Special Feature: Safer Towing

Malcolm Street — 11 May 2010

Caravan World's field editor, Malcolm Street, shares with us his holistic approach to towing.


Let’s start with the most important item, ensuring your caravan/ fifth wheeler and tow vehicle are suitably matched. That means for the most part, making sure that the tow vehicle has the power and weight capability to tow your RV and everything stored within it. Weight capacity causes a lot of problems so make sure you do your research before purchasing a new tow vehicle or RV.

Manufacturers should for all tow vehicles sold in Australia state the maximum towing mass and maximum tow ball mass, that is, the maximum down load on the towbar. Check the vehicle’s handbook or the manufacturer’s website. The maximum tow ball mass is usually about 10 per cent of the maximum towing mass but that’s not always the case, particularly with European-built vehicles. This ratio is important as many RVs sold in Australia have a towball weight of about 10 per cent of their Tare (unladen weight).

With fifth wheelers, another figure you should know is the maximum Gross Combined Mass (GCM) that is the combined loaded weight of the tow vehicle and the fifth wheeler. Not all manufacturers provide this figure, but it can be calculated by adding the Gross Vehicle Mass (GVM) of the tow vehicle to the maximum towing mass.

If you have any doubt about the loaded weight of your RV, then a trip to a weigh bridge will be very informative and hopefully, reassuring.


First things first, ensure that the towbar is appropriately rated, as some tow vehicles have several models rated for different towing limits. All trailers with a Gross Trailer Mass (GTM) of over 750kg - that is, weight on axles - must have brakes of some sort fitted if they’re to be towed on Australian roads. If your RV is fitted with electric brakes (as most new models are) your towing vehicle must be fitted with an electric brake controller.

Towing mirrors must give a clear view down the trailer sides, and any modifications (e.g., auto transmission oil coolers) that the tow vehicle manufacturer recommends when towing should be adhered to. If towing a fifth wheeler, the fifth wheel hitch fitted to the tray of the tow vehicle should be in most cases a double pivot arrangement, not a single.


For stable driving, it’s recommended to get a towing rig as level as possible. Careful loading is one way to achieve this by keeping most of the weight over the axles and getting around 10 per cent of the loaded weight on the tow ball. With heavier caravans, a weight distribution hitch is certainly recommended – except if the towing vehicle manufacturer advises the contrary. Simply considered, a weight distribution hitch acts like a spring between the tow vehicle and caravan and shifts some of the tow ball weight from the tow vehicle’s rear wheels to the front wheels, thus giving more effective steering, braking, and if the tow vehicle has front wheel drive, better traction.

Although fitting something like airbag suspension to the rear axle has the apparent effect of levelling the towing combination, the towing weight remains on the rear wheels. The only exception to this is when towing fifth wheelers. Given the hitch is mounted above and (preferably) just in front of the rear axle, a weight distribution hitch has no effect nor can be fitted. Airbags work quite well though, especially for passenger comfort.


Have a check list for both setting off and during travel. You can create your own but here’s a suggestion.


  • Secure the coupling and fasten the safety chains
  • Connect the trailer electrics and check that all road lights work
  • Unhook the hand brake
  • Raise the stabilisers
  • Inflate the tyres to the recommended psi
  • Close and lock all hatches, windows and all doors (including fridge)
  • Turn of the gas cylinder(s)
  • Disconnect and pack away the mains power lead
  • Lower the TV antenna
  • Lock the awning into position
  • Secure all loose items

During travel (i.e., on rest breaks)

  • Secure the couplings and chains
  • Check that brakes and bearings aren’t overheated. Do this safely by carefully placing your hand near wheel hubs (and brake drums if safe to do so) – the smell of burnt rubber is often a clue that something's amiss
  • Check the tyres
  • Ensure all lights are working
  • Awning and similar items still secure


Towing a large trailer requires more concentration, skill and knowledge than driving a normal passenger vehicle. Allowance has to be made for the extra length and width of the towing combination. For the most part, accelerating, braking and steering are done smoothly and not in an abrupt fashion, to avoid trailer sway or jack knifing – a particular hazard with fifth wheelers.

It might seem obvious but stay aware of traffic both in front and behind: taking appropriate action is, apart from anything else, good road manners. What I mean by that is keep a safe braking distance from vehicles in front of you (at least 60m) and giving traffic behind a safe opportunity to pass. Remember that semi trailers and B-doubles need even more space and time. When reversing, it’s always good practice to have an observer behind the van, who can keep an eye on things. Keep alert by taking plenty of rest breaks and enjoying the sights along the way.

WORDS Malcolm Street


Safe towing Malcolm Street Tech & Towing towing