Towing a Caravan: 8 things to make it safe and easy in 2019
Towing a caravan is the single most significant barrier to people joining the hobby. Caravan Magazine explains why it shouldn’t be a big deal
We admit it. It's worrying when you tow a caravan right the first time. And the second time, for that matter. But, with patience, you will soon be towing a caravan frequently with confidence and ease, all over Britain and abroad.
Yes, towing 1.5 tonnes of metal, wood and plastic behind your car isn’t something to take lightly. But, with the right information and training, anyone can safely and effectively tow a caravan.
Here are our top tips to towing a caravan successfully:
1. Choose the right towcar
Weight and power are the two critical factors in towcar choice. Get it right, and you’ll have many safe and secure journeys when towing a caravan. But get it wrong, and every trip could be a nerve-twanging test of endurance.
Weightwise, a towcar’s kerbweight (found in the manual and online) should never be less than the MTPLM of the caravan it’s towing. Ideally, a caravan shouldn’t weigh more than 85% of the towcar’s kerbweight.
Get this wrong, and you may well find the caravan controlling the car. Or the police might prevent you from continuing your journey. Neither option is good.
4x4 vehicles can increase stability and traction. Four-wheel drive vehicles are generally more substantial, so they ‘boss’ the caravan better.
Powerwise, you need sufficient torque to pull your caravan easily on steep hills and away from junctions. For most caravans, a 2.0-litre diesel engine will be perfectly adequate. But, modern technology means that even 1.6 turbo-diesels now have enough power. An underpowered car could leave you in the lurch as you crawl away from a junction.
These days most manufacturers make decent towcars. An excellent way to shortlist is to look at the Clubs’ annual towcar awards. In recent years the VW Jetta, Jag XF and Skoda Superb have won the title. In our experience, VW, Skoda, Kia, Nissan, and Ford are the most consistent towcar performers. They are almost always in turbo-diesel guise with its excellent pulling power low down in the rev range.
2. Do I need to change my towcar?
Weight and power will be the defining factors here.
If your car is too light to tow, say, a large family caravan, then you will have to change it for something more substantial to stay within the law and safe limits. However, if power is the issue, there's an option.
Engine remapping is a tried and tested way of coaxing more bhp and lb/ft of torque out of your engine. Remapping works particularly well on turbo-diesel towcars and involves replacing the computer chip in your car’s electronic control unit, rewriting the info on that chip, or bypassing the chip with a new one.
These new chips and info will change the engine’s setting, enabling it to produce more power.
The plug-in by-pass system is one of the most straightforward options. A professional can remove the system in seconds and transfer onto a new car (of the same model). Consider tunit.co.uk (0845 838 1405) as a source of info if you want to investigate further.
Do tell your insurer if you chip your car.
For caravan insurance quotes, start with our free comparison service here
Finally, if your car features complex integral stability systems, it's possible to select bespoke electric wiring kits that let the car’s systems work in tandem with the caravan. Naturally, these tend to be more expensive but what price safety?
3. Choose the right towbar
Image: Westfalia detachable towbar
There are several types of towbar which all do the same job, but approach the task in different ways:
|Flange towbar||A flange towbar is the most popular type of towbar in the UK. It consists of a flat faceplate welded to the towbar structure. The faceplate usually has two large-diameter bolt-holes drilled through it. Installers then bolt a simple cast or forged towball to it.|
|Fixed towbar||A fixed towbar is a permanent addition to a vehicle which is difficult to remove or fold out the way.|
|Removable or Detachable towbar||Removable towbars are popular amongst drivers who don’t want to spoil their car's look with a permanently fixed towbar. Removable towbars can be twice as expensive as fixed versions.|
|Swan neck towbar||The swan neck towbar features an iron towball on the end of a long, curved steel ‘neck’. This design is most popular in Europe, and some consider it more discreet than a flange towbar as less ‘iron-work’ is on-show.|
|Retractable towbar||You can fold or twist Retractable towbars from their standard towing position and tucked out of sight.|
|AL-KO compatible towball||If you’re towing with an AL-KO stabiliser, you’ll need an Al-Ko compatible towball. The unit is a standard 50mm towball with an extended reach and neck that allows the stabiliser to clamp properly onto the ball.|
Are there any laws surrounding towbars?
- For all cars built after 1 August 1998, towbars must have Type-Approval tests. You must display a Type-Approved plate or sticker on all towbars.
- Towbar systems must not obscure a car’s registration plate when not in use.
- British Standard (BS AU 114b) still applies for tow vehicles built before 1 August 1998.
- Car makers must not insist you only fit a towbar made by them and shouldn’t imply that doing otherwise will invalidate your warranty. You’re in the clear as long as you have a correctly-fitted, EC-approved towbar.
- EC Directive 94/20/EC was superseded by EU 55. The directive only a small detail on the approval plate.
Smart electronic stability systems like AL-KO ATC and BPW iDC use computers to monitor the movement of a caravan. If the movements become excessive, the system applies the brakes on one or both caravan wheels, in a calculated way to bring the caravan in line. It’s smart and practical and worth every penny of the cost.
In the event of excessive swaying/snaking, take your foot off the gas and let the car slow down naturally, without applying the brakes.
4. Match your towcar and caravan properly
As well as the 85% guide weight, you should also bear in mind that your car has a noseweight limit. The noseweight is the amount of weight the caravan hitch exerts on the towball when it's connected, and the steadies are up.
