Towing a trailer can be an intimidating prospect if you don’t have the right tow vehicle or equipment. If you do have the right equipment, practice safety guidelines and use common sense, towing a properly loaded trailer is a breeze.
There are several safety tips to check on your tow vehicle and trailer before heading out on the road.
• Match the maximum trailer weight allowed for the tow vehicle to the Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) of the trailer. Do not exceed the GVWR as specified by the manufacturer. You can find the GVWR for your tow vehicle in the owner’s manual. If you don’t have the owner’s manual or it is not listed, contact your tow vehicle’s dealer or manufacturer.
• Make sure that your tow vehicle tires are properly inflated. Improperly inflated tires will wear faster and could possibly lead to trailer sway. When towing, tire pressure should be on the high side because a fully inflated tire can carry more weight and runs cooler than a tire that is low on air. The maximum air pressure is listed on the sidewalls.
• Tow vehicle must have the correct plug at the hitch and be connected to the correct tow vehicle circuits. (Trailers that are not equipped with brakes have a 4-way plug—commonly referred to as a "flat four." All other trailers will have a 7-way plug, which accommodates electric brakes, and a separate line for inside lights.)
• Check the coupler for fatigue, damage, cracks or missing parts before towing. Test the lock mechanism for complete and correct latching so the trailer will not come unhooked. Be sure that the hitch ball size matches the coupler size for the trailer and make sure that the GVWR of the hitch ball exceeds the GVWR of the trailer.
• Do not overload your trailer. The GVWR of your trailer is listed on the trailer’s identification plate. Scales to weigh your trailer are available at gravel pits, grain elevators and service stations that cater to over-the-road trucks; there is usually a fee. You should load 60 percent of your cargo’s weight in the front of the trailer. This will put approximately 10 percent of the loaded trailer weight on the hitch. Always secure the trailer to the tow vehicle when loading or unloading, especially from the rear of the trailer. Some tag units may require a weight-distributing hitch with sway controls. Contact your hitch specialist to properly set up your tow vehicle/trailer combination.
• Make sure that when the tow vehicle is coupled to the trailer, they are both level. A tow vehicle that has too much tongue weight on the tow vehicle does not ride level, may not steer properly and could cause damage to the axles. Tongue weight is measured where the trailer couples to the hitch, and it should be 10 to 15 percent of the total weight of the trailer and its contents. The only way to know the tongue weight for sure is to take it to a scale and weigh it. To measure the tongue weight, unhitch a loaded trailer and weigh it at the coupling.
• Be sure to check your lug nuts frequently. During the first 200 miles of towing your new trailer, check them every 50 miles. After the first 200 miles, check them before every trip. Proper torque for tightening lug nuts is between 90 and 120 ft. lbs.
• Be sure that your trailer tires are properly inflated. The recommended pressure is found on the tire sidewall. Always replace tires with same designated size and type.
With a trailer in tow, you’re operating a vehicle combination that is longer, heavier and sometimes wider and taller than you’re used to. So you’ll have to make some compensating adjustments in your normal driving practices. Here is some helpful advice in trailering tactics:
• Take a "shakedown cruise." At least one short trial run before your first trip will help familiarize you with your trailer’s operating characteristics. It will also allow you to check the trailer’s lights, brakes, hitch, etc. and let you know they are all working properly.
• Slow down. Slower driving speeds put less strain on your tow vehicle and trailer and make for safer traveling.
• Allow extra time and space between your rig and traffic. You will need both when passing and stopping, especially if your trailer is not equipped with brakes.
• Check rear view mirrors. Doing this frequently will let you know that your trailer is riding properly. We recommend outside rear view mirrors on both sides of your tow vehicle.
• Swing wider. You need to make wider swings (turns) at curves and corners because your trailer’s wheels are generally closer to the inside of a turn than the wheels on your tow vehicle.
• Pass with extra care and caution. It takes more time and distance to get around slower moving vehicles and to get to the correct lane when you’ve got a trailer in tow.
• Watch the wind direction and speed. To avoid swaying, be prepared for sudden changes in air pressure and wind buffering when larger vehicles pass from either direction. Slow down a bit and keep a firm hold on your steering wheel. Aim straight down your lane.
• Conserve fuel. You’ll go farther on a tank of gas at moderate speeds. Higher speeds increase wind resistance against the trailer and reduce fuel mileage.
• Signal your intentions. Let surrounding vehicles know what you intend well in advance before you stop, turn, change lanes or pass.
• Shift to a lower gear. A lower gear will help ease the load on the transmission and engine when going over steep hills, sand, gravel or dirt roads. If your tow vehicle has an overdrive gear, shifting out of overdrive to a lower gear may improve your gas mileage.
• Always be courteous. Make it as easy as possible for faster-moving vehicles to pass you. Keep to the right of the road and prepare to slow down if passing vehicles need extra time to return to their proper lane.
• Don’t tailgate. Allow at least one car and trailer length between you and the vehicle ahead for each 10 mph on your speedometer. Three seconds should be the minimum distance.
• If a problem occurs, don’t panic. Stay calm and cool. Say you experience a sudden bumping or fishtailing. It may indicate a flat tire. Don’t jam on the brakes or mash the accelerator in an attempt to drive out of it. Instead, come to a stop slowly as you keep driving in as straight a line as possible. If conditions permit, coast to a very slow speed and try to avoid braking, except when your wheels are straight ahead and your tow vehicle and trailer are in line with each other.
• If your trailer begins to fishtail as you accelerate to highway speed, back off the accelerator a bit. This should stop the fishtailing. If it begins again as you increase speed, stop and check your load. It probably isn’t distributed evenly from side to side or it is too far back to put a sufficient load on the hitch ball. It is recommended that 10 percent of the trailer load be on the hitch. Redistribute the load as necessity dictates before continuing on the highway.