When it comes to towing, there’s a lot of lingo that can seem intimidating at first. But the basics are simple: you must know your vehicle’s towing capacity, and your trailer’s GVWR.
You should also be aware of your trailer’s stopping distance, and avoid driving too close to the vehicle in front of you. This will help prevent a dangerous trailer sway.
1. Know Your Vehicle’s Towing Capacity
The towing capacity of your vehicle is the maximum amount of weight it can pull when towing a trailer. This number is different from the car or truck’s GVWR, which is the weight that it can handle with the cargo, passengers, and fuel inside the vehicle.
To determine your towing capacity, start by looking at your manufacturer’s specifications. This information is often found on a sticker in the driver’s door jamb or in the owner’s manual.
From there, you can calculate your towing capacity by using the GVWR and subtracting the vehicle’s curb weight. Make sure that the combined weight of your vehicle and trailer is under this number to avoid damaging either vehicle. Also, remember to distribute the weight evenly so that the load is balanced and easier to pull. This is especially important if you’re planning on hauling a large, heavy load.
2. Know Your Trailer’s Towing Capacity
Whether you’re new to towing or a seasoned pro, it’s always important to be aware of your vehicle and trailer’s maximum towing capacity. This number varies depending on the type of trailer and its weight, as well as how much cargo you plan to carry in it.
Unlike curb weight, which includes the vehicle’s fluids and a full tank of gas but not any passengers or cargo, the GVWR takes everything into account. Ensure that your towing setup won’t exceed the GVWR by using the manufacturer’s calculations when determining its maximum weight. Exceeding this limit can lead to dangerous handling, insufficient braking performance and serious damage to your vehicle’s frame, suspension and drive-train. Luckily, there’s plenty of information online to help you make this calculation. A good place to start is the vehicle manufacturer’s website. They’ll likely have a chart that compares their rated weights to the GVWR of various trailer types.
3. Know Your Trailer’s Weight
Knowing your trailer’s weight is critical to towing safely. It’s a number that tells you how much your trailer is capable of carrying and includes the weight of the trailer itself, as well as the cargo, passengers, equipment, and fluids you load onto it.
To determine your GTW, you can either weigh the trailer empty or use the manufacturer’s specs to estimate it. Either way, it’s important to keep in mind that the cargo weight on your trailer should be within 10-15% of your GTW to avoid trailer sway and maintain safe towing performance.
It’s also a good idea to check your trailer tires regularly and ensure that they have the correct pressure (usually listed on the tire sticker or in your vehicle’s owner manual). This will help to prevent over- or under-inflation, which can decrease your trailer’s handling capabilities and cause unsafe driving conditions.
4. Know Your Trailer’s Hitch
The hitch is what attaches to your vehicle’s receiver tube and connects to your trailer. There are many different types of hitches available – you want to make sure that the one you have matches the weight capacity of your trailer and that it’s rated for the load you’re hauling.
You’ll also need a safety chain and an emergency breakaway cable to keep your trailer from accidentally rolling away while you’re driving. Always use a spotter when backing up – having someone outside to help guide you can be invaluable, especially if you’re pulling something tall like a camper or boat.
Other essential towing components include a ball mount and hitch receiver (to secure the trailer to your tow vehicle), hitch ball, coupler and sway control kit. Also consider a fifth-wheel hitch for very large loads, or Ford’s Trailer Backup Assist system that lets pickup drivers steer and maneuver their truck and trailer using an onscreen display.
5. Know Your Trailer’s Brakes
Brakes are arguably the most important part of your trailer. While your vehicle’s brakes can bring your trailer to a stop in certain situations, heavier and larger loads require that the trailer have its own braking system.
Your trailer’s brake controller has a maximum output setting that controls how much force it uses to apply the trailer’s brakes. Adjust this setting by accelerating in a safe open area to about 25 mph and applying the brakes. If the trailer stops too slowly, increase the maximum output setting; if it stops too abruptly, decrease it.
It’s also a good idea to use a spotter while backing up, especially when first learning to back up with a new trailer. This will help you avoid hanging tree limbs and roof eaves that could threaten your safety or the trailer’s brakes.
6. Know Your Trailer’s Turn Signals
It’s important to make sure your trailer’s turn signals are working properly. This can help other drivers see your trailer better, especially at night. Make sure to have a friend stand behind your vehicle while you’re in park and check that the turn signals, tail lights and brake lights are all functioning correctly.
It takes longer to stop when you’re pulling a trailer, so be sure to leave extra space between you and the car in front of you. This can also help prolong the life of your brakes.
Practice makes perfect! Find an empty parking lot to practice backing up, driving and turning. It’s always a good idea to plan your route ahead of time, too. This can help you avoid roads that don’t allow trailers or have weight, height and width limits that may prevent you from traveling safely.
7. Know Your Trailer’s Tires
As your trailer’s primary means of contact with the road, your trailer tires are vitally important. Each tire has a load rating that corresponds to the maximum amount of weight it can safely carry when properly inflated. This is determined by looking at the tire’s sidewall, which should include a number indicating the tire’s maximum load capacity.
Blowouts are a common cause of trailer problems, and can be particularly dangerous at high speeds. It’s always best to stick with the recommended load and speed ratings for your trailer tires, and to keep them inflated at all times.
It’s also a good idea to store your trailer on blocks whenever possible, which helps take some of the strain off the tires. Additionally, having a tire pressure gauge handy is a great way to test your trailer tires, and ensure they’re properly inflated before every trip.
8. Know Your Trailer’s Wiring
The trailer industry uses several different styles of plugs and connectors. Regardless of the style, it is important to know how your trailer’s wires are laid out and what each circuit does.
The most common plug is a 4-pin trailer wiring connector, used for running lights, brakes, and taillights. Larger trailers may use 6-pin or 7-pin plugs, which add an extra circuit for auxiliary power.
Before making any changes to your trailer’s wiring, it is best to have a professional take a look at it. This will help ensure that the wiring is correct and safe to use. Whether you’re installing a new wire or troubleshooting one that is not working properly, it is important to test the wiring with a digital multimeter. Having someone operate the trailer’s lights and brake pedals will allow you to verify that the appropriate pins are reading 12v+ when the lights or brakes are activated from the vehicle.
9. Know Your Trailer’s Lights
Besides being required for safety reasons, trailer lights can improve visibility on your haul. The specific types of trailer lighting you’ll need depends on the size of your trailer, but most trailers are required to have tail lights, stop lights, turn signals, side marker lights and reflectors (for both sides of the trailer).
You may also want to consider adding interior lighting to your trailer for loading and unloading at night or other dark conditions. Interior lighting options include vehicle area lights, pivoting rail lights and dome light fixtures.
10. Know Your Trailer’s Tires
Your trailer’s tires are an important part of your towing system. They can make a big difference in your ride quality, so it’s important to keep them in good condition.
For starters, it’s a good idea to check the tire pressure on your trailer’s tires often. This will help ensure that they’re properly inflated, which can improve handling and fuel efficiency.
It’s also a good idea to use tires that have the correct load rating for your trailer. This will help prevent excessive heat build-up, which can lead to catastrophic blowouts.
At AJ’s Truck & Trailer Center, we recommend using bias ply tires with C or D load ranges for most trailer applications. This is because they have stiffer sidewalls that can increase stability and decrease sway, which results in a better ride quality. Additionally, it’s a good idea to keep your tires properly inflated to the manufacturer’s recommended pressure.