Even for experienced drivers with thousands of kilometres under their belts, towing a caravan for the first time can be a daunting prospect.
You not only have to contend with added tow weight behind you and the difference this makes in how you handle your tow vehicle, you also need to make sure you’re complying with a suite of towing-specific rules and regulations.
We know that getting your head around all the relevant information can seem overwhelming, and that’s why Elecbrakes has written this special blog series, “The Elecbrakes Guide To Towing.”
1. Know your towing weights
It’s essential to understand how much towing weight your car or truck can handle to how heavy your caravan is.
The tricky part is that to abide by the regulations and keep your insurance valid, and there’s not just one weight for each of these measures. We’ve broken down the various acronyms below to help keep you on the straight and narrow.
Terminology for vehicle towing weights
Understanding your weight calculations for towing a caravan or trailer is essential to staying safe on the roads. Here are the four main terms you will come across:
The kerb weight of the vehicle includes the driver, oil, and fuel that does not contain luggage or other supplies.
Imagine you’re parked at the kerb with a full tank of petrol, sitting behind the wheel of your car, ready to drive away from the caravan parks. The weight of your vehicle at that moment is your kerb weight.
The payload is the combined weight of any other passengers, accessories and luggage you add on top of your kerb weight. The payload also includes the downward pressure of the trailer as added weight on the vehicle’s towball.
GROSS VEHICLE MASS (GVM)
The gross vehicle mass is your vehicle’s kerb weight + the payload. The GVM is how much your tow vehicle weighs with:
- All accessories and gear loaded.
- The driver.
- The extra tow ball weight by a hitched trailer.
The GVM number is significant. Ensure it doesn’t go any higher than the maximum GVM set by the vehicle manufacturer.
If you drive a tow vehicle with a GVM higher than the allowed maximum, you’ll be voiding your insurance, breaking the law and posing a safety risk to yourself and others.
You can always find the GVM of your vehicle printed on its compliance plates.
GROSS COMBINATION MASS (GCM)
This is the maximum weight that your fully-loaded vehicle and caravan can weigh together. This rating is set by the tow vehicle manufacturer.
How to calculate caravan towing weights?
When you’re heading on a trip with your caravan or trailer in tow, it’s essential to take note of the total towing weight as this will determine if your vehicle can tow the load and whether or not it will be safe on the roads. There are four weights you need to consider when it comes to towing a caravan:
The caravan’s weight at the time of its manufacture with any factory installed accessories attached, with water tanks and gas bottles both empty.
AGGREGATE TRAILER MASS (ATM)
The ATM is the maximum allowed caravan weight of your fully-loaded caravan, including all extra accessories, clothes, food, bikes and other luggage and including the weight of filling up water tanks and gas bottles.
The VIN plate in your caravan will state its ATM set by the manufacturer and which you must not exceed for safety and legal reasons; this also includes the tow bar weight.
GROSS TRAILER MASS (GTM)
The GTM is your caravan’s actual weight when you have it fully loaded and hitched to the tow vehicle. Keep in mind that the tow vehicle will be taking a small amount of the weight from the caravan in the form of the tow ball weight.
If you had a trailer loaded to precisely the limit of its ATM, the GTM would equal the ATM minus the towball weight.
The towball weight is the amount of downward force from the caravan’s tow hitch exerted onto the tow ball of the vehicle towing it.
A good rule of thumb that most trailer manufacturers recommend is to keep your towball weight in the range of 7% – 15% of the ATM.
You can measure this weight by using a set of towball scales. If you find that your towball weight is either too heavy or too light, you can optimise it by adjusting the load distribution within your caravan.
- Head to your nearest weighbridge after the loading completion for your caravan and tow vehicle. You can use the following steps to ensure you’re under the limit for safe towing capacity:
- First, weigh just the unhitched tow vehicle by itself on the weighbridge to check that you’re within the Gross Vehicle Mass limit.
- Hitch your caravan and drive your fully loaded caravan and tow vehicle onto the weighbridge together to check your gross combination mass (GMC).
- Now drive forward, so the caravan is on the weighbridge behind you, but you have the tow vehicle off the weighbridge. If you keep the caravan hitched, this will give you your gross trailer mass (GTM).
- Finally, unhitch your tow vehicle and weigh your fully loaded caravan to check that it’s within the aggregate trailer mass (ATM) limit. If you find that you’re over the ATM, this means that either you’ve overpacked or the original tare provided by your caravan manufacturer was incorrect.
2. Optimise your caravan load distribution
Caravan load distribution is vital for several reasons, and the foremost being to keep your rig under control and safe while driving.
Ensure that the weight within your caravan distributes so that it doesn’t shift during travel, cause unnecessary trailer sway or impact on your steering.
By optimising the distribution of your load, you can significantly reduce trailer sway and other potential caravan towing issues. The correct distribution of weight allows sway controls and ensures that your towball weight is within the recommended range.
A fundamental guiding principle for optimum caravan load distribution is to store the heaviest gear in the area above the axle. You can then distribute all remaining smaller gear evenly throughout the rest of the space.
Other heavy equipment such as gas cylinders and spare tyres should always be kept in the positions recommended by the caravan manufacturer for your specific model.
