Whether it’s taking a small trailer full of rubbish to the tip or towing a large, twin-axle caravan on an inter-continental touring holiday, using your car as a towing vehicle imposes its own stresses and strains on the vehicle – and you.
It needn’t be like that, though. Here are our top tips on how to tow anything safely!
Does your licence cover you for towing?
Anyone who passed their driving test before 1 January 1997 can tow a caravan or trailer up to a maximum combined weight of 8,250kgs.
Anyone who first passed their test after that date will need to take a separate driving test (the ‘B+E’ test) or be restricted to towing trailers under 750kgs or combined car-and-trailer units with a Gross Train Weight (or GTW, see below for the definition) of less than 3,500kg, providing the Maximum Authorised Mass (MAM) of the caravan is less than the unladen weight of the car.
Read more about towing and the law
Does your car insurance cover towing a caravan or trailer?
Most car insurance does cover towing a caravan or trailer, but it’s always worth checking. A quick call to your insurer to check will be much less unpleasant than finding you're not insured for towing after you've had an accident.
Check your weight
Every car is given a maximum weight it can legally tow. It’s a complex calculation that varies according to numerous factors but it cannot be broken without breaking the law and invalidating your insurance.
The towing capacity will be given in your car’s handbook but if you are still confused, a quick telephone call to your nearest main dealer should give you the answer very quickly. Regardless of this figure, the trailer or caravan that is being towed shouldn’t weigh more than 85% of the towing vehicle’s weight.
Two other figures must be adhered to: the MAM, which is the weight of the fully laden car (including passengers and luggage) and the nose weight of the caravan or trailer; and the GTW, which is the weight of the fully laden car and caravan or trailer combined.
Six obscure laws you probably don't know
Check your nose weight
The nose weight is the maximum weight that should be applied to your car’s towbar. This will, of course, be much lower than the maximum weight it can pull and is designed to make sure that the car’s suspension isn’t overloaded, adversely affecting the car’s handling and steering.
If you don’t heed this advice your car could handle badly and your chances of having an accident will increase. You are generally aiming to have a nose weight of not less than 25kgs and not more than 75-100kgs.
Will you be towing a caravan? Read our tips on reversing...
Remember, if your trailer doesn’t have brakes you’re limited to a gross weight (ie, the combined weight of the trailer and its load) of no more than 750kgs or half the towing vehicle’s weight.
Pre-journey towing checks
You should always double-check a few key points before setting off on your journey:
• Does your car’s insurance policy cover you for towing a caravan or trailer? As we've said previously, most do, but it’s always worth checking.
• You should also check your caravan’s policy hasn’t lapsed or will lapse while you are away.
• Are the towing vehicle’s oil and water levels topped up?
• Are all the tyres properly inflated? Do all the tyres have sufficient tread depth and are the sidewalls free of cracks, splits and bulges? Do you have spare wheels and tyres for the towing vehicle and caravan or trailer, along with suitable jacks and wheel braces?
• Do all the lights work? Have you got spare bulbs for every light?
• Do your car’s mirrors give a sufficient view behind the caravan or do you need to buy extensions?
• Is the caravan’s tow-hitch securely fastened to the tow-ball? Is the breakaway cable securely fastened to the towing vehicle?
• Is everything in the towed vehicle securely fastened down? The last thing you want at speed is an unsecured load being thrown around…
How to keep your belongings safe in the car
On the open road
You might scoff, but it’s easy to forget you’re towing a caravan or trailer, so constantly remind yourself that you are towing. Other things to be aware of when towing include:
• Give everything extra space and don’t forget to allow for the extra width of the caravan or trailer.
• When taking corners, remember to take them more widely than you would normally do to avoid the towed unit ‘cutting’ the corner.
• Take extra care when you are turning left; make sure no cyclists have come up on the inside while you’ve been stationary.
• Leave extra room for braking. A towed unit will take much longer to bring to a halt – and an emergency stop risks a jack-knife.
• Mind your speed: the speed limit for towed vehicles is 60mph on motorways and dual carriageways and 50mph on all other roads, except where a lower limit is posted. These are, however, maximums, not targets!
• Speed is the primary cause of the towing driver’s worse nightmare: snaking. Exacerbated by a combination of a badly loaded caravan or trailer (usually due to a nose weight that is too low) and incorrectly inflated tyres – although buffeting from passing high-sided vehicles can also trigger it – snaking is when the towed vehicle starts to ‘snake’ behind the towing vehicle. It often gets progressively worse until the whole unit jack-knifes. Should you fall victim, gently ease off the throttle and let your speed fall until the problem goes away. Then stop when it is safe to do so and double-check the points we’ve just mentioned.
More tips for driving when you are towing a caravan
Some cars are fitted with electronic programmes that can help when you are towing. These include Electronic Stability Programme (ESP), Trailer Stability Programme (TSP), Trailer Sway Control (TSC) and Tow Assist; if your car has them, it’s well worth making sure you understand them – and use them!
If you see a long line of traffic building up behind you, why not be nice and pull over for a couple of minutes? It’s not going to inconvenience you much and you’ll help to restore the reputations of caravanners, who have been the butt of bad jokes and poorly aimed abuse for too long.
Read our six top tips for driving long distance