Off Grid Vanning: Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves!
Author: Natasha Zosko
The plan was to see Australia first, then see the world while sharing our love of what Australia offers. So how is it, that thirty-five years later, two unlikely retired women in their sixties are still waiting to see the world and are continuing to choose 4×4 off-grid caravanning instead?
By sharing some of our experiences, we hope to encourage more women to head off grid and help anyone thinking about getting an off-road caravan avoid some of the mistakes we made along the way. With the right rig you can be a competent and confident 4×4 caravanner in a very short space of time.
We started out totally naïve to off-road vanning and yet we have successfully and safely ventured around Australia mostly on remote off-road and staying either in National Parks or bush camps. or So how did we fairly quickly get to this position of independence, competence and confidence?
This is an important question given it is said, that whether caravanning or boating, it takes an average of seven goes to get the right rig that will see you through all your changing needs. It took us a few goes to get it right and then as we aged our needs changed. Had we known all we do now, we could have saved a lot of money and aimed for a rig like the Track Trailer T4 that would have met all our changing requirements over time.
We started in a tent. Our go-to safe places were the banks of The Murray at Torrumbarry Weir and The Goulburn River near Nagambie. At this stage we only understood that we loved to stay in the bush away from the madding crowds. We found our station wagon limited our ability to carry equipment and our access to many bush tracks.
We upgraded to a Kimberley camper trailer and a 4×4 Nissan Patrol. Our love of the outdoors and bush settings increased as we ventured further. While we felt quite brave and adventurous free camping away from the crowds, we did not feel altogether safe with only canvas between us and the outside world at night. We worried about all our things back at camp when we went off exploring nearby places or popped into town to do some shopping. At night, the canvass walls seemed paper thin, never mind having to dry the stuff if it rained.
For a blink we got side-tracked and seduced by the idea of extreme luxury and the security of being inside. We allowed ourselves to get trapped by sales spin that an on-road RV, read bitumen, could easily handle graded dirt tracks. Our first trip saw us stuck in a one-inch dirt puddle at a roadside camp. Arranging a tow out even near civilization was not an easy feat. Over the next few trips we realised we did not like having to pack up camp to go exploring. If we left items behind to stake out our campsite occupancy, on a few occasions we found them moved or ‘nicked’.
The motorhome hit the resale market like a frisbee. Our first big mistake; make sure you are very clear on what kind of travelling and environments you dream of immersing yourself in rather than compromise too much. Also think about whether you prefer to explore returning to a set up base camp.
Off to the caravan and camping show again, this time with a better understanding that we wanted off-road capability with security. A few weeks later we had placed an order for a tandem axle 18’ Bushtracker, a serious off-road van with a good quality finish. We felt secure and knew it was built to handle off-road conditions. While a very good van, again we found we had missed the mark for our own dreams. It was heavy and large. A car upgrade was required. We learnt about the limits of even larger four-wheel drives and that even with a new large 4×4 vehicle, the car suspension would need upgrading and we would be very close to breaking our gross vehicle mass and combined vehicle mass limits dictated by our towing vehicle. Breaking this limit invalidates insurance in the event of an incident. In the end, the deal breaker for us was that we could not take a tandem axle and the combined weight everywhere we wanted to go.
Yet again, we were off looking for a replacement rig. One that was not too big, was single axle so it was permitted to enter National Parks such as Purnululu, did not require large vehicle upgrades and special engineering certification, and that also required no strength or great mechanical skill of us. In other words, light, nimble, and comfortable but very robust in tough terrain.
Furthermore, we realized that complex mechanical adjustments and repairs on the go were showstoppers for us. Our knowledge is limited to essentials of changing tyres and fuses, fixing leaks, and using gaffer tape and wire to hold together stuff. Other than that, we carry essential spares for real bush mechanics to help us.
We headed to the show thinking this was probably too much to ask and perhaps the big all of Europe trip would finally win out. Well we never got past the Track Trailer Topaz I caravan stand. Europe was shelved again.
To date we have not had to find any bush mechanics. We have had no failures on rough terrain thanks to doing thorough research on which rigs are truly off-road and have military rated suspension and which ones reflect marketing spin.
