Due to our hard standing fully serviced pitches here at Horton Common, we get quite a lot of first time caravaning beginners who are ‘learning the ropes’ as it were. When it comes to caravanning learning how to properly tow a caravan is obviously very important. There are lots of variables to consider and the best practice to follow. For instance, does your car and caravan outfit match and is it actually legal for you to tow it? Have you loaded your caravan properly before setting off and have you done your pre-trip checks? Finally, do you feel competent when it comes to reversing the caravan? There is a lot to learn, but hopefully, this post will help you to understand and consider the most important aspects of how to tow a caravan.
When it comes to reversing a caravan I know from discussing it with our caravan beginner guests its the thing they dread the most. That’s why when they arrive at Horton Common with our road and hardstanding pitches I encourage them to test out and practice their reversing skills. This is quite a long post with various subsections dedicated to the different aspects of how to tow a caravan. I would encourage you to read this whole post. However, if you are just looking for information on a specific aspect of towing a caravan you can use the Table of Contents below. Enjoy 🙂
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Introduction on How to Tow a Caravan
So I’m going to write this post from the perspective of caravanning beginners. Furthermore, hopefully, you are reading this post before you have purchased your caravan. The reason being the first and most important aspect of how to tow a caravan is the car and caravan outfit match up. Not only does the tow car have to be capable of towing the caravan, but it also needs to be able to tow the caravan safely. For instance, many cars have maxium towing limits far above the weight of caravan you would sensibly want to tow. Furthermore, depending on when you passed your test, certain car and caravan combination may be illegal under your current licence.
There is a lot to cover in this post on how to tow a caravan. Therefore I’m going to write this post with the assistance of the ‘towing masterclass’ series of videos produced by Practical Caravan. They are currently the most compressive set of videos out there on how to safely and legally tow a caravan. Just a quick word of warning on these videos. While they clearly appear to be sponsored by Mitsubishi, its never formally referenced. While all of the tow vehicles are Mitsuibishies which doesn’t distract from the quality of the content, there is something which gets quite annoying. The presenter will frequently state ‘your Mitsubishi’ instead of your tow car. But don’t let that put you off, the content of the video on how to properly tow a caravan is solid.
Part 1 – Is Your Car and Caravan a Good Outfit Match?
What Can Your Tow Car Actually Tow?
When it comes to working out a suitable car and caravan towing match up some people start with their car. Others start with a caravan they want and then purchase a tow car to suit. For this post, let’s presume you already have a tow car in mind or you already own the car. There are some important details to find out to understand what the vehicle can tow and what size of caravan you can sensibly tow. As referenced in the video, the TowSafe website is also good resource to use.
Tow Vehicle Kerb Weight – What’s That Mean?
Typically, the kerb weight of a car is calculated as the car with all fluids (oils and coolants) a full tank of fuel and a driver at 75kg. This is generally the case, but not always so. To find out the kerb weight of your vehicle there are a couple of places to check. The metal VIN plate which should be fixed to the bulkhead in the engine bay, the owners manual or you can check online. Be careful though when checking for vehicle kerb weights online. Only use the original source, hence the manufacturer’s website. I’ve seen third-party websites (Wikipedia is a typical example) state incorrect vehicle kerb weights.
The MTPLM of the Caravan – What’s That Mean?
I’ve previously written a post on caravan weights, but for quick reference, the MTPLM is the Maximum Technically Permissible Laden Mass. In other words, the caravans MTPLM is its total maxium legal weight including your belongings. Not surprisingly, smaller single axle caravans have lower MTPLM figures than large twin axle caravans. The MTPLM includes the caravan user payload, hence how much stuff you can take.
Car Tow Weight and Noseweight Limits
So every car (if its legal to tow) will have a tow weight limit. This is the absolute legal maxium that the car is able to tow based on its engine, chassis and suspension setup. Its generally very different from the weight of caravan you should sensibly consider towing. For instance, a towing goods trailer which is barely a meter above the ground is very different from towing a caravan of the same weight. Weight distribution, stability and crosswinds produce a completely different towing experience. Hence the recommended 85% rule, more on that below.
Each car also has its own noseweight limit. Hence, the maxium weight the tow hitch of the caravan can place upon the car. These vary significantly depending on the type of car and its size. For instance, in the future more of us will be using electric tow cars. Well, let’s consider the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV as seen in the video above. The Outlander PHEV has a noseweight limit of 75kg compared to the Diesels 100kg. I won’t get into the reasons why in this post, but the point being, you need to check your cars noseweight limit and your caravans noseweight to find a good match. I’ve also written a post on how to check caravan noseweights to make sure you are under your cars maxium noseweight limit.
The 85% Towing ‘Rule’
So stated in the video, you may hear from some sources that there is an 85% towing rule when comparing the kerb weight of your tow car and the MTLM of your caravan. Well, its not a rule strictly in terms of the law. The only legal limitations are the cars maxium towing limit and your own licence restrictions, more on that below. But even for experienced caravaners its not recommend to tow a caravan over 100% of the cars kerb weight. No matter what the towing capacity of the tow car actually is.
