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50 Shades of hey, what hitch is that?

Reflections, shackles ‘n’ chains, and couplings … sounds like a sordid affair, but you should know the solid facts of towing hardware and accessoriesCLICK HERE TO READ THIS ARTICLE IN OUR FREE ONLINE MAGAZINE

You’ve dished out a fortune for a tow tug, then spent an age dissecting the multitude of caravans on the market that suit both you and your tow vehicle … then laid ya’ money down. End of story? No, far from it I’m afraid … and yep, there’s more money to spend to ensure you stay safe on the road.

MIRROR MIRROR ON THE DOOR

Unfortunately, many drivers are blissfully unaware of anything that’s not right in front of their fat red noses when using OE (Original Equipment) rearview mirrors. You may as well not even look into these narrow mirrors as most are totally inadequate with caravans hitched on. The blind spot, or more appropriately, blind area, makes for a dangerous situation where the driver has no idea of what is happening behind them.

I’ve used elcheapo strap-on mirrors that vibrate no end and while they were wide enough, offer their own dangers of a shaky view that requires an age to discern content. That cheap version also met its maker, when one fell off and proved to be a complete waste of money. While dishing out for a superior permanent set was tempting, I’ve stuck with removable mirrors, albeit better quality than the first.

Regardless of type or brand, being able to see as much of the road behind you is a huge safety factor as well as peace of mind … you mean you didn’t know a truck was about to pass you, or you just cut another road user off because you didn’t see them? Accident waiting to happen!

HITCH ’EM UP

50mm ball hitches are the baseline hitch for everything from small, single-axle box trailers right up to dual-axle caravans; but should they be?

Small single-axle trailers, yep, no problems.

Tandem, heavy caravans; while technically a 50mm ball is adequate, legal and can do the job, they can be a major pain in the arse in a few circumstances. Given (most) can be swapped over to a far better hitching system, I’d highly recommend that if it can be changed, it should be changed.

Now, before all you on-road only vanners skip to the next paragraph, I do acknowledge that most of the superior hitches are regarded as ‘off-road’ hitches, but on-roaders can benefit from them too.

You see, one of the major disadvantages of the humble 50mm ball is its shape. Yep, the ball shape that gives it its name; the head is larger than the shank, which causes a number of problems that can be easily overcome by using a pin-style coupling or even a rotating (off-road) 50mm ball hitch. The old Hyland coupling, Ark XO off-road coupling and the AL-KO off-road coupling still utilise the 50mm ball but allow for both vertical and rotational articulation as do the plethora of pin-style couplings.

Two of the main downsides of the 50mm ball (which is 3500kg rated) and the 70mm ball (rated at 4500kg) are the restricted vertical articulation of about 20° (generally not a problem on-road) and the jamming effect when trying to unhitch.

There are two forces at play that can easily jam a tandem-axle van, once you’ve negotiated the tight reversing often required in many of our packed-in-caravan parks.

First, and most easily overcome, is the front-to-rear weight or pull on the ball. This is generally overcome by slightly moving the tow vehicle forwards or rearwards to take the weight (or pressure) off the hitch; a relatively easy problem to overcome if you’re unhitching on flat, even ground. Front-to-rear slopes may require a little judicial chocking of wheels or applying of the handbrake while slightly moving the tow vehicle forwards or backwards. I find a few foul words help after the first three tries of unjamming the hitch!

Secondly, the twisting of the tandem axles (notable on solid beam-axle vans and independent suspension set-ups) can exert significant twisting pressure so as to jam the hitch. Again, forwards and backwards moving of the complete rig can ‘un-jam’ it all, provided there is enough room to move far enough to untwist your set-up. I was in an unfortunate position in one caravan park, where there wasn’t enough space to unbind my rig from this ‘twist’. I tried the allocated swear time (see above paragraph) after the first three attempts, followed by almost half an hour of forwards, backwards, disembark, wind the jockey wheel up to find it still in a bind, wind back down, move vehicle … repeat, swear, repeat. I’m sure you get the gist.

A hitch that allows more movement is much easier to both unhitch and hitch in most situations, but do be aware of drawbar movement at the unhitching stage if there is
any bind in the system as it could spring sideways slightly – drawbars are harder
than kneecaps!

Reversing vans up steep driveways, over kerbs and through shallow gutters are all situations that can benefit from an off-road hitch without the need to go on crazy off-road adventures. If you do swap over to a different hitch, be sure to check that the intended hitch is able to be used with load distribution systems, if you use one.

Another (sneaky) advantage to swapping to a
pin-style coupling is that while the age-old ball and its regulations state that it must sit between 350 and 460mm from the ground, a pin-style coupling has no such restriction.

SHACKLES AND CHAINS

There’s been a bucket load of bullshit bandied about lately regarding what shackles should be used on your caravan. Make sure the (bow or D) shackle you use is adequately rated for your van and is stamped with an applicable Working Load Limit (WLL). While some shackles are colour coded (yellow or blue being the most common for caravan use), you’re better off looking at the WLL rating than going by colour. Oh, and make sure the relevant shackle pin will fit into your vehicle towing set-up; no good having a big pin and a small hole! Vans weighing less than 2500kg when loaded must be fitted with at least one safety chain, while vans over 2500kg must be fitted with two safety chains. Ensure the chain is also up to the tonnage job; the last thing you want is for your van to take on a mind of its own if it should come unhitched in transit.

