With increasing numbers of RVs being sold in this country, more and more people are hitching up a caravan or campertrailer and heading off on the highways and dirt roads for some adventure.
While there are plenty of experienced vanners out there, aware of the pitfalls and potentially life-threatening dangers of towing large rigs, many will be taking their brand new ‘home away from homes’ from the dealers’ yard straight out to start their dream holiday.... with little idea of how easily it could all go wrong.
A number of caravan towing courses have sprung up across Australia specifically aimed at instilling ‘first timers’ and the less experienced with some of the latest skills and knowledge required for successful towing.
Most are run over a day and combine practical and theoretical elements with an emphasis on safety and keeping you, your fellow road travellers and your precious rig in one piece.
But is it worth shelling out a few hundred dollars for a course when many before you have learnt the necessary lessons through the ‘school of hard knocks’?
Wouldn’t it be cheaper and easier just to read one of the many towing guides available, practise reversing in an empty carpark, and take it easy for the first few days of the big trip as you learn the ropes?
To find out, I booked into the Caravan and Trailer Towing Course run by the Metropolitan Traffic Education Centre (METEC) at its driving training centre in outer-east Melbourne.
The course costs $360 and runs for six hours, covering a broad range of subjects including parking and reversing, emergency drills, road rules and towing regulations, compatibility of van and vehicle, loading your van and some of the endless number of accessories you might find useful in your travels.
TOWING THE LINE
METEC conducts a range of driver training at its purpose-built facility in Bayswater North, from pre-Learners and defensive driving courses to courses on advanced driving and seniors driving.
The cost of the Caravan and Trailer Towing Course covers one van and/or couple, so wives and partners are encouraged to take part so you can learn together the skills and share the load on the road.
METEC usually allocates one instructor for each van or couple during the practical session, so participants gets plenty of one-on-one instruction and feedback.
All participants in the course I attended were novices, myself included, with most in the process of purchasing a brand new large caravan and joining the ‘grey nomad’ army. One claimed he had “never towed anything before” while another admitted he was “pretty nervous” about towing his new two tonne-plus van.
The class was split into two groups and I ended up with Denis Van Damme, an experienced driving instructor who has towed a few different things over the years.
METEC will arrange for a caravan if you can’t bring one along, and I end up towing Van Damme’s campertrailer around the road course.
Before that though, we spent 20 minutes going through the ‘hitch-up’ routine, including backing the car up to the trailer, connecting the various components, and making sure everything is safe and working before moving off.
I never thought there would be so many things to remember to do, and we are later given a ‘suggested hitch-up checklist’ with about 30 points to check off before moving off.
We then go for a few laps of the circuit, which includes threading the trailer through witches hats and around corners to get a feel for how it behaves.
But most of the practical session is spent practising the art of reversing. We learn how to utilise a helper and a somewhat confusing system of hand signals to back ‘blindly’ around a corner, and practise reversing while looking over right and left shoulders.
All the while in the back of my mind I have instructor Graham White’s wise words: “With reversing, the secret is to do it slowly. Do it quickly and things will go wrong”.
After a few attempts and much to-ing and fro-ing, most participants should have a good idea of how to do it successfully by day’s end. If not, White jokingly recommends: “If worse comes to worse, get to the caravan park early to avoid spectators!”
BY THE RULES
After lunch we settle down for a wide-ranging lecture by White, an experienced vanner who has travelled extensively throughout Australia and other countries.
Over the next three hours White distils 30 years towing experience into what he calls the ‘Five key points of towing’: the right combination of towing vehicle and van, the right weight distribution, independent brakes, effective towing mirrors, and good driving technique.
To highlight particular points, he has brought along to the classroom a bunch of RV essentials including towing mirrors, tow balls, gas bottle, caravan jack and electric brakes.
Of course, anyone towing a trailer particularly one over 750kg has to comply with numerous legal requirements and these are briefly touched upon (a copy of the National Caravan and Recreational Vehicle Towing Guide as well as METEC’s own notes are supplied for future reference).
A lot of time is spent discussing the ideal set-up of your towing rig, including how to get your rig level and the importance of sway control devices.
As most RVs have gas bottles, the safe use of gas is covered in detail. White recommends buying a $40 gas fuse to attach to each gas bottle to determine not only the amount of gas remaining but provide a shutdown mechanism when any leaks are detected.
“If there’s going to be anything you buy for your caravan, get one of these,” he stresses.
Correct inflation of tyres is also discussed and the importance of inflating to within the tyre’s maximum recommended pressure to prevent excessive heat build-up and maximise traction.
But perhaps the most interesting parts of the presentation are the numerous tips aimed at preventing hiccups en-route or just saving you money and time.
Things like putting padlocks on the catches of your pop-top caravan to prevent the roof blowing off on the highway; filling up your water tank before you leave home; packing your van to maintain its ideal weight distribution; and knowing the height and width of your van, to avoid accidents under bridges, etc.
A number of techniques are given for dealing with the effects of overtaking semi-trailers, including use of the electric brake controller to control van sway as the truck passes.
“Don’t ease off (the accelerator), don’t brake, keep accelerating,” is METEC’s advice. And if your wheels accidentally run off the bitumen while making room for an overtaking truck, “gently accelerate and get back onto the road”.
METEC also “doesn’t recommend using cruise control, even on the highway”, when towing, so as to remain in control at all times.
WORTH THE MONEY?
A towing course is not essential to successfully tow, but for those with little experience, or just a bit nervous about the prospect of towing something weighing 3500kg behind their LandCruiser, it can be money well spent.
In the big picture, it’s a relatively small cost for some peace of mind before you set of on ‘the big one’. As Graham White explained, “Buying a caravan is not the cheapest thing you’ll ever buy, it’s the things you put in it that cost!”
A course will not teach you everything you need to know, but it will provide you with the basics and highlight areas where you need to practise or do more research.
Personally, it provided me with some much-needed skills and important information as well as some ‘inside knowledge’ normally gained over years of trial and error out on the road.
It also gave me a greater respect and admiration for the owners of the 350,000-odd registered caravans and campertrailers in Australia and the confidence and enthusiasm to get out there amongst them...
10 TOP TIPS FOR SAFER TOWING
1. Ensure tow vehicle and van are correctly set-up, level and balanced before heading off. Fit a sway control device.
2. Reversing is easier than you think, provided you do it slowly and take your time.
3. Get used to your van and how it handles before heading off on the big one. Practise in the carpark and around home if necessary.
4. Keep your van in good condition and get it serviced if necessary before your trip.
5. Don’t carry too much stuff. Better to buy what you need when you arrive at your destination.
6. Fill up your water tank before leaving home; good drinking water is not always available while travelling.
7. Buy gas fuses for all your gas bottles; they’re cheap insurance.
8. Check all windows, latches, drawers, doors, pop-tops are secure before heading off.
9. Compile a comprehensive hitch-up checklist and use it every time before you head off.
10. Drive according to road conditions, stop every two hours or earlier, and be courteous to other drivers. And relax... you’re on holiday!
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