A future for those travelling grey nomads

Posted on September 25th, 2008 in Driving Emotion,Economy,Opinion by Julian Edgar

I am writing this sitting in the Maryborough (Queensland) caravan park’s camp kitchen. My wife, Georgina, and our little boy and I are camping here, having driven up from the Gold Coast, a distance of about 350 kilometres.

I have stayed on and off in caravan parks since about the age of 16; camping in tents or staying in cabins or on-site vans.

Over that time, the biggest change has been in the nature of typical caravan park guests. Once, the people staying in caravan parks comprised almost entirely families with young children. But now, especially in non-holiday periods, caravan parks are dominated by ‘grey nomads’, older, retired people who have hit the road.

Some have sold their houses and invested entirely in a travelling life. These people have sometimes spent well over $100,000 on luxuriously equipped, bus-sized mobile holiday homes – with names like Swagman and Winnebago. Others, perhaps still with a house back home, have bought late model four wheel drives or Australian Falcon or Commodore sedans and are towing large caravans.

As I sit here, I can see a Toyota Landcruiser, complete with inverted aluminium boat on its roof, hooked up to a large caravan. Looking in a different direction, there’s a huge fifth-wheeler type of caravan, complete with a small truck that is used to tow it. Within general view there are probably 20 grey nomad travellers.

In the ablution block I pass a stream of men in their sixties and seventies; up very early this morning, women of similar age were hanging out washing.

I think that it is absolutely fantastic that these people are getting out and seeing things, staying active and alert and participatory. Perhaps the sign I saw on the back of one well set-up rig summarises the philosophy: ‘Adventure before Dementia!’ it read.

But one thing really puzzles me. How are these people able to afford to move their rigs? It’s great to be well equipped but invariably, grey nomads have chosen to lock themselves into an approach that is very hungry on fuel. A large-ish vehicle towing a large-ish caravan is unlikely to better 20 litres/100km. Many even bigger vehicles will be using more like 30 litres/100km.

At the time of writing, that means that at the bottom end of the scale, a hop of just 100 kilometres is going to cost these people $29 in fuel alone.

One hundred kilometres isn’t very far – if you assume that a couple stays in a town for a few days before moving on to the next, the weekly fuel bill could easily be $120. Add caravan park powered site rental at typically $32 a night, and even without food or any entertainment, the cost must be in the realm of $400 per week.

Of course, that’s absolutely fine – if the money is available. But what happens when the fuel prices again double? What looks initially like a wonderful way of spending a decade or more between retirement and perhaps a less energetic existence could very easily become financially prohibitive.

(The Landcruiser with boat and caravan just packed up and pulled out – it’s 7.20am. The couple smiled and waved happily at us; they looked in their mid seventies.)

What really surprises me is that every grey nomad seems to have invested entirely in a ‘heavy weight’ approach. Huge vehicles, huge caravans, huge luxury mobile homes.

But the funny thing is that – as Georgina and I have often done – if you look closely at these caravans and vehicles, invariably the beds are small and access to them is cramped, kitchens are tiny and again have little room around them, dining tables are very small and sometimes require the motions of a contortionist to sit at them – and so on.

In fact, despite their size, many of these caravans are actually not very comfortable at all.

So what is wrong with instead of taking the heavyweight approach, to simply take a large tent?

Straightaway, the whole lot will fit inside a car, so reducing by a very large amount the fuel consumption.

A well set up tent is vastly more comfortable than a medium-sized (or even large) caravan – take just the bed for example. An air mattress with good bedding is luxurious – and can easily be king- or queen-sized. These days a gas-fuelled camping stove is no longer a primitive and ineffective device – and you can always take along a small microwave oven as well. A flat-screen LCD TV with satellite access, a lap-top with high speed broadband – both are easily available.

The toilet? Well, this morning seeing people manually emptying their containers of sewage into a collection point (a concrete drain) didn’t strike me as much fun. And many caravan parks now have ‘on-suite’ toilets for some sites.

Set-up time? Watching people manoeuvre, stabilise and plumb a caravan shows how long that approach takes – it’s invariably 30 minutes or more. A big tent of quality, light-weight design will be erected in about that time; you then need to fill it but that’s pretty easy and doesn’t need to be done in one go.

Perhaps these people think that ‘camping = roughing it’ but with the right gear, that’s absolutely not the case.

Put the lot into – say – a diesel Hyundai Sante Fe and you could reduce your fuel consumption by up to 75 per cent! That sounds incredible but on the open road we recorded 7 litres/100km out of the Hyundai when we drove it, so it’s certainly achievable. (In fact, at the slow speeds that many of these people travel, the fuel economy may be even better.)

