Getting on the road
Knowing your caravan
Once you have chosen the right caravan for you, you need to know how to load and tow your caravan safely. Here, we will guide you through hints and tips to get you on the road.
Loading your caravan
You need to check the amount you can carry in the caravan, the payload allowance, in the handbook. This will determine how much you can pack into the caravan. You can calculate the User Payload, the maximum amount/weight you can pack into your caravan, by identifying the difference between Mass in Running Order (MIRO) and the Maximum Technically Permissible Laden Mass (MTPLM).
Note: There were changes to the MIRO calculations in 2010, so depending when your chosen caravan was built will depend which rules apply. Therefore you need to take account of this when calculating your User Payload to ensure you do not exceed limits. Please note, if you decide to purchase an older caravan prior to the mid 1990’s please be aware that the quoted weight has a 5% tolerance which is officially plus or minus but in reality is always a plus.
Also note that, if you have had items fitted to the caravan after it left the factory, such as a leisure battery or motor mover, the weight of these items will need to be taken account of when calculating the User Payload.
It is worth calculating the weight of your personal belongings and equipment you plan to pack before loading the caravan. Bear in mind that any heavy items, for example an extra gas bottle, will all take up weight allowance within the User Payload. It may be that you choose to carry some of the heavier items in your car for the journey, but you must also be careful not to overload your car.
Although it may be possible to pre-calculate weights, it is also advisable to weigh your car and caravan as you plan to tow. This will give you peace of mind that you are keeping within sensible limits and within the legal weight limits. You can do this at a weighbridge or using a portable weighing device. If you are struggling to find a local weighbridge your local Trading Standards officer can inform you where the nearest is.
How can I optimally load my caravan?
When loading your caravan it is best to keep all heavy items low down, and ideally over the axle or as close as possible. Medium weight items should be kept low down, or can be higher up so long as they are over the axle. Lighter items can be stored higher, in over head lockers for example.
Examples of heavy items could be: gas bottles or batteries, or awnings or furniture so load these first and other items after to achieve ideal nose weight; medium weight items could be pots and pans; lighter items could be small items of clothes, towels. You could maybe try and pack lighter options, for example if you plan to take soup maybe you could take packets rather than tins.
You must check that items will not move during transit. This is not only to ensure nothing is broken but also because a shift in weight could affect noseweight, and therefore stability.
An effective way to save weight might be to travel with the minimum amount of water. If you choose to do this, you must check before you set off that your destination has a good supply of drinking water. You could also use lightweight, camping style plates and bowls etc rather than standard crockery. There are many ways to minimise weight by being inventive.
Be aware not to overload your caravan as this is an offence and may cause premature tyre failure and damage the running gear. Therefore understanding the amount of payload offered with a caravan is a very important consideration.
Another key weight to consider, and which is greatly affected by loading your caravan is your caravan’s noseweight. The noseweight is the downwards force put on the car’s towball. When loading the caravan you are aiming for an optimum balance of weight to ensure that the noseweight is as heavy as possible, but not exceeding the caravan’s own noseweight or the car’s towball limit.
Both are normally between 50-100kg, but you need to check your user manuals to ensure exact optimum weights. Your caravan’s noseweight should be approximately 7% of its laden weight, so for example, for a caravan with a laden weight of 1000kg the recommended noseweight would be 70kg. It might be that the handbook has a specific noseweight that you need to be aiming for, and not exceeding. It would also be advisable to leave some leeway for safety. Towbars also have noseweight limits, so these must be adhered to also.
You can measure noseweight using a gauge. When measuring you must ensure that the caravan is on an even surface and well supported so as to avoid accidents and protect both you and the caravan.
The reason you aim to load your caravan in this way is to keep it as stable as possible on the road and because, amongst other factors, if you have excess weight at the rear of the caravan it can cause it to be generally unstable and possibly act like a pendulum behind the car, which could cause it to ‘snake’ or ‘pitch’. This could potentially be dangerous if it gets out of control. It is a delicate balance though because if there is not enough weight on the rear car tyres it could affect grip, for example on a steep incline. You should also check that the noseweight does not raise your car’s headlights above the legal limit.
