To Tow or Not to Tow? – Is it Safe to Tow in High Winds?

Updated with new information 31/7/22

“He’s not the Messiah. He’s a very naughty boy!” Storm Brian prompted a lot of posts on caravan forums as to whether or not it is safe to tow in high winds.

Since Autumn, the season of mist and mellow fruitfulness – and the Autumn gales – is also the season for windsurfers to be jolly, I thought that I would share some windsurfing wisdom with you!

Over 200 years ago, Mr Beaufort kindly came up with his scale for wind speeds describing the OBSERVED EFFECT of wind, rather than simply the measured mph. Besides providing a means to estimate wind power without instruments, the Beaufort Scale helps put wind speeds into context;

ForcemphDescriptionObserved Effects
00 – 1CalmCalm. Smoke rises vertically.
11 – 3Light AirWind direction seen by smoke drift but not wind vane.
24 – 7Light BreezeWind felt on face; leaves rustle, ordinary vanes move.
39 – 12Gentle BreezeLeaves & small twigs in constant motion; wind extends light flag.
413 – 18Moderate BreezeRaises dust & loose paper; small branches moved.
A 27 foot caravan could start to slide see data tables below
519 – 24Fresh BreezeSmall trees in leaf begin to move. Crested wavelets form on inland water.
625 – 31Strong BreezeLarge branches in motion. Whistling heard in telegraph.
732 – 38Near GaleWhole trees in motion. Inconvenience felt when walking.
Sufficient to flip a 27 foot caravan see data tables below
839 – 46GaleBreaks twigs off trees. Impedes progress.
947 – 54Severe GaleSlight structural damage; chimney pots & slates removed.
1055 – 63StormSedom experienced inland. Trees uprooted; considerable structural damage.
1164 – 72Violent StormVery rarely experienced. Accompanied by widespread damage.
1273 – 83Hurricane

Beware the Non-Linear Progression!

The progression of wind speeds up the Beaufort scale is not linear, it is exponential. This reflects the significant increase in force on sails (or caravans!) as the wind speed creeps up. For example, a Force 4 is not twice as strong as a Force 2, it is SIXTEEN TIMES more powerful!

What else can affect the impact of wind?

  1. Sudden Gusts – wind speeds (forecast or reported) are always stated as an average. Gusts, caused by all manner of things (see below) can easily be one or more Force greater than average. Gusts happen suddenly; they can upturn the unwary caravan or knock it quickly into a snake!
  2. Climate – the same wind speed in a nice hot country will pack less of a punch than the cold, damp and much more dense air that we have in the UK.
  3. Wind Direction – a strong headwind is catching only the narrowest face of a high-sided vehicle. A side wind has a big target – it will hit you like a steam hammer!
  4. Terrain – Wind will funnel through narrow spaces, such as valleys or between buildings. It will be blocked by or accelerated around obstacles. Both of these effects will strengthen gusts. In view of the photo below, I also feel bound to mention katabatic winds – cold air tumbling down mountainsides.
  5. Size and Weight of your vehicle – the larger and lighter it is, the more likely it is to be affected. The data below shows the size of the wheels makes little difference.
  6. Distribution of Load – your caravan is much more likely to go into an irretrievable snake if the weight is concentrated at the back, and is more likely to overturn if weight is placed high up. Check out this video on YouTube for a quick demonstration of how loading can affect sway.
auto-2874760_640
That valley will funnel & accelerate the wind nicely! How confident would you feel driving over this viaduct with a strong side-wind?

What Windspeed is Dangerous for Towing?

Published research is difficult to come by, but I have found a study by the Western Transport Institute at Montana State University which ties the sliding and overturn wind speeds of various recreational vehicles and combos while being driven at highway speeds. Note that for a large (27.5 foot) caravan can start to slide and sway with a side wind speed as low as 16 mph. A 34 mph gust can overturn it.

Recreational vehicles are more stable when stationary. A study by Kent State University determined that wind speeds of 53 mph could overturn a stationary 18-foot caravan, whereas it took 65 mph winds to affect a a 20-foot motorhome.

Sliding and Overturn Wind Speeds for RVs With a 3-Foot Wheel Diameter

RV TypeEmpty Weight
(lbs)
Length
(feet)
Height
(feet)
Overturning
Wind Speed
(MPH)
Sliding
Wind Speed
(MPH)
Motorhomes9,000
10,000
12,000
14,000
15,500
22,000
27,000

26
30
34
36
43
40
45
10
12
12
12
11
12
13
80
65
67
70
74
84
81
35
31
32
33
34
40
40
Camper Vans4500
7000
17
20
7
10
101
80
38
35
Travel Trailers (Caravans)1800
2200
3300
4000
27.5
18
27.5
28
9
9
9
10
39
53
52
51
16
22
22
22
Fifth Wheel
Trailers
4500
5000
6000
8000
34
36
31
36
10.2
10.5
11
12
37
37
41
41
21
22
25
25