Another advantage is that when tours are made from the campsite, the vehicle is again more economical and practical. (Contrast that with doing the local tourist drives in literally a truck!)

And finally, of course, the amount of money that needs to be spent on equipment is vastly reduced – so freeing-up more money for covering travel costs.

More comfort, less up-front costs, hugely reduced fuel costs – all for a relatively small increase in set-up and pack-up time.

Am I missing something?

18 Responses to 'A future for those travelling grey nomads'

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  1. Martin said,

    on September 25th, 2008 at 1:09 am

    There’s another aspect to consider too. Many of the grey nomads have put considerable money into their huge caravans and correspondingly big cars to pull the huge caravans.
    If they drove a smallish car without the caravan, they could put the price difference towards a very large number of overnight stays in decent hotels…

  2. Denis said,

    on September 25th, 2008 at 8:07 am

    I could not agree more!
    Tomorrow afternoon, I head off to the South Coast of NSW for 3 weeks of 5 Star camping around their beautiful beaches and hinterland parks. With a really waterproof 6 man Coleman GeoDome tent, an outdoor kitchen/living area gazebo, folding wardrobe, hanging pantry, Cobb Oven, and absolutely every convenience one could want (right through to an inflatable beanbag with built-in ipod speakers). Even packed the electric blanket just in case the mercury dpis too low!
    And all this all fits into my little Hyundai Getz. Total investment in camping gear around $1000.
    Takes me around an hour to set up base camp, hang out the hammock, and relax.
    At 7.5 litres per 100 km, and up to $20 per night camp fees, it’s about as economical a holiday as is perhaps possible.

  3. Mick said,

    on September 25th, 2008 at 9:46 am

    Julian, while I’d rather stay in a tent for reasons not unlike yours and like a good camp bed than a cramped caravan bed, I can still see how older travellers prefer a caravan. I don’t thing you’re quite comparing apples with apples here. Your ability (and mine) to quickly pitch a tent in all weather is vastly different to some blue-rinser in need of a knee replacement with a crook back. We take the ability to sleep on a mattress on the ground for granted, but there aren’t too many queen or king sized camp beds that are high enough for the oldies. While it takes a bit of time to fully set up a caravan (services, levelling etc.), unlike a tent, you can just jump into a bed if you need to when the weather is bad.
    From a grey nomad’s perspective, your concluding comment probably reads more like:
    “Potentially much less comfort, less up-front costs, hugely reduced fuel costs – all for a potentially large increase in set-up and pack-up time.”
    I can see how they prefer a big van to a tent, but by the time I’m that old, I’ll be doing something more along the lines of Martin’s last comment.

  4. Graham Pring said,

    on September 25th, 2008 at 9:56 am


    You are now middle aged and don’t have a lot of the medical problems the Grey Nomads have.

    Some ninety percent of males die with, however not because of prostrate cancer, so the thought of getting up in the middle of the night a couple of times to go to a public toilet in the rain is not a nice thought, let alone letting people see that you have been getting up at night a lot.
    Females are similar and don’t take kindly to getting dressed in a tent to go to the ablution block after dark.

    The writer is (almost) a Grey Nomad and after having spent three months’ riding around Australia, two up on a motorcycle, getting just less that 80 mpg (3.2 l/100 km) in 1977 when Highway One still had long distances of dirt roads, I know why I have ‘progressed’ to a very small 4WD with camping and every other night in a Motel.

    If there are reasons for Grey Nomads spending their children’s inheritance on petrol and lifestyle, they may not want to talk about it in public or to a younger generation.

  5. dan said,

    on September 25th, 2008 at 8:25 pm

    you have turned into a carbon copy of the south park episode about prius drivers.. whilst you might not like the vulgarity about the show the message is the same.

    there is a lot more to life than fuel consumption, and people who have worked smart and worked hard throuhgout their life simply don’t care about fuel consumption when they’re having the “once in a lifetime / last for our lifetime” holiday.

  6. Julian Edgar said,

    on September 25th, 2008 at 8:58 pm

    Dan, you seemed to have missed the point. If fuel costs continue to rise, many of these people will not be able to afford to continue the approach that they have chosen. Look at any site devoted to ‘grey nomads’ and you’ll find high on the list of discussion points about equipment and lifestyle is the concern about rising fuel prices.

