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How to Drive with a Trailer

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How to Drive with a Trailer

Driving with a trailer can be a challenging but rewarding experience allowing you to transport cargo, recreational vehicles or equipment. A trailer extends your vehicle’s cargo space, providing additional room to carry large, heavy or bulky items that may not fit inside your car or truck.

It allows you to efficiently transport everything from furniture, appliances and construction materials to landscaping supplies, recreational vehicles, livestock and agricultural equipment. With a trailer by your side, you gain flexibility, convenience and peace of mind knowing that you can easily haul your belongings or equipment. It becomes a dependable companion, expanding your capabilities and opening up a world of efficient and hassle-free transportation possibilities.

If you are driving with a trailer for the first time, prepare adequately to ensure a safe and smooth driving experience. Learning how to tow a trailer might at first be daunting, but with proper preparation, it can be a breeze!

Table of Contents

1. Determine if Your Vehicle Is Suitable for Towing the Trailer

Understanding your towing vehicle’s capacity and limitations is crucial. Consult the vehicle’s manual or contact the manufacturer to determine the maximum towing and tongue weight it can safely handle.

You can also determine if your vehicle is suitable by calculating the total weight of your setup, including the weight of the vehicle, trailer, cargo and passengers. This total weight must not exceed the Gross Combined Weight Rating (GCWR) specified by the vehicle manufacturer. The GCWR is the maximum weight that your vehicle can safely tow.

Here are some key points to consider when configuring your system:

  • Towing capacity: Remember that SUVs and 4×4 trucks may have lower towing capacity due to increased weight. If you don’t need 4×4 capability, a rear-wheel-drive vehicle may be a better choice for towing.
  • Wheelbase: Vehicles with longer wheelbases generally have higher towing capacity and better control when towing a trailer.
  • Torque: Diesel trucks generally have higher towing ratings due to their higher torque, while gasoline-powered vehicles may have lower ratings.
  • Axle ratio: The axle ratio of a vehicle can affect its towing power and fuel efficiency. A higher ratio may provide better pulling power but may also result in lower fuel economy. A lower ratio may result in better fuel economy but may have lower pulling power.

2. Select an Appropriate Trailer

There are many different types of trailers, and some are more suitable for certain uses than others. Some common types of trailers include:

Flat Deck Trailer

A flat-floor trailer may be a good option if you need to tow a car, ATV or other items. A single-axle trailer is sufficient for lighter loads that weigh less than 2,500 pounds. We recommend double-axle trailers for heavier loads.

You can also decide between an enclosed trailer or an open trailer. Enclosed trailers are suitable for transporting general cargo, but they tend to be heavier than open trailers.

Travel Trailer

If you want to bring your home with you on your travels, a travel trailer, also called a camper, may be a good option. These trailers are attached to regular hitches and come in a range of sizes, from 2,000 pounds to over 10,000 pounds. Another option is a gooseneck or fifth-wheel trailer, which has a special hitch that makes it easier to tow.

3. Choose a Hitch and Ball that are Suitable for Your Needs

There are five classes of conventional hitches, each of which is designed for towing a specific weight range.

  • Class 1 hitches are rated for a maximum weight of 2,000 pounds.
  • Class 2 hitches are rated for a maximum weight of 3,500 pounds.
  • Class 3 hitches are rated for a maximum weight of 8,000 pounds.
  • Class 4 hitches are rated for a maximum weight of 10,000 pounds.
  • Class 5 hitches are rated for a maximum weight of 12,000 pounds.

If you have a car, it likely has a hitch that is no higher than Class 3. However, some larger SUVs and trucks have hitches that fall into the Class 3 to Class 5 range.

All conventional hitches have receiver tubes that accept the ball and ball mount. The hitch class determines the size of the receiver tube. Class 1 and 2 hitches have receiver tubes with a diameter of 1.25 inches, while Class 3 hitches have receiver tubes that are 2 inches in diameter. Class 4 and 5 hitches may have receiver tubes that are either 2 or 2.5 inches in diameter, depending on the specific configuration.

The trailer must sit level from front to back. If your trailer is not level, you can purchase an adjustable ball mount to adjust the height of the ball to the desired level. The size of the ball needed for towing the trailer is usually marked on the coupler and will depend on the weight of the trailer. Standard ball sizes include 1 7/8, 2 inches and 2 5/16 inches. Ensure that the weight capacity of the ball exceeds the weight of the fully loaded trailer.

