HOW TO TOW A CAMPER TRAILER OFF-ROAD

WORDS AND IMAGES BY ROBERT PEPPER

Towing a camper trailer off-road isn't easy. And it's something only an experienced wheeler should attempt. 

Righto, the lawyers are watching while I write, so, please, don’t attempt towing a trailer off-road unless you are already a skilled and confident off-roader and have a vehicle and trailer designed for the job. See, trailers just make everything harder. Oh, sure, the basic techniques are the same, like picking your line, momentum in sand, straight up and down hills, use of ruts and more. But, mostly it’s a matter of difficulty, and that starts with a golden rule of offroading; never drive anywhere you aren’t prepared to reverse out of or recover your vehicle from. This rule is even more important for trailer drivers because recovery is more complex and reversing a trailer may not be possible in some off-road situations.

GUIDE Towing off-road

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Off-road drivers soon learn they must form a visual model of where the vehicle’s wheels are at any point in time. With a trailer that model must be extended to include the trailer – where the wheels are; will the trailer cut into a corner; and what forces is it likely to exert on the tow vehicle. For example, if you’re ascending a rock ledge you know you’ll need a squeeze on the throttle to get the front wheels up and over, and another for the rear axle, but then you’ll also need a third for the trailer.

The line is important, but not as critical as it may first seem. The tow vehicle will try and keep all four wheels level to maximise traction, but the ideal line is far less important for the trailer’s wheels as it is essentially a tripod so both wheels will be on the ground at all times, and its wheels are not driving (and that’s why we don’t recommend mud terrain tyres on a camper trailer). If the trailer is canted over at a steep angle it is still almost as easy to pull as if it were level, and a good off-road trailer should have even better clearance than the average 4X4 and a higher roll resistance too. Therefore, give priority to the tow vehicle’s line for good traction and clearance over that of the trailer.

ABOVE Momentum is needed more often with trailers, and it carries a higher risk. The driver must have worked out “what if” for both vehicle and trailer.

ABOVE The left trailer wheel has just been pulled over a rock, and now the right wheel is over a different one. The driver must remember those rocks, even though the 4X4 is now well down the track, as well as thinking about the tow vehicle itself and what’s coming up.

BELOW If you set the trailer brakes to come on with a little tow vehicle braking, then feather the brakes over a crest the trailer can help retard the tow vehicle as it starts its descent.  This isn’t possible with overrun brakes.

TOWING ON HILLS
Hill descents are where you’ll be glad you fitted an electric brake controller. The tow vehicle has the advantage of engine braking so may need just a light touch on the brakes, whereas the trailer has no engine braking.  However, that light touch won’t necessarily slow the trailer much, so increase the sensitivity on the brake controller (an earlier point at which the trailer brakes activate relative to the tow vehicle) for the trailer beyond the road setting where engine braking isn’t used as much.

When starting a sharp descent, the trailer will initially retard the tow vehicle, but as the trailer comes over the crest it that retardation will be lost, so be prepared. As ever when descending, use ruts and make sure the trailer and tow vehicle use the same ruts. This may require some extra lining up before the descent. If things go wrong there should be little chance of the trailer overtaking your 4X4 because the trailer is lighter, and we’re assuming has appropriately aired down tyres of the same type of the much heavier 4X4 dragging it. Therefore, the trailer is better able to brake itself on a hill. An exception would be a situation with no ruts and the brake bias set so the trailer locks wheels before the vehicle.

ABOVE A rutted, and somewhat slippery ascent requiring momentum.  This sort of marginal-traction situation is where a trailer that is easy to tow is the difference between making the hill or a recovery.

The trailer will continue to push your 4X4 as long as it is descending, and that can be used to advantage where a descent turns immediately into an ascent.

Hill ascents are much the same as without a trailer, but there will be even less weight on the front wheels due to the trailer towball mass, therefore expect reduced steering control and more front-wheel lifting. A lower gear may well be needed to account for the extra weight, and the hill doesn’t end until the trailer, not 4X4, is over the top.

The real problem with hills is what happens when you need to fail the climb, and that is perhaps the biggest issue with trailer driving offroad. The problem is that you then need to back the trailer down, and it may well be at an odd angle with the 4X4 unable to go forwards, or otherwise unable to get the steering lock on needed to manoeuvre the trailer.

ABOVE It is important to keep in these ruts for this descent, so the trailer track must be the same as that of the tow vehicle, and some early lining up in essential. A light touch on the 4X4’s brakes should activate the trailer brakes.

