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All about towing

Category: Practical Advice Driving and Towing | Author: |  Date posted:  | Impressions: 30395   12603

All about towing Comprehensive Manual to Safer Towing.

Caravanning and camping is becoming one of South Africa’s most popular leisure time activities. It brings together people from a wide range of backgrounds and vocations with the simple aim of enjoyment, relaxation and having a great time.

Today's motorcars make excellent towing vehicles, while modern caravans have all the creature comforts desired. However caravanners need to be aware that a car and caravan combination can behave in a different manner than when driving the car itself.

To ensure safe journeys, therefore, it is necessary to have a car and caravan that are compatible, use the best towing equipment and practice some of the skills that are needed to enable you to cope with any situation that might arise. Once these matters have been attended to, every journey will be a safe and enjoyable one.

Towing a caravan is as simple as driving a car, as long as basic common sense is applied. Would be caravanners are often confused when it comes to choosing a suitable towing vehicle. As a general rule there is no such thing as a bad towing vehicle. It all depends on the combination of towing vehicle and trailer. A medium sized car with a small caravan is just as suitable as a large 4WD with a long caravan in tow. So, it is obvious that the first rule is to ensure that the tow car matches the caravan.

This does not mean that a particular car cannot be used to tow a caravan or trailer. It does indicate however that certain criteria has to be taken into consideration, to make sure that the vehicle can be safely and reliably used for towing. The most suitable towing vehicle is one, which is heavier than the caravan, or trailer it tows and which has enough power to handle the towing load. Both manual and automatic transmissions can be successfully used.

As automatic transmissions can use up engine power, smaller engines often perform better when coupled to a manual gearbox. One advantage of an automatic transmission is that the driver can keep two hands on the steering wheel. Maneuvering, particularly reversing, is also much easier when the vehicle only has two pedals instead of three.

In many instances a four-wheel drive is not really needed unless you intend to venture away from the beaten tracks. Most two-wheel drive vehicles are just as capable of towing a caravan around South Africa as a four-wheel drive. It is the compatibility of the towing vehicle and caravan, or trailer that is important.

The Tow Vehicle

As long as the manufacturer's towing recommendations are not exceeded, modern passenger vehicles, including those with front wheel drives, are just as capable of towing a caravan or trailer as a four-wheel drive.

When you decide to buy a caravan to be towed by your existing car, or when you decide to buy a car to tow your existing caravan, the law demands that the GVM of the caravan is not to exceed the tare of the tow vehicle, and that the caravan must have both a hand brake as well as a service brake. In other words, the caravan must also have it’s own braking system. Furthermore, the vertical loading on the tow ball must not exceed 100 kg.

Generally the type of suspension on the towing vehicle is not important as long as it is firm. Leaf springs are often considered more capable of supporting loads than coil springs but a good load distribution hitch will counteract the tendency of the rear of the vehicle to sag.

If the caravan that is being towed is heavier then the towing vehicle, this is called a miss-match, and when towing, they will react in an unstable and dangerous manner. Fish tailing, or rolling and swaying can develop into a very dangerous situation, and can lead to the vehicles jack-knifing, or even end up overturning. 

The following items on both the towing vehicle as well as the vehicle being towed, are to be in a 100% efficient working order.

The brakes.

These must be in 100% working order – no excuses! Good brakes all round, are imperative to ensure efficient control in cases of stop-ability from high speeds. There is no compromise here!The indicator lights. These on both the vehicle towing as well as the van, must be in good working order. All the lenses, brake, tail and indicator, must be in immaculate condition. They must not be dull, dirty or cracked.The external rear view mirrors on the tow vehicle must be easily seen from the drivers seat. You must be able to see both mirrors without leaning forward, and to be absolutely sure that it is safe to change lanes before doing so.

The safe recommended towing speed at any time and with any rig, is between 80 and 100 km/h tops! You must pay special attention to speed, and always be aware that you are towing a caravan. The modern caravans and vehicles tow so well, that one can easily forget that you are towing a vehicle behind you, especially if there is a tail wind.


The part that tyres play in providing car and caravan safety is more important than any other single component. A vehicle can only accelerate, brake or steer if the correct contact exists between the tyre and the road. Also if the tyres are not inflated correctly, or are the wrong type, the stability and ride of the vehicle can be affected.

