Guide to smarter towing

Lloyd Junor — 21 June 2011

WHILE TAKING THE car or 4WD for a spin doesn’t usually involve much anxiety, doing it when you’re towing a trailer or caravan creates a degree of angst for some drivers – especially if it involves driving in a built-up area. It’s also common for drivers who need to navigate many turns or park in tight places to feel uncomfortable about towing. However, there are a few things that, if done correctly at the outset, help drivers develop confidence and become more adept at managing their rig, whatever size or shape it may be.


Drivers who feel secure with their rig have an immediate advantage over those who don’t. To place yourself in the former category, a detailed check on the rig must be done before departure: make sure tyres are in good shape and correctly inflated; secure and lock all roof hatches, roof clips, internal cupboards and refrigerator; switch refrigerator to “battery” position; turn off gas cylinders and electric water pump; ensure all van and vehicle lights are operating properly; and securely attached 12V electrical plugs and sockets.

Make this equipment check a job for more than one person if you have a travel partner – two sets of eyes are better than one.

Beyond these daily checks, you may feel more comfortable if you know that proper maintenance on wheel bearings and brakes has been done.


When out on the highway, don’t feel you must drive your rig at the posted speed limit. After all, the posted signs state the limit of speed that’s allowed, not what’s prescribed for travel. Many caravanners find that their rig has a ‘sweet’ speed where the car and van seem to be happiest. It’s often in the 80-90km/h range. Coincidentally, this speed might be the one at which the driver also feels happiest.

Do not press the accelerator far enough to take you out of your safety zone; the speed at which you drive should be within your capabilities. Taking any one of the three vital elements –driver, car, caravan – outside of their comfort zone is unwise, dangerous, and will only increase anxiety and in turn create more problems.


It’s common sense to know as much as possible about what is in your immediate driving vicinity. The first pieces of equipment that will help are good side-view mirrors. The law in all states requires a clear view of following vehicles behind the caravan or trailer. For this reason it’s usually necessary to have extended side-mirrors (see pic 02) on a tow vehicle to give a clear view of what’s behind the caravan or trailer.

Extended mirrors can reach out as far as 230mm when towing, but when not towing the extension limit beyond the car body is 150mm. If you are following a caravan and cannot see the tow vehicle’s mirrors, that driver is operating illegally. Multi-mirrors are the best choice if they can be used on your vehicle.

People who travel often find it handy to have a UHF CB radio that scans across several channels. The CB can flip quickly between the truck channel (40), caravan channel (11), and any other channel of interest. The radio will often provide useful information passing between truckies about road problems, and the same for caravanners.

On isolated roads I usually speak with the truckies I see, ahead or behind me, to make sure that they know I’m there and assure them I will leave plenty of passing room. Sometimes we can have a longer chat that is beneficial for both of us.

Unlike mobile phones, CB radios can be used while driving. Of course, it can be safer for the passenger to use the CB at times, minimising the risk of microphone wires tangling in the steering wheel.

In recent few years, affordable prices and greater reliability of in-car navigation units have made them a sensible addition for the traveller. Their spoken instructions are superior to stopping every couple of kilometres to check a map. Various models also offer prompts, such as school crossing zones, steep hills, local speed limit alerts, underpasses and the like.

If you have all these pieces of information coming to you when you’re towing, they should help you feel more confident about how to act, even in tight spaces or dense traffic.


The ideas already mentioned help build a positive attitude for the person behind the wheel.

Drivers who are unsure, worried, or nervous about their speed tend to wear themselves out quickly, and the tension can result in poor decisions, as well as fatigue.

I’m all for setting off with a group of drivers who have decided they will have a good time, and who will be interested in where they are going and what they will see.

What I am not keen on, however, is travelling with anyone who is tense, troubled that something will go wrong. It’s amazing how often these attitudes can be self-fulfilling.

Being familiar with the rules of the road and how to manage a rig, especially anything that may apply to the caravanner or motorhomer, is naturally a good thing. Here are a few rules and tips that will help the person behind the wheel.


