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Disaster Avoidance with Flat-Towing Basics

Posted in How To: Tech Qa on April 1, 2016
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We can’t come up with one overarching manual on flat-towing that covers every specific vehicle on the planet. There are just too many drivetrain, steering, electrical, and other related variables, and what may work for one vehicle may completely destroy the running gear of another. That said, what we can do is provide some tips and tricks we’ve learned along the way to get you started or help you sort out flat-towing issues you may be having and make sure your toad, or towee, stays behind your tow rig until you disconnect it.

Steering
For starters, if your vehicle darts all over the road or suffers from death wobble when you’re driving it, the same thing will happen when you hook it to a tow bar. Make sure your alignment is good enough to where your rig tracks straight and true with you behind the wheel before you try sending it down the road with no occupants. Also, when flat-towing, you need to have the steering wheel unlocked so the front tires can follow the tow vehicle through turns. For most modern vehicles this will mean leaving the key in the ignition in the “Run” position, which will also mean hooking up some sort of way to kill the electrical system so the battery doesn’t fully discharge before you get there. On older rigs with somewhat poor return-to-center, a bungee cord stretched from the bottom of the steering wheel to the brake pedal can help prevent the steering from locking fully to one side or the other.

Electrical
There are fancy lever-operated and latch-type disconnects for your towed vehicle’s electrical system, but we just run marine-type battery terminals. It’s quick and easy to unfasten the wing nut and pull the Positive cable before towing. As for lights, there are cheapie magnetic-base lights you can attach to the vehicle being flat-towed, but if you’re a frequent flat-tower, it’s much easier to wire into your toad’s existing lighting system. For modern JK Wranglers we highly recommend grabbing a flat-tow harness from your local dealership since the modern CAN-bus system can have issues with back-feeding to the dash and other interior lights. For older rigs, adding a one-way diode into the rear light wiring will keep the system from feeding back into the tow vehicle, from one side of the toad lighting to another or into the toad’s electrical system. Still, some just add new bulbs into the existing taillight housings. Just log into etrailer.com and browse your options. Finally, you can buy magnetic “stick on” towing lights as long as you have a flat space on your toad to mount them. However the long cords tangle when you store them and we’re always worried they’re going to fall off.

Connection
Whether you’re adding bolt-on hitch mounts, front tow shackles, or tapping into your off-road bumper’s existing clevis attachment points, you need to ensure your tow vehicle and toad won’t part ways. A good, quality towbar bracket with Grade 5 (minimum) mounting hardware and safety chain with a solid attachment point is must-haves. If you’re adding brackets, we tend not to rely solely on welding alone. As an example, we use a quality, USA-made towbar and attachment brackets on the stock front bumper of our YJ. The brackets are both welded and bolted to the bumper, with large heavy-gauge washers on the back side. We also run our tow hitch chain through the front shackle so in the unlikely event the whole front bumper comes unattached (or our towbar fails) our vehicle is still solidly connected to the tow rig. Finally, you want to pay close attention to the angle of the towbar. Ideally, it will be flat or as close to flat as you can get it. There are a variety of different drop hitches to raise or lower the attachment point depending on how tall your toad is and to where the towbar attaches.

Drivetrain Considerations
Ideally, you’d have nothing in your drivetrain spinning as you go down the road. However, unless you have an older vehicle that’s been outfitted with front and rear locking hubs, that’s not really happening. You’ll need to check your owner’s manual to confirm, but for almost every 4x4, you want the transmission in Park (if automatic) or in gear (manual) to prevent the transmission internals from spinning. There’s no freespin lubrication in most transmissions and leaving them in Neutral while flat-towing is a recipe for disaster. With the transmission in Park (auto) or First gear (manual), put the T-case in Neutral. This will allow both front and rear driveshafts to spin. Most T-cases with a Neutral option will lubricate with the front and rear output shafts spinning. Most driveshaft manufacturers recommend disconnecting your driveshafts at the axle and hanging them up out of the way. That’s the surest, yet most labor-intensive, way of preventing any drivetrain issues. We just leave ours connected and make sure the driveshaft U-joints are well lubed.

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