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Trailering 101: What to Know Before You Tow

Posted in News: Features on August 9, 2019
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While modern trucks continue to dwarf torque and hauling figures of the past, there's definitely more to the towing equation than pulling power. No different than properly setting up your 4x4, making sure your tow rig and your trailer are safe for you and others on the road is equally important.

From choosing the right tow vehicle to how to properly strap down your trail rig, there's plenty to consider. Thinking about an off-road trailer to take on your next overland adventure? Have you considered all of your hitch options? How about tongue weight?

In this story, we'll cover some of the fundamentals of towing. We'll also break down some frequently misunderstood aspects and provide helpful tricks that have served us well over the years.

Tow Rig
There's no doubt that modern 4x4s are seriously impressive when it comes to pulling power. However, you don't want to be at the max end of your rig's capabilities. Additionally, adding on aftermarket bumpers, larger tires, and even aftermarket suspension systems can alter your tow rig's abilities. The best approach is to find out the exact weight you are towing (use a public scale) and refer to your rig's specifications to ensure that your rig is designed for that amount of weight. We recommend utilizing a tow rig that can haul well over the amount of weight you wish to tow. This will equate to less stress on the vehicle and an easier towing experience. The example shown here is a Nissan Titan with a max tow rating of 9,730 pounds towing an approximately 4,300-pound trailer.

The Right Trailer
New trailers are great, but secondhand trailers can be very alluring, as some can be picked up for half their original cost. However, you want to make certain that it's well suited for your hauling needs. Keep in mind that the trailer's weight must be calculated into the equation when looking at ratings. For example, if the trailer ID tag states that it has two 5,000 pound axles, but it weighs 2,500 pounds, it can hold a maximum of 7,500 pounds. Wood deck trailers will likely need new planks every few years. However, they are often lighter than a full-steel trailer.

Brake Controller
One of the most common standard features on new midsize and fullsize trucks optioned with a tow package is an integrated brake controller. If your 4x4 doesn't have one, without question you need to get one. Many trailers have electrically powered drum brakes, which work very well. These take command from a brake controller that's either integrated into the vehicle from the factory or mounted independently, such as the one shown. A brake controller allows you to control the output of trailer braking power, so make sure you take the time to get it correctly dialed in.

Loading Up
One of the biggest mistakes people make is too little tongue weight. Sure, getting your rig balanced on the trailer might seem logical, but too little tongue weight and your trailer can easily push around your tow rig. Too much weight on the tail of the trailer can also result in fishtailing. Both make for an incredibly dangerous situation. If your truck starts to go nose high with only 15 percent or so tongue weight, you'll likely need some sort of overload springs or airbags out back. When in doubt, a little extra tongue weight will always be safer than weight shifted to the rear of the trailer.

Strapping Down
There are a few schools of thought when it comes to strapping your 4x4 to a trailer. When possible, this author prefers to run the straps in the back straight and cross the front. We've consulted with tow truck operators and strap manufacturers, and many of them actually prefer to run the straps straight at all four corners. We carry a variety of different 4x4s which doesn't always make that possible. Most agree that axle and/or tire straps are the right way to go. This means you'll have a total of four straps securing the vehicle's axles or tires to the trailer. We tend to toss on body straps that we secure to our front and rear tow points on the trail rig, as well on longer pulls, to limit the 4x4's movement.

Hitches
Receiver hitches are rated by class and correlate to the amount they are designed to tow. Just like the receiver, the hitch you insert is just as important. Again, knowing exactly how much you're pulling will guide you in this process. We prefer adjustable hitches such as this one from Curt. It has a 2-inch and 2 5/8-inch ball with a 14,000-pound rating.

Airbags
If your truck's front end starts to go north with 15 percent of tongue weight, you'll likely need a set of helper airbags or overload springs. We prefer airbags, as there is little to no drawback when you're hauling unloaded. There are even kits that offer auto leveling, so you can take the guesswork out of leveling your 4x4.

Off-Road Trailers
There are scores of off-road trailers available nowadays, and their popularity is growing by the day, especially in the overlanding world. Custom off-road trailers are also gaining in popularity, and with cool parts such as Timbren's (timbren.com) Axle-Less suspension now available, people have been crafting their own camping and rugged trailer setups. Aside from purchasing a proper hitch, the biggest word of caution we have is to be mindful of weight. It's very easy for these seemingly compact trailers to weigh thousands of pounds fully loaded. And, keep in mind that towing off-road puts way more strain on your vehicle than just pulling it on asphalt.

Off-Road Hitches
You can't talk about off-road trailers without mentioning hitches. For anyone who has ever worked around heavy equipment, you're likely familiar with a pintle hitch. These are common and very durable for on- and off-road use. However, there are more specialized hitches, such as the Lock 'N' Roll (locknroll.com) shown here. This gives the trailer three axes to pivot, which allows the trailer to easily conform to off-road conditions. This makes for a safer towing configuration on the trail and ultimately puts less strain on your vehicle and trailer.

Photo: Courtesy of Ram

Gooseneck & Fifth-Wheel
If you're looking to get the most out of your truck's towing capacity, then a gooseneck or fifth-wheel needs to be on your upgrade list. A fifth-wheel is more common for recreational trailers and can even be a factory-installed option, such as the one shown here from Ram. By placing the trailer mounting point in the bed, you can safely increase the amount you tow over what's commonly referred to as a bumper-pull trailer. In addition to higher tow ratings, the in-bed pivot point makes for increased maneuverability.

Cooling Considerations
So long as you are towing within the manufacturer's parameters, staying out of the red shouldn't be difficult on the road. Off-road is an entirely different story. We have witnessed tow vehicles overheat many times off-road. Mixing a trail with long travel times and low speeds in the dirt can overtax a rig's cooling system. Upgrading your cooling system with an aftermarket pusher fan can be an easy first step toward combating overheating. A dedicated oil cooler is also another simple but effective investment.

Tow-Rig Prep
The same care that you take to ensure your trail rig is in good shape should be taken to get your tow rig in shape. Before every long haul we recommend completing a full checklist, including the brakes, air pressure in the tires, fluid levels, condition of the receiver, and the front end. Of the aforementioned, one of the most important things to check (and it's often overlooked) is tire air pressure. The pressure you drive with daily is most likely too low for towing. Your tire will state a maximum and minimum air pressure. You want to find a balance that's suited for your hauling needs.

Trailer Axles
For conventional single-car trailers, you'll likely find either a torsion or leaf-spring suspension. Torsion setups are generally a bit more expensive, but they offer easier packaging and less wear parts. The big thing to note with a torsion axle trailer is that they are more sensitive to uneven loads, so you'll have to ensure your trailer sits level. Leaf-spring setups are more common and a bit more user-friendly. The big downside (and common failure point) can be found at the shackles. Unlike the shackles on your 4x4, these may need to be swapped out every year or two.

Straps
For the last 10-plus years, we've almost exclusively used a strap over a chain to secure our rig. We like that they are lighter and a bit easier to work with. For an average trail rig, we recommend straps with a 10,000-pound rating (that's each strap). We also recommend keeping these properly stored when not in use, because sitting outdoors can cause them to weaken over time. Another important thing to remember is to make sure you have at least two full wraps on the strap before cinching down your load. Bonus points for strap ties or zip ties to keep the ends from flapping in the wind.

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