On semi-trailers and other lengthy vehicles you will have seen signs reading “Do not overtake turning vehicle”. Caravanners with a total vehicle combination length in excess of 7.5m are also legally entitled to use such a sign.

These turning rules provide the driver with protection against drivers cutting inside while the long vehicle occupies a lane opposite the direction they are turning.

The left-turn driver is permitted to go into the right lane (referring to a multi-lane divided road) to enable the turn. A long vehicle turning right can occupy the adjacent left lane (or part thereof) to enable the turn.

This provision only applies to rigs in excess of 7.5m long, which meet specific rules for design and construction, and have an approved sign secured in the prescribed location at the rear of the rig. Drivers behind a vehicle displaying the sign are obliged to wait when the vehicle indicates that it will turn, even though it appears to be in the wrong lane.


A common necessity for any driver is making a 90° left-hand turn.

Care needs to be taken with regards to the inside, or nearside, of the caravan, because it will take a shorter path than the tow vehicle. For this reason, the driver must drive a little further forward than would be the case without the caravan attached, and make the turn later to ensure the van’s nearside does not mount the pathway or hit any objects, such as a traffic light.

In the case of caravans or trailers with the wheels set well aft, the corner-cutting will be greater, so there is an additional need to go further into the intersection before turning left. In fact, you may need to move partly or completely into the right lane for adequate room. That’s where the “Do not overtake turning vehicle” sign on the rear of the rig is useful – it allows the driver to legally move across to the adjacent lane in order to make the turn.

When considering how much the inside sweep of the caravan differs from that taken by the tow vehicle, there are many factors involved, but experience will soon tell. Having the rear vision multi-mirror attached is a great asset when making turns because with the lower panoramic mirror you will be able to see where the side of the van and the wheels of the caravan are, and take corrective action if necessary.


Most caravanners are aware of the shorter inside sweep of a turning van, but drivers occasionally get into strife because they are unaware of the outside sweep.

Given the rear of the caravan or motorhome projects behind the axle assembly, it protrudes during its turning arc. The projection is greater for a tight turn, possibly causing the rear of the vehicle to impact an object not seen in the rearview mirrors.

Looking at the diagram (see pic 03) showing where the tail of the caravan will be during a turn, it is easy to see how important it may be to have an outside observer when turning a lengthy vehicle. The greater the distance from the back axle to the back of the vehicle, the greater the projection and sweep at the rear.


The increased weight of a caravan will change the behaviour of the tow vehicle. It will be comparatively sluggish in acceleration, handle differently when cornering, steering responsiveness may alter, and it will need a greater distance to come to rest from speed.

On its own, the tow vehicle should be around five seconds or more away from any vehicle in front to allow adequate stopping space. But that will not be enough if the front vehicle does an emergency stop. When you add a trailer or caravan, the required space will increase dramatically, especially in the case of older units with over-ride brake systems. What’s more, if there is moisture on the road surface and the tyres are worn, etc., braking efficiency will suffer and the required distance to stop will blow out significantly.

When a car doubles its speed under good conditions (without a caravan attached) the braking distance increases fourfold. It’s much worse with an over-ride brakes-equipped caravan or trailer, especially on a wet surface, where such brakes have little effect. The recommendation is to keep a very safe distance between your vehicle and the one ahead of you – anticipate trouble rather than getting into it.


Electrically-energised brakes are the most popular type found on light-weight trailers and caravans. They are activated by the brake controller fitted within the driver’s reach.

Although controllers vary in their design and performance, the general idea is that they send power to the electric brakes on the trailing vehicle when the brake pedal is pressed. Most have a degree of adjustment in the strength of braking power they exert. Older caravans required the wheels of only one axle to be braked, while on modern vans all wheels are braked, which means they stop better.

