Long road trips can be dangerous. How you match your vehicle and van, distribute weight, know your optimum speed and manage road trains are essential to stay safe and protect your assets. In this insightful piece, veteran road trippers Rob and Vickie Tibbett share the secrets of their successful journeys.
By Rob and Vickie Tibbett of RvTrips.com.au
As many nomads prepare for their winter migration north, we thought we might touch on five important safety tips to consider before you head off. Old hands at the towing game will be aware of these tips. Some would have learnt the hard way; others spent time listening to experienced travellers or professionals.
Towing a caravan can be daunting for newcomers. It was for us. For most drivers, a caravan is the biggest and heaviest ‘thing’ you will ever tow. A caravan’s sheer size and weight will change your vehicle’s dynamics. Physics comes into play.
Wind, speed and weight distribution will affect your driving experience. And if things go ‘pear shaped’, it will happen quickly, see an example below:
We have seen situations like this, it is scary and a cold reminder how careful we need to be. Please don’t be put off, caravanning is a lot of fun, and it presents a fantastic lifestyle. We all need to apply some common sense. For those planning their first big adventure, we think the following tips will make your time on the road safer and more enjoyable.
Caravans let you know they are there; a friendly reminder, affecting your every movement, especially on bumpy roads and going up or down hills. We could even ‘feel the love’ when towing a 1200kg camper behind a 2700kg Landcruiser 200 Series! It was safe and controllable, but we knew it was there.
You need to match your vehicle to your caravan. All vehicles have a maximum towing capacity. With most tow vehicles this will range from 1600kg to 3500kg. Know your limit; it will be in your vehicle’s handbook. Even though your vehicle is engineered to tow this amount of weight, it is widely recommended you don’t exceed 85 per cent of the curb weight of your vehicle. This is why you will see so many big 4WDs towing caravans.
The video below discusses the effect of weight distribution in vehicles:
Exceeding your vehicle’s towing capacity is unsafe, unlawful, and will void your vehicle and caravan insurance policies if you have an accident. We have heard of situations where State Road authorities set up random vehicle and caravan weight inspection stations. Offenders are fined and have to pay to have their van ‘legally’ taken to the next town where they have to address any weight issues before proceeding. Not fun!
Keeping within the 85 per cent rule is ideal but difficult once you start looking at larger caravans, especially off-road models which are built a lot stronger and heavier. The more you move past the ‘ideal’ vehicle to caravan weight ratio, the more careful you need to be. By ‘careful’, we mean the slower you need to drive.
Use common sense and leave plenty of distance to the vehicle in front – it takes a lot longer to stop when towing. Just imagine an extra 2000kg to 3500kg pushing you into a hairpin corner, busy intersection or rail crossing!
A caravan’s effect on its tow vehicle is exponential, the faster you travel, the greater the effect. Avoiding ‘surprises’ like potholes, stock and roos, can be more easily and safely managed at slower speeds.
Below Brendan Batty from Australian Caravan+RV explains what happens:
We once towed a 2100kg van with a 2000kg Ford Territory (AWD). Well within the vehicle’s maximum towing capacity of 2700kg, but it was scary. On bumpy roads, it felt like the caravan was driving us! Not a fun experience, even at ‘normal’ speeds, so we had to slow down.
We are not professing you travel at 60km/h but dropping from 110km/h to 100km/h does make a huge difference and from 100km/h to 90km/h is also significant. You will also see a significant saving when you come to fill up your fuel tank!
It’s all about weight, vehicle weight, caravan weight, and their combined weight, the weight of one versus the other and where you put the weight. As mentioned above, a vehicle has a ‘maximum towing weight’ which is made up of your caravan’s tare (unladen) weight plus everything you place in or on your caravan, including drinking water, grey water and gas. And it is surprising how the weight quickly adds up.
We once weighed everything that went into our camper trailer. Surprisingly, it was over 200kg! The essentials and water we put in our subsequent 19’ van weighed over 400kg. A lot of councils provide a public weigh-bridge, and for a few dollars, you can get a print-out of your vehicle and van’s exact weight when fully laden (peace of mind).
Where you position this weight in your caravan is extremely important as the following video demonstrates:
Next check your vehicle’s Gross Vehicle Mass (GVM); what your vehicle can weigh when fully laden. Surprisingly this is not much for some top-rated tow vehicles. Add the weight of the occupants, full fuel tanks, personal gear, the new bull-bar, electric winch, extra spare wheel, the portable fridge, a draw system, an extra battery, roof rack cage, and you will be over your legal GVM! A suspension or GVM upgrade may be necessary. Below is a video from Pedders explaining GVM options:
If you're looking to better understand your vehicle's GVM, a great place to start is with a Pedders Tow and Load Assessment, which covers a huge range of variables from brand and make of vehicle to passenger quantity and weight, to accessories and also the item being towed.
We’ve seen how important it is to have your weight forward in your caravan; this increases the ‘down-ball’ weight of the caravan. The weight that is applied to the tow ball of your vehicle. Again, physics plays its role here affecting the handling and braking performance of your vehicle. A suitable down-ball weight is essential for safe motoring, as Brendan Batty from Australian Caravan+RV explains:
As you can see from Brendan’s video, a ‘weight distribution hitch’ can solve a lot of towing problems. We recommend these hitches unless your vehicle specifically prohibits their use. Some vehicles like the Land Rover Discovery 4/5 and Range Rovers have self-levelling air suspension that can be damaged by the weight distribution hitches. Best to check your vehicle’s handbook to be sure.
Below is a video from Hayman Reese, explaining the setup of their weight distribution hitch:
The Hayman Reese and Eaz Lift make weight distribution hitches popular in Australia. They both work in similar ways. Your local RV dealer will be more than happy to accommodate your needs and install one of these units for you.
It is essential that the car and caravan are sitting level. The entire rig will then tow better making for a safer more enjoyable ride. Below is a video demonstrating the Eaz Lift Hitch:
We cannot stress enough the importance of talking to other travellers. Checking with someone who has just driven a road provides valuable information. We also travel with a 5 watt portable UHF radio, which can scan several channels at once, the truck channel (40), caravan channel (18) and the emergency channel (5). The UHF radio keeps us in touch with fellow travellers, oncoming wide-loads and road trains.
Outback roads can be very flat and straight, enabling the road trains to move along much faster than most caravanners. If you have a sticker on the rear of your caravan indicating you have a UHF radio in operation, the truck driver will more than likely contact you, stating their intention to overtake.
When a road train approaches from behind you should not slow down, they do not want to lose their momentum. You should reduce your speed only when they have pulled out into the other lane, helping them overtake more quickly and safely. Flash your lights when the road-train is clear of your vehicle, so they can safely pull back onto the correct side of the road. Most truckies will thank you with one left, then one right, then one left blinker flash to acknowledge their appreciation of your assistance.
You will rarely need to overtake a road train. We have only ever done it twice. Here is a good video showing you the correct way:
We pull off the road when we see a road train heading towards us on single track roads. We use our UHF radio and indicate early to let the oncoming driver know of our intention. Pull over and let the road train stay on the asphalt. Holding your half of the road will force their many wheels off the road, resulting in a spectacular shower of rocks over your vehicle and caravan. You will also probably get a broken windscreen as a bonus! Best to pull off the road as far as possible.
The outback can be a lonely place when you are in trouble. For this reason, we also use the following:
We hope you enjoyed these tips. Safe travels.
Continue the discussion by sharing your thoughts or road trip essentials in the comments below.