Words & Photos: via PracticalMotoring.com.au
Being able to drive a 4x4 doesn’t automatically mean you’ll be able to tow a caravan or camper trailer - it requires a different set of skills. Indeed, towing a caravan or camper trailer is a lot like driving two vehicles at once, and for the first-timer, it can be daunting.
What we’ll cover here mentions caravans and camper trailers, but it’s not specific to these. The same set of skills also apply to towing any large or bulky item with your 4x4, like a boat, horse float or any other form of large trailer.
There are numerous courses available around the country that will help you learn the basics of towing a caravan. Even if you’re experienced at towing, it’s worth enrolling to brush up on your skills ahead of that long getaway or family road trip. Let’s not beat around the bush here, towing can be dangerous.
Key towing terms you need to know
Tare (or kerb) weight – This is how much the vehicle weighs, stock standard.
GVM (Gross Vehicle Mass) – This is the maximum the vehicle can legally weigh. This is on the vehicle’s placard and is a definite figure that is readily available for all vehicles.
Payload – This is the difference between the GVM and Tare weight. For example, with a Tare weight of 2477kg and a GVM of 3100kg (using the 2022 Ford Everest Titanium 4WD as an example) the payload will be 623kg.
Payload is everything that is put on your 4x4 or that you carry inside it - including people.
Front and rear axle load – This is how much weight can be placed on either axle. Usually, the sum of the two axles is more than the GVM. This means there’s a bit of flexibility in exactly where the load is positioned over the axles.
Again, using the 2022 Everest Titanium 4WD as an example, maximum front axle load is 1480kg and the maximum rear axle load is 1750kg.
Braked tow rating – This relates to the maximum braked weight of the trailer the vehicle can tow. This varies significantly from vehicle to vehicle. For example, the current Suzuki Jimny’s braked tow rating is only 1300kg, an MY22 LandCruiser Prado VX is rated to 3000kg (previously only 2500kg) and the MY22 Ford Everest at 3100kg. The 2022 versions of the Isuzu MU-X and Nissan Patrol can both tow 3500kg, while the MY22 RAM Laramie is rated at 4500kg.
Aggregate Trailer Mass (ATM) – This is how much the trailer weighs when fully loaded and includes the towball download.
Gross Trailer Mass (GTM) – This is the mass transmitted to the ground by either the axle or axles when the trailer is loaded uniformly and coupled to the towing vehicle.
GCM (Gross Combined Mass) – This specifies how heavy the combination of the vehicle and trailer can be. This should be, but isn’t always, the sum of the GVM and maximum braked tow rating (maximum ATM of the trailer).
GCM is not always listed, but in the case of the Ford Everest Titanium and Isuzu MU-X, GCM is 5900kg (despite their differing tow rating) and the Patrol’s is 7000kg.
In some parts of the country, there are speed limits relating to towing that aren’t the same as the posted speed limits. When we last checked, the maximum speed a vehicle can tow a trailer is 100km/h - in Western Australia. In the rest of the country, the posted limits apply… sort of. In NSW, for instance, if you’re towing a vehicle and trailer combination of more than 4500kg, then the maximum speed you can drive at is 100km/h, even if the freeway speed limit is higher.
Occasionally, vehicle manufacturers impose towing speed limits on their vehicles. For instance, Ford Australia specifies you shouldn’t tow with your Everest at a speed greater than 100km/h, even if the State you’re travelling in allows a higher speed limit. More importantly, Ford state that you shouldn’t tow at all with a new Everest during the run-in period of 1,600km.
The Prado, Everest, MU-X, Patrol and Laramie (and many other models) offer Trailer Sway Control as standard, and while the makeup of each system may vary, it performs the same function – supporting the vehicle in the event of a trailer starting to sway from side to side at speed. Built into the stability control system (in most instances), it acts by braking individual wheels on the vehicle to try and control the trailer sway. On some vehicles, Trailer Sway Control also reduces engine power. As it’s designed for operation at higher speeds and on freeways, these systems will usually disengage when the vehicle is shifted into low-range. On some models, activating the electronic locking differential can disengage the system, too.
