Maintaining your camper

By: David Cook, Photography by: David Cook


Care and attention to maintenance will keep your camper safe, reliable and ensure it has a good resale value

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There isn’t much in the way of ongoing equipment maintenance when you’re into tent camping, but when you add a tonne of trailer to the mix, along with all its mechanical components and the comforts that it’s designed to carry then you have a regular schedule of maintenance that you should be undertaking to keep your investment – and your mobile home – in tip top condition.

Camper trailers seem inherently simple: A wheeled box designed to cart the stuff that once filled your boot, back seat and roof rack, along with the added bonus of a pre-made bed on top. Well, that’s how the concept started, back in the 1960s and 70s. And it stayed that way for twenty or thirty years, but come the early 2000s it started to dawn on both consumers and manufacturers that you could squeeze in all manner of extras.

In those long gone early days of the camper trailer evolutionary tree maintenance was pretty simple. It involved doing the bearings once a year and occasionally checking the tyre pressures.

Of course, there are the obvious tasks, such as washing off the dirt (don’t use high pressure water on rubber seals, cable entry points or plugs), topping up the pantry and sweeping out any accumulated dust and plant matter from the interior. If only it was just that simple.

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WHEEL BEARINGS

Call it nostalgia if you like, but wheel bearings are still front and centre for the maintenance of your camper. These are designed to keep the wheels rolling smoothly on the axles, over corrugations, through water, deep dust, in baking heat and freezing cold, crawling along a narrow track or at 110kmh along the motorway. They cop a fair bit and so need to be looked after.

For those who do a series of small trips up or down the coast, out to your favourite camp ground a few hundred kilometres away from home, then they need to be looked at about once a year. Pick a quiet time of year, when you’re unlikely to be camping, and do it then. Try to choose some regularly recurring event – a birthday, holiday, anniversary – that will trigger your memory and work to get it done about then.

If you’re off on one of those dream trips that you will remember for the rest of your life and will involve 10,000km or more then give them a look over before you go, and then after you get home do it again. It may seem a nuisance but it’s got to be better than kneeling in the dirt on the side of a track with dust blowing around trying to keep things clean and dealing with solvents, grease and tools.IMG_6604

The process isn’t onerous, as long as you can stand having grease on your hands, and requires only about an hour per side and basic tools – screwdriver, hammer, pliers, large shifter spanner, old paint brush and bowl and a solvent and replacement split pins, unless you find a damaged bearing in the process. If the latter occurs, then simply grab one from the spare pair of bearings which you, as a well equipped camper owner, carry at all times.

If you’re uncertain of the process there are a number of how-to videos on YouTube or similar.

As an ongoing theme, every time you stop on a trip, whether to look at the landscape, get some fuel or buy a coffee, walk past the camper and place the palm of your hand lightly on the hub at the centre of the wheel. Expect it to feel warm to the touch, but not so hot that you can’t touch it. If the latter then you have a serious problem that needs fixing before the whole bearing goes into meltdown and welds itself to the axle.

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SHOCK ABSORBERS

A scarce item on early camper trailers, but now to be found on them all, shock absorbers are one item that cops a tough item. They are pummelled by stones, heated beyond endurance on long stretches of corrugations (the constant hammering generates intense internal heat) and have their mounting bushes pushed to collapse.

There is no specific schedule of maintenance here, but before any major trip get underneath and take a good look. Signs of oozing fluid down the sides, dented outer bodies and any ability to be able to shake or rattle the upper or lower mounting points (which means the bushes are worn out) means a fix is due. And if they were okay to start a major trip, check them after you get home to see how they’ve done.

Even if you’re not going away on any major journeys make it part of that annual maintenance, when doing the bearings, to give them a thorough check over. Don’t imagine that worn shock absorbers are something you can live with. The last time we had failed shockies we were alerted to it by bent frames under the water tank because the shocks were no longer doing the job of limiting suspension movement and allowing the suspension to begin shaking the camper apart.

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SUSPENSIONS

Most suspensions these days do not need any form of regular maintenance, aside from checking the shocks. However, leaf spring suspensions often came equipped with greasable shackles. If you have such fittings, then you should every three months or so give the shackles a fresh injection of a quality multi-purpose grease. Pump it through until you see clean grease coming out at the back, around the shackle pins. If you haven’t had the camper out on the road in that time then you can bypass this, but if you are off on a major trip or just returned from one then it’s almost mandatory, most especially if water crossings or heavy exposure to a lot of dust are involved. If off on a lengthy trip take your grease gun with you and keep up the grease injections after any water crossings or lengthy dusty tracks.

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BRAKES

Brakes should be checked and adjusted as necessary with new campers after the first 500km when the brake shoes and drums have 'bedded in', and at every 5000km interval, or as use and performance requires. While you have the drums off doing the bearings is a good time to check them.

