Towing? Here Are Safety Tips and Tricks

IMG_6654 II

By Matthew Barnes

Hauling heavy loads or towing a heavy trailer are complicated tasks; in fact, they are more complicated than they look. Key to safe towing or hauling is knowing your vehicle's weight limitations and having your vehicle properly equipped.

Heavy loads or a heavy trailer can make the back of your vehicle sag, and that can seriously impact safety by shifting your vehicle's center of gravity and making it more difficult to control. To compensate for sagging, many automakers and aftermarket parts manufacturers offer load-leveling systems.

These systems raise the rear of the vehicle back up to its unloaded height. Besides balancing the vehicle's load, this also helps level out the headlights so that you aren't blinding other drivers at night. Driving with an unlevel load also can cause other problems such as uneven tire wear, higher fuel consumption and greater strain on the axle.

We're going to look at two of the most common ways to level a load — airbags and self-leveling shock absorbers — and offer some tips on how to tow as safely as possible.

Leveling Your Load

Available from automakers and aftermarket suppliers, airbag systems are offered in two different configurations. One type uses airbags as an extra support spring to standard leaf-, torsion- or coil-spring suspension systems. The other airbag system is a complete air suspension, meaning the vehicle uses airbags in place of other springs. Air suspension systems are usually found on premium vehicles and trim packages. Four-corner air suspensions can be had on the Ram 1500 pickup truck and Jeep Grand Cherokee SUV; it can also be ordered as a supplemental spring for tow-hungry pickups such as the Ram 3500.

Ram airbags 1 IIRam 3500 supplemental airbag (left); Ram 1500 rear four-corner airbag (right)

Self-leveling shock absorbers are a less popular way of leveling a vehicle. Self-leveling shocks replace standard shocks and generally work with a specifically designed leaf or coil spring. These self-adjusting systems use the force from bumps and dips in the road to adjust the height of the vehicle; the current-generation Ford Expedition SUV is offered with this type of shock absorber.

Many automakers offer one or both systems, especially on vehicles capable of towing. The Chevrolet Tahoe [JB5]and Suburban SUVs; GMC Yukon and Yukon XL SUVs; Ram 1500, 2500 and 3500 pickups; Toyota Sequoia and Land Cruiser SUVs; Ford Expedition; and Jeep Grand Cherokee SUVs are among the vehicles that offer load-leveling systems.

They also can be found on high-end SUVs such as the Lexus GX and LX, Land Rover Discovery and Range Rover, Porsche Cayenne, Audi Q7 and BMW X5.

However, both systems can hide how much load or force is being placed on the vehicle, creating an unsafe situation. If your suspension always looks level, even if it's overloaded, then you won't know if you have the right amount of weight distributed over the trailer axles or the maximum suggested weight on your hitch.

The Risk You Take

If you do not follow your trailer's or tow vehicle's weight limitations and distribution recommendations, and your load-leveling technology hides the situation, you could face several serious consequences.

  • The rear axle weight rating of a vehicle can be exceeded without the driver noticing. This can add more wear and tear to the axle, tires and brake components, and potentially lead to a catastrophic failure.
  • The load-leveling components themselves might be damaged from overloading scenarios. When airbags or self-leveling shocks are overloaded, they both run the risk of internal damage by generating excessive heat. Both have valves, reservoirs and seals that can leak or break when the vehicle is overloaded.
  • Improper load distribution can impact the front axle and affect steering. Most people don't think about this when towing, but when a truck pulls a heavy load the rear axle becomes a pivot point, reducing the load on the front axle. This can be dangerous as it decreases the ability to steer and brake in predictable ways. Often a driver won't notice the reduced weight on the front axle until driving over a bump, which causes what's called steering "float." Reduced weight on the front axle also can create braking issues during hard or emergency braking; the front wheels can lock up or trigger the antilock braking system quickly without sufficiently slowing the vehicle.

There are solutions to these problems; here are five things that we recommend.

 

Measure Your Tongue Weight

Tongue Scales 1 II

Tongue weight is the downward force that the tongue of the trailer applies to the hitch of the tow vehicle. If you have any question about what the tongue weight is on an empty or loaded trailer, then it needs to be measured.

