Sealander Schwimmcaravan

Caravans and engineers - a hitch made in heaven

With a recent survey naming engineers as the second most common caravan-owning profession, we look at the changing face of the recreational vehicle.

Who do you think caravanners are? Silver-haired retired army types, with two golden retrievers and a drive large enough to park their tourer when not in use? Think again. As new technologies pitch up at the caravan park, the profile of those who choose to spend their leisure time towing their own holiday accommodation is changing. One recent survey has revealed that engineers are the second most common profession to own a caravan, just pipped by teachers.

Caravanning was long the preserve of the nostalgic leisure seeker, including me. My own caravan is not cutting edge. A moss green 1982 Elddis tourer, I lived in its 11ft-long oblong when I worked as an elephant girl in the circus. It's a pocket-sized period piece, with orange velour seating complimented by large gold tassels hanging from the deep brown velveteen curtains. Although compact, it has all the right priorities. There is no toilet or shower, but there is a built-in bar, beautifully lined with green baize and a row of little silver clips to keep the crystal safe. There's even a slot for a decanter.

But caravans are on the move. They are lighter, smarter and far more technologically sophisticated than my trusty Elddis. As cars get smaller, caravans have to accommodate or they'll be too heavy to pull. "There's a need to respond to changes in the passenger car market, especially issues such as smaller, lighter cars," says a spokesman at the Caravan Club. "This will lead to a requirement to reduce caravan weight. This in turn may encourage the use of alternative materials and more sophisticated design and production methods."

Baileys, a Bristol-based caravan manufacturer, has started producing models that break the mobile mould. Instead of relying on the floor and chassis to stabilise the construction, it uses AluTech – panels comprising a sandwich of aluminium, high-density polystyrene and an inner glass reinforced plastic lining. The usual timber battens have been replaced by composite plastic. There are hardly any exterior joints or fittings, making the caravans extremely watertight - leaking is a legendary caravan holidaymakers nightmare.

There are also decades of design difference between my 1980s Elddis and the latest Elddis models. The UK manufacturer is using bonded construction methods to attach the roof and walls together in a screwless construction, with massive clamps along part of the flow line while the bonding cures. "Elddis is using adhesives from its structural bonding partner Henkel with a range of caravans in the bonded construction of all the sides, roof, floor and even the chassis, in a construction called SoLid, which results in a comparable structural integrity to a monocoque," says Clive Mott-Gotobed, technical consultant for Motorhome Motorcaravan Monthly.

New prototypes are being developed that prove it's not only drier, but cooler to caravan. Jakub Novak, an engineering student at the Brno University of Technology, has designed the Odorico Pordenone. Although named after Odoric of Pordenone, an Italian medieval traveller, there's nothing ancient about this mobile living space. It is a trailer that can extend outwards, with fold-out wings, to create a minimalist travelling home. The Odorico was nominated for the Czech National Award for Student Design 2011. David Tonkinson has designed the Capsule Caravan, a small, lightweight collapsible two-person capsule that also fits into a regular parking space – and it doesn't matter how cheek-by-jowl the pitches are in the caravan park. The Capsule has electro chromatic film in the windows, so there is no need for velveteen curtains; they just darken on touch.

When is a caravan not a caravan?

What counts as a caravan is changing, and hybrid models are emerging, not only crossbred with trailers. The VW Campervan Tent looks like a campervan, when in fact it's a full-sized replica made as a tent. Every detail is as the original, apart from having no engine. That's not the only caravan mash up. The amphibious Sealander Schwimmcaravan was launched by German manufacturer Straub earlier this year. Its integrated waterproof chassis allows it to glide into the water without the need of a slipway. The width of the lower shell provides stability and a secure position afloat, while the modest draught means it can navigate even shallow waters. The reinforced fibreglass shell has a double hull, so in the unlikely event that the outer shell springs a leak, only the sub-floor fills with water. A low-emission five-horse-power electric motor gives licence-free access to most inland waters, while the rechargeable battery of the outboard engine supplies electricity to the interior living area and can be recharged from the towing vehicle during the journey on land.

Hitching up is also becoming easier. Manufacturer Bosal is about to launch 'intelligent towbars', expected on the market in late 2012, just in time for the 2013 caravanning season. Robin Evans of Bosal UK says: "Our designers are working on some really innovative systems. For example, a system that will indicate trailer alignment and angulation to the driver as a reversing aid. We are also investigating a simple and robust means of assessing trailer weight. We aim to make dumb towbars a little bit brighter to help drivers and make caravanning in the UK even safer."

