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A travel trailer or caravan is a trailer towed behind a road vehicle (or traditionally a horse or similar pack animal) to provide a place to sleep which is more comfortable, sheltered and protected than a tent (although there are fold-down tent trailers). It provides the means for people to have their own home on a journey or a vacation (holiday), without relying on a hotel, and enables them to stay in places where none is available.

Travel trailers and caravans vary from small basic models which may be little more than a tent on wheels to those containing several rooms with all the furniture and furnishings and equipment of a home. They are used principally in North America and Europe and are rare elsewhere, so this article deals mainly with those continents.

Note that for safety reasons in North America and Europe it is generally illegal for people to ride in a travel trailer or caravan while it is being towed on a public road.

Caravans (Europe)

In Europe, the origins of caravans and caravanning can be traced back to travelling Gypsies and showmen who spent most of their lives in horse drawn caravans. The world's first leisure caravan was built by the Bristol Carriage Company in 1880 for Dr. W. Gordon-Stables. It was an 18 ft design, based upon their Bible Wagons, which the Doctor named "Wanderer".

caravan photo

Modern European caravans come in a range of sizes, from tiny two-berth caravans with no toilet and only basic kitchen facilities, to large, twin-axle, six-berth caravans.

In the UK, 2003 saw a huge increase in the popularity of caravans and caravanning. This was due to several factors, including excellent summer weather, fear of travelling abroad due to worries over terrorism and large increases in house prices, which provided people with the ability to raise capital by re-mortgaging their homes.

Fifth-wheel trailers

A 'fifth-wheel' is a trailer which intended to be supported by the center of the bed of a pickup truck instead of a hitch at the back of a vehicle. The special hitch used for fifth-wheels is a smaller version of the one used on 18-wheelers and can be connected by simply driving the tow vehicle under the trailer. Because of the greater room available on the roads, these vehicles are more popular in North America than in Europe.

Fifth-wheel trailer photo

The only companies that are producing fifth wheel caravans to European road standards are Calder Leisure based in Central Scotland UK with their Kountry Lite range, and the Fifth Wheel Company based in North Wales UK.

Popularity of Caravans in the UK

The National Caravan Council now estimate that the Caravanning industry which includes Motorhomes, Touring (caravans designed to be hitched to a car and towed to a site) and Static Caravans and Mobile Homes (caravans designed to be transported to a permanent site, where they are anchored to the ground) is now worth over ?1bn (€1.5bn/US$1.7bn) to the UK economy alone. The growth in popularity of caravanning has also been enhanced by the improvements in quality and facilities making caravan holidays possible at any time of the year not just summer months. Many of these improvements were suggested and driven by camping guru, Alan Rogers

In the UK, The Association of Chief Police Officers estimates that some 4,000 touring caravans are stolen each year, nearly a quarter of all new caravans sold annually. As a result many caravan insurers request additional security features to be purchased, as a general rule at least one wheel lock and one hitch lock. The cost of insurance from specialist caravan insurers remains relatively low especially compared with other vehicle insurance premiums. The CRIS registration service has also helped track theft. The system operates much the same as the Vehicle Registration Service by the DVLA, but is currently voluntary and subject to a fee.

Caravans are used by people in all walks of life, although common traits are the love of outdoor life and a willingness to help other caravanners. Some make use of their caravans only during their annual holidays (vacations), whilst others take regular breaks at the thousands of caravan and camping sites around the world.

Critics of Caravanning

Jeremy Clarkson, host of popular BBC motoring programme Top Gear, has publicly expressed deep loathing for caravans and has destroyed over a dozen of them on the show. This culminated in the team going on a 'caravan holiday' with a Kia Cerato in 2006; during which they crashed and set fire to their Elddis Shamal XL caravan, apparently by accident. A caravan is also blown up (by various means) in most episodes of Brainiac: Science Abuse (this is usually supported by Host/Presenter Richard Hammond, also a co-host of Top Gear). This dislike generally arises because touring caravans travel slower than and so hold up other traffic; a common sight on UK holiday routes is a single caravan followed by a long queue of cars. Caravans are particularly resented, more than other slow vehicles, because unlike tractors or lorries -- with which they share legal limitations on speed compared to cars -- they are perceived as lacking any necessary economic purpose. This attitude in car drivers can lead to potentially dangerous attempts to overtake a caravan in an unsuitable part of the road, or in the face of oncoming traffic. A modern well maintained towcar (with the correct ratio of weight of caravan to weight of towcar) will have little problem with keeping up with the flow of traffic.

Travel trailers (North America)

In the United States and Canada, caravans are called "travel trailers". Their history can be traced back to the early 1920s, when those who enjoyed their use were often referred to as Tin Can Tourists. As time progressed, trailers became more livable and earned a new name in the 1930s and 1940s which was the House Trailer. In the 1950s and 1960s, the industry seemed to split, creating the two distinctly different entities that we see today, that of the recreational vehicle (RV) industry and mobile home industry. Today travel trailers are classified as a type of RV along with motorhomes, fifth wheel trailers, pop-up trailers, and truck campers.

