By Linda Water Nelson
In Texas, where almost 1 in 5 pickup trucks are sold, trailer towing is a driving skill that should be taught as part of every driver education course. Unfortunately, it's not. As a result, women generally learn from impatient fathers, husbands and brothers as an on-the-job training exercise at the boat ramp or some other crowded spot.
Hundreds of women, however, are taking advantage of a far less intimidating experience to learn how to hook up, unhitch and drive with an impressive tow load. The Becoming an Outdoors Woman program from Texas Parks and Wildlife offers trailering as part of its semiannual retreat for 125 women ages 18 to 80. A national program, BOW always sells out in Texas and includes more than a dozen different sessions from archery and firearms use to outdoor cooking, orienteering, horseback riding and survival skills. Participants choose four sessions. Trailering, which is offered twice during the weekend, is extremely popular. You also can get Texas hunting certification, make a basket or learn to clean a fish.
Instructor Nicole Plowman, who has been a fish and wildlife technician for TWPD for almost four years, knows how intimidating it can be to learn to tow. She had never towed anything before joining the state agency. Based in coastal Galveston, towing is a necessity for Plowman since the entire Galveston Bay fishing area is covered from a single headquarters.
Plowman's first towing attempts were at crowded boat ramps with co-workers shouting out instructions while she tried to line up her vehicle and the trailer. TWPD vehicles are typically aging regular-cab long-bed Ford F-250 pickups and are not equipped with all the new technologies that make towing easier. Trailers for the training class are relatively short kayak transports, hay trailers or whatever is available. Many are taller than most boat trailers. It takes a sustained look over the shoulder and the judicious use of mirrors to learn to trailer this way. And as every tow junky knows, only practice makes perfect.
"I had to learn fast so I wouldn't be verbally abused," Plowman said. "Knowing how participants feel goes a long way in establishing empathy. I went to a deserted boat ramp and practiced, and encourage others to do the same. In the 14 classes that I've taught, I've never had anyone throw up their arms and give up."
Start With the Basics
Plowman's 3 1/2-hour class begins with a discussion of general safety — understanding the need for wide turns, remembering to buckle seat belts, hand placement on the steering wheel and understanding the function of mirrors as a way of seeing the entire side of the truck.
Next comes a description of the trailer's parts and their functions. Couplers and hitches are first, then the electrical system and electrical safety, and later chains and locks. Only conventional towing is taught, no gooseneck or fifth-wheel trailers at this stage. She also talks about aftermarket trailer cameras as indispensable when trailering alone, saying that a small camera that costs about $100 can improve skills dramatically.
"I spend a lot of time on communications. So often trailering is a partner activity with one participant in the driver's seat and the other acting as a spotter. When there is not good communication it can make this a dreaded experience for everyone involved. The spotter has the harder job when it comes to communication ... saying where they are standing, and using the terms clockwise and counterclockwise rather than left and right," she added.
After dealing with the basics, Plowman gets behind the wheel with class participants in the second row and demonstrates how it is done. Questions are encouraged as a way to avoid misunderstandings, and when the logistics shift to participants in the driver's seat, the truck is just as full as when the instructor drives. Participants learn from each other.
For questions such as what to do when you jackknife (wedging the truck and trailer at an acute angle), she explains that too — if you simply drop the trailer and pull the truck forward, you'll be in a much better position to line up the pickup and try again.
"We'll drive as long as any of the participants want. If women say they need more time we will meet up to practice in the evening or when there is free time. The objective is as much time behind the wheel as possible," Plowman said. "This is actually all about physics and we aim for towing skills to become intuitive and to build muscle memory. That's what differentiates people who make trailering look easy."
By the end of the day's session, the intangibles for the participants include patience with themselves and understanding that they should never beat up on themselves for a false start. She reminds all participants that in trailering there is no such thing as a fail and that, when in doubt, just take a deep breath and calmly line everything up for the next pass.
Texas BOW programs are not limited to Texas residents. Upcoming programs will be offered Dec. 2-4 (Brenham); March 31-April 2, 2017 (Hunt); and Nov. 3-5, 2017 (Brownwood). For more information or to be added to the mailing list call (713) 829-1377 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Many attendees are repeaters, so plan to sign up quickly.
The cost for past programs has been $250 for two nights of lodging, meals and outdoor activities. Additional sessions such as horseback riding cost extra (prices are reasonable).
A word to the wise: If you consider the Holiday Inn to be roughing it, BOW programs may not be for you. Lodging is more akin to summer camp with participants sharing cabins or bunking in dorms with shared bathrooms. Ear plugs are recommended since some of bunkmates may be snorers.
To see whether there is a BOW program in your state, click here.
Towing Tips from BOW
- Always tow within the weight rating and limit for your vehicle, trailer, hitch, tires, spring bars, sway bar and other mechanical elements. Know your ratings before you tow.
- Assemble and maintain a "trailering toolbox" with things such as a rubber mallet for rusty trailer handles, bright tape or trailer backup balls for trailering solo and lightweight chock blocks so you don't have to search for rocks in the wilderness at night.
- Poor weight distribution can result in fishtailing, decreased braking and steering capability.
- Always crisscross safety chains and have the chain closing pointed toward the trailer.
- Safety chains, electrical wires, etc., should be loose enough to allow for full right and left turns but should not drag on the ground
- The trailer jack wheel/foot faces away from tow vehicle when towing.
- Tow mirrors increase field of view significantly and reduce dangerous blind spots.
- Wide turns prevent damage to your tires and trailer axles. Bent axles rub against tires and cause blowouts.
- Equal amounts of trailer in each side mirror means the truck is centered in front of the trailer. This is true for a parking spot or boat ramp as well.
- If hitching a trailer solo, you can mark the hitch on the vehicle and coupler on the trailer with brightly colored tape for better visibility in a backup camera screen.
- When working with a partner, communication is the key. Speak out loud and discuss hand signals before you begin.
- If the trailer isn't doing what you want it to do, stop.
- If you need to get out of a jackknife situation and don't know how, drop the trailer and start over again.
- Making the same small correction repeatedly is more effective than trying to make one large correction.
- Small corrections require a short steering wheel turn and large corrections require a more exaggerated turn held for a longer amount of time.
- The direction that you turn the steering wheel — left or right — depends on where your hands are located. To minimize confusion, use the terms clockwise and counterclockwise instead of left or right when spotting.
- In Reverse, clockwise rotation will move the trailer to the left and counterclockwise rotation will move the trailer to the right
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