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Friday Five: Do you have the skills to tow a trailer?

Amazingly, there is no license required to tow a trailer in Australia. But if there was…

HERE ARE THE five skills every trailer driver needs before they can consider themselves competent to tow:

  • Backing a trailer – it’s not as hard as it looks, but it is difficult. All trailer drivers should be able to back a trailer ninety degrees into a parking space. In fact, all trailers should be stored so that you have to back them out in other to drive forwards, as if you can’t back a trailer you’ve no business…
  • Driving forwards – knowing how to allow extra room around corners, effect of wind, how and when to operate the trailer brake, emergency stops, securing on a hill and much more.
  • Knowing how to prevent and deal with sway – sway is the horrible weaving of a trailer behind the towcar. It is prevented by proper load distribution not exceeding weight limits and driving properly to the conditions. It is best fixed by applying the trailer brakes separately to the towcar. Accelerating out works, but is rarely practical.
  • Hooking it up – even connecting a trailer to towcar takes skill. Chain length, drawbar height, vehicle setup like tyre pressures, trailer setup..every trailer/towcar combination is a bit different. Hookup-and-hope only gets you so far. There’s so much to check, such as when you need tow mirrors and how do you fit them?
  • Knowing your weights and regulations – do you know your ATM from GCM? Or that the car’s limit for towing unbraked trailers may not be 750kg? Or the weight limit that you must have an independent brakes on your trailer?  How an overrun braking system works? Without solid towing knowledge you can’t be sure you’re legal or safe (sadly, two different concepts).
  • Manoeuvring – trailers are far harder to manoeuvre than cars. You can actually get yourself completely stuck, unable to move forwards or backwards. One of the biggest skills with trailers is being able to access a confined area and plan your manoeuvre accordingly.

Each of the above could be broken down further, but it’s a start. Did you know the UK has a trailer license requirement if the combined weight of car and trailer is over 3500kg? Would you like a similar test here, and if so, what would you put into it?

PS. Yes, that’s six. Consider it a bonus.

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9 Comments

  1. JaiNormosone
    January 14, 2017 at 8:14 am — Reply

    This is an excellent start to a topic of great importance. Many will hook up a trailer and continue to operate in the same oblivious manner as they do without one. In Queensland, this involves sitting in the right lane and ignoring your mirrors.

    You say that reversing a trailer isn’t as difficult as it looks but there are variations to the theme that do need to be taken into consideration… The main issues involve drawbar length and where the axles are under the trailer and it proves the point that if someone doesn’t go away and learn how to reverse a trailer before setting out on the road, they are not as safe a driver as they would like to think they are.

    Just go to a tip on any weekend and watch people trying to manoeveur a simple 6×4 box trailer into position to make you shake your head in disgust.

    • January 14, 2017 at 9:14 am — Reply

      Hi JaiN. A 6×4 is difficult to reverse, more so than a larger trailer as I’m sure you’re aware. I also guess you know the trick of reversing small trailers in an arc so you can see part of them out of the mirrors.

      I don’t shake my head in disgust as reversing a trailer is not a natural skill, and if you’re not taught, shown or learn in some way how would you know? I have run trailer courses and it’s not hard to learn when taught, but difficult if you’re trying to teach yourself.

      • JaiNormosone
        January 15, 2017 at 9:02 am — Reply

        Fair enough. I taught myself to reverse a trailer but I did take the time to watch people who knew what they were doing and work it out before trying. I thing I personally hate is holding up traffic because I am blocking the road longer than I need to. If there is ever a time when you’re going to screw-up something, it will be when there is a crowd watching.

        I agree that the short drawbar trailers are harder than anything as they will jack-knife with very little effort.

        I am in awe of the skills of the people in tippers-and-dogs the way they operate those units.

        • January 15, 2017 at 3:17 pm — Reply

          I was much the same, and also had the opportunity to pratice with a variety of trailers as long as I wanted. However, that’s the exception. Most people don’t have that chance.

  2. Max Bancroft
    January 18, 2017 at 4:27 pm — Reply

    Reversing a trailer or caravan might be something you only do a few times a year so it can hard to maintain a level of proficiency. Add to that the narrow spaces into which you may have to reverse and it can be very frustrating exercise. In the case of an expensive caravan the addition of a remote controlled motor mover is, I think, well worth the cost.

    • February 23, 2017 at 2:44 pm — Reply

      Well if you can’t back it don’t tow it forwards. End of story.

  3. Dean
    February 23, 2017 at 10:41 am — Reply

    When you say store trailers so they have to be backed out, you must mean if there’s somewhere you can get the tow vehicle in front of the trailer to be able to hook it up in the first place?

    I can back a trailer no worries but there’s so much I’d like the chance to learn about towing heavier trailers, especially using the trailer brakes both on and off road. Perhaps if there was a licence requirement, there’d be greater availability of training courses etc? I don’t think I’ve ever heard of an offroad towing training course?

    I’d also be interested in an analysis of beam axle and leaf sprung v. independent and coil sprung trailers for on and offroad towing

    • Robert Pepper
      February 23, 2017 at 5:37 pm — Reply

      There are several companies that provide offroad trailer towing courses. Getabout and Australian Offroad Academy come to mind.

      Re suspension; the biggest factor for trailer handling is the correct weight distribution not the suspension design.

    • February 23, 2017 at 5:39 pm — Reply

      There are several companies that provide offroad tow training. Getabout and Australian Offroad Academy come to mind.

      The most important factor for trailer towing handling is weight distribution not suspension design.

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Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper is a motoring journalist, offroad driver trainer and photographer interested in anything with wings, sails or wheels. He is the author of four books on offroading, and owns a modified Ford Ranger PX which he uses for offroad touring. His other car is a Toyota 86 which exists purely to drive in circles on racetracks, and that's when he isn't racing his Nissan Pulsar. Visit his website: www.l2sfbc.com or follow him on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/RobertPepperJourno/ or buy his new ebook!