Caravan: What You Need to Know

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Hitching a Trailer in Europe

I was checking all the complex tech details of Caravaning. Weights, drivers license, and all the legal regulations. It showed as being a little bit more difficult then I thought. The good thing is that it’s all covered under a single set of EU laws. This is what I found.

Before I even began to look around, to buy our first travel trailer, I studied a lot of technical details to make sure we’re in line with the law. It’s not gonna be easy, so feel free to make yourself a coffee & maybe a donut or two. It took me many hours to create this beginners intro list.

The European Union Laws

Well, honestly, it’s almost same in all countries. But some details might get lost in translations for a particular country, so be ready for surprises.

1. Campers & RVs

In the states, these camping cars are called recreational vehicles. In Europe, we call them Campers. They’re basically motorised caravans. And they are split into three basic groups.

Camper & Motorhome RV
Camper & Motorhome Options in Europe – you can buy my illustration here.

Vans — The smallest, but most popular, are vans equipped as campers. The living area is usually made by the owner, but the companies doing this professionally are popping up as well. Look for #vanlife on YouTube or Instagram and you’ll get the idea. The most usual subject of this is Volkswagen Transporter & Westfalia is the best known company, making California a brand that influenced generations of travellers. Great thing about vans is that you need a basic passenger car driving license to drive one. As most vans are under 3.5 tonnes which is the limit for such license in Europe.

Working in the back of a Camper Van
Working in the back of a Camper Van

Semi Integrated Campers — This type is most common middle class solution to camping & caravaning in Europe. The cabin here, is made by the car maker (usually Fiat, Citroen & Mercedes, sometimes Ford) and the living space is simply a travel trailer bolted to the rear. Many people that travel around here have this in recent years, even though it’s larger than a van, usually consumes more fuel and is quite basic if it fits to the 3.5 ton limit for basic drivers license. The good thing is that you get one piece of car dedicated only for travels.

Semi-integrated Camper Example
Example of a Semi-integrated European Camper from the 80s

Integrated Campers (closest to american RVs) — The most luxury option here is a fully integrated camper. For me the big downside is that this is usually the most expensive, most heavy and least safe solution. Because it’s all just nicely looking plywood and aluminium sheets, which would not save the crew in case of a dangerous accident. But you get a lot of space and comfort, so if you just don’t care about money and you drive safely and not too often, this might work for you. But, many people that travel more tend to scale down from integrated campers.

Obviously, the sizes are still in European scale. Compared to RVs in the United States, it’s all still rather a small home on wheels. European roads are a little more narrow, cities are a little older and so this comes from our heritage.

2. Caravans & Trailers

Those without an engine, that you can tow with your existing car. These are the origin of home on wheels and start from under 750 kilograms, in which case they’re just a simple trailer hooked to a car and so you don’t have to care about getting an extra special drivers license. Such a trailer does not have many luxuries such as a shower, toilet and fridge. One could say, that it’s just a tent you can’t fold down. The benefit is it’s weight and the special condition in the EU code that gives you ability to have a 3.5 tonnes car and still plug in a trailer with the simple drivers license. In that case your complete rig would have a maximum of 4.25 tonnes.

Travel Trailer & Caravan
Set of Travel Trailer & Caravan Examples – you can buy my illustration here.

Next weight category is a caravan (travel trailer) with brakes. Usually between 1.0 and 1.5 tonnes in weight. Even for this heavier trailer you might be ok with B-class basic drivers license. The limit is that your combined maximal weight of the car and the trailer cannot exceed 3.5 tonnes. And also, that gross weight of your trailer cannot exceed the body weight of your car, so that the trailer is always lighter then the towing car.

Example Weights with BMW 5-series Touring Wagon

Vehicle Weight Weight of stuff Max. total weight
BMW 5 1,775 Kg 525 Kg 2,300 Kg
Caravan 900 Kg 300 Kg 1,200 Kg
Total 3,500 Kg

In case you make it, then you’re a ensemble under 3.5 tonnes and that is mostly good to drive with the standard B drivers license. Unfortunately not all policemen are aware of the details of this law, and the law itself might be updated over time. So when you have the time & energy, it’s better to buy yourself some comfort and go for B+E (BE) drivers license. That allows you to drive also heavy trailers until upper limit of your car. In some European countries you might be required to have BE license for any trailer over 750 Kg.

