Towing Issues

How do I know which caravans I can safely tow?
This is the single most common question I am asked by potential newcomers. The answer is normally straightforward and it's all down to weight. Basically the caravan should NEVER be heavier than the towcar and beginners should observe a limit of 85%. This means the weight of the caravan, including all the items you put on board should not exceed 85% of the weight of the towcar. As you become more experienced at towing you can move nearer to the 100% limit but you will need to exercise extra care as the outfit will be less stable.

Sometimes considerations other than the weight of the towcar and caravan apply. This is where the towcar or its tow bracket cannot take the likely noseweight of the caravan (see item below).

To calculate the weight of your caravan start with its mass in running order (MRO), which you should be able to get from the handbook, and add to it the weight of everything you have put on board. When loading your van never exceed the van's maximum authorised weight (MAW) or from 1999, the technically permissible laden mass (MTPLM). This is the maximum weight the van's suspension is designed to cope with. It is illegal to exceed it. If you have any doubts about the weight of your outfit then pop along to your nearest public weighbridge and check it out properly. 

To help you through the maze of statistics most caravan dealers subscribe to the Towsafe scheme. This is a computer database containing details of thousands of car and caravan weights which can quickly tell you whether a particular outfit is a good match or not. The scheme is also open to readers of Practical Caravan Magazine who were one of the original sponsors.

What is nose weight, and how important is it?

A caravan's noseweight is the down force exerted on the caravan hitch by the weight of the caravan. It is important for two reasons. Firstly your towcar's towing bracket and rear suspension have to be able to handle it, and secondly most caravans tow best with a nose weight of about 7% of the caravan's laden weight. In practice this means a noseweight which is generally between 50 and 90 kg.

Your car's handbook should give information on maximum nose weights and provided the figure equates to 7% or more of the caravan's laden weight there should not be a problem. Beware that some early Land Rover Discoveries had noseweight limits of just 50 kg -  a very low figure for a vehicle of this type. Caravan manufacturers often quote a noseweight limit too - check this is compatible with the 7% recommendation.

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The simplest way to check the nose weight of your caravan is to use bathroom scales. All you need to do is to level the van and insert one end of  a piece of wood into the hitch with the other end resting on a flat piece of wood to spread its weight on the scales. Make sure that the van is level and that the steadies are clear of the ground then read off the noseweight on the scales. If the noseweight is excessive then consider what heavy items you have loaded forward of the axle. Normal culprits are gas bottles, spare wheels, second batteries and full water tanks (where fitted). Gas bottles and spare batteries can be carried upright in the towcar, whilst spare wheels can be carried on a special carrier behind the axle of the caravan. You should never travel with a full water tank. 

Do not be tempted to reduce noseweight by placing heavy objects at the rear of your caravan. To do so would give rise to a pendulum effect which would destabilise the outfit and make any snaking very difficult to control.

How high should my tow hitch be when towing?
The golden rule here is that the caravan should be either level or slightly nose down. It should never be nose high as this will  lead to instability. In practice this means a height of around 350 - 420mm (13.8 - 16.6") to the centre of the ball when laden. Tow brackets are designed such that the towball should fall within these limits.

If the noseweight of your outfit is fine but the towcar's rear suspension is low when towing you may be able to fit some form of spring assister. Caravan dealers often stock basic types.

How do I choose a towing bracket?
There are two basic designs of tow bracket. Firstly there are those designed to take a standard British bolt-on towball. These have the advantage that you can also bolt on other items such a a plate for a stabiliser or a bike rack bracket. Secondly there are the continental 'swan neck' types. These can look much neater and quite often the 'swan neck' is quickly detachable to smarten the look of the tow vehicle when not towing. You can purchase stabiliser brackets for 'swan neck' brackets but the resulting effect can look quite messy.

Because modern cars are made with special front and rear crumple zones  there are only a few points strong enough to take the mounting of a towbar. For this reason the design of the towbar is critical. Indeed cars registered from 1st August 1998 must, by law, only be fitted with tow bars which  have been tested to the EU 94/20 Directive.

If you decide to fit a towbar yourself then purchase only a reputable make and follow the instructions meticulously. If your car was registered after 1st August 1998 make sure the towbar has the necessary type approval rating. For cars registered before this date the British Standard BS AU 1 14b is acceptable. 

If you decide to have your tow bracket professionally fitted then look for a company that's a member of the National Trailer and Towing Association's (NTTA's) new Quality Secured scheme. These companies are subject to independent checks and have to conform to the NTTA's code of practice. To find out more about the scheme and view a list of current  members log on to www.ntta.co.uk

As a general rule tow brackets supplied by car manufacturers tend to be much more expensive than those supplied by independent manufacturers such as Witter or Dixon Bate.

