Towing Techniques

Many people either tow trailers, campers, boats or caravans when they travel. When it comes to towing a trailer or camper on the trip, the traveller will now have much more storage space. The compromises will be the extended vehicle length, additional weight and the associated handling changes. This article talks about the techniques and safety issues regarding towing trailers and campers.
Created: April 2003
Revised: February 2007
Latest Feedback: December 2015

Why take a trailer?

For long-term touring, towing a trailer, especially a camper trailer, is very popular in Australia for the obvious reason that you get added comfort and convenience.

Whether you tow a caravan or camper trailer, you'll have your bed ready-made, and a full head height enclosure providing the family with shade and privacy, and a fully setup kitchen (gas stove, bench, & even washing up bowl) and storage for clothing. A caravan or camper trailer outweight tents or swags for comfort.

Used wisely, even a humble storage trailer is a safer method for carrying heavy, bulky or less frequently used items than carrying them on a roof rack or inside the cabin of the vehicle.

Remember, it is far safer to tow a well-equipped, well manufactured heavy-duty off-road trailer to store extra fuel, water and spares than to pile them high on roof racks. Many people also find it preferable to mount their tinnie (aluminium fishing boat) on top of the trailer than on the roof of the 4WD as it is much easier to get on and off and doesn't limit parking the car under shady trees with low branches.

Many people use a 4WD to tow a caravan, camper trailer or storage trailer. You shouldn't need to feel too restricted by towing provided you use some commonsense.

Trailer Safety

  • Obviously driving speed needs to be decreased

  • Be aware of state by state variance in speed restrictions for your weight and length of trailer

  • Drop the trailer off if venturing into more difficult terrain where a trailer would only be a hindrance

  • Towing uses more fuel - remember to take this into account when calculating distances

  • If towing in off-road conditions select a heavy-duty custom built trailer with a rotating coupling, suspension & maybe brakes

  • Ensure the draw bar is long - this helps departure angles, turning, reversing etc

  • Use the trailer to store extra water, fuel, firewood, tyres etc
Trailers can be a hindrance if not heavy duty, reliable and well built. There are all kinds of trailers available with the most popular being the camper trailer which is a fold-out tent on wheels with all cooking equipment built in but sometimes there is little storage for other items.

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.

Vehicles Best for Towing?

Most passenger vehicles are not specifically designed with towing in mind. This does not mean that they can't be used to tow but that certain modifications my be needed 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.

The majority of components in smaller vehicles are less robust than in larger ones. This usually makes small cars less suitable to towing heavy loads. Larger four wheel drives (4WDs) are popular for towing for these main reasons:

  • Rugged construction, with solid engines and transmissions form a a sound basis for a capable towing vehicle

  • Higher unladen weight, or mass, means that a larger trailer can be towed than would normally be the case with lighter vehicles

  • Reduction in fuel costs and wind resistance with the vehicle usually being higher than the trailer/caravan being towed
In many instances a 4WD is not really needed unless you intend to venture away from the bitumen roads. You can travel by bitumen the entire way around the coastline of Australia, however the more remote and less populated and spectacular locations are definitely restricted to 4WD access only.

Towing Caravans in the Outback

Most caravans, unless suitably modified or custom-built are not designed to travel along rough outback tracks. However, you can read the Difficulty Rating Guide (indicated by the number of vehicle symbols) given in each of our Trek Notes to get a gauge of what tracks are suitable. Certainly, it is true that more and more tracks are being improved by councils to ensure that tourists with caravans can access most of the major attractions.

In general, a heavy duty, custom-built offroad trailer can go just about anywhere, eg. Cape York. However, there are some places where due to land ownership, requests have been made to the public to refrain from towing trailers. 2 major areas where this is true is the Simpson Desert and the Canning Stock Route.

The South Australian Dept of Environment and Heritage advise that trailers are not to be towed through the Simpson Desert. This is stated in every "Desert Parks Bulletin". Although there is currently no "fine" for towing a trailer, you will incur an enormous "fine" if you have to abandon a trailer in the desert. It will also become your responsibility to retrieve the trailer at your expense... and this is considerable! The Simpson Desert does not get graded so if you chop it up, it stays that way still the next rains or winds. Vehicles do make quite an impact on the dune system and towing trailers is simply stupid! If you must, take the Rig Road only.

