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Traffic Congestion

Category: Practical Advice Driving and Towing | Author: |  Date posted:  | Impressions: 24957   6639

Do Caravans cause traffic congestion?
Submitted by Mark Lowe

Everyone thinks caravans cause traffic holdups, but what they don't realise, it isn't the caravan that's holding you up, it's the driver who doesn't know how to tow it effectively.

I have been towing for a long time, and can honestly say, I have never been the reason for a hold up on the roads for traffic travelling within the legal limits. I tow fast enough to keep traffic moving, and well enough to not get myself into situations that are going to inconvenience other drivers.

On main roads, caravans can often be found at the front of a line of traffic, and all the solo drivers behind are moaning because it isn't going fast enough, but I bet, if that impatient BMW driver behind suddenly had in excess of 1 000 kg’s attached to the back of his car, he would become the hold up.

You have to bear in mind that a caravan is a heavy vehicle, and no matter what you drive, it is going to reduce acceleration times and slow you down. However, if you know how to tow effectively, then you can get along much quicker, and safer, without being 'another bloody caravan' and that's what this opinion is hopefully going to help with. How to tow safely and correctly.

I should say first, by no means am I saying this is HOW you do it; I am just sharing experience and knowledge on the subject. I strongly recommend that anyone intending to tow for the first time, should seek proper tuition from an experienced caravanner. You can contact any one of the Caravan and Camping Clubs listed to seek advice.

I have recently got back from a trip down to the Eastern Cape. I was towing a Jurgens Xplorer (5,30m long), weighing about 1500 kg (fully packed) behind my 4x4 Double Cab bakkie. Total outfit length was 10,24m meters, and total weight was about 4150 kg’s, that's about 4,2 tons.  Even so, I was able to maintain a safe speed of about 100kph, suitable so as not to get into any situation that was a problem for other road users.

I passed lots of other “towers” using 4x4s, and large cars, some towing outfits smaller than mine, and they couldn't keep up, why? Because they didn't know how, believe me, most of them try!!
So, how do you tow effectively?

Well, first thing, before you get going:

What are you towing, and what are you towing with?

There is no point even attempting to tow a 5,6 meter caravan behind a BMW Z3, it just isn't going to happen (not to mention that it won’t look cool, doll).

Why, I hear all you Z3 owners asking? Horsepower alone is not enough. You can have all the horsepower you want in your car, but if it doesn't have torque characteristics suited to towing, you're not going anywhere.
So, what makes a good tow car?


The size and weight of your car is a very important factor when towing, and is often overlooked. 5,6 meter of single axle caravan has a lot of force in it and always wants to go faster than you are, so you need weight and size to help keep it behind you where it should be. A run- away caravan will easily flip a light or short car. I personally wouldn't tow a caravan or large boat behind anything smaller than 1100 kg tare weight. As a rule of thumb I would say your car needs to equal or exceed the Gross Vehicle Weight (GVM) of what you are towing.

The legal point of view reflects this as you may not by law tow a trailer/caravan etc. whose GVM exceeds the tare or licence mass of the towing vehicle.

In addition and very importantly, you should ALWAYS consult your manual for your cars' maximum towing weight.

Engine power:

Obviously your car needs to be powerful enough to pull your outfit at a good speed and not end up letting you down when you get to a hill.

The fancy 4x4 is knocking out 140kW, which is plenty to keep it going with the boat or caravan at 110 kph. Torque may be enough to keep it going up most hills in Gauteng, but it will slow down a bit when given the hills in KwaZulu-Natal, but not enough to be a problem. That's where torque is needed. You need the torque to help it along when it is put under load. A powerful sports car will keep a caravan going at 120 km/ph on a flat road, but give it a slight gradient or you have to slow down then speed up again, it is going to struggle if it doesn't have torque.

How much torque? Or kW?

Well that depends on your outfit. Most family 2.0 litre cars will be able to pull a fair sized caravan comfortably, without any real problems. If you want to tow something larger then you may need to step up into the double cab, 4x4 and SUV market. Something with a good meaty engine, that has torque and weight on its side, OK, they may be slower than most cars when solo, but they usually have enough power and torque (at the required towing speeds) to pull well.

Choice of engine when towing is also an important factor, especially the choice between petrol and diesel. This is a whole issue on it’s own which I may discuss at another opportunity, but let me suffice to say that I have a personal preference for diesel for it’s superior suitability for towing with respect to torque and other engine characteristics, etc.

Manual or Automatic?

These days it’s more a matter of personal choice. If you want easy towing, and don't mind maybe being a little slower at times, then go for auto. If you don't mind having to change gear now and then, and would rather you had that acceleration there when you need it, then manual may be the way forward. A lot of the luxury vehicles do not even have the option of a manual gearbox anymore.

