Articles about safe towing soak up a lot of real estate within the pages of magazines such as Caravan World and Camper, and rightly so.
Not everyone who enjoys the caravanning lifestyle — or who wants to join its ever-swelling ranks — has towed even a small box trailer behind a standard suburban car before, let alone a large ‘box’ behind a heavyweight 4WD.
Understanding the rules around RV weights and available safety accessories is part of it, but the most important factor in towing safely is you.
“When you are towing an RV, and particularly at highway speeds, you need to be a better driver,” says John Eggenhuizen, owner of one of Australia’s leading towing schools, Tow-Ed.
“It is just that simple.”
Driver behaviour is more often than not the difference between safe travels and tragedy on the road, so it is imperative RV owners take the time to understand the rules and practice their craft.
Here, Eggenhuizen outlines his five golden rules of towing.
1. WATCH YOUR WEIGHT
No, this is not a dig at post-isolation bodies, but a well-worn warning to make sure you pack your RV correctly before you even turn the key. This is vital stuff, says Eggenhuizen. A van with uneven weights (think food, clothing, accessories and a few cases of shiraz for Happy Hour) can become dangerous — and fast.
His advice is to keep the majority of the weight down low and centred above or slightly forward of the axles, especially for heavier items. Put lighter items in overhead cupboards and avoid putting too much weight forward and too much weight toward the back to avoid what he calls a “yaw inertia”. This can lead to sway and, in severe cases, rollovers.
“Imagine you had 300kg of weight in the RV,” he says. “If you put that around the middle of the axles the caravan is allowed to move around that weight and it doesn’t build up any inertia, any momentum.
“But if you put 150kg at the front and 150kg at the back thinking that you are spreading the weight out, what you have created is a large pendulum.”
You can’t change the location of external storage bins but adhere to the manufacturer’s requirements — don’t jam in 50kg of stuff when it is designed for 30kg as you can adversely affect the towball weight. He also recommends travelling with full water tanks to lower the van’s centre of gravity, and visit a weighbridge with your van in trip-ready mode to triple check it isn’t over its legal limits.
Accessories such as weight distribution hitches are fast becoming a must-have item in an owner’s safety arsenal. (For more information on these, see Malcolm Street’s feature starting pp 170.)
2. EASY ON THE PEDAL, TIGER
Obviously, you need to keep within the speed limits, but there are also golden principles for understanding your RV’s towing behaviour as well as the dangers of travelling too slowly.
First, check your tow vehicle’s handbook to see if there is a legal towing speed when hooked up. Even if there is no such restriction, Eggenhuizen says it is not always advisable to tow to the legal speed limit, particularly on highways. He suggests 80km/h is a common speed but at 90km/h you can flow with the traffic and not impede faster vehicles.
Having done fuel consumption tests during Tow-Ed’s industry RV safari events, he says 90km/h is also the most economical for your fuel bill — travelling at 100km/h will use 15 per cent more fuel and 110km/h will use another 15 per cent.
But, he warns, every trailer and caravan will behave differently at different speeds, and it is imperative you understand your particular setup.
“Each trailer, no matter how well it is built, has its own harmonic,” he says.
“It may behave absolutely beautifully at 90, 95 or at 100km/h but at 105 or 110km/h it just develops a mind of its own and starts to run astray.”
Watch your trailer’s behaviour closely and adjust your speed accordingly. After all, what’s the rush?
Conversely, it’s not a good idea to travel too slowly, either. You may think you’re being ‘safer’ at lower speeds, when in fact you are creating a road hazard.
“All it does is that you become a mobile chicane and raises the anxiety levels of surrounding road users,” Eggenhuizen says.
“It would be difficult to say we cause accidents by travelling too slow but in reality that may be the case. Because the people behind you, once they get an opportunity to overtake they may take greater risk by trying to get around you than would be considered safe.”
Of course, you should lower your speeds over rough and narrow roads and in inclement weather conditions such as gusty winds, rain storms and foggy conditions.
3. DON’T GO OTT ON OVERTAKING
Eggenhuizen’s philosophy on overtaking other vehicles is simple — why do it if you don’t have to?
“The only time you would want to rush is if you happen to be missing out on Happy Hour,” he jokes. “But seriously, if you are within 5–10km/h of the vehicle you want to overtake, sit back, relax and remember why you are towing your caravan or camper — you are on holidays!”
His advice is to pull in to a rest stop and have a break to let those slightly slower vehicles get well ahead of you.
Of course there will be times when overtaking is necessary, so he offers some fairly strict ground rules. First, always maintain a five-second gap between you and the vehicle in front — if they put the brakes on quickly, you will have time to react. Safely overtaking means their speed is 20–30km/h slower than yours, which means you’ll be able to get around them quicker, overtake and pull back in with the minimal amount of time on the opposite side of the road.
Ensue there is a clear line of vision ahead with no oncoming traffic and no unexpected bends in the road. Pull out to the right and increase your speed to that which you are comfortable with (and within legal limits). Remember, your RV can behave very differently at even slight speed increments.
