I’d be really surprised if there was a single caravan owner out there who hadn’t heard something recently about Caravan weights. It’s become a huge talking point, and that stems from a number of reasons like legality, coverage of insurance, risk of an accident and police weighing caravans and handing out fines.
In this post though, I want to cover Caravan Weights in detail, and write about a few things that most people either don’t know, don’t want to know or don’t want to share.
Why are Caravan Weights so important?
You’ve all seen the photos, of Mum and Dad, and the 3 kids loaded into an old Kingswood, towing a van three times the size of the vehicle and touring around Australia several decades ago. If they could do it then, what has changed, and why are Caravan Weights suddenly so important today?
There’s a lot more on the road
There’s a lot more wobble boxes on the road, as they’re affectionately known as, and this guarantees more scrutiny.
Asides from the liability side of things that we delve into more below, the police have taken a keen eye to educating, and in many cases weighing and fining people who are overweight. In much the same way that the heavies (truck police) will weigh a truck, vehicles and caravans are getting weighed regularly all over Australia, and if you are overweight, best case they tell you to lose some weight and keep going, or they’ll tell you to detach and leave your van behind until you can get someone else to tow it.
Even worse though, they can give you a pretty hefty fine, and no one likes getting those sort of tickets.
Caravans today come with everything and the kitchen sink
If you look at the older caravans, they were a totally different kettle of fish to the ones being built today. Yes, some of them were huge (especially in comparison to the tow vehicles), but they were much lighter, and in the end the size matters less than the actual weight.
When you have hybrid caravans that start off at 2500kg empty, its no wonder we are having a problem with caravan weights.
You’d hardly go a week without seeing a nasty caravan rollover, or accident on social media or the news. It happens all the time, and this stems from a combination of more being on the road, lack of education, incorrect loading or caravan weights that are miles away from where they should be.
I suppose the end all is this; you want a setup that is safe to tow, and that means ensuring your Caravan weights are correct, and within the legal limitations. That’s not to say if you are 10kg over you are going to immediately have a crash and die, but there is absolutely a relationship between caravans (or towing setups) that are not legal, and accidents.
The buck eventually stops with someone, and liability is becoming a big thing today. If you hadn’t heard, just recently someone was sentenced to several years in jail for an accident that he created, by driving a grossly overweight caravan and 4WD whilst moving an exorbitant amount of household goods from one place to another.
The accident resulted in a catastrophic mess, and two people died.
The personal liability is the most concerning; if you are driving a setup that is overweight and you injure or kill someone, you are going to get a strong boot up the rear.
The liability takes another interesting turn though; insurance companies are cluing onto the fact that they don’t have to pay for accidents that are caused by caravans that are overweight, or an illegal towing setup.
When we had our setup weighed by a mobile weighing company, he told us that part of his job is to go to insurance claims and weigh everything, and then report on the setup. He had seen a number of times where setups worth more than 150K had been written off, and the entire insurance claim was denied because they were driving a completely illegal setup.
If you want your insurance company to pay out when things go wrong (and they should, providing everything is legit), then you need to do your part to ensure you have no liability in obstructing this.
So, enough about all of that. What’s the important Caravan weights, and how do you check them?
So, onto the nitty gritty, and take a breath; its really not that complicated, and this post should make it nice and simple, and clear. If its not, leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you:
Find the nameplate and your vehicle figures
If I’m looking at a Caravan, Camper Trailer or Hybrid to purchase, one of the the first things I go to is the nameplate. This is a small plate which is usually attached to the drawbar of a caravan, and it specifies the limitations of the Caravan, by the manufacturer.
It’s important to look at all of these, as they play a huge role in how the van will tow, how you can load it, what you carry, what tow vehicle you really need and so much more.
Now, I want to put a caveat in here, and mention that not all nameplates are accurate, and the quality caravan manufacturers will put a nameplate on as one of the last things done, once its completed and has been weighed, accurately. Some caravan manufacturers use a generic nameplate which does not factor any additional accessories that you’ve fitted, and even things like mattresses, gas bottles etc. If you are buying a caravan, get it weighed and confirm the nameplate is actually legit, as it will make your life very difficult if its not.
On top of this, you should look through your owners manual to find the limitations on its weights. This will include things like GVM, GCM, Axle weights, Towing Capacity and so forth.
In terms of caravan weights, there’s not much more important than ATM, or Aggregate Trailer Mass. This is the absolute maximum that your caravan can weigh when its fully loaded. It includes the weight of the tow ball, and to get it you literally place your van on a weighbridge, sitting on the wheels and jockey wheel, and you drive off.
If you have a 3500kg ATM caravan, that means it cannot weigh more than 3500kg. You can’t have 3500kg on the axles and another 300kg on the tow ball, as this is included in the ATM.
To see if you are under your ATM, you need to put just your caravan on a weighbridge, and take the reading when its disconnected from your vehicle. If its being done on a mobile caravan weighing arrangement, they’ll weigh all of the wheels, and the jockey wheel, and total it all.
The number you end up with needs to be under the ATM specified on the nameplate of your caravan. Now, its important to know that your actual caravan weight needs to be under the towing capacity of your vehicle, or you won’t be legal.
If you do find yourself in the unfortunate situation where you need more ATM, sometimes you can get a Caravan ATM upgrade fairly easily (go back to the manufacturer first), or you can get it signed off by an engineer, or you’ll have to drop some weight.
The GTM (Gross Trailer Mass) of a caravan is its maximum allowable weight, excluding the tow ball weight. This is essentially the weight applied to the wheels of your caravan when its hooked to your tow vehicle.
Caravans come with a GTM to ensure that you have an appropriate tow ball weight, which is integral to safe towing.
Tow Ball Weight
For safe towing, tow ball weight is one of the most important factors to look at. The actual weight isn’t always important, but the weight distribution is. On some caravan nameplates, you’ll have a tow ball weight. You should know that this is not the maximum, nor the minimum, but it’s the unloaded tow ball weight, in the vans delivered (when new) setup. Please also know that this figure is not always correct!
When you load your van up, this weight is going to change. It might change a lot. It might change a little. You won’t find a maximum tow ball weight on the van, but you will find a maximum on your tow vehicle. Many modern 4WD’s have a maximum of 350kg on the tow ball, but if you are applying this much weight you are very likely to have other weight issues relating to the vehicle.
A lot of people say you need to have 10% of the trailer weight on the tow ball, and this is complete and utter garbage. It can be a good guide, but Mitsubishi recommend 6%, and there’s no hard and fast rule. Weight distribution is far more important.
Now, this is a Caravan Weight that is related to your tow vehicle, and you’ll find the figure not on your Caravan Nameplate, but in your tow vehicles manual. GCM refers to Gross Combination mass, and is the total weight of the tow vehicle and caravan, moving down the road when hooked together. To get it, you literally drive your vehicle and caravan onto a weighbridge long enough for both to fit, and take the reading with it hooked together.
Tow ball weight is not considered here, as you are just looking at the total weight of the setup (and its already being weighed). For example if you have a 5950kg GCM, and your setup together comes in at 6100kg, you are overweight by 150kg, and you need to lose that somewhere.
In many cases, you cannot be at full vehicle weight and tow the maximum towing capacity, as the two weights don’t add up. Our maximum GVM is 2950kg (prior to the GVM upgrade), and towing capacity is 3500kg, but if you add the two together, its 500kg over the 5950kg GCM. This almost always hugely limits the weight that you can actually tow, if your vehicle is loaded up with gear.
Caravans have an axle rating, and its important that you are under the maximum axle rating. This usually relates to ensuring the tow ball weight is correct, but if you have a dual axle van its important to ensure that the front wheels are not significantly heavier than the rear, or vice versa.
Vehicle rear axle weight
Whilst this is not technically a caravan weight, I want to throw it in as it’s the single most easy way to have your towing setup illegal. Caravans are heavy, and their tow ball weight is amplified on the vehicle due to leverage.
If you drop a 300kg tow ball weight onto an average 4WD, it applies that 300kg to the rear axle, but it actually applies even more. When you lower the hitch, you’ll see the front of your vehicle come up, and the rear go down. This is simple leverage, and you will take about 150kg of weight from the front axles of your vehicle, and put it onto the rear. Imagine applying 450kg to the rear axles of your towing vehicle, just from adding a caravan on!
That excludes the tow bar, fridge, passengers and everything else you carry, and this makes it awfully easy to go over your rear axle weight, and also your GVM.
A heavier tow vehicle is advisable
The more you dig into all this, the more you’ll hear, and realise that a tow vehicle that is heavier than the caravan you are towing is a good idea. Its not a hard and fast rule, and there’s a lot of people out there who break it, but its sensible. Sure, if there’s a minor difference its not going to cause you to run off the road, but when you have a 2000kg 4WD towing a 3500kg Caravan, you’re running a recipe for disaster.
If your caravan weighs 3500kg, you want a tow vehicle that weighs similar. This stops the caravan from wagging the tow vehicle, like the tail wagging the dog.
Weight distribution is critical
Before we wrap it up, I want to make it very clear that the way in which you load your caravan is critical. In an ideal world, anything that is heavy should be down as low as possible (near floor level, or under the van) and as close to the axles as possible.
That means that storing heavy items in the front, top cupboards of a caravan is a bad idea, and on the same token having heavy toolboxes hanging off the rear of your caravan is never good practice.
Bad weight distribution leads to instability, and trailer sway that often ends in tears.
Caravan weights are important, but not that complicated
If you’re still struggling with understanding Caravan Weights, don’t feel bad. It’s a subject that takes a bit of time to wrap your head around, but its really straight forward once you understand how it works. They are hugely important, and I’m happy to answer any questions below if you’re still unsure.