There are a few ways to do this. One is to buy a scale built specifically for measuring tongue weights. It is placed under the tongue jack of your trailer. Depending on the size of your trailer, you can also use a bathroom scale with the fulcrum and lever. Other options include going to a commercial scale to measure the tongue weight or buying a hitch-ball mount with a built-in scale.

A good rule to follow is to load the trailer so that the tongue weight is between 10 and 15 percent of the total trailer weight. If you are towing a car trailer, you might have to move the vehicle a little bit forward or back on the trailer or change where the Dutch oven and extra water tanks are stored in your travel trailer. Make sure everything is strapped down.

 

Properly Load the Trailer and Tow Vehicle

Do not exceed your tow vehicle/trailer weight ratings. Find out the tow vehicle's axle ratings, gross vehicle weight rating (the weight of the vehicle plus how much it can carry in passengers and cargo) and gross combined weight rating (maximum allowable weight for towing a trailer, including passengers and cargo). The first two will be on the door tags; the third you'll have to find in the owner's manual, from dealer or on the manufacturer's website. Often, a load can be shifted between axles or between the tow vehicle and trailer to ensure that none of these ratings are exceeded.

 

Level the Trailer

If a trailer has more than one axle, it needs to be level when being towed. Adjustable trailer hitches and ball mounts are quite helpful since they can be set to the proper height. To level the trailer, park it on flat ground and measure from the bottom of the frame to the ground at the front of the trailer and at the rear of the trailer. These two measurements should be the same when the trailer is attached to the tow vehicle. Having a level trailer ensures that the trailer axles and tires wear and distribute weight evenly; it also will improve how the trailer tracks behind the tow vehicle.

 

Measure the Height of the Fender

The distance from the front fender to the ground is a rough indication of how much weight is on the front axle. The actual measurement is vehicle specific as it depends on the spring rate of the front suspension; spring rates can vary for different packages on the same vehicle and model year. It may take several times towing different tongue weights before you figure out the height at which your vehicle will be most comfortable and safe. Take this measurement before and after coupling the trailer in the same location every time.

Sequoia Air Suspension II

 

Use a Weight-Distribution Hitch

Most vehicles require the use of a weight-distributing hitch when towing more than 5,000 pounds; check your owner's manual. A weight-distribution hitch, especially one with built-in sway control, is always the best option when pulling a heavy trailer.

Setting up a weight-distribution hitch takes a little more time when used with a load-leveling suspension, but when set up properly, it distributes weight between all the axles of the tow vehicle and trailer. This includes restoring or even increasing the weight on the front axle of the tow vehicle. A weight-distribution hitch usually will provide better handling and better braking ability than a normal hitch or ball-mount setup because it does a better job of distributing the weight over a wider area. Weight distribution is so important that many automakers require a weight-distributing hitch to reach the maximum towing capacity of the vehicle, as in the case of the Ford Expedition.

Cars.com photos by Matthew Barnes

WDH Equalizer II

Weight-distributing hitch bar designed to redistribute heavier tongue weights.

 

Rear Fender Measurements IIRear fender unloaded, loaded without leveling the rear and loaded with the rear leveled.

 

Rear Tires Sequoia IIRear tires of a Toyota Sequoia, unloaded (right), then loaded (left).

 

Sequoia Air Spring IISequoia rear air-spring at full compression when loaded. 

 

Ford Expedition Rear Nivomat Shock IIFord Expedition with a rear Nivomat self-adjusting, load-leveling shock absorber. 

 

Comments

Decent article, one thing to note on the weight distribution, is the hitch itself, I have witnessed folks who tow a heavy trailer with the wrong class size hitch but think they are ok because they have WD bars...point is make sure the rating of your hitch is in the lines of what you are actually towing. Also a common mith is adding leafs or leveling system INCREASES your tow capacity...not true, the stick is what it is on the truck and cannot be changed no matter what you do.. Actually adding anything reduces the carrying capacity not increases.

things have changed a LOT since I started doing this.

