MATCHING TOW VEHICLES AND CARAVANS
Finding the right caravan and tow vehicle combination is very important for safe towing. Find out what to look for when choosing a compatible vehicle and rig.
Many people tow their first caravan with a car or 4WD that they already own. Others – let’s call them the lucky ones – are ready to buy both vehicle and caravan at the same time. Whichever applies to you, the best way to match your vehicle to your caravan is to realistically look at the type of use you expect from both.
Like many things, the partnership of a caravan and the vehicle that tows it will be a compromise, and if you don’t choose carefully, it will not be a happy one.
If you intend to keep your existing vehicle then the first step when buying a caravan is to consider which models can be towed within the limits of your vehicle, rather than looking at the caravan you want. This will be the deciding factor on which caravan you can buy.
The same applies if you are buying a new vehicle to tow your caravan – you need to check that the model you have in mind will be up to the job, or if it will be overkill. Don’t assume you need a big, heavy 4WD just because you are towing a caravan – many sedan cars can comfortably tow a caravan. Bear in mind that if you do choose a big 4WD tow vehicle, it may not be ideal for you when driving solo. For example, getting into multi-level car parks in town may suddenly become a problem, as some 4WDs are too tall to get in.
QUESTIONS TO ASK TO DECIDE ON A TOW VEHICLE - CARAVAN COMBINATION
HOW MUCH CAN THE VEHICLE TOW?
Your vehicle’s maximum towing capacity – determined by the manufacturer – will be crucial when purchasing a caravan. Look in your vehicle owner’s manual or check the manufacturer's website to be absolutely certain you have the right towing capacity figure. Note, for example, that there is often a difference in capacity for automatic and manual transmission models.
You also need to establish what the maximum towball download is for your vehicle, as this will also limit potential caravan candidates. The maximum towing capacity for any vehicle is ultimately restricted by the item of lowest capacity in the towing setup, i.e., the towbar, towball, or the towing vehicle. Towballs must carry a stamped rating that should not be exceeded. Towbars are plated with overall capacity and download capacity, neither of which must be exceeded.
For example, your vehicle may be able to legally tow up to 2100kg, but it may have only a 1200kg-rated towbar fitted. In that case, 1200kg is the limit. Look for a plate or sticker attached to the towbar, which should state the name of the manufacturer and the maximum capacity of the towbar. While you’ve got the owner’s manual out, check what the maximum permitted Gross Combined Mass (GCM) is – the maximum weight of car and van including all their contents. Add the vehicle’s total recommended mass (GVM) and the prospective caravan’s Aggregate Trailer Mass (ATM) to ensure this GCM figure is not exceeded.
Read more: Towing capacity terms
Next, check if the vehicle manufacturer recommends using weight distribution hitches. This may influence your caravan choice because a prospective van with a heavy towball download may require a weight distribution hitch. Aside from the specifications on towing capacity, you will need to check the owner’s handbook for the rear axle load for your vehicle. If you have a heavy trailer and load up the cargo area of your vehicle with heavy items, you may overload the rear axle. This is illegal.
WHICH VEHICLES SUIT CARAVANS?
What tow vehicles suit which caravans? Generally speaking (and assuming the vehicle and towbar ratings are acceptable) four-cylinder cars with 2L engines or more are generally suited for towing caravans around 1000kg to 1200kg. Some locally built six-cylinder or V8 sedans and wagons can comfortably tow lighter single-axle caravans and campers up to 1600kg to 1700kg.
The many medium to large 4WDs are generally suited for caravans up to 2500kg before they begin to feel the strain. There are fewer vehicles around for the heavyweights of around three tonnes and more – Ford F250s and LandCruisers come into their own here. Don’t forget, when matching a car’s towing capacity, make sure it exceeds the caravan’s ATM, which for tandem models is usually around 400kg more than the unladen (Tare) weight of the van.
WHAT TRANSMISSION TO CONSIDER WHEN TOWING?
Aside from weight specifications, there are other factors to consider and possible changes to be made so that your vehicle is best suited to towing your chosen caravan. For example, automatics may need an additional transmission cooler to avoid transmission overheating when towing.
Finally, if you’re after a touring van then it is likely to weigh more than 750kg, so legally trailer brakes need to be fitted. If the caravan has electric brakes, as most do, then you will need an electric brake controller fitted to the tow vehicle, otherwise the caravan’s brakes will not work. If you have chosen a van with override brakes, you don’t need to do anything to your vehicle.
WHAT SIZE CARAVAN?
There are many caravans to choose from, but generally speaking, the bigger and more spacious the van the more you will compromise on weight and manoeuvrability, but the less you compromise on internal comfort and ease of use.
The advantage of a small to medium-sized van (around 4.5m in length and 1000kg Tare) is that you will find it easier to store and it will be simpler to manoeuvre in tight spaces liek caravan park sites. The cost of fuel for the towing vehicle will be less and there will be less wear and tear on the towing vehicle. However, you will have fewer features, smaller living quarters, and less flexibility in the layout.
Mid-sized caravans, at around 4.5m to 5.5m and up to around 1200kg to 1500kg, usually offer more layout options. An increasing number in this range have features such as a small shower and toilet compartment. Many mid-sized vans now provide expanding body designs such as fold-out bed-ends, which increase the living area. These, as well as pop-tops, offer some weight and space-saving, but require more set-up and fold-up time. Large caravans weighing from 1800kg up to 3500kg with a body length up to about 7.5m offer generous living and sleeping quarters (a four-berth cabin layout is common), two or more TVs, an ensuite with a separate shower cubicle, and room for other luxuries such as a washing machine, external barbecues, and more.
MORE ON TOWING
Everything you need to know about towing caravans and campers including towing capacity, tips for safer towing and towing road rules.
Read: Ultimate towing guide
There's more to hitching up a van than simply dropping the coupling onto the towball. Read this guide to discover everything you need to know to hitch up your caravan like a pro.
Read: Guide to hitching up