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10 Towing Tips

By Martin O’Neil

Moving heavy, bulky loads around, whether it’s a camper, a boat trailer or anything else that attaches to the back of a vehicle, can be a tricky process. Driving a vehicle with another set of wheels hitched up behind it is a lot different than driving a vehicle by itself, so there are several issues you have to keep in mind while towing.

Small overlooked details will make the ride bumpy and uncomfortable and potentially shift or damage any load you’re towing.

Although it may look like an elaborate setup, there are several easy steps to take to ensure a safe and secure towing trip. Some involve making quick, regular checkups on equipment, while others involve simply being aware of your vehicle’s specific towing capabilities. How much weight can your car or truck tow, anyway? Is there any extra gear you need to buy before heading out? How should you adjust your driving technique in order to make the drive safer? For 10 easy tips that make towing more efficient and effective, read on.

1: Know Your Towing Capacity

Before you start hauling an endless amount of cargo into a trailer, it’s best to know the towing capacity of your car, truck, SUV or recreational vehicle. Towing too much weight can cause a myriad of problems, no matter how big and powerful your engine is. The first thing to do is refer to the owner’s manual of your vehicle, which should give you specific numbers regarding how much weight you can tow.

There are also a few definitions you should keep in mind:

Base curb weight – this is, in simplest terms, the actual weight of your entire vehicle, including all fluids (i.e. a full tank of gas, engine oil, coolant, transmission fluid and others) and any additional equipment.

Cargo weight – cargo weight includes the weight of the passengers, cargo and any optional equipment (i.e. a sunroof).

Allowable Payload – this is the maximum amount of weight, including cargo and passengers, a vehicle can carry.

Knowing how much weight your vehicle can tow will keep your ride safe and help you better prepare for loading. Once you know how much cargo you can carry, though, exactly how you place that cargo is another problem; read about proper distribution on the next page.

2: Proper Weight Distribution

If you’ve ever had to move yourself to a different house or apartment, you’ve probably had to deal with moving all of your stuff, packing things away into a moving truck. Most likely you moved the larger objects like furniture and the television first, maybe tying them down with rope to keep them in place. Next you brought in the smaller objects like boxes, placing them around the bigger objects. You also probably didn’t construct tall columns out of your belongings, knowing the slightest turn could send everything toppling.

These same principles need to be taken into consideration when towing, since it’s nearly the same thing as moving heavy objects in a moving truck. Keeping aware of the proper weight distribution is a simple way to make a towing job much smoother and safer.

It’s always best to begin loading the heaviest cargo first; tying it down with rope or bungee cords so it doesn’t shift while the vehicle is in motion. Smaller cargo should follow and fill the spaces in between. The cargo’s center of gravity should be low, and about 60 percent of its weight should be toward the front. You should also balance the sides of the trailer in order to reduce the chance of it flipping. Once you have everything in its right place, the next step involves being able to see behind you.

3: Check Your Mirrors

If you’ve ever driven a larger truck or any vehicle without a rear-view mirror, you might understand the importance of proper side-view mirrors. Without the ability to see the cars behind you by simply looking up, switching lanes becomes a much more dangerous maneuver.

Side-view mirrors typically come in two types: Regular side-view and extended side-view. Regular side-view mirrors are much like the ones you can find on in any car or truck – they help you see traffic in the lanes directly next to yours. Extended side-view mirrors, on the other hand, let drivers see both rear- and side-approaching traffic. They’re usually bigger and taller than regular side-view mirrors, and they’re necessary if your tow vehicle is pulling a trailer that completely blocks your rear-view sight.

4: Light Your Way

When you’re driving at night, it’s a given that you need to have all your lights in working order. A busted headlight or a brake light can put other drivers or pedestrians at risk, and if the police take notice, they can pull you over and write you a ticket.

Not only is it doubly important to have working lights when you’re towing; you also need to double your lights. Laws in many states require that a towed vehicle, whether it’s a car trailer, a boat trailer or a camper, must have operable lights, including brake lights, tail lights and turn signals. All of these lights also need to synch up with the vehicle you’re driving, so that the moment you step on the brakes, both sets of brake lights illuminate at exactly the same moment.

