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In at the deep end: hints from learning to tow for the first time

I’m sitting in a £60,000 Mercedes-Benz E-Class All-Terrain, with an imposing twin-axle horse trailer attached to the tow bar. Facing me, on a narrow muddy track, is an identical E-Class All-Terrain with a matching horse trailer. The only good news is that our trailers don’t contain real horses, just ballast to replicate their weight. One of us needs to move to sort the gridlock.

I try to reverse, and the horse box decides it doesn’t want to play ball. No amount of steering wheel-twirling, or the calm reassurance of Dave the instructor, is going to fix this.

Instead, Dave suggests we tackle the daunting track to our left, climbing up a hill and with trees lining the deeply-rutted route.

This turns out to be less intimidating than it might sound. The E-Class All-Terrain isn’t fazed by the slippery hill, despite the trailer and hefty imitation pony inside it, and hauls itself up with ease. It’s the same coming back down, with the E-Class surefooted despite the weight pushing behind it.

The Mercedes certainly helped flatter my abilities, with a host of cameras and sensors making towing far easier. Having a qualified instructor alongside was perhaps the biggest advantage, saving us and the hypothetical horse from any danger.

First-time dramatics aside, towing doesn’t need to be difficult or challenging, and offers up a range of options. Be it holidaying with a caravan, moving horses around, or even lugging a race car to the track, there are plenty of reasons to start to tow.

Before you think about hitching up something extra to the rear of your car, there are a few things to consider first. Nobody likes a baptism of fire, especially when it might actually involve your own expensive trailer or caravan.

Towing tips

Licenses

Possibly the most important thing to check before towing is your driving licence, with a range of restrictions based on when you passed your driving test.

For those who gained their licence before the 1st January 1997, a Category B licence will entitle you to tow any combination of car and trailer/caravan up to a maximum authorised mass (MAM) of 8,250kg.

Obtaining a licence after the 1st January 1997 restricts drivers to a vehicle with a MAM of 3,500kg, towing a trailer of up to 750kg. Drivers can also tow a trailer or caravan in excess of 750kg, providing the overall MAM of the combined outfit does not exceed 3,500kg, or have the trailer weigh more than the unladen weight of the towing vehicle.

To tow anything above these weights will require taking additional driving tests, with the GOV.UK website having more information, along with guidance on how to determine the relevant vehicle weights.

Lessons

Regardless of what it says on your driving licence, investing in a training course designed to teach the basics of towing is money well spent.

Both the Caravan and Motorhome Club and The Camping and Caravanning Club offer bespoke courses, tailored to varying levels of caravanning experience. These cover the basics of health and safety, along with lessons in the art of reversing with a caravan attached.

If you’re looking to tow a trailer, the National Trailer and Towing Association will be able to help you find local driving schools offering lessons and coaching.

Speed

Going fast with a hefty caravan attached to the back of your car might be the least of your concerns, but powerful modern machinery can making towing seem relatively effortless.

As such, it’s important to remember that when towing a maximum speed limit of 60mph applies on dual carriageways and motorways, with 50mph on single carriageway routes. Towing also prevents you from using the furthest right-hand lane of a three-lane motorway.

Try to be courteous to other road users if you develop a queue of traffic behind while towing. Finding a safe place to pull over and let others pass is good practice.

Car considerations

Distilling the best car to tow with requires considering a number of different factors. From matching the permitted towing weight with your intended caravan or trailer, to ensuring that it’ll have enough power and torque to enable the whole outfit to move at a reasonable pace.

Diesel-engined 4×4 SUVs have become the preferred choice for caravanning in recent years, matching sizeable towing capacity with the ability to escape from a muddy campsite. It might explain why SUVs took almost every prize in the latest Towcar of the Year Awards, with the Skoda Kodiaq taking the top prize.

If you’re concerned about buying a diesel, however, there are alternative options. Both the plug-in hybrid Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV and electric Tesla Model X are capable of towing a caravan.

Buying a car with a reversing camera, especially one with bespoke modes for helping hitch a trailer, may also influence your decision making. A number of manufacturers, such as Volkswagen and Land Rover, also offer ‘Trailer Assist’ features that use semi-autonomous tech to make reversing easier.

Adding a tow bar

 

With so much technology loaded into modern cars, adding a tow bar is not a simple case of bolting on the first one you find. There is also legislation to take into account at present if you own a vehicle registered after the 1st August 1998, which must use an EC type-approved tow bar.

Most car manufacturers offer tow bars to fit their own specific models, and can even offer factory-fitted versions if ordering a car from new. Retractable or removable tow bars are popular, leaving a neater appearance to the rear of the car when not being used. A wealth of aftermarket suppliers also exist for those wanting to avoid dealership pricing.

Security and insurance

Thefts of trailers, particularly in rural areas, are endemic and often combined with the theft of plant and construction machinery. The fact they can be easily attached to the back of a car and driven away makes them an easy target. Caravans are also desirable, with estimates suggesting up to 3,000 are stolen every year in the UK.

All new caravans produced since 1992 have been registered with the CRiS database, making it easier to track and trace them if stolen. RFID tags are also used to allow easier identification by the police, even if criminals alter visible chassis numbers.

Heavy-duty wheel clamps, hitchlocks, and anchor posts can all be used to make it harder to steal your caravan or trailer. Just like with a car, alarms and tracking devices can also be fitted.

Most importantly, don’t forget to insure your trailer or caravan, even though it is not a legal requirement. Cover is recommended for protection should your latest purchase be stolen, or damaged whilst being towed. Most car policies do not automatically cover either trailers or caravans when being towed, or will have restrictions on cover. Check with your insurer, or speak to a specialist broker.

>NEXT: The best cars for towing your caravan

John Redfern :

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