The mustard.co.uk guide to towing a caravan

Posted by mustard.co.uk on May 25th, 2017

There’s no doubt whatsoever that the ‘Staycation’ is in vogue this year – with Covid-19 putting the brakes on most international travel, plenty of families will need to find a way to cut loose and relax while remaining on British soil.

For many thousands of people, that means caravanning. Your own home-away-from-home, a safe space for your social bubble, what’s not to like? Caravans can range from the lightweight to the luxurious and come in all shapes and sizes. Before you can relax on your holiday though, you need to tow your caravan to its destination – and that’s not always a simple process. Here are some things to remember before towing a caravan:

What licence do I need to tow a caravan?

Good news – everybody with a full, UK car driving licence is permitted to tow a caravan. However, how big a caravan it is depends on the allowances of your licence and when you passed your driving test. It’s all based around maximum authorised mass (MAM) – the total weight of the car and trailer.

If you passed your test before 1 January 1997, you can tow:

  • Any size of vehicle and caravan combination up to 8,250kg MAM.

If you passed your test on or after 1 January 1997, you can tow:

  • Any vehicle and caravan combination up to 3,500kg MAM
  • If your car is already close to 3,500kg, you can still tow a caravan up to 750kg (4,250kg MAM).

If you passed your test after this date but still want to tow a heavier caravan, you can undertake additional driving instruction and take a B+E driving test.

If you passed your test on or after 1 January 1997 and have the B+E category on your licence, you can tow:

  • A vehicle up to 3,500kg MAM with a caravan up to 3,500kg MAM.

This combination allows for all but the very heaviest of cars and caravans.

Unsure what categories you have on your licence? Visit the DVLA website to view your driving licence and find out. The website also provides information on how to undertake your B+E test if you don’t already have the certification.

How heavy is my car and caravan?

The MAM of your car can be found on a plate in the door frame or in the owner’s manual. The MAM of a caravan is usually listed on a plate near the door frame, in the owner’s manual or by contacting the manufacturer.

Both of these figures include the weight of the car or caravan itself as well as a payload of additional items to be loaded into them.

Other weights need to be considered. Firstly, your car will have a maximum towing limit – the most weight it’s legally permitted to tow. You can check this on a site such as Parkers or by contacting the manufacturer. For example, the BMW 520d Touring can tow up to 2,000kg. Not all cars are rated to tow caravans, and many popular chunky-looking family SUVs can only tow 1,300 to 1,500kg.

Most organisations, including the Caravan Club, recommend loading your caravan no heavier than 85 per cent of the weight of your car for safety when towing. For a 1,685kg car such as the aforementioned BMW 520d Touring, that means a caravan of up to 1,432kg in weight.

A heavier caravan is still legal, as long as it’s within the car’s towing limit – but recommended only for experienced towers.

If you’re not sure how much you can load into your car or caravan, or if you want to check you’re still on the right side of the law, you can visit a weighbridge. These can be found on the gov.uk website and should quickly throw up if you’re exceeding one or more of your outfit’s weight limits.

Finally, your car will have a maximum noseweight – that’s the weight of the caravan’s towbar on the car’s tow hitch. You can buy specialised scales to measure this, but a set of bathroom scales will also do the trick. Adjust it by moving the loads inside the caravan forwards and back.

Tips for towing

We’ll assume you have a towbar fitted to your car as a very basic step one!

Next, you’ll need a few bits of equipment for towing a caravan. The first is a clear, legal number plate – and though it should go without saying, it has to be the same as the car towing it!

You’ll also need towing mirrors. Most caravans in the UK are wider than the cars towing them, so you’re required by law to fit mirror extensions that allow you to see clearly down both side of the caravan and 4 metres either side of it, at a distance of 20 metres behind the rear of the caravan.

Failure to fit towing mirrors can earn you 3 points on your licence and a fine of up to £1,000. Luckily, they’re widely available and very cheap.

Your caravan must be fitted with a breakaway cable if it weighs more than 750kg – this activates the caravans brakes in the event it becomes detached from the tow car. You can also fit a stabiliser to the caravan’s hitch – this helps to prevent ‘snaking’ on faster roads.

Some cars have trailer stability assist, but it requires a specific wiring kit to be enabled. Universal wiring kits cost less, but are a false economy on modern cars.

You’ll also need to adjust your car’s tyre pressures to compensate for the increased load.

Towing a caravan: speed limits

Different speed limits apply to cars towing caravans, so it’s worth familiarising yourself with them before you take the road to avoid a potential fine.

On motorways and dual carriageways:

  • Maximum speed limit of 60mph
  • Use lanes 1 and 2 only.

On single carriageway (National Speed Limit) roads:

  • Maximum speed limit of 50mph
  • Pull in regularly to let queuing traffic pass.

On all other roads:

  • Adhere to the posted speed limit
  • Consider your braking distances and cornering speeds will still be affected by the caravan’s weight.

How to pack a caravan for towing

Packing a caravan carefully is important, as weight distribution can affect the stability of your outfit on the road.

Don’t be tempted to load all of your heaviest gear right into the caravan – spread your loads evenly between car boot and caravan where possible.

Heavy items should be kept in the middle of the caravan, above the axle. Don’t be tempted to use front and rear storage lockers for heavy gear, as having weight at the extremities of the ‘van will make it far more prone to snaking, wobbling and general instability under tow.

Keep items close to the floor if possible and ensure they’re secure – if everything slides forward the moment you hit the brakes, all that hard work is undone.

Remember to pack fragile or breakable items carefully – most caravans have special storage lockers for delicate plates and glasses.

People and pets also count as fragile, breakable items. Don’t put any living things in your caravan when towing it.

What car should I buy to tow a caravan?

Three things matter when towing a caravan – towing limit, weight, and torque.

A car with a high towing limit will be able to tow a bigger, more luxurious caravan. Heavier cars will deal with the weight better and generally will be more stable. A powerful car with lots of torque won’t suffer as much with the additional weight of the caravan, allowing for faster acceleration and more control.

Diesel engines rule the roost when it comes to caravanning, as they have more torque than a similarly powerful petrol.

It’s for this reason that SUVs, such as the Land Rover Discovery, Kia Sorento or Volkswagen Touareg (the 2020 Parkers Tow Car of the Year) are so popular among the caravanning community. They’re large, heavy and powerful, with high towing limits – often up to 3,500kg.

Pickup trucks such as the Ford Ranger or Mitsubishi L200 are also very popular for the same reasons, and they’re often usefully cheaper than the equivalent SUV (particularly as a company car) – albeit with slightly less luxurious interiors and fewer items of high-tech equipment.

However, if you only have a small caravan, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t tow it with a regular family saloon, estate, or hatchback. Provided the car and caravan are well matched in terms of weight, even a small hatchback can be used to tow a caravan.

Despite the ample torque and benefits of regenerative braking, electric cars for towing are still quite rare. Currently only the Tesla Model X offers a factory-supported, capable towing package – and the battery capacity to make it worthwhile. In the future, the weight of the car and torque available will make electric cars excellent towing vehicles, though.

Car and caravan insurance

If you get a towbar fitted to your car, you’ll need to disclose it to your insurer as a modification to your vehicle. This might affect your premiums, so be sure to compare quotes from multiple providers – with the towbar noted – to make sure you’re getting the best deal. You can do this right here on mustard.co.uk.

With luxury caravans often costing well over £15,000 it’s also well worth getting caravan insurance, too.