In the world of trailer towing, “Safety First” should always be the motto. There are many important things you should do to have a safe towing experience, but it all boils down to patience and common sense – and a few basics:
- Use the driving gear that the manufacturer recommends for towing. When going up or down a hill, you will probably need to gear down.
- Drive at moderate speeds. This will place less strain on your tow vehicle and trailer. Trailer instability (sway) is more likely to occur as speed increases. If your trailer does sway, allow yourself to slow down without applying the brakes. As you slow, the trailer will come under control.
- Avoid sudden stops and starts that can cause skidding, sliding, or cause the trailer to jackknife.
- Avoid sudden steering maneuvers that might create sway or undue side force on the trailer and remember to keep both hands on the wheel at all times.
- Slow down when traveling over bumpy roads, railroad crossings, and ditches.
- Make wider turns at curves and corners. Because your trailer’s wheels are closer to the inside of a turn than the wheels of your tow vehicle, they are more likely to hit or ride up over curbs.
- To control swaying caused by air pressure changes and wind buffeting when larger vehicles pass from either direction, release the accelerator pedal to slow down and keep a firm grip on the steering wheel (see second bullet above). Also, if you are having too much sway, the purchase of a sway control device is a must. Only a sway control device can significantly reduce sway, a weight distribution hitch cannot by itself reduce sway.
- Make sure your load is properly distributed in the trailer. For most RVs and boats, no problem but for cargo type trailers, open or enclosed, make sure that the bulk of the weight resides over the axle(s) of the trailer. If you cannot get your load properly leveled, you should investigate the purchase of a Weight Distributing Hitch. The purpose of a Weight Distribution Hitch or WDH is to level out the trailer. A trailer that is not properly distributed will not handle well and can cause serious problems – as well as a lack of good steering control and improper braking control. Most trailers (but not all) needing a WDH are heavy, RV type trailers. If not just for the comfort of the horses, most towing experts also recommend a WDH for all conventional style horse trailers.
- Allow considerably more distance for stopping.
- If you have an electric trailer brake controller and excessive sway occurs, activate the trailer brake controller by hand. Virtually all brake controls have some type of slide bar that can be activated with your fingers. Make sure you gradually slide the bar as power to the brakes will increase in proportion to the amount of slide you apply. Do not attempt to control trailer sway by applying the tow vehicle brakes; this will generally make the sway worse.
- Always anticipate the need to slow down. To reduce speed, shift to a lower gear and press the brakes lightly.
Acceleration and Passing
- When passing a slower vehicle or changing lanes, signal well in advance and make sure you allow extra distance to clear the vehicle before you pull back into the lane.
- Pass on level terrain with plenty of clearance. Avoid passing on steep upgrades or downgrades.
- If necessary, downshift for improved acceleration or speed maintenance.
- When passing on narrow roads, be careful not to go onto a soft shoulder. This could cause your trailer to jackknife or go out of control.
- If you are driving in the right hand lane and traffic is merging, if it is safe, you should carefully move to the passing lane and then move back once it is safe to do so.
- Again, if you are in the right hand lane and see a vehicle on the shoulder, especially emergency or highway patrol vehicles, safely move over to the passing lane until you are clear of the action. After you pass, safely proceed to move back into the right hand lane.
- If you are in a construction zone, you might notice that all of the trucks are in the left lane. This is so that merging traffic may enter safely. You should do likewise.
Downgrades and Upgrades
- Downshift to assist with braking on downgrades and to add power for climbing hills.
- On long downgrades, apply brakes at intervals to keep speed in check. Never leave brakes on for extended periods of time or they may overheat.
- Some tow vehicles have specifically calibrated transmission tow-modes. Be sure to use the tow-mode recommended by the manufacturer.
- Keep an eye on your vehicle temperature. Your transmission may be getting too hot from climbing hills (make sure you have some type heavy duty transmission cooler. Most OEM tow packages come with this feature, if not, consider the purchase of an aftermarket transmission cooler). If you are heating up, make frequent stops and let your vehicle cool down.
- Put your hand at the bottom of the steering wheel. To turn left, move your hand left. To turn right, move your hand right. Back up slowly. Because mirrors cannot provide all of the visibility you may need when backing up, have someone outside at the rear of the trailer to guide you, whenever possible. You also may need to purchase some additional towing mirrors to get a wider view. I have also seen some new camera devices that aid in backing you up.
- Use slight movements of the steering wheel to adjust direction. Exaggerated movements will cause greater movement of the trailer. If you have difficulty, pull forward and realign the tow vehicle and trailer and start again.
- Backing up to a conventional trailer can also be difficult. Getting the coupler right over the ball can be a real pain. There are some products out there with mirrors that can help and again, even some new camera devices that can help. Some prefer to have their spouse yell directions. Then again – some of us would rather pull forward and back a few times until we get it right.
- Try to avoid parking on grades. If possible, have someone outside to guide you as you park. Once stopped, but before shifting into Park, have someone place blocks on the downhill side of the trailer wheels. Apply the parking brake, shift into Park, and then remove your foot from the brake pedal. Following this parking sequence is important to make sure your vehicle does not become locked in Park because of extra load on the transmission. For manual transmissions, apply the parking brake and then turn the vehicle off in either first or reverse gear.
- When uncoupling a trailer, place blocks at the front and rear of the trailer tires to ensure that the trailer does not roll away when the coupling is released.
- An unbalanced load may cause the tongue to suddenly rotate upward; therefore, before un-coupling, place jack stands under the rear of the trailer to prevent injury.
The most important thing about driving while towing a trailer is to arrive safe. Remember, unless you are towing for work – you are on your way to have some fun.