Electronic brakes are easily adjusted using a brake adjusting tool or, if unavailable, a screwdriver – there are a number of handy how-to videos on the Web – or an appropriately sized ring spanner for hydraulic brakes. Just make sure you have released the hand brake before attempting this or it’s all a bit pointless.

The process should not take more than 20-30 minutes per wheel and requires only an adjusting tool, torch, a jack and jack stands.

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TYRES

Every time you get fuel take a look at the tyres. Before any trip starts check the tyre pressures. Ideally you should have a pressure, when the tyres have done 10km or more, that is about 4psi higher than when it was cold. Any more and it indicates that your tyre pressure when cold was too low and the tyre walls are undergoing too much flexing and becoming too hot. Any less and your tyre pressures when cold were too high and the tyre sidewalls are too rigid. The former will produce excess wear to the outer edges of the tyres; the latter will produce excess wear to the centre as the tyres will have more of a dome shape in cross-section.

After a major trip run your hands over the tyre tread and any feathering of the edges of the tread pattern could indicate an alignment problem because the tyres aren’t rolling squarely on the road but are at an angle. This can be fixed at home, if you know what you’re doing, but is better left to experts.

All tyres suffer from a hardening process, as exposure to the sun and other factors continue the course of vulcanisation. This result in tyres becoming brittle and liable to catastrophic failure completely out of the blue, usually, according to Murphy’s Law, when it’s least convenient. Tyres should not be older than six years of age or you’re in danger territory. Every tyre has the date of manufacture moulded into the sidewall, a four digit number usually in a smallish size, which might read something like 1012, which would indicate the tenth month of 2012. Check yours. If they are older than six years you’re on thin ice.

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HITCH

It may seem strange that a hitch would require maintenance, but as the major link between your camper and your tow vehicle you want to make sure it’s doing exactly as you desire. Give the mating surfaces a light lubrication before each use – a spray with a silicon lubricant is good – and occasionally give the grease points a fresh injection of a good multi-purpose grease.

Maybe the once-a-year wheel bearing check is a good time to check all the mounting nuts and for any slack in the bearing surfaces and for the correct adjustment of the major castle nut and pin. The only tools required are a grease gun, grease, lubricant and a set of spanners or sockets.

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GAS STRUTS

It might also seem strange that you need to maintain your gas struts: What could you possibly do to keep them working as designed? Gas struts depend on the internal gas pressure for their function, and this is sealed internally by an O-ring or seal around the main shaft. Any gas strut that’s exposed to the external environment will be subject to fine dust, at best, and stone damage, at worst.

Once a year use an old toothbrush to scrub around this entry point of the shaft into the body of the gas strut to prevent any material from entering and damaging the seal and thus destroying the efficiency of the strut, and at the same time check the shaft for any sign of damage from a stone or other foreign body. Such damage could also injure the seal and compromise the strut’s performance.

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HINGES

Most camper hinges have spare capacity and so might need nothing more than an occasional shot of grease or a spray lubricant, but hinges which carry significant weight, such as those on sidefold campers with kitchens carried on the rear door, or some hybrids with items on the inner side, might be always on the edge.

Check for excess play in the hinge pins or stress fractures or wear in fasteners or mounting points on an annual basis of before and after major trips, especially those involving significant levels of corrugations.

If the hinges are greasable then give them a shot of fresh grease before and after any dirty trips.

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COMPRESSION LATCHES

Compression latches are widely used on camper trailers as they are an effective way of sealing a door against a rubber seal. Compression latches will have to be adjusted to sustain pressure about a year after new and then checked annually after that. Do not overtighten as you can crush the rubber pinchweld and actually lose seal. Do not compress the pinchweld’s bulb by more than 20-25 percent. Check around corners, especially for signs of dust entry and after washing for signs of water ingress. A small shifter spanner and/or a screwdriver are all the tools you’ll require.

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BATTERIES

The best bet with batteries is to have a volt meter installed which will permit you to monitor the daily ebb and flow of current to and from these absolutely necessary storage devices. Lithium batteries can safely be taken down to 20 percent state of charge (SOC) without damage, and they maintain their voltage right down to that point, but all other types (wet call, AGM, calcium, etc) drop voltage as they go and should not be allowed to go below 50 percent SOC, otherwise you will be damaging the battery and shortening its life. See our handy chart elsewhere with this article.

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If you are getting too low then this means reducing what you take out or increasing the input (more solar capacity, hooking up to a generator to put more back in or firing up the car to pump electricity down through the Anderson plug - note the latter is unlikely to get a above 70-75 percent SOC unless you have a DC-DC charger installed because of some basic electrical issues which we don’t have space for here).

As soon as you’re home from a trip put your battery onto a smart charger that can sustain it at 100 percent SOC with a gentle trickle feed, and leave it there. Check fluid levels in wet cell batteries occasionally and top up with distilled water as necessary. This should give you a life span of about six to seven years from your battery.

