Tow­ing 101

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Load your car­a­van cor­rectly and half the bat­tle is won

There are videos on Youtube show­ing how sway­ing car­a­vans get so badly out of con­trol that they not only top­ple over, but cause its tow­ing ve­hi­cle to crash too. It’s one thing if there are no in­juries or loss of life, but the news ar­chives are filled with sto­ries about hol­i­days end­ing trag­i­cally due to in­ci­dents like th­ese.

go! Drive & Camp read­ers who nar­rowly es­caped sway­ing ac­ci­dents re­port that you re­ally don’t want to be in a tow­ing ve­hi­cle when a car­a­van starts to sway un­con­trol­lably. Jo­han Naudé from New­cas­tle wrote on on our Face­book page: “It is ter­ri­fy­ing... your tow­ing ve­hi­cle is yanked around and the rear wheels lift up.”

Jan Kruger from Mos­sel Bay says he was once en route to the Kruger Na­tional Park when he ex­pe­ri­enced such a har­row­ing or­deal: “It was a case of the tail wag­ging the dog... All you can do is to lower your speed, try to keep your com­bi­na­tion in the right di­rec­tion and try to get it sta­ble. I ended up in this sit­u­a­tion be­cause my car­a­van’s tyre pres­sure was too low. Since then, I tow with car­a­van tyres that are in­flated with ni­tro­gen – in sum­mer to 3 bar and in win­ter 3,5 bar. It works for me.”

Jo­han says that af­ter this in­ci­dent, he changed tow­ing ve­hi­cles. His car was too weak for his car­a­van. “The power and weight of the tow­ing ve­hi­cle has a huge im­pact on sta­bil­ity.”


What should you do if your car­a­van starts sway­ing wildly and yanks your ve­hi­cle around?

The car­a­van and tow­ing ex­perts Hans Koeke­moer from Pre­to­ria and Pi­eter Crous from Cape Town say that Jan did the right thing by low­er­ing his speed and try­ing ev­ery­thing pos­si­ble to sta­bilise his tow­ing com­bi­na­tion.

Some peo­ple rec­om­mend that you should gear down and then ac­cel­er­ate if your car­a­van starts sway­ing wildly – but that’s the worst ad­vice pos­si­ble. You should also not brake – it’s a death sen­tence.

Hans says: “Do not brake. Take your feet off those ped­als, grip the steer­ing wheel and fo­cus on stay­ing on course. Let the ve­hi­cle lose speed on its own.”

Pi­eter con­firms this: “Let go of the ped­als. Do not brake. Do not ac­cel­er­ate. And main­tain con­trol. There isn’t much more that you can do. I speak from ex­pe­ri­ence – this has hap­pened to me.

“The only time that you should ac­cel­er­ate a lit­tle bit, is if this hap­pens on a rather steep up­hill stretch. If it’s down­hill, you can brake a lit­tle bit – but only a lit­tle bit. You should def­i­nitely not hit the brakes hard in a sit­u­a­tion like this.”


The two tow­ing ex­perts say that by do­ing a few things right from the start, you can pre­vent a sway­ing dilemma from oc­cur­ing in the first place.


If you pack your car­a­van cor­rectly and the load is dis­trib­uted pro­por­tion­ally, chances are slim that it will get out of con­trol, says Pi­eter. “In­cor­rect load­ing is prob­a­bly the main cause for sway­ing in­ci­dents. The prob­lem is that peo­ple who tow, load too much weight at the back of the car­a­van.”

Hans agrees. He says the se­cret of pack­ing a car­a­van is to re­mem­ber that the nose weight is the sta­bil­ity weight and the tail weight is the swerve weight. “If you load too much in the tail side, you’ll get a pen­du­lum ef­fect. You start from the axle, load­ing heav­ier to the front and your nose weight should prefer­ably be around 70 kg. The closer you can get to 100-110 kg, the bet­ter.

“When your car­a­van is hitched, the nose should point slightly up­wards, but once you pull away, it should stand in line with your ve­hi­cle. Peo­ple also make the mis­take of pack­ing ev­ery­thing at the back of the car­a­van when they see the nose is point­ing down­wards, which leads to van sway­ing on the road.”


Hans and Pi­eter say Jan was right to go for 3 bar on his car­a­van tyres. They do the same and it works.

Tyre pres­sure that’s too low is one of the ma­jor causes of car­a­vans that start sway­ing wildly.

Hans says that mod­ern-day soft-wall tyres ab­sorb some of the shock and trans­fers weight with side­ward sways. But if your tyres aren’t prop­erly in­flated, th­ese sways are too much and it will cause your car­a­van to swerve. By opt­ing for 3 bar, you min­imise th­ese sway­ing move­ments. Also en­sure one tyre’s pres­sure isn’t higher than the other. Such un­even­ness can also lead to sway­ing in­ci­dents.

Fit­ting bakkie tyres with hard side­walls to your car­a­van for more sta­bil­ity, but then tow­ing it with a ve­hi­cle that has low-pro­file tyres or ones with softer side­walls, is a mis­take. Too much of the rolling mo­tion of the ve­hi­cle will then get trans­ferred to the car­a­van.

Jo­hannes Knipe, the car­a­van doc­tor from Cape Town, says that car­a­van tyres that aren’t in­flated enough are more likely to burst. That also ap­plies to tyres that still look new be­cause they’re not used of­ten, but are ac­tu­ally al­ready ka­put. Los­ing a car­a­van is a high price to pay for ba­sic ne­gle­gence.


Hans says it’s a big mis­take not to reg­u­larly check the brakes of your car­a­van and tow­ing ve­hi­cle.

“If the brakes haven’t been ad­justed cor­rectly, the brake pads don’t ap­ply equal force on all sides, which will cause your car­a­van to sway. Road­wor­thi­ness is in­cred­i­bly im­por­tant.”


Hans says mod­ern-day car­a­vans are built in such a way that they no longer re­quire sta­bilis­ers.

“A stabiliser isn’t the al­pha and the omega of safe tow­ing, although it does help with the weight dis­tri­bu­tion and to make your tow­ing com­bi­na­tion more sta­ble.”


One thing you should never do is to over­take a truck while go­ing down­hill at speed, says Hans. “That suc­tion force that you ex­pe­ri­ence when you over­take a truck is stronger on a down­hill. That’s when peo­ple who tow make mis­takes. As soon as they feel they’re be­ing pulled closer by the force, they try to rec­tify it, and the car­a­van starts to sway on the down­whill.” It is how­ever safe to over­take while go­ing up­hill, he says.


“It’s prob­a­bly the most im­por­tant thing about tow­ing,” says Hans. “Don’t race. It’s al­most al­ways best to not tow faster than 110 km/h, and then only when it’s on the open road and con­di­tions al­low it.

“I don’t need to tell any­one with ex­pe­ri­ence in tow­ing how rough cross­winds can make a car­a­van sway. You can’t go bar­relling down the high­way at 140 km while tow­ing a car­a­van. If you en­counter a strong cross­wind at that speed, it only spells trou­ble.”

go! Drive & Camp says Tow prop­erly, safely and – es­pe­cially – en­joy­ably.

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