Why so many caravans and 4X4s are overweight
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: