Why learning to tow is important

Trailer loaded with plant cuttings

Published 21 May 2021
Last updated 12 April 2022

Our colleague Ian takes us through the basics of learning to tow.

Hello! In this blog we’re going to explore a much-misunderstood topic: towing.

To help you understand the basics, we spoke to a colleague, Ian, who recently completed a beginner’s towing course.

Safe Driving for Life: Hi Ian – thanks for agreeing to talk to us. Let’s start with an obvious question: why did you take a course in towing?

Ian: I live in a city, so the thought of being able to get out and enjoy the great British countryside without booking hotels is one that really appeals to me. I like the flexibility that taking my new caravan out for holidays will give me. So I thought I should learn the basics of safe towing before I set out.

Safe Driving for Life: Sounds fantastic and it’s clearly something that many people in this country enjoy.

People seem to think that towing is difficult at the beginning. Did you find it a challenge?

Ian: It depends very much on which aspects of towing you’re talking about. I think that some people find the licence rules difficult to understand at first. But I checked my licence before I started the course to see what combination of car and trailer I was able to tow.

Safe Driving for Life: So the message here is ‘do your homework’ before you take a course or decide to hitch your caravan to your car and go on holiday?

Ian: Yes, although we spent quite a lot of time going over the rules before we got on to the practical aspects of towing. It’s not just about what you’re eligible to tow. You’ve also got to consider whether your car is actually capable of towing your caravan or trailer.

For anyone who does need some help understanding the requirements, I’d recommend looking at the excellent resources available on GOV.UK and the Caravan Club’s website.

Points to remember

Safe Driving for Life: So, given that you’d already done some prep, what were your first impressions of the practical side of the course?

Ian: Well, one thing that’s very important to stress is that I practised towing with a lighter caravan than the one that I own. The idea, I think, was to get us used to basic technique by working with something as light and manageable as possible. I don’t know whether this is true of all courses. But it was certainly the case on mine and is definitely worth bearing in mind.

The second really important point is that we didn’t practise on public roads or on private drives. All of the exercises were run on a private car park. So really tune into what the instructor’s saying as, once you’re in a public place, you’re on your own.

Practice makes perfect

Safe Driving for Life: Excellent advice Ian, thanks. Did you find some parts of the course needed more practice than others?

Ian: Yes, for example, hitching. If you’re going to make your vehicle and whatever you’re towing as secure as possible, you have to get your hitching skills down. This means doing everything in the right order without skipping steps. So make sure you really develop confidence in positioning your vehicle, attaching the breakaway cable correctly and coupling to the tow ball. If you don’t get this right, you could end up in a whole world of pain.

Safe Driving for Life: Anything else?

Ian: Reversing with a caravan or trailer can be tricky if you’ve never had to do it before. Fortunately we spent quite some time on this!

Safe Driving for Life: Any tips?

Yes. Take your time, make sure you have a clear view. And remember that you’re going to need to steer in the ‘opposite’ direction at the start of the turn. Oh, and there’s no substitute for practice. Keep at it and make the most of your instructor’s experience!

Safe Driving for Life: You said that you practised off-road during the course. Have you had the opportunity to practise on the road yet?

Ian: Yes, I have. And I’d like to stress how important it is for anyone new to towing to practise as much as they can. The only way to build skills and confidence is to hitch up and get some practical experience. You’re going to notice some big differences in what you can see behind you and how your vehicle handles. Also, in the planning and anticipation you need to stop safely and tackle situations like roundabouts and junctions.

Safe Driving for Life: Can you give us some specific examples drawn from your own experience?

Ian: Yes. Take junctions for example. Straight away I realised that coming to a safe stop meant I needed to brake much earlier. I also had to leave additional distance between my vehicle, my caravan and other road users.

The same rules applied when I was changing lanes or passing slow moving vehicles. Basically, it’s a case of checking your mirrors early and leaving nothing to chance. The extra weight makes accelerating more difficult. So anticipation and good awareness of what’s going on around you is crucial.

Safe Driving for Life: So, one final question. Did towing make you more aware of other road users?

Ian: Absolutely. You’re constantly thinking about other road users. You’re also thinking about the type of road you’re on and how you should drive. For example, if it’s windy and the road is exposed, there may be crosswinds which can cause your trailer to sway. You’ll need to brake gently and gradually reduce your speed, rather than put your foot down suddenly.

In the same way, when you go up and down hills, you need to use lower gears to control your speed. So take it steady and keep using your mirrors to check all around you.

Safe Driving for Life: Thanks for your time Ian!

If you’d like to learn more about towing safely and securely then we’ve got you covered.

You can read the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency’s chief examiner, Mark Winn’s blog post. He explains the basic checks you’ll need to perform to become a safe, confident tower. It’s full of great advice, as well as links to additional resources.

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