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Towing guide 2017: laws, weights, capacities. tow cars and top tips

There are all sorts of reasons people might want to use their cars for towing, especially during the summer months. It’s then that the caravans, boats and jet skis come out, not to mention those dinky little two-wheeled trailers that are so useful for taking hedge clippings to the tip. Motorbikes, quads, lawnmowers and horses are all regularly carted around on – or in – various types of trailer, and even cars being towed along by camper vans are counted as trailers too.

Have we missed anything? It doesn’t really matter, because trailer towing laws aren’t too bothered with what you’re carrying – as long as the load is properly secured. So whether you’re towing a caravan, towing a car, or towing a trailer, the rules are based around driving licence entitlement, towing weights, and the towing capacity of the vehicle being driven. After that, there’s a raft of technical requirements to understand, such as the need for towing mirrors, trailer lighting and trailer brakes.

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Beyond your legal responsibilities, you also need to make sure your driving skills are up to the job. Most people could cope with a little garden trailer quite happily on a run to the tip, but caravan towing, or something potentially even heavier like car towing, requires a little more expertise, knowledge and preperation.

Read on for our top trailer and caravan towing tips…

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Towing legally – trailer licence entitlements

You need a full driving licence to tow any kind of trailer, and if you passed your test before 1997 you should be entitled to drive a vehicle and trailer that together weigh a maximum of 8.25 tonnes. This Maximum Authorised Mass or MAM means you’re pretty much covered for most things, including large 4x4s or vans pulling hefty caravans or boats. In fact, to get anywhere near the limit, you’d probably need to be driving a 7.5 tonne truck – although if it was fully laden, it would limit your trailer to three quarters of a tonne – or a big American RV pulling a car.

The opportunities are more limited for drivers who passed their test after January 1st 1997. The MAM limit in that case is 4.25 tonnes, and that’s only with a tow vehicle of 3.5 tonnes, which would limit the trailer to 750kgs. If you want to pull a trailer over 750kgs on a post-1997 driving licence, the combined tow vehicle and trailer MAM drops to 3.5 tonnes.

As an added complication, the trailer MAM must be lower than the tow vehicle’s weight, too. This shouldn’t be too much of a worry though, as most car towing (on a trailer) or caravan towing combinations fall within these parameters.

If you are a post-1997 licence holder and want to upgrade your trailer entitlement, there’s an additional car and trailer driving test – also known as the BE test – which is run through the DVSA bus and lorry test centres. The trailer test cost is £115, and we’ll explore that in the towing training section below.

Towing weights and vehicle towing capacities

It’s all very well knowing what your licence allows you to tow, but it’s equally important that you understand the limitations of your equipment. Car towing capacities will be listed in the owner’s handbook, but you must make sure you’re looking at the specific numbers relevant to your model – maximum towing weights can vary considerably with different engine and gearbox combinations.

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It’s no good knowing your vehicle’s maximum towing capacity if you don’t know what your trailer can handle – or whether your load will put it over the limitations of your trailer, or the law. You need to find out all the necessary information to ensure you’re on the right side of the law before you hit the road. Recently built trailers should all have plates with weight and loading information, and if you have an old trailer you may need to take it to a local weighbridge.

You also need to know the maximum permissible trailer nose weight that your tow vehicle can handle. This is the weight of the trailer pushing down on the tow bar, and you can measure it by putting the laden trailer’s jockey wheel on the bathroom scales. If the nose weight is heavier than the tow bar can take, you need to redistribute the trailer load to balance things out a bit better.

SsangYong Korando Sports DMZ - tow bar

Keep in mind the best advice from the caravan club is that nose weight should ideally be seven per cent of overall laden weight, but if you have a heavy trailer don’t worry too much if your nose weight needs to be lower than the recommended seven per cent in order to meet the tow bar design limits.

It’s also important to counterbalance the nose with weight placed as close as possible to the axle, as too much weight at the rear of your trailer is potentially dangerous from a stability perspective. However, all tow car and trailer combinations are different, and if you’re not confident about any of these aspects of towing, it’s best to seek advice from a professional.

Trailer and towing regulations

As well as taking heed of weights and capacities, there are various different rules and regulations that need to be adhered to when towing a trailer or caravan:

  • • Trailer width and length

    The maximum width for any trailer is 2.55m, and the maximum length for a trailer towed by a sub-3.5 tonne vehicle is 7m. The same size rules apply if your tow car is a Mini or a Hummer.
  • • Approved tow bars

    All tow bars fitted to vehicles registered after 1998 need to be Type Approved to meet EU regulations, and be of a suitable design for your vehicle. Approved tow bars will have labels or a plate with the Type Approval information.
  • • Towing mirrors

    The law says the view behind your trailer must be adequate, so if you’ve a caravan or a wide, tall trailer that obscures your view, the chances are that you may need to fit extendable mirrors. If you’re stopped and a policeman thinks you can’t see properly, you could get 3 licence points and a £1,000 (maximum) fine.
  • • Trailer brakes

    If your trailer or caravan weighs over 750kgs loaded, the law states a braking system must be fitted, and be in good working order. This also applies to a car towed on an A-frame – the law sees the towed car as a trailer, so there must be viable braking system in place. Dollies used by recovery vans and the like, are exempted by government guidelines when towing broken down vehicles at low speeds. They mustn’t be used for general towing purposes, unless the required braking criteria can be met.
  • • Number plates

    You have to show the same number plate on your trailer as on the tow car. The number plate must be illuminated if driving at night.
  • • Trailer lighting

    A road legal trailer must have two red sidelights, two red brake lights, amber indicators, and a pair of triangular red reflectors at the back. Trailers over 1.3m wide are also required to have fog lamp. Trailers built after 1990 must also have white reflectors at the front (excluding boat trailers), unless they’re over 1.6m wide in which case front position lamps are required.

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Towing training – improve your skills

Caravan and trailer retailers, as well as the Caravan Club, are all able to help with the knowledge required to set up you with a safe car and trailer (or caravan) outfit. The Caravan Club also runs sensibly priced practical courses for drivers wanting to practice manoeuvring skills, as well as find out basic safety critical info about trailer loading and hitching up.

They’re run at locations around the country, and are overseen by professional instructors, with caravans supplied. Horsebox and boat owners are welcome to participate too, and the only stipulation is that you hold a full (not provisional) B licence for driving a car.

Caravan Club

If you want to run a heavier outfit on a post-1997 licence, you’ll need to take a practical trailer towing test run by the government’s Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency to add the E entitlement for trailers. The fixed cost is £115, and there’s no legal requirement to take professional lessons up front – the course requirements are all explained on the DVSA website.

If you do opt to take lessons with a professional driving school, you could find yourself shelling out a £600-£700 – perhaps even more once you’ve paid the test fee – for the privilege.

So what tow car is best for you?

Auto Express has teamed up with the Caravan Club again in 2016, to provide a comprehensive comparison test of the best tow cars available across a range of categories from heavy 4x4s to family hatchbacks. Check out our 2016 Tow Car of the Year Awards here.

What are your top tips for towing? Share them in the comments section below…