Then again, some of the luxury automatic vehicles of today combine the best of both manual and auto boxes, such as tiptronic, steptronic and geartronic etc., providing both manual and automatic facilities at the flick of a lever, so that choice of the above is no longer a big issue.

Gearing is also an important issue when towing. Correct utilization of the gearbox will provide the best fuel consumption, average speed and reduce stress on the engine. The top gear on most vehicles is designed as an overdrive to reduce engine revolutions and resultant fuel consumption at cruising speeds. However, when towing, it is advisable to travel with the engine running at speeds as near as possible to the torque peak of the engine for optimum towing ability. This may mean travelling in fourth gear (or a lower gear than top as the case may be). For example, If you are travelling in the top gear at 100kph, your engine revolutions in that gear may mean that you are way below the engines torque peak, causing the engine to labour, resulting in accelerated wear and higher fuel consumption.

Ok so you have matched your tow car with your outfit. Now you need to make sure you load your outfit right.

Yep, I’m afraid shoving as many shoes (or beers) into the front locker as you can isn't the best way. How you load your outfit makes a huge difference as to how it will tow, and could be the difference between getting there in one piece or not!! Improper loading is one of the main reasons for caravan accidents.

So how do I load my caravan?

Well, as a rule, you put heavy items on the floor as close to the wheels (over the axle) as you can, and light objects up top in the overhead lockers.

If you are taking an awning or tent for instance, the best place for it, as it is heavy, is over the wheels or in the car. Most bakkies are especially suited to this because of their excellent loading capabilities and hard suspension resulting in minimal taildrop with caravan hitched.

As a rule, you want to have the outfit as level as possible, so shifting stuff around to get it level is often needed, just make sure items are secure where you pack them to avoid the rolling around and maybe adversely affecting the weight balance and center of gravity.

The caravan should always hitch to the vehicle with the nose level or slightly nose down. If you are too nose heavy or tail heavy it will make the caravan pitch a lot, and sway, resulting in poor vehicle control and even jack knifing.
However, I have found that often the written methods of packing a caravan are not always suitable, and you may find yourself having to shift weight forwards or backwards on your journey until you get it right.

NEVER exceed your caravan’s gross vehicle mass (GVM), which is stamped on the manufacturers' plate located on the axle, caravan draw bar or “A” frame. The maximum luggage weight you can transport in the van is the difference between the GVM and the Tare or licence mass. Ask your caravan dealer what the Tare Mass entails as it usually excludes such items such as the tents, poles, gas bottles etc.

But what if I am not towing a caravan; do I still need to worry about it in a trailer or boat?

Yes, any trailer needs loading correctly. A boat for instance can easily weigh more than a caravan. Unfortunately, you don’t have as much room to move stuff around, as most of the weight is fixed, with engines, fuel tanks etc, but if it was correctly built for a trailer, you should find they have balanced it quite well. What you can try doing, is shifting things like portable fuel tanks, etc around.

Ok, so you are about ready to hit the road. ALWAYS check your lights. It is often a common mistake to assume, well they were working last time we used it, and it hasn't gone anywhere, so they should still be working. Wrong. Its kind of like Christmas lights, no matter how neatly you pack them away, you can bet your life when you get them out the next year, they are tangled and bulbs won’t work, why? Who knows, but its sods law, so check your lights.

Make sure that your van is properly hitched, that the jockey wheel is jacked up or removed, the electrical plug installed and that you have attached the safety chain over the coupler. Before each trip, check the towhitch and towball mounting bolts as these can work loose over time. Of course, there are other routine checks that you must perform on both your van and vehicle before towing, such as checking wheel nuts, tyre pressures and switching off gas consult your relevant handbooks and make a handy summarized list to keep in your cubbyhole.

Ok, so you're moving. Easy now isn't it?

Well in a perfect world yes, if everything is right, then your outfit will follow you for miles without a problem, however, this is not a perfect world.

How to tow on a road is a matter of practice, and common sense, so I will just give you some pointers:


Don't use excessive speed or acceleration. You won’t, no matter what you drive, be able to travel at your normal speed for that car for extended periods (which should not exceed 120kph anyway!). The recommended speed limit for towing vehicles on motorways and highways is 100 km/ph. Due to the increased drag caused by the high frontal area of the caravan, any small increase in towing speed will result in a disproportionately steep increase in fuel consumption as the engine strains to overcome the escalating drag.

Basically, the faster you go, the more unstable your outfit becomes, the slower your reaction times become to avoid danger and the faster problems will arise.


Make sure that your rearward vision is as good as possible. Most towing vehicles will require additional sideview mirrors to be attached in order to see past the wider caravan behind. Some of the wider 4x4’s and SUV’s may well manage without if they are wide enough. If your van has a rear window, open the curtains to allow decent through vision from your rear view mirror. Don’t stack piles of plastic chairs on top of each other in the van, which may block your view.


