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Towing and Trailer 101: A Look At Some Towing Basics

Posted in How To on October 1, 2011
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Towing is serious business. It doesn’t matter whether you’re pulling a small, single-axle 5x10-foot open utility trailer with a couple of new axles strapped to the floor, a 30-foot dual-axle travel trailer, or a 40-foot triple-axle gooseneck enclosed trailer with your trail rig tucked inside, towing needs to be approached with a “safety first” mindset. Not only may your health depend on it, the health of someone else may depend on it, too. You may have excellent driving skills, but how you configure and maintain your trailer could determine the result when a situation out of your control arises, like if a vehicle cuts you off in traffic or a texting pedestrian wanders into your path.

Towing is pretty standard fare for those of us who like to spend time in the backcountry. When basic safety guidelines are followed things go a lot smoother with less drama. We drove this truck and trailer from Los Angeles to Moab, Utah, (through a snowstorm) with no problems. This photo was taken during a safety stop to check the truck and trailer.

Each towing situation is different and depends on the type, size, and overall weight of the trailer. For example, towing an open trailer offers better visibility than an enclosed trailer. And bumper towing creates challenges not inherent to fifth-wheel/gooseneck towing due to the placement of the hitch weight on very tail of the tow rig, whereas a fifth-wheel/gooseneck trailer’s hitch weight is distributed more evenly on the tow rig due to its forward location.

Even though towing situations vary, there are basic rules and tips to make the towing experience safer and trouble-free. What follows are some trailering basics. Think of it as “Trailering 101.” It’s important to note that your local and state laws may determine how and what you tow. Further, the overall weight of what you tow may require you to get a special endorsement on your driver’s license. Ultimately, it’s your responsibility to contact your local and state government to find out exactly what’s required of you before you tow.

Towing off-highway presents challenges not found on the paved road. The terrain tends to offer less traction for one thing, so it’s a good idea to slow down.

Before your trailer wheels even start rolling there are a few things you need to check. First, make sure your load doesn’t exceed the maximum rated capacity of the trailer. Trailers have a gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) or trailer weight rating, and it’s usually found on the manufacturer’s plate on the trailer. Overloading can damage the trailer and/or cause unsafe towing characteristics. Additionally, if something bad were to happen while towing an overloaded trailer you could find yourself in a bad way in court, and nobody wants that. Also make sure that the trailer doesn’t exceed your vehicles maximum tow rating. Your vehicles tow rating is often found on the vehicle ID sticker on the inside of the driver-side door jamb. Among other things, it provides the GVWR, how much weight each axle can carry, and proper tire pressure. Also ensure that your trailer doesn’t exceed your vehicle’s hitch capacity. Trailer hitches are rated by class and each has a maximum rating. It’s also important to make sure the tongue weight is within spec. Tongue weight is the amount of weight the trailer and its load will put on the hitch. Hitches have a maximum tongue weight. As a general rule, manufacturers say that tongue weight should be 10 to 15 percent of the gross trailer weight. The trailer load should have a slight weight-forward bias and be balanced from side-to-side. The load should also be kept low for a low center of gravity. Also ensure that the load is securely fastened to the trailer. If you have to mash the brakes that load will want to continue to travel forward. If it’s not securely fastened it could end up in the tow rig with you. An improperly fastened load can also shift when turning and it could result in a rollover. And speaking of brakes, if the trailer and its load exceed 1,000 pounds the trailer should have its own brake system. If your trailer has its own brake system, test it before each trip to make sure its operating correctly. Don’t even think of pulling your electric- or surge-brake-equipped trailer if they’re not working. Always use safety chains and ensure that they have enough slack for sharp turns. Inspect your tires to ensure they have no deformities or damage and physically check each tires pressure. There’s no way to accurately determine a tire’s air pressure by visual means or by kicking the tire. You must use a tire pressure gauge. Finally, make sure your rig is equipped with outside rear view mirrors that allow you to clearly see your trailer.

Most vehicles have an ID tag on the inside of the door. Our Power Wagon’s tag shows us the GVWR as well as the GAWR of the rig with its specific tires, wheels, and tire pressure.
PhotosView Slideshow

On the Road
Smooth and steady is the name of the game when pulling a trailer. Accelerate slow and smooth and avoid sudden moves that may cause the trailer to sway (yaw) side-to-side. Look far down the road to identify any hazards so you have more time to react. Remember, your braking distances increase when pulling a trailer. This means that leaving more space between your rig and the vehicle in front of you is important. If you have to pass another vehicle, remember that your rigs acceleration is probably going to be less than you’re used to, so make sure there’s plenty of passing room and that includes planning for the space you’re going to need to merge your tow rig and trailer in front of the vehicle you just passed. And speaking of performance, if your rig has an automatic transmission with Overdrive, use the Trailer Tow setting. This setting can help increase fuel mileage, decrease wear and tear on the transmission, and help with engine braking on downgrades. And speaking of downgrades, don’t ride the brakes because they’ll overheat and fade. Use a lower transmission gear to take advantage of engine braking. When parking your rig, try to avoid grades, but if you must park on a grade make sure to apply your tow rigs parking brake and chock the trailer tires. When backing your rig don’t be shy about asking for a spotter. You know how valuable they are on the trail and they’re just as useful to make sure you don’t back into something with your trailer. Remember that as you back your tow rig and trailer your rig may not be straight and this means there’s more chance of hitting something. Make sure you have a clear view of your spotter and you’ve agreed upon signals in advance. Finally, during your trip check your tires, lights, hitch, and cargo tie downs often.

Smooth and steady is a good rule of thumb when towing. Leave plenty of room between your rig and the rig in front of you in case they stop suddenly.

In Conclusion
Recently, we were traveling across a near-desolate section of Wyoming and found ourselves behind a box truck pulling a dual-axle car trailer. The two passenger-side tires had blown on the trailer, but the driver of the truck didn’t know it because he was unable to see the trailer due to improper outside rearview mirrors. He was oblivious to the situation and had apparently driven quite a distance after the blowouts because the two tires were completely gone and the trailer was riding on the wheels, which were red-hot and showering sparks. And just the other day we helped a driver after their utility trailer detached from the tow rig due to improper coupling. Both of these situations could’ve been avoided if proper towing etiquette had been applied.

Before you tow, make sure that the trailer is properly fastened to the hitch, the electrical connection is firmly attached, and the trailer safety chains are attached. Here you can see a gooseneck trailer that’s properly connected and ready to go.

Towing is serious business, so before you get hitched, put safety first.

What Does Your Rig Weigh?
You need to know what your rig weighs, but how do you get that information? The answer is to utilize one of the many public scales available. They can be found at many truck stops and some agriculture supply distributors and the cost is usually minimal. You can weigh the tow rig and trailer separately or together. Either way, you’ll know exactly what your rig weighs, and that’s an important piece of information to know.

Trailers have a manufacturer tag and it tells you what you need to know about how much the trailer can carry. This dual-axle trailer is capable of 7,000 pounds per axle for a GVWR of 14,000 pounds on the listed size of tires and wheels.

Towing Glossary
Here’s some basic trailer towing terminology.
Adjustable ball mount: A hitch that has the ability for the ball to be raised or lowered to compensate for vehicle height and trailer “squat.”
Brake controller: The device used to activate the electric brakes on a trailer.
Breakaway switch: A safety device that automatically activates the trailer brakes should the trailer separate from the tow vehicle.
Bumper pull: Term referring to towing a trailer with a rear-mounted hitch system.
Coupler: The part of a trailer A-frame that attaches to the hitch ball.
Equalizing hitch: A hitch that utilizes spring bars placed under tension to distribute a portion of the trailer’s hitch weight to the tow vehicle’s front axle and the trailer’s axles.
Fifth-wheel trailers: Trailers coupled to a special hitch that is mounted over the rear axle.
GAWR (gross axle weight rating): Maximum allowable weight that an axle is designed to carry.
GCWR (gross combination weight rating): Maximum allowable weight of the combination of tow vehicle and trailer.
GTWR (gross trailer weight rating): Maximum allowable weight of a trailer.
GVWR (gross vehicle weight rating): Maximum allowable weight of a vehicle.
Hitch: The unit that joins the tow vehicle to the trailer.
Hitch weight: Downward force exerted on the hitch ball by the trailer coupler. Also called tongue weight.
Jacknife: When a tow rig and trailer surpass a 90-degree angle, often resulting in contact between the two.
Receiver: The portion of a hitch that receives the hitch ball and mount.
Safety chains: A set of chains attached to the trailer and tow vehicle to keep the trailer attached to the tow vehicle in case of hitch failure.
Tow rating: The manufacturer’s maximum tow rating for a vehicle.

Whenever you hook to a trailer for the first time it’s a good idea to back at an angle with a spotter to make sure that the safety chains have enough slack so they won’t bind.

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