Even for experienced drivers with thousands of kilometres under their belts, towing a caravan for the first time can be a daunting prospect. You not only have to contend with added tow weight behind you and the difference this makes in how you handle your tow vehicle. You also need to make sure you’re complying with a suite of towing-specific rules and regulations. We know that getting your head around all the relevant information can seem overwhelming, and that’s why Elecbrakes has written this special blog series “The Elecbrakes Guide To Towing”.
Disclaimer: While we have strived to provide the most accurate and up to date information possible, towing regulations are complex and constantly evolving. Elecbrakes urges all towers to check any legal requirements with local government authorities and doesn’t accept liability for any unintentional errors or omissions in the following article.
1. Know your towing weights
It’s important to understand how much your car or truck has been designed to tow and exactly how heavy your caravan is. The tricky part is that to abide by the regulations and keep your insurance valid, there’s not just one weight for each of these measures. We’ve broken down the various acronyms below to help keep you on the straight and narrow.
Vehicle Towing Weights
- Kerb weight: The weight of the vehicle including the driver, oil and fuel. Not loaded with luggage or other supplies. Imagine you’re parked at the kerb with a full tank of petrol, sitting behind the wheel of your car ready to drive away. The weight of your vehicle in that moment is your kerb weight.
- Payload: The payload is the combined weight of any other passengers, accessories and luggage you add on top of your kerb weight. The payload also includes the downward pressure of the trailer as added weight on the vehicle’s towball.
- Gross Vehicle Mass: This is your vehicle’s kerb weight + the payload. So this is how much your tow vehicle weighs with fuel, oil, all accessories and gear loaded, a driver, passengers and extra tow ball weight added on by a hitched trailer. This number is really important as it’s this GVM number that you need to ensure doesn’t go any higher than the maximum GVM set by the vehicle manufacturer. If you drive a tow vehicle with a GVM higher than the allowed maximum you’ll be voiding your insurance, breaking the law and posing a safety risk to yourself and others. You can always find the GVM of your vehicle printed on its compliance plates.
- Gross Combination Mass (GCM): This is the maximum weight that your fully-loaded vehicle and caravan can weigh together. This rating is set by the tow vehicle manufacturer.
Caravan Towing Weights
- Tare Mass: The weight of the caravan at the time of its manufacture with any factory installed accessories attached, with water tanks and gas bottles both empty.
- Aggregate Trailer Mass (ATM): The ATM is the maximum allowed weight of your fully-loaded caravan including all extra accessories, clothes, food, bikes and other luggage and including the weight of filled up water tanks and gas bottles. The VIN plate in your caravan will state it’s ATM which is set by the manufacturer and which you must not exceed for both safety and legal reasons. This also includes the tow ball weight.
- Gross Trailer Mass (GTM): The GTM Is the actual weight of your caravan when you have it fully loaded and hitched to the tow vehicle. Keep in mind that the tow vehicle is going to be taking a small amount of the weight from the caravan in the form of the tow ball weight. So if you had a trailer that was loaded to exactly the limit of it’s ATM, the GTM would equal the ATM minus the towball weight.
- Towball Weight: The towball weight is the amount of downward force from the caravan’s tow hitch exerted onto the tow ball of the vehicle towing it. A good rule of thumb that most trailer manufacturers recommend is to keep your towball weight in the range of 7% – 15% of the ATM. You can measure this weight by using a set of towball scales. If you find that your towball weight is either too heavy or too light, you can optimise it by adjusting the load distribution within your caravan.
To make sure you’ve got your caravan and tow vehicle loaded correctly it’s important to head to your nearest weighbridge. You can use the following steps to ensure you’re under the limit:
- First, weigh just the unhitched tow vehicle by itself on the weighbridge to check that you’re within the Gross Vehicle Mass limit.
- Hitch your caravan and drive your fully loaded caravan and tow vehicle onto the weighbridge together to check your Gross Combination Mass.
- Now drive forward so the caravan is on the weighbridge behind you but you have the tow vehicle off the weighbridge. If you keep the caravan hitched, this will give you your Gross Trailer Mass.
