How to tow a caravan, boat or heavy load
The world of towing can, from the outside, seem like an intimidating one, and the prospect of understanding and adhering to a unique set of rules and regulations, controlling heavy vehicle-and-load combinations in different conditions, as well as mastering new driving techniques is daunting, to say the least.
However, if you follow a few simple guidelines, exercise a lot of patience and use a fair amount of common sense, you’ll be towing sensibly and safely very soon.
Learn how to tow
Here are at Adventure HQ, we’re big fans of learning from the experts and that goes for off-roading, towing, defensive driving, first-aid – everything.
Before you do any towing get formal training from an accredited instructor. The combination of vehicle and caravan/boat/whatever must be managed and mastered on the road – and sometimes off-road (camper-trailers) – so it is essential the driver is confident and well versed in the ways of towing.
No vehicle or gear is so good that it is an effective substitute for skills and experience, so spend money on a towing course.
Becoming a better, more informed driver means the notion of towing will be a stress-free proposition, rather than one fraught with doubt.
According to NSW Roads and Maritime Services (RMS): “Towing a trailer requires additional knowledge and skill. All trailers, including caravans, affect the performance of the towing vehicle.
“They affect fuel consumption, acceleration, braking ability, general control and manoeuvrability. These effects worsen as the size and weight of the trailer increase relative to that of the towing vehicle. The extra length and width can be hard to manage, with wind, road roughness and passing vehicles having a greater effect than on the vehicle alone. This puts additional responsibilities on a driver.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.
A towing course will ultimately save you cash, time and stress by honing your skills and making you a safer tow-er.
Get your partner in on the action
In an ideal world both you and your significant other will know the ins and outs of the trailer and how to drive it on road and off (if you have a camper-trailer).
Work together to do thorough trailer checks before you set off on a trip and also set-up checks when you arrive at your destination.
You don’t need to be experts – leave that to the experts – but if you both have good skills, get in a fair bit of real-world towing practice, and clock up a lot of experience, you’ll be safe, confident tow-vehicle captains.
Load it well
Getting your caravan or boat loaded up right and balanced well goes a long way to helping you maintain a safe towing set-up on the road.
Achieving a correct weight distribution in the trailer will make sure your steering isn’t compromised and the risk of weight shifting in the caravan or boat, and causing the trailer to sway, has been greatly reduced.
Load the heaviest gear over the caravan’s axle and distribute the remainder of your stuff around evenly.
Place other heavy equipment, such as spare wheels and gas cylinders, in the caravan manufacturer’s recommended spots.
Consider investing in a weight-distribution hitch, a piece of gear aimed at evenly distributed through the vehicle's chassis to all four wheels. Make sure you get one to match your vehicle and its burden, and remember that it is not a weight-distribution hitch is not a solution unto itself but merely a tool to help improve the safety of your towing.
Check everything, then check it again
By now, your vehicle and trailer – including electric trailer brakes – will have had a full service and check-up and you are almost ready to go.
This is your lead-up process to towing and will ensure that you’re able to tow safely, so take your time.
Before you do anything, check tyre pressures – don’t forget the spare! – and make sure all of them are at a suitable pressure for the surface you’ll be driving. Check that the trailer’s taillights are working.
Slowly move from the front of the trailer, where it’s hitched to the tow vehicle, to the rear – scrutinising everything.
First up, make sure the trailer plug is plugged in and secure and the coupling, safety chains and breakaway wire (for caravans or trailers weighing more than 2000kg and with electric brakes) are all connected and secure.
Then make sure the trailer handbrake is disengaged and the jockey wheel has been securely tucked away.
If you’re using a weight-distribution hitch (generally used for long or heavy caravans) check that it is properly connected and the safety pins are locked in. Check that the gas bottles are turned off.
Do a visual and make sure all windows, latches, hatches and doors are securely fastened, and anything else that may flap, snap or flop out while the trailer is in motion is secured.
