes my towing combination:

Important for safe towing is the weight ratio between Car and Caravan. The weight ratio (loaded caravan / kerbweight tow car) for the Volkswagen and Swift is 92%. This means that the caravan is rather heavy for this car. The stability and safety index is satisfactory for this outfit.

The towing performances of this Volkswagen with your Swift are perfect (performance index = 62).
You may expect very lively performances from this outfit. On flat roads you can come along adequately, top gear is applicable under normal circumstances.

On motorway inclines you will be able not only to come along, but be the first at the top. On steep roads you have more than sufficient power to keep going. On hill starts there will be more than enough power to get going, provided the wheels have traction.

Noseweight (the weight pushing down onto the tow ball) should be around 80kg for Nose Weightoptimum handling (no wheelspin, pitching or rolling) and can be achieved by moving items around within the caravan, whilst placing the heaviest items (where possible) across the axle. I checked this just yesterday and fortunately, the noseweight was bang-on 80kg. The photo shows the reading before I bounced the caravan up and down a little to let it settle evenly, but the final reading was definitely spot on!

Unlike last time, I’d planned ahead as far as caravan storage goes. I had initially enquired about available space at the facility where my old caravan had been, but the owner wasn’t sure whether or not he’d have space. There’s a storage facility much nearer me which had an available space but which is £150.00 a year more expensive, although it has 24 hour access and a great big security gate at the entrance so in my opinion, it’s worth the extra money.

It was very different towing the new caravan with the new car- I definitely noticed the caravan on the back, although the car still pulled it along with ease. There was a fair bit of pitching over particularly bumpy bits of road but at this point, there was nothing in the caravan and the rear double-bed puts a substantial amount of weight behind the axle. I’m expecting the pitching to be considerably less now that I know the caravan is perfectly balanced. It’s also worth noting that I’d travelled down the same roads with my old car and caravan but don’t remember any pitching over the same bumps- this is likely to be down to the fact that I was driving a heavier car with a better-balanced, lighter caravan. I just need to practice with and get used to towing the new caravan with my car.

The new caravan has motor-movers fitted, which you wind on to the wheels and with the use of a remote control, you can literally drive the caravan in and out of tight gaps. I’ve always considered motor-movers to be gimmicky and pointless, but I have to admit it makes things so much easier. It also saves wear on the clutch of your car.

Although the caravan is at a pretty secure storage facility, it makes good sense (and is a requirement of the insurance policy) to have security devices fitted to it. The most common security devices are hitch-locks and wheel-clamps, so I’ve purchased very sturdy and robust models of each. I’ve also purchased a security kit from CRiS, consisting of a sticker which emits some sort of short-range radio wave, which can be hidden and detected by a special scanner as well as some smart-water, which is like DNA- it’s completely unique to me. I just need to sprinkle this around the caravan and note where I’ve splashed it, so that in the event my caravan is stolen and recovered, it will be easier to identify.

Finally, I installed a GPS tracker device and wired it to the caravan battery. I have to blow my own trumpet and say that I did an especially good job at this as there’s no sign of it or the wiring which powers it. I use it with a GiffGaff SIM and it’s set to text me when the external power (battery) is disconnected, when it detects motion or if it moves more than 10m. Also, I can ring it at any time and it will text me it’s exact location. As it has a built-in battery, it will continue to function for several days in the event that the external power is disconnected.

The caravan has an alarm fitted, which detects motion inside the caravan or any tilting of the caravan (if it’s being attached to a vehicle). If thieves want to steal something, they’ll always find a way but if you can make it as difficult for them as possible, it might put them off or take them so long that someone interrupts them.

I’ve got a long weekend away in the caravan planned for this bank holiday, a weekend away in June and a week away in October. I also plan to book weekends away in July and September (I’m going on a road trip for two weeks in August) and want to spend 2 weeks next year somewhere in Europe.

No doubt I’ll be telling you about my maiden voyage in the new caravan when I return after next weekend.

Did you know MTPLM and MAM are the same thing?

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