The beginner's guide to caravanning: hitching and towing
Words: Lee Davey
If you’re new to caravanning, the process of getting hitched up and heading for the perfect campsite can seem like a never-ending series of hurdles.
You'll typically have lots of questions about it all. Will my car tow a caravan? How much weight can my caravan carry? Will my driving licence allow me to tow a caravan at all?
Thankfully, it’s surprisingly simple.
Rewind 15 years, and my first caravanning trip was less than harmonious. Deciding that a 200-mile round trip was the ideal recipe for a first outing, we hitched a poorly loaded caravan to our car and headed for Dartmoor… in winter.
At the time, guides appeared to be the work of advanced mathematicians and my already overloaded brain couldn’t store any more algebraic formulas. Easy-to-follow, step-by-step instructions were needed. I hope this guide will help you.
Can my car tow a caravan?
If your car is capable of towing (not all vehicles are), it will have a maximum weight that it’s able to tow. Guidelines from both major UK caravanning clubs suggest keeping the caravan’s fully loaded weight, or MTPLM, to 85%, or less, of the car’s kerbweight, while the National Caravan Council states that a 100% match is OK for experienced caravanners.
Where practical, these guidelines are worth following, although legal towing limits are often different. The car’s towing limit can be found on the V5, under category O.1, or on a weight plate fitted to the car itself. The top two weight plate figures give the car’s maximum weight (MAM) and gross train weight (GTW).
The GTW is the combined weight of both car and caravan. Subtracting these two figures will give the maximum legal towing weight, subject to driving licence limits. However, some cars vary and it is always worth checking figures on V5s, weight plates, and handbooks.
Pairing a towcar to your caravan
If you’ve found your perfect caravan and would like to know if your car can tow it, or if you already have a caravan and you’re looking for a new towcar, you can visit outandaboutlive.co.uk/caravans/towmatch/ and input your car's details to see whether it's a suitable match.
Do I need towing mirrors?
The law surrounding towing mirrors is dictated by rearward view, not the automatic fitting of mirrors when towing. However, if I’m towing our slimline vintage caravan with my Mercedes Vito, I’ll minimise chance conversations with the Highways team by fitting mirrors regardless. Hey, they give a good view when reversing, so why not fit a set? Also, an 8ft-wide caravan may require towing mirrors with extended arms.
Loading your caravan
Loading a caravan is a fairly straightforward process and boils down to two things – how much extra weight the caravan can carry and where you put it. Calculating this weight-carrying capacity, or payload, is as simple as subtracting one figure from another – the MRO (lower figure) from the MTPLM (higher figure), both of which can be found in the handbook or on the data sticker.
If you’ve had any equipment fitted to the caravan since it left the factory, such as a motor mover or solar panel, the weight of these items will need to be deducted from your payload figure. For example, a motor mover could be 30kg, a large roof-mounted solar panel 10kg, Aquaroll 4.5kg and so on.
If it’s your first time, or you’re packing something new, it’s worth weighing each box or bag on a set of bathroom scales to make sure you stay within this weight limit.
Putting caravanning essentials in the correct place makes it more stable and less prone to snaking or pitching. Personally, I load the boot of the car first with the remainder going into the caravan, but don’t forget the car has a load limit, too.
When loading the caravan, the heaviest items – awning, etc – should be loaded low down over the axle. The medium weight items – bags, etc – should also be loaded low down, possibly under the seats, but keep heavier items as close to the axle as possible.
Light items – clothing, etc – can be loaded higher up in the lockers or wardrobe; just be aware that the higher the weight, the more it affects your caravan’s centre of gravity. Also, avoid putting too much weight at either end of the caravan as it can act like a pendulum.
Keeping things in position when on the floor can seem like mission impossible, but Milenco makes a Cargo Bar which is great for keeping floor-mounted kit safe and secure.
Your caravan’s noseweight is simply the weight, or downward force, of the caravan’s hitch on your tow vehicle’s towbar. Checking this weight is an important thing to do and, thankfully, it’s relatively simple.
To do this, you will need the tow vehicle’s noseweight limit (found in the handbook), the towbar’s limit (on accompanying documentation or plate attached to towbar), and the caravan chassis limit (the ‘S’ number stamped on the Al-Ko hitch). For example, my Vito has the following limits: car – 100kg, towbar – 150kg, and caravan chassis –150kg. The caravan’s noseweight cannot exceed the lowest of these three figures, which, for me, is 100kg.
