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Home Blog Why so many caravans and 4X4s are overweight
Why so many caravans and 4X4s are overweight

Why so many caravans and 4X4s are overweight

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Many touring 4X4s and caravan rigs are over, or very close to their weight limits with all sorts of negative effects on performance, handling, insurance and warranty.

Not a week goes by when someone contacts me with a weight question, and sadly, often it’s after they have parted with their money.

So what’s the problem?

1. Caravan makers understate weight, and don’t appear to consider dynamics

Any maker of goods will focus on what customers want and what’s easiest. Keeping weight low is difficult, expensive, and compromises almost everything else. Which is why I’m yet to find a single caravan maker who can demonstrate they have a focus on weight-saving and weight-distribution, as well as caravan dynamics when towing. I have previously written articles asking to be proven wrong so I can given the vanmaker some publicity, but so far, silence – feel free to prove me wrong, I’ll gladly write it up.

I think the note below from a reader, just last week, sums it up:

Went to our caravan dealer yesterday. Nobody had ever heard of rear axle capacity or paid it any attention. Said if what I claimed was correct, the whole industry could pack up. Well, well. Or rethink what they are doing.

The ‘claim’ is not a claim, it is an easily verifiable fact.

2. Carmakers overstate real-world towing capacity.

The Ford Ranger PX came out with a 3350kg towing capacity. Then other utes followed with 3500kg. Ford quickly upped the Ranger to 3500kg. Why? I believe the answer was marketing-driven; got to have that headline number, like the fixation with torque (that’s wrong too, but another time). I did the maths, and back in 2019 wrote the first article calling out carmakers for max-tow ratings that aren’t real-world practical. Since then, that concept has been rewritten many a time (occasionally correctly), and the problem is more well known but still very much exists. I would like to introduce towing standards so this sort of marketing-driven engineering can’t happen.

To be clear, there is not one 4X4 on the market that you can load up with a touring setup and still tow anything like max capacity; you will exceed one of the limits very quickly indeed.

3. The 4X4 industry doesn’t care about weight

Try and find the weight of any 4×4 accessory. Is it on the website? Probably not. Packaging? Maybe the shipping weight. Will the shop tell you how much weight a bullbar adds to a front axle…which is what the bar weighs, minus whatever is removed. No, and they probably won’t know it’s more than the weight of a bullbar due to leverage. There are many outfits who happily let customers roll out of the shop maybe not overloaded, but would be when they put more than one or two people in the car. Is this not knowing or not caring? Has to be one or the other, doesn’t it? And don’t give me that “well we don’t know what the customer will do rubbish – you kit a car out so it’s within 100kg of GVM before the driver gets in, and what..you assume the family consists of dwarves who drive naked, and have put the tanks and storage in because they like moving air? By the way shout-out to those that do care, thank you.

There is very little focus on weight in the car camping and 4×4 industry. Hence, we have heavy gear, and ‘solutions’ such as GVM upgrades (really better called re-rates) and, power upgrades. Then you need a cooling upgrade too, then better brakes…and so on. I don’t think it’s in the industry’s interests to sell people light gear. Pity, as there’s a strong argument that light gear removes the need for other upgrades, so you can sell it for more than heavy gear. But light gear costs more, so there’s margins. Complex situation balancing free-market economics and consumer choice with responsbility.

I would love to see the day when there’s a configurator on accessory maker’s websites which adds weight as you add accessories, including calculating front and rear axle loads. Might be a while off.

4. Trailer weights, rules and concepts are complex

Trailer weights are a utter nightmare to understand and calculate properly even for those with a gift for maths and physics let alone those who hate numbers . So it is no surprise Joe and Jane Average buying their van are confused.

I’d also like to say how frustrating, stupid and pointless it is that we have different rules for trailers, cars and road behaviour from state to state. It is stupid, it is not necessary, and it should be harmonised. Politicians always want to cut red tape, well here’s your chance people, get busy with the regulatory chainsaw and standardise.

5. People don’t know what specifically to ask and they’re not informed when they do ask in general

Roadcar drivers go their life without needing to understand the terms “GVM” or payload. Why would they? So they come to the 4×4 and towing world, and don’t think about weights either, so they don’t ask. And, crucially, they’re not told either. “Do your own research” is the excuse. Well, I say that’s irresponsible and taking advantage of ignorance.

Ever heard this:

“Dear sir, your choice of accessories means that when fitted, you will have to choose which two of your family members will ride in the vehicle, and which two will jog alongside as you are within 150kg of your vehicle’s legal maxium weight?”

“Dear madam, the vehicle you’re buying can only tow the trailer you want if the car has no more than 200kg in it, so based on what you’ve told us, you either need a smaller trailer or a bigger towcar?”

Those conversations don’t happen often enough, and if you represent yourself as an expert when you’re selling something, then you should give a balanced view of potential solutions. I also disagree that the consumer not knowing means they’re stupid; ignorance of complex matters you have no background in is not stupidity, and if you consult what looks like an expert who reassures and explains..that seems fair to me.

