Towing and caravan safety

The key things you need to know before you tow.

From everyday errands to long trips, it’s important to consider the impact towing has on your vehicle, and what you should be aware of when towing a trailer or caravan. Here we cover height and weight restrictions, maintenance tips and changes to car handling when towing a heavy load.

Securing a load

Here are our top tips to secure your load safely:

  • Make sure your vehicle is rated to tow the load and check the handbook if in doubt.
  • Make sure your vehicle and trailer are in good mechanical condition and roadworthy.
  • If you’re carrying small items (such as garden waste or debris), cover the load with a tarp so items don't fall or fly out.
  • Don’t use and replace restraints if they’re frayed, cut or damaged.
  • Evenly distribute the loads as much as possible.
  • Remember that loads can move during a journey which can cause restraints to loosen. If possible, re-check the restraints shortly after beginning the journey.
  • Make sure your number plate is visible.
  • Drive to the conditions remembering that your vehicle will be less manoeuvrable and will take longer to stop.
  • Avoid sudden braking, heavy acceleration and sharp cornering.

Watch our how-to videos for more information:

For information on Road Rules, see seat belts and securing heavy loads

Towing safely

Tow vehicle

Towing increases the stress placed on the safety limits of any car. It’s essential that the car is in first-class mechanical condition, with special attention to brakes, steering, suspension, tyres and most importantly the cooling system. If the tow vehicle is an automatic, it’s essential that a transmission oil cooler is fitted.

Short trips first

Do a few short towing trips first, gradually increasing the distance travelled, before embarking on a long trip. This allows you to familiarise yourself with the rig, to understand the feel of the weight of the van on the back of the car, and understand the adjustments necessary when accelerating, braking and overtaking.

Plan your drive

When heading off on the first trip, an early start is recommended. This gives you the advantage of light traffic conditions and gives you an opportunity to develop a feel for the caravan on the back of the car.

Know the weight of your caravan or trailer

The law allows a vehicle to tow up to 1.5 times its kerb mass, but check your owner's handbook for the recommended maximum towing mass as some vehicles aren’t suitable for towing up to the legal limit. RACV recommends towing slightly less than the applicable limit to ensure there will always be a reserve of power available and that the engine of the tow vehicle won’t be constantly working at its maximum.

Van driving toward a bridge

Know the height of your van

Before leaving, measure the height of your van and any luggage on your vehicle roof racks. Be aware of:

  • height clearances under bridges and car parks
  • overhanging trees
  • low clearance signs on public and private roads.

Top tip: The low rail bridge on Montague Street, South Melbourne has a 3.0 metre (10ft) clearance, affecting drivers towing caravans to and from the Spirit of Tasmania ferry if approaching from the West Gate Freeway. A route shown on a GPS may not be suitable for caravans.

Caravan checks and maintenance

Car towing a caravan along a road

Before moving the caravan at any time, check that:

  • the coupling electrical connection and chains are properly located and secure
  • power, water and waste water services are disconnected
  • the gas bottle is turned off
  • all windows and cupboards fastened
  • parking legs are fully raised
  • the step up and jockey wheel are removed.

Have someone assist you with checking that all the tail/brake lights indicators and side marker lights are working properly, including the rear number plate light.

Before moving the caravan at any time, check that:

  • the coupling electrical connection and chains are properly located and secure
  • power, water and waste water services are disconnected
  • the gas bottle is turned off
  • all windows and cupboards fastened
  • parking legs are fully raised
  • the step up and jockey wheel are removed.

Have someone assist you with checking that all the tail/brake lights indicators and side marker lights are working properly, including the rear number plate light.

Caravan tyres

The tyres on a caravan must all be the same, have good tread and no cracks in the sidewalls. Tyre pressures must be maintained at least to the recommended pressure by the caravan manufacturer or the tyre manufacturer.

Remember to check caravan tyres regularly. Tyres can deteriorate quite considerably if the caravan is sitting idle on its tyres for many months of the year or they have been exposed to the weather

Towbars and hitches

There are many types of towbars/tow hitches available to suit different cars. The most satisfactory system is a load distribution hitch, which returns both the car and the caravan to a level position once properly set up. It’s best to consult with a specialist in this field for your particular rig.