Do I need a stabiliser?
If you always have a well matched and balanced outfit and always drive sensibly then the strict answer is no. Having said that I would still recommend the fitting of a stabiliser especially for those new to towing. There are two basic reasons for this. The first is that if you do get into a situation where you have to swerve to avoid a collision then the presence of a stabiliser will reduce the tendency for you to lose control of the outfit. Secondly in normal towing, particularly on motorways, the outfit will be less susceptible to the bow waves of overtaking vehicles.

Most new caravans now come with a stabiliser already incorporated into the tow hitch. These work by gripping the towball very tightly to damp out any yawing or pitching. Needless to say, with this type of device, the towball must be clean and totally free of grease. For older vans there is a bewildering array of stabilisers available for aftermarket fitting. The most popular type in the Club is the blade type. They are relatively inexpensive to buy and perform well in most conditions provided they are correctly adjusted. 

How often should I change my caravan tyres?
The generally accepted maximum is every five years. If the tyres do not spend extensive periods carrying the weight of the van without rotating and are removed for the winter months, then this period may be extended up to an absolute maximum of seven years.

What are Tyron Bands?

Tyron bands are steel bands which fit inside the well in a vehicle wheel. They are designed to provide increased safety and a limited run-on capability in the event of a tyre deflation. Basically the Tyron band ensures that the tyre remains on the wheel rim. This prevents tyre flail and stops the rim coming into contact with the road. The overall effect is to confer a greater degree of stability to the vehicle and to give the driver the opportunity to stop in a controlled way and at a place suitable for changing the wheel. 

whhel rims
Tyron label
If Tyron bands have been fitted to your caravan or towcar you should find an advisory sticker near to the tyre valve. In the event of you needing a new tyre the Tyron band has to be removed by the tyre fitter to allow the tyre to be changed. This is a simple process involving the use of a long handled Allen key which is normally supplied with the bands. Do make sure you keep this handy on the caravan. Some tyre fitters hate changing tyres from rims where Tyron bands have been fitted because the process takes a little longer. It is certainly difficult to do without the special Allen key.

Do I need a repeater device in the car to tell me the caravan flashers are working OK?
In a word yes, this is a legal requirement. The device can be either a warning buzzer or a repeater light clearly visible to the driver. Towbar wiring kits normally contain suitable devices. The lamps should flash 60-120 times per minute. If yours seem a little slow or dim try starting the towcar's engine. The extra voltage supplied by the car's alternator can make a big difference.

Can I tow with an automatic?
Cars fitted with automatic transmission can make superb towcars. The torque multiplying effect of the torque converter helps to give smooth takeoffs especially when starting on hills or in muddy conditions. Also automatic gear changes reduce the stress on both the driver and the towcar.

There are a couple of points to bear in mind though. The first is that you may need an oil cooler for the gearbox oil. However many vehicles, particularly 4x4's, have them fitted as standard anyway. The second point is that the power loss in the transmission may be more noticeable when towing.


Site issues

What's the easiest way to pitch my caravan?

An easy way to set up your outfit without too much pushing and pulling

  • On arrival on the allocated pitch it is recommended that you drive the outfit on to the pitch marker.

  • Then assess the lay of the caravan, once you have decided which side is low and by roughly by how much using levelling blocks, ramp, jacking arrangements or what have you, place the device by the wheel to be raised. Depending on the lay of the pitch decide if you wish to reverse or pull on to the levelling device.

  • Move the outfit forward or back to allow you to place the levelling block under the low side wheel. Then pull or reverse the Caravan on to the block until the outfit is level port and starboard, apply the hand brake fully as instructed in the handbook. For added safety (depending on the slope of the site) a blocking wedge should be placed behind the raised wheel and in front of the other, this prevents the caravan from slewing.
  • Now is the time to remove the car from the caravan. Ensure that the hitch bellows are not compressed or stretched, lower the jockey wheel to the ground (allow sufficient movement to raise or lower the caravan), remove the breakaway cable, release the stabiliser and unplug the electrical cable(s).

  • Using the jockey wheel, raise and release the towing hitch from the car and remove car.

  • With the jockey wheel raise or lower the caravan to the level position in the forward and aft direction. If sufficient travel cannot be achieved the front steadies can be lowered to take the weight and jockey wheel adjusted to suit. If the front has to be lowered ensure that the jockey wheel is clear of the draw bar.

  • The caravan should now be level and the steadies should now be lowered. It is best to use pads or blocks of wood to spread the load, do not raise or lower the caravan on the steadies. Another easy way is to use a 19mm ( ¾") socket with extension bar and a 12 volt electric drill with a torque clutch and lower the steadies till the clutch slips, repeating until the van is solid.