If you’re going to be towing a trailer weighing more than 750kg (the “unbraked” limit for most full-size 4x4s, even the RAM Laramie), then you’ll need to have electric trailer brakes connected to your vehicle, as your 4x4’s ABS won’t activate brakes on the trailer. Dealer service centres and specialist independent workshops will be able to fit an electric brake controller to your 4x4 and integrate its operation into the switchgear – either on the dash or centre console, in most cases.
The key weights you need to know on your 4x4 and trailer combo before towing are: GVM – which means the weight the loaded vehicle can’t safely exceed; GCM – the combined weight of your 4x4 and trailer; Kerb Weight - the weight of the vehicle with a full tank of fuel; Braked Towing Capacity – the maximum weight of a trailer with brakes fitted; and finally, Payload - which is the “in vehicle” weight allowance for passengers and gear.
Like Braked Towing Capacity, Payload varies from vehicle to vehicle and isn’t always easy to find (not available on the MY22 LandCruiser Prado, for example). Using the other aforementioned samples, payload of the MY22 Everest Titanium is 623kg, rising to 665kg for the Isuzu MU-X, 785kg for the Nissan Patrol Ti and 833kg for the RAM Laramie. This needs to be taken into account when selecting a vehicle. For example, if you have a large family, then the Patrol would be a better option than the Everest, as it can carry more.
These numbers should also be factored in when determining whether the trailer you own - or want to buy - is within the capabilities of your 4x4.
You need to be aware of…
Driving off-road sharpens the senses, but long highway stretches can dull them, sometimes to deadly effect. No matter where you’re driving, you need to be alert to what’s going on around you at all times, and this is especially true when towing a trailer on major roads because the speed you’re travelling at won’t necessarily be the same as those around you.
Always leave a space ahead of you of at least five seconds; at 60km/h, that’s around 80 metres and at 100km/h that grows to more than 130 metres. Always drive smoothly when towing and know the height of your rig to avoid catching it on low-hanging branches.
Also, remember that when you’re pulling out from an intersection, or from the side of the road to rejoin traffic, that you’ll need much more room and time to get up to speed than if you weren’t towing.
When cornering with your trailer, you’ll need to take a wider arc through the turn than you normally would, as your trailer will cut the corner. The longer the trailer is, the greater it'll cut the corner, too.
A lot of people use cruise control when towing on the highway or on flat sections of road, but you should know that cruise control isn’t recommended when towing a trailer on hills, in the wet, or in town, as it makes the engine work harder, burning more fuel and taking away that all-important element of driver control.
How to stop when towing with a trailer
Anticipation is key when stopping while towing. You’ve got a lot more weight and thus more momentum with a trailer, so you’ll need to brake early and slowly. Look at the way semi-trailer drivers slow down before a set of traffic lights; they’re usually braking a long time before they need to stop, keeping their rig under control while reducing speed, rather than trying to do it all at once.
As when in motion, make sure you keep a good distance between your 4x4 and the vehicle in front when braking. The weight of your trailer under brakes will see your vehicle working harder to control the forward momentum caused by the extra weight. Then, as your vehicle is slowing right down, you can ease off the brake pedal very slightly - you want to just reduce the amount of pressure you’re applying so that you can still stop your rig but not cause the brakes to snatch at the end of the weight transfer that’ll cause your vehicle to pitch.
When towing off-road, you need to keep your vision up, scan the trail for potholes and then, if possible, steer a path through or around them. Try and brake in a straight line - which is good advice for braking in all situations.
If your off-road driving has taken you through water, it’s a good idea to give your brakes a "test" after clearing the water by squeezing the pedal to ensure they're operating at their optimum.
It’s probably the most frightening thing that’ll ever happen to you while towing a trailer… the dreaded sway.
It’s usually caused by poor weight distribution over the trailer itself, as well as either too much or not enough weight on the towball.
While your brain will likely tell you to jump on the brakes as soon as you feel your trailer starting to snake behind you, that’s the worst thing you can do and will end up making the situation a whole lot worse.
Here’s how to cure sway:
1. Steer as little as possible, by trying to counter the sway you could end up making it worse
2. Don’t touch the brake pedal, but ease off on the accelerator and activate your hazard warning lights to indicate to other drivers you’re in trouble
3. Manually apply the brakes on your trailer - very gently. This will help to align the tow vehicle and trailer. If your trailer is swaying too much, you might need a front-seat passenger to reach over and apply the brakes for you
4. Once you’ve controlled the sway, pull over to the side of the road and check your trailer for issues.
If you can’t determine what might have caused the trailer sway, then continue your journey with caution and head to a service centre for a check-up.
