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Trail Savvy: Towing

There are pluses and minuses when it comes to dragging a trailer about on your overland adventures. Around any campfire, you will find both the big supporters of these houses on wheels, and those who prefer to keep things to just four wheels when it comes to the rough stuff. If you are considering taking the trailer plunge, there are a few regulations to consider, as well as some loading and towing tips that will make life both easier and safer.

Benefits to towing

The most obvious benefit to having a trailer is, of course, the masses of added packing space it provides, which means that you won’t overload your vehicle and you’ll have more space inside. The trailer will also provide a ‘home base’ if you intend staying on at a campsite for a few days, allowing you to use the vehicle for game drives or more serious 4×4 action. The fact that others in the campsite have to pack up their camp every time they want to move the vehicle, will add a smug smile to your face. Not only will you have a more comfortable set-up than anyone with a ground tent and a collection of trommels, but you’ll also potentially have all the extra weight (and convenience) that comes with dual-battery systems and the like, all based in the trailer. If you own a standard 4×4 that you use daily, and which you are not willing to modify to suit your camping needs, an off-road trailer or caravan provides a brilliant plug-and-play solution. With the added drawer systems that you can fit on a decent-sized trailer, you will have all your kitchen, camping and recovery gear neatly packed away, while your vehicle remains largely empty − and therefore more enjoyable to drive when you disconnect.

Unlike trailers of yesteryear, many of which were all spring and no damper, modern trailers and off-road caravans are usually fitted with decent all-terrain tyres and high-quality suspension systems with shock absorbers, as standard. Many even have independent suspension as opposed to the simple leaf springs that were the mainstay of older designs. Modern trailers fare well on rough gravel and less challenging 4×4 routes, and will cope admirably at low speed on rocky sections.

Drawbacks of a trailer

The major drawback of an off-road trailer is the initial purchase price, but considering what you may spend on vehicle modifications to offer luxury similar to that of a fully equipped trailer, the numbers start to make sense. (Of course, this is not guaranteed to stop you from laying down quite a bit of dosh to get your 4×4 in proper overlanding trim: suspension upgrades, body armour, a winch and other necessities will still be on the cards.)

A trailer will increase your fuel consumption, though this will naturally be dependent on the size, mass and wind-resistance of the trailer. A tower’s axiom is that towed weight is less harsh on the vehicle than carried weight, because, although you are dealing with added wind resistance and some friction, there is not much extra punishment of your suspension, which takes a pounding off-road. That said, your brakes should be in perfect order if you are to tow safely. Many off-road trailers, especially when loaded, could well weigh more than 750kg – meaning that they exceed the unbraked limit of most vehicles. You’ll need to have the correct licence to tow it, and the trailer itself should have a braking system.

The rule is to avoid overloading. The maximum load it can carry – and one should aim for less – is the difference between the tare mass of the trailer (what it weighs unloaded) and its Gross Vehicle Mass (GVM) rating.

Also be aware that some ferry crossings may not accommodate a trailer, and the deepest sand sections on your travels may become an issue. You should always deflate the tyres of your trailer in soft terrain, just as you would those of your 4×4 towing vehicle, so that the tyres don’t dig in.

It goes without saying that you should check your vehicle before each hard day of 4WDing – things like oil and coolant levels, as well as possible underbody damage or oil leaks. Trailers are often neglected, so make sure that your electrics still work every morning, and push the rig from side to side to see if it rocks excessively, indicating worn bearings. On a recent trip, our trailer began to sway badly; and when we checked, we found that the hubs were hot. Rocking the trailer from side to side revealed that the bearings were shot. We had to drive at 50km/h for almost 400km before we could replace them at the nearest workshop.

If the trailer’s left outside, the trailer bearings can dry up, and rust can form, so make sure that you wash your trailer and grease the bearings regularly, especially if it comes into contact with salt water. It’s a good idea to service the suspension, too – check that the shock absorbers are not worn, and clean the springs of accumulated dirt or rust before giving them a light coating of silicone spray.

