If you’re dreaming of summer days spent exploring faraway corners and hitting the lake with your own trailer in tow, it’s time to get prepped. From finding out what vehicle can handle a heavy haul all the way down to making sure you know local regulations – this guide will have everything set up for success. Get ready…the open road awaits!
How to Choose The Right Tow Vehicle
To safely tow a trailer, you need a tow vehicle with adequate horsepower, torque, weight and length. Some of these elements are reflected in the towing capacity that the vehicle manufacturer sets. The tow vehicle towing capacity must exceed the weight of the trailer when loaded. Using an under-rated tow vehicle is dangerous and illegal.
Start by choosing a tow vehicle that has a towing capacity higher than the trailer’s gross vehicle weight rating. For instance, if a SUV has a 500-pound towing capacity, it should be able to tow a trailer up to a 500-pound GVWR.
However, the towing capacity of tow vehicles generally is based on the ratings of the vehicle’s components, such as wheels, tires, suspension and transmission. The vehicle manufacturer may not have factored in the pulling power of the engine. This is where you should take into account the vehicle’s horsepower and torque.
The tow vehicle’s engine creates torque and uses it to turn the crankshaft. The gears in the transmission convert this torque into a vehicle’s horsepower, or its ability to pull a trailer.
While it’s difficult to provide guidelines for what is enough torque and horsepower because it varies with trailer size and load, it is important to maximize both in your tow vehicle.
A vehicle with more torque can move more weight with less stress on the engine. This is important because towing a trailer puts a lot of additional load on the engine. This contributes to the wear and tear on the vehicle. More horsepower simply helps you get around more quickly and accelerate faster.
Generally, look for more engine displacement. A six-liter engine will give you more horsepower and torque than a five-liter engine. Larger engines are capable of dealing with heavier loads.
Many manufacturers will actually design a towing package for dealers. The package can include heavier duty components to accommodate towing heavy loads, such as the radiator, battery and transmission. They will also install the equipment necessary for hooking a rig to the vehicle.
Towing live animals places greater demands on the vehicle because the animals move around, shifting thousands of pounds to different places in the trailer. For live animals, experts recommend hauling 25 percent less than the vehicle’s maximum tow rating.
Also consider the terrain where the towing will occur. Hilly terrain or unpaved roads place more stress on the tow vehicle and may require you to haul less than the vehicle’s maximum tow rating.
Towing definitions That You Need to Get Acquainted With
Base curb weight: The weight of the vehicle, including a full tank of fuel and all standard equipment.
Cargo weight: The weight of the vehicle, including all passengers and cargo, minus the base curb weight.
Payload: The maximum allowable weight of cargo and passengers that the vehicle is designed to carry.
Gross vehicle weight (GVW) and gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR): The GVW is the base curb weight plus the cargo weight. The GVWR is the maximum allowable weight of the fully loaded vehicle, including passengers and cargo. The GVW must never exceed the GVWR.
Gross axle weight (GAW) and gross axle weight rating (GAWR): The GAW is the total weight placed on an axle on the vehicle or trailer. The GAWR is the maximum allowable weight to be carried by a single axle. The total load on each axle must never exceed its GAWR.
Gross combined weight (GCW) and gross combined weight rating (GCWR): The GCW is the actual weight of the loaded tow vehicle plus the actual weight of the loaded trailer. The GCWR is the maximum allowable total weight of the loaded vehicle and loaded trailer. The GCW must never exceed the GCWR.
Tongue weight: The amount of the trailer’s weight that is transferred to the tow vehicle through the trailer tongue or gooseneck.
Types of Hitch
Trailer hitches come in all sizes and shapes for a variety of applications. However, hitches are classified as either weight-carrying or weight-distributing.
Weight-carrying hitches (such as a bumper pull) are recommended for use when the trailer weight (including cargo) is 3,500 lbs. or less. Make sure the tow vehicle is rated by the manufacturer to accommodate that load. The tongue weight is carried directly on the rear of the tow vehicle and on the hitch.
Use weight-distributing hitches for heavier loads. These hitches redistribute the tongue weight throughout the frame of the tow vehicle. The result is that the trailer’s weight is distributed among the trailer axles and the front and rear axles on the tow vehicle. Ask your dealer about weight distribution hitches if you intend to tow using a “bumper” type hitch or hitch receiver.
Fifth wheels and goosenecks are two weight-distributing hitches used most often with pickup trucks. The weight of the trailer is carried directly over the rear axle with the hitch mounted in the truck’s bed.
A fifth wheel hitch is used for larger trailers and is a small version of the type of hitch used on semi trucks. A gooseneck coupler attaches to a tow ball that usually is mounted in the bed of a pickup truck. Underneath the bed are support rails that are bolted or welded into place.
A frame-mounted hitch is one where the hitch is attached to the frame of the tow vehicle. This gives more stability to a bumper pull type of hitch.
Before every trip, check the tow ball and coupler to ensure they are the same size and that all bolts are securely tightened. Also, make sure the latching mechanism is locked in place.
What is Safety Chains
Safety chains ensure the trailer remains connected to the tow vehicle in the event the hitch fails.
The chains should be long enough to allow the vehicle to corner without binding, but not so long that they drag on the pavement. Dragging can cause the chains to become worn and unsafe. When attaching the chains to the tow vehicle, make sure to cross them. This creates a saddle for the trailer tongue in the event of failure.
When using a frame-mounted trailer hitch, attach the safety chains to the frame using recommendations supplied by the hitch manufacturer. A frame-mounted hitch is one where the hitch is attached to the frame of the tow vehicle. This gives more stability to a bumper pull type of hitch.
Special Towing Considerations
From high winds to passing semis, trailer towing offers many special driving conditions.