However, for first-time caravanners learning how to tow a caravan I would personally advise keeping to the 85% towing relationship between your car and caravan. Your caravan stabiliser can only do so much to avoid caravan sway, also known as snaking. Hence, using a tow car which is at least 15% heavier than the MTLM of your caravan will make it easier to tow. That additional weight of the tow vehicle means its more likely during patches of instability, after say hitting a pothole, that the car will dictate the movement of the caravan. In other words, you don’t want the tail (caravan) wagging the dog (your tow car).
Towing a Caravan on a Category B Licence
So, if like me you passed your driving test after 1997 we have a legal restriction when it comes to towing a caravan. The gross vehicle weight of the car (not the kerb weight) and the MTPLM of the caravan must be under 3,500kg. I’ve had discussions with guests in the past who’s partner wanted to start towing their caravan set up, but they passed after 1997. They were aware of the law around towing with a Category B licence. However, they got confused about using the kerb weight of their tow car in the calculation. You must use the Gross Vehicle Weight (GVW) of your tow car in the calculation, sometimes also referred to as the Maxium Authorised Mass (MAM).
Take the Mitsubishi ASX as an example in the video above. It has a kerb weight of 1,470kg. However, its Gross Vehicle Weight (GVW) is significantly higher at 1,970kg. So in summary, the GVW for your car includes the weight of the car, people and possessions. The MTLM of the caravan includes the weight of the caravan and your possessions.
You can upgrade from a Category B to a Category B+E licence, which I intend to do myself in the future. With a B+E licence, you are able to tow an outfit with a Maxium Authorised Mass of 8,250kg, just like those who passed before 1997. However, the tests are not cheap. A couple of places online are charging around £500 for two test attempts. There is no additional theory test to pass.
Part 2 – Its Very Important to Properly Load Your Caravan
You Want to Avoid the Pendulum Effect
Over the years of running Horton Common, I’ve got to hear many different stories about how my guests journey to our site went. If too much weight is placed towards the rear or front of the caravan this can create a pendulum effect, also known as ‘bobbing’.
For instance, let’s say you are towing the caravan down the road and you go over a speed bump. Well, a caravan which has too much weight at the front or back will tend to bob up and down as the pendulum effect takes hold. Now that’s annoying at low speed but consider a second example, hitting a pothole at high speed. Then the pendulum effect becomes much more serious. Hence you want to load your caravan properly with the heaviest items low down over the centre axle.
Hitching up the Caravan
As shown in the video, before you lift the caravan corner steadies you want to make sure the handbrake is properly engaged. When winding up the corner steadies if you feel its taking more effort than it probably should you may want to consider servicing the corner steadies when possible. Checking the nose weight as previously referenced is very important. Both your caravan and car have maxium noseweight limits. Therefore you want to make sure the caravans noseweight is not only below its own rated limit, but the cars rated limit.
Reversing up to the Caravan Hitch
The next stage is to wind up the jockey wheel so you can comfortably reverse the car and tow ball underneath the caravans hitch. The point being, make sure you are a good few inches higher than the tow ball. Thinking you have raised the caravan jockey wheel just enough may lead to you catching and damaging the caravan hitch while reversing. If you have a reversing camera on your car that should come in handy. And there are also aftermarket reversing cameras you can order. However, if you’re with a second person politely ask them to spot you to guide the car up to the caravan hitch.
Lowering the Caravan Hitch onto the Car
When you lower the jockey wheel and hitch onto the car do so while also lifting the hitch handle. When the caravan hitch is properly engaged with the tow ball on the car the plastic indicator should pop up and you will see a green band. This indicates the cars tow ball is properly engaged with the hitch socket. You then lower down the stabiliser handle then lift and tightly secure the jockey wheel. However, if you have purchased an older second-hand caravan it may not have a stabiliser handle as seen the video. But the same basic procedure applies for properly hitching up the caravan before towing. You’ll then want to hook up the towing electrics and get your partner to check the lights on the caravan are working before you set off.
Depending on the age and make of your caravan the stabiliser tow hitch maybe black (pictured) red, or blue. Older caravans pre the early 2000s didn’t feature a stabiliser tow hitch at all, just a galvanised hitch head: Image – Amazon.co.uk
Attaching the Caravan Brakeaway Cable Properly
Typically, many caravanners will loop the breakaway cable around the tow ball. Some as stated in the video will “clip it through the steel ring on the tow bar if there is one“. The problem is, both the above methods can be both right and wrong depending on the type of tow bar fitted. Furthermore, new best practice has been made on the type of caravan breakaway cable you should be using. I would advise after reading this post for you to read my post on caravan breakaway cables so you know the proper procedure to follow.
New best practice states caravans should only use a carabiner type breakaway cable (pictured) opposed to the old spring clip cable: Image – Amazon.co.uk
Towing Mirrors are Essential
With your standard car mirrors, you will not be able to see behind your caravan while towing. Hence, when you are on the motorway without towing mirrors you will not know when someone is overtaking you, or when its safe for you to leave your lane. I’ve heard a couple of towing mirror stories over the years from our guests. For instance, I would avoid stuck on suction cup towing mirrors. I actually think they should be banned. I’ve written a post on the various caravan towing mirrors you can get and how you can choose the right type of mirror for your tow car.
