Hauling a trailer can be easy, but mistakes can lead to disastrous consequences. With that in mind, we’re offering some advice to help you and your cargo reach your destination safely.
Know Your Weights
A truck or car’s tow rating (found in the owner’s manual) is a simplification of a number of figures. When towing in the real world, what matters most is your vehicle’s gross combined weight rating (GCWR). That’s the total amount of weight allowed for your entire rig: vehicle, occupants, and cargo, plus everything in and on the trailer. So if you have extra passengers, they might actually reduce the amount of trailer weight you can pull. And while we’re at it, be mindful of your vehicle’s gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR), which is how much weight you can hold in the vehicle, minus the curb weight. The ratings for your vehicle can be found on a government-mandated sticker on the inside of the driver’s door.
Another important figure is tongue weight, which is how much of the trailer’s weight rests on the hitch. You want the number to be about 10 percent of the trailer’s weight. Too little weight on the hitch and the trailer will have a tendency to sway back and forth. Too much weight on the tongue will take weight off the tow vehicle’s front tires and make it harder to steer (not to mention that it will overload the rear suspension).
Make sure you use the right size hitch ball for your trailer. Don’t try to use a 1-7/8-inch ball on a 2-inch trailer, even though they’re close. The trailer could pop off during towing, which is bad. Make sure the trailer latch engages smoothly, don’t fight it, and use a pin or lock to keep it latched.
As for the hitch itself, use the right amount of drop (or rise) so that the trailer is more or less level when attached to your vehicle. Always use safety chains—we like to hook them up in an X so that even if the trailer becomes separated there’s a sight chance the chains will cradle the tongue and reduce damage. After connecting the lights, check to make sure they all work: brakes, hazards, left and right turn indicators, and running lights, with the tow vehicle’s headlights on.
For hauling heavier loads, a trailer with electronic brakes is a must. And that means you need a trailer-brake controller inside your truck. If you have a newer truck with a built-in controller, you’re all set. If you have to buy a controller, stay away from the cheaper options. Most of them are timer-based and simply increase the amount of trailer braking the longer you have your foot on the brake pedal. Instead, spend the extra money on a proportional brake controller, which matches the trailer brake output to the tow vehicle’s deceleration. A quality unit can be found for less than $150, which is much cheaper than any accident.
To adjust the gain on a trailer-brake controller, drive up to about 20 miles per hour with the trailer attached and slow to a stop. You want the trailer brakes to be right on the threshold of locking up. When driving, adjust the gain as needed to find the sweet spot where it doesn’t feel like the trailer is dragging the truck down or like your truck is doing all the braking work.
On the Road
When driving with a trailer, give yourself more space behind other vehicles so that there’s plenty of room for braking, which will take longer because of the extra weight. On corners, turn later and sharper to square off the curve, which will help prevent the trailer from clipping curbs (or worse). And if the trailer starts swaying from side to side, gently apply the brakes to slow down and bring everything back into line. If you have a brake controller, squeezing the boost button will also help reduce sway.
Back It On Up
Reversing a trailer can be tricky. One way to avoid any trouble is to make sure you don’t get in a situation where you’ll have to use reverse. (Take our advice: Just skip the drive-thru lane, even if it looks easy.)
Sometimes going backward is unavoidable. In those cases, move slowly as you get used to the way the trailer moves in reverse. To make steering easier, put your hand on the bottom of the steering wheel and move it in the direction you want the trailer to go.