Beginners Guide: the anatomy of a caravan
For a caravan beginner, it might not be obvious what a typical model looks like. Let’s rephrase that – of course, you’ll know what it looks like, from the outside, at least, but do you know what the different exterior parts are?
When you step inside a caravan, what can you expect? Caravans are available in different types of layout, but in general, what does an interior look like? What features and furnishing will find inside a caravan?
In our beginners’ guide to the anatomy of a caravan, we’ll take a closer look at the exterior and interior of a caravan.
This content was originally published in Buying Your First Caravan, which is packed full of useful information for new and existing caravan owners. Click here to buy your copy.
The exterior of a caravan
These are usually made from double-glazed Polyplastic. Some are slightly tinted to prevent sun-fading of the interior fabrics and to help keep the caravan’s interior cooler.
The vast majority of modern tourers have a water heater which works rather like a large kettle – providing around 10 litres of hot water for washing/showering. Like the heater, it will, in most tourers, run off gas or electricity.
Usually made from GRP, the front panel is bonded (Elddis), bolted (Bailey), or screwed (others) to the sidewalls and roof. It often comprises a triple window and a large gas storage locker. Increasingly now,manufacturers are using full-height front panels to maximise interior headroom, but many used caravans will have 3/4-height panels with a shallow rake towards the back.
This is what attaches to the towball on the back of your car and creates a secure, articulated connection for safe towing. Many recently built caravans also benefit from an integrated stabiliser that reduces the chance of ‘snaking’ while towing.
Caravan floors are made from treated wood or plastic/foam composites to form a rigid base. As the floor is vulnerable to dampness from the elements, Elddis has introduced a GRP undertray to protect it, while Swift's SMART HT construction is completely wood-free.
This is effectively the forward part of the chassis upon which the tow hitch is mounted. It also houses the jockey wheel to assist hitching and unhitching. As a general rule of thumb, the longer the A-frame, the better the caravan will tow.
Similar construction to the side panels with GRP or aluminium outer skin and wooden bracing struts to improve stiffness.
When properly aligned, the aerial should allow you to get a reasonable picture using a Freeview set-top box or digital TV.
Blown-air heaters distribute warm air through the caravan to keep it comfortable in cool weather. The most common appliances can be run on gas or electricity, and are effectively large fan heaters which pump hot air around the caravan via ducts. These days, upmarket caravans are increasingly fitted with water-based central heating systems with radiators providing the heat source.
This is usually a GRP moulding which may incorporate a window and housings for the rear lights.
On modern caravans, these are usually constructed from strong, lightweight composites with an aluminium or GRP outer skin.Modern side panels incorporate insulating material to maintain a more even temperature inside, when exposed to extremes of climate. GRP provides a more damage-resistant outer, and modern GRP is less prone to cracking and crazing than it used to be.
Polyplastic rooflights provide natural light inside and maintain good ventilation. When opened they provide additional airflow through the caravan.
Toilet and cassette
Many caravan toilets have an electronic flush, and hold the waste in sealed cassettes which contain chemicals to break it down. They will only need emptying every day or so.
Showers in caravans are a convenience you’ll appreciate – far warmer than walking to a site’s shower buildings in cold weather. Most modern pumps now provide good, consistent water pressure.
Axle and wheels
Most tourers have a single axle mounted roughly at the mid-point of the chassis, although most larger caravans have a twin axle for improved stability. The overall length and weight of a caravan generally dictates whether it has single or twin axles, but with four wheels in contact with the road, the latter are thought to have better towing characteristics.
Caravans are fitted with a fridge which will run off the 12V car battery when towing, 230V mains hook-up, or on bottled gas.
This is the rigid structure upon which the caravan habitation area sits. Made from tough galvanised steel, it offers a sturdy platform upon which to build the body. In the UK market, Al-Ko and BPW are the main suppliers.
The interior of a caravan
Culinary organisation is needed in caravans, as you have to make the most of the work surfaces. If you like cooking, pick a caravan with a generous amount of work surface around the kitchen, on a fold-up extension, or on tables and counters opposite the kitchen units.
Caravan beds come in all shapes and sizes. You can choose from: two or three bunks, twin singles, fixed double bed (island or French-style – transverse or longitudinal), make-up front doubles, make-up dining areas, and now, from Bailey, a side fold-down double bed.
You’ll usually find metal racks for plates and mugs in top kitchen cupboards. Many caravans have positive catches on top cupboards; these prevent them from opening slightly when you tow over speed humps and potholes!
Caravan ovens are very efficient. This is one caravan feature that makes it a true home from home, in terms of convenience and versatility.
Almost all caravans have a lounge area with room for a dining table, which you'll find folded up, in a locker or under a bed. This saves space during the day when the table is not in use. There are two other common dining layout options. One is the side dining area. The other is the rear dining area, which you find in some big family caravans. These offer eating, playing and sleeping space in a self-contained area, which makes them perfect for families with young children on board.
Carpets add a real sense of domestic luxury to a caravan. All but the most budget tourers feature removable carpets, which are shaped to fit the caravan's floor space exactly. The better-quality carpets have a deeper pile for warmth and comfort. They can easily be removed for cleaning, or taken out if you think they may get dirty or damaged due to servicing/repairs, or muddied from outdoor activities such as walking.
Shower room storage is found in cabinets under the washbasin, plus a wall cabinet. Most shower rooms have plenty of shelving. But don’t forget to empty the shelves before departing.
Caravan fridges work on hook-up, gas, or, when you are towing, 12V power from the car’s electrical system. They are very effective when well-maintained.
Washbasins vary enormously in size and design. This contemporary one adds domestic style and cachet to a caravan washroom. Others may be shallower, and come in a variety of shapes.
Three or four gas burners, or three burners plus one mains hotplate – caravan hobs come in a variety of types (some Adrias have three in a line). Keen cooks will appreciate the extra workspace the hob cover provides, too.
A good feature for a family – the children get their own table for both eating and playing. These side dining areas can be converted into two bunk beds, with plenty of storage underneath.