In the old days we always checked:

1. to be sure we had enough ice and beer.
2. we had a functional spare tire (optional)
3. both headlights were working
4. had a tow rope (or chain) in case we get stuck

@papa, sounds like you owned a Chevy, or you would only need the ice and beer.

I rememeber the old days, but I don't think most F-150 buyers would be interested in a midsize truck, but the composite beds are very tough. Honda does put a lot of thought into their products and those that own the prior generation of Ridgelines are very satisfied with them. The few Honda products I have had whether its lawn equipment or cars have been very reliable. You don't see the fit and finish problems with Hondas that you still see on some Fords, GMs, and FCAs. Hondas are not cheap but overall they are very good and over the long run you get your money's worth.

If you operate a Ford just be aware that it has been overrated by the manufacturer by approximately 30%. Never tow or carry near what Ford says you can.

Don't tow with Fords!

Simple enough.

Don't tow with Fords!

Simple enough.
Posted by: Sierra | Apr 17, 2017 12:20:44 PM

Yeah. That's my motto!

If you operate a Ford just be aware that it has been overrated by the manufacturer by approximately 30%. Never tow or carry near what Ford says you can.
Posted by: GMSRGREAT | Apr 17, 2017 12:12:53 PM

Don't tow with Fords!

Simple enough.
Posted by: Sierra | Apr 17, 2017 12:20:44 PM

Yeah. That's my motto!
Posted by: GMSRGREAT | Apr 17, 2017 12:37:45 PM

Safety first. I hate Fords. Don't buy Fords.

Dont tow? Is it because sierra and GMSRGREAT are the same person, so you have to agree with yourself? Kinda like the twins trying to beat Ford but cant

^ Agreed if you don't wanna die towing don't get a Ford, they still get numbers by radio, bumper, bed, spare tire deletes. You load a ford a quarter of its rating the head light point to the sky and the rear bumper nearly drags on the ground.

http://cars.typepad.com/.a/6a00d83451b3c669e201b8d1939fa5970c-pi

http://news.pickuptrucks.com/2016/01/whats-the-best-light-duty-truck-for-towing-2016-texas-truck-showdown.html

We all know most people go over the limit of thier trucks towing/payload weight rating, So when peopel dont listen, something or someone gets hurt! Saftey first as always.

Don't tow with Fords!

Simple enough.

Posted by: Sierra | Apr 17, 2017 12:20:44 PM

Don't forget, don't carry anything with them either.

I towed a two horse trailer with two big horses in it half way across the country with my 2002 Tundra. The trailer (a Featherlite aluminum straight load) probably weighed somewhere under 3,000 pounds and the two horses together somewhere under 2,500. So even with a water tank and some tack I'm sure I was under 6,000 pounds at all times.

The first generation Tundra is only rated to haul 7,100 pounds, but the rig balanced nicely with no visible squat in the rear and no sway, even in the mountains around Glacier National Park. Closest thing I had to a tense moment was some fierce side winds in North Dakota while a semi was passing, but nothing happened.

So I don't really get the whole weight distribution hitch thing. Seems like if you really need it, maybe you're hauling more weight than your rig can handle.

If I were hauling horses a lot I would prefer a gooseneck trailer behind a long bed 3/4 ton. Seems like it would be a lot safer in a true emergency situation.

Ford isn't SAE J2807 certified, they never stopped deletes for payload/towing.

"GM will use its actual trim-level base-model curb weights to calculate maximum and listed payloads to stay in line with industry practices. Ford, which also deletes certain parts when calculating towing and payload numbers, has not said it will stop the practice."

http://news.pickuptrucks.com/2014/08/gm-commits-to-standard-payload-calculations.html

"Ford said it excluded items to calculate payloads on just its Super Duty pickups -- the F-250, F-350 and F-450. GM excluded items on its light-duty pickups starting in the 2014 model year. It excluded items in heavy-duty lines starting in the 2015 model year.

“As this story unfolded, we took a look at how the whole industry does this, and almost everybody uses base curb weight,” GM spokesman Tom Wilkinson said. “We thought the best thing to do was line up with the rest of the industry to make those comparisons as easy as possible for consumers.”


