There’s no law that says you need mechanical training, a DIY degree, or any hand-on skills to go caravanning. But it does help to have some good advice and a few spares at hand when your home-away-from-home takes ill on the Tanami.
A well-travelled friend of mine explained it this way: if you’re not very handy mechanically, don’t let it stop you embarking on a major trip. Just make sure you carry all the useful parts and tools that the more skilled travellers who stop to help you will be able to use.
DIY-challenged travellers should always carry cold beer. Once, I exchanged a six-pack of chilled Coopers Pale Ale for 20L of urgently-needed diesel on the Gibb River Road. It was a good deal for both of us, as the nearest fuel (at $2-plus/L) was 150km away and the first beer you could buy was twice as far.
People of all skill levels will always stop to offer assistance, so here’s a list of essentials to do, or pack into your camper, pop-top or caravan…
1. CHECK YOUR TYRES
If your tyres are more than six years old (indicated by the date of manufacture on the outside wall – e.g., 2416, which means the 24th week of 2016), they are unsuitable for a big trip, particularly if they have been left in the sun as many caravans are.
Rubber hardens with age and older, brittle tyres are more prone to blow-out and delamination if they get too hot, whether from overloading or running at too low a pressure.
Before you leave, make sure you can locate and use your jack and that you can undo your wheel nuts. As many caravans only have annual outings, nuts can ‘freeze’ onto their bolts and may need more than the lever in your car or van toolkit to dislodge.
Carry a correct socket, a long bar and a can of WD40, CRC or RP7 to pre-soak the nuts so you can get them off and back on without giving yourself a hernia. Then check them regularly for tightness, particularly if the weather is hot.
Carry an assortment of flat, hard, wooden blocks with you for the jack to rest on, both for stability and to get enough height.
Carry a fresh can of tyre sealant that you can spray in through the valve and a decent portable air-compressor so you can pump the flat tyre up high enough to get you to the nearest tyre repairer or to get the jack under in the first place.
If you see a nail or screw in the tread, leave it in until you can get to somewhere safe to remove the wheel to fit a simple plug from the kit that you must carry.
Carry a pair of good quality tyre levers to get the flat tyre off the rim. You can drive your car (or someone else’s if yours is not mobile) around the tyre to break the bead’s grip on the rim.
Finally, if you haven’t got room for a second spare tyre, carry a tube.
2. HANDBRAKES CAN FAIL
Don’t ever rely on your handbrake. Carry a pair of plastic wheel chocks. And if you’re tempted to adjust your handbrake, remember that with leaf spring suspension systems you should have plenty of slack in the cable when the handbrake is off to allow for on-road suspension movement, otherwise your brakes will constantly be coming on and off when travelling!
3. YOUR FRIDGE DOESN’T WORK
Popular three-way caravan fridges usually run off your car’s alternator when towing (unless your tow vehicle has a dual battery system), but many vans have an isolating switch that needs to be ‘on’ to accept the charge.
It’s also a good idea to pre-cool your fridge with mains power whenever you can and before setting off, because when operating on 12V all it really does is maintain, rather than lower, its temperature.
If you are relying on your caravan’s battery to keep it cool, make sure it is fully charged before travelling.
Many fridges have inadequate ventilation and can overheat. I know of many people who have installed small cooling fans behind their fridges – those used to cool computer hard drives work well.
As a simple idea, ensure you park the fridge side of your van in the shade whenever possible.
Ammonia circulates through the cooling tubes to create the cooling effect. Similar to the cholesterol that reduces bloodflow through our own arteries, the tubes in your fridge can gum up and reduce or annul performance.
This explains the commonly held belief that removing the fridge and turning it upside down will bring a dead unit back to life. While this may be successful it will be a very short-term outcome and the only real genuine fix is to replace the cooling unit.
4. HOT WATER WOES
The anode – the aluminium rod that corrodes in preference to the tank on a Suburban/Attwood-type hot water service – needs regular replacement, often every two years.
Dust also plays havoc with hot water services. As they are exposed to lots of it on unsealed roads, you need to blow the system out periodically with an air hose.
5. BLINKERS ON THE BLINK
If your caravan electrics become erratic, it might not be a globe or a fuse. It could just be the connection of your round or flat-pin trailer plug.
Because the pins in these plugs are jiggled up and down to be removed, the pins can get squashed and hence fail to make good contact, particularly if there is dirt or dust involved. An easy fix is to spread out these outer pins carefully with a small, flat-head screwdriver. Also, be sure to check the internal connections in the plug itself – a wire may have come loose.
6. WHEEL BEARINGS
Caravan wheel bearings usually last anything from 10,000-50,000km before needing replacement. Carry one anyway, packed in grease, as well as a ‘Speedi-Sleeve’ to allow the new bearing to go on properly.
7. SHOT-PEENED PVC
Many caravan PVC drainage pipes are placed right in the line of fire of stones and other road debris, and will last only a short time on a gravel road before shattering. Protect them with an old piece of carpet, wrapped around and attached with cable ties.
8. A SPRING IN YOUR STEP
If you have a leaf-sprung independent system, consider changing the spring between 90-120,000km, depending upon the system. The coil spring versions need to be reviewed periodically in relation to the distance between the bump-stop and the chassis.
9. AND FINALLY…
Always carry at least one roll of duct tape, a plastic tarp, and a tube of silicone, along with a hammer, a monkey wrench, a screwdriver set, a hacksaw, a box of assorted fuses, and spare engine hoses. These items will allow you to carry out 90 per cent of all emergency repairs so you can keep on travelling.
Just stop for me if you see me on the side of the road! There’s a beer in it for you.