There’s nothing quiet like travelling with a caravan in tow. It’s the perfect combination of adventure, and comfort. Want to meander down backroads in the Kimberley? Sure! Need to know what’s over that ridge in outback NT? Not a problem. Want to climb into your bed every night after a hot shower, then kick back and watch a little TV? You betcha. But towing a 10 metre long trailer weighing 3500kg brings with it a few unique challenges compared to ducking down to the shops in your Suzuki Jimmy. Here’s a quick hit list of 10 easy-to-do towing tips that’ll ensure your caravan adventures go smoothly.
Technology is your friend
Yeah grumble grumble, but technology is saving our backsides every day. The current generation Ford Ranger not only has all the usual smart tech like trailer sway control, but also has clever blind spot monitoring that can be set to the length of your caravan. That means you’ll know your clear of that big rig you’re overtaking and won’t accidentally clip it merging back.
Where the weight is matters
How your van carries its weight is just as important as how much weight there actually is. Pretend you’ve got the lightest caravan in the world that weighs just 800kg. Sounds great right? Now imagine that entire 800kg is sitting on your towball. All of a sudden that ultralight caravan is going to overload your rear suspension giving you horrendous handling in the process. You want to aim for around 5-10% of your caravans total weight on the tow ball. It’ll give you a compliant and predictable tow, while not overloading the tow-tug too much. Don’t be afraid to shift water or storage items around to get you where you need to be.
Don’t drive down a track you can’t reverse out of
Turning around a caravan, or any trailer really, can be a hair raising experience. Sure, with enough space it’s a pretty simple affair. But if you find yourself a kilometre or two down a track that suddenly turns into a dead end there’s a fair chance you won’t have the space to do a u-turn. So what’s the solution? Being confident in your reversing skills is a head start, but knowing the nearest suitable spot to turn around is key. As you’re driving along, zero out the trip metre every time you see a decent turn around bay. It could be a wide section in the track, or even a driveway or fork in the road. If you do find yourself needing to reverse back your trip meter will tell you how far you’ve gotta go back.
Don’t drive like a truck, it’s the quickest way to drive your fellow road users up the wall. But do keep in mind that you’re occupying the same space as a truck and your caravan won’t follow exactly in your footprints. You’ll need to run wide on tight turns. Be vigilant for traffic lights or stop signs that may be close to the road on the inside of your turn. And be constantly aware of where your van’s wheels are, and how far back the overhang is swinging out. A safe rule is to run as wide as you can, then when your van’s wheels pass the apex of the corner swing it back in tight.
Know where your trailer brake controller is
The invention of electronic trailer brake controllers is possibly one of the best things to ever happen for caravaners. The ability to not only dial in how aggressive your trailer brakes bite, but also engage them independently of your tow tugs brakes is a literal life safer. Get your trailer brake controller out from under the steering column or whatever goofy place the auto electrician installed it and mount it within easy reach. If you’re travelling in steep country off-road, dialling in a little brake resistance on the trailer can help keep it in line (ensure you don’t cook the brakes obviously). But most importantly, if you get the dreaded trailer sway, applying the trailer brakes aggressively while leaving the tow tugs brakes alone will pull the caravan back into line almost immediately.
Check your tyres
Unless you’re off on a never ending big lap chances are your caravan’s tyres will need to be replaced due to damage or age, rather than tread wear. As a result, they’re simply not something most people pay much attention to unless they’re flat. By giving them a solid once over before every trip you’ll be able to identify cuts, nicks, or tears that could lead to a blow out situation at speed. You’ll also be able to check your tyre pressures ensuring you not only get the maximum life out of your tyres, but that you’re operating at safe pressures for the situation at hand. While you’re down there it’s a good idea to run an eye over your wheel nuts, suspension, and chassis to make sure it’s all looking as it should.
Don’t forget your tow-tugs suspension
You might ask little more of your tow tug than daily driver duties, and the occasional week or two on the road towing your caravan. But that doesn’t mean it’s up to the task at hand. Most modern mid-size wagons are comfortable and compliant tow-tugs, but their rear suspension simply can’t handle a 200-250kg tow ball weight and will quickly sag. Even if the vehicle itself is rated to handle the weight. If you’re towing more often than not stiffer springs and shock absorbers to suit could be the solution. If your needs are forever varying then a helper airbag setup will allow you to dial in your suspension to suit the task at hand. Overloaded rear suspension doesn’t just look goofy, it also drastically alters your front suspension geometry making for an unsafe towing condition.
Tow with the biggest rig you can
Don’t worry, we’re not suggesting you go and hitch your 2000kg to the back of a monster F350 here. We’re just saying that the bigger and more powerful the tow tug, the easier time you’ll have towing. If you’re eyeing off two mid-size wagons that are both capable of towing your van, the one with the longer wheelbase will typically be far more planted on the road. There’s a reason the dual cab Utes are all getting bigger, they simply give the driver an easier time behind the wheel meaning you’ll make it to your destination far less fatigued.
Don’t be afraid of a rest stop
There’s no gold medal waiting for you at the caravan park if you pull in 10 minutes ahead of schedule, so just relax. Fatigue is one of the biggest killers on our roads. You’ll react slower, miss obvious dangers, make more mistakes, and endanger not only the lives of other motorists on the road around you, but the people in your car you care about. If you see a rest stop pull over, grab a coffee if they’re available, and get there in one piece.
Go on a towing course
We’ve left this one to last, because frankly, it’s the biggest one that needs to stick. There’s an old fallacy that people rise to the occasion but we couldn’t disagree more. We believe people fall back to their training. If it’s a beating hot summers day, you’re buggered, and you’re trying to back into a tight spot while a crowd of busy bodies watch your stress levels will be through the roof. Sure, maybe you’ll remember that tip you read online once, but it’s far more likely you’ll drop back to the muscle memory that towing course gave you on how to reverse in tricky situations. You wouldn’t hesitate spending a few hundred on some gadget that’ll help you tow, so don’t be afraid to invest a few hundred in yourself for the same reason.