If you need to tow a load that exceeds 12,000 pounds, you will likely need to use a heavy-duty truck and either a fifth-wheel or gooseneck hitch. In a towing setup with a fifth-wheel or gooseneck hitch, the ball and hitch are located in the bed of the truck, either in front of or behind the rear axle.

Fifth-wheel hitches are typically able to handle a maximum weight of 25,000 pounds.

Gooseneck hitches have a ball-type setup and generally have a maximum weight capacity of 30,000 pounds.

4. Properly Connect the Trailer to Your Vehicle

If you are new to towing, it is normal to refer back to this list multiple times before you get it right. Before connecting, inspect the trailer hitch and coupler for any signs of damage or wear. To safely attach a trailer to your towing vehicle, follow these steps:

Properly Connect the Trailer to Your Vehicle
  • Insert the ball mount into the receiver tube of your hitch.
  • Position your vehicle so that it is directly in front of the trailer coupler, making sure that the coupler is higher than the ball.
  • Slowly back up until the ball is directly beneath the coupler. If your vehicle has a backup camera, use it. If not, ask a friend to help you position the vehicle. Once you are directly beneath the coupler, put your vehicle in park and set the parking brake.
  • Lower the coupler onto the ball by turning the twist handle on the tongue of the trailer. This handle operates the jack, the metal bar that supports the trailer when it is not connected to the vehicle.
  • Attach the coupler to the ball using the latch or cotter pin.
  • Check the connection by lifting the tongue to ensure it is secure.
  • Raise the trailer jack so it is entirely out of the way.
  • Attach the safety chains to your vehicle using a criss-cross pattern and ensure they do not touch the ground.
  • Test the trailer lights by plugging in the electrical connector and checking the turn signals and brake lights.
  • Ensure that the hitch is securely attached and locked in place. Double-check the safety chains, breakaway switch and electrical connections, ensuring they are correctly connected and functioning.

5. Load Your Trailer in a Safe and Balanced Way

Proper weight distribution is crucial when loading your trailer. If the weight at the back of the trailer is too heavy, it can cause the trailer to swing or sway side to side, known as fishtailing. On the other hand, if the front of the trailer is too heavy, it may cause your vehicle to sag, negatively impacting handling and braking performance.

In general, it is recommended that the weight at the front of the trailer (called the “tongue weight”) should not exceed 15% of the total weight of the trailer. This helps to ensure proper balance and stability when towing. Tongue-weight scales can help you determine the correct weight distribution, and some ball mounts even have a built-in scale to help you ensure that the trailer is loaded correctly.

Ensure the trailer’s weight is evenly distributed from side to side and front to back. Avoid overloading the trailer or placing too much weight on the rear, as it can lead to instability or sway. Refer to the trailer’s weight limits and follow manufacturer guidelines for proper weight distribution.

Some additional tips to consider include:

  • Install telescoping tow mirrors: These mirrors can extend outward from the side of your vehicle, providing a wider field of view and helping you to see any vehicles or objects that may be behind or beside you while towing.
  • Check tires on your trailer are in good condition: Trailer tires are different from car tires and may require different inflation pressures, so it’s important to check the manufacturer’s recommendations and follow them closely.
  • Check towing vehicle tires: Properly inflated tires can help to improve handling and reduce the risk of problems while towing. Check the tires for proper inflation, tread wear and any signs of damage.

6. Understand Best Practices for Towing a Trailer on the Road

Now that you have properly hooked up and loaded your trailer, you’re almost ready to hit the road. However, you need to be extra cautious as you are now driving a much heavier and longer vehicle. Safe driving practices are paramount when towing a trailer to ensure the well-being of yourself, your passengers and other road users. If your vehicle has a tow/haul mode, make sure to activate it, as this will optimize the transmission and engine settings for towing. Learn how to drive with a trailer with the following best practices:

Prepare Thoroughly

Begin by familiarizing yourself with your jurisdiction’s legal requirements and regulations for trailer towing. Research specific towing laws, including speed limits, weight restrictions and any additional permits or licenses that may be necessary.