We embarked on a 4×4 course. We learnt all about tyre pressure settings for different conditions, how and when to use recovery gear, negotiating water crossings, bull-dust holes and, the ins and outs of our power management system. Our confidence soared.
Designed to go truly off-road and stay off grid we found our van followed like a well-behaved dog on a lead. While other 4×4 rigs arrived at remote sites with their kitchen contents and cooking equipment on the floor or with broken suspension, we carried raw eggs and wine bottles without a single breakage. To date, we have not even experienced a flat tyre. If you follow the 4×4 course teachings and drive to the conditions, it is a very safe undertaking. Advice from locals about road conditions, recommended tyre pressures and speeds is invaluable.
Compact, yet able to handle our tendency to pack twice as much as was needed, we felt safe behind a proper mesh security door. We ventured into remote rugged territory with all the civilized comfort of a Gin and Tonic wherever we chose to rest. The only ‘bull-dust’ to get inside was us. This was thanks to full diesel cooking, hot water and heating systems which ran off the smell of an oily rag. We did not need vents in the door at the step well as LPG based rigs do. However, as we got older, we found the rear shower tent more difficult to reach up and assemble. A port-a-pottie too low to get up from and certainly too heavy to carry around to an outside shower tent.
On selling our Topaz I, we stumbled across another key thing to look for in vans, resale value. After years of use, we sold it for almost the price we initially paid for it. Once again, the idea of Europe travel was a momentary blip, as we realized we had enough to get another high-end rig.
The Track Trailer Topaz II beckoned with larger airy windows and the ever reliable military rated suspension. For months at a time we travelled and camped off-grid in comfort. We felt safer at night having an inside port-A-pottie stowed in a special slide out cupboard. The external fully enclosed shower at the rear easily dropped down from a pod, which meant no more back pain assembling a rear shower tent. Importantly, it also meant we were not relying on one able bodied person to do things requiring dexterity. The fear in the back of our minds being, what if something happened to that person. Think about whether the rig you choose can be managed independently by both of you. Which brings us to our ultimate rig purchase.
The whole of Europe trip no longer beckons, as the idea of long-haul flights and hanging around airports and hotels or hundreds of people on a ship seems more exhausting than hitting the road. The outback of Australia still calls to us. We sold our Topaz II, and got back what we paid for it.
We are now at a stage in our lives where the thrill and freedom of off-road vanning brings with it age related aches and pain and limits in dexterity. Our priorities now are effortless setup and pack-up, creature comforts, maximum security, and ease of use with simple operations not requiring you to remember a sequence of travel lockdown tasks.
Again, we looked for solutions. Based on our criteria, it was a no brainer, The Track Trailer T4 Rhapsody won hands down. Fully self-contained with inside toilet and shower, electronic raising of the roof and locking of all cupboards at a single push of a ‘button’, a separate full freezer drawer, all possible creature comforts you could imagine, and again all built on reliable military rated suspension and chassis. This time we opted for gas cooking, heating and hot water and are enjoying not having to wait for diesel systems to heat up to make a cup of tea.
So, in summary, figure out what your dream caravanning lifestyle needs are. Ask yourself:
- Will you be sticking to caravan parks and bitumen roads or, hitting dirt roads or 4×4 tracks and remote off-grid sites?
- Do you need a high level of robustness and capability?
- What is the appropriate level of security? Canvas is easily breached.
- What reputation does the manufacturer have? A good indicator is the resale value.
- Check for real off-road capability versus marketing spin?
- Can you afford to upgrade vans as your age and stage needs change? Should you target the ultimate van up front if possible?
- Consider your ability to fix less robust vans while on the move? If you have the appropriate skills, you may target lower cost rigs.
- Where would you like to travel to? Check if any likely areas of interest restrict access to single axle or a maximum gross combined vehicle mass.
- Will your car tow the rig of your choice? Consider not only towing capacity but also the vehicle’s gross vehicle mass, the total combined mass of the van and car permitted for your vehicle as well as the tow-ball height requirements.
- Get proper 4×4 training if you want to go off-road. We have witnessed horrific mishaps and rescued others who had no idea what they were doing.
If two city-slicker women who knew nothing about 4×4 caravanning can do this, so can you. The key is to invest in the right rig and get the right training.
Our next blog: The Shakedown!
Until our next update - see you around the Tracks!
Natasha and Bronwyn