To assess the right amount of braking suited to your trailer or caravan, find a secluded stretch of open bitumen and, driving straight, apply the brakes with differing firmness until you judge what is best. All controllers have a hand-operated mechanism for applying the van brakes without applying the car brakes.

Some driving instructors suggest that if a van begins to sway it is correctable by applying the brakes on the van only, straightening the rig from the rear because applying the car brakes may result in increasing the sway. I am not aware of any controlled tests that have been done to confirm this action, but it sounds feasible.


Sway is one of the most dangerous problems for anyone towing a caravan. It generally increases gradually until taking control of the entire rig, so it must be eliminated. Sway is less likely in vans that have their axle assembly more to the rear.

There are several possible causes for sway, and finding the cause is important so correct treatment can be applied.

The van may be poorly loaded (see pic 04), with internal weight too far forward or too far to the rear (i.e., too little or too much ball weight), or it may be too heavy and should not be hauled by a vehicle with a low towing capacity.

Or, a van’s towbar might extend a long way behind the rear wheels, which is a difficult problem to correct. The best setup is one where the tow vehicle has the towball near the rear axle, meaning minimal overhang.

Or, the weight distribution hitch may have been over-adjusted so not enough weight is on the tow vehicle’s rear axle assembly.

Or, there might be a problem with either the tow vehicle’s or caravan’s suspension (e.g. a broken centre bolt allowing an axle to change direction).

If re-packing to get a more suitable payload distribution doesn’t work, call in a professional caravan advisor or repairer.


With an additional 1500kg (or more) to accelerate, the performance of your tow vehicle cannot be as brisk as when uncoupled, and you must keep this in mind when considering overtaking.

Petrol-powered vehicles may not be affected quite as much as diesels, mainly because petrol engines can rev to a higher level to harness more power and speed. But with governors controlling top engine revs on diesels, the response time to get up and go will be noticeably longer, which means overtaking becomes a planned action instead of a spur-of-the-moment thing.

Some options are to take advantage of downhill slopes to gather speed, speak to the vehicle in front using your CB, or even stop and refuel rather than become frustrated sitting behind a slow vehicle. Another is to drop and then build up speed in anticipation of passing.


If you have ever travelled behind a larger vehicle, you may have been stunned to find that when you pulled out to pass the strength of the headwind stopped you, forcing you to fall back behind. Hopefully nobody crept up behind when you pulled out to pass, leaving you in the uncomfortable position of being on the right-hand side of the white line.

Endeavouring to maintain a highway speed into a headwind will strain your rig and your wallet. In tests I have done over the years with my own rigs – petrol, diesel and autogas – I have been struck by the difference in fuel consumption once I have exceeded 90km/h under normal towing conditions. For whatever reason, that speed has been a watershed in all my vehicles with a variety of caravans behind.

As driving into a headwind will create an even heavier load for the tow vehicle, dropping the speed, even by 5km/h, may be worth considering, and not only to conserve fuel. Higher loads mean increased working temperatures for engines, cooling systems (especially the auto-transmission unit), gearboxes and differentials. If the weather also happens to be hot, it may overheat a car with its air-conditioner running, and tyres are more likely to overheat and fail. The driver should have some empathy with the equipment and ease off in hot weather and headwinds.


Many modern vehicles have up to six gears, plus overdrive, available for the driver to select. Unless you are using a truck to transport heavy loads, the primary design requirements for your sedan or light 4WD (under 4.5t) are to carry a passenger load or payload less than the weight of most caravans. Under these conditions, the use of overdrive means lower fuel consumption, less engine noise and lower revs, while maintaining acceptable performance. This is achieved by designing a gearbox where for each engine revolution delivered in, more than one revolution is transmitted out of it.

Gearing of this sort is entirely satisfactory for general purposes, but if it is working a heavy load then larger gears, bearings and housing – which means a heavier, bulkier gearbox – are essential.

This means smaller vehicles (under truck size) should not pull heavy loads for a long time while in overdrive. They will manage it for a time, but problems will eventually surface. If only light running is involved, it’s okay to employ overdrive. In any case, get advice from the manufacturer’s representatives or the owner’s handbook.

