Updated 2020

What off-road really means

What off-road really means is terrain that necessitates a serious 4WD – but many RV vendors may define it as anything lacking a centre white line. Compounding this, many RV vendors make claims about what can go where that are close to absurd.

What off-road really means for motorhomes

By and large Australia’s major dirt tracks are now well maintained. The major dirt roads, such as the Oodnadatta and Birdsville tracks can be travelled by motorhomes based on truck chassis. Avida, for example, suggests: ’don’t be afraid to do these things . . . common sense applies.’

It sensibly advises not to cross flooded water courses. It advises to watch out for your rear overhang when crossing a dry river bed. Also test the sand for strength before venturing on to a beach. In essence it sees travelling on Australia’s better maintained major dirt roads as ‘off-road’, specifically naming the Birdville track as an example.

Most truly experienced agree that at least 95% of all Australian dirt roads and tracks are in that category. The remaining 5%, however, truly do require a properly equipped 4WD – such as an OKA or its equivalent. For most people, it makes more sense to hire a 4WD for the rare such usage.

The need for ground clearance

For any vehicle intended for driving of-road (no matter what off-road means to you) that most important is ample ground clearance. Many vehicles have suspension that is rugged enough to cope, but unless substantially modified, few have adequate ground clearance (250 mm is the suggested minimum but 300 mm is preferable). The Trakkadu (below) is a reasonable compromise.

Whilst fine otherwise, this rules out many SUVs – unless they have variable height suspension (a few do).

The VW-based Trakkadu can travel virtually all of Australia’s major dirt routes. Pic: Trakka.

What off-road really means for caravans

What off-road really means needs taking seriously with caravans. There are a few rugged enough to withstand ongoing dirt road usage, but many are so heavy (3.5-4 tonne) that at least a 4WD Ford 250 or 350 is needed to tow them. Both can be extremely hard to debog.

Whilst many ‘off road’ caravans are sold very few are seen on the longer and rugged tracks (such as the 1000 km Tanami). Extreme caution is needed when seeking advice from most vendor sales staff. One, at a recent (Rose Hill) RV exhibition seriously suggested his 3.5 tonne caravan could be towed with ease by a Toyoto Land Cruiser along the Canning Stock Route. It’s far from easy by a Toyota Land Cruiser alone!

Phoenix 17.6 ft airstream
One of the best off-road caravans ever made was the 1990s Barry Davidson Phoenix. Many are still in use and command a high price. Pic: caravanrepair.com.au

What RV makers mean by off-road varies a great deal. Several warn buyers to be wary of any claim of suitability for ‘limited’ off-road usage. “There is no such thing as a ‘semi off-road caravan’ says Steve Budden (of Australian Off Road), ‘to go off-road is to venture off the black top. . . there is no discrimination in off road travel when purchasing a trailer. There is no ‘soft road category’ in trailers. Your trailer has to be set up completely to handle all dirt road travel or you will ruin your holiday completely.’

What off-road really means for camper trailers

The RVs most used for off road travelling are camper trailers. Here, price is a good guide. Those most likely to prove satisfactory cost $30,000-$50,000. Those above this price range are larger and more comfortable but may weigh up to two tonne. If using a light 4WD stay with units (such as the Ultimate or Track Trailer Tvan) that are under 1000 kg. Even those create a lot of drag in soft sand.

Any of the above will cope with a probable 95% plus of Australia’s off road tracks.

ultimate_3_The superbly-made Ultimate is a fully off road unit light enough to be towed by the small 4WDs. Pic: Ultimate.

The main exceptions are the Simpson Desert crossings, the Old Telegraph Track and Creb tracks (also the last 150 km to the tip of Cape York), and the Canning Stock Route (WA). These require a truly serious 4WD and, whilst some do, it is advised not to tow a trailer along over the Simpson, nor along the Canning.

Even for on-road use, never even consider buying a caravan or camper trailer that lacks shock absorbers.
Their absence implies that the springs are too stiff to break (but the rest of the trailer and/or contents will instead). Or the builder lacks even basic knowledge of vehicle suspension. See https://rvbooks.com.au/caravan-suspension/

Collyn’s 1940 QLR Bedford at the southern end of the Sahara (about 2500 km south of Algiers) Pic. Anthony Fleming.

Further information

Author/engineer Collyn Rivers has truly extensive off-road experience. It includes taking a 1940 7-tonne Bedford QLR twice the length and breadth of Africa (including two full trans-Sahara crossings). Also virtually every major dirt track in Australia and over twelve across Australia via dirt tracks most of the way.

He was at one time a research test engineer with Vauxhall/Bedford (UK). Click bio for more details.

If you found this article interesting you will like Collyn’s books. These are currently the all new Caravan & Motorhome Book, the Camper Trailer BookCaravan & Motorhome Electrics, Solar That Really Works! (for cabins & RVs), and Solar Success (for homes and property systems). For information about the author – Bio.

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