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Towing a Caravan: Everything You Need to Know Before Hitting the Road

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Towing a Caravan: Everything You Need to Know Before Hitting the Road

Section 1: Understanding Your Vehicle's Towing Capacity

Before you set off on your caravan adventure, it’s crucial to ensure that your vehicle is capable of safely towing the weight of your caravan. Familiarise yourself with the manufacturer’s guidelines regarding towing capacity, tongue weight, and load distribution. Exceeding these limits can compromise the safety of your journey, vehicle performance, and even void your warranty and insurance.

Towing Weight Calculator

Section 2: Performing Pre-Trips Checks

Regularly inspecting your caravan and vehicle before every journey is essential for a smooth and safe trip. Take the time to check the tyres, brakes, lights, wheel bearings, suspension, and coupling to ensure they are in proper working condition. Additionally, verify that the weight distribution and load within the caravan are well-balanced to maintain stability on the road.

Section 3: Master Turning and Reversing

Towing a caravan can be challenging, especially when it comes to maneuvering and reversing. To avoid any mishaps, it’s advisable to practice these skills in an open space before hitting the road. This will help you develop a better understanding of how your vehicle and caravan respond to different steering inputs, making it easier to navigate tight spots and parking areas.

Section 4: Drive Smooth and Maintain Safe Speeds

When towing a caravan, driving smoothly and maintaining a safe and steady speed is crucial. Sudden acceleration, braking, and sharp turns can increase the risk of swaying or jackknifing. To minimize these risks, drive with caution and be mindful of your speed. Remember, it’s better to take your time and arrive safely at your destination than to rush and compromise your safety.

Setion 5: Maintain Safe Distances

Towing a caravan adds extra weight to your vehicle, which affects your braking distance. It’s important to increase the following distance between your vehicle and the one ahead to account for the added weight and potential longer braking distances. This will give you more time to react and stop safely, reducing the risk of accidents.

Section 6: Wind Conditions

Strong crosswinds can impact the stability of your caravan on the road. Pay close attention to weather forecasts and take precautions when traveling in windy conditions. Reduce your speed and grip the steering wheel firmly to maintain control of your vehicle and caravan. By being aware of wind conditions, you can ensure a safer and more comfortable journey.

Section 7: Rest Breaks

Long drives can be tiring, so it’s important to schedule regular breaks to rest and rejuvenate. Fatigue can impair your driving abilities and decision-making skills, increasing the risk of accidents. Make sure to plan your journey with sufficient rest stops, allowing yourself time to stretch your legs, have a snack, and recharge before continuing your adventure.

Section 8: Plan in Advance

In Australia, popular campgrounds can fill up quickly, especially during peak seasons. To avoid disappointment and unnecessary stress, it’s advisable to plan your route in advance and make reservations at your desired campsites. By doing so, you can ensure a hassle-free experience when you reach your destinations, allowing you to relax and enjoy your time in nature.

No entry sign - plan in advance to avoid accommodation disapointment

Section 9: Weight Distribution Hitches

Invest in a weight distribution hitch, it’s a valuable gadget to have when towing a caravan. This device helps distribute the weight evenly between your vehicle and the caravan, improving stability and control on the road. It also reduces the likelihood of trailer sway, which can be dangerous. If necessary, have your vehicle and caravan weighed to determine if a weight distribution hitch is required. By investing in this essential equipment, you can enhance the safety and performance of your towing experience.

Section 10: Extended Mirrors

Visibility is crucial when towing a wide caravan. Invest in extended towing mirrors that provide a clear view of the rear and sides of the caravan. This enhances your situational awareness, allowing you to safely change lanes or maneuver when necessary. It’s important to note that extended mirrors are not only beneficial for your safety but also a legal requirement.

Section 11: Packing Essentials

When packing for your caravan adventure, make sure to include essential tools, spare parts, and safety equipment specific to caravanning. It’s also important to secure loose items within the caravan to prevent shifting or falling during transit. By properly packing and securing your belongings, you can maintain stability on the road and avoid damage to both your vehicle and the caravan.

Section 12: Be Prepared for Road Conditions

Australia boasts diverse landscapes, which means you may encounter varying road conditions during your caravan journey. It’s essential to research your route and be aware of any challenging terrains or gravel roads. Adjust your driving technique accordingly to ensure a safe and smooth journey. By being prepared for changing road conditions, you can navigate any obstacles with confidence and minimise potential risks.

Road warning signs

Section 13: Using Technology

Take advantage of technology to enhance your towing experience. GPS devices, smartphone apps, and online resources can provide real-time information on fuel stops, rest areas, weather conditions, and caravan-friendly routes. By utilising these tools, you can stay informed and make informed decisions that contribute to a more enjoyable and stress-free journey.

