How to load your caravan

Tips for loading your caravan before you head off on your next road trip.

It’s important to load your caravan correctly so that it’s legally compliant and tows properly.

Not only is it illegal and unsafe to overload a caravan, but it can also have insurance implications and could damage the caravan and tow vehicle.

Here are some helpful tips for safe caravanning.

Know the specs

There are three sets of specifications to comply with when towing. They include the tow vehicle specs (shown in the car’s handbook), the towbar specs (shown on the towbar’s ID plate) and the caravan specs (shown on the caravan’s ID plate). Note that where there is a variation in tow vehicle and towbar specifications, the lowest ratings apply.

Don’t overload

The maximum weight of a caravan is known as its Aggregate Trailer Mass (ATM). The ATM is shown on the caravan’s ID plate and is the combined weight of the trailer and its full load when it is not coupled to a tow vehicle. ATM is the designed maximum safe working load of the caravan. Exceed it and not only is the caravan illegal but there is also the risk of structural failure.

Attention to payload

“Payload” is the caravan’s carrying capacity. Knowing the available payload allows you to make judgments about what you can carry. To work out payload, weigh the empty caravan when disconnected from the tow vehicle and subtract its empty weight (tare) from the ATM shown on the van’s ID plate. Note that for many caravans payload is less than 400kg.

Payload pain

When calculating payload, don’t rely on the tare weight on the trailer plate (if shown) as it may be inaccurate due to modifications and additions to the caravan. Common addons such as additional gas cylinders, batteries, water tanks and spare wheels reduce the available payload. Heavily modified or accessorised caravans may even exceed their ATM when empty. If this is the case consult a caravan repairer.

Ball load

“Ball load” is the amount of weight the fully laden caravan imposes (vertically) on the towbar of the tow vehicle. The allowable ball load is shown in the tow vehicle’s handbook. Ignore “ball load at tare” if shown on the van’s ID plate, as this is the ball load when the van is empty. If a legal ball load can’t be achieved, the caravan/tow vehicle combination may be unsuitable.

On the scales

Low-cost ball mass scales are available to allow measurements to be made on site. If the ball load is too little, the caravan may be unstable on the road. If it’s too much, it’s illegal, may be unstable and cause mechanical breakages. Try for a ball weight of between 50 percent and 100 percent of the maximum ball load specification but don’t panic if 50 percent can’t be achieved as the ultimate test is how it tows.

Move to improve

If your caravan’s ball load is excessive, try re-stowing contents in the caravan. Don’t indiscriminately move gear to the rear of the van to achieve an acceptable ball load as this can adversely impact stability. If the caravan is unstable on the road try moving some of the load forward to increase the ball load but do not exceed the specification. Note that weight distribution hitches are not a solution to excessive ball load. 

More tips

  • When packing a caravan for the first time ensure that the caravan, tow vehicle and towbar specifications are not exceeded. 
  • Once an acceptable loading pattern is developed, try to replicate it every time. 
  • Keep the centre of gravity low by putting heavy items near the floor and, where possible, over the axle/s.
  • Some caravans carry greater weight on one side (because of the location of the fridge, stove, etc). Balance this by loading portable equipment on the other side.
  • Use lightweight items to reduce the load and save fuel.
  • Don’t carry large quantities of water unless water is unavailable at your destination.
  • Don’t leave loose articles on the floor where they can move and cause damage. 
  • Ensure food and equipment that will be needed when you stop is easily accessible. 
  • Carry tools and equipment needed for hitching and unhitching in an accessible place. 
  • Once the caravan is loaded have it weighed to confirm that all weights are within the caravan’s, towbar’s and tow vehicle’s specifications.