Choosing a new offroad van
Caravan journalist Michael Browning had some hard decisions to make when it came time to buy his own offroad van.
It’s fair to say, in my many years of travelling with and reviewing caravans and camper trailers, I have encountered a few ‘hits and misses’ in terms of what I thought worked and what didn’t in the various RVs I saw.
It’s sometimes hard to draw the line of what’s acceptable unless you are living with and in it for a period of time.
How easy is it to operate that pop-top or fold-out room when you’re stopping overnight and packing up on travelling days when temperatures drop below zero? How does it react to forces of side winds or oncoming B-doubles on major highways? What about access to the bed or using the kitchen, lounge and ensuite? Is there sufficient room to simply move about without bumping into each other?
Over the years, I kept a running tally of things I wanted in my own caravan – and those I didn’t.
I’ve been fortunate enough to take some caravans into remote areas, but my wife Wendy and I wanted to go further, for longer, and to do this on a regular basis we needed our own offroad van, be it a pop-top or a hard-top.
DEFINING OUR NEEDS
So, back in December 2014, I drew up an outline specification of this dream van based on our needs now and in the future, given we planned to own and travel in it for a number of years. This is what I came up with:
- A proven, tough, serious offroad caravan that would survive many rough road trips without falling apart and, hence, retain its value.
- The smallest van we could get of this type that would incorporate a large double bed, a full kitchen, lounge and bathroom with separate shower, toilet and vanity.
- A power management system that would allow us to live off-the-grid for up to seven days straight in the remote areas on our bucket list.
- The ability to run some 240V electric appliances when travelling north in winter, such as a microwave for heating pre-prepared meals, an electric blanket for when it drops to -4°C in Alice Springs – as it did in July this year.
- Space heating, either gas or diesel-powered.
- The best available offroad suspension.
- Finally, it had to be custom built by a reputable company that we were confident would support its product over many years.
This narrowed the field down somewhat, as there are only a handful of manufacturers who I consider (a) truly experienced in building offroad vans and (b) was prepared to custom build what we wanted.
To make the chosen builder’s task more difficult, I set an external target size of 4.6x1.8m (15ft x 6ft 6in) and a Tare weight of 2000kg.
We achieved everything we wanted, except those last two points. To fit everything we wanted into a caravan that we could both work and travel in without compromising our marriage, and making it tough enough to survive the beating we intended to give it, necessitated external dimensions of 4.7x2.1m (15ft 6in x 7ft), and took its Tare to 2400kg.
This still made it able to follow pretty much in the wheel tracks of our Land Rover Discovery 3 (or any large 4WD) on tight roads and still left plenty of power to be towed laden to its max ATM of 3200kg at a consistent 100km/h behind the 3500kg-capable Disco.
THE TRAKMASTER SOLUTION
We chose Trakmaster’s new Pilbara Extreme as the basis of our project, based on several things. But it was our experience meeting other Trakmaster owners at two annual gatherings of the 500-odd member-strong Trakmaster Off-Road Caravan Club that clinched it.
We were not only impressed with the impunity of where they took their caravans, which were up to 10 years old and more, but the number of members that were on to their second and third Trakmaster, and the respect they had for the company that has built them since 1995. Plus, Trakmaster was relatively local to us in Melbourne, Vic, and knowing that I would be wanting to follow the caravan’s build from the word go, that was also attractive to me.
Trakmaster currently makes eight models with dimensions ranging in internal length from 3.8m (12ft 6in) to 6.6m (22ft) and from 1.98m (6ft 6in) to 2.36m (7ft 9in) wide, with pop-top and full-height configurations, aluminium or composite wall cladding and three different chassis configurations – Standard, Cross-Country and Extreme. The different chassis’ allow for variation in the departure angle for offroad travel.
The launch of the new composite fibreglass-walled Pilbara model in 2014, followed in 2015 by the introduction of a 20th Anniversary version called the Pilbara Extreme, made the choice much easier for us.
I had liked the chunky, no-nonsense look of the Pilbara Extreme with its wild flame graphics from the time I first saw it displayed, unfinished inside, at Melbourne Leisurefest in 2013. It was clearly a Trakmaster, but a much more modern looking one than the others which were clad in traditional ribbed aluminium, synonymous with the brand.
My admiration grew after living with the prototype for a week in the northern Flinders Ranges early the following year, but it wasn’t perfect and Wendy and I noted the things we would change – as we do with every other van we take away – if we were buying one.
The Pilbara Extreme introduced in the third quarter of 2014 came with a number of standard inclusions and is now offered in two floorplans – with twin single or a north-south island queen bed in a common 5.13x2.13m (16ft 10in x 7ft 6in) full-height body size. However, this was not only larger than the size van we wanted, but was only available with a front right-hand corner combined shower and toilet bathroom, something we wanted to leave behind with our previous Jayco Expanda days.