A 30-mph cross wind, for instance, can be enough to blow a trailer, especially an empty one, off the road. If the wind causes the trailer to pitch right, you should steer to the left to correct and keep the vehicle on the road.
When wind is pushing the trailer around, the best reaction is to slow down. In extremely windy conditions, park the unit until it is safe.
Large semis create another set of challenges when they pass a vehicle towing a trailer. These large trucks develop a high-pressure wave in front of the vehicle and a low-pressure area in the back.
As the semi passes, the air pressure first pushes your trailer and then your tow vehicle to the right. After the truck passes, the low-pressure area will pull both vehicles back to the left. To counter this, steer first left and then right. Avoid overcompensating.
Backing up with a trailer can be a complex activity. Most experts recommend having someone outside at the rear of the trailer to help guide you. This is where the mirrors on your tow vehicle become important. Sometimes, it is necessary to get special mirrors attached to the vehicle to enhance viewing the trailer.
Remember, the trailer turns the opposite way you turn your wheels. Experts suggest placing your hand at the bottom of the steering wheel and moving it the way you want the trailer to go. Also, make slow, easy steering adjustments. This is a skill worth practicing before you get into a critical situation.
When driving in rain or snow, slow down. Also, keep a greater distance between your vehicle and the one in front. The additional weight of the trailer makes stopping more difficult in slick conditions.
When you are towing a trailer, you are operating a vehicle combination that is longer, heavier and even wider and taller than what you normally drive.
The added weight of the trailer magnifies any error on the driver’s part and requires adjustments in driving habits and stopping time. You should also consider road and weather conditions. Rain or winter weather can create even more difficult stopping circumstances.
Trailer sway, because of improper loading, is another common reason for accidents. If your trailer begins to sway, slow down. If it continues to sway, stop and check the load for balance and stability.
Finally, head off another source of accidents by performing all routine maintenance. Check the lug nuts, as well as tire pressure, before each trip. If the trailer has been idle for several months, grease the bearings; condensation can build up in the bearings. Also, make sure the coupler is adequately lubricated.
Remember, the addition of a trailer creates a new set of driving conditions that you must accommodate for safe travel.
Make it a practice to check the air pressure in all the tires on your trailer regularly. If a tire is under inflated on a tandem axle rig, the tire can become very hot and catch fire. (The under inflated tire many not be evident because the other wheels are supporting the weight of the trailer.)
The most common causes for tire failure are loading the trailer with more weight than the trailer’s rated cargo capacity and having under-inflated tires. Both result in excess flexing of the sidewall, which causes heat buildup and eventual failure.
Also, check the lug nuts regularly. The axles and wheels are subjected to more flexing than, say, a passenger car’s axles and wheels. This can cause the lug nuts to loosen. You should tighten lug nuts to the torque rating specified by the manufacturer. Over tightening can cause the studs to break.
When it comes time to replace a tire, make sure you match the tire load rating specified by the trailer’s manufacturer.
One of the most common problems motorists encounter while towing is the trailer fishtailing as motorists accelerate to highway speed.
If this occurs, take your foot off the accelerator and allow the vehicles to slow. This should stop the fishtailing. If the oscillation resumes as you increase speed, pull off the road and stop.
There are many reasons a trailer may fishtail, but the most common is an improperly distributed load. Check your load to make sure it is distributed evenly from side to side. Also, make sure you do not have too much weight in the back of the trailer. Experts recommend that 10 to 15 percent of the trailer weight be on the hitch.
Avoid overcompensating by placing too much weight in the front of the trailer. This will increase the hitch weight to make the tow vehicle squat in the rear. A tow vehicle that rides low in the rear will not steer properly and the additional weight on the rear axle, hubs and tires could cause damage.
Vehicle & Trailer Brakes
When you attach a trailer to your tow vehicle, you are adding anywhere from a few hundred pounds to several thousands of pounds to the weight your vehicle’s brakes must stop. Here are some tips about braking:
- Beginners should take their vehicle and trailer out to a quiet stretch of road or a deserted parking lot and practice braking. You’ll need more room to stop safely because of the additional weight of the trailer and its load.
- If the trailer is equipped with electronically controlled brakes, you can apply them automatically or manually. These brakes usually have a control mechanism near the driver’s seat.
- If you have a manual brake controller, activate the trailer brakes first, when possible.
- When going down hills, try to use the engine and the gears to slow the vehicle. This will reduce the wear and tear on the tow vehicle’s brakes.
- To correct trailer side sway, momentarily touch the trailer brakes, without using the tow vehicle’s brakes.
- Many states require separate braking systems on trailers with a loaded weight of more than 1,500 pounds. Some experts suggest every trailer should have a functional, separate braking system.
Remember, safely towing a trailer requires that you master a whole new set of driving skills.
How you load your trailer will determine how well your trailer handles on the road and can greatly impact the safety of your trip. Common sense is one of the best assets to have when loading a trailer.
Begin with heavy items first. Tie these items down from several angles so they do not fall when cornering, starting or stopping. Smaller items should fill the spaces around them.
Try to keep the center of gravity low to provide the best handling. About 60 percent of the cargo weight should be in the front half of the trailer. However, keep in mind the tongue load limits for your unit.
Also, balance the load from side to side. An unbalanced trailer can turn over on sharp corners.
Keep in mind, your trailer and all of its components – springs, axles, tires – are designed to handle a certain maximum load. Exceeding this load limit, the gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR), is dangerous and eventually some component will fail.
Finally, make sure you have secured all cargo. Unsecured loads can shift during braking or cornering, causing a loss of control. Carpeting glued to the floor of the trailer can help prevent cargo from sliding.