Having a home on wheels is almost trendy, says James Ruppert
ON THE excellent principle that you should never knock anything until you have tried it, why not have a crack at caravanning? If you are undecided about where to go or how to get started, it makes sense to visit the National Boat, Caravan and Outdoor Show being held in Birmingham. Obviously there are going to be boats and outdoors, but if you are serious about independent holiday-making you really should pay some attention to the caravans. The good news is that this is not just a static show, you can actually hitch up and try towing a caravan for yourself.

For the third year running, the Camping and Caravanning Club, in association with the National Caravan Council, is continuing its highly popular "Start Caravanning" initiative to give beginners the chance to experience towing a caravan for themselves.

Visitors will get the chance to correctly hitch a caravan and then tow it behind a car on the roads around the exhibition centre. This will be under the supervision of the club's expert Caravan Manoeuvring Course instructors. Damien Field, the club's activities co-ordinator, says: "We have six club caravans, and all visitors have to do is pass an eye test and produce a valid driving licence. We will be able to take them around the NEC grounds and also local public roads so they will get the full towing experience."

Is it going to be difficult? "No, we don't ask anyone to do any complicated reversing; it is really a question of building up their confidence. We find that the majority of visitors are seriously considering caravanning but have never had the opportunity. They need to get used to the extra weight and the longer braking distances involved. There will be six different towing vehicles supplied by Club-Autosafe, so I think that everyone will be able to find a good combination of car and caravan that they feel comfortable with." After 30 minutes you may well find yourself hooked.

There aren't just caravans on show, you will also find motorhomes. Indeed one company has decided to address an issue that seems to have been ignored. "We looked for a product that was designed specifically for wheelchair users and we could not find one," says Mark Sharp at Nirvana Motorhomes (although there is at least one other company at the show offering wheelchair- friendly vehicles). His company hires out motor homes. "We wanted to be ahead of the market and target users who may not have considered motorhoming but actually it is perfect for them. For the disabled, travel can become a problem, they often need specialist accommodation and we saw no reason why they should ever be excluded from the mainstream. So a motorhome gives them complete freedom, just like everyone else."

Nirvana could not find an adapted motorhome, so has commissioned coachbuilders in Italy to make one tailored to wheelchair-users' needs.

"It is based on a Fiat Ducato," says Sharp, "so it looks like a standard motorhome. Inside, though, the layout and floorplan is designed specifically for wheelchair users." Access is via an electric platform that gets the wheelchair on board. All the units and appliances are lowered to an appropriate height, and that includes one of the four berths.

The most innovative design is the bathroom, quite literally the smallest room in any motorhome or caravan. Nirvana, though, has come up with a way of doubling the floor space. Entering through concertina doors, it is then possible to slide both of the walls out, which means that the wheelchair user has the maximum amount of room for manoeuvre. So if you use a wheelchair or have a family member who has found holidaying a problem, it might be a good idea to pop along and look at this prototype. Also, you should check out RHD Motorhomes, which will be exhibiting its new range for 2005 which includes an easy-access van for wheelchair users.

Sharp certainly believes that caravanning and motorhoming is due for a rethink. "One of the biggest secrets is just how big it is," he says. "People are becoming much more independent, and I also believe that there are not so many cardigan caravanners, it is becoming trendy." Not cool then, but trendy, which is at least a move in the right direction.

Autocruise CH Ltd is launching the new Autocruise Mustang, with silver coachwork and lacquered decals, with a resemblance to Formula 1 support vehicles rather than conventional motorhomes. It comes with a 2.8litre turbo-charged engine with uni-jet HPT and six-speed gear box and rear- wheel drive. Indeed, there are even more Formula 1 connections. The new Bessacarr range of top-of-the-market tourers has never offered more luxury. The all-new body shell has been created using 3D computer-aided design technology, and the prototype front and rear panels have been produced in conjunction with a company more used to designing parts for Formula 1 racing cars.

The UK market, which remains one of the largest in Europe, is also being targeted by companies such as Free Spirit Leisure Vehicles, importers of Geist German-built motorhomes and touring caravans, which have been specifically designed for the British market. They claim to have combined German engineering with British style and design. But only you can be the judge of whether they have achieved that.

If you can't get around all 500 exhibitors in one day or take in the snowboarding, boating, climbing, mini-golf, archery and all the other activities on offer, it is possible to camp in the NEC car-park. It costs pounds 11, and there are lavatories, fresh water and rubbish-disposal facilities. So there really is no excuse for not trying a caravan at the show. The campaign to make caravanning and motorhoming not just socially acceptable, but almost cool, starts here.

The National Boat, Caravan and Outdoor Show is at Birmingham NEC 19- 27 February;