Tow in the Know

Catherine Best — 6 May 2021
Experience is the best way to learn to tow and perfect your technique in various conditions, but a course will set you down the right path.

Every year in Australia, more than half a million caravans hit the road. Some are fresh off the production line, pulled by drivers with very little towing experience, many weigh upwards of 3t, and all can be towed across the country without any additional driver licensing or training requirements. This is despite some rigs having a mass and bulk more akin to a truck than a recreational vehicle.

Towing is a learned skill. A caravan behaves very differently on the road to an uncoupled vehicle. At the lower end of the safety spectrum, drivers need to know how to negotiate a turn without clipping the curve. At the pointy end, they must understand how to avoid being sucked into the side of a passing road train. 

“Many people find out the hard way that they really didn’t know what they were doing or that towing something is very different to just driving the car,” said Julie Eggenhuizen, director of Getabout Training Services, which runs accredited Tow-Ed training courses across Australia (tow-ed.com.au).



“You have to be a better driver and have a whole extra set of skills once you put something behind the car,” she said. 

“Cars these days are faster, with aids for towing, so understanding the dynamics and features of your tow vehicle is important. Caravans are getting bigger and heavier, so understanding how they react on the road and reversing, is also vital.”

The Caravan & Trailer Road Safety Alliance (CTRSA), formed in 2020, is consolidating state-based crash statistics to get a national snapshot of accidents involving caravans. The Alliance says offering caravanners a discount on their insurance premium is a good way to encourage drivers to upskill, rather than making courses mandatory.

“We are seeing a whole new set of caravanners and campers who may never have towed or need a refresher,” said Stuart Lamont, CEO of the Caravan Industry Association of Australia and CTRSA founder. 

“For those nervous towers, we would expect that they would voluntarily opt for a towing course to be conducted, and this is something the Road Safety Alliance will certainly be promoting.”

A few weeks after we bought our first caravan, a 6.7m (22ft) Franklin Razor, I read an account of a family who came to grief on the Stuart Highway. The driver was overtaking a road train in windy conditions when the caravan started to sway, hit the side of the truck and rolled, taking the tow vehicle with it. It’s a terrifying scenario that my husband and I, as first-time 'vanners, are desperate to avoid as we embark on a half-lap of Australia with our three young kids.

Two days before we set off, we undertook an accredited Tow-Ed Drive and Manoeuvre Trailers towing course. For me, it was the first time I had towed anything, let alone a 9m (29ft 6in) trailer that tips the scales at 2.8t (tare).

DOING OUR HOMEWORK

A few weeks before our course, we were sent a 136-page towing manual that became our bible in the months ahead. The Australian Practical Guide to Towing is a comprehensive booklet that covers everything from towing laws and weights, to reverse parking and fuel economy. 

There are also 12 training videos to watch and a 22-question test to complete ahead of the course.

TRAINING DAY

My palms were sweating as we negotiated peak-hour traffic on Melbourne’s Eastern Freeway to join our full-day course at Cranbourne Racetrack. 

We pulled in to the deserted carpark, witches’ hats positioned on the bitumen, and met our instructor, Chris Pearce. He’s an affable ex-mechanic and keen caravanner, who spent 13 years driving tourist coaches around Australia. Best of all, we had him all to ourselves after another student pulled out at the last minute (courses typically cater to two or three vans).

GETTING STARTED

The heavens opened and I was relieved the first session of the day is theory. We huddled around the table in our caravan as rain splattered the windows, and Chris took us through the answers to our questionnaires. 

This segued into a conversation about safe braking distances, overtaking and — gulp — being passed by heavy vehicles on the highway. Chris’s key tip: maintain speed and keep as far to the left as possible to avoid being drawn into the side of the truck, which is ‘bulldozing the air’ as it passes. 

CHECKING IT’S LEGAL

With that nugget of advice, we stepped outside, umbrellas aloft, to inspect our vehicle and caravan compliance plates to make sure our rig is within the law. 

We spent many hours crunching the numbers and understanding the weight acronyms and arithmetic and knew that we were comfortably within our limits. But this is where some caravanners become unstuck. 

“Occasionally people arrive and are towing illegally,” Chris said, relaying the story of one driver whose gross combination mass (GCM) was OK, but their towball weight was well over the maximum that is set by the vehicle manufacturer. 

We have a Ford Ranger Wildtrak towing a Franklin Razor with an aggregate trailer mass (ATM) of 3.5t. After a suspension upgrade, we have an increased GCM of 6.6t. At a recent weigh, with the van fully stocked for a week-long trip, we weighed in with about 700kg to spare.

HITCHING UP

Much of caravan safety begins before you even hitch up, and it was a couple of hours before I actually get behind the wheel. 