You’ll also want to conduct a thorough pre-trip inspection before hitting the road and service the trailer and its components if needed. Here’s what to check:

  • Lights: Inspect the headlights, taillights, brake lights and signals to ensure they work.
  • Structure: Examine the trailer’s structural integrity, including the frame, axles and suspension.
  • Cargo: Confirm that the cargo is securely fastened and evenly distributed to maintain stability during travel.

Here are a few other tips to consider when preparing to tow a trailer:

  • Route planning: Carefully plan your route to avoid obstacles like construction, heavy traffic and steep inclines. You’ll also want to consider any potential restrictions specific to towing a trailer, such as low-clearance bridges or narrow roads.
  • Fuel consumption: Towing increases fuel consumption, so plan for more frequent fuel stops and monitor your fuel gauge closely. To improve fuel efficiency, maintain a consistent speed, avoid rapid acceleration or deceleration, and drive within recommended speed limits.
  • Safety kit: Consider purchasing a roadside safety kit that includes reflectors, flares and first-aid supplies. These items can be essential in the event of an emergency or breakdown while towing, helping to make your vehicle more visible to other drivers and providing you with the tools and supplies you may need until help arrives.

Adjust Side Mirrors and Visibility

Adjust Side Mirrors and Visibility

Adjust your side mirrors for optimal visibility, given your towing setup’s increased length and width. Ensure that you can see the lanes beside and behind the trailer. Consider using extended mirrors or supplementary towing mirrors if necessary. Additionally, be mindful of unseen areas the trailer creates and make adjustments to compensate for reduced visibility.

Modify Your Driving Technique

When towing a trailer, you’ll need to adjust your driving technique to accommodate the increased length, weight and braking distances. Allow for longer stopping distances and avoid sudden or aggressive maneuvers. Instead of relying on the brakes, downshift the transmission to help slow the vehicle and trailer. This can help to prevent the brakes from overheating and potentially failing.

Handling and maneuvering a trailer requires a different set of skills compared to driving without one. Understanding the dynamics of towing and employing proper techniques will enhance your ability to navigate the road safely and confidently.

  • Brake sooner: Remember to brake sooner as you now carry more mass and will need more time to stop.
  • Anticipate longer stopping distances: Trailers require longer distances to come to a complete stop due to the additional weight. Be mindful of this increased stopping distance and avoid tailgating.
  • Use trailer brakes effectively: If your trailer has brakes, use them with your vehicle’s brakes for optimal stopping power. Familiarize yourself with the trailer brake controller and understand how to apply the brakes smoothly and progressively to prevent jerking or skidding.
  • Maintain a safe speed: Do not exceed the recommended top speed of 55 mph for towing a trailer.
  • Maintain a safe following distance: Allow for a greater following space when towing a trailer than driving without one. The added weight and length of the trailer increase the time it takes to stop.
  • Communicate your intentions early: Communicate your intentions to other drivers using turn signals well in advance, giving them sufficient time to anticipate your actions and adjust their driving accordingly.
  • Turn carefully: Turning with a trailer requires wider turns to accommodate the extended length. Take turns slowly and make wider arcs to avoid striking curbs or other obstacles.
  • Change lanes slowly: Signal your lane changes earlier than usual, and be patient. Monitor the trailer’s position with your mirrors and maintain a safe distance.

Master Backing up Techniques

Backing up a trailer can be challenging but becomes easier with practice. Begin using open space to practice straight-line backing, aiming for a specific target. As you gain confidence, progress to more complex maneuvers, such as reversing around corners or into parking spots. Remember to steer in the opposite direction you want the trailer to go and make minor, precise adjustments.

Be Mindful of Trailer Sway and Crosswinds

Trailer sway or fishtailing can occur when the trailer’s movement influences the towing vehicle. To prevent or minimize trailer sway, ensure the trailer is loaded correctly with the heaviest items positioned low and towards the front. Distribute the weight evenly to maintain stability. Additionally, consider using sway control devices, such as sway bars or weight distribution hitches, to reduce sway and improve control.

If the trailer starts to sway or swing side to side, slightly reduce your throttle input rather than braking. Braking can sometimes make fishtailing worse, so it’s generally best to reduce power and let the vehicle and trailer slow down naturally.

Crosswinds can affect the stability of your towing setup. When encountering strong winds, reduce your speed, maintain a firm grip on the steering wheel and make slight adjustments to counteract the wind’s force. Anticipate gusts when passing large vehicles or driving through open areas prone to strong winds.