It can also move differently when passing vehicles, particularly trucks and other RVers, because of changing air pressure zones. These can create significant turbulence and cause your van to be sucked toward the other vehicle. Keep your distance by staying toward the right — this is much easier to do on a multi-lane road, but the same principle applies to single-lane roads, too.
“If you are overtaking a truck in a multi-lane situation, move over to the right-hand side of your lane and you will probably notice that the truck will move over to the left of their lane,” says Eggenhuizen.
“That creates a larger gap between the two vehicles so the dynamics of the air coming off the truck have less influence on your trailer.”
Once you have overtaken the vehicle, make sure it is completely clear before moving back across to the left lane — shooting over as soon as you pass won’t leave enough room and could cause an accident.
4. REVERSE PARK LIKE A PRO
The dreaded task of reverse parking into a tight campsite is the stuff of nightmares. It's not just the confusion about which way is left and right, but the crowd of bemused Happy Hour partakers critiquing every move, and the pressure of not running into the amenities block or knocking over a neighbour’s camp chair.
The first thing to do in these situations is to relax, as hard as it might seem.
“It is immensely stressful,” says Eggenhuizen. “The first thing we tell our students is to take a deep breath and slow down.
“Reversing has two main parts to it — there’s confidence and then there's competence. As you become more confident, the more competent you become, and as you become more competent, the more confident you are.”
Practicing your reverse parking with your travel buddy at home (and well before said Happy Hour judges call your number at the caravan park to compete in the Reversing Olympics) will boost your confidence too. Try a combination of open spaces and narrower ones and get used to your extended mirrors. Undertaking a course with a school such as Tow-Ed will also leave you better equipped.
The best reverse parking is done as a team, so always have someone at the back of the van or camper to guide you — leave the window down to hear their directions or be on speaker phone. Line yourself up as straight as you can (roads and other campers permitting) and make small movements both with the wheel and the accelerator to avoid oversteering and misalignment.
Reversing an RV will test your natural instincts as it will perennially behave differently to what you think it should. Much confusion centres around the words ‘left’ and ‘right’. Eggenhuizen and the Tow-Ed team have developed the ‘push and pull’ method for drivers and their guides.
Imagine you are standing at the driver’s side rear corner of the RV and you want to physically move it to the passenger’s side, you would ‘push’ it. To move it toward the driver’s side, you’d ‘pull’ it. This corresponds to steering wheel movements — pulling the trailer means moving the wheel to the passenger side (the left) and pushing it means moving it to the driver’s side (the right).
“Using the push-pull simplifies things,” says Eggenhuizen. “If somebody is guiding you and they are facing the trailer and you are facing the front of the car while you are driving, whose left are you talking about and whose right?”
Speed is definitely a factor here, too. Take your time, move slowly and your heart rate will thank you for it.
“We have seen people who go at it like a bull at a gate and then they bugger it up and come back and have another go,” says Eggenhuizen. “They are wasting time by rushing, and also raising their stress levels beyond what is conducive to good communication with your partner — that is, you start yelling at each other.”
5. CONSIDERATE DRIVING
You don’t travel in a bubble when towing — there are other road users and pedestrians who need you to pay attention to them. Being considerate is not only about being safe, but polite, and we all benefit from calm and thoughtful driver behaviour.
On highways or main roads, Eggenhuizen says you need to be aware if you have a conga line of traffic behind you. There may not have been an overtaking lane for some time, so it’s a good idea to find a spot where you can pull over safely and let them pass.
“Try to plan a spot — perhaps there is a rest area ahead or something that is easily pulled into that you can see from a distance," he advises.
"Then you give plenty of notice to the people behind you that you are going to do it, and you are not diving off the road and putting yourself, the car and the van at risk."
If you are travelling in convoy with other RVers, make it common practice to be 10 seconds apart. This will allow you enough space to brake safely if an incident occurs ahead, but also for other vehicles to overtake you one at a time instead of being forced to try to overtake two or more — a risky manoeuvre on the open road.
You can also be a considerate vanner when driving through small towns with narrower streets, busy pedestrian areas and limited parking options. When travelling down main streets, Eggenhuizen suggests driving close to the centre line to minimise the chance of collisions with opening car doors, tailgates or distracted pedestrians ducking out between cars. And be aware of the size of your rig.
“Because the van is generally wider than the car, if someone opens their door you may miss them with the car, but you may hit them with the van,” he says. “Driving through town is one of those areas where you definitely need to raise your level of awareness and hazard perception.”
While many towns offer oversized parking bays designed for RVs, these can often be full or simply not accessible. In this instance, it's best to drive a bit further away from the action to park.
“I don’t know many people who can reverse parallel park your caravan,” he laughs. “That is a skill that most people don’t even want to try out. It doesn’t hurt to walk that extra 100m back to your car and van or camper
“Parking out of the way is one of those considerate things.”