By Clair Morton
Published: Tuesday, May 15, 2018
With images swirling through your head of all the destinations your new caravan or camper trailer will take you, it’s easy to brush over the practicalities of towing. Here’s what you need to know before setting off.
1. Know your limits
Before hitching anything up to the back of your car, find out first what your car’s capable of towing.
Legally, the weight of whatever your car’s pulling (once the caravan’s fully loaded) can’t exceed the towing capacity of your vehicle or its towbar, whichever is lowest.
There’s also the ball weight to consider – the weight the caravan puts onto the back of the car.
Ignoring weight limits can land you a fine of up to $2500.
You should find towing capacity information in your owner’s manual, but if you can’t or you’re in doubt, get in touch with RAA’s Technical Advisory Service on 8202 4689 and we’ll help you out.
Unfortunately, if your car’s not capable of pulling your new caravan or trailer, you’ll need to find another vehicle to do the job – or you may be able to upgrade certain components of your car, such as your suspension.
However, these upgrades are expensive and may impact other parts of your vehicle, so it’s best to get it right in the first place.
2. Get a load of this
It’s a smart idea to load your caravan or trailer a few days before you set off to ensure a seamless transition when you hit the road.
The key word to remember when packing is distribution – aside from total weight, this is the most important thing you can do to keep the caravan steady on the road.
Pack all heavy items first – just forward of the axles, low to the ground and evenly on both sides. And don’t be tempted to carry them in the car – make sure they’re secured in the proper position in the caravan.
Medium-weight items can then be loaded around the heavy ones, while your light items like clothing can be placed into overhead lockers.
Never store heavy objects up high, as it can interfere with the caravan’s centre of gravity.
Once you’ve loaded up, make sure everything is securely fastened down.
The fine for an unsecure load is $349, plus a $60 Victims of Crime levy and three demerit points.
We’d also warn against attaching a gas bottle on the outside of your caravan, because if you’re in a crash, it poses a significant fire and explosions risk.
3. Give it some space
If the total combined length of your car and any attached trailer or caravan is 7.5m or more, you must allow at least 60m between you and another long vehicle in front on single-lane country roads.
Breaking this rule could land you with a $238 fine, plus a $60 Victims of Crime Levy and one demerit point, but of course it doesn’t apply when overtaking.
Because they’re bigger than your average car, there are also fewer places you can park your caravan.
In a built-up area, you can’t stop a long vehicle on the side of the road for more than an hour unless otherwise indicated, or if the driver is dropping off or picking up goods.
Outside built-up areas, you can’t stop on the road unless you’re completely on the shoulder.
4. Avoid snaking
You’re cruising down the highway singing AC/DC at the top of your lungs, when your caravan starts to sway from side to side.
What do you do? It’s a scary situation at the best of times and you might be tempted to hit the brakes, but reacting the wrong way can potentially lead to a much more dangerous situation.
RAA experts say you shouldn’t brake except as an absolute last resort.
If possible, hold a steady speed or accelerate slightly until the sway stops.
If the caravan/trailer’s brakes can be operated on their own, they should be applied gently.
When it’s safe to do so, stop and check out why it’s swaying.
To try and prevent your caravan moving around in the first place, pack appropriately (as explained in tip three) and always travel at a speed to suit the conditions.
Driving a vehicle that continues to sway could result in a $180 fine and $60 Victims of Crime levy, if police deem you didn’t have proper control of the vehicle.
It may also result in an untimely end to your holiday.
5. Get your number plate sorted
Knowing where to put number plates on a trailer or caravan can be confusing.
Legally, you must have a number plate firmly attached to the item you’re towing, and it needs to be clearly visible from 3m to 18m away.
It must be fitted between 30cm and 130cm from the ground – no higher, no lower.
The plate must sit parallel to the ground and not be slanted.
If the number plate is higher than 130cm from the ground – which is a breach of the Australian Design Rules – you could be fined $408 plus a $60 Victims of Crime Levy.
If your plate is lower than 30cm or it’s not visible for another reason (for example, your spare tyre is covering it), you face a fine of $677 plus a $60 Victims of Crime Levy.
6. Stay in your lane
It’s a legal requirement for the driver to have a clear view of the front, side and rear of the vehicle (which in this case includes the caravan).
Investing in supplementary mirrors to extend your range of view may help this and is highly recommended by RAA.
There might come a time on your journey where you need more space, and potentially a second lane to turn right, left or make a U-turn.
If the combination of your car and your caravan or trailer is 7.5m or longer, you should attach a ‘Do Not Overtake Turning Vehicle’ sign on the rear of your caravan (you can buy these online or from most caravanning stores).
These signs mean you can use more than one lane to turn – but remember, you still need to follow the road rules and make sure it’s safe to turn before you do so.
If your vehicle doesn’t display this sign, you must turn completely from one lane, or potentially face a fine of $316, plus a $60 Victims of Crime Levy and two demerit points.