Towing guide 2019: UK laws, licences, costs and tips

From tips for towing a caravan across the UK to help getting your towing licence, our towing guide explains all

Whether you are planning to tow a caravan for your annual summer holiday or need to tow a trailer full of tools for work, it is important to understand what your driving licence entitles you to drive (as well as the cost of upgrading your licence should you need to), the laws governing towing in the UK and how you can improve your trailering skills.

If you are planning on attaching any form of small trailer, caravan, horsebox or even a boat behind your vehicle then we have you covered on everything you will need to know before setting off on your journey. As well as our helpful guide to towing, we also have a feature on page 2 from when Auto Express spent the day with the Caravan and Motorhome Club learning how to drive safely when hitched. 

Scroll down for your complete guide to towing in the UK...

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Towing licence: what can you legally drive?

Drivers who passed pre-1997

You need a full driving licence to tow any kind of trailer, and if you passed your test before 1997 you should be entitled to drive a vehicle and trailer that together weigh a maximum of 8.25 tonnes. This Maximum Authorised Mass or MAM means you’re pretty much covered for most things, including large 4x4s or vans pulling hefty caravans or boats. In fact, to get anywhere near the limit, you'd probably need to be driving a 7.5 tonne truck – although if it was fully laden, it would limit your trailer to three quarters of a tonne – or a big American RV pulling a car.

Drivers who passed post-1997

For drivers who passed their test after January 1st 1997 – the MAM limit in that is 4.25 tonnes, and that’s only with a tow vehicle of 3.5 tonnes, which would limit the trailer to 750kgs. If you want to pull a trailer over 750kgs on a post-1997 driving licence, the combined tow vehicle and trailer MAM drops to 3.5 tonnes.

As an added complication, the trailer MAM must be lower than the tow vehicle’s weight, too. This shouldn’t be too much of a worry though, as most car towing (on a trailer) or caravan towing combinations fall within these parameters.

How much does it cost to upgrade your towing licence?

Assuming you passed your test after 1997, but would like to tow something with an MAM above 4.25 tonnes, you can upgrade your trailer entitlement via an additional car and trailer driving test at a cost of £115 if you take it during the normal working week. Taking it during the evening, weekend or bank holiday costs £141. It is known as the BE test, which is run through DVSA bus and lorry test centres. 

There is no legal requirement to take professional lessons beforehand. But if you do opt to take lessons with a professional driving school, you could find yourself shelling out a £600-£700 – perhaps even more once you’ve paid the test fee – for the privilege. 

UK towing and trailer regulations

There are various different rules and regulations that need to be adhered to when towing a trailer or caravan, and they are as follows: 

• Trailer width and length. The maximum width for any trailer is 2.55m, and the maximum length for a trailer towed by a sub-3.5 tonne vehicle is 7m (although this does not include the A-frame should you be towing with one). The same size rules apply if your tow car is a MINI or a Range Rover.

• Approved tow bars. All tow bars fitted to vehicles registered after 1998 need to be Type Approved to meet EU regulations, and be of a suitable design for your vehicle. Approved tow bars will have labels or a plate with an approval number and details of the vehicles it is approved for.

• Towing mirrors. The law says you must have an adequate view of the road behind you, so if you have a caravan or a wide, tall trailer that obscures your view (i.e. wider than the rear of your car), the chances are that you may need to fit extendable mirrors. If you’re stopped and a policeman thinks you can’t see properly, you could get 3 licence points and a £1,000 (maximum) fine.

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• Trailer brakes. If your trailer or caravan weighs over 750kgs when loaded, the law states a braking system must be fitted, and be in good working order. This also applies to a car towed on an A-frame – the law sees the towed car as a trailer, so there must be a viable braking system in place. Dollies used by recovery vans are exempted by government guidelines when towing broken down vehicles at low speeds. They mustn’t be used for general towing purposes unless the required braking criteria can be met.

• Number plates. You have to show the same number plate on your trailer as on the tow car. The number plate must be illuminated if driving at night. If you are towing multiple trailers, fix the licence plate to the rear most trailer.

• Trailer lighting. A road legal trailer must have two red sidelights, two red brake lights, amber indicators, and a pair of triangular red reflectors at the back. Trailers over 1.3m wide are also required to have fog lamp. Trailers built after 1990 must also have white reflectors at the front (excluding boat trailers) unless they’re over 1.6m wide in which case front position lamps are required.

Towing weights and vehicle towing capacities

It is important that you understand the limitations of your equipment. Car towing capacities will be listed in the owner’s handbook, but you must make sure you’re looking at the specific numbers relevant to your model – maximum towing weights can vary considerably with different engine and gearbox combinations.

It’s no good knowing your vehicle’s maximum towing capacity if you don’t know what your trailer can handle – or whether your load will put it over the limitations of your trailer, or the law. You need to find out all the necessary information to ensure you're on the right side of the law before you hit the road. Recently built trailers should all have plates with weight and loading information, and if you have an old trailer you may need to take it to a local weighbridge.

You also need to know the maximum permissible trailer nose weight that your tow vehicle can handle. This is the weight of the trailer pushing down on the tow bar, and you can measure it by putting the laden trailer’s jockey wheel on the bathroom scales. If the nose weight is heavier than the tow bar can take, you need to redistribute the trailer load to balance things out a bit better.

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Keep in mind the best advice from the Caravan Club is that nose weight should ideally be seven per cent of overall laden weight, but if you have a heavy trailer don’t worry too much if your nose weight needs to be lower than the recommended seven per cent in order to meet the tow bar design limits.

It’s also important to counterbalance the nose with weight placed as close as possible to the axle, as too much weight at the rear of your trailer is potentially dangerous from a stability perspective. However, all tow car and trailer combinations are different, and if you’re not confident about any of these aspects of towing, it’s best to seek advice from a professional.

How to improve your towing skills

Caravan and trailer retailers, as well as the Caravan Club, are all able to help with the knowledge required to set up you with a safe car and trailer (or caravan) outfit. The Caravan Club also runs sensibly priced practical courses for drivers wanting to practice manoeuvring skills, as well as find out basic safety critical info about trailer loading and hitching up. If you go onto page 2, we have an in-depth feature on taking such a course.

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