The correct tyre pressures of both car and caravan must be checked according to the manufacturers specifications. On most instances, the recommended tyre pressures of most makes of standard motorcars should generally be 200 kPa for the front wheels of the car, and 240 kPa for the rear wheels. Follow the caravan tyre pressures of the manufacturer of the van. It is considered unwise to inflate caravan tyres above 315 kPa (45 psi) as it may affect the ride of the caravan.

It is also important to note that radial and crossply tyres should not be mixed on the car as well as on the caravan. Mixed makes of tyres between car and caravan are not important.

Tyres can deteriorate just as much when a vehicle stands for long periods as when it is being used. When a caravan is stored it is a good idea to remove some of the weight off the tyres and cover them to prevent deterioration from the elements.

Premature or uneven tyre wear can usually be attributed to under-inflation, overloading, unstable caravan or a mechanical defect like a bent axle. If your tyres appear to be wearing quicker than anticipated, consult a tyre specialist who should be able to pinpoint the reason. Do not expect tyres on a caravan to give you the same mileage as those on a car. The loadings caravan tyres are subjected to are always well in excess of those of the car tyres.

Tow bars and tow hitches

A tow bar is to a car and caravan what glue is to two pieces of timber. Use the wrong glue and the timber will come apart. Fit the wrong tow bar to a car and the caravan may not stay in place. The capabilities of a tow bar are often over estimated. Generally the only part that is visible is the tongue or ball. Sometimes this appears to be quite strong. However, the actual mountings or strength of that part of the bar that is under the vehicle may leave much to be desired.

In relation to tow bars there should be no compromise. Sure the cost may be a little more than you had budgeted for, but compared to the investment you have in the towing vehicle and caravan, it is cheap insurance. Always purchase a recognized product from a tow bar specialist. A quality tow bar can be readily identified by a plate, which displays the manufacturer's name, the vehicle for which it is designed and the tow bar's maximum towing load. 

If you purchase a new vehicle with a tow bar already fitted, do not assume that it matches the towing capabilities of the vehicle. Many tow bars are only designed to tow small trailers and not heavily loaded caravans. Before selecting a tow bar, firstly determine the loaded weight of the caravan. Then purchase a tow bar that can adequately cope with that load that you intend to pull.

If in doubt as to the best tow bar for your vehicle and application, discuss your requirements with a tow bar equipment specialist. You will then be able to go away and have an enjoyable holiday, knowing that the caravan will follow the car wherever it goes.

Remember: - contents like water, gas, food, clothing and camping equipment will usually add at least another 300 kg to the weight of an empty van.

Weight Distribution

Whenever a vehicle towing a caravan or trailer travels along the road with the back down and front up, a problem of weight transfer exists. This means that there is less weight on the front wheels of the towing vehicle, but more on the rear. For maximum safety, stability and vehicle control, both the caravan and towing vehicle should be level. The reasons that one or both may not be level could be due to:

  1. Incorrect ball height compared to the caravan coupling height.
  2. Uneven loading of the caravan.
  3. Lack of proper towing equipment.

Safe towing is only achieved by correctly loading the caravan. A correctly loaded and level caravan will ensure a safe and comfortable tow.


Sway is the side-to-side movement of the rear of the caravan. This movement is sometimes referred to as snaking and can result in complete loss of control. Because prevention is better than a cure, sway controls, or stabilizers should only be considered when all other factors contributing to the instability have been eliminated.

Some of the causes of sway are:

  • Poorly designed caravan.
  • Axle located too far forward.
  • Incorrect ball height.
  • Unsuitable tow-vehicle & caravan combination
  • Under inflated tyres
  • Incorrect weight distribution

Before purchasing any sway control equipment, discuss your problems with people experienced in caravan towing. Your local caravan dealer will be able to give you the correct advice and solution to your problem. In some cases particular types of equipment may be unsuitable. If a sway control or stabilizer is to be fitted, your accredited dealer is highly qualified to offer you the correct advice and recommendations. Talk to him first!

Driving Techniques

Many newcomers to caravanning are concerned with the prospect of towing or maneuvering a car and caravan combination. The problems that are sometimes encountered may simply be due to incompatible vehicle combination, incorrect loading, lack of proper towing equipment or simply a lack of skills. Once the above points have been fixed and a little common sense is used, towing a caravan need not be any more difficult than driving a car by itself.