How to reverse a trailer
When reversing a trailer, you should always get out of your vehicle and check the spot you’ll be reversing into. Also, your speed when reversing should be no more than walking pace.
The best way to start reversing is always with the towing vehicle and trailer in a straight line; you don’t want the trailer kinked to one side before you begin.
Place your hands on the steering wheel in quarter-to-three position and turn the wheel no more than half a turn when manoeuvring back. Check your mirrors as you’re slowly reversing, so you can easily correct the trailer if it begins to swing. But which way should you turn the wheel?
When looking in your side mirrors, the trailer should appear even on both sides; if it appears more in one mirror than the other, then you want to point the top of the steering wheel towards that mirror and vice versa for the other mirror. So, if you see the trailer in your left-hand side mirror, then point the top of the steering wheel at the left-hand mirror; this will counter the trailer’s movement.
What about towing off-road?
Driving and towing a trailer off-road can place a lot more pressure and strain on the towing vehicle than if it was on its own. It also requires more driving skill than towing on sealed roads, so if you’re not confident driving off-road, then you shouldn’t try and tow a trailer off-road.
Most modern 4x4s have a range of terrain and driving modes to make traversing tough terrain easier, as well as low range and diff locks, so utilise that arsenal (if your vehicle has them).
As an example, when driving an Everest 4x4 in sand or loose dirt, select Sand Mode on the Terrain Management System. This sets up key vehicle systems to work optimally for the surface. But be prepared to adapt on the fly…
In a similar vein to tackling trails without a trailer, off-roading with a load behind you may require some counterintuitive selection of driving modes to make it through a tough, sandy trail without incident.
All that being said, you should also ask yourself whether it’s necessary to take ‘this’ sandy route or whether you might be able to find another way around. If the sandy trail ahead is unavoidable, then lower the tyre pressures on your 4x4 to between 12-20psi and to around 10-20psi on the trailer. You want the trailer’s tyres to be at a lower pressure than the tow vehicle’s tyres.
Make sure you maintain momentum rather than speed; if you’re losing momentum then stop… if you keep going, you’ll end up bogging. Getting bogged is bad enough, but doing so with a trailer compounds the problem and makes recovery twice as difficult, especially when you’re on your own, which goes back to the previous point on whether you should take on that trail if you don’t need to.
Top 4x4 Towing Tips
1. Match your trailer to your tow vehicle. Know what all the key weights of both trailer and vehicle are - GVM, payload and the towball download - to determine if your vehicle can actually safely tow your desired trailer.
2. Ensure you vehicle is in top condition. Check the oil, water, transmission and brake fluids, along with the indicators, lights and tyres on vehicle and trailer. On the trailer, assess the drawbar for rust or cracks (especially after a tough trip or a long period of storage), check that the wheels spin freely and that the electric brake controller has been calibrated.
3. Corner Wider. Take corners wider than you would if you weren’t towing – the trailer’s wheels won’t follow the same path as the wheels of the towing vehicle.
4. Avoid the Sway. Control trailer swaying (or snaking) by slowing down (and not touching the towing vehicle’s brake pedal), keeping the steering straight and using the trailer’s brakes.
5. Leave a Gap. An ordinary car travelling at 100km/h takes around 80m to come to a complete stop. Add a trailer and you can double that distance, so leave a safe gap of around five seconds between you and the vehicle in front. And always check your mirrors and surroundings.
6. Stop Straight. When stopping, keep your rig straight, braking and turning severely can cause your rig to jack-knife.
7. Slow and Small. When reversing a trailer, use small movements of the wheel. Move slowly, as getting the trailer off track can be easier to correct.
8. Be Aware of the Load. When stocking your caravan or camper trailer, keep the weight low and over the trailer’s axle rather than at the front or rear. Also ensure that weight is spread evenly from side to side on the trailer.
9. Space to Pass. On the road, when overtaking and then moving back into your lane, make sure you allow plenty of room at each end of the manoeuvre. Cut it too fine and you could clip the vehicle you’re overtaking with your trailer.