3. Tick off your caravan checklist before you hit the road
Prepping for a travel adventure is exciting, but in the excitement, don’t forget safety. Before you hit the road, you need to thoroughly check the caravan to ensure a safe and secure trip ahead. Here are some of the primary checks you should make:
Step 1: Check everything
Check the tyre pressure on the caravan and tow vehicle, spares, oil and fuel levels, trailer tow lights, breakaway system, electric brake controller and make sure gas bottles are turned off.
Step 2: Ensure everything is secure
Make sure all windows, doors and latches are fastened and ensure all loose items in the caravan are secured.
Step 3: Check your battery systems
Regardless of the type of battery system you use, including dual battery systems, make sure it’s all in working order before you take off.
Step 4: Fire and safety
Check the smoke alarm in the caravan and make sure you have a fire extinguisher and/or fire blanket packed.
Check that your first aid kit is stocked up and ready for use if needed. It’s a good idea to keep the first aid kit in the car rather than the caravan so you still have it with you if you unhitch at a campsite and head off to town for the day.
Step 5: Double-check your packing list
A packing list should cater to your lifestyle and how you travel. Here are some valuable items to consider including on your packing list:
- Rubbish bags.
- Canvas bags.
- Baby wipes.
- Device chargers.
- Gaffer tape.
- Rubber backed rug.
- Mini vacuum.
- Dustpan and brush.
- Folding tables and chairs.
- Board games for entertainment.
- Fishing gear.
- Umbrellas and raincoats.
- Sunscreen and hats.
- Torches, matches, and firelighters.
- Bath towels.
- Toaster and kettle.
- Extension cords.
- Power boards.
- Tupperware containers.
- Toiletry essentials, including toothpaste, toilet paper, and soap.
4. Practice reversing a caravan
While planning your first big caravan adventure might not be top of mind, learning how to reverse the thing is a skill that you will be relying on more than you realise. Reversing can be tricky at first, and it’s an art you can master with some practice.
In this case, practice is necessary. Practice reversing before your big trip rather than executing your first caravan reverse in a busy caravanning camping area with your family onboard.
Before you head off:
- Hitch up your caravan and practice reversing at a quiet time of day in a familiar area near your home.
- Take your time and always use a spotter if you can.
- Check the area you’re attempting to reverse into for any hazards such as tree branches, potholes, or obstacles like garbage bins or bicycles.
When reversing a trailer, turn your steering wheel in the opposite direction to where you want the caravan to go, and this is where a slow and steady pace is significant to give you time to stop.
Drive forward and start again if you start going off course. Remember to stay calm and be patient with yourself.
5. Choose the best electric brake controllers for caravans
According to the Vehicle Standard (Australian Design Rule 38/05 – Trailer Brake Systems) 2018, trailer’s (including caravans) above 750kg Gross Trailer Mass (GTM) must be equipped with an efficient service brake system.
While this can be a mechanical override type brake system in smaller trailers, once the trailer is over 2,000kg, the law requires you to use an electric trailer brake system with an electric brake controller.
Even for caravans with a GTM between 750kg and 2,000kg, many towers find the security, safety and control provided by electric brakes fitted with a superior brake controller like Elecbrakes to be of great benefit.
Elecbrakes is the best brake controller for smooth brake control, offering the most responsive proportional brake control on the market.
When you tow a vehicle using Elecbrakes, the electric brakes on the caravan activates the trailer brakes based on your driving, which offers a seamless towing experience.
You can read more about the benefits of Elecbrakes for caravan towers in our blog post: What’s the best brake controller for caravans and travel trailers?
Elecbrakes’ best towing tips
If you have the chance, make sure you complete a Towing Course, such as a Beginners Guide To Towing, before you take off on the road.
The towing course will help you understand the driving laws better for cars and caravans, including:
- The road rules.
- Speed limit.
- Rules around learner drivers and heavy vehicle management.
- How to handle various road conditions (such as winter driving).
Whether you’re towing a camper trailer or you have a car and caravan, you need to ensure your vehicle is capable of towing before you get started.
By getting to know the difference between loaded weight and total weight, you’ll better understand towing your caravan and safe caravanning in general. Once your towing weight is under control, you can hit the road, keeping in mind the following along the way:
Tip 1: Don’t overload your trailers or caravans
Too often, we see recreational vehicles that have been loaded up to the max so the owners can have a luxurious Sunshine Coast holiday. However, by filling your van with too much, you’re going to have problems with the weight and balance.
Tip 2: Mind the gap
If you haven’t done a course, keep a few things in mind when driving. One of these is to keep your distance. If your vehicle and van or camper trailer measure 7.5 metres long or more, you must stay 200 metres from the car in front unless you’re overtaking.
Tip 3: Stick to the speed limit
Another rule you need to consider is the maximum speed limit for a trailer or caravan – which is 100km/hr. We recommend you stick to closer to 80km/hr or 90km/hr as this will be safer for you, those around you, and it’ll save you petrol or battery consumption if you have an electric car.
Tip 4: Keep your weight even
Be sure to pack all the heavy items first and keep these lower to the ground. Medium weight can go around and above the heavy items, then lightweight. Please make sure they are all secure and never have heavy objects high in the van.
If you need any advice or you’re after a quality braking system, get in touch with our team today. You can also check out our how-to videos guidance on preparing for your journey. The most important thing when towing a caravan is that you travel safely.
Follow the road rules, check your weights, and ensure your caravan is in top condition (including your brakes), as this will ensure you have a great time on the roads, bringing back plenty of memories to share with friends and family. Most importantly, have fun!