Use the Latest Technology

Many newer SUVs and trucks come equipped with technology that helps to improve the handling and stability of a trailer while towing. These systems may include features such as trailer sway control, which helps to correct for any lateral movement of the trailer or a trailer brake controller, which allows the driver to adjust the braking force applied by the trailer’s brakes.

Additionally, many automakers offer trailer tow packages that include the appropriate hitch, larger mirrors and trailer brakes specifically designed for use with their vehicles. These packages can be a good option for drivers who plan to do a lot of towing, as they provide everything you need in one convenient package.

Use Extra Care When Parking

Parking a trailer requires careful consideration and precision. With practice, you can maneuver into a parking spot, back up and navigate through tight spaces. Here are essential tips for parking and navigation when towing a trailer:

Use Extra Care When Parking
  • Choose appropriate parking spaces: Select parking spaces that accommodate the length and width of your towing setup. Avoid parking in congested areas or tight spots that may make it difficult to enter or exit without potential damage to your vehicle or trailer or other vehicles.
  • Use spotters: Spotters can help you park safely by providing clear instructions and signaling any potential obstacles or clearance issues.
  • Take advantage of pull-through parking: Whenever possible, opt for pull-through parking spaces that allow you to drive forward into a spot and avoid the need for complex reversing maneuvers.
  • Be cautious of overhead obstacles: Avoid overhead obstructions such as low-hanging branches, signs or structures when navigating with a trailer.

Practice Hill Start Techniques

When starting on an incline, engaging the parking brake and releasing it gradually while applying the throttle can prevent the trailer from rolling backward. Practice this technique to gain confidence in hill starts and ensure a smooth transition from stationary to forward motion.

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Frequently Asked Questions

If you are new to buying a trailer, you may have many questions. To assist you, here are answers to some common questions that first-time towers often ask.

  • Do you need a special license to tow a trailer? Different states have different rules and regulations regarding the operation of vehicles towing trailers. Check with your insurance company and familiarize yourself with the specific requirements in your state to ensure that you are in compliance with all laws and regulations.
  • Can towing a trailer damage a transmission? Towing can cause significant damage if your vehicle is poorly maintained or if you make common towing mistakes.
  • What is the speed limit for towing a trailer? Speed limits vary by state, but many have a maximum speed of 55 mph for towing a trailer. Be sure to check the laws in your state.
  • How does towing a trailer affect gas mileage? Towing a trailer can significantly reduce fuel efficiency, with the amount of weight you are hauling directly impacting the decrease in gas mileage.
  • Can you tow an unregistered trailer? Whether or not you can legally tow an unregistered trailer depends on the laws and regulations in your state. In general, it is a good assumption that a license plate is required for a trailer unless specific exceptions apply.
  • Does car insurance cover towing a trailer? Auto insurance policies generally provide liability coverage for a trailer if you own it and pull it with your insured vehicle when the accident occurs. However, insurance company policies and state laws can vary, so it is best to check with your insurance provider for specific coverage details.
  • Should the trailer be level while towing? It is generally recommended to try to maintain a level trailer when towing, as this can improve braking performance, ground clearance and stability. If it is not possible to keep the trailer level, the next best option is usually to lower the nose of the trailer. This can help to improve the balance and stability of the towing setup, reducing the risk of problems such as fishtailing or swaying.
Consult With an Expert at Brechbill Trailer Sales for Guidance and Information

Consult With an Expert at Brechbill Trailer Sales for Guidance and Information

With Brechbill Trailers’ extensive selection of high-quality trailers and unwavering commitment to customer satisfaction, we are your trusted source for all your trailer requirements. Whether you’re searching for a dump trailer, equipment trailer, utility trailer or any other type, we have you covered. Our live inventory ensures you’ll find the ideal solution for your hauling needs.

We offer a wide range of trailers and provide exceptional customer service and support. Our team of dedicated professionals ensures that your trailer remains in top condition with our expert repair services and an extensive online parts store.

At Brechbill Trailer Sales, we are here to help you with any questions you may have about our trailers or delivery options. You can reach out to us through our contact form, and we will respond promptly. You can also speak with one of our knowledgeable representatives by calling (717) 262-6383.

In addition, we invite you to browse our extensive selection of towing accessories on our website.

Request a quote today to start your trailer ownership journey!