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Caravans: Towing need-to-knows

Towing a caravan might seem like an attractive holiday option of late, as the cost of living has everyone tightening their belts and making international holidays seem rather an indulgence. But towing a caravan isn’t always that simple, so we’ve put together a little guide to towing capacities so you know how to remain safe and legal.

Of course, knowing everything about towing is no good unless you’ve got a suitable car to tow with. You don’t necessarily need to go out and buy a brand-new tow car – browsing through the dozens of second-hand cars for sale will bring up all manner of vehicles well-suited to towing – from big SUVs and pickup trucks that’ll make short work of even the biggest dual-axle vans, to family saloons or large hatchbacks if you have less demanding requirements.

What does towing capacity mean? 

Cars are rated for how much they can tow legally. There are usually two weights specified – an unbraked towing weight for small trailers or the very tiniest teardrop caravans, and a braked towing weight for loads above 750kg – that’s most caravans. That towing weight includes the weight of the caravan as well as what’s inside it.

A caravan will usually have an MPTLM (Maximum Technically Permissible Laden Mass) figure listed that shows how much it’s legally allowed to carry as payload.

You can find the towing capacity in the car’s manual, or on the VIN plate – this is usually located at the bottom of the windscreen or on the car’s body around the driver or passenger door frames. There will be four weights on there – the gross vehicle weight, the gross train weight (the maximum the car and trailer can weigh combined) and the maximum axle loads for the front and rear.

For the towing capacity, subtract the gross vehicle weight from the gross train weight.

How much can I tow on my licence?

In December 2021 the law changed to allow young drivers the freedom to tow larger items, effectively removing the need to undergo separate training. If you passed your test on or after January 1 1997, you’re now allowed to tow a combined weight of car and trailer up to 3,500kg.

If you passed your test before 1 January 1997, you can tow a vehicle and trailer combination of up to 8,250kg.

Should I tow the maximum allowed? 

Most organisations and driver training bodies recommend you tow a caravan no more than 85% of your car’s mass. That means if you have an SUV that weighs 1,500kg, you can safely tow up to 1,275kg.

While you can legally tow more in many cases, this is only recommended if you’re experienced with towing – the 85% rule is designed to minimise the risk of a wayward caravan taking control of the tow car and resulting in an accident.

How to load a caravan 

Loading your caravan needs to be much more thought-through than simply bunging everything in willy-nilly. Of course, you need to secure breakable items like your crockery and glassware, but you also need to load it for safe towing.

Load your heaviest items in the centre of the caravan, over the axle. This will allow for maximum stability on the road and also minimise noseweight – that’s the weight the caravan imparts on the car’s towball.

Lots of caravans have large storage areas such as the gas lockers at the very front or under bed storage at the very back – don’t be tempted to load these up with heavy gear. Instead, reserve them for lighter items like bedding.

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