READY, SET, TOW
Take your first steps towards a great on-the-road adventure
Perhaps your neighbour has a caravan and is always off exploring Australia, or a friend constantly posts their caravanning adventures on social media. Or maybe travelling with a caravan is something you’ve always wanted to do … and you’re finally ready to pursue your dream.
Caravans are understandably popular (more than 500,000 are registered in Australia). They allow you to bring comfortable, often selfcontained accommodation to countless destinations, and, once you arrive and unhitch your van, you can easily explore the area with your towing vehicle.
Here are some things to ponder before you borrow, buy or rent a caravan and embark on your first trip – unfortunately they’re not quite as relaxing as sipping sun downers from a beachside site. However, once you master the technical side of caravanning, you’ll be ready to embrace Australia’s far-flung corners with adventure stirring your soul and life’s necessities in tow.
KNOW YOUR WEIGHTS
“First, you need to be able to determine if your car/caravan combination is legal,” explains Kirsty Clinton, RACQ’s principal media advisor financial services. “This means having a sound understanding of (towing) terminology and how it applies to you.”
Some terms include tare weight, which is the weight of an empty caravan (including factory fitted options but excluding liquids such as water and gas), and payload, the caravan’s maximum carry capacity. Aggregate trailer mass (ATM) is the maximum your caravan is allowed to weigh on its own (so its tare weight plus its payload), while gross trailer mass (GTM) is the maximum weight the caravan’s wheels can support when coupled to a tow vehicle.
Caravans built after August 1989 should have the ATM – and, in some cases, the GTM and tare weight – on the plates. Tow ball load (or mass) is the portion of the caravan weight that your towing vehicle takes when the caravan is properly hitched. Crucial for safety reasons, it’s affected by how you distribute your load in the caravan.
To determine tow ball load, and what your caravan weighs with all your gear and provisions, pack your van as you normally would and take it to a public weighbridge. Another way to ensure you don’t exceed the payload is to weigh everything you’re planning to put inside – including water – at home. Payloads can be quite limited, so “keep a close eye on what you’re carrying, and cull as much as possible to ensure the caravan’s weight doesn’t exceed the specification,” Kirsty warns.
You also need to know your vehicle’s maximum towing capacity. This figure must not exceed the lesser of the towing capacity specified by the manufacturer, the caravan’s maximum carrying capacity, the rated capacity of the tow bar and couplings, and the maximum carrying capacity of the tyres.
And check the gross vehicle mass (GVM), the maximum weight of the fully laden towing vehicle, and gross combination mass (GCM), the maximum total weight of the fully laden vehicle and caravan. If your towing vehicle is loaded to its GVM, you might find its towing capacity is less than what is advertised.
These aren’t your only considerations. Before deciding on a caravan, it’s imperative to research your vehicle’s towing specifications, the caravan’s specifications, and towing regulations and guidance in your state or territory and in your destination.
HITCH AND CHECK
Once you have an appropriate caravan/towing vehicle combination, you’ll need to hitch your caravan to your vehicle, which, according to RACQ’s website, “isn’t as hard as it looks”. Still, there are a number of steps you need to follow; caravan manufacturers such as Jayco provide a comprehensive checklist covering towing, storing, and using the van, and retailers should show you how to hitch it as well.
Every time the van is hitched, you’ll need to do a safety check before towing. This includes ensuring doors, hatches, windows, covers and load are secured, tyre pressures are correct, safety chains are properly connected … and more.
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ADJUST YOUR DRIVING
When towing, your vehicle will handle differently, including steering, stability, stopping distance and braking performance. “Towing any large trailer (or caravan) requires a very different set of skills to driving a car,” Kirsty explains. “The (tow vehicle plus caravan) combination will be longer, higher and heavier. It will be slower to accelerate and much slower to stop. It will also be affected by cross winds and the draft from semi-trailers, and it can become unstable on poor road surfaces.”
The Queensland Department of Transport and Main Roads’ Safe Towing Guide includes driving tips. These include allowing for the caravan’s tendency to “cut-in” on curves and corners; allowing longer distances for braking and overtaking; avoiding sudden lane changes; using the accelerator, brakes, and steering smoothly and gently at all times; and planning more rest stops and shorter travelling days as towing is more stressful and tiring.
Your fuel consumption will also increase. To minimise this, keep your speed down – just be aware of motorists behind you and use turnouts, when appropriate. Also, check the speed limits that apply when towing, as they vary between states and territories. Some vehicle manufacturers specify even lower maximum towing speeds, for example, 80km/h.
As for reversing, “it can be difficult to master and is a matter of practice”, Kirsty says. At the caravan site, someone with more experience might offer to help you park, she suggests. “However, make sure they’re in a safe place that you can see them.’’
TAKE A COURSE
“If you’ve never towed before or haven’t towed in a long time, RACQ recommends that you practise your skills in a safe environment with qualified instructors before hitting the road,” Kirsty says.
A caravan towing course covers safety and maintenance checks, legal requirements, loading strategies, hitching and unhitching, driving and manoeuvring techniques, sway management and control, braking and reversing. If you don’t already have a caravan/tow vehicle combination, some instructors may have a set-up you can hire.
HIRE BEFORE BUYING
Hiring a caravan before buying could be a wise move. According to a Jayco sales representative: “If you’ve never experienced caravanning before,