Most drivers think it’s as easy as tow and go, but towing really isn’t that straightforward.

Even a trailer with a single axis can put a large weight on the rear of a tow vehicle, causing potential interference with steering, braking and traction by unweighting the front axle, so, it’s important to brush up on the basics before you set out on any journey to ensure you’re towing safely.

Law requirements

Any trailer you’re towing must display a current WoF sticker, registration label and plate. The characters on the registration plate must be unobstructed at all times and be lit by a white light.

All trailers need to have stop and tail lights. Trailers that exceed the width of 2 metres must also have one pair of white, forward facing position lights. All trailers require at least one red tail light, but if your trailer is more than 1.5 metres wide and was first registered on or after 1 January 1978, it must have two tail lights fitted. It’s also a requirement for trailers to have one or two pairs of stop lights, unless your trailer was registered in New Zealand before 1 April 2012 and has no obstructions that prevent the driver from carrying out arm signals.

Similar rules apply for direction indicators and trailers need to have a minimum of one red rear reflector fitted on each side.

Make sure the trailer coupling and the tow ball match and are in good condition. In New Zealand, tow balls are commonly 1 7/8 inch or 50mm in diameter. You should never use a 50mm coupling with a 1 7/8 inch tow ball or vice versa.

If your trailer has a gross laden weight of up to 2,500 kg and doesn’t have a breakaway brake, you’re required to have one or two safety chains in case the coupling device breaks. The chain must be short enough that it prevents the trailer coupling from dragging on the ground and it must be of sufficient strength to hold the trailer securely. Trailers with a gross laden weight of 2,500-3,500 kg must be equipped with a breakaway brake.

Trailer maintenance

We recommend regularly maintaining your trailer. You should never tow a trailer that has been poorly maintained, even if you’re an experienced tower, as this can be dangerous to yourself and other road users.

If the trailer hasn't been used for a long time, there are some basic checks that should be carried out periodically:

  • Check whether the warrant is still current
  • Look for signs of wear or damage on the tyres and check their pressures
  • With some assistance, check that all the lights are working
  • Clean all lights and reflectors
  • Check the tow coupling and brake mechanisms are well lubricated – your local garage will be able to do this for you
  • Jack the trailer to test for indications of worn wheel bearings by spinning the wheels and listening out for any rumbling noises.
  • Check that all tie-down points are secure and that the safety chain and D shackle are in place.

The trailer load

Every light vehicle and trailer combination is legally required to stop within a distance of seven metres from a speed of 30km/h. Therefore, it’s important to be mindful of the weight that you’re adding to your vehicle as overloading could prevent the towing vehicle from meeting the brake performance requirement.

Additionally, overloading can compromise the vehicle’s cooling system, transmission, clutch, and even the engine longevity. You can always check your vehicle’s handbook if you’re unsure as it should provide the maximum loading weight and the unladen weight of your car. Taking the maximum weight minus the unladen weight will you give you the actual maximum load that a vehicle can carry.

Here are four useful tips to remember when loading a trailer:

  1. Spread the load evenly across the floor or deck of the trailer, keeping the height as low as possible. Where stacking is unavoidable, make sure that the heavier or larger items are placed at the bottom. Doing this correctly will help to avoid the potential risk of the trailer swaying.
  2. Arrange loads so that objects aren’t sticking too far out the side. Any projecting loads can be dangerous, so use the vehicle towing the trailer as a guide line and try not to exceed the width of the vehicle. The standard maximum towing width is 2.5 metres.
  3. Always avoid placing heavier loads towards to the rear of the trailer as it will affect handling. Instead, try to position the cargo as close to the axle as possible, and ensure that there’s a downward force at the point of attachment that’s approximately 10% of the weight of the trailer plus the load but make sure the downwards weight limit of the tow bar is not exceeded. This will help to improve the overall handling while towing.
  4. Secure the load to prevent shifting while travelling. Objects will move around as the vehicle brakes, turns, accelerates and drives over uneven surfaces, so prepare for every condition when strapping down.