Top 10 towing tips
Caravan World field editor Malcolm Street shares his top 10 tips for safe towing.
GET A GOOD TOWING COMBINATION
During the last decade, caravans have been getting increasingly heavy as more appliances and fittings are added. Having a tow vehicle that delivers adequate power ,with some in reserve, and a generous maximum tow rating, is essential. A tow vehicle that is close to the limits in both cases might seem like good value for money but may well prove to be a false economy.
Although not a legal requirement, the weight of the tow vehicle needs to be heavy enough to control the van. There are a number of light commercial vehicles around which apparently have a very good tow rating (do read the fine print) but lack enough weight over the rear wheels to give good traction — something essential in controlling the van.
FIT A WEIGHT DISTRIBUTION HITCH
There’s nothing like a weight distribution hitch (WDH) for ensuring that not only the rear wheels, but also the front wheels, have good traction. In the first instance, it’s vital that the caravan be as balanced as possible by evenly distributing the load. This can be checked fairly easily by weighing the towball load (the ball weight). Too little weight on the towball can introduce handling problems, while too much weight can introduce steering and braking issues. While it isn’t going to be easy getting the van’s balance perfectly right, a WDH will assist in sorting out the inconsistencies.
TAKE A TOWING COURSE
So, you are a real man and you have been driving for the last 30 years, what could a towing course possibly teach you? Well, a great deal, I reckon. Many new vanners have been driving around in Ford Falcons or Toyota Camrys, towing nothing bigger than a box trailer. Rest assured that a 3000kg tow vehicle with a 2800kg caravan swinging off the towball is a wholly different proposition. Towing courses not only teach the basics of reversing and maneuvering but also driving tips, safety, maintenance and pre/post trip inspections.
If you travel as a couple, make sure you both attend the tow course together. I once heard a towing course expert tell us rather wryly that, with a couple, it’s frequently the man that asks all the questions but the woman who is listening intently...
More seriously than that, though, I reckon it’s essential for both members of a couple to know how to tow, hitch, unhitch and understand all aspects of towing. I’ve heard too many stories about the big retirement dream coming undone because someone has become incapacitated in some way. Or, worse still, there’s been a medical emergency in some lonely outback place and that has been exacerbated because the healthy partner doesn’t have the necessary skill to hitch, unhitch or tow a caravan.
HAVE A PRE-TRIP CHECKLIST
Even experienced travellers can forget things. A list should include essentials such as tow hitch, handbrake off, electric brakes working, caravan running lights working, gas cylinders off, three-way fridge switched over to 12V, roof hatches closed, and all leads and hoses packed away. Additional items inside the van include ensuring all gear is stowed securely away and all doors and drawers are securely locked. Unlike a motorhome, caravanners get no warning when they have driven around the first corner and a drawer pops open.
Don’t forget the tow vehicle. With modern vehicles becoming much more reliable than days of yore, we tend to forget even the basics such as oil, water and electrics. Some creative drivers have a little checklist that they hang on the steering wheel when arriving at a destination. It has to be removed before departure and might just contain words such as coupling, brakes, gas, electrics and hatches.
Before driving off, the simplest check of all is to walk around and just makes sure that nothing is open or not where it should be.
ANTICIPATE WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN
Towing a heavy caravan is a serious business and it’s essential to be aware of what is going on around you at all times. Road conditions change all the time, more so in city driving, but even in the country there are things going on. Other vehicles cut in and out or overtake, trucks pass and blow the caravan around, green lights become red, long slow hills cause a queue of impatient vehicles behind – it’s an endless list.
Be aware of what is going on around you, particularly from behind, and act accordingly. Far better to brake early than have a sudden stop and have the caravan swinging around all over the place. Instead of braking on long hills or around corners, use the gears and engine braking to slow down – that will not only save on brake wear but will also give you better control. Letting faster vehicles pass frequently may not do much for your stress levels but it may well keep other driver’s down and prevent accidents.
MAINTAIN SAFE DISTANCES
This is a tricky one. Maintaining safe distances when driving, braking or overtaking is essential. When driving in the country, travelling distances are fairly easy to maintain but, when overtaking, it becomes much more of a judgment issue. As many truck drivers will tell you, when driving in the city, other drivers tend to cut in and out all the time, making it much harder for heavier vehicles. My best advice here is to be aware!
STOP AND REST FREQUENTLY
No explanation require here. Tiredness and falling asleep causes more accidents than just about anything else for long distance travellers. Stop and rest often!
GET INTO TALKING BOOKS
This might sound like a strange towing tip but long trips can be boring and lead to either tiredness or impatience. In the ‘olden days’, talking books were cumbersome, having to be loaded on to either cassette tapes or CDs which took up valuable space and were expensive. These days, using something such as the Amazon website audible.com, ebooks can be loaded into your iPod/iPhone or the Android equivalents and then played back through the tow vehicle sound system via either a 3.5mm socket or Bluetooth.
Talking books are a great way to while away time during long car trips and we know of a traveller or two who has arrived at their destination late, while waiting to find out ‘whodunnit’.
Get a good set of mirrors
This might sound like a motherhood statement but many caravanners try and get away with their tow vehicle’s standard mirrors. While they do a reasonable job, a set of extended towing mirrors gives much clearer vision down the side of the caravan. Undoubtedly, the best sort of towing mirrors are the retro-fit variety that replace the standard external mirrors and can be extended remotely. Of course, these are expensive and the next best option is the door-mounted type. Extension mirrors that clip on to the standard tow vehicles are okay but ensure they come with a fitting that prevents the mirror folding inwards in either high winds or when a truck passes.
Another option is to fit a rearview camera to the caravan. Again, an expensive option, but one which gives a good overall view of what is going on behind you.
Check your tyres
Caravanners often forget to check the tyres on both their tow vehicle and caravan. Blown tyres tend to cause more problems than anything else, so frequent checks are essential. I reckon a good tyre pressure gauge is an essential item and makes it very easy to check tyre pressures. Before starting any trip, check the cold tyre pressures all round, including the spares. When travelling, a simple check at rest stops is just to kick the tyres and have a look. I once saw a truck driver at a rest stop do exactly that on a walk-around his B-double. It didn’t tell him any tyre pressures but it did tell that all his tyres were okay.
The full feature appeared in Caravan World #540 August 2015. Subscribe today for the latest caravan reviews and news every month!