Finding a new pitch is now far simpler than when I rode around the ring. TomTom has launched the Go Live Camper & Caravan navigational device, which includes software that adjusts routes and arrival times to match a vehicle's size, weight and maximum speed. Drivers can set separate profiles for their camper, caravan, car, van and trailer. Custom 'points of interest' are stored to help locate camping areas, chemical-toilet facilities and camper service spots.

When I travelled in my old Elddis, there was no risk of getting lost. We drove in convoy, the circus proprietors leading, followed by the clowns, acrobats and wire walkers, with the general hands and elephant girls at the rear. But setting up on arrival was a challenge. We had to pitch on unpromising patches of earth on the outskirts of small Italian towns, the ground either rock hard or so soft your feet sank. But caravan parks aren't the poorly serviced, muddy fields they once were. Perran Sands in Cornwall is typical of the new style. The curved roofs of the bathroom block are covered in grass and designed to harvest rain to make them self-watering. The showers are solar heated, with energy efficient under-floor heating and high-efficiency condenser boilers.

Powering up

Access to power has always been a crucial issue for caravanners – and increasingly so. "One of the major changes in the caravan world is the desire for more technology overall within the confines of our mobile homes. Mobile phones and chargers, laptops, and iPads are all taking residence when we are using our leisure vehicles – and they all need power," says David Burley of Motorhomefacts.com. "There are limitations when using a leisure vehicle away from mains electricity. We are reliant on batteries which, when labouring away to provide power for all these consumers, just simply aren't powerful enough."

Alternative energy systems could provide the solution. "One aspect manufacturers could improve upon would be pre-wiring for solar panels and satellite systems," says Burley. "If a caravan is pre-wired, this reduces the installation costs significantly and is much easier to do at build stage than aftermarket solutions. Some manufacturers do this but it is far from standard."

New multiple LED lighting, consuming 90 per cent less power and considerably outlasting halogen, is another solution. One example is A1 Motor Stores's new Ring Automotive lighting range, specifically designed for caravans and tents. "All lighting should be LED-based nowadays, if we are to free ourselves from the shackles of hook-up electrical power and use our leisure vehicles for what we envisaged," says Burley.

Typically, caravanners take dogs on holiday with them – having pets being a major spur behind taking up this form of domestic travel. At least I only had elephants, who – quite properly – had their own giant tent close by, to look out for. Launched last month, Animalarm is a temperature gauge that links to a mobile phone. If the temperature in a car or caravan increases or decreases when a pet is left inside, the device triggers a phone contact to inform the owner.

Techonological advances

With all these new developments, will different people start enjoying the freedom of the open road? One and a half million regularly take touring caravan or motorhome holidays, contributing £6bn each year to the UK economy. Chris Cattrall, editor of Caravan Industry and Park Operator magazine, says: "From a technological point of view, the world of caravanning and motorhomes is progressing to more lighter models using aluminium and other lightweight material. This is a major step towards getting more – and new – people into caravanning as they are able to tow using standard, family vehicles and not just heavier four-by-fours."

There is another way in which changing cars could entice new caravanners. "Electric cars are in their infancy, but because electric motors produce maximum torque at start-up, they are ideal for hauling heavy loads. Think of railway locomotives. In future, we may have fully electric cars, not hybrid, which will be great for towing your caravan," says Barry Williams, former head of publications at the Caravan Club.

The weather has contributed to an influx of new caravanners, with people fleeing flooded fields. Tony Bywater of caravan supplier Salop Leisure has witnessed the deluge. "We have noticed a massive increase in touring caravan and motorhome sales this summer of people who have previously enjoyed camping holidays for many years," he says. "Because of the continuous rain, people have decided to upgrade to more comfortable accommodation that is weather-proof but still gives them the freedom to go on holidays and short breaks anywhere and any time they wish." There is one hitch to a new generation taking to towing. The law.

"Drivers who have taken their test since 1 January 1997 are limited to towing a caravan with a maximum weight of 750kg. There are no modern UK caravans so lightweight. Or they can tow a heavier caravan as long as the combined maximum authorised mass (MAM) of tow car and caravan does not exceed 3,500kg," says Barry Norris, former technical information officer at the Camping and Caravanning Club. "This limits drivers to, say, a Mondeo and a caravan with a maximum weight of about 1,300kg. A caravan of 1,300kg is relatively lightweight by modern standards, as the British caravanner requires all mod cons. As more and more drivers with the new licence come of an age when they tend to start caravanning, so the problem will increase."

With already over one million members in the UK, the Caravan Club is optimistic. "It's perhaps useful to note the broad spectrum of existing participants, whether 30-something couples in campervans going to festivals or retirees touring Europe for three months at a time," they say. "We hope to see more people doing it." 

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