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Tips For New Caravanners Part 1

If you've never caravanned before then you may be surprised just how much there is to learn. Help is always available through this website or by e-mail. Here are some of the most common items I get asked about. If you think I've missed something important then please let me know!

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' 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.

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 http://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.

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. An article on stabilisers is planned for the future.

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.

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 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 will need an oil cooler for the gearbox oil. Some vehicles, particularly 4x4's, have them fitted as standard anyway. The second point is that the power loss in the gearbox will be more noticeable when towing.