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Safe Towing

Featured image for Safe Towing

With excerpts from the article "The Art of Towing: Tips, Ideas, and Hard-Learned Lessons" by Bruce W. Smith - Sep 6, 2008

So you have taken the step to make a trailer purchase! Congratulations! Now, you have the freedom to take off to new places around the province, the country, and farther with the comforts of home in tow.

But wait…. How are you going to make sure that your trip goes smoothly and you arrive to these new adventures safely?

Here's some tips to get you on the road SAFELY and CONFIDENTLY so that you can enjoy your trailering experience to the utmost.


1. Correct Tow Vehicle

The most critical aspect of towing any trailer is having the right tow vehicle. Just because your F-150 can get a loaded 30-foot toy hauler moving doesn't mean it's the right vehicle for the job.

Towing in a safe and sane manner requires knowing a couple of numbers and reading the tow vehicle's owner's manual. For instance, you need to make sure the trailered weight doesn't exceed the vehicle's maximum tongue weight or maximum weight-carrying capacity unless your tow vehicle is equipped with a weight-distributing hitch, sway control device, or both as stated in the vehicle owner's manual.

Tongue weight is the downforce the trailer applies to the back of the tow vehicle--and that force should never be more than 15 percent of the loaded trailer's weight. Weight-carrying is the conventional towing mode most often seen when towing a boat, utility, or ATV trailer attached directly to the ball/shank coming out of the hitch. Weight-distributing (W-D) mode is when the trailer is attached to a special hitch assembly that utilizes tension bars and adjusting chains like those commonly used on travel trailers.

Read the owner's manual and you'll find all Toyota pickups and SUVs require the use of an anti-sway control device on trailers weighing more than 2000 pounds (trailer/cargo). Ford F-150s require the use of a weight-distribution hitch on trailers weighing more than 5000 pounds, as do all half-ton Dodge, Nissan, and GM pickups.

2. Condition of Equipment

Before hooking trailer to tow vehicle, walk around each to check that they're fit for the road. Make sure the tires are inflated correctly (look in the owner's manual for tow-vehicle tire pressures, on the tire sidewalls for the trailer), and that hoses, belts, fluid levels, trailer spring hangers, and springs are in good shape. All cargo and gear must be stored securely.

Make sure hitch, drawbar, and trailer ball are the proper ones for the trailer you're about to tow--and that all are tight. The size of the required ball is stamped into the body of the trailer coupler and the ball itself has its size stamped into the top.

This will take less than 10 minutes and can eliminate the vast majority of trailer problems that occur on the highway.

3. Hitching & Weight Distribution

Drop the trailer onto the hitch ball, then lock the trailer coupler lever and place a locking pin or other bolt through the lever to keep it from accidentally popping open while you're driving. Attach the safety chains by crossing them under the coupler and hooking them onto the hitch loops in the proper orientation. Then attach the breakaway brake cable to the hitch.

Step back and observe the tow vehicle and trailer from the side: The trailer should sit parallel with the ground (or ever so slightly tongue low) and in line with the chassis of the tow vehicle.

If the trailer tongue is too high or too low, the load on/in the trailer may be too far forward or rearward, which will adversely affect how the trailer tows. Move the weight on the trailer until the level balance is achieved, adjust the spring bars on the W-D hitch to better balance the load, or change the hitch shank to one that brings the tow vehicle/trailer into proper alignment.

Insert the plug on the trailer harness into the receptacle on the tow vehicle. Test the turn signals and brake lights to make sure they're working on the trailer. When trailer and tow vehicle are properly set up, adjust the mirrors so you see down the entire length of the trailer.

4. Sway

Properly loading your trailer will reduce the amount of sway that you experience on the road. Placing weight too far behind the axles will create a dangerous pendulum effect if the trailer gets pushed (usually by wind). Be careful to load your trailer with distribution of weight in mind. Take into account where the heaviest parts of the interior of the trailer are located. Where is the kitchen? If it is in the rear of the trailer, you will want to load some heavier items forward of the axles to compensate for the weight of the kitchen and everything in it. A properly set up anti-sway bar, or 2 for heavier trailers, can make a world of difference to the stability of your trailer on the highway.

