Hitching up a trailer and heading down the highway can be quite a daunting task. When hitching up to haul horses, cars, campers, boats or ATVs/UTVs, getting it wrong could leave you stranded – or worse. A little planning, training and practice can keep your towing from ending with inconvenience or disaster.
Towing a trailer requires adjusting your turning, braking and parking, and knowing the laws. Every state has rules and regulations for towing a trailer. We recommend checking your state’s towing laws.
When buying a trailer and tow vehicle, make sure you know the towing capacity of your vehicle. It has to be able to handle the load you intend to carry. The number you need to know is the Gross Combined Weight Rating (GCWR). This is the weight of the tow vehicle, passengers, cargo and trailer, including what’s in or on it. If the truck can tow 5,000 lbs. and you have a 4,000-lb. camper, you have to factor in everything else you’ll be hauling. For example: you plan to put an ATV in the truck bed, four adults in the cab, camping supplies in the camper and then top off the fuel tank. More than likely, you’re exceeding the GCWR.
After determining how much weight you’ll be towing and carrying, you have to choose the proper hitch. The trailer’s overall weight or Gross Trailer Weight (GTW) determines what kind of hitch is needed. There are two kinds of hitches – the fifth-wheel/gooseneck hitch or the tongue hitch. The fifth-wheel/gooseneck hitch mounts in a pickup bed. Its superior design borrows from commercial semi rigs. The tongue hitch, the most popular, comes in two types – weight carrying and weight distributing. The weight-carrying hitch carries all the weight of the trailer on the tongue, while the weight-distributing hitch transfers much of the trailer’s tongue weight through torsion bars to the tow vehicle’s frame. It handles heavier trailers and is less prone to swaying.
There are five classes or sizes of tongue hitches. It’s important to choose the correct class for your vehicle/trailering needs.
Class I 2,000-lb. GTW
Class II 3,000-lb. GTW
Class III 5,000-lb. GTW
Class IV 7,500-lb. GTW
Class V 10,000-lb. GTW
Many pickups and SUVs come with the popular Class III hitch installed. Class III hitches can handle up to 5,000 lbs. That’s usually enough to tow most campers, small- to medium-sized boats and car trailers. All hitches Class III and above have two basic parts: a receiver and a drawbar. The receiver attaches to the tow vehicle with the framework bolted or welded to the vehicle chassis. This large square tube accepts the drawbar that slides into it and has a trailer ball on the end. A pin slides through both pieces and is held with a clip. Some pins lock for an extra measure of safety and theft prevention. Drawbars come in a variety of heights to drop the ball to a lower level so the trailer rides on a level plane. Trailer balls are available in 1-7/8", 2", 2-1/4" and 2-5/16". The 2" ball is the standard and most-common size.
Many states require a separate braking system for trailers weighing more than 1,500 lbs. loaded. Electronically controlled brakes provide automatic and manual control of the trailer brakes. A control unit is mounted inside the tow vehicle. If you’ll be towing your trailer with different vehicles, you’ll probably want to use surge brakes that are hydraulically activated by a master cylinder at the junction of the hitch and trailer tongue. As you slow the vehicle, they’re automatically applied.
Most state laws require a safety breakaway switch that activates the trailer brakes if the trailer disconnects from your vehicle. Whether electric or mechanical, the breakaway switch applies the trailer brakes to stop a runaway trailer.
Safety chains are necessary in case of a hitch failure. As you can imagine, this could be a catastrophic episode if it occurred without heavy-duty chains. Connect the safety chains by crossing them under the trailer’s tongue and fastening them to the tow-vehicle chassis or hitch receiver. Use positive-latching hooks rather than S-hooks so they can’t bounce loose. Leave enough slack so the chains don’t become tight when turning sharply, but avoid leaving too much slack so they don’t drag.
Federal law requires trailers have taillights, brake lights, side-marker lights, turn signals, and side and rear reflectors. Some trailers must have backup lights. Power comes from a connector hooked into the tow-vehicle’s electrical system. Many vehicle manufacturers offer a seven-way connector that may include an electric brake signal, power supply and backup lights along with the basic lighting functions. Some tow vehicles use separate wires for turn signals and brake lights, so a taillight converter might be needed to combine these wires. Most factory-installed towing packages include a trailer wire harness to perform this function. Adapters are available for different wiring configurations for towing more than one type of trailer. As you connect your trailer to the tow vehicle, make sure the plug and receptacle are in good shape. Wiring must be routed to avoid dragging or snagging on the safety chains and so the plug stays connected while on the road. Also, the wiring must be long enough to not cause tension when turning sharply.
Loading and Weight Distribution
Loading and distributing cargo properly greatly improves handling and control. Load your trailer with about 60% of the weight on the tongue and evenly distribute cargo from side to side. Secure and brace cargo to prevent movement during travel. Most trailers and tow vehicles should be level and parallel to the ground. Check instructions from your trailer manufacturer to make sure this is correct for your combination of vehicles.
Sway controls can lessen the effects of sudden maneuvers, wind gusts and buffeting by other vehicles. They’re like shock absorbers for your trailer hitch. This is especially important for units with large surface areas, such as travel trailers. There are adjustable-friction models that can control trailers with low tongue weights.
It’s illegal to tow without mirrors that let you see down the entire length of both sides of the tow vehicle and the trailer. Check your state’s laws for specific guidelines. For wider trailers, you may need aftermarket towing mirrors that stick out far enough to see down both sides.
Before each trip, verify wiring, lights, hitch, brakes and tires are in good shape and operating properly. Adjust mirrors before taking off. Be sure the load is placed so the tow vehicle and trailer are both level.
By following the above tips you’re sure to have a safe and pleasurable towing experience. Happy towing!