Not everyone has decades of car and trailer experience on which to draw, and plenty of those people who apparently do seem to be shocked when they see the results of weight distribution. And there is no easy answer to whether a GVM upgrade helps you tow.

So what can you do?

The reality is now that we have cars being oversold on tow capacity, caravans being undersold on weight, and accessories designed without much regard to bulk or weight, with the fixes being to carry more stuff, all being sold by people who don’t seem to understand the problems, or care – with some notable exceptions.

It’s an automotive obesity crisis with the solution being just get a mobility scooter when you can no longer walk. You can of course simply “she’ll be right” but assuming you’ve read this far, then here’s some suggestions:

1. Tow 2/3 of the max tow

Pretty much all of the towing limit complexities fade away if you restrict yourself to around 2/3 of the maximum tow. Yes, I know that’s not much, but either you want to stay within limits, or not.

2. Don’t trust the caravan weights

There are vanmakers who accurately weigh their vans, but if this wasn’t a problem, my inbox would be a lot quieter, and I wouldn’t need to make a list of mobile weigh operators. So, really focus on the weight and have it weighed before you accept. A particular problem seems to be stating a base weight with no realistic options, and by the time anything reasonable has been added you’re well over.

3. Buy light

There’s many alternatives to heavy camping gear, and there are cheaper alternatives to standard 4×4 gear. Alloy roofracks not steel, bumper bullbars not hoop, slightly taller tyres which are just as narrow as stock and keeping the rim size small as you can, smaller fridges, lithium batteries (which, interestingly, the industry is pushing…wish they would do the same for all lightweight options). I have explored the camping options here:

4. Buy big

Use an American ute to tow, but note that their payload is often quite small relative to their size and tow capacity (watch this on the GM Silverado “4500kg” towing capacity. Or, consider a truck like the OKA, Canter, Isuzu, or Sadko which have payloads in the order of 2000-4000kg, much greater loadspace due to the forward control cabin, and aren’t very much wider or longer than a Ranger. There’s also six-wheel conversions of utes and wagons too.

5. Buy less

Maybe a fridge less than 90L? Maybe just one set of quality lights, not three? A comfortable camp chair that isn’t a lounge? Perhaps not fit 35″ tyres? I’m loathe to suggest people take ‘too much’ as that’s a personal choice, but I think we can all trim a little here and there.

6. Get trained

Training is essential for towing, but I’m wary about which courses to take. Some that I’ve seen are poor quality and the trainers don’t really get into important skills like understanding of sway and how to fix it. I can recommend the Tow-Ed courses though. If the training doesn’t cover weights and sway, then it’s not proper towing training. Take a look at my towing calculator to see what I mean by weights. If you don’t know what trailer sway is, watch this…could well save your life.

7. Get weighed

Once you have your trailer and towcar, load it up, and get it weighed! Here’s a list of operators.

Why am I writing this?

Pretty simple, I believe the recreations I love are not well served by the current industry direction. I hate seeing people feel they need to spend money they don’t have for gear they don’t need, and there’s far too many overloaded vehicles and crashed caravans.

We have a world-leading, and world-respected 4×4/automotive recreation industry in Australia for very good reason, making lots of superb products, so why don’t we live to up that reputation and lead by example?

You can find out more about why I do what I do here, and if you make or sell any of this gear and want to talk about what can be done, contact me.

Oh and whilst I’m on the topic of industry criticism, can we please just make a little effort and label recovery gear sensibly?

Finally, here’s an interview with caravan crash survivors:

Robert Pepper Automotive journalist specialising in 4X4s, sportscars, camping and future tech.

Comment(25)

  1. Wow, look at the photo of the trailer on the ute for the intro – extended drawbar – love to calc the wheelbase to overhang ratio on that one! Aust average is 2.4 and many so called great tow vehicles are well below this – danger lurking!

  2. OK – so looking at my “older” F250 – GVM (upgrade) is 4495, tow capacity is 4500Kg and GCM is 9071Kg – think that ticks all the boxes re weights – full payload, max towing and still under GCM.

  3. Another good read on a very important topic. Spoke to new owners of a 21 foot (semi-offroad – whatever that means) caravan. They have an LC200 and believe it has plenty of “grunt” to tow the caravan with no consideration of weights.

    1. Main roads, transport and police need to increase vehicle checks and scale inspections also if average Joe is given dodgy advice from car makers and accessory suppliers and RV retailers the advisors need to be brought into line to provide accurate advice

      1. but its a case of buyer beware.
        ultimately the driver is responsible.
        and the authorities will stop at the driver why becuase the driver is the easy target and they can prove you did it wrong. and ignorance of the rules is not an excuse. your supposed to know or find out the correct info. and there’s a lot of misinformation around too.

  4. I would like to hear your thoughts on the merits of so-called GVM upgrades. I watched a video by John Cadogan which pretty much dismissed all of the packages offered as unsatisfactory, except for those thatalso added additional bracing to the chassis rails. It does seem odd to me that a new set of shock absorbers and springs suddenly means a vehicle can now carry more weight safely, without any upgrades to braking system or structural strength

    1. I explain what GVM upgrades types are on my channel (there’s 4) and also the effect on towing capacity. They are useful but owners need to be aware that wear and tear is increased on the vehicle, and that other components such as the brakes and engine cooling in particular are not upgraded to match. The chassis is the least of my concerns. You don’t tend to see snapped chassis unless severely abused.

