Camper Trailer Brakes - What are the options?

While you probably can't buy a caravan without brakes, the same is not true for Camper Trailers. In many cases they are an optional extra. So do you really need them and what options are available?

We asked expert Keith Corbett for the inside story on camper trailer brakes.

To Brake or Not to Brake

Take a typical standard offroad camper trailer weighing say 550kg and add a few options such as kitchen and toolbox. Then fill up a couple of jerry cans and you're already at around 630kg and within striking distance of the legal gross weight of 750kg.

If you were to add a water tank say 60litres then it's a no contest in our view, put brakes on! You'll be legal and while that's part of the objective, you're safer and that's what it should be about. If you have all that weight on the trailer and don't opt for the brakes, then you're running the risk of derailing your trip in the middle of your travels and incurring the expenses of a bad car accident.

For many years and for foreseeable future we expect secondhand camper trailers to hold their value, so there's a better than even money bet you'll recoup most of your investment in brakes if you sell. One of our Tambo customers gave his camper 4 years extremely hard labour and sold it for only $1,000 less than he paid for it. We hear these stories all the time and are convinced that if you can handle the $550-650 investment, go for brakes.

If you believe you can keep the weight down and you're comfortable without brakes, that's fine and you can stop reading this article.

So the next question is which set-up will be work for you. There are three main types of braking systems to choose from.

Mechanical Override

These are drum style brakes that rely on the special coupling being compressing when the trailer pushes against the vehicle during braking. A cable then becomes taught and pulls on a level that applies the brakes. I'm not a fan because they are either ON or OFF with minimal if any variability. If the vehicle is on unmade and slippery tracks these brakes will only work with weight or inertia being applied to rear of vehicle. They can then oscillate between on and off that makes it difficult to control your trailer.

Hydraulic Override

Instead of a cable activating the brakes, this system uses hydraulic fluid. The special coupling has a reservoir and is connected to the brakes via copper tube or brake line. If you go this way remember the fluid needs to be checked for impurities, especially water and changed regularly. These brakes have the same operational limitations as do Mechanical Override in that they are virtually ON or OFF.

Electric Brakes

Through a controller mounted in your vehicle, electric brakes apply a constant and variable amount of braking on your trailer. Your trailer is braking and not pushing your vehicle which is a huge benefit. Electric brakes are smoother and safer especially in off road situations. The brakes can also be manually applied via the controller in you vehicle -  great for drying out brakes after a water crossing. Also if you are in a situation where you are descending in low range in a low gear you can apply trailer braking manually as and when required to take the load off the vehicle.

A point to consider with electric is the extra expense in having a brake controller fitted, say $250-350 depending on the unit. Further, if your camper were to be towed behind a variety of vehicles, they would all have to be fitted with a controller.

Drums are by far the most common style of electric brakes. The disk brakes can be more vulnerable to the stones, rocks dust that spray over them in an offroad situation.

Tambo Campers fit electric drum brakes in the vast majority of cases where brakes are required and receive great feedback from our customers.


Handbrakes

If you choose to go with brakes, consider the convenience of having a handbrake fitted. With each type of brakes discussed here, you can add a handbrake relatively easily.  A good quality handbrake fitted to an electric brake set-up usually would cost less than $200.

and finally the Brake Controller

If you choose electric brakes, you will also need to install a brake controller in your vehicle. The controller sets the power or severity of braking and the timing of when brakes are activated. Brake controllers feed power through the normal trailer wiring and communicate with the brakes. The pendulum style controllers are considered the best and will send the correct amount of braking to the trailer depending on how severely the vehicle is stopping.

Steves Comments - For our Big Lap we opted for electric brakes on our Tambo Cooper and had Boronia Auto Electrics (Melb 03 9729 7299) fit the above Prodigy Controller. Both performed beautifully and I was able to adjust the braking strength such that I could feel the trailer pulling on the car when braking which kept everything nicely in control, especially on long downhill runs.

Tip - make sure your brake wiring is well shielded from flying rocks and flexing suspension as a broken wire = no brakes.

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5 thoughts on “Camper Trailer Brakes - What are the options?

  1. 1735099 says:

    "These are drum style brakes that rely on the special coupling being compressing (should read "compressed") when the trailer pushes against the vehicle during braking. A cable then becomes taught (should read "taut") and pulls on a level that applies the brakes"

    OK article, but you need an editor.

  2. xj4play says:

    Does any one use hydraulic surge brakes on an off-road adventure type trailer? Is it even possible? I can see draw back such as tight maneuvers.

  3. GLENN says:

    Please if you are going to talk seriously about something as important as brakes get the information completely correct and address all the types of systems not just 1 or 2 ! there are many more braking options available to the end user than have been discussed in this article. Even an electric WiFi system that transfers from car to car with no wire loom modifications.
    Also the comment about using the electric brake over ride to dry the drums out or using the trailer brakes to slow the combination with out the car brakes is suicide.
    Adjusted correctly the trailer should still exert some load against the car, if set so the trailer brakes first , the end result will be NO trailer brakes when you need them . Most systems are very basic by today's AUTOMOBILE standards and you should let the cars computer cope with the situation .
    Yes I have probably upset some people ! As Ned Kelly said . Such is life !

  4. Terry says:

    Hi read article re electric brakes, have recently sourced an American trailer c/w electric brakes but to make legal here in UK have to install a manual handbrake do you know of supplier etc

  5. campertrailer101 says:

    Thanks for this. keep the updates rolling in.
    coming from someone who has built a few trailers , cheers .

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