Towing a trailer for the first time is intimidating. Anyone who tries to tell you differently has forgotten his first hours towing a trailer when his heart seemed to stay in the throat and sweaty palms made it impossible to grip the steering wheel any tighter.
Like any new experience that involves risks to body and property, there's a certain fear factor that comes with attaching trailer hitch to tow ball. But such anxiety disappears quickly after one understands the basics of towing and gains a little experience. The key is to focus on how your own tow vehicle and trailer react as a package--and making changes in your driving style and habits accordingly.
Initially, this is anything but intuitive, but eventually you'll get the feel for how the trailer affects your tow vehicle's acceleration, braking, and steering; the line the trailer's wheels take as you round a corner; how the tow vehicle and trailer react going over bumps and dips in the road or to a sudden gust of wind; how quickly the trailer reacts to changes in steering while backing up; even how sharply you can turn before the trailer tongue puts a crease in your tow vehicle's bumper or bodywork.
With practice, you'll develop a feel for all these things, and just like driving a vehicle without a trailer in tow, it will become intuitive.
RIGHT TOW VEHICLE
The most critical aspect of towing any trailer is having the right tow vehicle. Just because your F-150 can get a loaded 30-foot toy hauler moving doesn't mean it's the right vehicle for the job.
Towing in a safe and sane manner requires knowing a couple of numbers and reading the tow vehicle's owner's manual. For instance, you need to make sure the trailered weight doesn't exceed the vehicle's maximum tongue weight or maximum weight-carrying capacity unless your tow vehicle is equipped with a weight-distributing hitch, sway control device, or both as stated in the vehicle owner's manual.
Tongue weight is the downforce the trailer applies to the back of the tow vehicle--and that force should never be more than 15 percent of the loaded trailer's weight. Weight-carrying is the conventional towing mode most often seen when towing a boat, utility, or ATV trailer attached directly to the ball/shank coming out of the hitch. Weight-distributing (W-D) mode is when the trailer is attached to a special hitch assembly that utilizes tension bars and adjusting chains like those commonly used on travel trailers.
Read the owner's manual and you'll find all Toyota pickups and SUVs require the use of an anti-sway control device on trailers weighing more than 2000 pounds (trailer/cargo). Ford F-150s require the use of a weight-distribution hitch on trailers weighing more than 5000 pounds, as do all half-ton Dodge, Nissan, and GM pickups.
THE TOWING SETUP
Before hooking trailer to tow vehicle, walk around each to check that they're fit for the road. Make sure the tires are inflated correctly (look in the owner's manual for tow-vehicle tire pressures, on the tire sidewalls for the trailer), and that hoses, belts, fluid levels, trailer spring hangers, and springs are in good shape. All cargo and gear must be stored securely.
Make sure hitch, drawbar, and trailer ball are the proper ones for the trailer you're about to tow--and that all are tight. The size of the required ball is stamped into the body of the trailer coupler and the ball itself has its size stamped into the top.
This will take less than 10 minutes and can eliminate the vast majority of trailer problems that occur on the highway.
Drop the trailer onto the hitch ball, then lock the trailer coupler lever and place a locking pin or other bolt through the lever to keep it from accidentally popping open while you're driving. Attach the safety chains by crossing them under the coupler and hooking them onto the hitch loops in the proper orientation. Then attach the breakaway brake cable to the hitch.
Step back and observe the tow vehicle and trailer from the side: The trailer should sit parallel with the ground (or ever so slightly tongue low) and in line with the chassis of the tow vehicle.
If the trailer tongue is too high or too low, the load on/in the trailer may be too far forward or rearward, which will adversely affect how the trailer tows. Move the weight on the trailer until the level balance is achieved, adjust the spring bars on the W-D hitch to better balance the load, or change the hitch shank to one that brings the tow vehicle/trailer into proper alignment.
Insert the plug on the trailer harness into the receptacle on the tow vehicle. Test the turn signals and brake lights to make sure they're working on the trailer. When trailer and tow vehicle are properly set up, adjust the mirrors so you see down the entire length of the trailer.
BASIC ROAD RULES
Towing on the open road is easy when the tow vehicle and trailer are well matched and set up, which also makes it easy to find yourself driving at the same speeds you would without a trailer. Bad move.
One aspect of towing that you must constantly be aware of is the dramatic difference in vehicle acceleration and stopping caused by the added weight of the trailer. For example, a full-size, four-door pickup going 60 mph (88 feet per second) typically stops in about 150 feet in an emergency braking situation on dry pavement.
Add a 4500-pound trailer package to the equation and that distance can easily be 220 feet--a difference of 70 feet or 47 percent. If a vehicle stops suddenly in front of you or a deer enters the roadway, 70 feet will make a big difference in whether you can stop in time.
As a guide to safe speeds, apply the four-second towing rule--leave at least four seconds between your vehicle and the one ahead at whatever speed you're driving, when road conditions are good. Leave six seconds of distance when conditions are bad.
