Are you in the process of buying a new caravan, or have maybe even bitten the bullet and upgraded to something a bit bigger and more luxurious? With every upgrade or new purchase comes the question, what can my vehicle tow and does it comply with towing capacity regulations and requirements?

So what makes a good tow vehicle what are some of the things you need to know about your current or new vehicle if you want to pull along your new toy?

Here we look a bit deeper into the legalities, accessories and vehicle specifications that will help you make an informed decision about what the best towing 4×4 for caravans and camper trailers really is ahead of your next adventure.

Is it legal?

Tow vehicle blog

The number one consideration when matching up your vehicle to your caravan or camper trailer is ensuring that it’s 100% legal by the book.

Ensure you keep to the manufacturers specifications in terms of what the legal towing capacity is, not only for yourself, your passengers, but everyone else on the road with you. Everything else after that comes down to personal preference.

To do this you need to determine four things for the caravan: ATM, GTM, GCM and TBM.

How to calculate Aggregate Trailer Mass

ATM, referred to as the Aggregate Trailer Mass, is the maximum rating the trailer can legally weigh once everything is loaded into it. When the van is loaded, it must not exceed the ATM rating.

ATM = tare mass (weight of the trailer) + maximum loads (luggage, passengers, water, fuel and accessories) + Tow Ball Mass

What is Gross Trailer Mass

GTM, known as Gross Trailer Mass, is the rating when the caravan (loaded) is hitched to the vehicle. It must not be exceeded.

Meaning that your Gross Trailer Mass is calculated by the Aggregate Trailer Mass minus the Tow Ball Mass (detailed below).

Both the ATM and GTM ratings are determined by the manufacturer and are found in the vehicles manual and trailer placard.

Working out Gross Combination Mass

Then there’s the GCM. The Gross Combination Mass rating is determined by the total weight of the car and trailer combination plus the entire contents and passengers loaded.

GCM = GTM + GVM (Gross Vehicle Mass)

Tow Ball Mass explained

Lastly, there is the Tow Ball Mass rating (TBM) which is the amount of weight a caravan applies to the tow ball of the vehicle. This is essentially knowing about the tow bar capacity of your vehicle. This is one to look out for because a manufacturer may state that a vehicle can legally tow, say up to 2,500kg, but it may only have a 1,500kg towbar fitted, in which case may limit the caravan or camper trailer you decide to buy.

By doing the homework before you buy the caravan, you will be better equipped in deciding which tow vehicle to go with and vice versa.

For example, say your vehicle’s GCM is 5700 and it’s GVM is 2950. This means you can only really tow a trailer up to 2,750 kg to be within the legal limit. As we found out in a previous blog, you may need to look into a smaller caravan as you may need to compromise on your payload, to achieve that combination.

Always speak to the manufacturer to get the right info and refer to the sticker or plate on the tow bar.

Transmission Selection

Let’s set the record straight for this one; there is no hard or fast rule on whether you choose to go an automatic or manual towing vehicle. It’s really a different strokes for different folks kind of thing. But here are some things you may consider when choosing one over the other.

Tow vehicle with automatic transmission

Generally speaking, vehicles that are fitted with automatic transmission have a much higher towing capacity than those with a manual transmission.

In a situation where there is uneven ground (like sand) or when going uphill, automatics do a better job as there is no messing around with gear changes, stalling or rolling backwards. This is true in turbulent weather conditions as well.

Automatics may also require a transmission cooler to prevent overheating.

Towing a caravan with manual transmission

Manual vehicles have a lower towing capacity due to the fact when shifting gears, damage can occur to the clutch when towing large loads.

Manuals are better in off-road situations because they allow the driver to have absolute control. Many manual drivers will also swear that driving a manual car keeps you alert from the constant shifting of gears. And that can also be true well when going downhill.
Whatever you choose will ultimately come down to personal preference and what you feel more comfortable with as your chosen 4×4 or suv for towing a caravan.

Ideal cars for towing caravans

Tow vehicle 2 blog

We’re talking about 2WD, 4WD or All-wheel-drive vehicles here. Your normal run-around car is typically a two-wheel drive, which is more than suitable because it’s mostly being driven on paved, fairly-level roads.

However, for the true off-roading experience all-wheel-drive and four-wheel drive vehicles provide major benefits in traction and safety. Be it sandy, muddy, icy, or hilly, they’re going to do much better than the 2WD variety.

 Best tyres for tow vehicle

Travelling on muddy, sandy or snow-covered terrain? Knowing ahead of time will help determine the type of tyre you will need. Most people opt for light truck tyres for any off-road travel but be warned that they will wear down on bitumen. All terrain tyres in this case may be a good compromise, especially if you plan to use your tow vehicle for regular daily driving as well.

Knowing your tow vehicle service costs

Weigh up the required and expected servicing costs for each vehicle you consider buying. You can expect to be replacing parts and servicing your new vehicle fairly regularly if you will be towing often.

Towing is hard on your vehicle and parts are going to wear out more quickly than normal. Think about what the labour charges are, cost of replacement parts and if buying brand new from a dealer will be more beneficial when you consider their warranties and servicing terms and conditions.

Other considerations

Your tow-vehicle or caravan/trailer manufacturer may also require you to have a weight distribution hitch (WDH) fitted, in which case you will need to find out what rating it should be and what setting it should be used. Also consider the restrictions or conditions regarding the use of a WDH.

In addition, your tow-vehicle or caravan manufacturer may require you to install towing aids such as mechanical and electronic anti-sway systems. By law, trailers over 750kg require a trailer brake controller, and trailers over 2,000kgs must have electric trailer brakes. Dashboard space in a lot of modern vehicles these days have extremely limited real estate, and therefore you should consider an electric brake controller that can be discreetly tucked away out of sight but also adequately distanced from airbags for safety and comfortability.

More food for thought

In this video below, The Practical Guide to Modern Towing produced by RV Daily, shows you the absolute must-haves and the nice to haves when looking at a tow vehicle.

Final verdict

It’s pretty clear that the most important aspect when looking for the best Australian caravan towing vehicles is selecting the right car that perfectly matches the towing capacity of your caravan or camper trailer. And whilst some other factors are important, such as opting for a 4WD over 2WD, it really is down to whatever takes your fancy.

Before making a decision, test drive each vehicle and if possible, do so whilst towing to see how easy and comfortable it is for you. It can also help to speak to others that have been down this road before, because their experiences may just help you in making sure one of the biggest investments you’ll ever make is the right one.

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Comments 6

  1. Thanks, a great of the best I have read on weights. Most articles make it very complicated, but this one is pretty good.
    The section on tow vehicles also makes sense. I’m in the market for a new car. Having had a Land Cruiser and the great 4.2 Patrol I’m still confused. I wish somebody could just gather all of my information and say “buy this one”. (I wish)

  2. Thank you for including a piece on towing of trailers. This is a greatly misunderstood area of motoring and many just hide their minds from the issue. However ignoring the issue does not make it go away.

    Exceed any of the weight limits and the driver (and owner under Chain of Responsibility) can be subject to serious repercussions eg, fines, licence suspension and even custodial penalties (eg if involved in a collision while in charge of an overloaded rig and someone is injured or dies).

    One point of interest is that there are default rules governing towing mass limits and braking requirements if there are none specified by the manufacturers, and can be found on this website:…/MR25-Light-vehicle-towing-trailer-regulations-GVM-4.5-…

    Your definitions of “Aggregate Trailer Mass” (ATM) and “Gross Trailer Mass” (GTM) are technically correct , however can be confusing to the average non-technical person.

    In explaining ATM to newcomers I explain it as:
    the total weight of trailer and load if weighed unhitched.

    My explanation of GTM is:
    the total weight allowable on the wheels of a fully loaded trailer and does not include the tow ball loading.

    So to give a clearer understanding the definitions could read:

    Aggregate trailer mass (ATM): Is the total mass rating of the trailer unhitched, ie when it is carrying the maximum load recommended by the manufacturer.

    Gross trailer mass (GTM): Is the total mass rating that can be imposed on the trailer’s axle or axle group(s), when the trailer is fully loaded and coupled to the towing vehicle.
    Note that GTM does not include any measure of the tow ball weight.

    The maximum tow ball weight is usually determined by the trailer manufacturer, the tow bar manufacturer or the vehicle manufacturer and is the lesser of these amounts if you wish to remain within legal limits.

    With the passage of time GTM is becoming less relevant as the trailers rated that way age and disappear from the scene.

    I am glad you mentioned passengers in the calculation of GVM for example. Passengers are a component of a vehicle’s load often overlooked by many road users.

    With the change to ATM many caravan/campervan owners are caught with the prospect of having very little “payload” for their home on wheels.

    I am dismayed to see many major caravan/camper manufacturers making their vehicles with an ATM very close to the Tare of the vehicle, then offering options such as additional water tanks and roof racks such that when the water tanks are full and the weight of the roof rack is added the only payload left is enough for say a gas bottle, no capacity for food, beer, or clothes.

    Sure the van may be able to carry the load but the owner and any driver is at risk of serious sanctions. No one accepts trucks being overloaded, so why should vans be designed/built such that overloading is an inevitable real prospect.

    Have an accident with an overloaded van and a charge of Dangerous Driving is a very real prospect with serious legal penalties for the driver.

    In this regard the solution is to not buy a van unless it has a decent payload.

    Thanks again for the article.

    1. Hi Kevin….thank you for the clarifying this in an easy to understand manner for novices like me. Speaking of which, I would be interested in your recommendations for a used van up to $30K with full ensuite just for two people. Will not be doing any serious off roading. I have a 2007 Jeep Commander (pulls 3.5tonne)I was thinking of using, in good condition but not sure if it best to get newer. Any feedback would be appreciated
      Many thanks,\Ian

  3. Automatic transmissions these days are so far superior then days of old,
    with their sports shift modes they will out do any manual in 4wd terrians
    as you can shift gears at anytime with out having to power off
    & hold lower gears when going down hills
    I have a Ford Ranger PX II auto ,my brother has a Mazda BT50 manual
    he wishes he have an auto,we both tow 22ft coromal tandem caravans

    Please can you comment on whether rear tyres should be Tubeless or Tubed when towing.

    My experience travelling at the speed limit at night trying to avoid Roos meant we had to severely swerve on one occasion and the Camper Trailer we were towing with a new Pajero started to whip causing the rear tubeless tyres to roll off the rims and deflate.When we we were on the rims on a bitumen road we lost control and rolled both Pajero and Camper Trailer numerous times.Nobody hurt – Thank God.
    In future I will consider fitting tubed tyres to the rear wheels.

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