'Round The Campfire

Tips on How to Tow Your RV Trailer Safely

More from Outdoor Living Newsletter December Outdoor Living Newsletter
Car towing a trailer
Towing your trailer just got easier

Whether you are towing a small popup trailer or a large van behind a motor home, being safe while towing is a serious consideration. There's a lot to think about and a lot of things that can potentially go wrong.

Here's a list (in no particular order) of the Top 10 things to consider when towing:

1.  Lights

It's fairly obvious, but making sure that you have the correct brake and indicator lights not only installed but working correctly is extremely important. Failure to do so is and could invalidate your insurance. Once you are hitched up, it's a good idea to have someone visually inspect the lights before setting off.

2.  Weight

Be careful not to overload your vehicle. Most vehicle manufacturers publish a CGWR (Combined Gross Weight Rating). It is the maximum allowable weight your vehicle, with cargo and passengers, and a trailer can weigh. This data can often be found on the vehicle data tag on the driver's door post. Next, determine your vehicle weight, either by weighing it at a truck stop, or by estimating it by taking the curb weight of the vehicle and adding the weight of cargo and passengers. Finally, subtract the loaded weight from the CGWR to find the maximum towing capacity. Be careful not to exceed this number as this can again not only be dangerous, but invalidate your insurance and/or warranty. Also, make sure that your hitch or ball mount is rated for this tow weight (many hitches have a maximum rating of 5,000 lbs). Finally, be aware that according to the American Automobile Association, the towed weight limits vary from state to state(and in Canada, from province to province) - 4,500 pounds in Texas, 10,000 pounds in Massachusetts, and 3,080 pounds in British Columbia.

3.  Installation

Even if you had a reputable dealer install your hitch, it pays to double check things for yourself. Read the manual or visit the hitch manufacturer's website to make sure that your installation looks okay. I have seen numerous instances where the hitch is too high for the tow vehicle. Indeed, this is the leading cause of tow-system failures. If your hitch is either too high or too low, you can use a Drop Receiver to alter its height. Make sure that your hitch is tight and that there is no play in any of the connections as this can cause excessive trailer or tow vehicle sway. To avoid sway, you could install a RoadMaster QuietHitch which is a metal bar that locks across the hitch reducing any play and thus significantly reducing any sway or annoying rattle. This makes a huge difference in reducing the sway on your vehicle.

4.  Hooking Up

If hooking up to a ball mount, lightly grease the ball first. Make sure to install the locking pins, safety cables and break-away cable (a device to apply the electric brakes if you have any in the event of the vehicle coming loose). If you park overnight (especially in rest areas or truck stops), be sure to double check your hitch and locking pins before setting off as there have been cases of people removing these pins deliberately.

5.  Loading

This is a good place to use as much common sense as possible. If possible, secure all loose items and make sure that you place your load as evenly as possible. If towing a trailer, take care not to exceed your tongue weight (this can be measured with a Sherline Scale). Keep heavy items as low as possible so as to avoid an increase in effective tongue weight during heavy breaking and thereby reduced front axel weight (hence reduced steering and braking effectiveness).

6.  Tires

Before setting off, be sure to visibly check your trailer or tow vehicle tires for any signs of damage, reduced tread, or excessive / uneven wear. Be sure to also check the tire pressures. If your trailer has been in storage for a while, make sure that you know the age of your tires. It's not commonly known that tires have a shelf life and generally should not be used if older than six to eight years (the British Rubber Manufacturers Association strongly recommend that unused tires should not be put into service if they are over 6 years old and that all tires should be replaced 10 years from the date of their manufacture). Environmental factors such as sunlight exposure, coastal climates, poor storage and infrequent use can accelerate tire age. To determine the age of your tire, simply use the DOT identification number which was required to be stamped on all tires manufactured since 2000. For example, a number of DOT U2LL LMLR 5107 would indicate that the tire was manufactured in the 51st week of 2007.

7.  Supplementary Braking System

Most motor home and many truck brakes are not designed to tow the 3-5,000 lb+ weights that we often tow nowadays. This means not only putting additional wear and tear on your brakes, but it can seriously impact your stopping distance. In one test by RoadMaster, a motor home's stopping distance at 50 mph was 132 feet versus 209 feet with a tow vehicle (an almost 60% increase), seriously impacting safety. Most motor home owners who regularly tow a vehicle (a "toad") therefore install a supplementary braking system in the toad which applies the toad's brakes when the motor home's brakes are applied. There are a number of systems on the market so do your research, but be sure to check out those from RoadMaster and SMI. Bear in mind that many states specify 3,000 pounds as the maximum weight which can be towed without supplemental brakes.

8.  Tow Guard

If you plan to tow a vehicle, it pays to protect it from the stones, oil and dirt that get kicked up by your vehicle which can seriously damage the paint and windshield of your vehicle. For a motor home there are a number of styles including over-size mud flaps (such as the UltraGuard), plastic guards and heavy duty screens (such as the RoadMaster Guardian and Tow Defender) and protective covers for your vehicles front, hood and windshield. An option is to install an UltraGuard and RoadMaster Guardian on your motor home which does a fairly good job and is easy to install prior to towing.

9.  Driving Tips

Pulling a trailer or towing as vehicle behind your motor home can significantly change your vehicles characteristics and handling. In general, drive more slowly and leave a greater stopping distance (see Supplementary Braking System above), especially in towns and built up areas. Since your length is longer you will need to make wider turns than usual. Be sure to engage your engine break or downshift on hills, otherwise you risk burning out your brakes. Finally, avoid rapid lane changes or sharp braking as these can cause excessive sway or jackknifing.

10.  Tow Vehicle Monitoring

If you are going to tow a lot, or have cargo that is valuable such as a power boat or horse in a trailer, you may want to consider investing in a Tow Vehicle Monitoring System, the best of which is made by Tattle-Trail and is available through TechnoRV. This system mounts in the tow vehicle and constantly monitors any vibration or sway, passing it to a cab-mounted control unit. Any excessive vibration or sway (which is generally a precursor to mechanical failure) causes the unit to sound an audible alarm. Problems such as detached tire tread, blow-outs, loose hitch, ball, wheel or faulty suspension can all be detected with Tattle-Trail.

Planning ahead, being careful and following these straight forward guidelines should help ensure that you have a happy, safe and rewarding camping experience.

Philip May and his wife have been towing a Jeep behind their motor home for the past three years while touring the US and then more recently, a Sprinter van for the last 18 months while running their company, TechnoRV. During that time they've driven almost 70,000 miles and visited every contiguous state of the US at least once. They also they've learned a lot about tow safety, both from the numerous mistakes they've made (such as forgetting the parking brake and steering lock on the Jeep), from the fellow RVers they met and now more recently, the RV vendors who they travel with.

Copyright ©2012 Camping Road Trip, LLC

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