Typically, this weight limit will be 50-100kg, though some 4x4 cars might go up to 120kg.
Do not exceed this figure, even if it means it does not reach the caravan’s ideal noseweight (A caravan’s noseweight is generally 5-7% of its Actual Laden Weight).
A well matched and balanced caravan will have a slightly nose-down attitude – the best angle for stability.
If it’s too nose-heavy, it will push the rear of the towcar down too far. The effect might lighten the loads on the front wheels. In turn, it could affect steering effectiveness and grip in front wheel drive cars.
5. Make towing a caravan easier: take a club course
This course lasts from one to two days and imparts all the knowledge needed to tow safely, effectively and confidently.
As they cost just over £100, we can’t recommend this tuition enough – most people who have experienced the benefits, feel the courses should be compulsory.
You will arrive a novice and leave being able to reverse your caravan through a slalom course!
“Remember, UK speed limits are 50mph on single carriageways and 60mph on dual carriageways and motorways.”
6. Be sensible and make these checks
Once you’ve realised how easy it's to tow a caravan, it’s easy to become complacent. Even a correctly set up and matched outfit can get lively in the wrong conditions: excessive speed, strong winds, standing rainwater and passing HGVs and vans can all cause a caravan to sway dangerously.
It’s also easy to become complacent about towing safety checks, once you’ve mastered the basics, always check the following before every trip:
- Tyre pressures and tread depth
- Wheel nut torque
- Caravan driving lights
- Hitching procedure and A-frame (is the coupling head properly engaged and all cables/the jockey wheel well away from the ground)
- Securely close all doors, windows, vents, and lockers.
- Fit a road-legal number plate (matching the tow vehicle) to the caravan.
Remember, UK speed limits are 50mph on single carriageways and 60mph on dual carriageways and motorways.
You cannot drive in the outside (fastest) lane of highways with three or more lanes (unless instructed to do so).
7. Learn to load properly
- Correct loading of your caravan is key to its stability on the road.
- Place heavy objects (awnings/furniture etc.) over the axles and low down.
- Heavy gas bottles tend to be at the front of most vans which gives a ‘natural’ noseweight. Place lighter items strategically to achieve an ideal noseweight.
- DO NOT place heavy items at the extremes of the caravan as this creates a pendulum effect, accentuating any swaying.
- Don't travel with full water or waste tanks, as sloshing liquids might enhance a pendulum effect.
8. Fit extended towing mirrors
Extended towing mirrors are a legal requirement when towing caravans. They give you an enhanced view that reaches 20 metres backwards and four metres out from the side of the van (See Milenco diagram).
Manufacturers make various towing mirrors. We particularly like the design with two small G-clamps for secure fixing.
Remember, it’s illegal to drive with your extension mirrors on when not towing.
Bonus: Learn about manoeuvring
Here are a few simple rules for towing a caravan.
- On tight bends allow plenty of room for the caravan to follow you through the turn, e.g., drive slightly further past the corner than you would usually and turn in a little later (and sharper).
- When reversing in a straight line, watch your mirrors regularly, swapping your focus from side to side every few seconds.
- If at any point you start to see the side of the caravan appearing more in one mirror than the other, pull down on the steering wheel at that side and you’ll notice that mirror start to ‘empty’ as the van straightens up. You only need gentle inputs, and you should do this a walking pace or slower.
- Once you master this simple technique, all other reverse manoeuvres become logical extensions of it.
- Consider lifting the handle on your hitch-head stabiliser when manoeuvring. Lifting it releases the tension on the pads, which prevents grinding and squeaking noises and may make manoeuvring easier.
- A towing ‘partner’ is an invaluable help when manoeuvring in tight spaces and onto pitches. It reduces the need for jumping in and out of the towcar. Remember, be nice to them!
Top Tips for Towing a Caravan
- Don't tow in high-winds or extreme precipitation
- Never exceed the national speed limit or the limit for your outfit
- Take your time when manoeuvring and don’t be afraid to pull forward a few metres to realign the car and caravan.
- Leave an extended gap between you and the vehicle in front, especially if you have other impatient cars close behind you.
- Be considerate and make it easy for others to pass. Consider pulling over every few miles to allow trailing traffic to pass on narrow and twisty roads. Don’t make following drivers so frustrated they attempt a dangerous manoeuvre.
- Always clean your towball with wire wool or Emery cloth before attaching a tow-hitch to it. Grease, paint, and rust etc. will contaminate the friction pads in caravan stabilisers.
- Pro-Tec Covers (Call 01274 501820 or visit pro-teccovers.co.uk) make protective towing covers for caravans. Muck and grit thrown up by a towcar’s wheels can damage the front of your van. A bespoke cover not only prevents chipping, but it also pays for itself in better residual values when you sell on your undamaged caravan.
- Check how/if your new towbar will affect the reversing sensors before it's fitted.
- When reversing your caravan onto a pitch, remember to pull forward by about a foot before uncoupling your car and van, to release any compression in the hitch head ram. Otherwise, the head may shoot forward when lifted off the towball and hit your bumper.
- Ensure your towbar fitter is quality assured by the NTTA.
- EC Directive 94/20/EC was superseded by EU 55. Only a small detail on the approval plate changed!
- Take care driving onto exposed motorway bridges and prepare for some van twitchiness when coming out of motorway cuttings as side winds may surprise you.
If you've read our tips for towing a caravan, you probably feel more confident about the process. Take action by taking a course offered by one of the clubs.
Find their websites below: