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27 Trailer Towing Tips

Posted in How To on July 1, 2006 Comment (0)
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There are several different and accepted methods to join a tow vehicle and trailer, each one with its own advantages and drawbacks. By far the most common for recreational use is the ball and coupler setup, available in 1 7/8-, 2- and 2 5/16-inch sizes. Why anybody uses the 1 7/8 stuff we'll never understand, but many a trailer has been lost because of a 1 7/8-inch ball in a 2-inch coupler. If you don't do anything else right when hitching a trailer to a tow vehicle, at least use parts that are made to work together.

Whether it's a covered trailer or a flatbed with trail toys, a small home on wheels, or some combination thereof, towing is more popular than ever with the four-wheeling crowd. That the available tow vehicles are far more capable than in the past has certainly helped put more trailers on the road, but may also have contributed to putting a lot of trailers off the road. And not on purpose, at some nice campsite. A powerful engine and well engineered chassis can take much of the difficulty out of towing, making life easier for a conscientious trailer puller. On the other hand, the tow vehicle's improved performance can just as easily get the unwary in deep trouble.

Towing a trailer is much like driving a car in the first place. It's a responsibility not to be taken too lightly. Towing just makes the responsibility longer and heavier, and harder to stop and maneuver. Unfortunately, many don't give the issue much more thought than, "If the trailer fits, tow it." Sometimes, not even that much. Trailer towing is one of the better indications that there indeed may be a higher power that protects the truly ignorant. True, there are a lot of crashed and broken-down trailers along the sides of the nation's highways on any given day, but nowhere near as many as one would expect when considering how often no common sense at all is applied to trailering.

For example, when you see a lifted pickup towing a heavy trailer, speeding down the road with the headlights pointing towards the sky because of a weak rear suspension and/or excessive tongue weight, it isn't an "accident" waiting to happen. By definition, accidents aren't planned, so it's more of a trying-to-beat-the-odds situation when towing with an improper setup. Speeding doesn't exactly help. Towing without trailer brakes, towing more than the vehicle can rightfully handle, having the wrong tongue weight, or not using safety chains are all things that can easily cut a trip short-even if nothing unexpected takes place right in front of you. While we're definitely in favor of improving the gene pool, the highway system isn't the best place to gamble, as there are plenty of innocent people using the roads, and they shouldn't have to suffer from somebody else's stupidity. Besides, we would like at least some of those trailering yahoos to survive, grow up, and eventually become Four Wheeler readers.

Perhaps the most overlooked aspect of trailering is tongue weight, yet that's something which can make the difference between a trailer that tows like a dream and one that won't stay in the lane. Or even on the road.

It's often a legal requirement to have two safety chains, except on fifth-wheel trailers, and they should run crosswise between the tower and towee. That way, should something in the connection fail, the trailer is limited as to how much it can sway and move in general, making it feasible to come to a safe stop. With some luck, the coupler may not even hit the ground and get ruined. In California, the chains can't legally be any longer than necessary for making tight turns, and open hooks aren't allowed. Improperly secured hitch pins and worn-out couplers seem to be the most common causes for the safety chains having to take over.

The location of the axles in relation to the length of the trailer and the placement of the load determines the amount of the load that the trailer puts on the tow vehicle. This is why they're called "semi trailers"-they don't carry all of their own weight, which is why it's so important to get the tongue weight right. So-called "full trailers," which are quite rare, have at least one axle at each end, and only part of the weight of the drawbar is supported by the tow vehicle. This makes full trailers immune to tongue weight issues, just as with flat towing.

Gooseneck and fifth-wheel trailers usually don't have tongue weight problems, assuming a correctly positioned hitch and appropriate trailer weight, since the weight is applied slightly ahead of the rear axle. It's when using a receiver or bumper-mounted setup, positioned at the far rear of the vehicle, that tongue weight becomes critical-and this is how the majority of four-wheeler's trailers are towed.

Too much tongue weight makes the front of the tow vehicle too light, hurting both steering and stopping performance because the front tires no longer have enough contact pressure to work properly. In the process, the rear axle and tires may become overloaded-plus, it even looks pretty darn dumb when going down the road with headlights facing the stars. While harder to see, perhaps, not enough tongue weight can be even worse, allowing the trailer to push the rear of the tow vehicle around. As a rule, 10 to 15 percent of the trailer's total weight should be applied to the tow vehicle, leaving the trailer carrying the remaining 85 to 90 percent.

So how do you find the correct tongue weight? There are special scales made for the purpose, such as the ones by Sherline Products, and most outfits that make towing hardware-Valley Industries, for example-have catalog illustrations showing how to use boards, pipes, and a bathroom scale to measure tongue weight. Either way, you must first weigh the trailer at a scale to find out what the gross trailer weight is, loaded up with everything you will have on it, to know what tongue weight to shoot for. If you always use the same trailer with the same load, such as your trail vehicle, you can use trial (and hopefully not much error) to find where to tie the four-wheeler down for the best handling. Then mark that position on the trailer for future reference.

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When the correct tongue weight turns out to be more than the tow vehicle can handle, or is rated as dead weight, it's time to get a weight-distributing hitch. Using trailer-mounted spring bars that in effect shift weight from the rear to the front of the tow vehicle makes it possible to tune the setup to perfection. Another worthwhile trailer accessory could be a sway control, which can do wonders for stability and is usually an option with weight-distributing hitches.

Yes, it can take some work and cost some money to get the tongue weight right, but that's the price you pay for pulling a semi. When it's correct, the reward is, as the say, priceless.

Most trailer towers worry about having enough power to make it up and over hills, but we wish more of them spent at least a fraction of the time and money used to help making it up a grade to then be able to stop, or even just slow down, on the downhill side. Owners of diesels have the option to equip their tow rigs with an exhaust brake, which can help immensely by letting the motor create a fair amount of retardation. Everybody has the option of using the correct gear to help control speed when descending a hill, but unfortunately, not everybody uses that obvious solution. It doesn't matter if it's a gasoline- or diesel-propelled vehicle, nor if it has an automatic or standard transmission-they all have different ratios in their trannies that can be used to keep the vehicle at a prudent speed when going down a hill. Using the same gear for the descent as it required to go up could be a good starting point, but keep in mind that there's absolutely nothing wrong with going down a grade at a lesser speed than you went up. Really. You may need the brakes later for something unexpected, so it's a good thing to stay off the brake pedal as much as possible to leave them cool and functional. You're far more likely to lose the battle against gravity when going downhill than uphill. If gravity wins when going up, about the worst that can happen is that you come to a stop. If gravity wins on a downhill, you'll wish you could come to a stop. A good towing mantra to remember is that "Gears are for maintaining speed, brakes are for stopping." Actually, that holds true whether towing or not.

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Enough already, that's what trailer brakes are for, right? Well, not quite. While you indeed should have trailer brakes-or must, depending on trailer weight and state laws-they're meant to enable stopping the heavier combination of tow vehicle and trailer, not to make up for bad driving habits. Using the brakes rather than letting the engine keep the speed down can overheat the brakes to the point that they won't work at all, no matter how many there are. Not a happy scenario if there's a sharp turn, slower traffic, or a stop sign down the road. If you picked the wrong gear and must apply the brakes to keep the speed reasonable, hit them halfway hard ever so often instead of riding them lightly for extended periods. That way, they get a chance to cool off between applications and are much more likely to remain functional.

Many leaf-sprung tandem-axle trailers are equipped with brakes on only one axle, and if so, the brakes should be on the rear axle. This may sound backwards when a typical vehicle has some 80 percent of its braking ability on the front axle, but consider the differences. The tow vehicle will nose down when the brakes are applied hard, putting more weight (traction) on the front axle. This reaction may even lift the front of the trailer slightly, but that's not the real reason for having the brakes on the rear trailer axle. Due to the small balance beam found on most leaf-sprung tandem-axle trailers, when the brakes are applied the front axle will lift up while the rear axle will get pushed downward. This action takes place whether the brakes are on the forward or rear axle, so the brakes should logically be on the rear one to be effective. Better yet, use them on both axles, even if the front axle's won't be quite as effective.

There seems to be some kind of law against good electrical wiring on trailers, and RVs in general. Since functional lights are a must, even in daylight, either carry the necessary parts and tools to fix a bum system, or carry a set of magnetic tow lights for when the trailer lights fail. These Valley units have a 20-foot harness and are made for flat towing use. While there are no marker lights, they do provide the basic stop/turn/tail functions. The set comes with a 3-foot harness for "hard wiring" a flat-four plug into the tow vehicle-with wire taps. Do yourself a favor and don't use those. Also, since the flat-four connector probably won't fit your tow vehicle, either make or buy an adapter (top) that converts your configuration to a flat-four.

An unhappy trailer owner once called the manufacturer to complain when his only-half-full trailer had literally collapsed. A legitimate gripe, until the manufacturer learned that the 3,000-pound-rated trailer was loaded with 13,000 pounds when it failed. Physically, there was apparently still room for several thousand pounds more of asphalt shingles on the trailer, but when the tires started flattening out and the trailer frame began groaning, common sense should've kicked in.

Axles, tires, wheels, the coupler, and the trailer itself all have a max load rating. Exceed any one of them, and trouble is highly likely.

Frequently overlooked are the trailer's tires. Rather than using the leftover stockers off your pickup, consider actual trailer tires. They're marked "ST," as opposed to regular P and LT tires. Built differently and with special aging inhibitors, trailer tires will work better and last longer than regular tires used for trailer duty.

Much like with the tires, whatever wheels happen to fit the trailer are often used, but some wheels just can't handle the significant side loads that multiaxle trailers can put on them. Use wheels with an appropriate weight rating and a healthy safety margin to avoid roadside breakdowns.

Trailers often live a miserable life. They're literally ridden hard and then put away until needed again. Waxing the tow vehicle actually isn't as important as checking the trailer's wheel bearings and brakes, for example. Many simply deal with the seemingly inevitable lighting failures, if they even check the lights, and then give the tires a visual pressure check before departing, hoping that things will hold together for yet another trip. Not the best recipe for a trouble-free journey. One trailer owner even made a special tool, and a holder on the tongue for it, to use for beating the coupler's latch open and closed. It would've taken marginally longer to repair or replace the tired coupler, minimizing the risk of having the trailer come off the trailer ball.

It's one thing to use questionable or unmaintained hardware on a trail-only vehicle, then swap lies at the campfire about the consequent trail repairs. It's completely different to hit the public highways with an unsafe setup. Especially if there is a trailer involved.

Hopefully some of the hints and hardware included in this story will help make towing an easier and safer undertaking for you. Happy trailers.

If you, too, have bought numerous non-running four-wheel drives, you also know the value of a good trailer-mounted winch. This Warn Works 3700 Utility Winch can handle both steep ramps and heavy (3,700-pound) loads with its 1.9hp motor. When pulling 2,000 pounds, it uses around 180 amps and moves the 43-foot wire rope at about 11 feet per minute, which is a good speed for a controlled operation. Like regular Warn winches, it has a remote, free spool, and a brake. The latter is very handy when loading alone, needing to turn the steering and the like to make it up and down the ramps. A smaller 1,700-pound version is also available, and both are part of the Warn Works line.

Sources

Valley Industries
Lodi, CA 95240
209-368-8881
valleyindustries.com
Mac's
Sagle, ID 83860
866-371-5175
www.macscustomtiedowns.com
Warn Industries
Clackamas, OR 97015
800-543-9276
www.warn.com
Roadmaster
Vancouver, WA 98682
800-669-9690
http://www.roadmasterinc.com
Sherline Products
Vista, CA 92081
800-541-0735
http://www.sherline.com

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