Some areas where extra awareness may be required are:

Moving Off.

With a load behind, the acceleration rate of a vehicle is significantly reduced. With a manual transmission it is usually necessary to stay a little longer in each gear before shifting into a higher gear. If an automatic transmission is fitted the use of the selector lever to control up changes, especially when going uphill, is sometimes desirable.


Because of the extra length and weight fast speeds are not advocated.Do not exceed the speed limits recommended, especially where the road is under repair or construction. Never drive too close behind other vehicles. Leave at least a 60-meter gap between yourself and the leading vehicle, unless you are actually in the process of overtaking. This allows others to pass you safely. When approaching a hill and provided it is safe to do so, increase your speed slightly so that it is easier to go up the hill. Always select a lower gear early if the vehicle speed drops off noticeably. Once engine speed is lost, it is difficult to regain. As a result additional stresses may be placed on the engine. In windy conditions, always travel slower than normal, and avoid overtaking pantechnicons. Rather slow down a bit and follow behind until it is absolutely safe to pass. Never pass one of these giants on a downhill at speed! The wind turbulence can be very hair rising.


Overtaking other vehicles, particularly long trucks or other caravans, must be done with extreme caution. Not only is the acceleration considerably increased, but also due to the extra length a greater distance has to be covered before moving back into the left-hand lane. Remember to check your rearview mirrors to ensure it is safe to overtake. Never overtake a slower vehicle when going down hill. Always move out slowly from behind the vehicle you are about to overtake, bearing in mind that the wind turbulence, or slipstream, is always at it’s worst when you are a few meters behind the heavy vehicle, than when alongside. This is likely to cause the most instability of the caravan.

Being Overtaken.

By constantly monitoring the rear view mirrors, a faster oncoming vehicle can be readily spotted. If the vehicle intending to pass you is a truck or bus make sure that this can be achieved quickly and safely. Beware of sudden gusts of wind from the turbulence from these passing heavy vehicles. Heavy vehicles, busses and pantechnicons all cause upsets and disarray when overtaking or when you are been overtaken. If road conditions permit, move as far to the left as possible to allow them to overtake you. The greater the distance between the two vehicles, the safer the situation becomes. Never take the foot off the accelerator or brake when another vehicle is going past you. Simply keep your cool, and stay alert.

Going Downhill.

Always slow down and engage a lower gear before actually reaching the downhill section of the road. This is particularly important if the hill is a steep one. By adopting this procedure the need for heavy braking while going downhill is reduced. Excessive speed or sudden braking while traveling downhill could create an unstable situation.

Fuel Consumption.

Assuming that the caravan and towing vehicle are compatible, excessive fuel consumption can usually be attributed to fast speeds, poor engine tune or bad driving habits.More economical driving techniques can easily be mastered by anyone and will result in a noticeable reduction in fuel consumption. When moving off or passing another vehicle always move the accelerator smoothly. Any rapid or excessive movement will waste petrol.

Judging traffic flow is another useful technique. By observing the traffic some distance ahead it is often possible to avoid unnecessary braking and delays.

It is a noted fact, that every time the brakes are used fuel is wasted. This implies that the brakes needed to be applied because vehicle speed was kept up longer than necessary.If you see a hill coming up, and safety permits, increase vehicle speed slightly to make it easier for the engine to pull the vehicle up the incline.

Do not brake hard if the caravan starts to misbehave or sway. You must not brake hard, as this will result in the possibility of jack-knifing at speed. Simply apply light braking pressure, change down to a lower gear and slowly reduce speed. Do not accelerate. This is a fallacy and can only lead to total loss of control of the vehicle. The main object when a sway starts, is to slow down gradually so as to be able to remain in and take complete control of the rig.

Happy towing.

Take your time and travel not only safely, but also reliably. Stop over on your route if traveling distances in excess of 400 km. Try to limit yourself to only about 300 km per day. Stop every hour or so to stretch the legs, have a breather and a cool drink and also to let the dog out to have a wee break. Most of all, concentrate on the road ahead, and “Arrive Alive!”

Happy caravanning!

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