Tips on towing a caravan

Rob Deed

Written by Rob Deed

Caravan towing Caravanning and camping is rated as one of New Zealand’s most popular leisure time activities. It brings together people from a wide range of backgrounds with the simple aim of enjoyment, relaxation and having a great time.

Caravanners are sometimes called modern day nomads because of their desire to travel and take along their own accommodation.

Today's modern vehicles make excellent towing vehicles, while modern caravans have all the creature comforts desired. However caravanners need to be aware that a car and caravan combination can behave in a different manner than when driving the car itself. For more tips on purchasing a caravan check out our esstential need to know for purchasing a motorhome or caravan. Download our buyers guide to caravans

To ensure safe journeys, it is necessary to have a car and caravan that are compatible. Use the best towing equipment and practice some of the skills that are required to enable you to cope with any situation that may arise. From here, every journey will be a safe and enjoyable one.

The tow vehicle

Considering the importance of safety, the most suitable towing vehicle is one which is heavier than the caravan or trailer it tows and which has enough power to permit quick and safe passing maneuvers.

As long as manufacturer's towing recommendations are not exceeded, modern passenger vehicles (including those with front wheel drives) are just as capable of towing a caravan or camper trailer as a four-wheel drive. Four wheel drives are only necessary for venturing off the beaten track or pulling long and heavy caravans, or for getting into some more 'off the beaten track' campgrounds.

While a vehicle with a manual gearbox was often preferred, many vehicle manufacturers recommend an automatic transmission for towing larger trailers or caravans. One advantage is that the driver needs only to concentrate on the prevailing road conditions and not to worry about whether the vehicle is in the correct gear. Reversing is much easier if the vehicle has an automatic transmission. With automatics it can be important that an auxiliary transmission oil cooler is fitted for larger caravans.

Size and weight

With the trend towards smaller and lighter vehicles, compatibility of tow vehicle and caravan in regard to weight and size has become more important.

Weight 

Most vehicle manufacturers provide recommendations as to the maximum load that can be safely towed. These should not be exceeded. The recommendations always refer to the loaded weight of the caravan. Contents like water, gas, food, clothing and camping equipment are included in the payload.

It is important to have the correct recommended weight on the towball to prevent the caravan from 'swaying' on the road. Oddly enough this is caused by too little weight on the towball.

Size 

The smaller the frontal area of a caravan the less wind resistance is created. Therefore, less power is needed for towing. A camper trailer will be more economical to tow than a conventional caravan. Some well-designed hardtop caravans will be just as easy to pull as a pop-top.

Many experienced caravanners prefer a conventional height van due to the convenience of being able to walk in without having to raise the roof or pull out bed-ends as with a camper trailer. The deciding factors are probably the size of the towing vehicle, how often the van or camper is used, where it is stored and personal taste.

Tow bar & Hitches

In relation to towbars there should be no compromise. Always purchase a recognised product that has a plate attached stating the maximum towing load. If a new vehicle is purchased with a towbar already fitted, do not assume that it matches the towing capabilities of the vehicle. Many towbars are only designed to tow small trailers and not heavily loaded caravans. Before selecting a towbar, first determine the loaded weight of the caravan or camper trailer. Then purchase a towbar that can adequately cope with that load.

If in doubt as to the best towbar for your vehicle and application, discuss your requirements with a towing equipment specialist. You will then be able to go away and have an enjoyable holiday, knowing that the caravan will follow the car wherever it goes.

Weight distribution

Whenever a vehicle towing a trailer travels along the road with the back down and front up, a problem of weight transfer exists. This means that there is less weight on the front wheels but more on the rear. For maximum safety, stability and vehicle control, both the caravan and towing vehicle should be level. The reasons that one or both may not be level could be due to:

  • Incorrect ball height compared to the trailer coupling height
  • Uneven loading of the caravan
  • Lack of proper towing equipment

To determine the correct ball height, measure the distance from the ground to the bottom of the coupling on the front of the A-frame. Then compare this with the distance from the ground to the base of the tow ball on the rear of the vehicle. These measurements should be nearly the same. If this is not the case, the ball mount or tongue may need to be adjusted or altered.

Even loading of the caravan can be checked by weighing the caravan on and off the vehicle. The difference between the two is the ball or nose weight. This should be between 10%-15% of the total weight of the loaded caravan. Some of the heavier items normally carried in the caravan may need to be moved around to achieve this.

For a four - five metre touring caravan the vertical ball load could be between 100kg - 150kg. Although this may be only 10% of the overall weight, it is certainly enough to push down the back of most vehicles. If due to stiff springs the back goes down very little, some weight will still be transferred from the vehicle's front wheels onto the back wheels. With a ball weight of 100kg the rear wheels may actually be carrying an additional 130kg-140kg. The extra weight has been removed from the front wheels due to a simple leverage factor.

Whenever the weight on the front wheels of a vehicle is reduced the steering and braking is affected. To prevent this occurring weight has to be moved from the back to the front wheels. This can only be achieved by using a weight distribution hitch (sometimes these are called stabilisers, torsion, anti-sway bars or level-rides).

