Responsible trailering is much more than just locking hitch to tow ball

By Bruce W. Smith / ©2007 Editorial Services West

Towing a boat, RV trailer, ATVs, or piece of equipment appears to be a very simple task to those who have seen trailers behind pickups and SUVs.Smith MiscTowing064

But perception isn’t reality. To tow in a safe and prudent manner takes a certain level of learned skill and an innate understanding of how that extra burden behind the towing vehicle brings with it changes in vehicle handling.

On the other hand, learning to tow is not an overly difficult skill to master. It just takes a little patience and common sense.

Here’re ten tips to help ensure that your towing experience is a positive and safe one.

1)      The Check List

Just as veteran pilots run through a checklist before they roll out to the runway, one experienced in towing trailers does the same thing. The idea here is to avoid being on the road and begin wondering if the trailer’s brake lights work, or if the tie-down straps are cinched and the lock is in the hitch latch. You should know all those things and then some, before you put the truck in gear.  Your checklist should include such things as making sure all lights work properly; the hitchball is secure; the trailer jack is raised and locked in place; the coupler is secure and pinned with a lock; all lug nuts are tight; tire pressures at the proper levels; the trailer’s emergency brake cable (or breakaway cable) is connected to the tow vehicle; and the safety chains are hooked up and secure.Smith Pintle Hitch Towing

2)      Be A Weight Watcher

Too many towing trailers forget to check the weights of the trailer and towing vehicle before setting out on a trip. The consequences of disregarding trailer and towed weight can be legally devastating.  As the driver of the towing vehicle, it’s your responsibility to make sure the vehicle and trailer are within the vehicle/trailer manufacturer’s weight and setup guidelines or you are libel for anything that happens while in transit. Think about that for a moment.  There are four weight ratings you need to be aware of when towing: Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR); Gross Axle Weight Rating (GAWR); Trailer Weight Allowance (TWA); and Gross Combined Weight Rating (GCWR). None of them should be taken for granted—especially when the trailered load is in excess of 5,000 pounds. Each rating is fully explained in the vehicle’s owner manual. Read it. And pay particular attention to the part on the TWA and what is required when towing trailers in excess of 5,000 pounds. (See Dodge 2010 Towing Specs, for example) You’ll find on most pickups a “weight-distributing hitch” is required when trailer weights exceed 5,000 pounds. (Note: A pintle-type hitch is not a WD nitch!) Tow without one and you’re a prime target for a lawsuit should there be an accident and someone gets hurt of killed.  To determine exact weight, its best to take the tow vehicle and trailer, fully loaded, to a public scale. Weigh each vehicle separately to get the needed weights. This may sound like a lot of work, but its the best way to know if you are within safe tolerances.

3)       Practice

Undoubtedly the your first driving experiences were under an experienced driver’s tutelage, and you likely did it on some out of the way road where there was no traffic. That same principle should hold true when it comes to towing for the first time. Practice in a safe, open location with someone there to give you driving tips. Find an empty parking lot and set up a few empty buckets or safety cones to serve as markers to drive around and to park between. Practice turning around them, maneuvering between them and, most importantly, backing up along them. Such practice sessions will be time well spent and make towing the trailer in the real world a lot less stressful the first coupe times out.

4)       Hands Down

Backing a trailer is perhaps the most difficult part of towing to master. Yet, once you learn this art it becomes second nature and, in tme, you don’t even have to think the process through. Initially, however, you’ll find it easier to put your hand at the bottom of the steering wheel and keep your head  forward using the side mirrors to see where the trailer is going. Your hands positioned at the bottom of the steering wheel allow you to think simply: Trailer left, move hand left. Trailer right, move hand right.

5)      The Art of Turning

Every time you hitch a trailer to a vehicle, the normal driving characteristics of that vehicle change. The added length, width and weight of a trailer in tow affect turning, acceleration, passing, stopping and practically every other facet of driving. You will need to compensate for these changes by developing different driving habits. Turning is the biggest challenge. Trailers, especially those with multiple axles, have a tighter turning radius than that of the tow vehicle. Therefore, develop the driving habit of always making wider than normal turns.

6)       Power Loss

A trailer coupled to the towing vehicle results in another trait that needs to be compensated for: slower acceleration and braking. The added weight significantly slows down the tow vehicle’s acceleration and increases stopping distance. So compensate accordingly. You have to allow a lot more time when merging and passing. He same applies to braking or stopping; give yourself at least three times the distance as you did when not towing. The biggest attribute to being a good tow vehicle driver is patience.

7)       Give Space

Never forget the overall length of our “vehicle” has greatly increased when a trailer is attached. Even if you’re towing a small trailer, your combined length is likely more that double what it is when not towing. For instance, regardless of your speed, it will take you at least twice as long to pass another vehicle because vehicle and trailer is physically twice as long (or longer) as it wold be without trailer. That’s not even taking into consideration the added weigh, which affects acceleration.  The added length of the trailer also requires being cognizant of not cutting other vehicles off when pulling in front of them. To help in that regard, flash your lights on and off to indicate you’re wanting to pull back in front of someone. If you are “clear,” they usually flash their lights to let you know it’s safe.

8)       Braking Concerns

The added weight of several thousand pounds in motion can dramatically increase the distance it takes a tow vehicle to stop. Granted, trailers weiging more than 3,000 pounds are required by law to come equipped with their own set of brakes, but that doesn’t mean . the tow vehicle/trailer combo is going to stop the same as the tow vehicle’s driven sans trailer. Drive accordingly. Check the traffic way ahead of you s there’s plenty of time to take action and stop in time. The easiest way to be safe is to drive slower and put greater distance between you and the traffic ahead. It’s recommended you leave a minimum of one length of your car/trailer combination between the nearest vehicles ahead for every 10 mph.

9)       Trailer Mirrors

It’s difficult to tow safely if you can’t see what’s behind. If the tow vehicle you’re driving doesn’t have mirrors that extend out enough to have a clear view down the side of the trailer, get better mirrors. Stp by an RV store or trailering center to get good mirrors. Small circular convex mirrors that can be attached to your existing mirrors will help eliminate blind spots. However, larger mirrors that extend farther out from the vehicle provide a better view of what’s behind you.

10)   Trailer Control

The most dangerous thing to happen while towing is the trailer starting to sway from side-to-side. In worst case scenarios, trailer sway can force the tow vehicle out of control and cause a serious accident.  If the trailer begins to sway, or “fish tail” from side to side, the first thing to do is lift your foot off the accelerator and let the vehicle slow down. Don’t slam on the brakes. Don’t get in a panic. If you have electric trailer brakes, lightly apply them using the brake lever on the trailer control, not the tow vehicle’s brakes. One of the primry causes for trailerswya is too much of the trailers load being located on the rear of the trailer. Rearrange the load so more of the weight in on the trailer tonque/hitch and try again. (The owner’s manual recommends 10-15% of the weight of the trailered load be on the hitch.)

(Bruce Smith is the author of “The Complete Guide To Trailering Your Boat” and is a respected automotive towing expert.)