Subscribe to the Free
Newsletter

Towing Basics

How to choose the right vehicle and set it up

IntelliChoice
Apr 13, 2005
Trailers can add tremendous versatility to your vehicle, providing additional cargo space as needed. With the right tow package, a vehicle can pull a speed boat to the lake, snowmobiles to the mountains, an apartment-sized camping trailer across the country, or personal belongings off to college.
By virtue of the fact that you're reading this article, you're likely in the market for a new vehicle, so now is the time to consider what the next few years may bring: Are you itching to increase your recreational time? Expecting to move? Planning long-distance treks? If you currently have a specific need, such as towing a collector car, then you can aim to purchase the perfect setup for this task. Otherwise, your target vehicle should have the flexibility to cover your driving needs for both today and tomorrow. Using a trailer might allow you to buy a smaller and/or more passenger-friendly vehicle than you would otherwise need for the occasion towing duty. Is a pickup truck necessary when a small trailer could provide the same cargo capacity?
Having the right combination of vehicle, trailer, and hitch equipment is key to owner satisfaction, as well as safe towing. To help you make a well-rounded decision about vehicle shopping and for towing information in general, we consulted engineers at General Motors and DaimlerChrysler, as well as experts at National Association of Trailer Manufacturers, Putnam Hitch Products, and U-Haul.
Which vehicle should I buy?
Traditional SUVs and pickups seem like natural choices for towing, because typically they're large, strong, and powerful. But this is not always the case. Just because it's a pickup doesn't mean it can haul your motorboat. And while that SUV may have a high-horsepower V-8, its drivetrain and frame might not be able to handle a horse trailer. A minimal load probably wouldn't be a problem-even the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited has respectable light towing capabilities-but a mighty engine alone doesn't make a vehicle able to tow heavy loads. Try it without knowing exactly how much your vehicle is capable of hauling and you may find yourself with a failed transmission halfway through the trip. To ensure long, reliable, safe service, make certain your entire vehicle configuration can more than handle the challenges you plan to give it.
112 0501 Buylease S Tow Switches
  |   112 0501 Buylease S Tow Switches
Many vehicle manufacturers now offer optional factory towing packages that include wiring, large side mirrors, receiver-style hitches, and multi-ton capacity. Most importantly, such factory-prepped trucks and SUVs are beefed up internally, with enhancements including a high-capacity transmission, a transmission cooler, heavy-duty brakes, and a suspension upgrade. Many manufacturer tow packages force you to purchase the biggest engine offered in the model line. If you do have a choice, however, consider this: You may not want the largest engine and the highest axle ratio if you're only planning a few towing-inclusive trips a year and the rest of the time the truck will be your daily commuter. The penalty for over-buying will be paid both upfront at purchase time and weekly at the pump.
In addition to tow packages, other manufacturer features are available to improve your towing experience. Most common is a tow/haul mode, which commands automatic transmissions to hold the upshift longer, keeping the engine revs higher for more engine power and crisper shifts. And General Motors has a system for Chevrolet and GMC trucks called Quadrasteer, or four-wheel steering, which improves maneuverability-much appreciated when towing. Because all four wheels are turning, Quadrasteer makes the trailer combination more stable at highway speeds and decreases the turning radius when parking.
Tow ratings decoded
Trucks, SUVs, and minivans all have tow ratings to indicate how much they can pull. Whether you're using an open trailer, fifth wheel, boat trailer, or enclosed unit, this rating considers the size of a trailer, as well as its maximum loaded weight plus tongue weight (the amount of a trailer's weight that's placed on the hitch). In the alphabet soup of specifications, two codes are key to understanding abilities and limitations: GVWR and GCWR. GVWR is the gross vehicle weight rating, or the maximum a vehicle can weigh, fully loaded with people and cargo. GCWR is the gross combined weight rating, the maximum the tow vehicle and a trailer together can weigh fully loaded. These ratings are based on a vehicle's suspension, frame, and location of the rear axle in relation to the front end. So, for example, if you have a truck rated for 10,000 pounds and give it 15,000 pounds to tow, the addition weight can overtax the rear suspension to the point that the front tires are robbed of traction and stability is reduced.