The effect of the weight distributing bars can be compared to handles on a wheelbarrow. The higher the handles are lifted the more weight is moved onto the wheel and the easier it becomes to hold it up. Similarly, the more tension that is placed on the weight distribution bars, the more weight is transferred forward onto the front wheels of the vehicle.

These weight distributing bars are necessary on bigger, heavy caravans. When correctly fitted the bars will ensure that some of the ball weight is carried by the front wheels. As a result the complete outfit will be level but slightly lower.

It is unwise to set off on a trip if the caravan and tow vehicle are not level. If you are in doubt as to the best way to cope with the weight of the trailer, consult someone specialising in towing equipment.

And after all, the safety of your family as well as that of the car and caravan are paramount.

Sway controls

Sway is the side to side movement of the rear of the caravan or camper trailer. This movement is sometimes referred to as snaking and can result in complete loss of control. Because prevention is better than a cure, sway controls should only be considered when all other factors contributing to the instability have been eliminated.

Some of the causes of sway are:

  • Poorly designed caravan
  • Axle located too far forward
  • Incorrect ball height
  • Unsuitable tow-vehicle and caravan combination
  • Under inflated tyres
  • Incorrect weight distribution

Before purchasing any sway control equipment, discuss your problems with people experienced in caravan towing. In some cases particular types of equipment may be unsuitable.

Remember that even the best sway control equipment cannot be expected to, and should not, compensate for a towing vehicle that is too light, an unbalanced caravan or lack of a weight distribution hitch.

Driving techniques

Many newcomers to caravanning are concerned with the prospect of towing or maneuvering a car and caravan combination. The problems that are sometimes encountered may be due to incompatible vehicle combination, incorrect loading, lack of proper towing equipment or simply a lack of skills. Once the above points have been fixed and a little common sense is used, towing a caravan or camper trailer need not be any more difficult than driving a car by itself.

Some of the areas where extra awareness might be required are:

  • Moving off with a load behind, the acceleration rate of a vehicle is significantly reduced. With a manual transmission it is usually necessary to stay a little longer in each gear before shifting into a higher gear.If an automatic transmission is fitted the use of the selector level to control up changes, especially when going uphill, is sometimes desirable.
  • Remember, speed limit is 90kph when towing
  • Never drive too close behind other vehicles
  • Leave at least a 60 metre space unless actually overtaking. This allows others to pass you safely
  • When approaching a hill and provided it is safe to do so, increase your speed slightly so it is easier to go up the hill
  • Always select a lower gear early if the vehicle speed drops off noticeably. Once engine speed is lost, it is difficult to regain. As a result additional stresses may be placed on the engine
  • Overtaking other vehicles, particularly long trucks or other caravans, must be done with extreme caution. Not only is the acceleration considerably reduced but due to the extra length a greater distance has to be covered before moving back into the left-hand lane. Remember to check mirrors to ensure it is safe to overtake. Never overtake a slower vehicle when going down hill
  • By constantly monitoring the rear-view mirrors, a faster travelling vehicle can be readily spotted. If the vehicle intending to pass is a truck or bus make sure that this can be achieved quickly and safely. If road conditions permit, move as far to the left as possible. The greater the distance between the two vehicles, the safer the situation becomes. Never take your foot off the accelerator or brake when another vehicle is going past
  • Always slow down and engage a lower gear before actually reaching the downhill section of the road. This is particularly important if the hill is a steep one. By adopting this procedure the need for heavy braking while going downhill is reduced. Excessive speed or sudden braking while travelling downhill could create an unstable situation

Curvy road and view of downtown at sunrise from Twin Peaks, in San Francisco, California..jpeg

Braking systems

For many years now, caravans and camper trailers have been fitted with electric brakes. These braking systems are efficient and easy to maintain. However, to enable the electric trailer brakes to function an electric brake controller must be installed in the towing vehicle. This is a job that should be left to an auto electrician or someone experienced with electrical systems in modern cars.

Once a brake controller is adjusted correctly the driver will be able to slow the car and caravan combination with the same force on the brake pedal as that needed to stop the car by itself.

The other type of braking system is the 'over-ride' style, either mechanical or hydraulic, where weight of the caravan pushing on the braking vehicle, causes the brakes to apply in the caravan.

They are ok on light weight caravans, but definitely not as smooth or effective on larger caravans.

All shock absorbers on the towing vehicle should be in good condition to help prevent pitching or instability while towing. Good shock absorbers not only improve the handling of a vehicle but also increase tyre life.

There are some simple tricks and tips to ensure towing a caravan is as easy and safe as it can be. A good dealer will help ensure your car and caravan are suitably matched and that you are confident and capable when you drive away with your new caravan hitched.

 Buyers Guide to Motorhomes and Caravans from TrailLite

Rob Deed

Written by Rob Deed

Rob is a Product Specialist at TrailLite. He loves travel, as we all do, but is passionate about design elements and styling. Working at TrailLite is a great synergy.