Pull Your Weight
If you tow a trailer, you are subject to additional responsibilities on the highways and will require some skills that most drivers never have to consider. It is imperative that you understand how to safely connect your trailer to your tow vehicle and that you are able to competently maneuver the trailer to avoid injury to yourself, others and your vehicles.
Before you ever attempt to connect a trailer, you need to be certain that your intended tow vehicle is up to the task. Your tow vehicle must be able to handle the size, type and weight of the trailer you intend to use. Your best bet is to check your owner’s manual to see if your vehicle is capable of towing your trailer. Some vehicles come with optional tow packages that may include features such as heavy duty brakes, transmission fluid coolers, engine oil coolers, suspension upgrades and brake controllers.
Once your tow vehicle and trailer have been selected, you need to ensure that your trailer is securely attached to your vehicle. The most common recreational hitch is the ball and coupler type. The hitch is a ball that is attached to the rear of the vehicle either to a hitch receiver or (in some cases) the bumper. In the case of receiver mounted hitches, the hitch ball is attached to a ball mount, which slides into the receiver mounted to the vehicle. The ball mount is held in the receiver by a hitch pin. Hitch balls come in a range of diameters, shank diameter and shank lengths. In simple terms, a larger ball allows for heavier duty applications. The coupler is the socket that is at the tip of the trailer tongue which slips over the ball and “locks” into place. This is the hitch we will use for the sake of discussion in this article.
The socket and ball should not be the only connection between the trailer and the tow vehicle. Your trailer should also be equipped with safety chains that keep the trailer connected to your vehicle in the event you have a hitch failure. These chains are connected to the trailer frame and should be crossed in an ‘X’ pattern under your trailer coupler before being attached to the appropriate points on the hitch. Crossing the chains provides a “cradle” that will catch the trailer tongue in the event of a failure. The chains should have only enough slack in them to allow for tight turns.
A hitch should only have to bear 10% to 15% of the trailer’s total weight, including contents. This means that care must be taken when loading a trailer to keep the weight distributed appropriately. If your trailer and contents weigh 10,000 pounds, there should be no more than 1,500 pounds of load on the hitch.
Once your trailer is securely connected to your tow vehicle, a safety check should be conducted before you hit the road. Double-check your load to be certain all is secure in and on the trailer. Check your tire pressures. Make sure all lighting functions correctly and that the trailer brakes (if equipped) are operating within norms. If your trailer is equipped with a breakaway cable, make certain it is securely fastened to your tow vehicle and that you have ample slack for trailer maneuvering. The breakaway cable will automatically engage the trailer brakes if the trailer and tow vehicle become separated.
Tips for driving with a trailer in tow:
1. Be smooth. Avoid excessively harsh inputs into the steering wheel, accelerator or brakes. If the trailer and the tow vehicle disagree with respect to where the trailer is going, the trailer will usually win once it has made up its mind.
2. Keep a respectable distance from the vehicles in front of you as you will need considerably more distance to stop your vehicle when towing a trailer. Down shifting helps to assist braking when going downhill and will provide additional power when traveling uphill. If your vehicle is equipped with automatic overdrive, you may get better performance by turning overdrive off when towing.
3. If your trailer becomes unsettled and starts to sway, do not try to correct the issue with the steering wheel. Keep the wheel straight and ease up on the accelerator. The sway should correct itself. If need be, you can add a small amount of brake to the trailer through your brake controller (if equipped).
4. Where possible, have somebody outside the vehicle assist you when backing up. When backing up, if the steering wheel is turned to the left, the trailer is going to move to the right. Slow and easy gets the job done when backing up.
5. If not already equipped, add towing mirrors to your vehicle. Extended mirrors make it much easier for you to see what is going on with your trailer and the traffic around you…they are an indispensable aid when towing.
6. Stop every 50 – 100 miles and check all your connections to be certain all remains tight and secure. Periodic stops will also help keep you fresh and alert while driving which is especially important when you have a trailer in tow.
Towing is often undertaken as part of a recreational activity. Err on the side of safety and your fun is less likely to be interrupted by catastrophic concerns. Have fun and stay safe.