A guide to towing a caravan or trailer: everything you need to know
Who doesn't love a good vacation? If you're the type who loves hitching the boat and trailer for a weekend at the lake, or hauling your dirt bikes and ATVs to the track, you'll know how important it is to have some knowledge of towing safely. Towing isn't as easy as simply hooking up a trailer or caravan behind your pickup and taking off. Using a trailer requires planning, checks and balances, and a good awareness of what your vehicle can and can't cope with. This concise towing guide aims to help make the whole process as painless as possible.
It all starts with planning, and here it is important to first ensure that both your vehicle and trailer are serviced, roadworthy, and properly prepared. If you're new at towing, it's a good idea to rent a trailer and practice with it, following the towing instructions below. You should also know what your tow vehicle and trailer's ratings are - you should never exceed the weight limit specified. The owner's manual should have all this information clearly stipulated for your convenience.
When it comes to calculating weights, there are a few figures to keep in mind:
Your practical limit is lower than the vehicle's maximum because you'll be adding weight, like passengers and cargo. As for the trailer/caravan, look at its gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR), which may be higher than the tow rating of your vehicle. The tongue weight is usually no more than 10% of this figure, while the three hitch components - the receiver, ball mount, and trailer ball - should all be stamped with all with their weight limits. There are five hitch classes based on all of these capacities, ranging from Class I (light duty - 2,000 lbs) through to Class V (heaviest duty - 20,000 lbs). Remember, heavier loads require specialized equipment. So ask yourself what the correct towing device is for your needs - will a simple hitch do for your trailer, or will you be using a tow bar to haul another vehicle? If you're planning to tow a large family camper, you'll need a 5th-wheel or gooseneck connection.
If you're ready to proceed and hook up the towing vehicle and trailer, do so without loading the trailer first. Figuring out how to hitch it is not too difficult - use the hand crank on the trailer to raise the level of the hitch to be a little higher than the ball hitch on the back of your car. A weight-distribution shank is available should you need it. A shank and spring bars are special weight-distribution hitches that are available to compensate for the height of a low or high trailer and ensure even weight distribution, so check whether you need these attachment accessories beforehand - it's an easy DIY job to fit them.
The next step is to chock the trailer's wheels, then line your vehicle up with the trailer - backup cameras help but it's always best to have someone help direct you. Make sure the trailer hitch is unlocked, and position it above the receiver hitch before lowering it securely. Secure the supplied lock or pin so it can't become unhitched, and hook up the available safety chains from the trailer to your vehicle, too - twist the chains to shorten them if needed. Lift the trailer's guiding wheel and secure it to the neck of the trailer.
Next, make sure your electrical connections match - it's imperative that all signaling systems are fully operational. Test the trailer's brake lights, regular running lights, and turn signals, as well as adjusting your mirrors appropriately before driving off.
Light trailers don't have built-in trailer brakes but heavy ones are required to. Electrical trailer brakes get their signal from your vehicle, while surge brakes operate automatically, in response to the hitch compressing under braking. It is imperative that you ensure they are working, whichever type you may have, and the tow vehicle's brakes must be in top condition, too.
Driving while hauling a load can be dangerous if you don't know what you're doing. Whether you've done it a few times or are new to the experience, take heed of these tips on how to drive when towing:
There are many useful tips for backing up. The first thing to know about how to reverse a trailer is that this is best done with a spotter - slowly and carefully. Remember that the trailer will do the opposite of what your car is doing, so turning the steering wheel to the right will make the trailer go to the left. This can be scary as it is easy for the trailer to fishtail. Practice makes perfect and you may have to straighten out and move forward a few times before trying again. As you maneuver into a spot, don't forget about the car's front corners, which you may inadvertently swing into obstacles while looking back.
Considering everything you have to keep in mind, the towing process always deserves your full concentration. It will become second nature before you know it as you learn the ropes and practice. Better to be over-cautious for safety's sake, make sure you have the right equipment, and remember the capacity of your car and trailer, as well as local laws.
If it is in good condition and you are within its tow rating, overheating is unlikely, but it can still happen on a very steep grade on a very hot day. If the gauge creeps upward, slow down until it settles. Otherwise, stop and let the engine cool for half an hour. Also remember that when doing downhill with a load hitched behind you, it is best to stay in a lower gear at a slow speed, and never riding on the brakes - this can also lead to overheating, among other potential disasters, should you lose control of the trailer.
The moment it starts, gently lift your foot off the accelerator. Don't brake, because it will make the problem worse and could result in fishtailing, which is both scary and potentially disastrous. Keep the steering straight, because steering corrections are likely to exacerbate the sway. It should stabilize as you gently slow down.
Never exceed the trailer's GVWR or the tow vehicle's rating. Distribute about 60% of the weight toward the trailer's front, but don't exceed 10% of the trailer weight on the ball mount. The idea is to keep the majority of the load weight up front near the hitch, and evenly distributed over the trailer axle, with lighter items towards the back end. Make sure everything is tied down correctly if using an open trailer.
Check your trailer and tow car over long distances, ensuring that all tow components, safety locks/pins, the safety chain, and electrical connections are tight. Check lights and tire pressures and make sure the cargo has not shifted. Secure the cargo with a strap or rope if necessary.