Customer Adventure Series

10 Lessons Learnt From Full-Time Living In A Caravan

28 Aug 2021

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Full-time caravanning isn't for everyone. Transitioning from living in a house to living 'on the road' is a big adjustment and requires you to get used to doing everyday things in a different way. Sian, Chris and their kids Jayda and Jack from Big Oz Explorers have been on the road for almost 16 months. With no prior knowledge about caravanning and this 'nomad' lifestyle, they have learnt a lot through trial and error. They have shared a few important lessons with Rhino-Rack to share with like-minded travellers, and hope to take some of the guessing game out of the planning game for any future full-time caravanners.

 

Lesson 1: Can we afford this trip

The short answer is yes you can! There's always talk about how much it really costs to live on the road but the answer is different for everyone. Most people round the figure off at $1000 per week but this can vary depending on whether you're planning to free camp often and how many kilometres you are travelling each week. Accommodation and fuel are the two biggest expenses on the road and they can change your holiday entirely if you don’t stick to your plans. Create a budget and stick to it as best as you can so your holiday doesn’t get cut short. It's important to also make sure you have some money saved for rainy days and incidentals. They are going to happen and it’s good to be prepared for those times.

The other question to think about is whether you are going to work on the road or if you are ‘full-time holidaying’? If you are planning to work, you will be earning an income that can help you afford to be on the road and maintain your savings. If you are not working, you will need more up-front planning and where possible, pay for things while you plan so you don’t have to touch your savings. Once your friends and family know about your plans, you can also ask them to refrain from buying gifts for birthdays, Christmas, etc, and instead, gift vouchers to go towards something special that you or the kids can do while on the road. 

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Image from @bigozexplorers
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Image from @bigozexplorers

Lesson 2: To Book or Not To Book

Are you travelling for a short period of time and on a tight schedule? Or are you moving to full-time travel with no end date? We booked a lot for our Queensland trip when we first left on this journey and found that often our bookings were too long for a location with no attractions, or too short for the location that we could have stayed at for a few more weeks. We spent a lot of time ‘waiting’ for our prepaid bookings to pass in the first 6 months of our trip. 

Now, we have balance. The best things to book are those that will be booked out due to popularity (e.g. Karijini, Whale Shark Diving, and Horizontal Falls to name a few). We also book during periods that fall over the school holidays when there are more travellers on the road. The rest of the time we wing it! We often turn up to a free camp with the intention of spending 1-2 nights and find we love it so much that we stay until our water or food runs out. If we had plenty of bookings, this wouldn’t be possible. We missed staying in a lot of special places throughout Queensland because we booked too far in advance!

 

Lesson 3: Vehicle and caravan weight legalities

When we first left on this 12-month trip, we were new to caravanning and had to learn a lot. We learnt that before you pay a deposit on a tow vehicle or caravan, you need to check your weights. There are a few acronyms to be aware of including GVM, ATM, GCM and ball weights, and they are all important. If your weights are correct, not only is your family safe while travelling on the road but you are also covered by insurance if something was to go wrong.

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Image from @bigozexplorers
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Image from @bigozexplorers

Lesson 4: Your towing vehicle is important

We changed vehicles from a 2016 Ford Ranger to a 2019 Nissan Y62 Patrol six months into our trip because the Ranger wasn’t quite cutting it. Vehicles with smaller engines are great for towing camper trailers and small caravans and are also very fuel-efficient, however, if you want to go big with your caravan setup you will most likely need to go big with your car setup too. The larger engine in a Patrol or Land Cruiser equivalent is built to tow a larger load. They also give you a higher GCM weight rating, which links back to the lesson on weights. Our fuel consumption has risen slightly with the jump to a larger engine, but we also feel solid on the road and a lot safer.

 

Lesson 5: Homeschooling or distance education

We started as a home-schooling family but are now doing distance education. Homeschooling is flexible for time but it's unsupported and reporting requirements are to be completed by the parents. Reporting was what we personally found the most difficult with homeschooling. In our first year of homeschooling Jayda, we felt like we had no way to compare her abilities or find out how she was excelling in comparison to others kids her age. 

Distance education is a more restrictive environment as Jayda has scheduled times that she needs to talk with her teacher. However, this also creates a supportive environment where the parents could ask for help when teaching new skills. With Distance Education, the reporting aspect is completed by the teacher. 

The choice each family makes will come down to what type of travel and lifestyle they are living. We thought homeschooling was right for us to begin with however it wasn’t. Don’t be afraid to move your child into another style of learning if the latter isn't working for you. It’s about excelling in your child’s education no matter the type of learning.

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Image from @bigozexplorers
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Image from @bigozexplorers

Lesson 6: We have a lot of things at home, what will we need

Converting from a full-size living in a house to a caravan is a huge change for anyone. For us, we did what nearly would do when they must downsize - we kept as much as possible and absolutely everything we thought we would need. Well, we were in for a shock. Downsizing is one thing but realising how much you own and the amount of pointless and impractical items you have is another. It was a great opportunity to start fresh and let go of items you don’t really need.

Even today we have become minimalist and still cull items from the van. The kids have also had to adapt to this new way of living, even Jayda who was very driven by belongings when we left. Our rules for the kids is that they have a storage box for their toys and what doesn’t fit, must go. For any new toys that come into the caravan, they need to donate an old one. By doing this, there's no chance of collecting a selection of toys that will only be forgotten at the end of the bunk. This rule alone has had a great effect on Jayda as she can pick what really matters and has more appreciation for what she owns and chooses to buy with her pocket money.

