Caravan Tracking Systems!: On The Right Track
We investigate caravan tracker technology and put one monitored system to the test
Words & Photos: Richard Chapman & John Sootheran
Until recently, Caravan theft prevention was largely accomplished by a steel-on-steel brute force approach, using heavy-duty hitch locks to prevent a thief from hitching up to your caravan.
Steel bolts, known as wheel locks, through the wheel spokes to prevent your outfit from being moved, and locks on the corner steadies to prevent them from being raised, to further frustrate a would-be purloiner of caravans.
This approach works well to put off most thieves, as, while the devices are defeatable, they do take the amateur thief a long time to remove, while creating much attention-grabbing noise.
Meanwhile, the professional, and most-determined, thieves are still out there.
These guys, armed with tow trucks, compact oxyacetylene cutting gear and brazen catch-me-if-you-can attitudes wouldn't be kept at bay by all the steel in Sheffield.
Once they'd made off with your caravan, your only hope was to inform the police and hope someone spotted your outfit before it disappeared for good.
That was then.
Caravan security experts recognised we had to get smarter to beat these 'ne'er do wells', and decided to call on cutting-edge technology to deter theft and recover our stolen tourers.
They adapted automotive tracking systems for use with caravans and motorhomes. These devices are small enough to be hidden discreetly somewhere in or on your caravan.
The experts use various types of tracking technology: GPS utilises satellites to triangulate a vehicle's position; while the country's extensive mobile phone network can also be called on.
The best trackers will switch between systems to find the strongest signals, while cheaper models may rely on just one tracking network, usually using phone masts. What they all do is enable you to follow the whereabouts of a stolen caravan on a map, enabling the police to track it down and recover it. In theory at least.
These guys, armed with tow trucks, oxy-acetylene cutting gear and brazen catch-me-if-you-can attitudes won't be kept at bay by all the steel in Sheffield
There are two main types of tracker system available
Monitored systems cost more to buy, and feature an annual subscription fee, but they do offer 24/7 coverage with staff at a monitoring station being alerted at any time of day or night should your caravan alarm or tracker be triggered.
It's likely that the first you will know about any caravan theft is a phone call from the monitoring station. From there things move quickly.
First, they will contact you to check the movement is unauthorised, and, if it is, contact the police to alert them to the situation. Meanwhile, you call the police to obtain a crime number. All the time they are watching the red dot on a screen map as it departs the scene.
Some systems also let you watch your caravan's movements on a digital device.
Tracker companies, like the eponymous Tracker and Yorkshire-based Outsmart the Thief (OSTT), claim excellent recovery rates, thanks to professional relationships with the police.
What they don't do is help the caravans' owners to track down the thieves themselves, as that could clearly be dangerous.
Most of the more expensive tracker systems are linked to a full alarm system, delivering the most comprehensive caravan security package in the UK and beyond.
The cheaper option is an app-based system. These compact devices can be hidden inside the caravan and send out a regular 'ping' which can be tracked on a map using a smartphone, tablet or computer.
Some may be linked to an alarm system and can be programmed to alert you with a text, should your tourer be moved when the alarm or tracker has been armed.
Caravan does not recommend tracking the stolen vehicle yourself. Instead, you should contact the police and advise them of your caravan's whereabouts.
Budget trackers can be wired into the caravan's electrics or may have their own integral battery. Some claim up to three-month's battery life, but will need recharging, if, say, you store your caravan over winter.
The Caravan tracker test
To discover how effective the latest GPS/GSM tracker technology is, the Caravan team put one system to the test.
It created a simulated theft scenario, to see if the monitored tracker system from Outsmart the Thief, actually 'does what it says on the tin'.
Our 'victim', Tony Carr, is towing his glorious Adria Adora Thames – the target. This van is fitted with OSTT's Lockdown alarm and tracker system. Tony pitches his caravan on Woodland Water's Rally Field, a secluded spot far away from other campers.
Once he's pitched, Tony heads into Ancaster village, where he meets our test editor, Val Chapman, for a coffee in the pub.
At this point, two thieves arrive on site, looking suspiciously like the editor and yours truly. They've had their eye on the caravan park and saw Tony arrive, and pitch up, then noted his towcar leaving the site. It looks like the caravan is unoccupied and ripe for the picking.
Like a scene from Gone in 60 Seconds (the caravan sequel, obviously), John 'Wheelman' Sootheran swoops in and quickly reverses up to the Adria, as Richard 'hitch-me-hastily' Chapman leaps out and starts to wind the rear legs up quick time.
Next, he raises the jockey wheel and… suddenly, a shrill siren screech pierces the freezing air! The lights on the caravan flash rapidly, seeking attention. Despite the alert, the cool-as-ice crooks, keep calm and carry on. Lesser thieves would have legged it, but this pair is nothing if not ballsy!