Chris was about to take us through the procedure for uncoupling and hitching when my husband, Haydn, made a rookie error — stepping over the draw bar to access the tunnel boot on the driver’s side. 

“First rule, never do that,” Chris cautions. 

“Not unless you want to cut your trip short with a busted leg.” 

Noted.

Unhitching is a methodical process, and best performed by working from the towball back to the drawbar (hitching works in reverse). The golden rule, however, is to always uncouple the chains last — because then if the caravan starts rolling, it won’t break away and plough into your neighbour’s shiny new RV on the other side of the caravan park. 

We also learnt not to jiggle a stubborn 12-pin plug side to side in order to remove it from its coupling, as this can risk damaging the pins. 

“That’s the difference between a light working and not working. I have seen people in caravan parks dismantling vans to try and fix it,” Chris said. 

And never put electrical plugs in a plastic bag, where they might be exposed to moisture. “Corrosion is the enemy of electrical connections,” he warned.

STRAIGHT-LINE REVERSING

With that sage advice and a few new setup hacks in our caravanning arsenal, it was time to get behind the wheel. 

Our car and caravan are in perfect alignment and Chris instructed me to slowly reverse in a straight line. It sounds easy, but this is when I first discovered the caravan has a mind of its own as it pivoted ever so slightly on its axle. The deviation was marginal but increased the further I reverse. 

Chris instructed me to watch the rear of the van in the towing mirrors as I gently squeeze the accelerator. If the side clearance light on the driver’s side rear corner came into sharper focus, I know I’m drifting off course. I was instructed to make subtle adjustments by turning the steering wheel slightly towards the drifting side, pausing 

for the caravan to respond so that I didn’t over-correct. 

The passenger side is trickier because my vision is obscured by the awning arms. Chris attached a strip of orange tape on the back arm, which acted as a beacon, signalling when the caravan pivoted towards the passenger side, so I could immediately correct my steering. 

Meanwhile, Haydn and Chris were at the rear driver’s side directing me. No ‘left’ or ‘right’ instructions were allowed, as they only confuse the process — turning the steering wheel left, will have the reverse impact on the caravan, causing it to pivot to the right. 

Instead, we were given simple ‘push’ or ‘pull’ commands — these instructions clearly translate to both the driver and the person giving directions. Standing at the rear driver’s side of the caravan, Haydn was told to imagine his hand is on the side of the van. If the caravan drifts too close to him, his command is to ‘push’ as he wants to ‘push’ the van away. If the van drifts too far away from him, the command is ‘pull’ because he was to pull the caravan closer. 

Conversely, as the driver I had to imagine Haydn had his hand on the top of my steering wheel. If he gave the command ‘push’, I turned the steering wheel towards him, as though I was ‘pushing’ him out of the driver’s side window. If the command was ‘pull’, I turned the steering wheel away as though I was trying to ‘pull’ him inside the car. 

This shorthand set of commands makes sure we are both on the same page with our orientation, instructions and response.

REVERSE PARKING

The straight-line reversing exercise has given us a clear and logical toolkit of commands and ‘stop/keep coming’ hand signals that, in theory, should enable us to confidently reverse our van as a team (Tow-Ed encourages couples to do the course together). The ultimate test was right angle reverse parking, the dreaded trigger of many a caravan park barney. 

“This is what we call the relationship saver,” Chris quipped. “If a couple can successfully reverse a van together, their relationship will last forever.”

Tow-Ed has a scientific formula for executing the perfect reverse park. It’s a trademark manoeuvre, so I can’t divulge too many details, but let’s just say it involves identifying the jack-knife points on your caravan, stepping out the entrance to the caravan site, and a whole lot of geometry and tape. When I attempted my first reverse park using this method, I felt like a kitten with its whiskers clipped. I had no visual comprehension of exactly where the van is going, but the maths — coupled with vigorous voice commands — worked. 

TURNING AND BRAKE CONTROL

The day concluded with a ‘slalom’ finale. We practised weaving in between witches’ hats, turning the steering wheel when they align with the Ranger’s rear tyres to maintain a wide turning arc. Next, Chris jumped into the car and explained the electronic brake control dial for the caravan brakes. This little knob could save our lives. We have a REDARC system, and I learnt that 3.5 is the sweet spot on the open road, while pressing and holding the button will apply the caravan brakes in an emergency.

THE UPSHOT

A towing course is no substitute for on-the-road experience. It’s expensive ($650 per couple) but is a crucial investment, in my opinion. There are many things about towing — how the caravan handles in different weather and road conditions for starters — that can only be learnt through hours behind the wheel. However, a course has given me confidence to share the driving, know the basic mechanics of how a caravan behaves, and how to respond should a road train come thundering past. 

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Catherine Best