Towing an RV trailer isn’t difficult, but it does take the right hardware, some technical knowledge and good old-fashioned experience to pull off safe and successful recreational towing. Many of us tow thousands of miles and enjoy every minute. Well, OK, almost every minute, but the point is we’ve learned the ropes and can tow with confidence. None of us started as a towing pro, but after some towing time, we start to get that feeling as the miles roll away.
If you’re just starting as an RV-towing enthusiast, you may have the owner’s manuals and guides and how-to videos in hand, and those are great for the basics. But some details are more esoteric, and that’s where experience comes in.
1.) Know the weights. The first step toward assembling a well-matched tow vehicle and trailer combination is knowing all of the weights and weight ratings. The ratings are fairly easy because the tow rig and trailer are fitted with data plates that list gross vehicle weight rating (gvwr) and gross axle weight rating (gawr) for the vehicles. Further perusal in the owner’s manual or an online directory will reveal the tow rig’s gross combination weight rating (gcwr) and its tow rating.
You may know the manufacturer’s curb weight estimate for the tow rig, and the dry or as-built weight for the RV. Neither of these figures reflects what the vehicle weighs in real-life use. Do you tow with your trailer’s fluids empty and devoid of any cargo or options? Or do you leave your family, toolboxes and such at home? Other than coming home from the dealer, probably not.
Take your vehicles to a certified scale, such as the publicly accessible CAT scale at a truck stop, to get the straight scoop. Load your tow rig as you would for an RV adventure with people and major cargo aboard. Likewise, weigh the trailer when it’s loaded for the trip for a true representation of your operating condition. That’s the best way to know exactly where you stand.
For complete information about how to apply those numbers, see the 2011 Guide to Towing at www.trailerlife.com as well as the resources at www.rv.net.
2.) Count the parts. Your tow rig and trailer lashup is an assemblage of hundreds of parts and pieces, and those parts need to be in the right places and connected to their proper brethren for you to enjoy safe trailering. It’s time well spent to take a few minutes to check those parts now and then to be sure they’re all in order.
This is especially true of your hitch hardware. You can be in a world of hurt if it should let go or experience a catastrophic failure of some kind.
Familiarize yourself with what the hardware looks like at home, in the driveway, under relaxed conditions where you can concentrate, so you can have a basis for comparison should something go missing. Some RVers apply something like a dab of red fingernail polish to the area near the ball-mount bolts, washers and nuts for example. If the nut comes loose, the red polish dots won’t be lined up anymore. That’s a quick inspection indicator. Count your parts to avoid surprises later.
3.) Use a checklist. Before you park your butt behind the wheel and hit the road, you should follow the example set by the aviation industry and use a detailed checklist to be sure your rig is road ready.
The checklist should include the obvious, such as engine oil, coolant and transmission fluid; hitch hardware; brake, turn and running lights on the trailer; and so forth. Also inspect the less-obvious: Check your rear-view mirrors for adjustment and solidity. Get down on your hands and knees and take a look at the trailer axles and undercarriage and look for anything amiss. If you know what your RV looks like in good shape, it won’t take long to spot a problem.
Another frequent Trailer Life contributor, Chuck Campbell, taught me an excellent lesson that applies to the checklist procedure: Avoid talking to people when hitching up a trailer so you can concentrate, step by step and undistracted, on the important task at hand. I once set up a hitch with two kibitzers close by. Soon I was ready to drive off, gave one last cursory glance, and saw the hitch-pin retainer clip sitting on the bumper instead of where it belonged. Yikes! Lesson learned. Thanks, Chuck.
4.) Maintain your tires, bearings and brakes. There are a lot of small mechanical items that can cause functional hiccups for your trailer, but tires and axle bearings are right at the top of the go/no-go list.
Your axle bearings should be checked and repacked at least once a year. How often have you seen a trailer stranded by the side of the road with one wheel and hub assembly missing because the bearings went bad, overheated and the axle end broke off? It’s an easy scenario to avoid.
Brakes need to be in good shape, period. A periodic inspection by a qualified professional should be on your must-do list as a high priority. There’s not much mystery about this suggestion.
Likewise, know the recommended pressure for your tires and check them regularly, as in at least once before every trip.
If seemingly unexplainable tire failures plague your travels, look for an overweight situation (see No. 1 on this list). If that’s not it, have your trailer axles checked for alignment, and have your trailer tires balanced. Not many people balance trailer tires, but doing so will extend tread life and possibly help deter unexpected tire carcass failures.
5.) Practice. There is no substitute for time behind the wheel when it comes to getting more comfortable — and competent — when driving a tow rig and trailer. It isn’t all on-the-job training, of course. There are several driver-training schools nationwide that specifically teach the tools of the trade for towing a trailer and they’re great for giving you the background information and basics you need. Learning to back up is an especially valuable bit of curriculum you’ll pick up at these classes.