Where do I get levelling blocks?
A simple levelling block can be make from a plank of wood ¾ to 1" thick that is a little wider than the caravan wheel. This can be cut to lengths 1’, 2’, 3’ and 4 foot long placed on top of each other glued or screwed together and a stop block fitted to stop going off the end, this gives a stepped increase of 1", 2", 3" or 4 inches. The height of the levelling block can be increased, by placing wooden blocks or bricks underneath as required. This size can be carried in the gas bottle locker or in the boot.

If you are not the DIY type then you can buy suitable devices quite cheaply from your caravan accessory shop.

Should I use Butane or Propane ?
For many newcomers this is normally the first question to arise.  Caravan gas appliances are designed to burn either fuel without modification so which one should you use?  Well butane is a cleaner fuel than propane (less smelly when burned) and it has a higher calorific value. This means you can get more heat  from a given volume of liquefied butane than propane. Butane is also easier to ignite you'll have fewer problems with piezo ignition systems. As the two fuels cost about the same price there would appear to be no contest.  Apart from one thing.  Butane freezes at 3 degrees Celsius. When you consider that the simple act of using gas from the cylinder also cools it  you can begin to see that butane is going to be problematical in cold weather. Propane, on the other hand, can be used in temperatures down to minus 43 degrees Celsius so even severe UK winters present no problems.
regulators
Because butane and propane operate at different pressures they require different regulators so if you change from one to the other you need to bear this in mind. The regulators are not interchangeable so there's no danger of fitting the wrong one.

From the 2004 model year new European regulations required all caravans to be fitted with a bulkhead mounted regulator. The gas cylinder is connected to it by means of specially reinforced high pressure hose (right).

butane hose
propane hose

Butane is normally supplied in blue cylinders and propane in red so it's easy to tell them apart. Because of the different densities of the two liquids gas cylinders of the same size hold different weights when full. For example a 7kg butane cylinder is the same size as a 6kg propane one.

Why should I buy a leisure battery when I can use my old car battery?
Car batteries are designed to give high starting currents for short periods and then be quickly recharged. Leisure batteries are designed to give low currents for long periods and to be discharged down to about 20% capacity before being recharged. Car batteries are unsuited to this 'deep cycling' and will quickly fail. Also old lead acid batteries invariably have only a fraction of the performance of new ones.


Security Issues

What are the chances of my caravan being stolen?
Most caravans are stolen from storage compounds with home thefts not far behind. Another favourite of the thieves is the unattended outfit parked at a motorway service area. Newer caravans are much more likely to be stolen than older ones and twin axle caravans are eight times more likely to be stolen than singe axle vans.

Nothing will stop a really determined thief but you can make life so difficult for him that he decides to go elsewhere. In deciding which security devices to buy talk with your caravan insurance company. Some companies offer discounts if specific products are fitted. A good quality hitchlock and at least one wheelclamp are absolute musts. Lockable posts are also an excellent idea. If you want to push the boat out you can buy sophisticated tracking devices which will allow the police to find your caravan wherever the thieves try to hide it. Beware though that many caravans leave the country within hours of being stolen so the chances of recovery may not always be high.

How do I avoid buying a stolen van?
The Caravan Club keep a list of known stolen caravans. If you phone them with the model, year and serial number, as well as the full name and address of the vendor, they will check the van against their list. A negative result does not necessarily mean that the van is not stolen since the owner may not even be aware of it! The Caravan Club 'Theftcheck' Service is free, and is open to members and non-members alike. The number to ring is 01342 336885.

Travelling Abroad

Can I run my refrigerator on ferry journeys ?
Unfortunately not. The ferry companies expressly forbid it on safety grounds. If your fridge was adequately pre-cooled it should last a couple of hours or so without power. For longer journeys you can try packing the fridge with freezer cooled ice packs beforehand but the best bet is to plan on buying fresh food at your destination.

Will my TV work abroad?
No, not unless you have a multi-standard set or are planning on receiving satellite transmissions. The problem is that the broadcast standards used are different to ours. France, Luxembourg and Monaco use a system called SECAM L whereas most of the rest of Western Europe uses PAL B/G. The UK uses PAL 1. If purchasing a multi-standard set make sure it can receive the appropriate type of transmission for the country you are planning to visit. The best bet is to invest in a satellite set up.


Further Reading

Is there a good reference book that covers the main aspects of caravanning?
Yes, there at least two. The first is called The Caravanners' Handbook and is by John Marchmont. It's been around a long time but is constantly updated and is now in its eighth edition (ISBN: 978-0954069209). The second is the caravan handbook by John Wickersham (ISBN 1859608019). It contains all the information a caravanner will need when preparing for a journey and is also an essential glovebox companion for use en route and on site.