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How to safely tow a caravan, horse-box or other heavy trailer

By Paul Connolly

Driving a car with a heavy trailer may not be particularly difficult, but if things go wrong the consequences can be catastrophic.

However, if you put in the preparation, drive carefully and conform to the law, then you will not be a hazard to yourself or other road users.

The key thing is to remember you are now in control of two heavy wheeled units, both of which can behave differently in different circumstances.

As Peter Rodger of the Institute of Advanced Motoring, one of the UK’s leading advanced drivers, says: “Whether you’re towing a speedboat, a horsebox, a caravan or another car, there are certain rules which must be applied.

“It is important to recognise the challenges which come with having to control not just one vehicle, but two.”

With this in mind, here are some of our best tips to keep you safe and legal when towing caravans, horseboxes, boats, or other heavy loads:

Fitting a towbar

Tow bars should be ‘EU Type Approved’ and should be fitted by a pro, who will ensure that it is a correct match for your vehicle, for the type of towing you intend, is fitted and wired-in correctly and is legally compliant. Do not fit a tow bar yourself.

Before you tow

Weight: This is of critical importance. Know the towing ability of your vehicle and the weight of the towed vehicle – this should not exceed 85 per cent of your car’s kerb weight. Excess weight will cause instability.

Weight distribution: Ensure weight is distributed evenly, loads are tied down and remember that if liquids slosh about this may be hazardous

Secure: It may seem obvious, but check the unit you are towing is secure before departing. Then stop after a short distance and check again. Fix anything that might have come loose, disconnected, missing or broken.

Lights: Get somebody to help while you test the brakes and indicators. You’ll also need an illuminated number plate at the back of the unit.

Tyres: Check the tyre pressure of your own vehicle and the towed unit.

Number plate: The unit should have the same number plate as your car.

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Hitching up

Connecting: Ensure the tow hitch drops properly down on to the tow ball and locks in place – usually with a solid click. Often there will be a visual aide as well. Never set off if you are unsure.

Jockeys & Stabilisers: If a jockey wheel or stabilising legs are involved, make sure they are fully wound up and clamped.

The electrics: Fit your trailer’s electrical cable to the socket of your tow bar and check it’s working.

On the road

Speed: Be aware that reduced speed limits usually apply when towing vehicles. When towing, you are restricted to a max speed of 50mph on single carriageway roads, and 60mph on dual carriageways and motorways (assuming no lower limit is in force, of course).

Courtesy: Remember to extend courtesy to vehicles following you by allowing them to pass.

Stopping: You will take longer to stop: increase your stopping distances appropriately. : Daniel Rogers, towing expert at Land Rover, recommends always leaving a gap of at least four seconds to the vehicle in front.

Overtaking: This is a potentially dangerous manoeuvre that should only be done if necessary. Leave extra time and space for overtaking, merging into traffic streams, etc.

Mirrors: Land Rover’s Daniel Rogers says it is a legal requirement to use extended mirrors when towing, to “ensure you have full visibility around the vehicle for safety purpose”. Use all mirrors frequently.

Snaking and other hazards: Even if you have followed the correct tow weight factors, snaking (side to side motion) and pitching (up and down) can still happen. If it does, allow the engine to brake slowly on its own by lifting your feet off the pedals and keep steering in a straight line. Avoid the temptation to brake or try to steer out of the sway.

Practice reversing: for heavier loads, there may be occasions when you need to reverse around corners or into tight spaces: practice this.

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These are general guidelines, and it is your responsibility to ensure you are compliant with the law in your area, so do your research.

Each type of trailer brings its own challenges, and you should read further on areas in which you require knowledge.

Horseboxes, for example, have the added responsibility of a heavy, unpredictable large animal in your trailer, and at loading and unloading times. Read up on horse handling first.

You’ll need specialist knowledge for towing heavy farm equipment behind a tractor. Never assume just because you know how to tow a caravan you can safely tow a tractor and trailer.

Be aware the law can change, and different places have different laws.

There are guides online and specialist courses are available from the likes of the Institute of Advanced Motoring and the Camping and Caravanning Club.

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