Driving a car with a trailer isn’t all that difficult but does require a little more care and thought than driving when you aren’t towing. On this page, I’ll provide a basic introduction to the three main things you will have to learn about if you will be towing a trailer – hitching up, driving forwards and reversing.
Note that all the information provided is based on my experience of towing caravans and other trailers. It’s my personal opinion only and may be different to the techniques taught by driving instructors.
Fitting a Towbar
Towbars should be ‘EU Type Approved’ and should be fitted by a professional, who will ensure that the towbar is a correct match for your vehicle and is fitted and wired in correctly.
For the sake of this explanation, I’ll assume your trailer is too large or heavy to be moved very far by hand – you will need to reverse your car into position rather than just man-handling the trailer.
- Make sure any stabilising legs on your trailer have been fully wound up – the trailer should be standing on its travel wheels and the jockey wheel (the small wheel at the front) only.
- Fit extension mirrors for towing to your car if required (usually only for caravans, which are wider than cars).
- Reverse your car until the tow ball is close to the trailer hitch (less than a foot, ideally just a few inches)
- Wind down the jockey wheel on the trailer (the small wheel at the front) so the tow hitch on the trailer is high enough to be above the tow ball on your car.
- Release the handbrake (if any) on your trailer.
- Reverse under the tow hitch or pull the trailer forwards until the trailer’s tow hitch is directly above the tow ball.
- Wind the jockey wheel up so the tow hitch drops down onto the tow ball. It should lock into place with a firm ‘click’ – make sure you understand the locking mechanism on your tow hitch and always check it has locked on correctly.
- Now wind the jockey wheel down again until the back of the car starts to lift up – this proves the trailer is securely connected to the car.
- Wind the jockey wheel all the way up and secure it in the travel position – you may have to unclamp it and slide the whole assembly upwards to do this.
- Connect the breakaway cable from the caravan to your towbar. This is a legal requirement for braked trailers – it ensures that the trailer brakes come on if the trailer comes unhitched in transit.
- Connect your trailer’s electric cable to the socket on your towbar (usually a black one). This is essential so that the trailer’s external lights will work. Test these once connected. With a caravan, you may also have a second 12V cable to connect for internal caravan power (the socket for this is usually grey).
- Double check the following:
- All stabiliser legs and the jockey wheel have been fully wound up and are secure for travel.
- The trailer’s tow hitch is correctly connected to your car’s tow bar.
- All electric cables are securely plugged in and the trailer’s lights are working (indicators, tail and brake lights and number plate light at least).
- Your trailer should have an identical number plate to your car – ensure this is securely in place.
Finally: Make sure that any load in your trailer (or inside your caravan) is carefully packed for even weight distribution and secured so that it won’t move while travelling.
Driving (Forwards) With a Trailer
Driving forwards with a trailer is not too difficult. The main things to remember are:
- Take corners wider than usual – drive further forwards before swinging round, otherwise the trailer will cut the corner behind you, possibly riding up on a curb, clipping a bollard or worse…
- Allow much more space for braking and brake more gently.
- Remember any extra width – this mostly applies to caravans, which are usually significantly wider than the cars towing them.
- Take it easy and remember that lower speed limits apply when towing any trailer behind a car:
- 30mph on all roads with street lighting unless signs show otherwise
- Single carriageways: 50mph unless signs show otherwise
- Dual carriageways & motorways: 60mph unless signs show otherwise
- You can’t use the outside lane of three-lane motorways/dual carriageways (but you can on two lane roads).
This is where the fun really starts – reversing a trailer does require a little practice and patience to get right.
The key thing is to understand what happens when you try to reverse a trailer. When you are driving forwards and you steer a car, it pivots at the rear and the front end swings round. The same thing happens when you reverse. Think about it:
However, when you are reversing a trailer, the pivoting motion at the back of your car will cause your trailer to be be pushed sideways by the tow hitch, turning it in the opposite direction to the tow car.
This is where things can go wrong, so here’s a simple guide to reversing a trailer:
Start reversing slowly, steering the opposite way to the way you want to turn. This will turn your trailer in the direction you want it to go.
Once the trailer begins to swing round, start to straighten your steering
Straighten the steering of your car and start to steer in the opposite direction
Steer your car round to be in line with your trailer, then straighten the steering again
Complete the reverse by driving straight back if necessary
I have exaggerated the steering angle of the car’s wheels in these diagrams. In reality, you will often need to use much less steering. Never be afraid to pull forwards and try again – everyone does it sometimes!
The secret to reversing a trailer is to plan ahead and not to steer too tightly. Steer a little and reverse very slowly. Think ahead and begin straightening up before the trailer reaches the required angle – otherwise it will turn too far. If this happens, pull forwards a little to straighten up and try again.