Braking system

The most effective and efficient type of brakes today are electric brakes, which operate when the brake lights on the car operate. They have the big advantage where they can be operated separately from the car by a hand control inside the car. This means that the caravan is never pushing onto the rear of the car, which is often when the caravan can start to sway.

Fuel usage

An increase in fuel consumption is expected when towing a caravan. Also if the car is used continuously for towing, a reduction in the overall life of the car must be expected.

Car handling

Towing a heavy load affects the way your car performs, often requiring you to make some adjustments to the way you would usually drive. Here are the main things to be aware of:

Moving off

When moving off from stationary, take your time to avoid harsh acceleration. This uses excess fuel.

When starting a manual car on a steep hill, where possible, allow the rig to roll back several metres with the steering wheel turned so the car and caravan are at an angle to each other. This relieves the load on the clutch, as the first few metres the car moves, it is only straightening the caravan out and is not pulling the full weight.

Stopping

Even with the latest electric braking systems, it’s essential to allow a greater distance to slow or stop than the distance you would allow with only the car. In fact, forward planning when applied properly can often reduce the number of times that you will stop at traffic lights.

When you’re approaching a set of traffic lights that are red, gently slacken off the power so you take longer to get to the lights; Quite often you’ll find that the lights will change and you can go through without coming to a stop. This practice also improves the fuel economy of the tow vehicle, because you’re not starting the whole rig from stationary at every set of traffic lights.

Changing gears

When climbing hills, don't wait until the car is struggling to decide to change down to a lower gear, as the car will only struggle again after the gear change. In automatic cars, change down to second gear to prevent the transmission from hunting up and down from gear to gear.

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. It is not unusual for the brakes to overheat during a long descent, when the driver neglects to select a lower gear.

With a four-speed automatic, unless you are on a flat road with no head wind, it is probably better to leave the gears in third, again to prevent the transmission from changing up and down all the time.

Turning and taking corners

When taking corners, it’s important to remember the extra length of the rig. For a left turn, approach a little further out from the side of the road. Always allow the car to continue straight for a few metres. This will prevent the caravan from being too close to the side of the road, with the potential of colliding into objects such as a power pole or a shop verandah.

Avoiding sway

The most dangerous thing a caravan can do is to develop sway. Thankfully, modern load distributing hitches are available, which when properly set up, can almost completely eliminate sway. If you have a caravan/car combination that continues to sway, you should consult with the experts to have the problem rectified. Some modern vehicles have towing modes in their stability control systems, whilst similar systems are being incorporated into trailers too. These can be very effective and are worth investigating.

Sway in high winds

High winds, especially side winds, can cause sway. The direction and strength of wind can be determined by observing trees on the side of the road or wind socks near ravines. There can be some situations where you should make the decision not to tow the rig at all, when there are extremely high winds blowing.

Sway when being overtaken

Sway can be caused when a large vehicle like a semi-trailer, B Double or a Road Train is going to overtake your rig.

Try to be aware of any vehicles that are going to overtake you and where possible give them as much room as you can safely manage.

As the large vehicle commences to overtake you, with the accelerator still pulling your rig, gently apply the caravan brakes only, with the hand control. This will make the caravan pull backwards on the car, which has a straightening out effect on the whole rig.

Never use the foot brake in this situation, even if your rig is fitted with electric brakes.

Reversing

Reversing is often considered a nightmare with a caravan, but it is not as difficult as it may seem. It just needs some thought and for the driver to take their time.

To reverse around a corner, like parking into the caravan parking bay, there are four movements:

  1. Point the caravan in the direction you wish it to go.
  2. Get the car to basically follow the caravan where it is going and maintain a manageable angle between car and caravan.
  3. Bring the car in a straight line with the caravan.
  4. Straighten the car wheels.

It sounds complicated, but if it is taken one step at a time the technique will gradually develop. At any time, you must be prepared to stop, get out and take a look at what the rig is doing, so you can be fully aware of what happens at each stage.

Maneuvering by hand

There are times where it maybe more practical to remove the caravan from the car and manoeuvre it by hand. In this situation, if the ground is uneven or slopes, make sure that you can keep control of the caravan handbrake to prevent it running away from you. If the caravan does start to get away, immediately stop it, lock on the handbrake, step back and take a break while you consider the situation.