Section 14: Make Caravanning Friends

Caravanning is a popular activity in Australia, and you’ll often encounter fellow travellers on the road. Embrace the community and engage with other caravaners. Share tips, advice, and recommendations to enhance your experience. Fellow travellers may offer valuable insights about road conditions, hidden gems, or must-visit destinations. Consider investing in a UHF radio for improved communication and safety on the road.

Section 15: Keep Up-To-Date with Regulations

To ensure compliance and safe travel, familiarise yourself with the rules and regulations governing caravanning in Australia. Stay updated on towing speed limits, specific state requirements, and road signage. By staying informed, you can avoid potential fines and penalties while enjoying a worry-free caravan adventure.

Towing Regulations Per State / Territory

 

There are rules and standards for towing vehicles, parts and tools, including towbars and safety chains.

The towing vehicle

Vehicles must be suited to the trailer. Vehicle manufacturers usually indicate in the owner’s manual the maximum weight and other features of trailers appropriate for the vehicle. These limits should not be exceeded.

In terms of registration and compliance:

  • all vehicles must comply with all relevant standards for registration and be roadworthy at all times
  • rear number plates and lights must not be obscured by the towbar when there is no trailer connected.

Towing vehicles must be properly equipped with:

  • towbars and couplings of a suitable type and capacity
  • electrical sockets for lighting
  • brake connections if the trailer is fitted with power or electric brakes.

Additionally:

  • extra mirrors may be needed for the towing vehicle if towing a large trailer
  • for vehicles with automatic transmission, an extra transmission oil cooler may be needed
  • some vehicles need structural reinforcement and/or special suspension and transmission options and load-distributing devices to be able to tow heavier trailers.

Tow bar

A properly designed and fitted towbar is essential for towing. The rated capacity of the towbar and coupling should not be exceeded.

The towbar should be clearly and permanently marked with its:

  • maximum rated capacity
  • make and model of the vehicle it is intended for, or the manufacturer’s part number
  • manufacturer’s name or trade mark.

This is compulsory for vehicles built after 1 January 1992. The exception is where the towbar is a permanent part of the vehicle.

Towbars must not protrude dangerously when there is no trailer connected.

Load equalisers

Load equalisers can be used when towing large caravans. Load equalisers:

  • Help the vehicle retain normal suspension height and effective steering control
  • Transfer some of the weight from the towbar to the front and rear suspension of the vehicle.

As load equalisers may overload the towbar and its components, check with the towbar manufacturer for advice before use.

The trailer

Trailers must be a suitable size and type for their intended tasks. They must be built to meet the standards for registration. If a trailer is required to be registered it must be fitted with a rear number plate.

Towing ratio requirement

The loaded mass of the trailer must not exceed the lesser of:

  • rated capacity of the towbar and tow coupling
  • maximum towing capacity of the vehicle
  • maximum carrying capacity of the trailer
  • maximum rated carrying capacity of the tyres.

If the vehicle manufacturer has not specified the maximum towing mass, the maximum towing mass is:

  • one and a half times the unladen mass of the towing vehicle, provided that the trailer is fitted with brakes which are connected and in working order, or
  • the unladen mass of the towing vehicle if the trailer does not require brakes.

Vehicles with a manufacturer’s GCM more than 4.5 tonne may tow in accordance with the above requirements. The GCM is the gross combination mass of the car and loaded trailer.

Braking system

The minimum braking system for a trailer depends on the type of trailer, its weight and the weight of the vehicle:

  • 0 – 750 kg Aggregate Trailer Mass (ATM)  – no brakes required (If brakes are fitted, they must comply).
  • 751 – 2000 kg ATM – an efficient braking system on both wheels on at least one axle.
  • 2001– 4500 kg ATM – an efficient braking system on all wheels.

Note: each trailer with a Gross Trailer Mass (GTM exceeding 2.0 tonnes must be equipped with an automatic breakaway system in case the trailer becomes detached from the vehicle.

Brakes must be operable from the driver’s seating position.

Towing coupling

All couplings:

  • must be strong enough to take the weight of a fully loaded trailer
  • should be marked with the manufacturer’s name or trade mark, and rated capacity
  • must be equipped with a positive locking mechanism. The locking mechanism must be able to be released regardless of the angle of the trailer to the towing vehicle.

Safety chains

  • Safety chains must comply with Australian Standards.
  • Trailers less than 2500 kg when loaded must be fitted with at least one safety chain.
  • Trailers over 2500 kg when loaded must be fitted with two safety chains.