5. Adjusting Your Driving

As a guide to safe speeds, apply the four-second towing rule--leave at least four seconds between your vehicle and the one ahead at whatever speed you're driving, when road conditions are good. Leave six seconds of distance when conditions are bad.

Towing on the open road is easy when the tow vehicle and trailer are well matched and set up, which also makes it easy to find yourself driving at the same speeds you would without a trailer. Bad move.

One aspect of towing that you must constantly be aware of is the dramatic difference in vehicle acceleration and stopping caused by the added weight of the trailer. For example, a full-size, four-door pickup going 60 mph (88 feet per second) typically stops in about 150 feet in an emergency braking situation on dry pavement.

Add a 4500-pound trailer package to the equation and that distance can easily be 220 feet--a difference of 70 feet or 47 percent. If a vehicle stops suddenly in front of you or a deer enters the roadway, 70 feet will make a big difference in whether you can stop in time.

Towing requires undivided driver attention. That means turn off the cell-phone, quit fiddling with the navigation system and stereo, and do not be involved in any other activity other than concentrating on the road ahead and your immediate surroundings. You have to constantly be thinking a good half-mile ahead when towing any trailer.

The biggest challenge when towing for the first time is changing driving style. Slow down and be attentive to your surroundings and people sharing the road. Do that and you'll find towing trailers is actually easy--even for a first-timer.

6. Reversing

Trailer towing isn't a race. Any time a trailer is in tow, slow down. This is especially important when backing one up: The slower you back up a trailer, the easier it is to control.

Here's a good trailer-backing tip: Place your hands at the 5 o'clock and 7 o'clock positions at the bottom of the steering wheel. This hand positioning makes controlling a trailer while backing up the least taxing on your brain. Use the side mirrors to watch the trailer--don't twist your neck into a chiropractor's dream.

When you want the back of the trailer to move to your left, just move the left hand up. Need the trailer to go right? Move the right hand up. Don't worry how it works; the less you dwell on the mechanics of controlling a trailer while backing up, the faster you'll learn the art.

ALWAYS use someone to ground guide you! Make sure that both of you understand what directions are to be used (hand signals and vocal) so that there is no confusion. Does "Go right" mean go right with the front or the rear of the trailer? What does "That's good" mean? Roll down both windows, turn off the radio and make sure your ground guide knows that if they cannot see you in your mirrors, you cannot see them. Take it slow and if in doubt, STOP! Get out of the truck and take a good look around.

7. Pro Tips

Want to impress those at a boat ramp or campground with your trailering prowess? You may already do these things, but if not, they make short work in getting your trailer squared away in the shortest time possible.

If you're bringing a boat/trailer to the launch ramp or trying to park a toy hauler or RV trailer in a tight parking area, swing as close and parallel to the water's edge or opening as you can. As the back of the tow vehicle passes the ramp opening or parking space, immediately turn up the ramp like you are trying to make a sharp U-turn. Continue the turn in a tight S-pattern. As your tow vehicle turns back in the opposite direction, watch how quickly the trailer straightens, putting you in line with the ramp or parking space.

When you need to adjust the spring bars on a weight-distributing (equalizing) hitch, use the trailer's wheel jack to position tow vehicle and trailer so they sit level. Now adjust the links in the adjusting chains and lock the spring bars in place. When the wheel jack is cranked back up, the spring bars take the weight, and you didn't have to fight the load tension.

Towing a trailer for the first time is intimidating. Anyone who tries to tell you differently has forgotten his first hours towing a trailer when his heart seemed to stay in the throat and sweaty palms made it impossible to grip the steering wheel any tighter.

Take your time. Practice in a large empty parking lot if you have an opportunity to do so and remember, if you are in doubt about anything with towing your trailer, STOP. Assess the setup and what you're trying to do, and get some help!

Happy, safe towing!