Before you set off you will want someone to help you check the lights on the caravan. You obviously want to make sure the brake lights, indicators and sidelights are all working correctly. Finally, you can then release the handbrake on the caravan and go on your way. Whether you choose to follow a caravan sat nav is up to you, but don’t follow any sat-nav directions blindly. I discuss the process above in more in my post how to hitch up a caravan.
Part 3 – Safe Towing on the Road
When you are driving your car without towing your caravan you obviously need to be vigilant at all times and make manoeuvres with care. However, with a caravan on the back of your car, there are simply more variables to deal with. You are now driving a longer and heavier outfit with a wider turning circle. So certain manoeuvres which you would commonly do with just your car require a bit of extra forethought and preparation when towing your caravan.
Overtaking While Towing a Caravan
As stated in the video you really need to be confident you have enough time and space to not only pull out safely, but also rejoin the lane. The first time you ever overtake while towing your caravan give your self far more space than you think you need. The reason being you won’t know how quickly your car will be able to accelerate with the additional weight of the caravan on the back. If you have a manual gearbox you can obviously drop down a gear. With an automatic, the car may take longer than you think before it provides the power needed to overtake. In the future with electric tow cars and their significant torque benefit, overtaking manoeuvres will be a lot easier and hence safer.
Braking While Towing a Caravan
While you have to factor in the additional weight of your caravan while accelerating you also have to do the same while braking. When towing your caravan start to brake earlier than you normally would when purely driving your car. The caravan brakes just like your car brakes do require servicing. I’m aware some of our guest service their caravans brakes themselves. However, I would encourage every new caravanner to get their caravan serviced at a service centre annually where they will fully service the brakes.
Snaking – How to Regain Control of the Caravan
Caravan snaking (also referred to as sway) is where the caravan starts to move side to side. Hitting a large pothole at speed or a rapidly overtaking a lorry may cause snaking. However, as stated in the video with a correctly matched car and caravan which is loaded properly its a pretty rare occurrence.
If your caravan does start to snake don’t try and accelerate out of it. Accelerating during snaking for a while did appear to be what may be cited as the solution. However, the best and safest method to resolve sway is to let off the accelerator, but don’t brake. Just hold the steering lightly and true in the centre and as you let off the accelerator the caravan should start to settle down and straighten up. Your caravan may be fitted with the AL-KO ATC system which should also help to correct sway even more quickly.
Part 4 – How to Reverse a Caravan
I know many of our caravanning beginner guests fear to reverse their caravan. Even our most experienced guests often unhook their caravan on our road and use their motor mover to position the caravan on to their pitch. Generally reversing a caravan is the most dreaded part of learning to tow a caravan. That’s why when I get caravan beginners visiting Horton Common I encourage them to test out their caravan reversing skills on our safe private road and pitches. There are times on the public highway where you simply must be able to reverse the caravan. Therefore its vital that you understand the principle of whats going on when reversing your caravan. As this is the trickiest still to learn I’ve actually written a separate post on how to reverse a caravan.
Left is Right and Right is Left – What?!
Yes, when it comes to reversing your caravan you have to remember to do the opposite of what you would normally think to do. The reason being your car and caravan are connected via a pivot point. So as your car applies force going backwards your caravan will be forced in the opposite direction. When it comes to reversing straight back just turn the wheel at the side mirror you see the caravan getting larger in. If the caravan is not getting larger in either of the mirrors you are going straight back with the caravan inline with the car. Its important to remember you usually will not be able to see directly behind the caravan when reversing in a straight line. So either fit a reversing camera to the back of your caravan or ask a second person to spot you.
Reversing a Caravan Around a Corner
You are typically going to have to learn to reverse around a corner to get onto your pitch. That is of course unless you choose to uncouple the car and caravan and use a motormover. The same basic principles apply when reversing around a corner as stated above. However, there is something important to note, and that’s your starting position. On our site, guests will enter and drive past the pitches on their left. To make sure the front of the car while reversing does not come off the road onto the potentially soft grass on the right-hand side you need a good starting position. Therefore, the car and caravan should start on the left-hand side of the road to account for the front wheels on the tow car swinging around to the right.
Conclusions on How to Tow a Caravan
Learning how to tow a caravan safely all starts with a good (and legal) car and caravan matchup. If you are at a caravan dealership browsing various caravans and you still need to purchase a new tow car asked the dealer what they would recommend for that size of caravan. However, obviously check the figures (kerb weight, noseweight etc) your self on what would be a suitable matchup. However, I believe most people new to caravanning start with their tow car and choose a caravan to suit. Therefore, I would also encourage you to read my post on what I think are the best cars for towing a caravan.
I would encourage to watch the videos above multiple times. Safe caravanning is as much about good preparation as it is about having all the bells and whistle of towing accessories. As stated previously, if you do decide to come and visit us here at Horton Common in the future I would encourage you to try out your reversing skills on-site even if you have a motor mover. Thanks for reading. 🙂