You've just bought your first camper, horse trailer, boat or cargo hauler, and now you have to tow it from the place you bought it to where you're going to store it. Don't get caught unprepared. While towing might seem intimidating at first, the following tips, coupled with the right equipment and practice, can make you a master tower.
These are the most important issues to consider when towing:
1. Weight compatibility
The most important factor to consider when towing anything is weight compatibility — cars and trucks have specific towing weight limits. Know how much your tow rig and your trailer weighs. A simple trip to the local scales will get you started. Make sure that your tow vehicle can handle the weight you plan to tow. Follow manufacturer recommendations wherever possible. Every vehicle capable of towing will have a posted maximum tow rating. Check your owner's manual first, but manufacturer websites should also have the information.
2. Understand the language of towing
Towing has a language all its own, and you need to learn it for buying, towing and following the law in your state. There are many acronyms in trailering and most have to do with weights and capacities. Below are just some of the most important:
- Max tow rating: The largest total weight recommended by the tow vehicle maker that a particular rig can tow safely.
- Gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR): This is the total amount of weight a fully loaded truck can carry safely as determined by the manufacturer. The total number should include passengers, fluids, cargo and any applicable tongue weight.
- Gross combined weight rating (GCWR): This is the total allowable weight of a fully loaded tow vehicle and trailered vehicle that includes all tow vehicle occupants, cargo, fluids, tongue weight and accessories. One mistake often made is underestimating the total weight of your truck and trailer. Making another trip to the local scales with a fully loaded setup is recommended.
- Gross trailer weight rating (GTWR): You should be able to find this on a metal tag attached somewhere on the trailer frame. It states the maximum allowable weight of the cargo and the trailer combined.
- Gross axle weight rating (GAWR): This describes the maximum weight a single trailer axle can safely carry, independent of the rest of the rig.
3. Hitch balls are critical safety gear
The hitch ball is attached to the tow vehicle receiver hitch. Many vehicles come with a factory-installed receiver that are typically attached to the frame or reinforced section of a unibody. Higher-quality aftermarket hitches are available as well, but all should be clear about exact weight rating capabilities. The ball itself supports some trailer weight and couples the trailer with the truck or car. Trailer hitches are categorized by tongue weight, and as hitch numbers climb, so does the tongue weight it can handle.
Tongue weight, or the amount of weight on the vehicle's hitch, is an important issue. If your tongue weight is less than 10 percent of the weight of the fully loaded trailer, the trailer will probably sway a bit, making it difficult to control. On the other hand, if you have too much weight on the tongue (let's say more than 15 percent of total trailer load weight), your tow vehicle's rear tires can overload (and overheat) and push the rear end of the vehicle around; this makes stopping and handling curves and cornering difficult.
4. Always use safety chains
Nobody who wants to tow safely would fail to make sure the trailer and tow vehicle are attached, not only between ball and tongue, but also with strong safety chains. Experienced towers cross the chains under the trailer tongue so in case of a catastrophic separation, the trailer and the hitch are less likely to separate. Be sure there is enough chain slack to make turns, and always be sure the chains will not drag on the pavement.
5. Trailer load balance is important
Most manufacturers recommend you distribute 60 percent of the weight of the trailer load over the front half of the trailer. After you have the load balanced correctly, make sure that cargo is secured with straps or tie-downs. When cargo shifts, your load becomes unbalanced, making your trailer unstable and less predictable.
6. Driving with a trailer
At the risk of oversimplifying the point, driving with a fully loaded trailer — when done properly and safely — is not much more difficult than driving your tow vehicle empty. However, do not confuse the two as the driving techniques and vision strategies are very different. Most people tow a boat, a camper or perhaps a car trailer to a show or race.
First, use common sense. Second, when driving with a trailer, everything you do should be done at half the speed without the trailer. This means turning and stopping will take more time — so allow twice the distance for the increased mass. Also, remember to allow for your extra length when you change lanes. And, finally, be sure to watch for objects and/or situations far enough ahead of you to react with plenty of time. Look much farther ahead than normal so you'll have plenty of time to slow or change course if an unanticipated person or vehicle comes into your path.
Most experienced towers prefer pickup trucks over SUVs and full-size cars. Pickups generally have better power-to-weight ratios and more torque than cars, and extra power is needed for hauling trailers up hills and mountains. Generally speaking, full-size pickups can handle more trailer weight than a car or SUV mainly due to their stronger frame construction, but you'll need to weigh quite a few factors when deciding on the right vehicle for your needs.
For more information about towing or products you might need to do it safely, visit Curt Manufacturing.
Cars.com photos by Mark Williams