The line is important, but not as critical as it may first seem. The tow vehicle will try and keep all four wheels level to maximise traction, but the ideal line is far less important for the trailer’s wheels as it is essentially a tripod so both wheels will be on the ground at all times, and its wheels are not driving (and that’s why we don’t recommend mud terrain tyres on a camper trailer). If the trailer is canted over at a steep angle it is still almost as easy to pull as if it were level, and a good off-road trailer should have even better clearance than the average 4X4 and a higher roll resistance too. Therefore, give priority to the tow vehicle’s line for good traction and clearance over that of the trailer.

BELOW Mud driving is same as always – low pressures, momentum, but even more important to take a straight line so you have two wheel ruts, not six.

TOWING IN MUD
Mud driving is straightforward, literally. The key here is minimising resistance, so the trailer follows the 4X4’s wheels as closely as possible. The same is true of other soft surfaces such as snow and sand. Even so, the extra weight and resistance mean you’ll need more momentum or possibly a lower gear. Avoid turning, because then instead of all six wheels following in the same rut you now have all six wheels making their own ruts which increases rolling resistance. Reversing a trailer in slippery or soft conditions may not be possible.

ABOVE Sometimes the trailer downforce can assist with stability.

TOWING ACROSS RIVERS
Water crossings need a bit more torque, despite the fact the tow vehicle largely forces water out of the way of the trailer, and again any change of direction starts to increase trailer resistance. Backing a trailer out of deep water isn’t easy, especially if there is any appreciable flow. Any offroad trailer worthy of the name will be at least as waterproof as the average 4X4.

TOWING ON SAND
Sand driving with a trailer is possible but do drop tyre pressures even further. The big problem with sand and trailers is any form of side slope... When on a slope, the trailer exerts a sideways force on the tow vehicle, and the sand might not offer enough lateral traction to resist so you end up with the backend sliding down the slope. That problem quickly becomes worse as the wheels forge their own ruts. In fact, downhill is the answer – turn downwards and drive it out. This is of course a problem if ‘downwards’ involves turning towards the tide.

The other big risk with sand driving is ascending. Firstly, any slight side angle will, again, see the trailer pulling the back of your 4X4 sideways. Secondly, reversing a trailer down a sandy slope is often next to impossible because sand offers so little lateral traction, meaning the trailer easily jacknifes. It is also very difficult to drive uphill in sand to reposition the tow vehicle. Even worse, how do you get out of it? In sandy country there’s not usually a conveniently placed tree to act as a winch anchor. The answer is digging, traction ramps and other vehicles.

ABOVE The Defender’s rear wheels have avoided the rock, just, but there’s no way the trailer can avoid it. The trailer’s clearance is better than the 4X4, and the 4X4 will have all four wheels on reasonable traction so the trailer can just be pulled through.

GENERAL DRIVING
A trailer does decrease a vehicle’s manoeuvrability, but not the outside turning circle as any off-road trailer should still allow you to turn at full lock. What does change is the inside turning circle as the trailer wheels cut inside those of the tow vehicle and the shorter the drawbar, the better. Swinging out wide with the tow vehicle helps, and in general when towing you need to be thinking and planning ahead much, much more than without a trailer.


Even on the road, backing a trailer at full lock may mean a jacknife, and off-road the chances of trouble increase. One solution is to reverse your 4X4 slightly at full opposite lock, intentionally jacknifing the trailer to squeeze a little more turning circle. You can also unhook the trailer, and a third option is to use a winch to literally drag the front of your 4X4 around. You can also get creative with intentional skids. For example, manually applying the trailer brake and then driving the 4X4 may induce enough of a skid or slip to move the 4X4 just enough to make it through, or if you have the option to place fourby in 2WD and doing something similar to move the rear wheels sideways. Use these techniques with caution and, in fact that advice summarises the entire approach to off-road trailer driving, but once you master the techniques you’ll be amazed where you can drag your trailer.

WHAT TRAILER DID WE USE AND WHY?
Over the years we’ve done a lot of off-road towing, but for this feature we needed another trip to get right into the rough stuff in a state forest, driving tracks I’d normally use for intermediate or advanced 4X4 training. We also needed a decent trailer, and as Track Trailer has often suggested its products be compared for off-road ability against any competitor, I called them to arrange a loan. How did it go? Superbly. My recovery crew were surprised that we managed the tracks we did, and they commented that the Tvan seemed to bounce less than the Defender in the rough, it tracked behind the Landie very neatly and it never got hung up or damaged on the rocks or ruts. Perfect.

