Drop The Anchor
Need your 4×4 to stop reliably? You’ll need to master trailer braking
When it comes to serious off-road towing there’s plenty of rules and tips and tricks people keep in mind. We all know to keep a longer gap between vehicles in front as our stopping distances are drastically increased, we all know to watch how the trailer is loaded and to not put too much or too little tow-ball weight on the tow-tug, and we all know the right mods like performance increases and transmission upgrades can make the process go a whole lot smoother and safer. But when it comes time to slow down 6-tonne of rolling road train most people just jam on the brakes, hoping things will go to plan.
The reality is the braking system keeping your caravan or camper in check is far more important than how many burners the stove has, or what colour the cheap Chinese shocks are. Even the difference between a 10in or 12in electric brake can massively affect how much stopping power your setup has. If you want to get the most out of your setup and keep your bull bar Prius free you’ll need to know not only how your braking system works, but how to make it work for you.
Put Your Best Foot Forward
If your trailer weighs over 750kg it needs its own standalone braking system. In basic setups like rental car trailers this can be an override system. When the tow-tug begins braking a lever on the trailers hitch pulls on a set of cables that run down into a set of drum brakes. Inside two brake shoes with a friction surface are forced into the metal drum itself. It’s a clunky system and something that can’t be controlled by the driver.
Modern campers and caravans generally use electronic drum brakes. The actual braking method is similar at the wheels, but rather than a goofy cable arrangement they’re directly controlled by an electronic control module in the tow-rig that can apply the brakes harder or softer depending on the signal it’s getting.
When it comes to the controller themselves there’s a few different styles too. If you’re driving a 1974 FJ40 it’ll run a timer setup. The longer your foot is on the brake pedal the harder the trailer will apply the brakes. From here user controlled systems allow you to dial in how hard the trailer applies the brakes when you press the brake pedal. More advanced systems like the Tow Pro series use an inertia based system where the harder the tow-rig brakes, the harder the trailer brakes. You can dial up how sensitive they are too if you’re not happy with the brake pressure applied.
Keep an eye on how the system is mounted and controlled too. In emergencies and even regular driving you’ll need to be able to access the control to change brake pressure. If it’s tucked away down by your knee it won’t be as accessible, and can interfere with airbags in some 4x4s.
Know How To Use It
One of the easiest mistakes people make with any trailer is relying too much on the tow-tugs brakes to keep things in order. They’re your last line of defence so should be leaned on as little as possible. The general rule for setting a brake controller is dialling it up until you start feeling the trailer slowing you down, rather than the other way, but it’s not a set and forget kind of job either. Just like you need to brake a truck harder than a motorbike, the heavier your setup the more braking force required to slow it safely. The actual force required to safely slow you down will change depending on a few things.
The first, is how fast you’re going.
If you’re in 1st gear low-range winding your way through a dense National Park you’ll want the trailer brakes dialled right back for more predictable operation. If you then head out onto the freeway doing 110km/h on your way home you’ll need to dial things right up for maximum braking power. Having the controller within easy reach means adjustments on the fly are quick and easy and in regular driving you should be regularly changing the brake force depending on the conditions.
The second, is how heavy the trailer is. Obviously if you’re barrelling down a corrugated road with a 3T caravan you’ll need more braking power than a 1200kg soft floor will, but even changes between the start and end of a trip can affect how much braking force you’ll need. Emptying the water tanks and burning up the firewood packed in your trailer can have as much as a 15% reduction in weight, and required force.
Having the ability to manually override the trailer brakes is vital too. Engaging the trailer brakes without engaging the tow-tugs brakes makes the trailer act like a giant parachute. It pulls the trailer into line which can quickly stamp out trailer sway before it gains hold. The same technique can also be used off-road to keep an unwieldy camper in line descending steep hills or even to lock up the wheels if you need to make a tight turn.
Keep It Workin’
Trailer brakes do a bloody important job, and they work harder than you’d imagine. There’s no gentle running to the shops and back. They’re loaded to the hilt, dragged through mud and sand, pulled through river’s steaming hot then packed away ready to do it all again. But just like you wouldn’t ignore your 4WD between adventures your camper needs attention too.
Basic components like brake shoes need to be monitored and replaced if necessary, and we’d always recommend a spare set tucked deep inside your camper with the other spares you carry. Any issues like brakes running excessively hot or making grinding noises will require immediate attention, your life may be on the line. The shoes themselves can also come out of adjustment. It’s a simple process to get them back into spec, but if you’re not a brake expert it’s worth the small amount to take them to a pro and get them looked at by an expert.