To prevent the front end of the drawbar from hitting the ground if the coupling is disconnected, safety chains must be:

  • as short as practicable and connected to the towing vehicle
  • crossed over if two chains are fitted.

Towing vehicles and trailers

Towing a trailer requires additional driving skills and safety precautions. The trailer may be a caravan or camper trailer, boat trailer, horse float or special-purpose trailer.

The driver of the vehicle is legally responsible for being safe when towing a trailer, and ensuring the towing vehicle, trailer and tow couplings meet the minimum standards and loaded mass limits.

They will also find the drive more enjoyable if the combination is well designed and set up, and not overloaded.

Using a suitable vehicle

Safe towing starts with ensuring the tow vehicle is suitable to tow the trailer. You can select the right trailer or caravan to match your tow vehicle or buy a tow vehicle to suit your trailer type and towing needs.

While modern vehicles are lighter and provide better service for normal motoring, some don’t have the necessary characteristics for towing.

The owner’s manual usually indicates the maximum weight and other trailer features that are appropriate for the vehicle. You should not exceed these limits.

Towing will affect your vehicle in several ways, including:

  • decreased acceleration and braking performance
  • reduced vehicle control and manoeuvrability
  • increased fuel consumption.

Therefore, when assessing the load, consider the weight of the tow vehicle and trailer, including:

  • the number of passengers you intend to carry
  • the equipment in the tow vehicle, such as tools and camping gear
  • modifications to the tow vehicle, such as bull bars, long-range fuel tanks, supplementary batteries and roof racks
  • the load on the trailer or caravan:
    • caravan – may include water tanks, gas bottles, food and drink, clothing, toys
    • boat trailer – may include fishing gear, safety equipment, boat motor and fuel
    • horse float – may include weight of the horses, tackle and food

      Towing vehicles and trailers

      Towing a trailer requires additional driving skills and safety precautions. The trailer may be a caravan or camper trailer, boat trailer, horse float or special-purpose trailer.

      The driver of the vehicle is legally responsible for being safe when towing a trailer, and ensuring the towing vehicle, trailer and tow couplings meet the minimum standards and loaded mass limits.

      They will also find the drive more enjoyable if the combination is well designed and set up, and not overloaded.

      Using a suitable vehicle

      Safe towing starts with ensuring the tow vehicle is suitable to tow the trailer. You can select the right trailer or caravan to match your tow vehicle or buy a tow vehicle to suit your trailer type and towing needs.

      While modern vehicles are lighter and provide better service for normal motoring, some don’t have the necessary characteristics for towing.

      The owner’s manual usually indicates the maximum weight and other trailer features that are appropriate for the vehicle. You should not exceed these limits.

      Towing will affect your vehicle in several ways, including:

      • decreased acceleration and braking performance
      • reduced vehicle control and manoeuvrability
      • increased fuel consumption.

      Therefore, when assessing the load, consider the weight of the tow vehicle and trailer, including:

      • the number of passengers you intend to carry
      • the equipment in the tow vehicle, such as tools and camping gear
      • modifications to the tow vehicle, such as bull bars, long-range fuel tanks, supplementary batteries and roof racks
      • the load on the trailer or caravan:
        • caravan – may include water tanks, gas bottles, food and drink, clothing, toys
        • boat trailer – may include fishing gear, safety equipment, boat motor and fuel
        • horse float – may include the weight of the horses, tackle and food

          While driving

          When towing a trailer (including caravans), remember to:

          • allow for the extra length and width of the trailer when entering traffic
          • allow for its tendency to ‘cut in’ on corners and curves
          • accelerate, brake and steer smoothly and gently to avoid swaying
          • allow for the effects of cross-winds, passing traffic and uneven road surfaces
          • leave a longer stopping distance between you and the vehicle ahead; increase the gap for longer, heavier trailers and allow even more distance in poor driving conditions
          • use a lower gear in both manual and automatic vehicles when travelling downhill to make your car easier to control and reduce the strain on your brakes
          • allow more time and distance to overtake and avoid ‘cutting off’ the vehicle you are overtaking when returning to the left lane
          • fit a reversing camera or get someone to watch the rear of the trailer when you reverse—reversing is difficult and takes practice
          • not hold up traffic—pull off the road where it is safe to do so, and where it won’t create a build-up of traffic unable to overtake
          • be aware that your vehicle and trailer will have a tendency to sway when a heavy vehicle overtakes you.
          • Towing equipment

            Your vehicle needs to be equipped appropriately for the trailer’s type and size, including:

            • tow bars and couplings of a suitable type and capacity
            • electrical sockets for lighting
            • suitable brake connections if required
            • extra mirrors for towing large trailers if required
            • optional rear-view camera—these help to see traffic behind you but do not replace the need for mirrors.

