More and more campgrounds around Australia are stipulating that their grounds are for fully self-contained vehicles only. This relieves the pressure on councils to heavily maintain campsites, as well as minimising the impact on local ecosystems.
A self-contained caravan in Australia will have the facilities onboard for all personal cooking and bathing, as well as being able to store all rubbish, wastewater and sewerage for disposal outside of the campgrounds.
However, the rules can seem to range from just having to have your own toilet, to needing to collect all of your wastewater.
Let’s explore what it really means to have a fully self-contained caravan or camper in Australia.
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What Does “Fully Self-contained” Mean?
In short, self-contained means that you have the ability to camp without leaving anything behind while still fulfilling all of your daily needs.
Self-contained = Being Self-reliant While Leaving No Trace
A Self-contained Caravan Includes:
- KITCHEN – Facilities for cooking
- BATHROOM SINK/ SHOWER – Facilities for bathing
- TOILET – Facilities for toileting
- POWER – Independent power supply for appliances, charging devices etc.
- WATER STORAGE – For drinking, washing & cleaning
- GREY WATER STORAGE – Dedicated tank or bladder for storing grey water
- BLACK WATER STORAGE – For sewerage waste
- RUBBISH STORAGE – Facilities for storing landfill & recycling
Let’s break down each component of a self-contained caravan so that you can make sure you’re meeting all of the criteria required.
A self-contained caravan must have the appropriate facilities onboard for all of your own cooking needs. This can range from a full internal kitchen, an outdoor slide-out kitchen, a BBQ or a portable gas stove.
While some self-contained campsites will insist that all cooking be done inside the van, others are happy for outside cooking.
Some type of sink is also required for rinsing, cleaning and washing up purposes.
Cooking with open flame in a total fire ban:
If your only means of cooking is with an open flame outside of your caravan (e.g. campfire, BBQ, gas stove) you may not be able to camp in areas with Fire Bans in place.
I have come across this issue once during my travels while staying at Gumma Reserve on the NSW Mid North Coast. It was during 2019 when many bushfires were raging out of control across the state. Each afternoon the park caretaker would walk around to enforce the rule while collecting the daily camping fees.
If you do come across a camp with an active Fire Ban, please respect the rule and move on to a different campground if you must rely on an external open flame for cooking.
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For a caravan to be self-contained, it must have the means for its campers to bathe themselves and keep a good level of hygiene. In most cases, this will mean having an onboard shower.
Some camps may allow an external shower, but many will require that the shower be internal and plumbed into the caravan’s waste pipes so that no grey water is being dumped onto the ground.
I have even been to one camp where the caretaker took a walk around the van just to check that there looked to be a proper shower inside!
When we’re looking at what a self-contained caravan is, one of the main things to tick off the list is a toilet.
All people staying in the caravan must be able to go to the toilet when necessary without relying on any external amenities or ducking off into the bush to do their business.
While the stricter ‘Self-contained Only’ campsites will demand that the toilet be built-in, others are happy for portable toilets to be used. This is where you’ll need to read the signs and see if your set-up complies with the specified rules for that campground.
To make the toilet cassette last longer between empties, put toilet paper into a lidded bucket (lined with a plastic bag).
Another aspect of a fully self-contained vehicle is having its own independent power supply that doesn’t rely on hooking up to an external power source.
12 Volt Power
This basically means having a 12-volt power system with a few solar panels and some battery storage.
All newer caravans will come with a basic 12-volt system, one battery and one solar panel. This is enough to power the onboard lights, flush the toilet, plus charge phones and Bluetooth speakers.
As long as you have enough power to run the caravan and fulfil your basic needs, that is all that is required.
For those who want to be able to Free Camp longer and power extra things, such as a washing machine and laptop, a solar power upgrade is recommended.
When it comes to powering the hot water system, fridge and gas cooking, you’ll need to have at least one gas bottle with plenty of gas left in it.