Towing in overdrive with a heavy load or into a headwind will usually result in increased fuel consumption. Using high (or whatever gear is below the overdrive position in a manual or automatic gearbox) will give better performance and economy.


There’s no doubt about it, hills can be hard work for the tow vehicle. The driver should recognise the load and act accordingly.

In a manual gearshift vehicle most drivers will realise they need to drop down one or two gears to maintain motion. It is better to select a lower gear and have the engine at medium revs than to have it in a higher gear and labouring at full throttle.

In an automatic shift it can be useful to select a lower setting on the T-bar rather than have the engine hunt between, say, 2nd and 3rd gears as it works to get to the top of the hill. Constant shifting between gears is not the best thing for an automatic over an extended period, especially in hot weather. Keep an eye on the temperature gauge, and if it appears to be rising due to a long climb, then back off a little so the engine isn’t working as hard.

Going downhill means arguing with a couple of tonnes of caravan trying to obey the laws of gravity. Limiting speed so the rig does not become uncontrollable involves using the engine of the tow vehicle as a slowing device in conjunction with the braking systems of the van. Before speed increases, select a lower gear (lock it in on automatics) at the start of the descent. If you have electric brakes, adjust the controller to a firmer braking setting. When the tachometer climbs towards higher revs, apply the brakes firmly for a few seconds to reduce speed. Release the brakes and continue this cycle until you reach the bottom of the hill.

Firm brief braking with intervals between will help ensure the brakes do not overheat, lose effectiveness and make control impossible. A good rule of thumb is to select the same gear to descend the slope as was required to climb it.


There is one rail underpass in Melbourne that has long been given a sustained hiding by motorhomers heading for the Tas ferry. There are all sorts of safety items dangling at the entry to the rail bridge, plus signs advising the clearance height. But every month it happens and the road has to be closed while a tall vehicle is jerked out from under the bridge.

Awareness of the height of your outfit is important. We have our clearance height taped above the speedo on the dashboard – an idea copied from truckies. In rural settings there are signs here and there, and being unsure of your height can result in an expensive repair. Don’t overlook aerials, either. In the days when 27mHz CBs were in vogue I had to point out to country boys heading for the city that their tall antennas were going to hit the electric tram lines!

Some caravan park and motel entries can be too low for certain rigs. Remember to factor in the roof rack. Look up, as well as sideways, rearward and forward.


Unless you are one of the few who “follow the radiator”, you will have some sort of plan about getting to a destination. Freeways and toll roads are the most direct and often the quickest way to get somewhere, although these days many major city freeways resemble car parks because they are so clogged. Where a freeway has been constructed the road it replaced is often still in use, and in good order. These forgotten roads can be scenic and enjoyable alternatives, often devoid of traffic.

Fruit fly zones exist across the entire continent, and it’s a good idea to know where they are so that you can stock your van accordingly. Instead of wasting fruit and vegetables, if you cook or otherwise process them they can safely be taken through quarantine checkpoints. Trying to avoid checkpoints is, pardon the pun, a fruitless exercise because every state has mobile checkpoints to cover back road cheats, and the fines involved are quite high.


Driving is a busy business. Your mind processes all kinds of information as you travel along, so it is reasonable to reward yourself every 90 minutes or so by taking a rest. Some state road authorities print free maps that indicate where rest stops are along major routes, which is handy information not found on road atlases.

However, you can stop at any point that looks safe and well clear of passing traffic to spend 15 or 20 minutes out of the driver’s seat, walking about and generally clearing your mind. Remember that DVTs (deep vein thromboses) are encouraged by sitting still for long periods, so it’s actually healthier to break your drive and have some exercise. A point to watch is that some roadside stops are marked for heavy vehicles – trucks and transporters. Don’t occupy them, except in an emergency.

Source: Caravan World Jan 2011


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Lloyd Junor