Towing A Trailer: What Do I Need To Know?

Sometimes, regardless of how big our car is, it's simply not big enough to hold everything we need. Whether you're trying to make the most of the good weather by camping out with the family, or you're lugging a ton of equipment back and forth for your job, you might find yourself looking into using a trailer to store everything. Unfortunately, as with most things on the road, it's not as simple as just doing whatever you'd like. If you are interested in towing a trailer, then it's important that you know what the rules are.

We're going to take you through everything you might need to know about towing a trailer—from what the legal requirements are, to additional tests you might have to take to some handy towing tips to make your journey that much easier. Enjoy!

Range Rover towing a trailer
Photo © Land Rover MENA (cc-by/2.0)

What am I legally allowed to tow?

As we've already mentioned, it's not as simple as attaching your trailer and setting off on your next road trip. As with most things on the road, there are strict rules in place that you need to follow. Bear in mind that these rules aren't in place just to make things difficult for you—it's a matter of safety. The DVLA wants to ensure that all road users are safe. Now, your towing capabilities will vary depending on, for starters, when you passed your driving test.

If you passed your test on or after 1 January 1997

You're allowed to drive a car or van that weighs up to 3,500kg maximum authorised mass (MAM), whilst towing a trailer that weighs up to 750kg MAM. If you're looking to tow a heavier trailer, you're allowed to go over 750kg, as long as the combined MAM is no more than 3,500kg.

Please note:

MAM is the limit on how much the vehicle (and trailer) can weigh when loaded. This maximum weight will vary depending on the make and model of your vehicle. You'll typically find this in your car's manual, or on a plate or sticker that's fitted to the car.

Want to tow something a bit heavier? You'll need to pass the car and trailer driving test. Fortunately, if you're not the biggest fan of theory tests, you've only got to take a practical—otherwise known as the B+E test.

In order to pass this additional test, you'll need to be able to show that you can drive and tow a trailer in different road and traffic conditions, and highlight an awareness of the rules of the Highway Code. The DVLA advise drivers to read up on the national standard for driving cars and to only book the B+E test once you're sure you can do everything cited without instruction.

If you passed your test before 1 January 1997

You're allowed to drive a vehicle and trailer with a maximum authorised mass of up to 8,200kg. You're also legally allowed to drive a minibus with a trailer that weighs over 750kg MAM.

What if I want to tow something heavier?

Two trucks towing trailers
Photo © Artem Svetlov (cc-by/2.0)

If you're looking to really flex your driving muscles and tow something heavier than what you're currently allowed to tow, then you'll have to take a few additional steps.

  1. Apply for a Category C1+E provisional licence, allowing you to drive a medium-sized lorry and trailer. To apply for this licence, you'll need to order forms D2 and D4 from the DVLA. Please note that you will need to have D4 filled in by a doctor.

  2. Pass the lorry theory test, made up of a multiple-choice section and hazard perception. These sections are booked separately, but you can take them on the same day. To pass the multiple-choice section, you need to get 85 out of 100, while to pass the hazard perception you need to score 67 out of 100.

  3. Pass the C1+E driving test: it will last around 1 hour and 30 minutes, and will consist of safety questions, practical road driving and off-road exercises. You'll pass the test as long as you make 15 or fewer driving faults.

Please note:

If you're looking to drive a medium-sized lorry as part of your job, then you'll need to take additional Driver Certificate of Professional Competence (CPC) tests.

After all of this, you'll be legally allowed to drive vehicles and trailers that come to a combined weight of up to 12,000kg MAM.

Towing rules and requirements

Weight

You can't just tow as much as you'd like, unfortunately. You need to make sure you're not over the maximum weight that your vehicle is capable of towing. You can usually find this in your vehicle's handbook. If not, the DVLA advise that it might be listed on the vehicle identification number (VIN) plate—under the bonnet or on the inside of the driver's door.

Width and length

Before you start hitching any old trailer to your car, you should know that the maximum trailer width—regardless of what towing vehicle you have—is 2.55 metres. The maximum length is 7 metres (not including the A-frame).

Towing bars

If you're using a tow bar, then you need to make sure that it meets EU regulations and is actually designed for your specific car. Type-approved tow bars will have a label that has an approval number and additional details of the vehicle it's approved for.

If your vehicle was first used before 1 August 1998, you don't have to worry about your tow bar being type-approved.

Lights

You are legally required to make sure your trailer has the correct lighting—for obvious safety reasons. Your trailer will need:

  • Two red sidelights
  • Two red stop lamps
  • Two triangular red reflectors
  • Amber indicators that flash between 60 and 120 times per minute

If you're using a trailer built after 30 September 1990, it will also require front reflectors.

Mirrors

As a driver, you need to have an “adequate view” of the road behind you. If your trailer or caravan is wider than the rear of your vehicle, then you'll need to buy and fit suitable towing mirrors.

Please note: if you're towing without adequate vision of the road behind you—without the right towing mirrors—you could receive a fine of up to £1,000 and 3 penalty points.

Number plate

When you're towing a trailer or caravan, the number plate on the rear of your vehicle will no longer be visible. As such, you will need to display the same number plate on your trailer as well. Towing more than one trailer? You'll need to attach the number plate to the trailer at the back.