5: Routine Tyre Maintenance

Checking your tyres is a smart thing to do in any situation. Like other automotive components, tyres wear down and need continual maintenance and replacement. Ignoring tyres is especially dangerous since a flat can either leave you stranded or cause an accident.

It’s just as important, if not more so, to closely monitor your tyres when towing – aside from worrying about the tow vehicle itself, you also have to keep in mind the extra sets of wheels belonging to the towed vehicle. You should keep the tires properly inflated, following the manufacturer’s guidelines. Tyres that are over or underinflated will create trailer sway, so make sure you add the right amount of air pressure. It’s also a good idea to check your lug nuts to make sure they’re secure.

Proper tyre inflation will help you stop safely when you apply the brakes, which brings us to our next towing tip.

6: Synchronize Your Brakes

Just as the lighting systems on both the tow vehicle and the trailer need to operate simultaneously, so do the braking systems. This prevents the tow vehicle from having to do all the work when it’s time to put on the brakes.

Of course, it’s also good to make sure that the brakes are working properly. Poorly functioning brakes could spell disaster on the road, and if they ever failed, the added weight from the cargo would only make a collision that much more dangerous. Give yourself plenty of extra room for braking. Avoiding heavy braking will reduce most wear and tear – applying your foot gently to the brake is the best method.

Another way to cut the risk of an accident is to watch your speed.

7: Slow Down!

Sometimes we all feel the need for speed. Pressing our foot down on the gas pedal and feeling the car accelerate can give us a natural rush. Those of us who’ve ridden in fast, powerful sports cars probably know the feeling. When it comes to towing, however, excess speed is the last thing you need to feel.

With the added weight and length of a towed vehicle, the faster you travel, the more dangerous things will get. Increasing your speed will increase the amount of trailer sway behind you and make it much harder to stop quickly without the risk of skidding or even flipping. Speed also makes it more difficult to manoeuvre in traffic. Staying cautious and aware is the best way to ensure a safe trip while towing – so, slow down!

The hitch is one of the most important elements in towing, and choosing the right one matters.

8: Choose the Right Hitch

Some tow vehicles come with factory-mounted hitches, but for all the others that give the driver the option to choose, finding the right hitch is a very important step to take.

There are basically two types of hitches:

  • Weight-carrying Hitches; and
  • Weight-distributing Hitches.

Weight-carrying hitches are recommended for trips when the combined weight of the trailer and cargo is 3,500 pounds (1,588 kilograms) or less. Weight-distributing hitches, on the other hand, are recommended for heavier loads. When there’s too much weight in a trailer, the tongue weight – the downward pressure that the tongue exerts on the hitch ball — can get too high. This causes the tow vehicle and trailer to sag, which can make the whole setup look like a very wide ‘V’.

A weight-distributing hitch redistributes the tongue weight to the axles of the tow vehicle and trailer, which keeps both vehicles level, or parallel to the ground.

Everything on the outside of your tow vehicle is important, but the inside is equally important.

9: Stay Cool

By adding more weight to your vehicle when towing, you’re making its drivetrain do a lot of extra work. Extra weight leads to extra heat under the hood, which can add strain to your transmission and wear it out too quickly.

Adding a transmission cooler, especially if your tow vehicle is an automatic, will significantly reduce the temperature of the oil circulating through your vehicle’s transmission. Also, simply adding a higher-capacity radiator or installing an additional cooling fan will help save you money in the long run on expensive repairs to worn-out systems.

What’s one of the best tips to consider before heading out on a towing trip? As the old saying goes, practice makes perfect.

10: Practice Makes Perfect

Before heading out onto the road and surrounding yourself with angry drivers and tractor-trailer trucks, the best thing you can do to ensure a safe towing trip is to practice driving.

Choose an area that’s far away from traffic, like an empty parking lot, and perform simple driving tasks with everything hitched up. Try backing up and using your mirrors, and pay close attention to the vehicle’s turning radius. Learn to accelerate and brake slowly on longer stretches of road – remember, the more weight you’re carrying, the longer it’s going to take to slow down.

Once you have the perfect tow vehicle and all the right equipment, sticking to these few simple tips can turn a bumpy ride into an easy one.