14 towing essentials

By: David Gilchrist, Photography by: David Gilchrist

Whether you’re new to towing or an old-hand in need of refreshment, it can’t hurt to revisit the basics from time to time.

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It’s your dream. You’ve worked hard to get it and now all you have to do is tow your brand new caravan on the adventure of a lifetime. The problem is, you haven’t towed anything bigger than a box trailer full of junk to the tip twice a year.

Or maybe you’ve been towing for years – perhaps you’ve been towing for so long that it’s become mechanical and you can no longer remember why you do things the way you do.

There’s no need to be flummoxed. With a little care, and by going back to basics, you can get out on the road and towing safely with the right knowledge under your belt.


The first tip is to know your weights and measures. Here’s the jargon you need.

The maximum weight of a trailer is specified as either its Aggregate Trailer Mass (ATM) or Gross Trailer Mass (GTM). ATM is the combined weight of the trailer and its full load when it is not coupled to a tow vehicle. GTM is the weight of the fully loaded trailer imposed on the trailer’s axle when it is coupled to the tow vehicle. GTM will always be less than ATM as some of the trailer weight is transferred to the tow vehicle when the trailer is coupled to it.

These days, all new caravans have a compliance plate listing the ATM and usually the Tare or unladen weight and the GTM.

With your tow vehicle, you might come across GVM or Gross Vehicle Mass. That is the maximum the vehicle can legally weigh. And, finally, Gross Combined Mass (GCM) amounts to how heavy the combination of the vehicle and trailer can be. This should be the sum of the GVM and braked tow rating or maximum ATM of the trailer.

You make the process of towing easier and safer if your tow vehicle is rated well in excess of your trailer’s ATM. That’s because there will always be a reserve of power available and the engine of the tow vehicle will not be constantly working at, or near, its maximum.

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Many experts agree that the best starting point for towing is putting the right combination together. Kedron Caravans director Glen Gall said buyers need to have the right combination of tow vehicle and van "to suit the type of travel you are looking at doing". The towing combo that will suit the more adventurous offroad traveller will be different to a combination suited to blacktop touring.

The right package includes having the right tow vehicle with an ample tow capacity for your caravan, the right hitch for the sort of touring you want to do, and a brake system to suit the weight of the van.


There are several quality tow educators including Tow-Ed, the various RAC associations and Roadcraft, among others, that are qualified to teach the finer points of towing – to either new or experienced towers looking to update their towing skills.

Roadcraft’s Glen Jocumsen said, too often, beginners don’t know the towing capacity of their vehicle or the allowable towball weight. There’s also a dearth of knowledge around how to load a caravan properly to distribute the weights evenly to make sure your towball weight doesn’t exceed the allowable limits.

When the caravan’s GTM and ball weight equal more than the tow capacity of your tow vehicle, your combination becomes illegal. An illegal combination may leave you up the proverbial creek without a paddle when it comes to insurance.

"There are a lot of people out there that think they don’t need to do any kind of course," Jocumsen said. "And, in actual fact, I think it should be mandatory. You hook a 20ft caravan up to any tow vehicle and your combination length is upwards of 40ft. For me to drive a 40ft coach, I have got to have a special license and a driver authorisation to do it. Yet caravanners can drive that combination without any training." It’s a controversial point but worth considering.

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Instead of tackling the big round-Australia trip first up, try a few short trips first.

The advantages are obvious. While you’re still close to home, you get to know your rig, its moans and groans, its weight, balance and the feel of the caravan on your car. Importantly, small, easy trips allow you to learn and practice the many adjustments you need make when accelerating, braking, backing, stopping or overtaking.

Gall said smaller trips give you the chance to learn about your van, how to load it and how to stay safe. "Remember," Glen said, "you are not in a hurry. There is no need to put yourself in a dangerous situation."


You need to know the height of your van, including any luggage on your vehicle’s roof racks for one simple reason – to get in under low bridges and trees. There’s nothing nastier than trying to negotiate your way under a bridge with a clearance of 2.9m when your van’s nudging 3.1m, leaving your gear, solar panels or roof on the road behind you.


Don’t go anywhere until you give your caravan the once over and are happy that everything is in working order and that the van is ready to hit the road.

On the morning you leave camp, disconnect the power, water and wastewater services, turn off the gas, fasten windows, cupboards, drawers and doors, raise the legs and step, and stow the jockey wheel. Check the electrical connection and brake and indicator lights work and that the towing chains are properly located and secure in a cross-over pattern.

And take note; all states and territories require caravans to have safety chains to link the van to the tow vehicle. It’s worth using load-rated shackles to attach chains because it’s clear what load the shackle will tolerate.  That’s better than guessing whether or not the shackles will hold.


Take your time and avoid accelerating violently. It means you’ll burn less fuel.

If you’re starting your adventure going up hill, allow your rig to roll back a short distance steering the wheel so that the car and caravan are at a slight angle to each other. This means less wear and tear on the tow vehicle clutch as the car is only straightening the caravan out and is not pulling the full weight on an up-hill start.