In the case your total gross weight is over 3,500 Kg, you must own a BE drivers license. And if your towing car is over 3.5 tonnes, you might even need CE license. What you get is an assurance, that your transmission will tell you goodbye a bit sooner than if you have a lighter trailer. And if you’re lucky and have a decent recent car, the car can switch to a trailer mode every time you connect a trailer to it.

Back to Driving School

Although with the setup above, I’d be fine, I ended up going to driving school again. Just to be ready for the future. I’ll be prepared in case I buy a heavy trailer or a heavy car. The thing that made me happy was the instructor — the guy was an avid caravan traveller and he told me great bunch of stories. Since then I know what a mover is, and what that I don’t have to worry to sleep on a gas station over night.

Even More Tech Surprises

To make it even more complex, also your car & towing hitch could have a limit. In most cases it is 2,000 Kg. So if you would like to tow an European trailer, things would go smooth. But towing an American Airstream, that starts around 3,000 Kg of weight, would not work with vast majority of European cars. If you really like the silver bullet shape, you should buy a lighter European version of the Airstream, which is still pretty heavy, but lighter and a little more narrow than US versions.

7-pin or 13-pin Trailer Plug

There are two common types of electrical plugs in Europe. The old one with 7 pins is pretty common, but does not allow you to power fridge while moving. And then there’s newer 13-pin that you need to order specifically if you want to have it on your car, as well as some older trailers might still have twin 7-pin plugs that need to be re-worked. The future is 13-pin plug for sure.

Car Trailer Plugs 7-pin & 13-pin
Trailer Plugs 7-pin (left) & 13-pin (right)

If you don’t have a towing hitch on your car, it’s good to do some price comparison in advance. In my case, an original BMW hitch was around €2,000 ($2,300) while an after market solution cost me €350 ($390) which is pretty big difference.

So I decided to not give my hard-earned money to BMW, but rather decided to feed my local BMW servicemen. One thing you should also take into account is that cars with a hitch get some negative points if you’re selling your car to a dealer, as they likely might be more used than cars without a towing history.

Towing in Czech Republic

As far as I know, there are these specific rules applied to towing a caravan trailer in the middle of Europe, meaning Czech Republic and Slovakia (formerly Czechoslovakia).

  • For highways you only need one stamp for your towing car in Czech Republic, while in Slovakia you need two, separate stickers for car and your caravan
  • In case you have an RV (Camper, Motorhome) over gross weight of 3.5 tonnes you would need a plastic box and pay for a distance using tolls same for all trucks and trailers
  • In most European countries a car with trailer is a Category 2 or Category 3 setup, meaning you pay 50-100% more for the same distance, but you would not drive as fast, either because speed limit of your trailer (80 Km/h for most trailers, some new are 100 Km/h or 130 Km/h) or the hike in fuel consumption thanks to the total weight

Where to Buy a Caravan in Czech Republic

Burimex Caravan Dealer

To be honest, my favourite trailer is an Airstream. Because the history of the brand is so strong. On the other hand, British caravans are the best on the market in terms of quality of production. As for value for money, the British caravans are well equipped while being fairly cheap and reliable.

The offer of trailers on the market in many European countries is great. It’s a piece of equipment that people not use everyday and so you can easily buy 30 years old trailer in a good shape with most of the features of the new ones.

To choose a good dealer, I recommend to visit their shop first, look around and compare at least three shops so you get a perspective. It’s also better not to hurry things up. If you wait, you might get a decent deal and better fitting setup of the interior.

For me the dealer in the heart of Europe is Burimex. As there you can get new and used trailers, new motorhomes and also equipment and service. They provide cleanup service and they can modify your existing caravan or camper professionally.

If you’re travelling or living in the United Kingdom, there is also a great offer of used, fully equipped British trailers, on eBay.co.uk. But you might need to deal with rather complex paperwork if you’d like to bring the trailer to your home country.

Burimex dealer - Samples