I use two shackles and chains on my van (a legal requirement), cross the chains underneath the drawbar (a legal requirement), hand tighten the shackle pins and you could, if concerned, slip a wire clip into the pin to ensure it doesn’t come undone in transit. Ensure the chain/s are short enough to hold the van off the ground should it come unhitched.

BRAKE CONTROLLERS AND BREAKAWAYS ARE NOT THE SAME

By law, your little lightweight garden trailer weighing up to 750kg loaded does not need any form of braking; it’s free to push the tow vehicle around as much as it can.

From 751kg up to 2000kg, you must have brakes on at least one axle (two wheels), which can be as simple as an override system; you mash your foot on the brake pedal, your vehicle slows, your van/trailer slides along a shaft as the hitch that mechanically operates the van brakes via a cable. When you stop braking or start to accelerate, the brakes come off by releasing the compression on the hitch shaft –  simple! Just remember to ‘block’ the brakes at the hitch when reversing … I’ve been caught out!

Vans weighing over 2000kg must have brakes on both axles (all four wheels), must have an automatic breakaway system that operates the brakes for a period of time while your van is skidding along the road by itself, and must have a brake controller within reach of the driver (in other words, must be installed in your vehicle). This brake controller is a totally separate item from the breakaway system (which is part of the caravan).

Regardless of which of the three main electric brake systems you may choose (solid state, pendulum or inertia), it’s paramount they are set properly to allow correct timing and severity of braking force to operate. A correctly set-up van braking system can, in an emergency braking or swerve situation, be the difference between saving or losing your home-on-wheels.

While it might be a good idea to have the system in reach of your passenger as a backup, I’d be more concerned it was in easy reach of the driver (a legal requirement). My passenger falls asleep … I don’t while driving. Trying to describe exactly when and how much brake to apply to my passenger takes time: “No, no, nooo, not that much honey, you’ve just locked ‘em up at 100 kilometres an hour!” Perhaps I’m a (brake) control freak, but I’d rather be the person responsible for controlling the go-and-whoa systems.

Breakaway systems are powered by an onboard battery (in your van) and are actuated via a pin being pulled out of the box attached to your drawbar. Now, that pin can only be pulled successfully if the lanyard (that is attached to it at the van end) is attached to your vehicle in a suitable position on the vehicle proper (body or towbar), not the tow hitch.

While you’re driving, the breakaway battery is being charged (provided your wiring is up to scratch), but should have some other form of charging while parked – solar panel or trickle charger.

In NSW, it’s law to utilise an in-car breakaway brake battery monitor to alert you if said battery voltage is too low. Oh, and I think it tells you your van has fallen off your car if that happens too, but I haven’t tested that … as if the huge bang and subsequent high-speed scraping of metal on bitumen wouldn’t give you some inkling that something is wrong.

LOAD LEVELLERS / EQUALISERS

Load levelling or load equaliser systems are NOT simply heavier-duty suspension, raised suspension or even extra leaves or stiffer coils to support the weight of your van on the rear of your poor, overloaded tow vehicle. Sure, you can keep the overall rig (vehicle and van) looking nice and level, but a load equalising system it is not.

A load equalising/levelling system cleverly and simply relocates the downward towball weight towards the front of the vehicle via (generally) stressed levers between vehicle hitch and van to give it that nice level stance. The huge advantage is, apart from taking weight off the rear of your vehicle, maintaining correct steering weight and feel on your front wheels and better braking and handling of the vehicle, it also acts as an anti-sway system to prevent caravan sway – that’s a good thing!

The general disadvantage is not being able to use them over undulating ground like off-road and also minor rises and falls in ground like reversing over a gutter or through a dish drain or culvert. Some are even restrictive while turning tightly, so most times when you park your van in a caravan park.

Keeping in mind, some hitches are not suitable for load levellers and some vehicle manufacturers refuse the use of load levellers on their vehicles, so you’d need to investigate the hitches and vehicles you’re considering purchasing. Studying ball weights of potential vans should be your start, as well as judicial packing to minimise that frontal load bearing. Don’t get caught stuffing all your heavy packing in the rear of your van thinking that will help … while that will take load off the front, that’s one major cause of caravan sway, so don’t do it!

ELECTRONIC STABILITY CONTROL (ESC)

Vehicle-based ESC systems have no doubt saved many a driver over the years and is now compulsory in all new cars sold in Australia. They work a treat on-road and (mostly) work well off-road.

On caravans, ESC can have similar positive effects of saving lives if not just saving damage to your caravan. When I purchased my new van a few years ago, they were in their infancy, but I ticked the options box, figuring if it saved me or my family just once, then it’d pay for itself in more ways than one. These days, there are some ESC versions that can be retro-fitted to most vans. If I had an older van, I’d be considering one of these options.

Basically, the ESC system helps prevent a caravan from swaying or tail wagging by automatically (and electronically) controlling the van brakes to bring the van back into a straight towed line … clever, huh? There is no driver input needed, no setting of controllers, nuthin’ … it’s all automatically operated from a control box on the van.

While ESC is a great addition to any van, I’d wager that if the van was packed correctly, the tow vehicle was set up correctly and the driver and other road users behaved, it probably wouldn’t be needed … but we don’t live in a perfect world. I’d tick the options box every time for this potentially lifesaving accessory if it wasn’t standard.

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