It’s wise to always travel with two gas bottles. As soon as one gas bottle is empty, switch over to your second gas bottle, then make it a priority to fill up the empty one in the next town where possible.
On average, 1 gas bottle will last a family of four 2 weeks of Free Camping.
Keep the gas hot water off switched off unless in use so that it’s not constantly reheating the hot water tank contents (i.e. wasting gas).
Travelling with a generator is certainly not a ‘must have’ item, however, some choose to travel with one.
We did have a generator on hand just in case something happened to our solar set-up so that we had a backup power source. Thankfully in four years, we never needed to use it even once! In hindsight, I would have preferred to lose the weight and not cart it around at all.
If you do choose to use a generator to either top up your batteries or power big appliances, be mindful of your fellow campers. Petrol generators can be loud and smelly, so use them sparingly and avoid using them at night. A better option is to go for a solar generator.
A self-contained caravan, camper or RV must have plenty of storage for water. This can include all drinking (potable) water or a mixture of both potable and non-potable water.
There must be adequate water onboard for:
- Cooking – cooking food, boiling water & washing dishes
- Drinking – enough drinkable water for everyone
- Cleaning – keeping the van sanitary & habitable
- Bathing – for hygienic living
Drinking water must be potable, which means it’s of a high enough quality for human consumption. Non-potable water can be used for cleaning surfaces, bathing and washing clothes.
If you don’t have enough water tank storage, consider filling up extra water containers or a water bladder before heading into camp.
We always carried a long 150L water bladder, which we could sit on the back floor of the 4WD and fill up if we needed to top up the water tanks (without moving the caravan).
Grey Water Storage
While some campsites state that they are for the use of self-contained vehicles only, the rules around grey water can vary.
Grey water is all wastewater from:
- Kitchen sink
- Bathroom sink
- Washing Machine
Some will be very strict and require all campers to collect and store all grey water generated. This means that you either need to have a grey water tank or a grey water bladder.
Other campsites will ask that all campers, caravans and RVs have their own toilet and shower, but don’t mind if the water is disposed of around the campsite.
Always read the signs or talk to the camp hosts (if available) before setting up if you’re not sure about the rules.
It’s important to be aware that once grey water has been stored for 12 – 24 hours, it then becomes black water and must be disposed of in a dump point.
Black Water Storage
Black water is the sewerage waste that is stored from the use of your toilet. Black water will either be stored in a toilet cassette or a dedicated black water tank.
As we touched on above, once grey water has been stored for over 24 hours, it will then become black water. This is due to the build-up and breeding of bacteria, which can happen rapidly in enclosed, warm and moist conditions.
Black Water is…
- Sewerage (toilet waste)
- Grey water that has been stored for more than 24 hours
Once you’ve held grey water in a tank or bladder for more than a day, it can only be disposed of in a dump point (the same place you empty your toilet contents).
The final item that you need to tick off in order for your caravan to be fully self-contained is the ability to store all of your rubbish and take it out of the campground with you.
We had a small rubbish bin (lined with a plastic bag) inside the caravan for landfill waste. Plus, we used the dirty gear bag on the back of the car to store bags of rubbish as well as recycling until we could get to a bin.
How to Make Your Caravan Self-contained
If you have a van that’s not fully self-reliant you can make some conversions in order to make your caravan self-contained.
The more modifications you can add to the interior of your caravan, the more self-contained campsite choices you will have. For example, while you can get away with a portable toilet in some campgrounds, others won’t allow it.
How to Make Your Caravan Self-contained:
- Cooking Facilities – Add a sink & stove (internal is preferred) or BBQ
- Shower – Add a shower (internally plumbed is preferred)
- Toilet – Add a toilet with black waste storage (compost toilets are a great alternative)
- Power – Add/ upgrade your 12 volt power supply
- Water Storage – Add water tank storage and/ or additional water bladder
- Grey Water Storage – Add a grey water tank or portable grey water bladder
- Rubbish Storage – Have a good rubbish storage system in place