Do you want to buy a boat or travel trailer for weekend trips? Are you moving and need to tow a cargo trailer to haul your belongings?
Learning to tow a trailer might have you feeling a little nervous. Towing a trailer requires you to be even more alert than usual when driving, as well as being more prepared before you hit the road.
Whether you’re getting ready to tow for the first time or are an experienced hauler looking for a refresher, our guide to towing safely will help you be more confident when towing on the road.
Before You Start the Vehicle
Well before you hook up a trailer and hit the road, you should spend some time understanding your vehicle and trailer. Different vehicles have different towing capabilities that make them better suited for towing different types of cargo.
A full-size pickup truck with a towing package, for example, is going to be able to pull more than a small SUV. If you already have a tow vehicle, be sure to read up on its specifications so you know what it’s rated to pull safely. You can find information on the amount of weight your vehicle can tow in the owner’s manual.
Remember to consider the empty weight of your trailer in addition to the cargo you load. Let’s say you have a vehicle that’s rated to pull 5,000 pounds and want to haul your belongings in a cargo trailer. The cargo trailer weighs 2,000 pounds by itself, meaning you’ll only be able to add up to 3,000 pounds of cargo before hitting the maximum tow weight of your vehicle.
If you haven’t bought a tow vehicle and trailer yet, be sure to mention the size and type of trailers you plan to pull when visiting dealerships. You don’t want to spend a bunch of money on a new vehicle, only to find out it doesn’t have the capacity to haul the trailer you bought for it.
Hooking Up to Your Vehicle
Most people tow using a bumper pull, which means your trailer attaches to a hitch that’s connected to the rear of your vehicle.
Your bumper should have a slot where you can insert a metal ball hitch and secure it with a metal pin. The trailer is secured to your vehicle because the trailer hitch is too narrow to fit back over the ball without first unlocking.
Once your hitch is securely attached and ready for the trailer, you can follow these tips to safely hook up the trailer:
- Ensure you have space: You’ll first want to make sure you have enough room to back the tow vehicle up to the trailer and pull the trailer out of its parking spot without hitting anything. You might also need to raise the trailer jack a few inches by turning the crank lever to give your ball hitch room to fit underneath the receiver hitch.
- Back the vehicle to the trailer: Slowly back your tow vehicle up to the edge of the trailer hitch. It’s usually a good idea to have a second person outside the vehicle to guide you to the trailer. When it’s lined up, put the vehicle in park and engage the parking brake.
- Crank down the trailer hitch: Crank down the jack using the hand-crank lever. Keep cranking until the rounded end (the coupler) of the trailer hitch is securely over the ball.
- Secure the coupler: Once the coupler is covering the ball, close the coupler and use a coupler pin to lock it in place. Raise the trailer tongue a few inches to make sure the ball is locked into the coupler.
- Attach the safety chains: Crisscross your trailer safety chains under the tongue and attach them to slots on your hitch. The crisscross pattern helps work as a cradle if the trailer detaches from the hitch.
- Plug in electricals: Plug in the wiring harness to the plug on the back of your vehicle so your trailer lights come on. Check that your lights are working by having a friend press the brake and turn on the turn signals.
- Lift the jack: Now that the trailer is secured to your vehicle, you can crank the trailer jack up. There should be a pin system that allows you to secure the jack to the side of the trailer tongue safely.
- Do another safety check: You should be ready to go, but it’s a good idea to do another safety check to make sure your trailer is hooked up properly. Run through each connection between the vehicle and trailer to check if it’s attached and locked in place.
Loading the Trailer
Loading your trailer might seem like the easiest part of towing, but it can lead to swaying if not done correctly. Follow these safety tips when loading your trailer:
- Put heavier loads toward the front: Loading most of the cargo weight in front of the axle helps prevent swaying.
- Chock the wheels: Wheel chocks are blocks that go in front of and behind the wheels to make the trailer more stable when loading.
- Park on a level surface: A level surface helps prevent the trailer from shifting when you load it.
- Use tie-downs: Tie-downs, cargo straps, and cargo nets help keep your cargo in your trailer and off of the road.
Driving Safely While Towing
With the trailer attached and loaded, it’s time to hit the road. Driving with a trailer is a lot like driving in the rain — you’ll need to go slower, be defensive, and think ahead. Use these guidelines when towing a trailer:
- Go slow: Towing a trailer means your vehicle works harder, you have a longer stopping distance, and you can’t turn as fast. Slowing down makes it easier to identify hazards with enough time to avoid them.
- Turn wide: A trailer makes your vehicle longer than normal. You’ll need to turn wide enough for both your vehicle and the trailer to avoid curbs or other objects.
- Stop early: Even if you have electronic trailer brakes, your vehicle is going to take longer to stop when pulling a trailer. Plan to take your time stopping so you’re not getting pushed forward by the weight of your trailer.
- Use low gear for Hills: If you’re going to be climbing up or down large hills, put your vehicle into low gear to help with the climb. When going downhill, ease off the gas instead of holding the brakes so you don’t cause the trailer to sway.
- Straighten out sway: If your trailer does start to sway, don’t hit the brakes hard or try to counter-steer. Drive straight and take your foot off of the accelerator until the swaying stops and you can pull over safely to fix the problem.
- Watch your height: Travel trailers or large boats can often be taller than your vehicle. Be sure you know how tall your trailer and cargo are before attempting to go under low bridges or gateways.
Practice Makes Perfect
The best way to safely tow a trailer is to get used to towing. Try to spend time practicing towing your vehicle on quiet roads or in empty parking lots before you get on a busy highway. Consider using traffic cones to drive through an obstacle course and remember to practice backing up.
With enough practice and time towing on the road, you’ll be able to easily hook up a trailer and tow it with confidence.