Brakes

If you're towing a trailer that weighs over 750kg when loaded, then you'll need to make sure it has a working brake system. Whilst smaller trailers might have brakes, they are completely optional. Additionally, a breakaway cable or secondary coupling needs to be used in the event of the trailer becoming detached from your car.

Speed

When towing a trailer or caravan, you need to stick to 30mph in built-up areas, 50mph on single carriageways, and 60mph on dual carriageways and motorways. Bear in mind that these speed limits are the maximum—you might have to drive at a lower speed in certain conditions.

Driving safely when towing a trailer

Blue truck towing a caravan
Image source: Andrea Schafthuizen

Before you set off

Once your trailer is attached, it's important that you go through a few safety checks to ensure it's all smooth sailing once you set off. Trust us—you'll want to make sure everything's the way it should be. The last thing you need is to start speeding down the motorway only to see your trailer disappearing from view in your mirror.

✓ Check the tow ball

It's absolutely vital that you check your trailer is connected properly. Just imagine how catastrophic it would be on the motorway if it  came loose all of a sudden! Follow the manufacturer's instructions to the letter—now is not the time to improvise!

✓ Make sure the breakaway cable is in place

In the unfortunate event of your trailer becoming detached from your vehicle, a breakaway cable will ensure the trailer's brakes engage and stop it. As you can imagine, it's pretty important to double-check that the cable is in tip-top condition. For starters, check that the cable isn't worn or damaged. Then, make sure there's just enough slack so that the brakes aren't accidentally engaged.

Not sure what you're doing? Consult the manufacturer or get a family member/friend to help you out. Don't just assume you'll figure it all out as you go along—cutting corners could have serious repercussions.

✓ Inspect your tyres

We always preach the importance of checking your tyres at least once every couple of weeks to ensure they're in good condition—not just to avoid breakdowns, but to also keep the roads safe. If you're towing a trailer, you shouldn't just check your car's tyres, you need to check the trailer's.

Not sure what you should be looking for? Crouch down so that you can get a good look at each tyre—they each need to have a tread depth of at least 1.6mm. Then, check carefully for any cuts or bulges. You need to check that they're all inflated to the recommended PSI for the weight you're carrying.

✓ Sort out the weight

Though we've already made it clear that you shouldn't tow anything higher than the weight limit stipulated by your car's manufacturer, we thought we'd make it extra clear: weight limits are in place for a reason—do not try and tow anything above the maximum authorised mass!

That being said, don't go out of your way to overload your trailer just because you're still within the limit—be sensible. Make sure you distribute everything evenly across the trailer and triple-check that it's all secure.

Once you're on the move

It's safe to say that you can't drive in the same manner with a trailer as you would without. If this is the first time you've ever towed a trailer, you might find it useful to ask a friend or family member that is familiar with the experience to accompany you for a short while. Try to get to grips with what it's like towing a trailer. When you are driving, you need to watch out for a few things…

✓ Accelerating

Due to you driving with added weight, you'll notice that it will take you a bit longer to build up speed than usual. With that in mind, you'll want to avoid overtaking if there's not much room—if it takes you a while to build up speed, it's unlikely that you'll be able to sneak into a space whilst towing a trailer. It's important not to take risks.

✓ Braking

As with acceleration, you'll notice a big difference to your braking speed when towing a trailer. It will take you a bit longer to actually come to a stop when towing a trailer. With that in mind, we'd advise you leave a bigger gap between your car and the car in front—you'll want to give yourself plenty of room to stop. Remember, you'll need to increase this distance even more if you're driving in adverse conditions.

✓ Reversing

If you thought reversing was difficult enough in your vehicle, you'll have a right laugh when reversing whilst towing a trailer! In some cases, you'll find that the trailer will try to pull in the opposite direction. If this does happen, you'll need to get to steering quickly to correct its position—if you're not fast enough, you run the risk of your trailer bumping into your rear.

✓ Stick to the correct lane

Been a while since you've passed your theory test? Then you probably won't remember that cars towing trailers aren't allowed in the right-hand lane of a motorway that has 3 or more lanes. This is in place for a reason, however, so don't ignore it!

FAQs

1. How do I check if I'm allowed to tow a trailer?

You're in luck! The DVLA have a really simple online tool that lets you view your driving licence information. Just head on over here and you'll be able to find out in minutes!

2. What can I tow with a regular car driving licence?

You can tow trailers that weigh no more than 750kg with a standard car licence. If the combined weight of your car and trailer isn't over 3,500kg, you're allowed to tow a heavier trailer.

3. How do I know what my vehicle's maximum authorised mass is?

You should be able to find your vehicle's maximum authorised mass in your vehicle handbook or manual. The DVLA also state that it can be found on a plate or sticker fitted to the vehicle. If you can't find relevant information, have a look online.

4. How much will a car and trailer test cost?

It depends on when you're looking to take it. If you take the test on a weekday, it will cost you £115. If, on the other hand, you'd rather take it in the evening, weekend or on a bank holiday, it will set you back £141.

5. How much will the C1+E test cost?

The theory test comes to £37 altogether, though you'll have to pay for both sections separately (£26 for the multiple-choice section and £11 for the hazard perception test). The practical test will cost £115 on weekdays, or £141 for evenings, weekends or bank holidays.