Chapman signals the car to reverse under the hitch, while his (literal) partner in crime jumps out to raise the front legs. As the hitch drops onto the tow bar, the electrics and break-away cable are quickly connected.
Meanwhile, 100 miles away in York – in perfect synchronicity with the siren – a red dot starts flashing on a computer screen and its operator hears a warning alert in his headphones. Like a well-trained air-traffic controller, he instantly switches to tracking mode. A pop-up on his screen lists the owner's details, and he hits 'Call'.
In sleepy Ancaster, Tony Carr's mobile rings. He answers it.
"Mr Carr? This is Outsmart the Thief. Your caravan's alarm has been activated and it's moving, are you with the unit?" A look of shock crosses Tony's face as he hears the question.
"No, I'm not, and no-one has permission to be moving it either."
"Okay, says the OSTT operator calmly and professionally, "We'll alert the police and continue to track your caravan. Please ring them now to obtain a crime number, and call me back with it."
Tony puts the phone down: "My caravans being stolen," he says to Val. The pair dash to the car.
At this point, Outsmart the Thief's standard procedure is to notify the police and guide them to the stolen caravan's location. However, for the purposes of our test, they'll help Tony and Val to track it. The chase is on!
As the pair leave the pub, the thieves are motoring through south Lincolnshire looking for somewhere quiet and secluded to pull over and hopefully figure out a way to silence the alarm and stop the flashing lights, which currently make it look more like a disco than an Adora.
"Your caravan is now heading north on the A607 through Normanton," says the OSTT operative.
"We're driving west out of Ancaster on the A153," replies Tony.
"Okay, you'll need to take a right down Rookery Lane in about half a mile".
A few miles away, the thieves think they are clear of danger and spot a remote gravel road that disappears into the distance across fields. Perfect.
The Outsmart the Thief operative is on an open line to Tony and Val in the chasing car.
"Stay on that road through Sudbrook and carry on heading north," he says.
Meanwhile, the thieves are congratulating themselves on a job well done. They've just bagged over 20-grands worth of caravan without a hitch. Well, with a hitch… you know what I mean!
But, unbeknownst to our pair of caravan rustlers, they're being tracked, and they can't hide from the all-seeing eye of a GPS satellite, 12,550 miles above them in medium earth orbit. They don't stand a chance!
The OSTT monitor continues to feed Tony the Adria's real-time location updates and directions.
"Okay, you're closing in," he says. "Take the next right turn along Friestone Heath Lane. The junction's in the middle of Friestone village."
Looking across the flatlands of Lincolnshire, Tony thinks he sees his Adria a mile away across the fields. "There it is!" he exclaims, excitedly. It just reversed behind that hedge."
A minute later, they screech to a halt across the gravel track, blocking any escape for the now-disappointed, and, in the real world, soon-to-be arrested thieves.
It's game over for our dastardly duo, and it's taken less than 13 minutes to retrieve Tony's pride and joy, not even enough time for any damage to be inflicted.
Tracker 1 – Thieving scumbags 0
Watch our caravan tracking video below!
Power Does your system need recharging or is it connected to the caravan's wiring loom? If it's wired in, you'll need to keep your battery charged, even in storage. A solar panel or trickle charger will do this.
Coverage - Where will your caravan be stored? If you store it in a remote location, how strong is the phone signal and will the tracker be effective?
To deter or track Putting a tracker sticker on your caravan may deter the casual thief, but it will also alert the professional to your security systems, possibly allowing them to use a jammer. Tough decision.
Hiding the van If thieves hide your van in, say, a shipping container, where no signal can be detected, most systems will show you the last position of the tourer before the signal disappeared.
Other benefits The best trackers will allow you to check on your leisure battery level and some other caravan settings.
Transferability Self-contained, app-based systems are simple to transfer to a new caravan, but some 'wired-in', monitored systems can also be moved to a new tourer, Use an approved technician to maintain your insurance discount.
Monitoring subscriptions These are paid monthly, annually or for the duration of ownership. (£12.49, £149 or £399, respectively at OSTT)
Tony got to see how good his tracker performed in a simulated but true-to-life theft scenario. We were seriously impressed, not only with the accuracy of the information given from Outsmart the Thief, but also the speed at which that first notification came through.
Literally seconds after the caravan was stolen, the police would be notified, vastly improving its chances of being retrieved undamaged. The detailed GPS/GSM tracker data means that, although the thieves can run, they can't hide. With the alarm sounding and the lights flashing, they are obvious, too.
Carl Meyer, owner of Outsmart the Thief, is a pragmatist. "If a serious professional thief wants your caravan, they will likely get it. But, it's our job to make it as difficult as possible for them, both as a deterrent and to maximise the chances of getting a stolen caravan back.
"On their own: locks, posts, alarms and trackers do a decent job, but you need to combine all those elements for maximum protection. The faster you react to a theft, the more likely you are to get your pride and joy back, and that's where monitored systems can win-out over cheaper app-based devices."