- Finally, unhitch your tow vehicle and weigh your fully loaded caravan to check that it’s within the Aggregate Trailer Mass limit. If you find that you’re over the ATM, this means that either you’ve overpacked or the original tare provided by your caravan manufacturer was incorrect.
2. Optimise your caravan load distribution
Caravan load distribution is important for a number of reasons. The foremost being to keep your rig under control and safe while driving. You want to make sure that the weight within your caravan is distributed in such a way that it doesn’t shift during travel, cause unnecessary trailer sway or impact on your steering. By optimising the distribution of your load you can greatly reduce trailer sway and other potential caravan towing issues. The correct distribution of weight also allows you to ensure that your towball weight is within the recommended range.
A basic guiding principle for optimum caravan load distribution is to store the heaviest gear in the area above the axle. You can then distribute all remaining smaller gear evenly throughout the rest of the space. Other heavy equipment such as gas cylinders and spare tyres should always be kept in the positions recommended by the caravan manufacturer for your specific model.
3. Tick off your caravan checklist before you hit the road
- Check everything: tyre pressure on caravan and tow vehicle, spares, oil and fuel levels, trailer tow lights, breakaway system, electric brake controller and make sure gas bottles turned off.
- Secure everything: Make sure all windows, doors and latches are fastened and ensure all loose items in the caravan are secured.
- Fire and safety: Check the smoke alarm in the caravan and make sure you have a fire extinguisher and/or fire blanket packed. Also, check that your first aid kit is stocked up and ready for use if needed. It’s a good idea to keep the first aid kit in the car rather than the caravan so you still have it with you if you unhitch at a campsite and head off to town for the day.
- All your stuff: Your packing list is going to be individual based on your lifestyle and how you travel, but some useful items to consider include rubbish bags, canvas bags, baby wipes, device chargers, gaffer tape, tools, rags, rubber backed rug, snacks, mini vacuum, dustpan and brush, folding tables and chairs, camera, board games, fishing gear, umbrellas, raincoats, sunscreen, hats, torches, matches, firelighters, toiletries, bath towels, toaster and kettle, extension cords, power boards and Tupperware containers.
4. Practice reversing a caravan
While it might not be top of mind when planning your first big caravan adventure, learning how to reverse the thing is a skill that you will definitely be relying on more than you realise. While it can be a bit tricky at first it’s an art you can master with a little practice. And in this case, practice really is the keyword. Rather than executing your first caravan reverse in a busy camping ground or carpark with your family onboard and impatient motorists around you, you’re going to thank yourself later if you put in a bit of prep time before your big trip.
Before you head off, hitch up your caravan and practice reversing at a quiet time of day in a familiar area near your home. Take your time and always use a spotter if you can. Check the area that you’re attempting to reverse into for any hazards such as tree branches, potholes or obstacles such as garbage bins or bicycles.
It’s counterintuitive at first, but when reversing a trailer you’ll need to turn your steering wheel in the opposite direction to where you want the caravan to go. This is where a slow and steady pace is especially important to give you time to stop, drive forward and start again if you start going off course. Remember to stay calm and be patient with yourself.
5. Choose the best electric brake controllers for caravans
According to the Vehicle Standard (Australian Design Rule 38/05 – Trailer Brake Systems) 2018, trailer’s (including caravans) above 750kg Gross Trailer Mass (GTM) must be equipped with an efficient service brake system. While this can be a mechanical override type brake system in smaller trailers, once the trailer is over 2,000kg the law requires you to use an electric trailer brake system with an electric brake controller. Even for caravans with a GTM between 750kg and 2,000kg many towers find the security, safety and control provided by electric brakes fitted with a superior brake controller like Elecbrakes to be of great benefit.
Elecbrakes is the best brake controller for smooth brake control offering the most responsive proportional brake control on the market. This means that when you apply the brakes on the tow vehicle, the electric brakes on the caravan are applied at an equivalent force. You can read more about the benefits of Elecbrakes for caravan towers in our blog post: What’s the best brake controller for travel trailers?
Want to join the towing revolution? Get brake smart today: Check out the Elecbrakes shop.