Caravan advice: How to set up a caravan on a campsite pitch
So, you’ve arrived at your chosen campsite – the next step is to set up your caravan on your pitch.
For the inexperienced caravanner, this can seem like a challenging process, so make sure you have everything covered and take it slowly. It may seem there is a lot to tick off: unhitching, levelling, connecting water and electricity, adjusting steadies, etc.
But don’t worry, this easy-to-follow 10-point guide will help to get you set up and start holidaying in no time. Everything you need to know about setting up on a campsite pitch is here.
1. Before you unhitch your caravan
Firstly, before you unhitch your caravan from your car, ensure the draw shaft on the hitch is not compressed. It’s unlikely if you pull forwards onto your pitch, but it’s something to be aware of if you reverse onto it.
When you’re happy with your caravan’s position, pull forward a few inches until the ram extends. If you don’t, when you unhitch, the hitch cup can shoot forwards on the ram and dent or scratch your car’s bumper.
2. Use the caravan's handbrake
Apply the caravan’s handbrake to ensure it is securely positioned.
3. Lower and tighten the jockey wheel
Release the clamp on the jockey wheel by turning the lever handle on its stem anti-clockwise. Lower the wheel until it touches the ground. Tighten it in its clamp by turning the lever handle clockwise. Make sure it’s tight!
Before you release the jockey wheel, give the handle about six turns to slightly lower the wheel on its screw shaft. By doing this, you get more length of shaft when hitching up again. This becomes important if the ride height of the car is slightly lower (due to loading, or two passengers on the back seat) than it was when you unhitched. If you don’t do this, you may find that, when you hitch up, you can’t lower the jockey wheel enough for it to engage on the ball. If this happens, lower the front corner steadies to support the caravan, then raise the jockey wheel by releasing the clamp handle and moving it up in its shaft. Secure it with the clamp, then lower the wheel by simply turning the screw handle on the top, until you have enough length of shaft to lower it down and onto the towball.
4. Detach the caravan
When the jockey wheel is on the ground, detach the 12V electrical cable(s) from the car. Now, unhitch the caravan from the car by lifting the handle on the hitch head and winding the handle on top of the jockey wheel. The hitch will start to rise until the hitch cup detaches from the towball.
Finally, unhook the breakaway cable from the towbar (this is the coated wire that, in the event of the caravan parting company from the car in an incident while it is being towed, will pull the brakes of the caravan on).
Then drive the car clear out of the way for safety, and then wind the jockey wheel up or down, until the caravan is sitting approximately level.
5. Level the caravan
A caravan needs to be level transversely (side to side) and longitudinally (front to back). You can do this in one of three ways: by eye, using a manual spirit level or by using a high-tech spirit level app on your smartphone, whichever you prefer.
Caravan shops sell spirit levels; they cost a minimal amount and work fine, although they’re not as accurate (or as enjoyable to use) as the leveller application on an iPhone. That has to be our preferred choice, although we also have the plastic low-tech alternative, too.
Level across the caravan first, using a plastic levelling ramp if needed. Place the ramp in front of the wheel on the lowest side, and tow the caravan up it until it’s level. Apply the handbrake.
Then you need to level the caravan from front to back. That’s far easier, as you simply wind the jockey wheel up or down.
6. Apply the caravan's corner steadies
Lower the corner steadies by placing the socket of your caravan’s corner steady winder over the nut on the winding mechanism. Wind it until the corner steady’s foot is flat on the ground.
Never be tempted to overwind a corner steady – and never try to make the caravan level by using the corner steadies, as damage may result. Levelling should always be done by winding the jockey wheel up or down until the caravan is level from front to back. Corner steadies are exactly what their name implies – they are not intended to support the weight of the caravan but just to steady it.
7. Connect the mains electricity cable
Connect your mains electricity cable (usually 25 metres long) to the caravan. Most caravans’ mains power sockets are within an exterior lockable hatch that also houses the battery. The cable runs through a groove in the edge of the hatch door.
Connect the other end of the cable to the mains power point on the hook-up post. Never connect the cable to the power point first – always connect the caravan end of cable before connecting to the mains supply. Store any excess cable under the caravan.
8. Activate the 12V system
The 12V electrical system (for lighting, water pump, toilet flushing pump and hob electronic ignition) is turned on by a switch on the control panel. You will usually find this located above or alongside the door.
