By G.R. Whale
Pickup truck owners tow for work and fun, but you never want it to become a chore. The following sequential procedures serve as a primer for those who've never towed and apply to ball-pulled recreational vehicles and boat, utility or car trailers. Before beginning, you should know your truck's gross combined weight rating (the maximum weight of a loaded tow vehicle plus its attached loaded trailer), weigh your truck (like a trailer, it will rarely weigh less than when it left the dealer), and thoroughly read your pickup's owner's manual and the manufacturer's trailering guide. Then follow these common-sense steps when trailering for the first time.
For convenience sake, we've listed the information below in easy-to-absorb bullet points. Where applicable, we've identified the numerically corresponding photo at the end of the story to more clearly emphasize the point being made. If you think you'll be towing at some point in the future, feel free to keep this handy.
Attaching the Trailer
- Check truck fluids, brake fluid if the trailer has it and tire pressure, including spares, cold. Undriven, sunny-side tires are typically 3 to 5 pounds per square inch higher than shaded.
- Install correct size and weight-class tow ball mount. If you'll be using a weight-distributing hitch, which half-tons often require for any loads more than 5,000 pounds, measure the fender height at front and rear axles. (1)
- Jack up the trailer coupler so it's higher than the tow vehicle tow ball (or lower an air-suspended Ram to entry/exit mode).
- Reverse the truck using a backup camera and/or human spotter so the tow ball is under coupler. When lined up, put the transmission in neutral and set the parking brake. (2)
- With the ball lock out of the way, lower the trailer jack until the coupler seats. Secure the latch and lock, retract the jack and rotate, lock or stow as applicable.
- Attach and install weight-distributing bars and trailer-sway controls as needed (see lead photo). Most hardware comes with good instructions; online videos can help too. (Once you've towed a while and found the most comfortable setting, mark the links for next time you use your trailer.)
- Attach the safety chains, crossed under the ball; make sure they're long enough to turn but short enough that they don't drag. (3)
- Attach a breakaway cable to the hitch or the truck, not the ball mount or the safety chain. Check to ensure it won't get cut or pinched in the hardware or when making tight turns.
- Connect the trailer's electrical plug. Check all the lights on the truck and trailer (bad trailer wiring can blow truck fuses) and make sure the controller reads "connected" for electric brakes.
- Stow trailer wheel chocks and blocks for tongue or trailer leveling jacks.
- Extend and/or adjust mirrors. You should be able to see trailer tires and the areas behind them. If your truck has seat memory settings, consider creating one setting for towing and another driving without a trailer.
- If fender height measurements have changed, adjust vertical headlight aim or you'll be lighting up trees and oncoming traffic instead of the road. Even pickups with high-intensity discharge low beams are not likely to have automatic aim adjustments like most cars. (4)
- Plan and research your route ahead of time. Some tolls, lane limits, bridges and tunnels will restrict your use with propane onboard - it may require route alterations.
On the Road
- For contemporary trucks, set info screens for trailer sway, trailer name, trailer weight and so on. Correlate onboard checklist with your own. If you don't have a transmission temperature gauge, a newer truck will likely allow you to show it in the information settings. (5)
- Set the brake controller gain. Roll to 20 to 25 mph and apply the brakes firmly. If the trailer tires lock or skid, lower the gain; if not, add gain and repeat. You want impending lockup at the trailer tires when the truck invokes its antilock braking system. Adjustments may be required as speeds increase or surface friction changes (rain, dirt roads, etc.). (6)
- For reversing, hold the steering wheel at the bottom and turn it in the direction you want the trailer to go. As the trailer pivots, move the steering wheel back toward center, or beyond, for desired trailer trajectory. Watch the area between the truck and trailer to avoid jackknifing. (7)
- Modern automatic transmissions are quite smart. Drive in D; engage Tow/Haul if your combination is 70 percent or more of GCWR.
- Look up before you leave. Most hard-side RVs and boat arches are taller than your truck and topped with easily damaged vents, antennae, speakers, air-conditioning units, etc.
- Look sideways before you leave. Many trailers are 8 feet 6 inches wide; dualie fenders are not that wide. Fully extended tow mirrors are often a good indicator of lateral fit issues. (8)
- Leave twice the normal space in front of you; that buffer zone will be welcome when some bozo cuts you off. Modern trucks have trailer-sway control built into their vehicle stability program, but antilock brakes and electronic stability control aren't on small trailers yet.
- Smooth and moderated inputs deliver the most stable, comfortable ride. Remember to turn wide as your effective wheelbase has gone from somewhere between 130 and 170 inches to beyond 300 (think of a full-size bus) with even a moderately sized trailer.
- At known summits, crest the hill no faster than you want to go down the other side. A brake tap on most current-generation Tow/Haul mode systems engages engine braking to control speed. Use service brakes in short-duration increments so they can cool in between. (9)
- Pass with lots of space. If your truck does 45 to 65 mph in four to five seconds empty, it could take as long as 12 to 15 seconds with a 7,500-pound trailer. At 60 mph that's an extra 650 to 1,000 feet just to speed up, and your vehicle has an extra 15 to 40 feet behind you to get around slower traffic.
After the Trip
- An inexpensive infrared thermometer aimed at the trailer wheels and hubs right after towing will show if any brakes are dragging or bearings need service.
- Before parking your trailer, check out tire maintenance and storage tips in the RV guide at http://www.michelinrvtires.com/michelinrv/toolbox/reference-material.jsp.
- Unhitching is essentially the reverse of latching it up. Use caution releasing the tension on weight-distribution bars.
- You seldom have to check the truck lights, but think about re-aiming any headlights you previously adjusted.
- Lubricate the tow ball, coupler recess and weight-distribution friction surfaces to minimize corrosion buildup and to have them ready to go next time. Putting dielectric grease on exposed plugs is also a good idea. (10)