Once you have the basics in hand, you need to get out there and use them. You may feel a bit nervous at first, but after you’ve spend some time on the road, enjoying your newfound recreational freedom, you’ll relax and enjoy the drive as much as you enjoy the destination.
6.) Look over your shoulder. As the old cowboy saying goes, “When you’re riding ahead of the herd, look back now and then to make sure it’s still behind you.” Don’t just motor ahead, blithely unaware and unconcerned about what’s going on aft of your ears.
Scan your side rear-view mirrors now and then and, especially, look down toward the wheel wells. By law, your mirrors should be wide enough that you can see behind you past the trailer side walls. For example, you’ll want to notice right away if there’s a cloud of hazy smoke or, worse yet, flaps of tire rubber flailing around, unheard in the tow rig. Those are good warning signs that it’s time to stop. Don’t wait for that rare considerate fellow motorist who rolls up next to you, frantically gesticulates and points back toward the trailer to tell you something’s up.
7.) Bring along some walkie-talkies. Most consumer products, hardware, electronics and sporting-goods stores sell inexpensive so-called “family band” or FMRS two-way radios. Buy a set of these, perhaps for less than $40 a pair, and take them with you on your RV travels. You’ll find these are extremely handy tools to have around and they’ll probably be the best RV-accessory money you’ve spent in a long time. (See the article, “Over ’N’ Out,” in the July 2010 issue of Trailer Life for more details about two-way radios.)
We most often use them when backing into a campsite. My wife Pam walks back into the spot, checking for low-hanging limbs, perimeter low-slung and scarcely visible boundary marking posts or other hazards. We prearrange where the trailer should end up. She talks me back using our standard nomenclature we’ve worked out: “Trailer has to turn left/trailer has to turn right/come back/stop/go forward and move the trailer right on the pad” and so on. No arm-waving, yelling or misunderstanding has to happen, and backing is a smooth, painless process.
It makes for a boring show for your campground neighbors, far less stress for you and helps eliminate backup damage.
8.) Adjust your hitch and brake control. Hitch adjustment is no big deal for a fifth-wheel trailer. You set it so the trailer clears the truck bed and away you go.
For conventional trailers, an equalizing or weight-distributing (WD) hitch needs to be properly adjusted for effective operation. It can haul the trailer under most any adjustment setup, but to achieve its functional benefits, it has to be set right. In short, it should equally distribute the trailer hitch weight between the tow rig’s front and rear axles. The most common fault is insufficient spring-bar tension. If in doubt, consult with your local hitch shop professional.
Your brake control, be it aftermarket or integrated with the truck from the factory, should also be adjusted according to specifications if it’s to function well. A well-adjusted brake control takes the aggravation, and possibly the fear, out of stopping with a trailer aboard.
The simple explanation is that the brake control should be tuned so the trailer brakes can never quite lock up completely, even with maximum application of the manual brake control. That’s the gain setting. The rate should be set so the trailer brakes apply in concert with the truck’s brakes and neither grab too fast or let the trailer push the truck. Some time-based controllers have only the gain setting; consult your local RV service center specialist if in doubt. Your trailer-brake performance is too important to guess.
9.) Know your limitations. This comes along with “practice makes perfect” when towing. With that extra payload lashed behind, be it a 2,000-pound lightweight or a 16,000-pound fifth-wheel, your driving capabilities are much different.
Your acceleration is slower, and so is braking. You can’t make the same kind of emergency maneuvers — directional or speed-related — you did without the trailer. Corners need to be taken wider, and backing is a new challenge until you get the hang of it. You’ll need to be aware of low roof overhangs and plan ahead more when choosing where to drive and park.
10.) Shift down and slow down. Just because your transmission has an overdrive gear (or two) doesn’t mean you should always use overdrive. It also doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with the truck when it can’t go up a 6-percent grade in overdrive gear at 60 mph towing your trailer. To expect it to do so is unrealistic and a bit foolish. When in hilly terrain, manually shift down to Direct gear, or even lower, to maintain a suitable engine RPM, avoid lugging the engine and deter transmission damage when it “hunts” from gear to gear. You’ll be traveling slower, but that’s OK, because you’re in hilly terrain.
What’s your rush? One sure way to drive more safely, experience less stress on the road, save fuel and arrive safely is to slow down when you’re towing. Don’t slow so far that you hinder traffic, as that’s rude, unsafe and unlawful. But the faster you tow, the more you risk your safety and the more fuel you burn.
Stick to the speed limit. On secondary state highways or curvy mountain roads don’t drive as if you’re in a sports car. Take it easy on those sharp corners. Plan on the unexpected, and lots of practice and knowing your limitations will help you arrive safely and happily.
See, that’s not so bad, is it? Now get out there and have fun with your trailer aboard. You’ll be glad you did.