Acceleration is also affected by the additional weight of a trailer. It takes almost twice as long for a vehicle towing a medium-size boat or tow hauler to accelerate from zero to 60 mph, or from 30 to 50 mph, than it does without a tow.
Towing requires undivided driver attention. That means turn off the cell-phone, quit fiddling with the navigation system and stereo, and do not be involved in any other activity other than concentrating on the road ahead and your immediate surroundings. You have to constantly be thinking a good half-mile ahead when towing any trailer.
The biggest challenge when towing for the first time is changing driving style. Slow down and be attentive to your surroundings and people sharing the road. Do that and you'll find towing trailers is actually easy--even for a first-timer.
|Minimum Safe Following Distance |
|SPEED||DISTANCE TRAVELED PER SECOND||DRY PAVEMENT (4 SEC)||MARGINAL CONDITIONS (6 SEC)|
|25 mph|| 37 feet|| 148 feet|| 222 feet |
|35 mph|| 52 feet|| 208 feet|| 312 feet|
|45 mph|| 66 feet|| 64 feet|| 396 feet|
|55 mph|| 81 feet|| 24 feet|| 486 feet|
|60 mph|| 88 feet|| 352 feet|| 528 feet|
|65 mph|| 97 feet|| 384 feet|| 576 feet|
The Legal Side
Having your tow vehicle properly equipped is the biggest factor in towing safely. It's also the biggest factor in avoiding serious legal and possible financial woes: Failure to have your vehicle and trailer properly equipped places you at great liability risk in the event of an accident where injuries occurred under what the legal system calls the Law of Negligence.
If the vehicle's owner's manual uses words such as "requires," "must have," or "not to exceed" in describing certain weights, limitations, and driving instructions related to towing and you ignore those caveats/instructions, you could be held liable for damages in a lawsuit brought against you by the injured party.
Towing Speed and Fuel Economy
Safety isn't the only good reason to slow down. Your wallet will appreciate it, too. According to the EPA, tests designed to imitate highway driving reveal that 54 percent of a tow vehicle's engine power is used to overcome aerodynamic drag. If you drive faster, the engine has to work even harder to push through the air, and it consumes more fuel doing so. A good example of how drag affects fuel economy is a truck that has an 18-mpg highway EPA number, which is based roughly on 65-mph speeds. Drive 70 and drag causes that fuel economy to fall about 1.5 mpg. Run at 75 and your mileage could drop another 1.5 mpg.
Put a trailer on the hitch ball and now fuel economy and drag play a bigger role. When the gross weight of the trailer is more than half the weight of the tow vehicle, the added weight and surface area moving through the wind can easily reduce your tow vehicle's fuel economy by 40 percent. As trailer weight goes up, fuel economy drops even further. If your tow vehicle gets 17 mpg at 70 mph in everyday use, it may get only 12 mpg with a small travel trailer or tow hauler in tow. Slow down to 60 mph and that mileage could easily jump two mpg.
Trailer towing isn't a race. Any time a trailer is in tow, slow down. This is especially important when backing one up: The slower you back up a trailer, the easier it is to control.
Here's a good trailer-backing tip: Place your hands at the 5 o'clock and 7 o'clock positions at the bottom of the steering wheel. This hand positioning makes controlling a trailer while backing up the least taxing on your brain. Use the side mirrors to watch the trailer--don't twist your neck into a chiropractor's dream.
When you want the back of the trailer to move to your left, just move the left hand up. Need the trailer to go right? Move the right hand up. Don't worry how it works; the less you dwell on the mechanics of controlling a trailer while backing up, the faster you'll learn the art.
Expert Towing Tips
Want to impress those at a boat ramp or campground with your trailering prowess? You may already do these things, but if not, they make short work in getting your trailer squared away in the shortest time possible.
If you're bringing a boat/trailer to the launch ramp or trying to park a toy hauler or RV trailer in a tight parking area, swing as close and parallel to the water's edge or opening as you can. As the back of the tow vehicle passes the ramp opening or parking space, immediately turn up the ramp like you are trying to make a sharp U-turn. Continue the turn in a tight S-pattern. As your tow vehicle turns back in the opposite direction, watch how quickly the trailer straightens, putting you in line with the ramp or parking space.
When you need to adjust the spring bars on a weight-distributing (equalizing) hitch, use the trailer's wheel jack to position tow vehicle and trailer so they sit level. Now adjust the links in the adjusting chains and lock the spring bars in place. When the wheel jack is cranked back up, the spring bars take the weight, and you didn't have to fight the load tension.
There are several "backing aids" to help align the tow ball and couple. One of course is a rearview camera positioned so you can see the trailer ball and vehicle bumper. Many vehicle manufacturers offer these as options, or you can purchase them separately from an aftermarket source, such as Rostra Precision Controls (www.rostra.com), and install a system yourself.
Other backing aids are more basic mechanical devices such as the DuraSafe Couple-Mate (www.durasafe-usa.com). This uses angled metal plates that bolt to the hitch and forces the trailer coupler to position itself right over the hitch ball as the tow vehicle backs up the last few inches to the trailer.