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Towing and Trailer 101: A Look At Some Towing Basics

Ford Super Duty Towing
Ken Brubaker
| Senior Editor, Four Wheeler
Posted October 1, 2011

Gettin’ Hitched

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.

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.

Pre-trip
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.

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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.

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