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WATER TANKS

There are two schools of camper trailer owners: Those who empty their water tanks when they get home, and those who top them up straight away and leave them like that. Either case is acceptable, as long as all hoses into the tank are black and do not permit light to enter. If light can enter into the tank algae is liable to grow in there, so sustaining a dry environment would be recommended. To get around this risk paint any clear hose with black plastic paint (obtainable from modelling stores) or replace the hosing.

Either way, follow a strict regime, so that next time you head off you don’t arrive to discover you have only a quarter of a tank available. Make sure your tank is full (install a gauge if possible) as some fillers will trap air in the tank or hose and can make you think you have a full tank when you don’t. If possible fill the tank from the bottom rather than the filler neck if it seems obstructive. Carry a filter for topping up from uncertain sources on your travels, but any major city water supply will be fine. If your tank water has a "plastic" or unpleasant taste there are proprietary tank cleaning products obtainable from boat chandlers which can fix the problem.

Check any fitted filters regularly for build up of foreign matter and flush out as necessary.

Also, anyone taking lengthy trips on outback tracks should be checking for where smaller rocks and gibbers finish up. This is most important with older campers where thinner water tanks sit on metal stone guards. Small stones can work their way between the tank and the stone guard and the abrasion can produce holes in the tank. After such outback trips it might pay to drop the stone guard and remove any stones. A spanner and an hour or so should suffice to do the job.

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GAS BOTTLES

Next time you fill a gas bottle on your camper weigh it before you use any, so you can get an idea of the full weight of the bottle and its contained gas. Weigh an empty bottle and the difference will be the weight of the gas (the noted weights of the different size bottles - 9kg, 4kg, etc - are notional only) and can enable you to work out if one is about to become empty. There are various magnetic strip attachments which are supposed to tell you this but they are very unreliable in our experience.

Before a major trip make sure at least one bottle is full. If you have a camper with just one gas bottle think seriously about having an option for a second fitted as finding you’ve run out of gas with only one bottle can be a major problem in some areas as refills can sometimes be difficult. Carry a spare regulator and one of those small gas cartridge cookers as an emergency alternative if possible.

Check the gas hoses for any kinking or signs of damage and replace as necessary. Give joints a wipe over with soapy water while under pressure to test for any leaks (indicated by the formation of soapy bubbles).

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HEATER

The proliferation of diesel fuelled space and/or water heaters has added a new item for maintenance. Once every 12 months you should be checking the level of coolant in the system and topping up with a good glycol concentrate if necessary. If it is well down on its level then you need to be looking for the leak.

Diesel heating systems use only a tiny amount of fuel and can run for a year or more on 10L of diesel, unless you’re living in the camper and running the heater constantly. So, maybe every three or four months give the fuel level a check, and if it needs topping up, add a little diesel conditioner, such as Chemtec or similar, to the mix to keep down the growth of algae and to prevent other problems with the fuel system.

If your diesel exhaust begins to blow smoke the heater unit requires servicing by your local dealership.

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CANVAS

If your canvas has been wet immediately before the last leg of a trip home then get it out to dry as quickly as possible afterwards. Scrub off any bird droppings or sap or other material from trees with warm water and a little light detergent then hose with fresh cold water and dry. If the trip has been dusty a hose and gentle scrub with a soft broom will get rid of much of the red dust, though leaving it in place is a badge of honour, telling all that you’ve been outback.

Once a year give your zips a light spray with silicon to keep them sliding easily and check any press studs, bungee loops or other fasteners and give the stitching a once-over to make sure nothing is coming apart.

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BEDDING

When you sleep your bedding is trapped in a space where there is a lot of moisture from your breath and, on a hot night, from sweat. This will build up in your bedding. The sheets and doona can (and should be) washed regularly but once a year take the mattress out to air it. When you first lift it up feel the bottom. If it’s cool and damp to the touch maybe you need to do this more frequently, as different design campers (and their users) will produce different results in the same situation.

This will stop the spread of mould in the mattress and into any wooden structure underneath that might be both unhealthy as well as detrimental to the life of the bedding. Also, give some thought to under-bed mattress underlay, which prevents or reduces the build-up of moisture.

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BOLTS

Once a year, or at any time you’re under the camper, you should be looking around for any loose bolts and nuts or other fasteners. This shouldn’t be too difficult, and a set of sockets or spanners should enable you to complete the task in fairly short time. Don’t overtighten them, as this can fracture and break a bolt.

The most vital task is wheel nuts. These should be retightened to a recommended torque setting (see sidebar elsewhere in this article) in the recommended order, after the first 100km if the camper is new or after the wheels have been off, to ensure that they are tight. Do not overtighten and do not use a "rattle gun".

Check out the full feature in issue #127 of Camper Trailer Australia magazine. Subscribe today for all the latest camper trailer news, reviews and travel inspiration!