Loading and sway reduction

One thing your K53 license won’t do, is teach you anything about the safe loading of a trailer. You should pack weight low down, with the heaviest items over the axle. If your trailer is loaded to be excessively front-heavy, this will cause your vehicle to squat at the rear, making your front wheels light and less responsive to steering inputs. If your trailer is heavy at the rear, it will lift your tow ball, making your vehicle’s rear wheels light, which reduces traction. In a worst-case scenario, this can easily result in a violent and uncontrollable weave, causing a bad accident.

The legal nose-weight limits in South Africa are between 25kg and 100kg. You can use a bathroom scale to measure this. So, even if your trailer is fully loaded, you should theoretically be able to lift it off the tow ball by yourself, proving that it is well balanced and pivots evenly on the trailer’s axle or axles.

The height of your tow ball may also become a factor. It is important to tow as level as possible to keep weight-distribution even; so, one should, as far as possible, keep the tongue of the trailer level with the vehicle when it is hitched to the tow ball. This is why we have towing drop plates with a series of holes.

Tyre pressures which are wrong for the road will also increase the likelihood of trailer sway; so, after your off-road stint, make sure to re-inflate them to road pressures before reaching highway speeds. Poor loading, as well as the sloshing in integrated water tanks, can also cause ‘pitching’: the trailer rocks back and forth, causing the tow vehicle to pitch up and down.

There is a theory that, because your trailer probably stands for long periods during the year, and its wheels are not powered, you can expect the tyres to last for many years. One problem is that (whether or not you use the trailer) tyres have a shelf life of only around six years before the rubber compounds become brittle and unsafe. Expected tyre-life will be shortened even further if the trailer is left in the sun.

Most modern vehicles designed for towing, such as SUVs and bakkies, have integrated sway control built into the traction control system. By braking alternating wheels, this feature may mitigate a violent weave, but it’s not a failsafe. If the correct precautions are taken, the trailer is balanced, the nose-weight is correct and towing speeds are kept low (don’t expect much more than 100km/h even on highways), then these systems should not be called into play. Unless, of course, there is an emergency situation which includes sudden direction changes and/or harsh braking.

Escaping a weave

If your vehicle and trailer begin to weave, this may, in just a few seconds, become progressively worse to the point that the weave becomes uncontrollable. To control this, immediately after sensing a weave, gently take your foot OFF the throttle and reduce speed slowly until the sway lessens. A dab at the brakes when the vehicle is pointed where you want it to go is also advocated by some towing experts.

Licenced to tow

Check regulations in surrounding countries, as many require certain triangles and stickers to be kept on you or placed on the trailer. South African regulations call for strips of reflective tape on the rear and sides of every trailer.

The rule on towing weight is that your unbraked trailer (with a mass less than 750kg) may not weigh more than half the weight of the towing vehicle.

If the trailer is braked, it may not exceed the tare mass of the vehicle. This applies to trailers with a mass up to 3500kg. In other words, though some manufacturers claim that their vehicle can tow up to 3500kg, this is technically illegal.

Another hitch, so to speak, is that anyone with an standard ‘E ’licence will have to upgrade to an ‘EB’ type licence in order to tow anything with a mass exceeding 750kg. Many off-road trailers will be above this threshold.

EXPERT OPINION

Godfrey Castle, CEO of Caravan Publications, has his own opinions on trailers in the bush…

Within reason, I would pack an off-road trailer and tow it anywhere my family would care to go; the only exception would be if we were to travel through the soft Namib sand dunes after strong winds had deposited 4×4-eating soft-sand traps in the lee of the dunes.

When I see those excessively top-heavy vehicles with everything packed on the roof rolling from side to side, then I say, ‘No, thanks; seasickness is for the sea – I’d rather tow a trailer every time.’

If the trailer and your 4×4 are equipped with the same wheels, it provides the satisfying bonus of knowing that there is a spare wheel or two if you have a tyre damaged beyond repair. It’s not a great feeling knowing that you have trashed a tyre, that the only spare wheel is now in use, and that you are in the middle of nowhere!

One tip – and this applies to all 4x4ers anyway – is never to ride the clutch when crawling over the likes of Van Zyl’s Pass. Towing a trailer makes this even more critical. Select the right gear and take your foot off the clutch. The last thing you want is a burnt-out clutch! Consider switching to an automatic; these make towing easier in these situations.

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