  7. Lawrence said,

    on September 25th, 2008 at 9:50 pm

    I agree with the article. Have you seen camp beds these days they are as high as a normal bed! a double thickness, and all you have to do is plug it in. Plus tents can be easy to set up. If you spend a little on it, say $500 you can get a tent you can pitch with an air compressor. only 4 pegs to hammer in.

    Plus Ive seen how long it takes an older person to manually put a caravan on a tow bar, its no easy task. Also to move a caravan is not easy as well.

    I drive to camp sites with a tent and it does not take long to set up. Just takes some prior thinking. Plus it is cheaper. Who needs to haul a toilet when most Grey nomads go to caravan sites which have a toilet block.

    Maybe people do it to show off………………..

  8. Russ said,

    on September 25th, 2008 at 10:47 pm

    There is validity in all of the opinions raised in this blog. However, you will find most, not all, of the grey nomads with large motor homes actually purchased their vehicles some time ago when fuel was much more affordable. What do they do now, with rapidly increasing fuel prices and their retirement dreams in tatters? Like the rest of us, you resign yourself to the cost of that commodity you need until you can change your circumstances. How many people do you know who plan for the cost of fuel in ten years time??
    In reality, a small Toyota sized bus in more than large enough for two people to live in and a damn site cheaper to run…..but it will never have the status.
    Lawrence, I’m sure many of them feel some kind of status with their large motor homes.
    Julian, although many of the blogs on nomad sites show concern re rising fuel prices, when up close and personal, not so many will even discuss fuel consumption. They are coyly quiet about the reality of their dream lifestyle. A fickle bunch…..

  9. Bob Jay said,

    on September 25th, 2008 at 11:00 pm

    Who ever said the “Landcruser and mega van set” have any brains? Many are a curse on the roads, slow until the overtaking lanes, when they put their foot down preventing safe overtaking. I would be glad to see most of them get rid of their big and expensive outfits and travel more efficiently by car and stay in on site accomodation. Safer for them and other road users too.
    That is what we do, although we are not living away for weeks at a time. Instead we hop a cheap flight to wherever, rent a car and enjoy a leisurely drive heading home. You halve your driving mileage but see everything along the way plus you save wear and tear on your own car, which is waiting at home still clean and full of petrol when you return.
    Just like a motoring journalist, I get to drive many new and late model cars this way! Best thing is that the high capitol outlay of a big outfit is avoided and the interest on the sum invested goes into the travel budget.
    Think more, drive less. Bob Jay

  10. Ben G said,

    on September 25th, 2008 at 11:08 pm

    For those people who don’t want the discomforts of camping, why not trade down to a smaller, turbo-diesel powered Ford Transit-sized motorhome similar to those people use in Europe. If necessary with a fold-out tent attachment to provide extra living space?

  11. Gerhard said,

    on September 29th, 2008 at 12:24 pm

    Your comments, Julian, reflect a valid point of view, but they also reflect a dictatorial mindset, in that your solution is the one that is best for everybody else.

    Last time I looked, Australians still have the freedom to choose their own way, regardless of whether someone else can’t see the point.

    I have personally travelled and accommodated by air, car, 4WD, hotel, tent, camper trailer, swag, wooden floor, dirt floor, and never tire of adventures.

    But I would not have the audacity to tell everyone in an age group 20-30 years older than mine that they must not use a caravan but instead use a tent and a car because I know it’s best for them.

  12. Julian Edgar said,

    on September 29th, 2008 at 1:48 pm

    That’s a pretty bizarre comment. I actually said about the whole heavyweight grey nomad approach: “Of course, that’s absolutely fine – if the money is available.” (Did you even read that?)

    I am clearly referring to those who find that, with increasing fuel costs, they DON’T have sufficient money to take their heavyweight rig anywhere.

    And by extension, that unless these people have sufficient contingency funds, they should carefully consider what they invest in now when considering the next 5 or 10 years of travel.

    And, finally, that there are options that are likely to be more comfortable and cost a lot less in upfront expenditure and fuel costs.

    If you think that reflects a dictatorial mindset, good luck to you.

  13. Dingo Sharp said,

    on October 1st, 2008 at 12:15 pm

    I have to disagree with you being a grey nomad myself I like the lifestyle, I work hard for 30 odd years and earned the super I got to do what I want and that is to take my wife and myself on one last extended holiday in comfort, sure we could’ve bought some car with great fuel ecomony but suffered with room thoughs little 4 bangers aren’t great on luxury either when it comes to sitting all day in the saddle, take our vehicle a 48 foot denning coacn converted to a motorhome gets a magic 6 miles to the gallon out of it’s turbo V6 Detroit motor and puurrrs all day without a hitch, we never done any maintianance since we’ve rebuilt her and don’t expect to do anything except change her oil, and all filters. Yes we camped in tents but now we both too old and too ill with aching bones to bother about a tent anymore so I suggest that until you’re an oldies like all the other lay off and be greatful that for now you can bed down in a tent I’d love to do that all again.

