After Bailey Caravans kindly let us borrow a Motorhome for a long weekend, it was time to move onto our next adventure, learning how to tow a caravan! Bailey kindly agreed to us having one of their Bailey Unicorn Cadiz for a 10 day holiday that was booked for August 2019. But before I was prepared to go anywhere with a caravan on the back of my car, I wanted to sign up to a caravan towing course.
You may or may not know, but most drivers are entitled to tow a caravan or trailer without updating their licence. However, younger drivers and those aged over 70 need to check exactly what their licence allows them to tow. If you passed your driving test after 1 January 1997, your licence will be more restricted when towing. For heavier outfit combinations, a B+E or C1+E licence may be required – these categories are no longer included as standard, meaning an additional test may be required.
Given I had my driving licence since 1990, I didn’t have to take a test and I didn’t even have to go on a towing course. However, having never towed a trailer let alone a caravan and I wasn’t about to pick up a brand new caravan with absolutely zero experience or knowledge. So I signed up to the Caravan and Motorhome Club and knew that one of the great member offers was access to Practical Caravanning Courses. Having researched the most local training centre to my home and possible course dates, I was signed for a weekend of towing 5 days before I was due to pick up the Bailey caravan. At least everything I would have been thought over the 2 day course would still be relatively fresh in my mind.
Over the 2 day course, we would be learning:
- how to ‘hitch up’ and tow safely and efficiently
- how to manoeuvre a caravan forwards and backwards easily and confidently
- how to ‘load’ and how it affects towing
- curved reversing – nearside and offside
- everyday safety checks and the laws affecting caravanners
Day 1, and I arrived nice an early giving me plenty of time to meet the two instructors and the other caravanners who had signed up to the course. It was interesting to hear everyone else’s reasons for attending the course, and I was also pleasantly surprised to see there were more women in attendance than men. By the end of the two days, I have to say the women appeared to make the practical tasks look a lot easier than the men, and whether that is because they are better listeners, who knows?
The first part of the day was classroom based and very much focused on the theory. We covered everything from essential equipment, weight terminology, driving hazards and the hitching up process. I must admit there were times where I thought, “what have I got myself into”!. You assume caravanning is fairly straight forward, but the course provided valuable information which is vital for any first time caravanner.
Some of the essential equipment they recommended included a spare wheel kit, levelling ramps, wheel chocks, spirit level, small water container, warning triangle, tool kit, torque wrench, hi-visibility vest, gaffer tape and cable ties. I was a little confused as to why they would suggest a small water container was needed, but they quickly highlighted advised it was useful for emergencies or where you needed quick access to a water supply. The colapz 2in1 or 3in1 would be ideal for this purpose, given the versatility and space saving advantages.
Weight was the first big topic for us to get our heads around and understanding the various terminology used. ALW, MRO, MAM, MTPLM, GTW and MTL were all enough to make your head spin! However, the most important weight measurement appeared to be the MTL (Maximum Towing Limit) of your car. Every car has one and you need to know it. The other two important weights are NOSE WEIGHT and CARAVAN TO CAR WEIGHT RATIO. Most people think they can just load a caravan like a trailer and everything else will take care of itself. Weight has got to be one of the most critical factors when you are towing a caravan. If you get it wrong, then it can making driving extremely difficult, whether you are going in a straight line on a motorway, overtaking a big lorry or simply going down a hill.
One of the first practical parts of the course was teaching us how to check the nose weight. A simple tool can be purchased which allows you to carry out this specific task and it is very easy to do.
Loading your caravan and car actually needs careful planning, as weight distribution is very important. Heavy items are best loaded in your car boot near to the tow bar. Another good place for heavy items is in the middle of the caravan, around the axle point. This will all help to distribute the weight evenly. Many new caravans now come with island double beds which have useful storage underneath them. Because the beds tend to be positioned towards the back of the caravan, it is not recommended to use this area for storage whilst towing, although it does seem an obvious and tempting location! Unless you load your caravan correctly, you are likely to face extremely dangerous driving conditions. Towing a caravan is one thing, but towing a caravan that is loaded incorrectly is another thing and something not for a novice caravanner like me!
