Safety checklist for caravanning in Australia

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Before you embark on any trip, there are a few mandatory safety checks all drivers must perform.

We’re lucky to live in a country with one of the most diverse landscapes in the world … a landscape dominated by desert, dry heat and a hell of a lot of red dirt — contrasted against tropical oases, lush forests and breathtaking waterfalls. Not to mention the 12,000 beaches dotted along our ~60,000km of coastline. Now with so many varying and challenging terrains, it’s important your tow vehicle and caravan or camper trailer are in proper shape to handle them. To ensure your combination is performing correctly and to give you peace of mind when you’re off the beaten track, you must complete a few safety checks before embarking on any travel plans.

The shakedown

If you’re lucky enough to be the owner of a new caravan or camper trailer (brand new or pre-owned) and you’re yet to do a trip in your new rig, a shakedown is non-negotiable. A term taken from nautical circles, a ‘shakedown’ is where a new vessel is taken on a relatively short trip near to home to see if there are any mechanical or body faults or limitations. The whole idea of a shakedown is to address problems near to home before embarking on a long trip where finding help, or machinery, is much more difficult and at times impossible. The same is necessary for your first trip in a caravan because it’s inarguably a lot easier to find and fix mechanical problems in your base town or city versus 2000km away in the middle of the Simpson Desert.

Now, your shakedown should be more than just a lap around the block. To give your rig the attention it deserves, you should aim to spend one to two nights somewhere (not too far from home) with your van packed just as it would be for a longer trip. This is the perfect time to see how everything works in practice, how best to pack your gear, how to set up and pack down, and a chance to notice any additional bits and pieces you may need to acquire.

Worth its weight

One of the most important considerations when towing any van or trailer is weight. Every tow vehicle and trailer are subject to weight limits which have been set by trailer and vehicle manufacturers after performing extensive testing. Staying within manufacturer-specified weight limits isn’t only for safety purposes, but also to help avoid receiving a hefty fine if you run into state road authorities doing random weight tests. Even worse, if you have an accident due to an overweight load, you will be held accountable, and your insurance will be invalid.

Tow vehicle

Your tow vehicle is crucial in determining the trailer load you can haul. In your tow vehicle is a manual, you’ll find two weights that indicate its maximum towing capacity: braked and unbraked.

Braked refers to how much a vehicle can tow when trailer brakes are in use.
Unbraked is legally restricted to 750kg.

A third figure to consider is the coupling download figure — this specifies the amount of downward force that can be exerted on a vehicle’s towball. You may have heard this will be 10 per cent of the overall towing capacity, but that isn’t always true … for example, European cars can have a much lower download limit.

Another necessary consideration is axle capacities — particularly the rear. Then, of course, there’s the GCM (Gross Combination Mass) which is the weight of the entire rig — this includes the vehicle, trailer/caravan/camper trailer and payload.

Towing weights

There are four main weight considerations of which to be aware when towing your caravan or camper trailer. These are usually found on a placard on the A-frame or tucked away somewhere toward the front.

Aggregate Trailer Mass (ATM) denotes the most your trailer can weigh. It includes the trailer itself and everything in and on it — i.e., the van, any fluids and total contents. It is the combined total of the downward force exerted by the wheels and jockey wheel.

Gross Trailer Mass (GTM) refers to the maximum weight that the wheels can collectively impose on the ground, or equal to the ATM minus the coupling downward weight.

Tare Weight is the weight of the trailer on its own as it left the factory, without any payload and after-market additions. Your tow vehicle will also have a tare weight — this is the vehicle weight as specified by the manufacturer and may include liquids such as fuel and coolant but does not include payload.

Towball Weight is often also referred to as the hitch weight. This is listed on the compliance plate of modern trailers, however, if yours is older, it can be calculated by subtracting the GTM from the ATM.

If you’re ever not sure about the exact weight of your combination, it’s a good idea to head to your nearest public weighbridge. With weight limits that are enforceable by law, it’s always best to know the correct number and not guess.

Handy towing tips from AL-KO

It goes without saying that driving a car towing a massive caravan is not the same as driving a regular vehicle. With the added length and weight, any small misstep can cause an accident. If you’re not comfortable towing a van, many motoring organisations offer driving and towing courses covering a variety of driving conditions. Aside from that, here are some handy towing tips from AL-KO that you can brush up on before your next trip:

Height and width — it’s vital to know the height and width of your caravan or camper trailer as these dictate where you can haul it. There are many narrow and obscured roads in Australia that only smaller models can get in and out of safely. Pay attention to bridge heights (particularly in cities if passing through) and low-hanging trees and don’t forget to consider your width when passing through narrow passages … another lesson you don’t want to learn the hard way.

Uphill hauling — if you have a steep uphill start, let your rig roll back a bit, steering so that your tow vehicle and trailer end up at a slight angle to one another. When you drive forward from this position, your vehicle will start by simply straightening out the trailer, rather than pulling the full weight up an incline from a stationary point — saving your clutch and fuel!

Stopping — no matter how advanced the electric brakes on your van are, braking with all that additional weight on the hitch will inevitably require a greater distance. Always leave more room than you think you’ll need and always ease off the accelerator and apply the brakes gently. Last-minute braking is not advised and is dangerous.

Gears — when heading downhill, change down gears to take pressure off your brakes. If you don’t do this, you’ll be putting them under extreme stress, risking overheating and potentially even brake failure on long descents.

Corners — when turning, always take a wider line to prevent your trailer from pivoting and cutting the corner. The distance between your coupling and the axles of the trailer will affect the point at which it pivots and will take a bit of getting used to with any unfamiliar vehicle-van setup.

Reversing — reversing a long and heavy rig is not without its challenges and it requires a lot of finesse and patience. As a general rule, point the caravan/camper trailer in the direction you want it to go and then manoeuvre the controls so that your vehicle essentially follows in the same direction. When looking at the back end of the van, turn your steering wheel towards the back end to make it go in the opposite direction. Maintain a manageable angle between the two until you can bring the tow vehicle in line with the van and straighten the wheels.

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