Tips And Techniques For How to Tow Safely

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A guide to towing a caravan or trailer: everything you need to know

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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.

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Preparing to Tow

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.

Know All the Weights

When it comes to calculating weights, there are a few figures to keep in mind:

  • The practical towing rating of your vehicle when loaded up
  • The weight of the trailer or caravan
  • The permissible tongue weight
  • The weight limitations of all your hitch components

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.

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When and How to Connect Everything

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.

Test the Brakes Thoroughly

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.

How to Drive When Towing

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:

  • The right tow vehicle. Make sure the vehicle you are using can cope with towing duties. Consider what we regard as the best SUVs for towing heavy loads; examples include the Ford Expedition and Chevrolet Tahoe. There is an entire list of the best trucks for towing too, such as the Ram 1500 and Ford F-150 pickup trucks. Make sure both the vehicle and trailer's tires are inflated to the recommended pressures. Don't forget the spare wheels! Ensure you have a full tank and it doesn't hurt to have it serviced shortly beforehand. At the very least, if you are using an old RWD vehicle, ensure the driveshaft bearings and U-joints are serviced.
  • Laws and rules. Make sure you are familiar with the laws and regulations surrounding towing in the state you reside in, as well as the state you are traveling to. For example, in California, motorists towing a trailer must drive in the far-righthand lane. In other states, a towed vehicle may not carry a passenger, while other states require a fire extinguisher to be carried on the trailer itself. A final example is that special permits may be required for unregistered vehicles being towed, so make sure you know the law for your relevant state.
  • Speed. A sensible towing rule is to drive as slowly as possible and only as fast as necessary. Depending on your state, there may be lower speed limits for tow vehicles. Take it easy, stick to the slow lane, take in the scenery, and brake early - remember, there is a lot more weight to bring to a stop, so you'll need to react sooner than you usually do. Being alert is vital; avoid distractions when towing, because your usual reaction time will not be enough if something goes wrong and you're hauling a heavy load.
  • Handling. Remember that the vehicle-and-trailer combination is longer than normal now, so swing wide when turning to leave space for the rig to follow on the inside of the turn. Acceleration, braking, and handling are impaired while towing, too, so keep ample following distances. Rear-wheel-drive and AWD/4WD vehicles offer better traction on loose surfaces, so these are your best bet for towing over adverse weather conditions.
  • Planning. Plan your exit when parking and avoid reversing whenever possible. Make allowances for turning and maneuvering in advance, so you don't get stuck down a dead end. Practice backing up beforehand, so you can get used to the trailer's reactions. Remember, when a low car tows a trailer that is high, you can see very little behind you.
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How to Reverse 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.

Conclusion

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.

FAQs

Can my car overheat when I tow?

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.

What should I do when my trailer starts to sway?

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.

How should I load my trailer?

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.

What should I check at roadside stops?

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.

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