Towing a trailer

  • The capacity of the towing vehicle must be suitable for the trailer to be towed.
  • Towing vehicles must be registered in the correct registration category to tow a trailer that has an ATM over 4.5 tonnes. 

Contact MVR for further registration information.

Generally, truck manufacturers show the designed towing capacity – which is called the gross combination mass (GCM) limit. This information may also be on the compliance plate or build plate attached to the vehicle.

The laden mass of the trailer in a vehicle combination (not being a road train) comprised of a rigid motor vehicle and a trailer must not exceed the laden mass of the rigid motor vehicle.

The towing attachment must also be suitably rated to meet towing requirements.

Towing with an A-frame

You can tow a vehicle (up to 4.5 tonnes gross vehicle mass) that is connected to the tow bar of another vehicle in the Northern Territory (NT) using a triangular shaped frame commonly known as an A-frame.

You should also check with your vehicle’s manufacturer to determine whether the towed vehicle is suitable for A-frame towing – eg: read the advice in the ‘Owner’s Manual’.

Your A-frame must be designed and marked as being suitable to tow the make and model of the vehicle being towed.

If it isn’t designed or marked, the A-frame and its connections will need engineering certification before you can use it.

General rules for towing another vehicle

The driver of a vehicle must not tow another motor vehicle unless it meets all of the following:

  • the driver can control the movement of the towed vehicle
  • the brakes, steering and rear lights including indicators of the towed vehicle are in working order
  • the person who is licensed to drive the towed vehicle is in the driver’s seat and is in control of its brakes and steering
  • it is safe to tow the vehicle
  • the towed vehicle must be registered or have a current temporary licence.

here are a number of regulations that relate to how trailers are loaded and towed by light vehicles – gross vehicle mass (GVM) 4.5 tonnes or less. These regulations ensure that trailers are used effectively and safely, with minimised potential to harm individuals and other road users.

Towing trailers with a load

Before towing a trailer, make sure that all safety measures and towing regulations have been met.

The following information covers the key requirements relating to the towing of trailers. Detailed information is contained in the Road Traffic Act and Regulations, 1961 and Vehicle Standards Bulletin (VSB) 1.

Towing mass limits

The maximum mass that can be towed by a vehicle is dependent upon a number of criteria. The loaded mass of a trailer or caravan must not exceed:

  1. The rated capacity of both the tow bar and tow coupling.
  2. The towing mass specified by the vehicle manufacturer, or the gross combination mass (GCM) specified on the vehicle’s registration certificate.

Note: The manufacturer of the towing vehicle may specify two different towing limits or the towing vehicle, depending on whether the trailer is fitted with brakes or not. They may also set requirements when towing, such as maximum speed and tow ball vertical loading.

No manufacturer’s specifications

If the motor vehicle manufacturer has not specified a maximum towing mass and a GCM is not specified on the vehicle’s registration certificate, the rules below apply. These vary according to the trailer’s braking system:

  • For a trailer fitted with brakes directly operated by the driver, the mass of the trailer must not exceed 1.5 times the unloaded mass of the towing vehicle.
  • For a trailer fitted with override or over-run brakes, the mass of the trailer must not exceed the unloaded mass of the towing vehicle.
  • For a trailer not fitted with brakes, the mass of the trailer must not exceed the unloaded mass of the towing vehicle or a gross trailer mass (GTM) of 750 kg, whichever is the lesser.

If a trailer has no manufacturer’s specifications, it is still the owner’s responsibility to make sure the trailer must be safe and fit for purpose.

Trailer braking regulations

  • Trailers must be fitted with brakes if the GTM exceeds 750 kg.
  • For trailers built to VSB1 and Australian Design Rules (ADRs), override or over-run brakes are acceptable up to a GTM of 2 tonnes.
  • For trailers built to UN ECE 13 (acceptable standard under ADR38/05),  O2 category (GTM not exceeding 3.5 tonnes) override or over-run brakes are acceptable if fitted with a breakaway system and the trailer is a centre axle trailer.
  • Where the GTM exceeds 2 tonnes the braking system must be fitted with a breakaway system that causes the brakes to be applied if the trailer becomes disconnected from the towing vehicle.

Trailer load projections and dimension limits

There are limits to how far loads can project from the back and sides of a trailer.

Side projection

A load must not project more than 150 mm from the outermost part of either side of the trailer and must not be more than 2.5 metres in total width (refer to Figure 1).