So, after measuring, cutting and pasting other Trakmaster floorplans, we came up with something we believed would work in a 4.57x1.8m (15ft x 6ft 6in) Pilbara Extreme body and put our design to then-CEO and experienced offroad traveller Russell Seebach and operations manager Richard Metcalfe.
They were positive, but guarded in their approach, as what we proposed was placing the full ensuite from a larger 5.79m (19ft) floorplan across the nose of the van, with a transverse double bed across the rear cut-away and fitting a full kitchen and L-shaped lounge in between.
Their reticence was whether our design would work in the real world, both in the caravan’s balance and ball-weight for towing stability and its liveability with its shrink-wrapped interior.
The decision came down to millimetres, but eventually they confirmed they could build it – but it would need to grow 15cm (6in) in both width and length to 4.7x2.1m (15ft 6in x 7ft) to make it liveable. We agreed.
STANDARDS AND OPTIONS
One of the things that attracted us to the Pilbara Extreme was that many of our ‘must-have’ items were included as standard.
For a start, it has Trakmaster’s own TrakAir self-levelling trailing arm airbag suspension – something I have been a fan of since hearing Trakmaster Off-Road Caravan club members praise it for its smooth ride over corrugations. Despite its modest length, it also has a tandem axle, which means that the load from rough road travel is spread more evenly over the chassis and allows us to run lower tyre pressures for an even softer ride, both on and offroad.
Being self-levelling, the TrakAir stops the van heeling over when cornering and we felt this would make it a good match for the adjustable-height airbag suspension on our Land Rover. As the TrakAir can also be manually adjusted for height, left to right, it means we wouldn’t have to carry levelling ramps and could be less choosy about where we parked overnight after long travelling days.
A standard front boot-mounted ARB compressor also means we can re-inflate tyres quickly after dropping them for rough road travel.
A standard 200Ah Enerdrive lithium-ion battery with a DC-DC charger, plus a solar regulator for the two 135W roof-mounted flexible solar panels was a good start to meet our energy needs. To ensure we could run a few small 240V appliances off-the-grid, we also added an Enerdrive ePRO Combi 1600W inverter charger and had Trakmaster fit three 150W full-thickness Enerdrive glass solar panels to the roof to ensure we could keep the lithium battery charged at all times.
We also replaced the Extreme’s standard Evakool 146L compressor fridge with an equally-quiet 140L Waeco compressor unit so that we could find more bench space and leave room for a skinny half-robe above.
After some deliberation, we decided to fit a Truma Trumatic E 2400 gas space heater with outlets under our large double bed, after making a decision in favour of a gas internal cooktop over a diesel equivalent, because of the instant usability and much quicker cool-down time that comes with gas.
To save weight, we replaced the two standard 9kg steel gas cylinders on the drawbar with a pair of newly-available Norwegian-made composite 7.5kg cylinders, which are not only half the weight but do not explode in a fire.
This means our Extreme had to have lower door and upper wall venting to meet the strict Australian gas regulations, but Trakmaster assured us that the Extreme’s high-volume roof-top scupper vent and careful sealing of any cavities that vented externally – such as those housing the fridge and the anode-free Atwood hot water service – would keep dust at bay.
Once we decided on the interior layout, we had fairly free rein over the materials and finishes for its cabinetry, walls and dinette and here I bowed to greater experience and hand-balled the selections to my wife.
Her choice of light champagne-coloured Ultragloss dividing walls, drawer and cupboard finishes was inspired and, despite of the van’s windowless front and rear – which we wanted to minimise any entry of dust or water during its lifetime – the six-window interior has a light, spacious feel that makes visual mockery of its actual dimensions.
The issue with reducing the number of windows was an increase in weight. Combined with the fully-galvanised chassis instead of painted, the full ensuite with its solid dividing wall and sliding door, and our choice of 16in steel wheels and Toyota Land Cruiser-size General Grabber 265/75 R16 light truck tyres (compared with 10kg per wheel lighter 15in tyres and alloy wheels), we probably added around 200-250kg or more than could have been saved with different choices.
Other standard equipment on the Pilbara Extreme that we otherwise would have specified included its Hitchmaster DO35 offroad hitch, the framed truck-mesh stone shielding, Tebbs Tuff heavy duty vinyl front body padding (we raised it higher) and no fewer than five separate lower rubber mud-flaps protecting the drop-down corner jacks and the two-level folding aluminium step.
The Extreme’s standard drop-down rear wood rack, rear towing hooks and standard pair of MaxTrax mounted on the back panel (in lime green to match its striking Extreme body decals) were other items we would have added if they were not already standard.
So now we’ve got pretty well what we wanted, thanks to our persistence and Trakmaster’s indulgence of our dream.
How it all works in the real world of the remote outback travel we have planned for it is yet to be tested. Only time will tell.
The full article appears in Caravan World #556 October 2016. Subscribe today for the latest caravan reviews and news every month!