A teardrop trailer is so named for its resemblance to a teardrop photo

Smaller travel trailers and pop-ups are still made with touring in mind. These generally are less than 18 ft (5.5 m) long and contain simple amenities. By design, they are lightweight and quick to set up or prepare for travel. Most weigh less than 3,000 lb (1,350 kg) and can be towed with a large car or small truck depending upon its towing capacity. Lightweight pop-up trailers weighing less than 700 lbs, such as the Combi-camper and Kamparoo can even be towed by small economy cars and small SUVs. Some exceptionally light travel trailers can be pulled by motorcycle.

Mid-range travel trailers are 18 – 25 ft (5.5 – 7.6 m) long can weigh 5,000 lb (2,250 kg) or more, and are generally towed with compact V-8 powered pickup trucks and SUVs. They have most of the amenities of the larger travel trailers, but sleep fewer people.

Larger travel trailers are made with the seasonal or full-time user in mind. These generally range from 25 – 40 ft (7.5 m – 12 m) long and contain all the comforts of a luxury condominium. Because they require a purpose built tow vehicle, highway tractor or large truck or SUV, these amenity-laden homes can reach 12,000 lb (5,500 kg) or more. While trailers may weigh in even above that, most long-box pickups have a maximum tow-weight of 15,500 lbs, and towing over 10,000 lbs. requires a 'class A' driver's license. Multiple televisions and air conditioners are common in units of this size. Slide-out rooms and screen porches add to livability. By law, travel trailers are limited to 400 ft² (37 m²) of living area, and many models offer exactly that plus any optional slide-outs.

With all of the disincentives inherent in municipal zoning bylaws and building codes to affordable, ecological (off-grid) and compact housing solutions, travel-trailers offer a legitimate and unique possibility for those considering an ecological full-time home or seasonal cottage. Travel-trailers are often acceptable (flood-plains, areas outside of urban growth limits, etc.) - where regular buildings may not tread. One of the great virtues of a trailer park is its very light infrastructure, low ecological footprint, minimal land disturbance, abundant permeable surfaces (for stormwater drainage) and relative ease of site-restoration.

Some specialized brands of trailer, such as the Hi-lo trailer, have an upper half (slightly larger than the lower half) that can be folded down over the lower half to a total height of about five feet for reduced wind resistance during travel; these otherwise contain everything other travel trailers have (except for a full-height closet).

A recent innovation in the Travel Trailer typology is the "toy box" or "toy hauler." Half living area and half garage, these trailers allow 'toys' to be brought to the countryside. A folding rear ramp give access for motorcycles, ATVs, personal watercraft, even racecars. A built-in generator provides power for A/C, TV, and microwave.

Another innovation is the hybrid travel trailer, combining the features of a pop-up trailer and a hard-sided trailer. In its camping configuration, one or more bunks fold down from the side with canvas tent covers. When in travel, the bunks fold up into the side of the trailer leaving four hard sides. Larger models allow the hybrid travel trailer to be used while "turtled", that is with the sides up. The primary advantage of a hybrid travel trailer is that it offers a greater space-to-weight ratio. A disadvantage is that the tent ends are not insulated and subject to heat loss and condensation build-up.

In the U.S., it is generally illegal for passengers to ride in a travel trailer, while in motion, unlike horse-drawn trailers and coaches. Triple towing is not allowed in some states, such as California, Alabama, Florida, or New York; however, triple towing is permitted in Texas if the combined length does not exceed 65 feet (21 m).

Camper trailers (Australia)

In Australia, camper trailers are common along side the traditional caravan. Camper trailers differentiate themselves from similar products due to their ability to go off road, in to places such as the outback. They feature large water holding tanks, batteries for electricity and suspension to enable the trailer to go off road. They are gaining popularity throughout the country.


A typical mid-range, modern travel trailer will contain the following features:

- Gas/electric powered refrigerator
- Gas/electric powered stove, oven and grill
- Microwave Cooker
- Gas/electric powered water heater
- Warm air heating
- One or more beds, some of which double-up as daytime seating
- Electricity supplied by battery or external hookup
- Toilet with removable disposal tank and flush-water tank
- Shower
- Radio/CD/DVD/MP3 Player
- Television aerial/satellite dish

Travel trailers (especially American ones) may also contain the following:

- Air conditioning
- External barbecue points
- Tow hitch stabilizers
- Separate wastewater tanks for "gray water" (wash water) and "black water" (sewage)
- CD players
- Awning or screen room
- Clothes washer and dryer
- Microwave
- Slide-out rooms (such as a 4 x 7 ft dinette or bedroom extension)

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