Off-Road Towing Tips: Steep Hills with Caravans
Going up or down steep hills on 4X4 tracks can be daunting even when not towing, but with the right techniques, they’re usually not as challenging as they look.
Tough Tested is a TV show that subjects caravans & camper trailers to accelerated torture testing to assess durability over a lifetime of off-road towing. Club 4X4 Insurance are the naming rights sponsor of Season 2, promoting safe off-road adventures through a series of towing tips.
Australia’s landscape is as beautiful as it is diverse, and an elevated vantage point will usually be worth the effort to soak it all in. Some may take a bit of hiking to reach, but there are plenty with 4X4 access to get you most of the way. Whether you’re looking for a remote look-out or an awesome spot to spend a night or two with a view, having the confidence to tackle steep tracks within your vehicle’s capabilities is a skill worth practicing.
Whether ascending or descending, picking the right line is the first step, meaning the route you will take to reach the top or bottom. Whether you choose to walk the track or can get a clear enough view from behind the wheel, your aim is to visualise how both the tow vehicle and trailer will respond to the obstacles ahead. Ideally, you’ll find the line that keeps your combination as flat as possible while conquering the hill with minimal fuss, but it’s equally important to identify the less favourable lines and think through how you’ll react if things don’t go exactly to plan.
Where it gets tricky when towing is that you’ve got multiple axles, with one wheel in the wrong spot presenting a potential problem. One of the most common mistakes when towing over uneven terrain is getting the tow vehicle past an obstacle but forgetting about the trailer until it’s too late. If you’re not careful, this could see you risking damage by bouncing over the rough stuff or getting dragged off-line as the trailer falls into a hole or becomes stuck. Heavier caravans more heavily affect the vehicles towing them but can be more stable than lighter camper trailers that have a tendency to bounce around, so get familiar with your combination and the places you’re comfortable taking it.
When tackling 4X4 hill climbs, with or without a trailer in tow, maintaining momentum on the way up is critical. Momentum shouldn’t be confused with speed, so this is less about hitting a hill flat out and more about maintaining a constant speed that suits the terrain. With the right line selected and visualised, you will be able to anticipate the faster and slower points of the climb to modulate your speed accordingly.
It’s quite common to see drivers back off by reflex as the tow vehicle gets over a tough section only to have the trailer slowed down by the same obstacle, creating an anchor that causes unnecessary wheel spin as the driver tries to pull the trailer over or simply stopping them in their tracks. Even the best trailer reversing experts will wince at the thought of backing a caravan down a steep 4X4 track to go again, so this is something you seriously want to avoid.
Without a doubt, steep 4X4 tracks are far riskier on the way down than on the way up, largely due to the potential for brake lockups that can quickly turn drivers into passengers on a scary roller coaster ride if they aren’t careful. The classic 4WDer advice of low range 4X4 in first gear with minimal brake input to progressively control speed with engine compression still rings true, with modern ABS systems and hill descent control adding more tools to the arsenal.
This gets trickier with the weight of a camper trailer or caravan pushing the tow vehicle downhill. It’s tempting to crank the trailer brake controller up to compensate or hit the manual brake override button when unsettled, but locking up the trailer’s brakes can be catastrophic, allowing it to slide into a dangerous situation with a tendency to overtake the tow vehicle that’s trying to slow down, which can easily cause a rollover or drag the combination off track.
After visualising the ideal line and setting your trailer brakes conservatively to avoid lockups, which can be practiced on flatter ground to get it right, the goal is to start your descent as slowly as practical. You can always speed up if the hill is tamer than expected, but trying to slow down suddenly for something you didn’t expect is a recipe for disaster that simply isn’t worth it to save a minute or two.
If you have an off-road caravan or camper that you’re eager to explore Australia with, and if you’ve got a capable 4X4 to tow it, we hope this information is cause for informed caution rather than discouragement. While we strongly recommend driver training, there is no better teacher than experience. Ease yourself into it, practice getting comfortable with your combination in different scenarios and make sure you’ve got at least a basic recovery kit with you and know how to use it should something go wrong.
You don’t need to tackle the toughest track you can find straight off the bat and towing on tracks where caravans or camper trailers are prohibited is never a good idea, but even if they are allowed, it’s worth considering the pros and cons of dragging yours through it. If your perfect caravan or camper trailer site is at the end of a 4X4 track though and you’re confident conquering it, we’d encourage you to consider Club 4X4 insurance for peace of mind on your adventures.
To watch Australia’s best off-road caravans and camper trailers put through their paces in a controlled environment at Loveday 4X4 Adventure Park, tune in to 10 Bold this Saturday August 5th, 2023,to watch the first episode of the Club 4X4 Insurance Tough Tested TV show.
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