You'll also notice a class rating of I, II, III, or IV. This serves as a rough guide to your vehicle's towing-weight capacity and its receiver-hitch receptacle size. Acknowledging the class rating, focus more on the trailer and the required components, such as the hitch. Knowing this information can help you not only choose the proper vehicle, but also equip it with the appropriate brake system and hitch.
Hitches and safety chains
At the end of a trailer's tongue is a coupler that secures to a vehicle's hitch ball or connector. There are a several different kinds of hitches. A gooseneck (commonly used with horse trailers) has the hitch connector located in the bed of a pickup (only pickups can run this type) in front of the rear axle, and an extended tongue that runs from the trailer up over the tail gate to the ball. Because the weight of the trailer is placed in front of the rear axle, the whole truck is weighed down rather than just the back end, eliminating wandering.
Other hitch types include the weight-distributing kind, for use with heavy trailers. These systems distribute the weight between the tow vehicle and the trailer's axles by using a set of spring bars to apply leverage. By effectively sharing the weight on all tires, keeping the vehicle relatively level, weight-distributing hitches help preserve the tow vehicle's steering and braking ability.
112 0501 Buylease S Tow Rearview Mirrors
  |   112 0501 Buylease S Tow Rearview Mirrors
There's also the more common weight-carrying breed, where the hitch supports the entire trailer tongue weight. Because the tow vehicle must bear much of the weight, these hitches are best suited to loads of less than 3,500 pounds.
A hitch can easily become the weakest link in the towing chain, so they're also rated for weight. If you're towing an 8,000-pound trailer and have a hitch rated for 2,000 pounds...well, you don't have to be a mathematician to guess the result. Be certain to get a hitch rated at the same or higher weight than any load you think you might need to carry.
Safety chains are towing must-have. They attach to the tongue and then hook onto the tow vehicle. If the trailer were to come uncoupled from the tow vehicle, the chains would prevent the tongue from hitting the ground and the trailer from getting away. Safety chains also need to be of adequate strength for the GVWR-in fact, each chain should be equal to or greater than the GVWR.
Wiring and brakes
Before you hit the road, you'll need to hook up the necessary wiring between the tow vehicle and the trailer, specifically for the turn signals, brake lights, and reverse lights. And make sure the trailer brakes work. If you have a trailer that's 15 to 18 feet long or has a loaded weight above 1,500 pounds, it may already have a brake system. If not, get one installed. It's a good safety precaution, and even a requirement in some states, along with a brake-actuating breakaway kit, which stops the trailer if it comes loose.
There are two types of brakes: surge and electric. Automatically controlled, surge systems are the most common style fitted to trailers. Electric brakes are manually operated, controlled from inside the vehicle.
Not all factory package include some heavy-duty equipment that is beneficial to heavy towing, like a transmission cooler and a stronger battery. When installing an aftermarket cooler, make certain it doesn't block the radiator.
If there's any aspect of setting up your vehicle for towing you feel uncertain about-whether it's how to load cargo (make sure it's evenly distributed and not at the rear of the trailer behind the axle, where it could cause the trailer to come uncoupled) or how to know if you're rated correctly from end to end-don't be shy about asking the equipment manufacturer for the information. If you have a factory-prepped vehicle, your local dealer should be able to advise on proper setup. Likewise, if you have the vehicle outfitted with aftermarket equipment at a specialty shop like U-Haul, they will also be happy to give your setup a brief inspection to make sure you're on the road to recreation rather than mishap.

POPULAR TRUCKS

MOST POPULAR

Subscribe Today and Save up to 83%!

Subscribe Truck Trend Magazine

Subscribe to:

Truck Trend
Magazine

PRINT DIGITAL
Subscribe Diesel Power Magazine

Subscribe to:

Diesel Power
Magazine

PRINT DIGITAL
Subscribe Truckin Magazine

Subscribe to:

Truckin
Magazine

PRINT DIGITAL
SUBSCRIBE TO A MAGAZINE
CLOSE X
BUYER'S GUIDE
SEE THE ALL NEW
NEWS, REVIEWS & SPECS