Most caravans and off-road trailers these days have brakes, lighter trailers may not, but usually as long as you have matched your tow car right, you should be fine. However, don't be mislead, the brakes on caravans etc, are 'over-run' brakes. ie. They are designed to slow it down, NOT stop it. Usually the brakes are of drum type, like those found on the back wheels of most cars. They are operated by the tow hitch, as the car slows down the caravan pushes against the tow bar, the hitch has a hydraulic (usually) ram in it and as the caravan pushes it, it pushes the ram in which in turn, applies the brakes. Their main function is to help stop the caravan running away with you, and keeps it at the cars speed as well as assists the cars brakes in stopping. However in an emergency they are almost ineffective and you are mainly relying on your cars brakes.

So when towing, you have to allow yourself twice the stopping distance, and follow other cars twice as far behind, because no matter how fast you can apply the brakes, or what fancy electronics you have on your car, you are safely going to need at least twice the normal stopping distance/time.


Nothing is more irritating than a motorist who does not like being overtaken. It is irresponsible and can also be very dangerous.

If you are on the motorway and a caravan or boat is overtaking you, don't take it as a personal challenge to stop a fellow motorist getting by when safe to do so, its not an embarrassment, its not a race, its just they are going faster, maybe have a bigger car, or a lighter outfit. You must remember, the driver can’t see the back of his outfit, especially with boats, as usually they have about 4 foot of motor sticking out the back too, which can’t be seen. So if you are overtaken, always be aware that the driver may not correctly judge the overtaking distance required so that to avoid a collision you may have to drop back a bit. Ideally, all drivers should be aware of the lengths of their rigs and know the correct distance/time to overtake at any given speed before moving back into lane.

Tandem towing is something that I do not personally advocate under any circumstances. However, if you must tow a luggage trailer or boat behind your caravan, then there are a few things to bear in mind. Firstly, the manufacturer will immediately void any caravan warranty, as they quite rightly will say that no caravan chassis is designed to accommodate the additional stress and weight of another vehicle or trailer. Secondly, the law states that the maximum length of any rig combination may not exceed 20m and that if the combined mass of the caravan and the second trailer / boat etc. exceeds 1360kg; BOTH towed vehicles require service brakes. Thirdly, The additional weight and increased length will result in additional stresses on your towing vehicle as well as diminished control by the driver.

If you find yourself causing a bit of a tailback on main roads, allow following traffic to overtake if the road ahead is clear (Remember, I don’t advocate travelling in the Yellow Lane). Obviously, solo vehicles are going to be travelling faster. What I do is signal them past when I can see the road ahead is straight and empty. That way I don't have to stop or slow down, and they can go past. If they don't pass you, then that's their tough luck; they had their chance, and can’t moan about it. If they want to come past they will. The usual holdup is not the caravan, it's the driver behind the caravan, who can’t get past, due to not enough power, deliberate slipstreaming or maybe he/she is too nervous to overtake, etc.


When overtaking trucks, make sure you have plenty of room. As you can often find yourself stuck behind them, and sometimes no matter how hard you try, you can't get past them. This isn't always because you just aren't fast enough, it is sometimes due to the suction caused by the 2 high-sided outfits and the truck being the heaviest usually wins. If you find yourself stuck in this suction, slow down again and drop back, then try again, either by taking a longer run-up to get speed up, or waiting until the truck is going up hill and has slowed down. NEVER overtake any slower traffic travelling downhill; this is a very dangerous practice for several obvious reasons.


Probably the hardest part of towing. It’s an art to be able to reverse a caravan or boat and is not really something you can be taught, its something that comes from experience.

I can’t really even attempt to tell you how to do it on paper. One way you can try without having to go out is with toy cars. Get a toy car and trailer or something and try reversing it. That will give you the basic idea, then you can take your outfit out to an old car park or something and just try it.

The main thing to remember is, when reversing, to make the caravan go left you have to steer right and visa versa.
Once you get the hang of it, it is easy, but its practice that makes perfect.

You should learn how to reverse and keep on practicing until you can, before you take your outfit out on a journey, as you never know when you may need to reverse!!

Basically, towing is easy if you use common sense and don't rely solely on technology. I have seen too many accidents happen where it’s turned out the driver has been lulled into a false sense of security by his traction control, or ABS or other fancy electronics the car has, but remember those systems are designed for the car, NOT for a caravan on tow, and become less effective when towing!

To conclude, towing a caravan is a balance of common sense and ability/experience on the part of the driver, correct matching of the towing and towed vehicle and ensuring at all times that your rig is roadworthy, safe and with total adherence to the rules of the road.

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