Towing a caravan takes care if it’s to be done safely.
Take a moment and think about it – you could be more than doubling the length of your tow car, adding over one-and-a-half tonnes to the weight, and then slapping a great big hinge in the middle.
If you don’t take towing a caravan seriously, it could all go wrong very quickly – and your safety and that of other road users is the most important thing.
Staying safe when towing a caravan starts with making sure it’s a sensible match for your car.
And to do that, you’ll have to check the weights and legal limits of your car and the caravan.
What do I need to know to safely match a car and caravan?
In terms of your tow car, you should check its kerbweight, the maximum download on the towball (also called the maximum noseweight), and the car’s legal towing limit.
Moving onto the caravan, find out the Mass in Running Order (MiRO) and also the Maximum Technically Permissible Laden Mass (MTPLM).
Some automotive manufacturers refer to the kerbweight as the unladen weight or the mass in running order. Whatever term is used, you’re looking to find out what the car weighs according to European Directive 95/48/EC, which includes all the fluids necessary for the car to run and a 90% full tank of fuel.
Sometimes this figure is given including a nominal 75kg for the driver, sometimes without. Given that a car isn’t going anywhere without someone behind the wheel, it seems reasonable to allow for the driver’s weight when matching a car with a caravan – that’s what we do here at Practical Caravan in our first drive reviews and full tow car tests.
You should be able to find how much a car weighs in the sales brochures or in its handbook. Alternatively, you can check the registration certificate (V5C).
If in any doubt, you could take your car to a weighbridge to confirm how much it weighs without any luggage or passengers on board.
The legal towing limit is also given in most brochures and handbooks. There are likely to be two figures, one for towing an unbraked trailer, one for towing a braked trailer – a caravan has brakes, so it’s the braked trailer figure you need.
Now for the caravan. The MiRO (Mass in Running Order) and MTPLM (Maximum Technically Permissible Laden Mass) should both be given in any brochure, or you’ll find them on the weight plate on the side of the caravan.
The MiRO is the caravan equivalent of the kerbweight, the MTPLM is the most the caravan can weigh when loaded.
Most caravanners tow at or close to the MTPLM, so it’s best to use this figure for outfit matching.
How do I make sure I am towing legally?
The short answer is that if your caravan weighs less than the car’s legal towing limit, then the car and caravan combination is legal.
However, you also need to check that your driving licence allows you to tow the combined weight of the car and caravan, an area which The Camping and Caravanning Club has covered in great detail in one of its useful data sheets.
Even if your caravan has an MTPLM below the car’s legal towing limit, it’s worth checking the weights given on your car’s VIN plate. There should be four, and it’s the first two you’ll need to pay close attention to.
The first is the Gross Vehicle Weight (GVW), the most the car is allowed to weigh when loaded. The second is the Gross Train Weight, the most the car and any caravan or trailer can weigh combined.
In most cases, the difference between the two should be equal to the legal towing limit given in the handbook and brochure. However, some manufacturers quote a legal towing limit with just the driver on board. So when you load up your car, the effective towing limit drops.
Make sure you don’t exceed the Gross Train Weight to stay the right side of the law.
Is a legal match a safe match?
A car’s legal towing limit is determined by its ability to tow a trailer – or caravan – uphill, repeatedly. So it’s really a measure of the strength of the engine and the durability of the transmission.
It doesn’t necessarily mean a car will feel stable and secure towing that much weight at 60mph on the motorway with a gusty wind blowing.
The Camping and Caravanning Club, one of Practical Caravan‘s partners in the Tow Car Awards, recommends an 85% matching ratio for safe, stable towing.
In other words, if your car has a kerbweight of 1500kg, don’t tow a caravan weighing more than 1275kg (1500 multiplied by 0.85). This is often referred to as ‘the 85% rule‘, but it’s a guideline or rule of thumb, rather than a legal requirement.
The club considers it acceptable for experienced tow car drivers to tow up to 100% of the tow car’s kerbweight, but never more than this – even if it’s legal to do so.
What about the noseweight?
Let’s start by defining what this is: the noseweight is the weight the towing hitch of the caravan applies to the towball on the car. Cars have maximum noseweights, just as they have maximum towing limits.
Again, you should be able to find this in the car’s handbook or by checking a database like Towsafe.
For safe and stable towing, the noseweight should be as high as possible without exceeding the legal maximum.
Noseweight gauges make it easy to check the noseweight a caravan applies – buy the Milenco noseweight gauge here on Amazon.
Changing how a caravan is loaded will alter the noseweight, but if the car’s limit is too low it may not be possible to stay within the maximum download, in which case you’ll need a tow car with a higher noseweight limit, or a lighter caravan.
Outfit matching is more complicated than you might think, isn’t it? But it’s not impossible and it is well worth being thorough when matching a car and caravan, to ensure you can tow safely.
First, check that your car can legally tow the caravan you are thinking of buying.
Next, check the matching ratio to give yourself reassurance that the combination will be stable and safe, as well as legal.
And don’t forget to measure the noseweight to make sure the towball’s limit is not exceeded.
Up next in part 3, get our expert’s top tips on reversing a caravan
Don’t miss our expert guide to choosing what tow car is right for you
In part 4 we explain what speed limits apply when towing a caravan
And in part 5 we look at the pros and cons of petrols, diesels and hybrids as tow cars
It is well worth being thorough when matching a car and caravan, to ensure you can tow safely