Check inside for any loose items or unsecured gear and sort it out.
Finally, remove the wheel chocks, raise the stabiliser legs and lock them into place, let out a deep self-satisfied sigh, give yourself a pat on the back and get ready to go.
Get your reversing right
Reversing a trailer is one of the tricky and essential skills needed for towing; it’s not rocket science but it requires focus, patience and very low speeds to be done sensibly and safely.
The first thing you need to do is check the area you’re about to reverse out of or into and make sure it is clear of hazards (potholes, tree branches), obstacles (children’s bikes) and people.
Next: don’t rush. If you hurry to back your trailer out of a spot or into a campsite, caravan park site or your boat and trailer onto a boat ramp, then you’re adding undue stress to the situation, risking damage to trailer and vehicle, and possibly injury to people nearby.
If possible, have someone stand outside, at a safe distance, and communicate directions to you via agreed-on hand signals or a hand-held radio.
A very slow steady speed is crucial when backing up – it gives you ample time to correct the trailer’s direction – and use only small moves of the steering wheel to adjust the trailer’s path.
When reversing, remember to be counter-intuitive: turn your steering wheel in the opposite direction to how you actually want the trailer to go, i.e. turn your wheel to the right if you want the trailer to go left.
If you’ve strayed too far off target and need to line it again, simply drive forward until the trailer is corrected and then have another crack.
Practise reversing in a non-stressful environment – the empty carpark of a sports ground or similar – do it repeatedly and get comfortable with it.
Buy door-mounted mirrors which will afford you better vision to the rear, a boon for your reversing, but they will also help you to keep a good eye on the trailer while you’re in forward motion as well.
Look ahead and anticipate
When towing, give yourself plenty of extra braking room between you and the vehicle in front.
Most importantly, you need to achieve a happy balance between smooth acceleration, gentle braking, minor steering changes and a steady momentum.
Basically, you want there to be little to no sudden, jerky movements in direction or speed of the tow vehicle or trailer: no hard acceleration, no heavy braking, and no fast, sharp turns.
Slow down well ahead of time when approaching traffic lights that are changing to red, or are already red; the aim is to minimise the necessity to stop completely.
Smooth driving is safer, more fuel efficient and it results in less cumulative wear and tear on your vehicle and the caravan or boat trailer.
On narrow urban streets or country tracks, look well ahead of your current position for natural (tree branches) or man-made hazards (other vehicles, traffic posts) that may impede you as you attempt to pass through.
When going around a corner, take the widest line you can through it because the trailer will cut the corner. Basically, ride the centre line as closely as is safely possible and take the corner as late and as wide as you can. On roundabouts, turn as late as you can so the trailer gets safely around.
Avoid overtaking, but if you’re going to do it, allow plenty of time and room on the road in which to achieve a safe and smooth move – because overtaking is a much slower process for a vehicle-and-trailer combination, than it is for a vehicle alone.
When driving up hills, just sit back and relax and let the world pass you by. When driving down hills, rather than ride the brakes, use your gears and your vehicle’s engine braking to safely slow your progress.
Avoiding and dealing with sway
As mentioned, if you load up your caravan or boat well – weight evenly distributed and heaviest gear over the axle or axles – get your tyre pressures right, and use a weight-distribution hitch, then all of that will help to avoid a trailer-sway scenario.
However, big trucks blasting past you or high-wind areas can cause your trailer to sway, so adjust your driving style when faced with these possibilities.
When a truck is passing you, move away from it as much as you can, ease off the accelerator, ready yourself for a bit of a wind blast and simply let the heavy vehicle go by. The same rule applies to high-wind areas: slow down and steel yourself for gusts.
If your trailer does start to sway in any scenario, slow down (just back off the accelerator, don’t brake), apply the electric brake override and give your vehicle some gentle acceleration to get your trailer steady and back in line.
When you arrive at the campsite or caravan park, and masterfully reversed your caravan into position, remember to put your handbrake on before you do anything else.