There are many things to consider when towing a caravan. From loading and hitching the caravan correctly, to safe driving techniques, do your research before you set off.

In this section, you’ll find advice and checklists for all aspects of caravanning. You should also consult your vehicle and caravan owner’s manuals for important information about your rig.

Below, you’ll find important information on loading up, levelling, hitching up and checking the caravan before driving. 

Loading the caravan

It’s important to load the caravan correctly so that it tows well. Here are some tips:
  • Keep the centre of gravity low by putting heavy items near the floor and where possible over the axle/s.
  • When packing a caravan for the first time, check that its ATM/GTM and ball load is not exceeded; and that you meet all tow vehicle and tow bar specifications. If you do exceed the ball load, you can try re-stowing contents – but don’t simply move gear to the rear of the van, as this will affect the stability. If this doesn’t work, you may need to change the caravan/tow vehicle combination.
  • Some caravans carry greater weight on one side (because of the fridge, stove, sink, etc.). Balance this out by loading portable equipment on the other side. 
  • Remove unnecessary items and use lightweight items wherever possible to reduce the caravan’s weight and save on fuel. Try not to carry large quantities of water (unless you’re going somewhere that water is unavailable). 
  • Rubber matting or foam on shelves will stop the contents from sliding. 
  • Wrap glassware and other breakables in towels or newspapers. Use plastics where possible. 
  • Don’t leave loose articles on the floor where they can roll around and cause damage.
  • Store food and equipment that you will need when you first stop within easy reach.
  • Carry all the tools and equipment you need for hitching and unhitching in an easy-to-access place.

Load levelling devices

Load levelling devices redistribute the load between the front and rear axles of the tow vehicle for greater stability, steering response and braking. Before buying one, know that:
  • They DO NOT reduce the ball load of the caravan
  • They should only be used on tow bars and vehicles that are intended for them, or else they may cause structural failure
  • You should seek specialist advice from the licensed dealer or a caravan parts retailer or supplier before fitting a load levelling device.

Extension mirrors

If you are towing a caravan and can’t see the cars behind you (on either side), you must fit external rear vision mirrors.

Hitching up

Hitching the car to the caravan isn’t as hard as it looks. If you’re doing it on your own, you can get hitching aids from caravan accessories shops. If you’ve got an assistant, here are a few tips: 
  • Warm up the towing vehicle’s engine and transmission by taking it for a short drive (if you just leave the engine idling in the van park, you might annoy other campers)
  • Apply the van brake and raise the van’s corner stabilisers
  • Using the jockey wheel, ensure the front of the van is raised high enough to allow the tow ball to pass under the coupling
  • Practice and agree on any hand signals that will be used by the assistant
  • Make sure the assistant stands clear of the car’s reversing path.
  • Once the tow ball is in place under the coupling, lower the jockey wheel to mate the parts; then connect the safety chain, electricals, load levelling hitch and brakes (as applicable) and remove or stow the jockey wheel
  • Release the trailer’s handbrake.

A final check

Before taking to the road at any time, ensure that:
  • Corner stabilisers are up and jockey wheel is stowed
  • Coupling lock mechanism is firmly fixed
  • Safety chains are attached
  • Brake coupling / wiring is connected
  • Light wiring has been connected to the car and the lights are working
  • Tyre pressures of car and van are correct
  • Wheel chocks are removed
  • Windows and hatches are closed and locked
  • Van step is retracted
  • Electricity lead, water and sullage hoses are disconnected and stowed
  • Inside, cupboard doors are closed and movable objects are packed to prevent sliding around
  • Gas is off and fridge is turned over to 12v supply if fitted (note: gas pilot lights must be turned off when refuelling the towing vehicle)
  • The TV antenna is removed or retracted
  • The caravan door is locked and safely latched
  • Outside rear vision mirrors have been adjusted and the windscreen has been cleaned.
Towing a caravan isn’t really that difficult – it just takes more care. Always remember that, by the simple act of coupling up your caravan, your vehicle has become much heavier, wider, longer and taller. It’s harder to move and much harder to stop – so allow extra time and space for all manoeuvres, including overtaking. 

