Caravans, boats and camping trailers will soon be dragged out of hibernation, destined for idyllic holiday spots. Before hitting the road, it’s important to put some care into the trailer for the sake of safety and reliability – just as you ought to for the family car.
Firstly, are the Warrant of Fitness (WoF) and registration current? If not, get that sorted – and don’t leave it until the last minute. In the case of a caravan, check the electrical WoF, too. While that’s not a road-going requirement, if it’s expired you won’t be allowed to plug in when you get to the campsite.
Even if the WoF is current, if your trailer has been sitting unused for a while, make sure the basic safety items are up to scratch. It doesn’t take much of a bump from the lawn mower or kid’s bike to crack a trailer lamp while the trailer’s been sitting. Take a few minutes to walk around, casting a critical eye over everything, checking for anything that has been damaged or has deteriorated since it was last used.
Plug in the electrical connector to the tow vehicle to ensure the lights, indicators and brake lights are operating as they should. Pay particular attention to the tyres, checking not only the tread depth, but also for damage, cracking and deterioration. Generally speaking, trailers don’t travel high mileages so, unlike car tyres which are more likely to wear the tread out due to the distance travelled, trailer tyres tend to crack and perish with age before the tread wears out.
A perished tyre poses a high risk of blowing out, and a blowout on a trailer tyre is not only dangerous, but can cause considerable inconvenience, given that most trailers don’t carry a spare wheel. If you don’t have a spare, it’s worth considering getting one, especially if you’re planning a trip of any distance.
Corrosion can also be a problem, particularly on boat trailers; if anything looks rusty, have it inspected by a professional. Suspension, tow couplings and brake components can be particularly vulnerable to corrosion, so look closely at the leaf springs and, in the case of a braked trailer, make sure the park brake lever moves freely and that the tow coupling still slides freely into the master cylinder. Check the safety chain too, and make sure the shackle thread isn’t seized.
Again, if you’re unsure; get it checked by a professional.
Some simple preventative maintenance in these areas before parking a trailer up for the winter can save time and money later. Every boatie knows to wash down the boat and motor after they've been used, but the trailer also needs attention. Every metal and moving part should be thoroughly hosed down with fresh water and, once dried off, lubricating the moving parts will pay dividends.
With the trailer hooked up to the tow vehicle, check the coupling is secure on the tow ball. Make sure the ball and couplings are the same size. In New Zealand, we have two sizes in use: an imperial 1 7/8 inch hitch and a 50mm metric coupling, and they must always be matched together. The 50mm coupling is slightly bigger, so will fit over a 1 7/8 inch ball, but it will be loose and can dislodge itself.
Particularly if you have replaced your tow vehicle recently, make certain the two are the same size. Some couplings are designed to be interchangeable, so if you have one of these, make sure it is set to the correct size for the tow ball.
With everything in order and tyre pressures checked, it’s time to load the trailer, boat or caravan. The law states that you must be able to stop from 30km/h within seven metres, but for practical purposes, adhering to the manufacturer’s rating for your vehicle should keep you safe and on the right side of the law. Manufacturers usually quote both a braked and unbraked tow rating; it pays to know what they are and never to exceed them.
The load should always be spread evenly over the trailer’s axle. Too far forward and there will be excessive downforce on the tow bar; too far back and there’s a risk of the trailer fish-tailing or jack-knifing.
On an open trailer, ensure the load is secure and can’t fly off but even in a closed trailer, boat or caravan, pack the gear so it can’t move around, even if that means tying it down. Any load that extends more than one metre behind the trailer must have a white or fluorescent flag attached.
The maximum speed for a light vehicle towing a trailer in New Zealand is 90km/h, so be mindful that your top speed is 10km/h slower than most other traffic and be courteous. It is an offence to impede traffic flow so, if traffic is building up behind you and it is safe to do so, you may need to pull over to let other motorists pass.
Planning is everything. Ideally, travel at times when traffic volumes is lighter so that you don’t hold up other motorists. And never be in a hurry. While this applies to any trip in any vehicle, always allow extra time if you’re towing. Take the corners gently and look ahead. It will take longer to stop when you’re towing, so leave plenty of space between you and the vehicle in front.
In summary: keep the trailer well maintained, plan to take plenty of stops and use some common sense. It’s a simple recipe for a safe and happy holiday.
Reported by Andrew Bayliss for our AA Directions Spring 2020 issue