      1. I guessI I am asking because my scenario is very borderline (like so many) and working out how to be safe.
        I have a Y62 Patrol and you would know well the limitations of these vehicles. Only get about 700kg of payload. Van Ball weight is around 300kg when loaded (need to get it checked as you advise) but im guestimating based on factory figure of 266kg unladen. Our family of 4 weighs roughly 260kg. Full tank of fuel around 120kg. ….and the Patrol has reduced payload for ball weights above 300kg also.
        So you can see where this is going- havent allowed for anything in the vehicle, and can’t really. What to do, short of downsizing the van?

        1. 1L of petrol only weighs around 0.85kg so there’s that. Ignore the Nissan guidance on TBM; it was only ever guidance and they’ve retracted it as they couldn’t explain it, I went over that with them. Downsizing the van is the go if the numbers don’t pan out, sorry.

  5. In the process of getting a van and tow vehicle and trying to understand all the weights involved, it’s literally doing my head in as i want to stay legally, and more importantly, safely under all weights. This is a great help, thank you.

  6. As usual good coverage of a complex topic. I also enjoyed your videos on sway control… keep it up and maybe the right ears will one day hear understand and respond effectively.

  7. Hi Nigel, I saw Cadogan’s video and I don’t think he is as smart as he thinks he is. It depends on the vehicle, but most 4X4s are rated based on the springing required for the anticipated loads, not their structural strength. Individual results will vary. A landcruiser is structurally capable of currying a far heavier load but requires springing that will give a terrible ride for mum and the kids driving to school in Double Bay or Toorak. Increasing the GVM by the amount of the new empty vehicle weight makes sense. Cadogan can’t seem to understand that landcruisers are overbuilt. A Mitsubishi Triton in comparison would only be able to handle a very modest GVM upgrade.

    Weight distribution is as important as vehicle weight. Too much weight up high or in the ends will make the vehicle less stable and more uncomfortable.

    That said, travelling lighter is always better.

    1. Agreed John, you’re right about the suspension; I’ve had this conversation a few times with engineers. Given the amount of overweight vehicles running around, you’d see a LOT of cracked chassis if it was a problem. The chassis issues tend to be poorly weighted utes, and specific issues such as GU Patrol coil mounts. Totally agree lighter the better, but “all GVM upgrades are bad” is a simplistic view of a complex subject.

  8. What a great article and I couldn’t agree more, have been thinking many things myself over the years!!!!

    We keep things simple, our setup is:
    Aussie designed and built Holden Adventra LX8, standard 1800kg tow limit, 30mm raised springs, all-terrains and we only take camping what we need/use. A simple tradie trailer with the tent & fride, family of 5 and a dog. It gets us most places our 4×4 friends go, and further! Happy days

  9. Vehicles with EAS are also a huge issue,as the rear axle can easily be overloaded when towing with no modification or upgrade available.

  10. Surely there is a spreadsheet or an app that can add or subtract all the various combinations to keep you ‘legal. I am researching what to purchase when we retire. Currently I have a well serviced 20 year old hilux td 4×4 that I would love to keep but it can only tow 1800kg. It also has steel Bull bar, side steps and tray. It weighs in T 2000kg empty. Off the top of my head I can only tow an empty boat trailer. Where do we go to be given Correct advice?

  11. Another little point that seems to be overlooked is the distance between the rear axle and towball.Any addition in gooseneck length multiples through the effect of leverage,the load on therear axle and also multiplies the tail-wag effect from steering movement.Truck and trailer towpoints are mounted as near to the rear axle as possible to minimize this effect.

  12. You talk about weight, very important but, you show a tow bar with an extra long toung, this increases the control of the van over the tow vechical increasing chances of sway6,bent chassis etc,,.

  13. I read with interest John and Robert about criticism of this article. Yes I believe that Landcruiser’s are built over specs but and it’s a big but the a Landcruiser’s axles are only rated at 1960kg each so it doesn’t matter how good the springs n shock’s are you cannot exceed the axle weight! The good news is I have found an engineer and workshop that upgraded my 100 series to 3900kg from 3200kg and it is road certified and compliment. If you need any other advice call on 0428345082

  14. Excellent article as usual, but “there is not one 4X4 on the market that you can load up with a touring setup and still tow anything like max capacity; you will exceed one of the limits very quickly indeed”. Not quite correct Robert – try for example an Audi Q7, Land Rover Disco/defender. Assume 350kg download, full tanks and say 175kg for mom and dad. Disco has 364kg payload left, RAM2500 303kg, Audi Q7 301kg (but no spare so reduce say 40kg). Meanwhile Landcruiser as Australia’s favourite has only 125kg on the same basis – must have a GVM upgrade and the consequent even worse ride and handling.
    Your point about relative towcar mass versus towed mass is still highly relevant.

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