Gall said his top tip for getting out on the road is reminding drivers to drive to the conditions. He said that, particularly in bad weather or difficult road conditions, drivers should take care and be cautious. 

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Even with the latest electric braking systems, it is essential to allow a greater distance to slow or stop than the distance you would ordinarily allow when not towing. Remember, the great lump of a caravan behind you is following you and the laws of physics. Once you get it in motion, it doesn’t want to stop. It takes a reasonable and controlled effort to get it moving and it will take a reasonable and controlled effort to stop it. So, gently ease off the power; it’s easier on the car, the caravan, your fuel bill and your nerves.

When it comes to brakes, Gall said, there are a few different kinds of electric brake controllers that respond differently to how hard the driver brakes the tow vehicle and sense when the caravan needs more brake assistance. He said the brake controllers need to be set to match the tow vehicle and the weight of the caravan, so it’s definitely not a case of one size fits all.


On steep downgrades, it is very important to change down to a lower gear to assist the brakes or, even better, to reduce the need to use the brakes. Not doing this is a fine way to encourage your brakes to overheat or fail during a long descent.


This one’s simple. Hook up a caravan to your SUV or 4WD and you have set up a very long rig. It needs extra space in which to turn, to avoid the back end of the rig climbing the gutter, hitting a pole or crunching into something.

Gall said the distance between the tow coupling and the axles of the van will affect how quickly the van cuts around a corner.

"A beginner must remember to take corners wider, and as safely as possible," he said.

Tow educator Jocumsen said it’s important that caravanners understand how a caravan pivots, where they turn and how reactive they are.


One of the most dangerous things that can happen to a caravan is if it starts swaying while you’re towing. There are many things that cause caravans to sway including high winds, improper loading, and the effect of being overtaken by a large vehicle. There are just as many remedies for sway including reloading your van, not towing when it’s too windy, being aware of road conditions and traffic movement, and using specialist hitches or anti-sway devices. But, perhaps, the best remedy is prevention. For the beginner, prevention is best done by taking towing lessons as soon as you buy your van.


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There’s a constant quip in caravanning circles that associates the idea of reversing with a great nightmare of caravanning. 

Although there are variations on the best way to reverse a caravan, the general steps are to point the caravan in the direction you want it to go, get the car to basically follow the caravan where it is going, maintain a manageable angle between car and caravan, then bring the car in a straight line with the caravan and straighten the car wheels.

You must be prepared to stop, get out and take a look at what the rig is doing, so that you can be fully aware of what happens at each stage.

"Practice, practice, practice," Gall said. "Find an open space and practice reversing."

One tip Gall offers beginners is that, when looking at the back of the van from the tow vehicle, turn your wheel towards the back of the van to make the van go in the opposite direction. "And, remember, the shorter the distance between the tow coupling and the axles, the quicker the van is going to turn," he said.

When it comes to turning around an obstacle, drive past the obstacle and turn from whichever direction that will keep that obstacle in your rearview mirror.

As for having a helper guide you into a campsite, Gall said to keep your helper on the inside line as you back, so that you can always see them. But remember to check your blind side from time to time as well.

Another technique, useful when it comes to backing into a caravan park site, is to stop the car and inspect the site, paying attention to low rails or tree branches and taps, then drive past the site, preferably with the site on the right-hand side. Pick a point with which to align the caravan and drive just past it. Steer the car to the left hand side of the road and then turn the car in line with the road. With your helper on the same side as your target, your guide will help you in with clear hand signals made at head height. Try steering from the bottom of the wheel because that means if you want the back of your van to go left you turn the wheel to the left and do the opposite to go right. Most importantly, take your time.


The tips to overtaking are simple. First up, use your radio to talk to other traffic on the road so you know what’s ahead. Then, give yourself a bigger safety margin than you might have if you weren’t towing. Given your entire rig is longer than usual with a caravan on the back, and your engine power is decreased, successful overtaking demands you give yourself enough time for the manoeuvre. Finally, as a general rule, when you pull into the traffic stream again, leave a three second gap between you and the car in front of you.

It’s easier to be cautious when travelling and safer if drivers invest in UHF radios. Radios allow you to listen to professional truck drivers and understand what might be happening on the road ahead. That level of communication allows drivers to inform truckers that they are aware of them and will hold to the left to allow the truck or other traffic to pass when safe. That level of courtesy will inevitably make travel easier and more pleasant.


Famous for taking on many rough tracks, Gall said his best tip is to leave your van safely in camp and tackle an offroad run without the van. Before that, it’s worth doing your homework, plan the trip, talk to others that have done that drive, and read a lot of advice on-line. "If you have done your homework and still find yourself wondering how you are going to go, then you probably shouldn’t go,’ Glen recommends.

The full article appears in Caravan World #555 September 2016. Subscribe today for the latest caravan reviews and news every month!