For the 2015 Chevrolet Colorado and Silverado 1500 and the GMC Canyon and Sierra 1500, which go into production in the fourth quarter, GM will use “maximum payloads based on base curb weights” in its advertising, catalogs and media materials.

GM also will update already-published specifications for its 2015 heavy-duty pickups to show payload ratings based on their base curb weights. The trucks were launched in January.

GM’s reversal was first reported earlier today by Yahoo Autos.


Ford has said that it deletes the weight of items such as the spare tire, jack, radio and center console to set the payloads only on its Super Duty pickups.

“We have made no changes to the way we determine maximum payload ratings for Ford F-Series Super Duty,” a Ford spokesman said today."

http://www.autonews.com/article/20140808/RETAIL03/140809807/gm-to-stop-removing-truck-parts-to-maximize-payload-ratings?cciid=email-autonews-blast&r=2661H8042245E4V

Look like who ever try use my name didn't do their home work. But that's most Ford people dumber this dog ^&*^.

http://www.autonews.com/article/20140808/RETAIL03/140809807/gm-to-stop-removing-truck-parts-to-maximize-payload-ratings?cciid=email-autonews-blast&r=2661H8042245E4V

"Ford said it excluded items to calculate payloads on just its Super Duty pickups -- the F-250, F-350 and F-450. GM excluded items on its light-duty pickups starting in the 2014 model year. It excluded items in heavy-duty lines starting in the 2015 model year.

“As this story unfolded, we took a look at how the whole industry does this, and almost everybody uses base curb weight,” GM spokesman Tom Wilkinson said. “We thought the best thing to do was line up with the rest of the industry to make those comparisons as easy as possible for consumers.”


For the 2015 Chevrolet Colorado and Silverado 1500 and the GMC Canyon and Sierra 1500, which go into production in the fourth quarter, GM will use “maximum payloads based on base curb weights” in its advertising, catalogs and media materials.

GM also will update already-published specifications for its 2015 heavy-duty pickups to show payload ratings based on their base curb weights. The trucks were launched in January.

GM’s reversal was first reported earlier today by Yahoo Autos.


Ford has said that it deletes the weight of items such as the spare tire, jack, radio and center console to set the payloads only on its Super Duty pickups.

“We have made no changes to the way we determine maximum payload ratings for Ford F-Series Super Duty,” a Ford spokesman said today."

http://news.pickuptrucks.com/2014/08/gm-commits-to-standard-payload-calculations.html

"GM will no longer remove any optional delete parts (parts that a customer might not want included in their new truck but are typically included on most pickups) when calculating the base curb weight of its 2015 midsize and half-ton vehicles.Instead GM will use its actual trim-level base-model curb weights to calculate maximum and listed payloads to stay in line with industry practices. Ford, which also deletes certain parts when calculating towing and payload numbers, has not said it will stop the practice."

Ford clowns try to use my name proven wrong once again! Enjoy your fake Ford numbers!

FORD:Trailer and payload issues: Smith didn't like the F-150's "soft rear suspension when towing," and Sundling noted that it "squatted bad with a trailer, which changed the headlight angle." "It doesn't track nicely when loaded on the track," Bruzek said. "It was darting around at highway speeds with the nose pointed high and the rear of the truck squatting."

RAM: Ride quality: "One of the most comfortable empty," Bruzek said, and Smith said he liked the "stable ride it provides when towing." Other judges agreed.

Don't tow with Fords!

Simple enough.


Posted by: Sierra | Apr 17, 2017 12:20:44 PM

AMEN, 2017 RAM 3500 Wins Golden hitch award.

GUTS, GLORY, RAM

GUTS, GLORY, FORD FAILED yet again along with the loser Ford clowns that try to use mine and GMSRGREAT name in this comment section HAHAHAHA!

I totally agree. These are very informative tips and tricks. Also ask if the company uses background checked, trained tow truck operators. This is for your safety, the vehicle’s safety, and the operator safety

That hitch with the built-in scale, because the article declined to mention it, is the "Weigh Safe" hitch. https://www.weigh-safe.com/
I own one, know the inventor. Worth every penny.

and what's the payload limit for such trucks? https://yrcat.com/towing/arlington/aate-towing



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