Along the Canning Stock Route, you may not use the section of track that is now owned by private pastoralists - Cunyu Station. There is an alternative route for travellers with trailers but there is a charge to use this track (to cover track maintenance). For further details, read the CSR Trek Note.

We ask you to consider the impact that towing a trailer may make on the tracks you use and how that will affect the enjoyment of the trip for other travellers coming along after you.

Techniques for Towing

Moving Off

With a trailer in tow the acceleration rate of a vehicle is drastically reduced. If the tow vehicle has a manual transmission it is usually necessary to stay a little longer in each gear before changing up. With vehicles that have an automatic transmission it is a good idea to use the selector lever manually to control the gear changes particularly when going uphill.

Cruising

Because of the extra length and weight, fast speeds are not recommended. In some states the speed limits are lower when a caravan is in tow. Never drive too close behind other vehicles as it will take longer to stop than when the car is by itself. Leave at least a 60metre spaces unless actually overtaking. this allows other traffic to pass your vehicle safely.

When approaching a hill and provided it is safe to do so, increase the vehicle speed slightly so as to make it easier to get up the hill. Always select a lower gear if the vehicle speed drops off noticeably. Once engine speed is lost it is difficult to pick up again. As a result the engine will struggle to pull the outfit up the hill.

Overtaking

Overtaking other vehicles, especially long trucks or other caravans, must be done with extreme caution. Not only is the acceleration considerably reduced but due to the extra length a greater distance has to be covered before it is possible to move back into the left hand lane. Remember to check the mirrors before pulling out.

Being Overtaken

By constantly monitoring the rear vision mirrors a faster travelling vehicle can be readily spotted. If road and traffic conditions permit, move as far to the left as possible without kicking up dust and without increasing speed. There is less chance of sway occurring if the trailer is being pulled rather than it pushing on to the car so do not brake or allow the rig to overrun. When traffic builds up behind you periodically move off the road to allow other motorists to pass safely. Keep in mind, any dust your wheels kick up my affect the passing motorists vision.

Going Downhill

On steep hills you can limit heavy braking by backing off the accelerator before reaching the downhill section and changing to a lower gear to use engine braking. Due to the heavy duty construction of diesel engines they are particularly good in this situation.

Braking Systems

Not mandatory if less than 750kg but can be very useful especially if brakes are of the type that can be manually as well as automatically applied.

Trailer Suspension

4WD trailers should have a good suspension system that is compatible with the towing vehicle and you should carry spares as trailer suspension cops a beating in the bush. Check to see whether your trailer uses standard length springs, stand sizes u-bolts etc.

Towbars and Hitches

Generally the only part that is visible is the tongue or lug. Sometimes this appears to be quite strong but the actual mountings or strength of that part of the bar under the vehicle is not.

Always purchase towbar that is a recognised 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 bar's maximum towing load.

Do not assume that the tow bar fitted to a new vehicle is suitable for your trailer. Put your trailer on a weigh-bridge fully laden then purchase a tow bar that can adequately cope with this load.

To safely tow a trailer behind a 4WD in off-road conditions it is vital to use a coupling that enables almost full 360 degree turning such as this system pictured below.

Tyres for Towing

In regard to safety, tyres play a more important part on a car and trailer than any other single component.

If the tyres are not inflated correctly, or are the wrong type, the stability and ride of the car and trailer combination can be severely effected. Tyre pressures are best checked when cool, hot tyres give an incorrect reading. Tyres on an off-road trailer can be inflated and deflated to suit conditions as you would your 4WD, especially in very soft, hot sand.

If you're planning to tow a caravan or trailer, its always wise to purchase the same type of tyre all round - split rims or tubeless - so you have plenty of spares in case of multiple punctures!

Stone Deflectors

A vehicle towing a trailer is more inclined to kick up stones onto the rear windows of the car. A few methods can be used to reduce this from occurring:

  • Fit stone deflectors to the front of the trailer (angle all square-faced panels towards the ground with deadening material such as gauze)

  • Fit long, thick mudflaps right across the back of the 4WD behind the rear wheels

  • Fit perspex sheeting over your glass rear windows with silicon glue

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