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Guide to towing a caravan

To many towing a touring caravan or trailer is a daunting task and can put “would be buyers” off, but it is simple once you know how. Safe towing is common sense. Follow some simple guidelines and you will find the experience can be enjoyable.

Firstly, when choosing a touring caravan, it isn’t just down to the number of berths and/or your budget – consider your tow vehicle. Is the car in good overall mechanical condition and will it be able to tow your chosen caravan legally?

You will need to check the car’s kerbweight and towing limit. Some manufacturers will give a high towing limit that’s well above the car’s kerbweight. As a rule of thumb, the Maximum Technically Permissible Laden Mass (MTPLM) of a caravan i.e. the absolute maximum authorised mass (weight) specified by the caravan manufacturer (including all caravanning equipment, belongings and essential fluids), should be around 85% of the car’s kerbweight. If you have a smallish car, then your choice of caravan could be limited. However, towing at 90% isn’t out of the question – ideally though, for safety and stability reasons, the caravan industry recommends that when looking to match a caravan to a car, it shouldn’t exceed 85% (- “the 85% rule”).

Don’t forget too that motoring laws make certain licence holders limited as to what they can legally tow. For those who have passed their test after 1st of January 1997 there are strict limitations (and you may need to take a towing test). After the age of 70, when renewing your licence, you will need to check what you are permitted to tow.

When it comes to adding a tow bar to your car you have several choices. One is the car manufacturer’s own branded unit or you can look at other brands that are designed for your car. Have the tow bar fitted by a skilled technician (and the electrics to will need to be installed). Don’t forget a change over from seven pin dual sockets to a single 13 pin design took place a few years ago, so specify to the fitter which you need.

You’ll need to know the caravan’s noseweight limit i.e. the weight applied to the car’s towball by the caravan. Your car will have a towball limit. Check the caravan’s noseweight by using a noseweight scale.

Towing mirrors are essential. You need to be able to have a good clear view down the side of the caravan. Most caravans are wider than the towing vehicle and a car could potentially tow up to a 2.55 metre wide caravan.

When towing, how you load your caravan is crucial, as it will determine its stability once on the road. Hitch stabilisers and anti snake devices are fitted to most new caravans. They are there to help in an emergency, not to make a poorly loaded caravan tow better. Load the caravan sensibly - keeping weighty items low and over the axle line.

Make sure you also have a number plate of the tow car fixed in place on the caravan too!

Hitching the caravan up may seem daunting; it has to be safely attached to the car. Bring the car as close to the hitch as possible, making sure you have a reliable helper stood to the rear of the car (though not directly behind!). Raise the caravan up with the jockey wheel (make sure the caravan handbrake is on) and reverse your car slowly. Get the car’s tow ball under the coupling slowly, then drop the caravan hitch onto the car. Look out for the green marker on the hitch coupling indicator popping up as you wind the jockey wheel down. A click will usually be heard when it happens – pull the jockey wheel clear into place on the drawbar and tighten the side handle. Take the caravan’s hand brake off and attach the red safety cable to an attachment point on the car’s bar (an eyelet usually).

You need then to put the lights plug in, this means turning it for the 13 pin design until it clicks into place. Then check that all the road lights are working with someone standing behind the caravan. Once hitched up make sure your fridge’s switch control is on the battery sign.

You're ready for the off! Your car won’t accelerate away as it normally does and you will use the gearbox more, changing down to allow the car to pull away. Observe all speed limits: 60mph on, motorways’ and dual carriageways’ and 50mph on B roads. Don’t forget the third lane is out of bounds. You’ll need to concentrate on what is happening behind, as well as in front. Large vehicles passing can cause air turbulence, resulting in the caravan being sucked and becoming unstable – don’t brake, just take you foot off the accelerator. Getting used to the caravan and car’s handling will come with experience. When going down a hill use the gears to help keep your speed down (putting less strain on the car's brakes).

Reversing your caravan is not an easy task, takes practice and involves using the opposite lock to where you want to be. If you have a twin axle caravan this is possibly the only way to manoeuvre the caravan into position.

Top ten tips to towing a caravan:

  • Check the caravan is properly hitched to the car.
  • Are detachable towballs firmly in place?
  • Use your mirrors often.
  • Don’t overload the caravan and don’t exceed the car’s towing / kerbweights.
  • Always make sure the tow vehicle is mechanically up to it.
  • Practice reversing (take a towing course to build up your confidence).
  • Get used to the car and caravan’s handling.
  • Make time for your towing journey and choose your route carefully.
  • Keep the caravan regularly serviced and check tyre pressures on both car and caravan.
  • If you want to move the caravan into awkward spaces fit a caravan motor mover.