9 Turn on the gas supply
Depending on the type of regulator system on your caravan, you do this by rotating the knob on top of the regulator on your cylinder to the ‘on’ position, or flipping a lever.
10. Connect the water system
A hose and pump assembly will be provided with the caravan to get the water from your water container to the caravan’s water system (unless you have an onboard water tank). Simply connect it to the caravan's water inlet and then place the other end in the full water container.
Some types of connector have a submersible pump on the water container end. Others, those for caravans that are equipped with an inboard pump – a pump situated under seating – have a water filter on the end of the hose.
To connect the waste water outlets to your waste water container, you’ll need a length of grey hose (this can be bought by the metre from accessory shops) and a Y-shaped connector to join the shower and sink outlets into one hose. This means that, for convenience, one single hose goes into your waste water container.
Preparing to leave your caravan pitch
It’s time to leave (sadly) but, before you head off and depart the campsite, there are a number of things you need to do. Follow this list of checks before you leave to make sure you haven’t forgotten anything, that everything that has been stowed away safely, and your caravan is in sound working order.
- Check that all of your caravan's windows and rooflights are closed and secured
- If you have one fitted, retract your TV aerial or satellite dish
- Disconnect the waste and fresh water pipes and store the empty containers in the car or caravan. You can buy bags for these but we have found that heavy-duty bin bags are a cheap-yet-adequate substitute
- Disconnect the mains electricity cable from the hook-up post and then the caravan and store the cable in either the car or caravan – an exterior-access hatch on the caravan is ideal for this
- Turn the fridge to 12V; in this mode it draws power from the car’s 12V system when the engine is running. When you stop the engine, the 12V supply is automatically cut off, so that your car’s battery power can’t be depleted by the fridge, causing a flat battery
- If your caravan has a microwave, don’t forget to remove the glass plate and circular trolley before you start towing
- Make sure everything is stored securely inside and cupboard doors are firmly closed
- Raise the corner steadies; have a specific routine for this to make sure you raise them all. Start at the front nearside, then the back two and finally end with the front offside
- Make sure your towing mirrors are on – this is a legal requirement, so don't forget.
Hitching up can be done in one of two ways. If there are a few of you and the caravan is light enough, you can pull the caravan towards the towball. However, don’t try this if the caravan is on a slope. It can also be difficult on sand, deep gravel or mud, so you’ll need to check this before trying to move the caravan.
The other, easier, method is to reverse the car so that the towball is positioned under the caravan hitch. If there are two of you, one person can stand by the caravan and give instructions to the driver to enable him/her to position the ball right under the hitch. Lone drivers can also hitch using this method – it just takes longer without guidance.
The majority of caravans built after 2007 have a hitch-head stabiliser as standard. When you’ve attached the ball into the cup, push the handle of the stabiliser down into position. When you do this, the friction pads within the cup engage on the ball. This should require some strength to push it down; if not, it indicates that the friction pads may need adjusting or replacing. That’s a job for a caravan dealer as hitch-head stabilisers are safety features.
Connect the breakaway cable to the dedicated loop on the towbar, or loop it around the neck of the towball. When using a dedicated loop, it is important to pass the cable through the loop and then clip the cable onto itself. Do not clip the cable to the loop – the clip may be too weak to activate the brakes.
Screw the jockey wheel up as far as it will go, making sure it fits firmly into the slot in the tube casing. Then undo the clasp and lift the whole jockey wheel up until it won’t go any further. Secure the clasp tightly.
Connect the caravan’s car electrical connections to the socket on the back of the car. Check that the road lights on the caravan work. Do this every time you tow. It’s best done in the same sequence every time, so that you don’t forget anything and also for ease of communication between the driver and the person at the back of the caravan checking the lights. A useful and easy sequence to remember is: side lights, brakes, then right and left indicators.
Before towing off, walk around the caravan and car to check that the towing mirrors are on, the breakaway cable is hooked on the towbar, the electrical plug is connected, the corner steadies are fully retracted, the hitch is secure, the caravan handbrake is off and the numberplate is firmly attached.
If you enjoyed this guide to setting up your caravan on site, there is loads more expert caravan advice just like it in the latest 2020 issue of Your First Caravan. Download Your First Caravan 2020 here.