Over the time we have been in the van, we have donated a lot of everyday items like dinner plates and containers and replaced them with more practical storage solutions suited to a tiny home. Every inch of the room is valuable when living in a van. To be able to ‘Tetris’ a cupboard and fit everything in is a skill and so rewarding when you're able to put everything away! It has taken us months to learn, but it has taught us that you don’t need a lot to be happy. At home, the ‘things’ we owned were what we wanted, in the van the ‘things’ we own are practical and necessary. 

 

Lesson 7: Living off-grid and being self-sufficient

By far one of the biggest lessons we’ve learnt is how to be self-sufficient and not rely on anything or anyone. It is the most amazing experience but something that you won’t master straight away. It takes a lot of learning, planning, and forgetting before you find out what you need and what works best for your setup in an off-grid environment. It’s the simple questions like:

  • How much water can we use before we run out?
  • How much power can we use before the batteries run out? How much solar are we going to absorb?
  • Do we need phone service or internet while we're off-grid?
  • Have we got enough food until the next town?
  • Does somebody know where we are?

All these small but important things will come together with practice and create your perfect setup. It might sound like a lot to do but it’s the best way to be! Australia is a vast country with many remote areas that a traveller is no doubt going to pass through. Planning ahead is the only way to go, as you will be restricted with reception, accessibility to facilities and remoteness. It can be scary in the beginning, but so very rewarding in the long run. 

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Image from @bigozexplorers
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Image from @bigozexplorers

Lesson 8: Creating your own power: batteries, solar, inverters, regulators

We never knew how important the battery setup in the caravan was until we hit the road. A battery system is the heart of any caravan. There are many options to choose from but having the right product will give you a lot in return. A good battery system will allow you to be more efficient and less dependent on 240V power access. In return, your battery system will allow you to be more independent to make those off-grid adventures you want to take. Being self-sufficient will also save you money because you can free camp and low-cost camp a lot easier.

One of the biggest things we learnt is how much AGM batteries can weigh vs lighter styles on the market like lithium. In the beginning, we had issues around our weights and by changing our AGM batteries to lithium, we shaved off nearly 100kg of weight, plus, we gained more storage space and more battery capacity. 

Another key to having a great system is how well you can pump power back into your batteries. A big battery is no use to anyone if you can’t charge it. We made a choice to upgrade our solar regulator to allow us to draw more power from the solar panels and charge our batteries faster. This means we can maintain full battery levels during sunny days.

Another product to consider is whether you need an inverter. An inverter allows you to use 240V appliances. When we left on this trip our youngest, Jack, had regular bottles which needed to be heated in the microwave every few hours. We couldn't run a microwave without an inverter as it needed 240V rather than 12V like most of the van. The size of your inverter will depend on the appliances you want to run. Work out your power needs and what you want to run and take them to a battery specialist so they can help you choose the best setup. Every van is different, and you don’t always need the top of the line to have the best setup for your family.

 

Lesson 9: Maintaining a healthy diet while travelling

This has been a huge learning curve. After spending 15 months on the road, it’s something you don’t think about until it’s made an impact on your lifestyle (or waistband). It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of transitioning from home life, where there is a routine, into the new and exciting holiday lifestyle of travelling full-time. 

Before we hit the road, getting away on weekends and planning camp trips was a regular occurrence each week. Spending all week working and using the weekend to let your hair down and enjoy yourself. Having a few more cold beers or eating a little more food than normal wasn’t unusual. Living on the road full-time, you soon realise that it’s not a weekend trip anymore and that you must keep on top of your habits, or they can get out of hand when traveling to all these amazing places around Australia that have delicious things to try. It took us a few months to convert ourselves into a new ‘caravan’ routine. There are many temptations while on the road, but we now manage to maintain a healthy but on occasion, adventurous diet.

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Image from @bigozexplorers
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Image from @bigozexplorers

Lesson 10: How do we live with our kids 24/7

We remember being at home and the Christmas school holidays felt like they dragged on for weeks. Every parent I knew was secretly waiting for their kids to go back to school, including us. When living in a van and being with your kids 24/7 you have to find ways to function as a family in a tiny home while still having space from each other. That applies to both the children and the parents as every member of the family has their own needs.

As parents, we are quite strict with bedtime routines and eat an early meal so that shower time, chill time and bedtime can all follow shortly after for the children. This allows our evenings to be free from kids and have time to interact alone. Our relationship is very important while living this lifestyle because we are both the only full-time adult in each other's life so you need to maintain closeness, conversation, and friendship on an adult level that a 1 and 7-year-old cannot fulfill. We figured this out early when we were feeling overwhelmed with being in a tight space together all the time.

With the kids, we have given our eldest daughter, Jayda, some of her own freedom by using UHF Radios. The radio allows her to venture around the caravan park to find friends and play while staying in contact with us if something was to happen or if we need her to come home. We left home with a lightweight and easy to pack scooter for her to use but later upgraded to a bike as it was better suited to the rugged Australian outback. We give both our children an upbringing that is more typical of the 80’s and 90’s which allows freedom like what we experienced as kids. This lifestyle brings with it a well-rounded child with planning, coping, initiative and self-care skills.

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Image from @bigozexplorers
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Image from @bigozexplorers

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