GUIDE Towing off-road

Righto, the lawyers are watching while I write, so, please, don’t attempt towing a trailer off-road unless you are already a skilled and confident off-roader and have a vehicle and trailer designed for the job. See, trailers just make everything harder. Oh, sure, the basic techniques are the same, like picking your line, momentum in sand, straight up and down hills, use of ruts and more. But, mostly it’s a matter of difficulty, and that starts with a golden rule of offroading; never drive anywhere you aren’t prepared to reverse out of or recover your vehicle from. This rule is even more important for trailer drivers because recovery is more complex and reversing a trailer may not be possible in some off-road situations.

HOW TO TOW A CAMPER TRAILER OFF-ROAD

WORDS AND IMAGES BY ROBERT PEPPER

Towing a camper trailer off-road isn't easy. And it's something only an experienced wheeler should attempt. 

ADVERTISEMENT
SCROLL TO CONTINUE

ABOVE Momentum is needed more often with trailers, and it carries a higher risk. The driver must have worked out “what if” for both vehicle and trailer.

Off-road drivers soon learn they must form a visual model of where the vehicle’s wheels are at any point in time. With a trailer that model must be extended to include the trailer – where the wheels are; will the trailer cut into a corner; and what forces is it likely to exert on the tow vehicle. For example, if you’re ascending a rock ledge you know you’ll need a squeeze on the throttle to get the front wheels up and over, and another for the rear axle, but then you’ll also need a third for the trailer.

ABOVE The left trailer wheel has just been pulled over a rock, and now the right wheel is over a different one. The driver must remember those rocks, even though the 4X4 is now well down the track, as well as thinking about the tow vehicle itself and what’s coming up.

The line is important, but not as critical as it may first seem. The tow vehicle will try and keep all four wheels level to maximise traction, but the ideal line is far less important for the trailer’s wheels as it is essentially a tripod so both wheels will be on the ground at all times, and its wheels are not driving (and that’s why we don’t recommend mud terrain tyres on a camper trailer). If the trailer is canted over at a steep angle it is still almost as easy to pull as if it were level, and a good off-road trailer should have even better clearance than the average 4X4 and a higher roll resistance too. Therefore, give priority to the tow vehicle’s line for good traction and clearance over that of the trailer.

BELOW If you set the trailer brakes to come on with a little tow vehicle braking, then feather the brakes over a crest the trailer can help retard the tow vehicle as it starts its descent.  This isn’t possible with overrun brakes.

TOWING ON HILLS
Hill descents are where you’ll be glad you fitted an electric brake controller. The tow vehicle has the advantage of engine braking so may need just a light touch on the brakes, whereas the trailer has no engine braking.  However, that light touch won’t necessarily slow the trailer much, so increase the sensitivity on the brake controller (an earlier point at which the trailer brakes activate relative to the tow vehicle) for the trailer beyond the road setting where engine braking isn’t used as much.

When starting a sharp descent, the trailer will initially retard the tow vehicle, but as the trailer comes over the crest it that retardation will be lost, so be prepared. As ever when descending, use ruts and make sure the trailer and tow vehicle use the same ruts. This may require some extra lining up before the descent. If things go wrong there should be little chance of the trailer overtaking your 4X4 because the trailer is lighter, and we’re assuming has appropriately aired down tyres of the same type of the much heavier 4X4 dragging it. Therefore, the trailer is better able to brake itself on a hill. An exception would be a situation with no ruts and the brake bias set so the trailer locks wheels before the vehicle.

ABOVE A rutted, and somewhat slippery ascent requiring momentum.  This sort of marginal-traction situation is where a trailer that is easy to tow is the difference between making the hill or a recovery.

The trailer will continue to push your 4X4 as long as it is descending, and that can be used to advantage where a descent turns immediately into an ascent.

Hill ascents are much the same as without a trailer, but there will be even less weight on the front wheels due to the trailer towball mass, therefore expect reduced steering control and more front-wheel lifting. A lower gear may well be needed to account for the extra weight, and the hill doesn’t end until the trailer, not 4X4, is over the top.

The real problem with hills is what happens when you need to fail the climb, and that is perhaps the biggest issue with trailer driving offroad. The problem is that you then need to back the trailer down, and it may well be at an odd angle with the 4X4 unable to go forwards, or otherwise unable to get the steering lock on needed to manoeuvre the trailer.

ABOVE It is important to keep in these ruts for this descent, so the trailer track must be the same as that of the tow vehicle, and some early lining up in essential. A light touch on the 4X4’s brakes should activate the trailer brakes.