How do I hitch?
- To hitch, start by making sure that the caravan handbrake is on and the corner steadies are raised.
- Then use the jockey wheel to raise the caravan hitch height until it is higher than the car tow ball.
- Now you need to reverse the car until the tow ball is either underneath, or just beside the caravan hitch.
- Once in position, put the car’s handbrake on.
- Raise the hitch lever and lower the hitch on to the tow ball by winding up the jockey wheel, ensuring it is in the correct location.
- Keep winding the jockey wheel up until the hitch fits over the tow ball, and the hitch safety mechanism pops out, showing green, or in older types until the handle clicks back into place.
- To check you have locked on properly, wind down the jockey wheel until the rear of the car starts to lift.
- Return to winding up the jockey wheel, then stow it in the correct position beside the A-Frame, and tighten its retaining handle.
- Attach the 12V connector(s) for the lights etc.
- Attach the breakaway cable.
- Release the caravan handbrake.
- Check all caravan road lights are working, the steadies are fully up and windows and doors are properly secure.
- Make sure the towing mirrors are properly adjusted.
- Away you go!
If you have never towed a caravan before then it is certainly worth considering a manoeuvring course, which is offered by the likes of The Caravan Club and The Camping and Caravanning Club. For more information visit their respective websites.
You will also need to consider whether your driving licence will allow you to tow the caravan you want, and if not, this will mean that you need to take a test to make this possible.
Are there any towing tips to get me started?
- When you’re towing you need to remember that you’ll need more time and space for everything compared to simply driving your car – your outfit is now much longer and with limitations on manoeuvrability.
- You’ll also need to allow more time to brake with a caravan on the back!
- Your outfit length and manoeuvrability also means that you’ll need to take corners wider and slower to ensure you don’t cut the corner or clip the curb, or any bollards (or pedestrians!) that are present.
- The legal UK speed limit whilst towing is 50mph on single carriageways and 60mph on dual carriageways.
- Also bear in mind that on a motorway you are not permitted to enter the outside lane (unless instructed to do so by road signs).
- You must have an adequate view of the road behind you. If your caravan or trailer is wider than the rear of the towing vehicle, you may need to fit suitable towing mirrors. If you tow without proper towing mirrors you can be:
- prosecuted by the police
- given 3 points on your licence
- fined up to £1,000
- All passengers must travel in the car and cannot travel in the caravan.
- You must ensure that your car’s registration plate is always visible at the rear of your caravan. It must be illuminated at night, as per regulations.
- Ensuring that the rear lights on the caravan are working correctly is essential before setting off.
- As common courtesy to others, if you notice that traffic is building up behind you due to your restricted speed limits, then you could pull over into a convenient layby and allow them to pass.
- When you stop and park your outfit you must ensure it is in a suitable place that won’t cause an obstruction.
- If you get a tow bar for your car, it needs to be ‘type approved’. This means it meets EU regulations and is designed for your car. A type-approved tow bar will have a label with an approval number and details of the vehicles it’s approved for. If your car was first used before 1 August 1998, your tow bar doesn’t need to be type-approved.
What difficulties might I run into while towing?
- Snaking: this is when the caravan's lateral sway movement (the 'yaw') becomes excessive.
- Pitching: this describes the seesaw type movement that can occur on the caravan, which can occur from incorrect loading.
- The best way to avoid both snaking and pitching is to have a well matched outfit (car and caravan). You also need to check that the caravan is loaded correctly for optimum noseweight and distribution of weight internally so as not to unbalance the caravan. Fitting a stabiliser might also be an option to assist.
- Even when you have everything set up correctly, it could be that high winds or the air turbulence from a passing vehicle could cause snaking or pitching to occur.
- The best way to deal with them is to take your feet off the pedals and allow your car’s engine breaking to reduce your speed. You need to avoid the instinct to brake with the pedal as this can escalate the problem. You need to try to drive in a straight line because attempting to steer out of the motion can increase the problem.
- For more information on each of these it would be advisable to take a course, possibly with the Caravan Club or Camping and Caravanning Club.
