Go-to-guide to towing

CW Staff — 1 July 2019
Tip to tow

For the majority of folk who spend most of their time behind the wheel with nothing on the hitch, towing can be a daunting task. As with all things, a bit of practice goes a long way and if you plan to drive a fair distance then you'll be getting plenty of practice on the road. 

But before you set off on a big trip, it's worth getting comfortable having your home away from home shackled to the back of your ride, as well as a good understanding of the nuts and bolts of towing. 


Sticking well within your vehicle’s towing capacity will not only make driving easier, it'll keep you on the right side of the law, as staying within manufacturer-specified weight limits is a legal requirement. 

Your tow vehicle is crucial in determining the caravan you can haul. In the vehicle's manual, you'll find two weights that indicate its maximum towing capacity; braked and unbraked.

Braked refers to how much a vehicle can tow when trailer brakes are in use. This is most likely to be relevant to caravans. Unbraked is legally restricted to 750kg, which is well under the average weight of a caravan. 

The third figure to take into consideration is the coupling download amount. This specifies the amount of downward force that can be exerted on a vehicle's towball. You may have heard that this will be 10 per cent of the overall towing capacity, but that's not always true. In particular, European cars can have a much lower download limit. 

Axle capacities are also necessary considerations, particularly the rear. It's not all that common for caravanners to exceed their rear axle limit, although with the combined weight of a load packed into the vehicle and the force of the caravan coupling pushing downward — it's possible.  

Finally, there's the gross combination mass (GCM). This is how much the entire rig weighs; vehicle, van and payload. The simplest GCM will be kerbside weight plus maximum payload and tow capacity, but once more this isn't a universal rule so make sure you know what yours is. 

Either inside the door jamb or fixed directly to the towbar you'll find a placard showing the maximum weight of the bar itself. These are generally the same as the vehicle tow weight, but not always, so it's best to double check. 

Similarly with tow balls and couplings, most are rated up to 3500kg but you should always double check. 

The weight of your caravan comes in four flavours, which can generally be found on a placard in the front boot, on the A-frame or in the door well: Aggregate Trailer Mass (ATM), Gross Trailer Mass (GTM), Tare weight and towball maximum. 

The ATM is the most your caravan can weigh. It includes the van itself, and everything in and on it. It is the combined total of the downward force exerted by the wheels and jockey wheel. GTM is the maximum weight that the wheels can collectively impose on the ground. 

In other words, it's equal to the ATM minus the coupling download weight. The Tare weight is the weight of the caravan as it leaves the factory. That means the tanks are dry and there are no dealer-fitted extras. Subtracting the Tare from the ATM will give you the van's maximum payload weight (be aware that dealer fittings such as awnings and air-conditioners, as well as tank loads, eat into payload rates considerably. Don't forget to include them into calculations when loading up.

Towball weight or hitch weight is listed on the compliance plate of modern vans, but for older vans it can be calculated by subtracting GTM from ATM. 

If you're ever in doubt, the best way to check how much your rig weighs is to load it up to full trip weight and head to the nearest public weighbridge. When it comes to safety and legality, it's better to check and have your suspicions confirmed than to be proven wrong the hard way. 


If you have an offroad vehicle and trailer, then you're free to test the limits. If not, stick to the blacktop. Highway touring will offer up fewer corrugations and less difficult terrain that your van may not be built to handle (and no one wants to be stuck in the middle of nowhere unprepared).

Different setups are suited to tow in different conditions. Be aware of what you've got and stick to the appropriate areas. 


Before setting off over the horizon, get a little practice closer to home. Try reversing into your driveway before you try backing up beside a creek, taking everything in small, easy steps. Accelerate gently, negotiate some gentle inclines, and perhaps drive down a windy street a few times. Be attentive to the difference in acceleration, cornering, braking, stopping and overtaking.


Make sure you know how tall your van is, including anything on the roof such as an aircon unit, solar panels and luggage racks. You'll quickly realise your van is taller than the 2.9m bridge when you hear your panels being swept off your roof and crashing on the asphalt behind you. Similarly, get used to the width of your van. You may not be able to squeeze through the gaps you think you can — another lesson you don't want to learn the hard way. 


If you have a steep uphill start, let your rig roll back a bit, steering so that your tow vehicle and caravan end up at a slight angle to one another. When you drive forward from this position your vehicle will simply be straightening out the van, rather pulling the full weight up an incline from a stationary start, saving both fuel and wear and tear on your clutch. 


No matter how snazzy the electric brakes on your caravan may be, braking with an additional weight on the hitch will inevitably require a greater distance. Leave plenty of room, ease off the accelerator and gently apply the brakes. Practice this also before you head off to acclimatise to all manner of traffic conditions.


Change down gears when you're heading downhill to take pressure off your brakes. If you don't do this you'll be putting them under extreme stress, risking overheating and potentially even brake failure on long descents. It’s also a great idea to have these checked by your mechanic before you set off to ensure they are in great working order.


Always take a wider line when turning to prevent your caravan from pivoting and cutting the corner. The distance between your coupling and the axles of the van will affect the point at which it pivots and will take a bit of getting used to with any unfamiliar rig. 


One of the most unpleasant and dangerous things your caravan can do when underway is to begin swaying. This can come as a result of improper loading, high winds or passing trucks. Some vans are equipped with high-tech anti-sway systems, but even with these you should do everything you can to prevent it from happening. 

Consider avoiding travel on windy days, driving along busy trucking roads at peak times and stop to reload your van if things start to wiggle.  


Ask 100 caravanners if they enjoy reversing their van and you’ll likely receive 100 negative responses. Put simply, reversing a big caravan is a tricky, delicate and often frustrating endeavour. However, it is still one of the safest elements of towing, so don’t let it become your sole focus.

Point the van in the direction you want it to go and then finesse the controls so that your vehicle essentially follows the caravan in the same direction. When looking back, turn your steering wheel towards the back end to make the caravan go in the opposite direction (this may never feel natural). Maintain a manageable angle between the two until you can bring the tow vehicle in line with the caravan and then straighten the wheels. 

And that’s just the simple explanation. In reality you’ll be jumping in and out of the driver’s seat while a guide outside yells directions and you curse under your breath that the stupid thing won’t do what you’re telling it to. Ultimately, the best thing to do is to practice, preferably when there aren’t too many hard-to-see obstacles around (or smug onlookers).


If you can, use your radio to contact the vehicle you wish to overtake so they know what’s going on; they may also be able to see further ahead to alert you of any oncoming vehicles. Give yourself a bigger safety margin than you would if you weren’t towing and be sure to leave plenty of space between yourself, the vehicle you’ve overtaken and any vehicles in front when you rejoin the stream of traffic. 


As you get closer to major cities, the chances of encountering a toll road increase. Australian toll roads are all electronic these days, allowing you to buy passes online before you travel — or up to 72 hours after. All toll roads in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne are now managed by the same company, Linkt, so you are only required to create a single account to travel on any of its roads. 

The cost of the trip depends on the vehicle you're driving and the van you're towing. 

It's important to note that as well as adding your tow vehicle to your Linkt account you must also give the details of your caravan as an additional vehicle.


towing tips hema safety