To tow or not to tow

Having enough packing space is always a problem when you do an overland trip, especially if you are a comfort creature who simply cannot go camping without basic luxuries. The big question is whether to tow a trailer or not and if it will put a damper on your off-road fun.

Hardcore overlanders recently debated the pros and cons of towing a trailer on the 4×4 Community Forum and there was no clear-cut answer. It all depended on the families’ needs and how far they wanted to go off the beaten track.

The pros of towing a trailer

  1. It will give you more packing space.
  2. You won’t overload your vehicle. Often overlanders who don’t use a trailer overload their vehicles without even realising it. The load capacities of overland vehicles range roughly between 600 and 800kg, which is not a lot if you carry four people, their luggage, a roofrack, rooftop tent, water, tools, extra diesel, a bash plate, drawer system, fridge, second battery, bullbar, winch, awning and canopy. You can determine your vehicle’s load carrying capacity by deducting the tare mass from the GVM. See this useful article to determine your vehicle’s payload. Remember that this is also important to know for towing a trailer, as will be weight distribution.
  3. A trailer does make your camping very convenient. It is quick and easy to set up; your beds simply fold open and your food and clothes are pre-packed in drawers and are more readily available. You don’t have to rummage through ammo boxes to find a teaspoon or your coffee mug! The trailers with the beds inside are more convenient than the ones with the tents on top and take less than 15 minutes to set up.
  4. You needn’t pack up your camp every time you go for a game drive and your vehicle will be light and nobody cramped.
  5. Once your trailer camp is set up, you will always have shade and shelter from the rain.
  6. Off-road trailers fare well on gravel and less challenging 4×4 roads and they are dustproof.
  7. Trailers have distribution boards which provide lighting and electricity points.
Plan your route carefully when you tow a trailer.

The cons of towing a trailer

  1. The major drawback of towing a trailer is that it will limit you on rough roads with donga crossings, narrow, steep tracks with sharp bends and steep, broken inclines. If you stall halfway up one of these, you will have to reverse the trailer, with a real risk of jack-knifing. Some ferry crossings may be impossible with a trailer.
  2. Because you have more space, the likelihood is that you will take more unnecessary luxuries with you.
  3. You will have to pay additional vehicle fees at some border crossings.
  4. Your fuel consumption will increase, although it will not double.
  5. Some trailers can cause your vehicle to be more unstable when towing, especially in cross-winds. The weight of the trailer will also increase your vehicle’s braking distance.
  6. You have to ensure that your driver’s license legally allows you to tow a trailer. In South Africa there are different codes for different size trailers. Check on the AA website to see if you have the correct licence.
  7. Off-road trailers can be pricey (around R250 000).

General comments

Some people are concerned about increasing the risk of flat tyres, simply because there are two more wheels doing the trip with them. However, a few overlanders commented that they had more flat tyres on their vehicles than on their trailers.

Even though you will have to plan your route more carefully when you tow a trailer, it does not mean that you can’t go off the beaten track. One overlander reported that he towed his trailer from Cape Town to Kunene in Kaokoland, from Windhoek in Namibia to Inhambane in Mozambique and from Gaborone in Botswana to Livingstonia in northern Malawi. He did not allow his trailer to compromise his destinations, but a novice should not attempt to tow a trailer in Namibia’s Kaokoland, and definitely not down Van Zyl’s pass!

There are a variety of off-road trailers available on the market nowadays. Before you buy, do your research and get one that is of reputably good quality, not too heavy and easy to set up. Ideally buy one with matching track width and tyres as your vehicle. Matching track width minimises drag off-road and matching wheels and tyres means you can use the same spare tyres for both.


3 thoughts on “To tow or not to tow”

  1. Hello all, we have just returned from a 4200 km trip through Angola with our off road caravans and enjoyed it very much. Roads are very bad but if you travel careful it is great. Setting up camp in the veld anywhere next to the road and enjoying the comfort of your off road caravan. Minor problems were sorted out during the trip, but we are back in RSA and plan to do something similar next year.
    John Tait

  2. Oh ‘Yes” one trick I shared on the forum:

    If you do van Zyl’s pass or similar, pull the hand brake on the trailer to full minus one notch then pull the trailer down the pass. It helps avoiding being pushed out of line by the mass of the trailer and you hardly have to touch the brake pedal on the vehicle if in 4L.
    But stop frequently, release the brake and let the drums cool down.

  3. Hi Karin,
    Thanks for the article, I remember the debate very well and realize you have used some of my arguments as well. Not a problem, just to say, I’ve done van Zyl’s pass in the early days as well as Epupa to Ruacana when it still took 3 days for the stretch, all with the trailer in tow.
    The most challenge I ever had were the potholes in Zambia between Sesheke and Kazungula (before the Sesheke bridge was there) and I broke the tow hitch damper from the banging in and out of the potholes.

    Thanks for elaborating for the ones not on the 4×4 community forum.

Let us know about your experience