Also remember that the caravan is usually wider and taller, so take special care when turning corners or pulling alongside kerbs. Your car may miss a post or tree, but your caravan might not. 

Starting off

You’ll notice the extra weight of your caravan straight away. 

If you’ve got an automatic transmission, select Drive and accelerate gently. If you’ve got a manual transmission, get the vehicle moving with as little clutch slip as possible, then increase speed gradually until the caravan’s momentum reduces the labouring of the engine. The change to a higher gear should be made when the engine shows no sign of strain.

If practical, organise all stops on level ground or a downward slope to make the start easier. 

If you have to re-start on a steep hill, and it’s safe to do so, then ease the strain on the tow vehicle by allowing the outfit to run back a short distance with the steering over on one lock – so the car and caravan are at an angle to each other. This will reduce the load on the tow vehicle on starting up the hill.

Which gear?

Check the vehicle handbook for the manufacturer’s recommendation on which gear is best – yet there are no hard and fast rules. It depends on things like: 
  • The vehicle’s engine capacity
  • Power and torque outputs
  • Transmission design and gear ratios (both manual and auto)
  • Road conditions
  • Trailer weight. 
Choosing the right gear becomes more critical when towing a heavy load such as a large caravan, heavy trailer, large boat or horse floats, especially if this sort of towing is sustained or frequent.

Towing speeds and speed limits

The speed limit when towing is generally the posted speed limit.  Note that: 
  • In WA, the maximum speed for trailers over 750kg ATM is 100km/h
  • Some vehicle manufacturers impose reduced speed limits when towing – either across the board or when the weight of the trailer exceeds a certain limit
  • You should always consider the legal speed limit, road conditions, the power of the towing vehicle, the driver’s experience and any speed limits recommended by the vehicle manufacturer
  • Lower speeds put less stress on the vehicle and save fuel (but be aware that slow moving vehicles can cause major traffic hold-ups and considerable frustration to other drivers, so check your mirrors frequently and, where possible, pull over and allow traffic to pass).

Long vehicles

In Queensland, a “long vehicle” is one that, together with its load and projections, is 7.5 metres long or longer.

Outside built-up areas, long vehicles must maintain a minimum distance of 60 metres behind another long vehicle. In designated “road train areas”, the minimum distance becomes 200 metres. 

Climbing and descending hills

When climbing hills, keep engine revs up. It’s also best to climb steep hills in the cool of the day, if possible. If not, take care that the engine doesn’t overheat. While it is normal for the engine temperature to rise due to increased engine and automatic transmission load, it can overheat to the point where damage can occur. Keep a close watch on the temperature gauge at all times. 

Many vehicle manufacturers specify the fitment of an additional transmission cooler to reduce the heat loads imposed on the vehicle’s cooling system. 

When descending, use the braking power of the engine instead of relying only on the brakes. A safe rule is to descend the hill in the gear needed to climb it. If you’ve got an automatic, you can manually select a lower gear to maximise engine braking.

Other things to remember

  • After travelling a few kilometres, stop and check that everything is secure, inside and out
  • Be aware of the van’s height and width
  • Give good signals – Indicate early 
  • Take care when overtaking as your length is at least double and your acceleration much reduced
  • Avoid high speeds
  • Keep well to the left to enable faster vehicles to overtake
  • When travelling on narrow roads and a road train or heavy vehicle approaches, pull well to the left and/or stop until it has passed
  • If you are overtaken by large buses, trucks or semi-trailers, your van will tend to be pushed away and then pulled back towards these vehicles. Stay alert and keep control to avoid sway. Light acceleration will help pull the van straight.
  • Rough or corrugated roads should be driven at low speed
  • If a “slide” is encountered on gravel, drive out of it gradually by careful use of the accelerator and steering. Avoid heavy brake applications.
  • Do not cross flooded causeways during or immediately after heavy rain, as the current could cause the caravan to overturn
  • Avoid punts and ferries at low tide, if possible, because of the steeper approach and departure angles
  • Be especially conscious of wind conditions and drive accordingly
  • Watch for higher than normal engine temperatures and fuel use when driving into head winds – you can slow down to help minimise the effects
  • Check the condition and adjustment of caravan wheel bearings before and regularly during trips
  • Inflate tyres to the manufacturer’s recommendations for the weight being carried and check pressures regularly
  • Adjust the vertical height of the headlights if the front of the tow vehicle rises noticeably when the caravan is connected

You’ve arrived at an idyllic campsite. Now what? Read on to get all the tips on manoeuvring your van into the right spot, and setting it up properly. 

Reversing the caravan

Reversing a trailer or caravan is an important skill to learn – and it’s wise to practice in a clear, open space before you attempt to steer it into a tight parking spot. Here are some tips to help you master the technique:
  • Whenever possible, start with the car and caravan in a straight line
  • When backing a trailer, steering wheel movements are reversed – to move the trailer to the right, turn the steering wheel to the left
  • Appoint someone as your guide when reversing, and agree on any hand signals to be used 
  • Get that person to stand where you can clearly see them and they can see where the caravan needs to go
  • Ensure everyone is at a safe distance from car and caravan
If you’re not comfortable reversing, there are tools to help manhandle a caravan into position. Caravan dealers can help. 

Unhitching procedure

  • Manoeuvre the van into position. If the site’s not level, you may need to run a wheel/set of wheels up onto a packer to level up the van.
  • Fit the jockey wheel and ensure the knobs/ridges on the casing are positioned on either side of the clamp.
  • Pull the hand brake on. 
  • Unhitch safety chains, electrical connections and any load distribution hitches.
  • Pull up the coupling locking lever while winding down the jockey wheel.
  • Remove the car when the coupling is clear of the tow bar.
  • Level the caravan by means of the jockey wheel.
  • Wind down the corner stabilisers.
  • Fold down the step.
  • Connect electricity, sullage and water.

Power

Usually, the cost of power is included in caravan park fees. You’ll need a 15 amp heavy duty three core electric lead (minimum recommended length 9 meters) to connect to power points in caravan parks. For safety, get the lead checked and tagged regularly by a qualified electrician.

Power cables should be clear of door openings, not laid on traffic thoroughfares and be fully uncoiled when in use. Double adaptors on a cable connection should not be used.

Chemical toilets in caravans

Many caravans now have chemically activated toilets. The contents of these toilets should only be dumped in approved places – never into a septic treatment system, as the chemicals used in these toilets can ruin the system. 

There are some new enviro-friendly chemicals available that may be less harmful. Get advice before dumping contents.

Caravan care

  • Never keep your caravan completely closed when not in use, especially in hot climates. Keep the hatch or a window partially open.
  • Regularly check the condition of sealants around seams and joints, to ensure water doesn’t leak in – as this will cause rapid deterioration.
  • Keep the drawbar and other exposed metal areas well painted to prevent rust.
  • Jack the wheels clear of the ground and place solid blocks under the axle. Keep the tyres inflated fully and clean, making sure all oil and grease is washed off. You can apply a coat of tyre paint to help protect them against the weather.
  • Like your car, caravans also need to be regularly checked and serviced. Wheel bearings, brakes and lights should be checked and serviced before each use.

Suggested tools and accessories to carry

The equipment you choose to carry will depend on your needs and abilities. This list can be used as a guide:
  • Hydraulic jack and handle – suitable for lifting the caravan so you can change a flat tyre
  • One complete spare wheel
  • One wheel brace
  • One spare set of wheel bearings
  • Tube of roof/window sealant
  • Rivet gun and rivets
  • Cordless drill or driver
  • Grease for tow ball coupling
  • Suitable flat timbers for placing under van jacks or under wheels when levelling the van
  • Hammer for annex pegs
  • Tyre gauge
  • Fire extinguisher
  • Wheel chocks
  • Sullage bucket/hose
  • Water supply hose
  • 240v/15amp power supply lead (minimum recommended length 9 metres)

Also check out:

The information provided here is intended as a general guide only. You should carry out further research and investigations into the topics outlined above prior to implementing any actions or recommendations.