Match your Car and Caravan
Before you hit the road, you’ll need to make sure your tow car and your caravan are properly matched to ensure that it’s legal and that you’re going to have a safe and comfortable towing experience.
There are lots of things to take into account to make sure you have a towing set-up that you’re happy with. You need to find out what size caravan you are licenced to drive and that your car is heavy and powerful enough to tow your preferred caravan. For the best towing experience you might also want to consider things like whether manual or automatic transmission is best for you. There are also considerations, such as whether you’d like the added traction provided by a 4x4 and what difference having a diesel or petrol engine or even a hybrid engine would make.
There are some technical details that you’ll have to find for both the car and the caravan and this can sometimes be a little overwhelming for beginners. We’ve broken it down here to help you find the perfect tow car and caravan combination.
Check your driving licence
Before you think about matching a car with a caravan you need to think about what size caravan your driving licence allows you to tow. You might need to take an additional test if you intend to tow a larger caravan.
If you passed your driving test:
- Before January 1997
You can legally tow a caravan when the total weight of the car and the caravan is less than 8250 kg.
- After January 1997
You can legally tow a caravan when the total weight of the car and the caravan is 3,500 kg or less. If the weight exceeds this, you will need to take an additional B+E trailer test.
Check your car’s manual
If you already have a car that you’d like to use to tow a caravan, the first thing you’ll need to check is your car’s manual. Most manufacturers will state the maximum weight that a model can tow. You’ll also want to check the maximum nose weight (sometimes referred to as the maximum download on the towball).
Bear in mind that these figures will often exceed those that are recommended by the Caravan and Motorhome Club, so it’s still worth doing the maths once you’ve got this maximum figure in mind. The Caravan and Motorhome Club recommends that in order to tow your caravan safely, you need to select a tow car that is heavier than the caravan (fully-laden) and with enough power to cope with gradients of 12.5%.
Check your car’s kerb weight
Your car’s kerb weight is the total weight of the car, plus all the fluids including fuel and a driver weighing 75kg. You can usually find this in your car’s handbook.
Your kerb weight should be equal to or ideally exceed the fully laden weight of the caravan.
The Caravan and Motorhome Club recommends that those towing a caravan for the first time should aim for a maximum towed weight of not more than 85% of your tow car’s kerb weight. Your caravan’s maximum laden weight is often referred to as the MTPLM (Maximum Technically Permitted Laden Mass). More experienced tow drivers might be able to comfortably manage 90%. You shouldn’t exceed 100%.
In practical terms, this means that if your car’s kerb weight is 2,000kg, then your caravan’s MTPLM shouldn’t exceed 1,700kg for beginners or 1,800 for more experienced towers.
Is your car powerful enough to tow a caravan?
Once you’ve worked out how much weight your car can comfortably tow (or how heavy a car you should be looking to buy based on your caravan), you need to work out how much power you’ll need. Once you’ve attached a caravan to a car, its power to weight ratio can easily be reduced by almost half.
You’ll need to think about whether or not you’ve got enough engine power or torque to make sure you can comfortably tow a caravan and not become a nuisance to other drivers on the roads.
You’ll need to work out your car’s power to weight ratio which can be measured as bhp per tonne. To do this, you’ll need to know the weight of the car, which you should already have worked out in the previous step. You’ll also need to know the car’s bhp. You then divide the bhp by the weight of your car in tonnes.
So, if the car weighs 1,600 kg and has a bhp of 140, the car’s power to weight ratio is:
140/1.6 = 87.5 bhp/tonne.
Once you’ve attached a caravan of comparable weight, this drops to around 43.75 bhp/tonne.
The Caravan and Motorhome Club recommends that you aim for a minimum of 40bhp/tonne. Divide the car’s bhp by the weight of everything the engine is going to have to pull - kerb weight of the car and laden weight of the caravan to get an accurate figure.
40bhp/tonne will ensure that you will have sufficient power to get up to speed relatively quickly on fast roads, you won’t delay other traffic and won’t struggle when it comes to inclines.
Is a manual or automatic better for towing a caravan?
Generally speaking, automatic gearboxes are well-suited to towing caravans. When pulling so much weight, an automatic with its torque converter will mean that there’s less wear and tear on the transmission. They make it easier for the driver at crawling pace and on hill starts in particular.
If you’re worried about control in bad weather conditions, such as in snow or ice, newer automatics allow you to manually change the gear or they have specific ‘winter’ or ‘sport’ settings depending on the circumstances. Being able to manually change gear also helps when you want to overtake.
Rear wheel drive, front wheel drive or a 4x4?
Lots of caravan owners like to tow using a 4x4 as it gives you that extra bit of traction, especially in wet weather. Bigger 4x4s also give you more options as to which caravans can be towed due to their weight and power. However, some of the smaller models won’t give you much of an advantage over an average sized estate or saloon.
That’s not to say that front wheel drive or rear wheel drive cars aren’t suitable. Rear wheel drive cars can actually provide an excellent towing experience due to the fact that the caravan’s weight on the hitch will keep the rear wheels firmly in contact with the road.
Front wheel drive is also an option but pay particular attention to the manufacturer’s axle limits and noseweight limits. You may find it more difficult to tow when pulling away in wet conditions or when performing a hill start. Modern traction control systems may help with this.
Is a petrol, diesel or a hybrid car better for towing a caravan?
Cars with diesel engines generally offer more pulling power, or torque, at lower speeds than petrol engines, making them a great choice for towing caravans. However, environmental concerns may mean that you’ll face higher tax on diesels.
Hybrids are becoming more popular and they often make highly accomplished towing vehicles. The electric motor provides additional torque, providing a good towing experience. They also have the benefit of better fuel economy and are less costly to run.
If you’re a beginner or not confident matching a car and a caravan yourself, the Caravan and Motorhome Club offer a ‘tow car & caravan matching service’. This handy tool is available to club members only, so you’ll have to sign up first. The online service allows you to experiment with different options so you can be confident in your towing set-up. There is also a telephone service available to members if you’d prefer to speak to a Technical Advisor. Before you call, take a look at their website and make sure you have the requested information to hand.