  14. Lance Shiells said,

    on October 1st, 2008 at 2:29 pm

    Give me a caravan with a airconditioner/heater any day…especially when the weather is eithor too hot or cold /wet and the wind is blowing a gale. Great to just read a book or watch the telly. and enjoy the comforts.

  15. Jay said,

    on October 1st, 2008 at 8:08 pm

    “Great to just read a book or watch the telly. and enjoy the comforts”

    Wow, what a holiday. I can’t wait to retire.

  16. Philip Armbruster said,

    on October 6th, 2008 at 8:42 am

    Interesting .
    My wife and I are just coming to “grey nomad’ status and just came back from 8 weeks in the Territory in our off road camper.
    We also noticed the incredible size of some of the rigs, but many of the biggest are driven by younger people. Many/most of the fifth wheelers towed by F250s had WA plates. (miners?)
    We noticed that those with aircon/TV tended to just stay in their van. An older couple even said to us they were bored at Kakadu because there was nothing to see!!!!

    I believe the lightweight “hard floor”off road camper is the ideal compromise. we bought a 10 year old Campomatic which weighs about 500Kg, and knocks 2Km per litre off our economy, 16 Lper100Km at 105 Km in our 92 Range Rover V8.
    It takes 1 minute to set up if the awning is not used and 5 if it is and has a queen bed, integrated kitchen etc.
    We can go anywhere the car can within reason and in the last few months have done the Stezlecki, Merty Merty, Savannah way, Oodnadatta and many other poor tracks that would have the potential to damage a soft roader.
    We have the Rangie to get us to places inaccessible to soft roaders eg Twin Falls in Kakadu, Sandy creek Falls in Litchfield where fording of up to 70CM is required, and safely up the Savannah Way.
    I have tented it for 30 years, but for extended trips they are a pain.
    I personally used to find the rolling of the sleeping bags, and the Thermarests in a hot tent really sweated me out.
    My wife like many older people has a ruptured disc, and subsequent weak leg, reconstructed foot, and now is recovering from cancer.However we do not let it stop us from going on every walk.
    I see the Rangie as seeing me out, as it is worth nothing, and the capital needed to buy something economical but off road capable far outweighs petrol cost.
    But I must admit the guy who had a new V8 Cruiser towing a 23foot Jayco and getting 23Lper100Kms had me beat. but as he said, the 10K extra for a diesel Cruiser pays for a lot of petrol.
    Regard sPhilip A

  17. terry said,

    on November 9th, 2008 at 10:16 am

    I and my wife are greynomads who have traveled around this country of ours on several occasions over the years,most times using a tent plus all the camping gear that one can fit into a small sedan.Now that we are getting up in years,both in our late 70s we have purchased a Cavalier tent trailer that is towed by a 4cl Toyota Camry,to give us more comfort and allow us to carry more gear ect.We have all the comforts of home,satellite tv,microwave,battery pack that is charged by the car and solar panels when camping,hot water service that runs off the gas bottle,stainless steel kitchen to have a cuppa on the side of the road ect shower/toilet tent,porta loo ect ect.You name it we have it.50% of the time we free camp it with others,the rest of the time is spent in caravan parks.So far we have towed our camper 26000 km around this great country of ours without any problems at all and have enjoyed every single minute.The trailer tent is 14foot with a fully enclosed annexe so there is plenty of room for us and our little pooch.We average around 10ltrs per 100km with our setup.I feel its all about personal choice.We would not swap our setup for a caravan ever.The people that we have met along the way and the friends that we have made sitting around a camp fire is simply fantastic.We always have our house to go home to when we tire of traveling,but it only seems to be a short time home and we get the bug to hit the road again.Do what you are comfortable in doing and what suits you has always been my motto.

  18. Glenn said,

    on November 23rd, 2008 at 10:49 am

    I have a 21 ft Regent and tow it with a Kia Sorento Diesel i get 12.5 lt per 100k when towing so you dont need a big 4×4 to tow a larger caravan just a good diesel and it will tow up to 2800 kg I also have a qs bed and plenty of room in the caravan