The line is important, but not as critical as it may first seem. The tow vehicle will try and keep all four wheels level to maximise traction, but the ideal line is far less important for the trailer’s wheels as it is essentially a tripod so both wheels will be on the ground at all times, and its wheels are not driving (and that’s why we don’t recommend mud terrain tyres on a camper trailer). If the trailer is canted over at a steep angle it is still almost as easy to pull as if it were level, and a good off-road trailer should have even better clearance than the average 4X4 and a higher roll resistance too. Therefore, give priority to the tow vehicle’s line for good traction and clearance over that of the trailer.

BELOW Mud driving is same as always – low pressures, momentum, but even more important to take a straight line so you have two wheel ruts, not six.

TOWING IN MUD
Mud driving is straightforward, literally. The key here is minimising resistance, so the trailer follows the 4X4’s wheels as closely as possible. The same is true of other soft surfaces such as snow and sand. Even so, the extra weight and resistance mean you’ll need more momentum or possibly a lower gear. Avoid turning, because then instead of all six wheels following in the same rut you now have all six wheels making their own ruts which increases rolling resistance. Reversing a trailer in slippery or soft conditions may not be possible.

ABOVE Sometimes the trailer downforce can assist with stability.

TOWING ACROSS RIVERS
Water crossings need a bit more torque, despite the fact the tow vehicle largely forces water out of the way of the trailer, and again any change of direction starts to increase trailer resistance. Backing a trailer out of deep water isn’t easy, especially if there is any appreciable flow. Any offroad trailer worthy of the name will be at least as waterproof as the average 4X4.

TOWING ON SAND
Sand driving with a trailer is possible but do drop tyre pressures even further. The big problem with sand and trailers is any form of side slope... When on a slope, the trailer exerts a sideways force on the tow vehicle, and the sand might not offer enough lateral traction to resist so you end up with the backend sliding down the slope. That problem quickly becomes worse as the wheels forge their own ruts. In fact, downhill is the answer – turn downwards and drive it out. This is of course a problem if ‘downwards’ involves turning towards the tide.

The other big risk with sand driving is ascending. Firstly, any slight side angle will, again, see the trailer pulling the back of your 4X4 sideways. Secondly, reversing a trailer down a sandy slope is often next to impossible because sand offers so little lateral traction, meaning the trailer easily jacknifes. It is also very difficult to drive uphill in sand to reposition the tow vehicle. Even worse, how do you get out of it? In sandy country there’s not usually a conveniently placed tree to act as a winch anchor. The answer is digging, traction ramps and other vehicles.

ABOVE The Defender’s rear wheels have avoided the rock, just, but there’s no way the trailer can avoid it. The trailer’s clearance is better than the 4X4, and the 4X4 will have all four wheels on reasonable traction so the trailer can just be pulled through.

GENERAL DRIVING
A trailer does decrease a vehicle’s manoeuvrability, but not the outside turning circle as any off-road trailer should still allow you to turn at full lock. What does change is the inside turning circle as the trailer wheels cut inside those of the tow vehicle and the shorter the drawbar, the better. Swinging out wide with the tow vehicle helps, and in general when towing you need to be thinking and planning ahead much, much more than without a trailer.


Even on the road, backing a trailer at full lock may mean a jacknife, and off-road the chances of trouble increase. One solution is to reverse your 4X4 slightly at full opposite lock, intentionally jacknifing the trailer to squeeze a little more turning circle. You can also unhook the trailer, and a third option is to use a winch to literally drag the front of your 4X4 around. You can also get creative with intentional skids. For example, manually applying the trailer brake and then driving the 4X4 may induce enough of a skid or slip to move the 4X4 just enough to make it through, or if you have the option to place fourby in 2WD and doing something similar to move the rear wheels sideways. Use these techniques with caution and, in fact that advice summarises the entire approach to off-road trailer driving, but once you master the techniques you’ll be amazed where you can drag your trailer.

WHAT TRAILER DID WE USE AND WHY?
Over the years we’ve done a lot of off-road towing, but for this feature we needed another trip to get right into the rough stuff in a state forest, driving tracks I’d normally use for intermediate or advanced 4X4 training. We also needed a decent trailer, and as Track Trailer has often suggested its products be compared for off-road ability against any competitor, I called them to arrange a loan. How did it go? Superbly. My recovery crew were surprised that we managed the tracks we did, and they commented that the Tvan seemed to bounce less than the Defender in the rough, it tracked behind the Landie very neatly and it never got hung up or damaged on the rocks or ruts. Perfect.

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