Diagram of a trailer showing the limits as per the text above

Figure 1. Side projection limits

Length of vehicle and trailer

The overall length of the towing vehicle and trailer must not be more than 19.0 metres. The rear of a load on a vehicle must carry a warning signal if the load projects more than 1.2 metres or cannot be easily seen (refer to Figure 2). In the daytime, the warning signal must be a brightly coloured flag measuring at least 300mm x 300mm. At night, the warning signal must be a red light that can be seen for 200 metres.

Diagram showing a vehicle and trailer with the measurements as shown in the text above

Figure 2. Front and rear projection limits

Rear projection

Measured from the centre of the trailer axle, or axle group, a load must be:

  • not more than 3.7 metres
  • no longer than the length of the load in front of the axle, or axle group.

Diagram showing rear projection max 3.7 m  and side projection max 150 mm

Figure 3. Rear projection

Trailer lighting and wiring

Lights on trailers must operate in unison with those of the towing vehicle – ie the indicator, brake, tail and reversing lights, where fitted, must go on when those of the towing vehicle goes on:

  • Required trailer lighting, at the rear of the trailer.
  • Number plate light – may be combined with the taillights.
  • One pair of brake lights.
  • A pair of tail lights – may also be used to delineate the number plate.
  • One pair of direction indicator lights may also be used as hazard lights if necessary.
  • One pair of red reflectors.

If the trailer is more than 2.2 metres wide, reflectors must be fitted symmetrically to the front of the trailer and within 400 mm of the sides of the trailer. All trailers are required to have an earth wire connected through the wiring back to the towing vehicle. All wiring must be secured at least every 600mm.

Towing rules

A trailer must be securely coupled to the vehicle towing it and must have a safety connection such as a chain or cable that will keep the trailer connected to the towing vehicle in the event of accidental disconnection.

  • A trailer must not be towed:
    • with a person in or on the trailer
    • if the load is placed in a way that causes the combination of towing vehicle and trailer to be unstable.
  • The load on a trailer must be safely secured or restrained before moving onto a road.
  • If an item falls from the trailer onto the road, it is the driver’s responsibility to remove it from the road.
  • Penalties apply if a load is not secured properly.
  • A trailer must not be towed unless it meets all the mass, lighting, and braking requirements and is roadworthy.
  • A light motor vehicle may tow no more than one vehicle.

There are specific road rules that apply to motorists towing caravans, camper trailers, horse floats, boats and more:

  • The maximum legal speed limit for any vehicle towing a trailer or caravan is 100km/h.
  • Vehicles towing a caravan or trailer must drive at least 60m behind heavy vehicles or other towing vehicles, unless overtaking. Drivers of road trains or B-doubles must maintain a following distance of at least 200m, unless overtaking.
  • People are not permitted to ride in a trailer or caravan that is being towed.
  • Failure to properly secure a load will attract a $150 infringement.
  • If you are towing a load wider than your vehicle, you must have towing mirrors in place.

You must not drive a vehicle that is carrying a load:

  • If the load makes the vehicle unstable or otherwise unsafe.
  • If the load projects from the vehicle in a way that could injure a person, obstruct the path of other drivers or pedestrians, or damage a vehicle or anything else (including the road surface).
  • Unless the load is restrained on the vehicle so that the load, or any portion of it is unlikely to fall or become dislodged from its restraints.

Be sure you know the legal load limit for your vehicle and make sure your load is well secured as incorrectly secured loads can cause rollovers.

Add 200kg to the weight shown on the vehicle licence paper to allow for bedding, travelling gear, stores, and equipment.

Be courteous in sharing the road with other users. Check your rear vision mirror regularly to see if traffic is building up behind you. If you are holding up traffic, pull over and stop when it is safe to do so. There are 1,648 Main Roads WA rest stops and amenities around WA to avoid fatigue.

If you wish to drive on unsealed roads in remote areas, ensure that your caravan or camper trailer is built to handle these tough conditions (check with the manufacturer). Make sure it has four-wheel-drive tyres with a high clearance and upgraded suspension that can withstand corrugations and rough road surfaces.

 

In Conclusion...

In conclusion, towing a caravan in Australia can be an incredible adventure, allowing you to explore the country’s breathtaking landscapes. By following these top 15 tips, including understanding your vehicle’s towing capacity, practising safe driving techniques, and staying prepared, you’ll be well-equipped for a smooth and enjoyable journey. Remember, responsible towing practices, regular maintenance, and attention to safety guidelines are essential to make your caravanning experience both memorable and safe. So, get ready to hit the road and create unforgettable memories on your caravan adventure in Australia!

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