Sliding and Overturn Wind Speeds for RVs With a 2-Foot Wheel Diameter

RV TypeEmpty Weight
(lbs)
Length
(feet)
Height
(feet)
Overturning
Wind Speed
(MPH)
Sliding
Wind Speed
(MPH)
Motorhomes9,000
10,000
12,000
14,000
15,500
22,000
27,000
26
30
34
36
43
40
45
10
12
12
12
11
12
13
79
65
67
70
74
80
83
34
30
31
33
33
39
39
Camper Vans4500
7000
17
20
7
10
100
80
36
34
Travel Trailers (Caravans)1800
2200
3300
4000
27.5
18
27.5
28
9
9
9
10
38
52
52
51
16
21
21
22
Fifth Wheel Trailers4500
5000
6000
8000
4500
5000
6000
8000
10.2
10.5
11
12
37
37
41
40
21
21
24
25

Data from  (Comparative Evaluation of Wind Warning Systems, 2006 – pdf)

But There are Lorries on the Road…

In high winds, sailors have the option to reduce the number of sails or reef (fold) the sails to present a smaller area to the wind. Windsurfers simply select a smaller sail. An unladen Tautliner lorry can remove its curtains. Caravanners have no way of reducing the area of caravan available to catch the wind!

entering as a team in fancy dress triples your chances of winning a prize!
Windsurfers can rig a small sail; the area of caravan available to catch the wind is constant!

Caravans are large and tall, but they are relatively light. My rig is similar in size to an articulated lorry, but the caravan weighs in at feeble 1.5t, so it is much more likely to be buffeted and thrown off course by the wind than a fully-laden HGV, which weighs in at 40t!

I’ll be OK if I keep my Speed Down, won’t I?

“You’ll be FINE if you drive at 50mph.” There is no doubt that speed has a lot to do with safety, but it is misleading to suggest that simply reducing speed means that there is no risk when towing in wind, or in adverse weather of any kind.

The study above shows that a 27 foot caravan could start to slide at wind speeds of 16 mph, and flip at just 34 mph.

The Western Transportation Institute

High winds will significantly increase the risk. But it is just a risk. There is always a chance that you (and the other road users that you put in danger) might get away with it.

On the other hand, you might not!

The Dangers of a DEADline

“But I’ve got to get there by…” Disaster Analysis almost always points to poor decision making and/or an arbitrary deadline of some sort as the root cause.

When a deadline comes into play, people tend to take risks that they would not otherwise even contemplate. “It’s the last day of my holiday. I have GOT to ski that avalanche-prone couloir. It’s my last chance!”

matterhorn-968_640
“But I’ve got to get there by…” Disaster Analysis almost always points to poor decision making as a root cause.

The awful disaster on Mt Everest in 1996 happened because the weather window was not quite long enough for the groups of climbers to make it to the summit and back. They knew that, but decided to chance it anyway. After all, they’d climbed for days, acclimatised, paid lots of money to be there, and might never get the chance again. Unfortunately, either descending or attempting to rescue their fellows, that decision cost eight of them their lives.

What are the Risks in High Winds?

  1. Snaking or Overturning – Storm Brian delivered wind speeds of 40-50mph across the country. As mentioned above, gusts WILL be significantly greater than these averages. We have all experienced a sudden buffeting as we are hit by a gust or come out of a wind shadow; eg when overtaking a lorry. Just the sort of thing to knock you off balance – and your corrective actions are very likely to start a snake.
  2. Flying Objects – Actor Gordon Kaye (who played René in the comedy “‘Allo ‘Allo‘) was critically injured when a lump of wood was blown through his windscreen during a storm. There is always a risk of branches or trees being brought down or other objects blowing around.

How Can I Live to Tow Another Day?

Personally, I would not choose to tow in what Mr. Beaufort describes as a ‘Severe Gale’ with the potential for gusts into the realms of ‘Storm Force’.

So is your journey really necessary or would it be more sensible to postpone? If you’re already asking the question as to whether or not it is safe to tow, you clearly have some doubt in your mind! A saying that has kept me safe through many of my adrenaline-fuelled adventures is “If you look at it and think you’re going to die, you probably will!”

There are lots of fun things that you can do on a windy day. If I were desperate for a weekend away, I would book a B&B not too far away and eliminate the risk. That way, I would be sure that I would live to tow another day!

Alternatively, I would rig a very, very small sail and get me straight out windsurfing!

Obviously, this is my humble opinion but I hope that it helps you with the decision making process.

SONY DSC
It is an ill wind…!

Please also see my related blog, The Knowledge – Towing Safely & Legally

Mark and I have been touring Europe for a couple of years now and have driven and towed on some of Europe’s ‘Most Dangerous Roads.’ If you follow my blog (click follow or enter your email address) our towing tales and advice will drop straight into your inbox weekly! 

XC Weather is a very useful weather forecasting website which shows wind maps of the country and also gives an idea of the likely strength of gusts. 

Thank you to my friend Wayne for allowing me to use the photo of him enjoying Storm Brian on Chesil Beach. Wayne is a driftwood demon, who makes beautiful mirrors and furniture from the wild, wooden bounties of the ocean. Wayne was featured on Ben Fogle’s “Harbour Lives”. If you would like a unique piece for your home or a custom-made present for someone special, check out his website at Surf Mirrors

Useful? Please Share on Pinterest!

Towing in High Wind Pin

Published by WorldWideWalkies

AD (After Dogs) - We retired early to tour Europe in a caravan with four dogs. "To boldly go where no van has gone before" - & believe me, we have! BC (Before Canines) - we had adventures on every continent other than Antarctica!

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