- Towing a caravan will alter the performance of the car, partly due to the extra weight. This means that it will take longer to brake and longer to accelerate, so this should be taken into account, for example when approaching a road junction.
- The speed you are towing at is also very important because the aerodynamic forces that act on a caravan will impact the noseweight of the caravan. As your speed increases noseweight may decrease. This decrease in noseweight can potentially cause instability and is also another important reason to drive at sensible speeds whilst towing a caravan. The legal limits are set for a reason.
- Driving into a headwind and gusting cross winds can also affect stability. Manage this as previously mentioned by allowing the car engine to brake and slow speeds rather than using the brakes.
- Towing up gradients is another reason that you must outfit match your towing vehicle and caravan correctly. When going uphill you must change gear in good time to ensure you do not slow too much and then struggle to build momentum back up.
- When going downhill you need to ensure that you do not start to gain speed. You can help avoid this by changing down a gear as you approach the slope. Once again, remember not to leave this change until too late. Using the lower gears throughout the decent will reduce the strain on your towing vehicle’s brakes. If you are driving an automatic car it is possible that you might need to manually change to a lower gear in anticipation of the gradient.
- Further detailed advice can be gained in the aforementioned training courses.
Reversing your caravan
Is reversing difficult?
Reversing might feel slightly alien to you the first time you try, but it just takes a little bit of practice to master the skill. It is important to note that if you have never reversed a caravan before, the caravan can sometimes cause some resistance to start and then may jolt slightly when starting to reverse. This is due to a safety mechanism which is designed to stop the caravan rolling backwards (when not being reversed by the car).
To reverse in a straight line:
- Ensure that everything starts straight and that your steering wheel is positioned straight.
- Monitor mirrors at all times to check that the caravan is not appearing more at one side than the other. If it is, then to straighten it again you need to turn the steering wheel slightly towards the mirror that you can see the caravan.
- When learning it is not guaranteed that you’ll get it perfect first time, therefore do not be afraid to straighten up and start again. After all, practice makes perfect.
To reverse around a corner:
- Ensure you have a clear view to check that there are no obstacles present.
- The key to reversing is to ensure you have your outfit positioned correctly to start.
- Once your caravan is in its starting position you would look over your shoulder in the direction you want to go (or looking in the mirror) and turn the wheel in the opposite direction as you start reversing slowly.
- The caravan might turn quicker than expected so stay alert and move steadily to prevent it jack-knifing.
- When the caravan is turning at the correct angle you can steer your car towards the caravan to match the radius of the turn.
- Note that increasing the steering lock will tend to straighten the outfit out and decreasing the steering lock will tighten the turn.
Small caravans will react quicker due to the proximity of the axle and towball, which can actually make it more difficult to reverse them due to the sensitivity to movement. That said, it just takes a bit of practice to acclimatise to your caravan and how it moves. The single axle caravans can turn tightly but will require quick corrections. Whereas, the twin axle caravans will move slower due to the extra set of tyres, allowing more time for corrections but meaning you need more space to turn.
When reversing you might want to ask your passenger, if you have one, if they wouldn’t mind getting out of the vehicle and helping to guide you back. Please be aware that we strongly advise that at no time the passenger stands between towing vehicle and caravan, even if you only have a short distance left to move. Once the vehicle is stationary someone might need to come in to unhitch, but not whilst the outfit is moving. Remember that before someone assists you to reverse, you must have pre-agreed a clear set of signals so that there is no confusion.
When you are reversing remember to watch for potholes, slopes, cambers and any other irregularity in the surface that might cause the caravan to deviate from your desired path. Remember to make manoeuvres slow and smooth.
Other essential points to consider are:
- You might want to consider a stabiliser if your caravan does not come with one as standard. They can reduce snaking by increasing the turning friction between car and caravan. You might also decide that it is not necessary.
- Always consider time and space, don’t be too ambitious about manoeuvring until you’ve had some experience, practice and feel comfortable towing.
- You might want to attend a course, possibly with the Caravan Club or Camping and Caravanning Club to increase your confidence and skills before you go out on the road. As mentioned previously, ensure that your driving licence permits you to tow the outfit you have before you start to tow!