For some, towing a caravan may seem like a daunting task – from deciphering the lingo of tare weight and kerb weight, to understanding the basics of hitching your caravan safely to your car – the size, the weight, reversing, negotiating corners, it’s a whole new driving experience. With a little bit of practice though it’s easier than it looks, and all it takes is learning some basic driving skills.
1. Embrace the caravan towing lingo
These terms may make your head spin, but they’re important to learn to help you determine the maximum caravan weight your tow vehicle can manage, and the type of vehicle and set-up you need to hitch a caravan.
So get your brain cells ready for this towing lingo journey:
- Tare weight: is the weight of an empty caravan, from a small to large caravan, when it leaves the factory floor and before anything, such as customised add-ons, personal items, furniture, supplies etc, have been added to it. The tare weight will be stated by the manufacturer and found on your trailer plate.
- Aggregate Towing Mass (ATM): is the maximum weight your caravan is legally allowed to carry (including wheels and coupling) with all your items and mod-cons added to it. It can be found on your caravan’s trailer plate and should not be exceeded.
- Gross Trailer Mass (GTM): stated by the manufacturer, is the maximum weight your caravan can legally carry on its wheels stand-alone, without the weight your coupling can take.
- Tow Ball Mass: is how much weight the towball on your vehicle can take when pulling a caravan or trailer. The tow ball should weigh at least 10% the total caravan’s ATM weight. This is an important feature to check out in a tow vehicle so you know what caravan weight to aim for, or vice versa, when buying a tow vehicle or fitting a tow ball to your car.
- Gross Combined Mass: is the total weight of both the tow vehicle and caravan combined with all your items and add-ons included. Every vehicle will have a maximum GCM weight that should not be exceeded. This will be important to know if you ever cross a bridge or drive on a road with a weight limit.
- Jockey wheel: is the wheel that holds your caravan upright at the front when you uncouple the caravan from your vehicle. Ideally it needs to be able to move 360 degrees for full manoeuvrability.
- Weight distribution wheel or load leveller: this helps reduce the sway of your trailer and is designed to transfer weight from the rear to the front wheels of your tow vehicle. This helps ease the weight of your caravan and makes steering and braking easier.
- Coupling or hitch: this helps you hitch your caravan to your tow vehicle. The most common is a ball coupling that attaches directly and securely to your vehicle’s tow ball. Polyblock coupling can also be used for off-road conditions, allowing for greater articulation and range of movement when driving on unsealed and corrugated tracks and roads.
- Brake controllers: most modern caravans have electric brakes fitted to each wheel of your caravan and activated by in-car brake controllers. In Australia they must be fitted if your caravan exceeds 750kg GTM. Using this system, applying your vehicle brakes will also activate your caravan’s brake.
2. Find the right tow vehicle for your caravan
Owning a caravan also means you need a vehicle that has the right set-up and is strong and durable enough to tow a heavy load. This is vital to ensure you are safe and secure on the roads and not putting other motorists at risk.
Working out the correct towing specifications of the vehicle is the first thing to look at, as well as its durability, strength and fuel efficiency. Does it have a large enough tow capacity for the weight of your caravan, leaving a generous margin of reserve? What is its fuel consumption when towing at its GCM? Is it 4WD and can it handle 4x4 conditions for off road caravan travel? Will it be gentle enough to tow your new luxury caravan? These are worthwhile things to ask a car dealer, before you buy, and to verify in the vehicle’s owner’s manual. For caravans over 3000kg, aside from a few select SUVs, you may also require a special license to tow it.
The ideal tow vehicle combination experts tend to recommend is a diesel-automatic-front wheel drive. Diesel engines offer better torque output with flatter torque curves and are suited to heavy towing conditions. Diesel fuel is also more readily available in remote areas, which may be a factor if you are doing a lot of remote travel.
Automatic vehicles are also preferred by some, as they are easier to drive smoothly and eliminate premature clutch that can happen from hill starts and other difficult maneuvers. For really heavy towing though, an automatic may be mandatory as they come fitted with larger transmission coolers to prevent transmission overheating. Some automatic models are also rated with a higher towing capacity than manual versions, giving you more flexibility when buying a caravan.
When it comes to choosing a wheel-drive type, it’s a toss up between rear wheel, front wheel and all wheel drive. While all-wheel is the preferred option among experts, front-wheel drive is the most common in large cars and rear-wheel drive is also quite capable of pulling up to a certain weight.
The most important thing to note here, when choosing your ideal tow vehicle is to look at the manufacturer’s recommendations. There are many vehicle types quite capable of pulling caravans safely and smoothly.
To get an idea of what's out there, check out Caravan World’s Top 10 Towing Vehicles for 2015. For more information on towing requirements also check RACQ’s helpful Trailer and tow vehicle specifications.
3. Hitching your caravan to your vehicle
Now you have your caravan, the right vehicle to tow it, you’ve packed your caravan evenly and are ready to go but...wait...how do you attach the damn caravan to your vehicle? This will be easy for some who have dealt with caravans or trailers in the past, but for those that haven’t, the best way to understand the how to's of hitching a caravan is to watch it being done by an expert.
You can learn from a family member or friend who has more experience. Ask them to take you through the hitching process as many times as possible until you feel comfortable and confident driving on your own.
There are also some great online videos you can watch that show, step-by-step, what you have to do, including great classes on:
If you still lack confidence, consider taking a specialised caravan course. Most are one day courses that take you through your paces on how to hitch and tow your caravan. Also read the excellent step-by-step guide to hitching your caravan from Without a Hitch.
And before you start, always check safety first. Make sure your caravan is on a flat and level ground for hitching. Ensure things like your gas appliances, cylinders and caravan power leads are all turned off. And before you set off, check your caravan mirrors are attached properly, tyres are at the right pressure and most importantly your caravan’s electrical lead is connected firmly to your tow vehicle socket.
On your marks, get set...tow
The truth is, if you can learn how to drive, then you can learn how to tow. All it takes is choosing the right caravan and tow vehicle combination, learning how to hitch them together safely, and practicing until you feel confident enough to drive on your own.
Becoming skilled and confident at driving with a caravan is simply about having the right set-up, learning the basics and practicing practice, practice. Combine this with solid driving skills and a strong awareness of driving on the road and you’ll be ready to tow your caravan on your first holiday!
Already have a great tow vehicle and now looking to buy a caravan? Download our free guide to buying the ultimate caravan in 2016 and find a perfect match.