Now we move to the caravan’s MTPLM (its maximum, fully loaded weight), which can be found on a sticker on the side of the caravan, or in the handbook. The ideal noseweight is between 5% and 7% of this figure, so mine would be between 70kg and 98kg.
Personally, I like my noseweight to be at the heavier end of the scale, so I tend to set mine around 90kg to 95kg, which is within my tow vehicle’s 100kg limit.
With your caravan loaded, simply place a noseweight gauge under the hitch and raise the jockey wheel until the noseweight gauge is taking all the downward weight of the hitch. If you haven’t got a noseweight gauge, bathroom scales and a piece of wood cut to length make an ideal substitute.
If the noseweight is too heavy, move any floor-mounted luggage towards the rear and check again. Do the reverse if the noseweight is too light. Due to a possible pendulum effect, avoid moving heavy items more than 2ft (60cm) either side of the axle. If this isn’t possible, time spent rearranging heavier items is time well spent and will make for an enjoyable and safer tow.
Hitching up the caravan
To hitch up, start by making sure the caravan’s handbrake is on, the corner steadies are raised, and the height of the caravan’s hitch is higher than the towball. Reverse the car until the towball is underneath the caravan hitch.
A motor mover can make final adjustments easier, especially if you’re doing this alone. Raise the stabiliser and hitch levers and lower the hitch onto the towball by winding the jockey wheel up. Keep winding the jockey wheel until the hitch fits over the towball, and the visual indicator pops out, showing green.
To double-check that the hitch is located correctly, wind the jockey wheel back down until the rear of your towcar lifts an inch or two. Wind the jockey wheel all the way up, undo the jockey wheel clamp, then lift and secure out of the way. If you have a stabiliser hitch, push down the stabiliser arm and check that this visual indicator is also showing green.
Attach the connector or connectors for the lights, etc. If the cable is too long, twist it to keep it from dragging on the road. Attach the breakaway cable. If your towbar has an eyelet as a breakaway cable attachment point, loop the cable through this eyelet before clipping it back on itself. Making sure that your car’s handbrake is on, release the caravan handbrake, and the motor mover if you have one.
Check that the caravan lights are working, and that doors, windows and rooflights are closed. Make any final adjustments to the towing mirrors and you’re ready to go!
Towing and manoeuvring the caravan
The Caravan and Motorhome Club and the Camping and Caravanning Club offer towing and manoeuvring courses at various locations around the country. However, If you’ve yet to book a course, these simple tips could prove useful.
When towing a caravan, the speed limit on single carriageways is 50mph instead of 60mph. Dual carriageways and motorways are 60mph instead of 70mph.
The caravan adds width and length, so spend time seeing how the caravan ‘tracks’ behind your car. Like anything else, reversing a caravan comes with practice and it helps if car and caravan are straight before you begin.
A good tip for reversing in a straight line is to turn the top of the steering wheel towards the mirror that shows the larger part of the caravan. Small, slow movements are important and always try to pick a point behind the caravan to ‘aim’ at. If you’re reversing onto a pitch and using the pitch peg as an aim point, remember that the caravan will pivot around the wheel(s).
Don’t worry if it doesn’t go right first time; just pull forward, straighten up, and give it another go. Practice makes perfect. Or a motor mover is a great get-out-of-jail-free card for those times when things just don’t go as planned.
Towing a caravan with electric cars
The power characteristics of an electric motor, coupled with the additional weight of battery packs, make electric vehicles a viable proposition, on paper at least. There are two main electric vehicle types – hybrid and fully electric. Hybrids use a combination of conventional engine and electric motors and can be very capable towcars.
I towed a Bailey caravan with a Mitsubishi PHEV and it made relatively light work of Millbrook’s demanding Alpine circuit. At present, few manufacturers (Mercedes, Audi, Jaguar, Tesla, etc) grant pure electric towing capacities large enough for a reasonably sized caravan, but this will undoubtedly change in the near future. ‘Range anxiety’ is a well-used term and towing a caravan will limit towing range further due to the extra weight.
Electric towcars will undoubtedly become the norm, especially as we near 2040, with the instant torque and quiet nature of an ‘EV’ promising to add to the enjoyment of our caravanning trips.