Three of the key “driving tips” I took from the course were to do with speed, overtaking and going down hills. The maximum speed for towing a caravan is 60mph, which to be honest does feels fast when you are towing a caravan! Anything over this and you are asking for trouble, both with the law, and handling the different driving conditions. You do start to get a sense of this very quickly especially when you are surrounded by cars travelling at much faster speeds.
When it comes to overtaking, which in most cases it is likely to be a lorry, it is suggested that you allow plenty of time, plan ahead and pull out well in advance. If you leave it until the last minute, the sudden manoeuvring could make things difficult and potentially cause an accident. Once you pull up alongside a lorry, you are also likely to feel some “turbulence” which can be off-putting, but once you move past the lorry, driving conditions very quickly return to normal.
One of the main issues with towing a caravan is something known as “snaking”. Go too fast and you are in danger of the caravan travelling quicker than the car! If the steering wheel twitches, they say not to fight it. Ease your foot off the pedal and let the unit slow down. If you are travelling down hills, be extra careful with your speed and it is recommended to brake very very gently. Learning about all these potential driving hazards was great, but it was also enough to to put me off caravanning!
Next up and we headed outside to learn how to hitch up a caravan. The basics we were thought in the classroom, but now it was time to put it into practice. Making sure the caravan handbrake was applied with a quick push to check, one of the initial challenges was reversing the car up to the tow bar and making sure it is lined correctly, and that you don’t go to far where you end up doing some damage to the car! Some newer cars have a reversing camera fitted, however, you really cannot rely on this method, so you need yo make sure you have an assistant guiding you backwards.
Next up was to attach the breakaway cable. Absolutely critical this is done correctly, otherwise if the caravan is not properly hitched up you could end up with a runaway caravan. One of my fellow classmates had described how previously she experienced this with her husband, but luckily the cable was connected, and therefore automatically applied the handbrake to the caravan when it became disconnected. Once the cable is attached, the jockey wheel is then wound down to lower the hitch onto the tow ball. You then rewind the jockey wheel so that it lefts the rear of the vehicle which allows you to visually check it has connected correctly. Next the jockey wheel is wound fully up and the whole assembly raised to its highest point and locked in place with the side handle. Finally, we attached the electrics cable, ensured the handbrake was released and checked the lights were all working on the caravan. A lot to remember, but once you had done it a few times, I believe it would become second nature to you.
Once hitched up, we took the caravan for a short drive around a preset course. On the whole, it was fairly straight forward, but the biggest thing we all took from the experience was ensuring we pulled far enough forward before turning left at a road junction. If not, you are very likely to clip the curb and potentially damage a wheel or the structure of the caravan, or worst case run someone over! Ensuring your left shoulder was lined up with the curb was a simple “marker” to ensure there was enough clearance before turning to the left.
Next up was reversing. Probably the most difficult and worrying task for any caravan owner. To break us in gently, we started with a straight line reverse. Sounds easier than it looks, but once you learnt to use both caravan wheel arches to keep things in a straight line, the process was relatively straight forward. Obviously, you need to make sure there is nothing behind you during the process!
Things started to get more challenging when we need to reverse around a corner. We started with the easier side which was the nearside. It was much easier to look out of the window and to see exactly where the caravan was going and when the nearside wheel had started to lock, which then meant turning the steering wheel in the opposite direction. After a few twists to the left and right, and a bit of patience, very soon we were finding the caravan reversed into position.
Finally, we had to learn a blind side reverse which was a lot more difficult. This manoeuvre needed someone telling me when the car had reached a maximum point before the caravan would start to touch or damage the car. Once this point was reached and you picked a point on the car where the back of the caravan was visible, this became your “maximum” reference point for any future manoeuvres. Fairly simple logic. After turning the steering wheel left and right a few times and getting the caravan moving in a straight line, things started to become easier.
With the three important reversing moves learnt, it was time to unhitch the caravan, making sure all the keys steps were followed in sequence and get back into the classroom to go over the key points from the whole course and collect our towing certificates!
A great weekend was had by all. Everyone felt it was a worthwhile experience, and I know I would highly recommend to anyone that is going to tow a caravan to go on this course. It just gives you the confidence and knowledge for those early towing experiences, which are essential as you go on your “hopefully” many caravan adventures!
Next stop, picking up that caravan and going on holiday!