How to Tow a Trailer. Borrowing your friend’s boat for a weekend at the lake sounds like a great idea until you realize you’ve got to drive it there. Whether you’re hooking up a camper, a vehicle, or another variety of trailer to your car, learning the specifications and the techniques for doing so will make your job a whole lot easier. Learn to hitch your trailer properly, drive it correctly, and back it up safely. See Step 1 for more information.
Vehicle weight and configuration
The most important four letters here are GCWR. This stands for Gross Combined Weight Rating, and refers to the weight not only of the vehicle, passengers and cargo, but also the trailer and its load. This number is determined by a car or truck manufacturer to be the maximum safe weight that a vehicle can tote all-in, so it’s important not to exceed this guideline.
Towing all comes down to configuration, with drivetrain, wheelbase, engine, hitch and gear ratios all playing their part. Here are some key things to know:
- Four-wheel-drive trucks and SUVs are heavier, which can diminish towing capacity. If you don’t need four-wheel-drive capability, stick to rear-wheel drive for maximum towing ability.
- Longer-wheelbase trucks and SUVs can tow more than their shorter counterparts, and generally offer better control when a trailer is hooked up.
- When it comes to power, for towing, it’s all about torque. That’s why diesel-powered trucks tend to have higher tow ratings than their gasoline counterparts.
- Many trucks and SUVs offer different axle ratios. A higher ratio means better pulling power, but can come at the expense of fuel economy. A lower axle ratio works the opposite way.
Example: A 2019 Ram 1500 with two-wheel drive, a 144.5-inch wheelbase, a 5.7-liter V8 and a 3.92 axle ratio is rated to tow 11,540 pounds. Switching to four-wheel drive reduces that number to 11,340 pounds. Switching to four-wheel drive and choosing the 3.21 axle ratio lowers the numbers further to 8,240 pounds.
Choosing a trailer
Flat trailers: When towing cars, all-terrain vehicles or general cargo, a flat-floor trailer works just fine. Single-axle trailers are better for light loads, up to about 2,500 pounds, while double-axle trailers are best for heavier items. Enclosed trailers are better for hauling general cargo, but are heavier than open trailers.
Towing a car without a trailer: If you’ve ever driven long distances on one of America’s highways, you’ve probably seen an RV pulling a Jeep, dinghy style. Generally speaking, you can attach a tow bar to a rear-wheel-drive, manual-transmission vehicle and pull it with the towed vehicle in neutral. A four-wheel-drive vehicle with a two-speed transfer case can also be towed this way, in neutral. Check your vehicle’s owners manual to see if it’s able to be towed with all four wheels flat on the road, or if you may need something like a drag-behind single-axle tow dolly.
Travel trailers: If you want to take your home on the road, a conventional travel trailer, or camper, might be your jam. These can be tiny little things weighing 2,500 pounds or 30-foot Airstream trailers tipping the scales at 10,000 pounds or more. These are attached to a standard hitch. You may also want a fifth-wheel or gooseneck trailer (see the next section for more information), which is more substantial, but its unique hitch setup means it’s a bit easier to tow.
Hitching Your Trailer
- Make sure your vehicle is rated for towing the load. You probably can’t tow an 8,000-pound full-size camper trailer with a Honda Civic. Depending upon the particular trailer you need to haul, you need to check to determine the weight limits in the owner’s manual and determine the appropriate hitch to have installed.
- The weight should be generally specified by the manufacturer and listed in the owner’s manual. Look online if you’re missing the manual, or check at an auto shop.
- You need to find two numbers, the gross trailer weight (GTW), which is the combined weight of the trailer and the gear on it, and the maximum tongue weight for your vehicle to determine the class of hitch you’ll need to tow the load.
- Get the appropriate class of hitch for your load installed. Generally, you’ll get a hitch receiver installed that you can use for different size trailer hitches, for class 3 and up. These receivers include a removable draw-bar that you can use to install different sized hitches for different loads you might use. If you get the largest receiver installed on your vehicle, you’ll be ready for any sized load your vehicle can handle, classified according to the following specs:
- Class 1: 2000 pounds GTW/200 pounds tongue weight
- Class 2: 3500 pounds GTW/350 pounds tongue weight
- Class 3: 5000 pounds GTW/500 pounds tongue weight
- Class 4: 7500 pounds GTW/750 pounds tongue weight
- Class 5: 10,000 pounds GTW/1000 pounds tongue weight
- Get the right-sized ball for the trailer. The larger the ball, the more weight it can carry. Basically, the ball of the hitch will come in one of three sizes:
- 1 7⁄8 inch (4.8 cm)
- 2 inch (5.1 cm)
- 2 5⁄16 inch (5.9 cm)
- Attach the trailer to the vehicle. Use the tongue jack to raise the trailer and align it with the ball. Make sure that the hitch lock is unlocked before lowering the trailer onto the ball and securing the tongue. Cross the safety chains to the hooks near the vehicle hitch or the vehicle frame, making sure there is enough slack in the chains but not so much that they drag on the ground.
- Using the tongue jack, try to raise the tongue off of the ball. If you are able to do this, the ball and tongue sizes do not match, or the ball is not locked properly. In this case, replace the ball with the correct size, or lock it properly and try again.
- Once the tongue of the trailer is on the ball, you can lock it in place by placing a bolt or padlock through the ball lock mechanism to prevent it from accidentally opening.
- Attach the lights with the wiring harness. Generally, these employ a simple color-coded connection that makes it easy to hook up the lights to the harness should make it easy to install the connector properly to the tow vehicle’s harness.
- After you’ve hooked up the lights, do a quick brake check to make sure everything is functioning properly. It’s critical to make sure that your turn signals and brakes work on the back of the trailer to ensure a safe trip (as well as no traffic tickets).
- To keep the connection from corroding, you might consider spraying the contacts with a small amount of dielectric grease.
- Check the tongue weight. You want the amount of weight resting on the hitch to be roughly 10 to 12 percent of the total weight of the trailer. You can use a regular bathroom scale to place under the beam to check.
- If the weight out-weighs your scale (which is likely for 4000 lb. and up trailers) place the scale farther up the trailer to get a smaller measurement. If you go a third of the way up, triple the weight on the scale to get the approximate weight.
- Depending on the weight of the trailer, you might consider using an equalizing bar to even out the pressure on the hitch. These are generally long metal brackets that transfer a bit of the weight more toward your vehicle’s front axle. If you’re hauling at the upper end of the specs, use an equalizer.
- Secure your load. Depending on the load you’re hauling, you might need to use a tarp to secure loose objects in boats or refuse trailers since you’re responsible for anything that flies out and causes damage.
- You can also take this opportunity to make sure the hitch height is set correctly, your trailer’s tires are inflated to the appropriate specifications, and that you haven’t overloaded the trailer in such a way as to negate the careful checks you’ve already performed.
- Get familiar with the clearance of your new rig. Before you hit the road, get out your tape measure. Does the trailer make your rig considerably taller? By how much? How much length is added to the back of your car or truck? These will be important considerations any time you’re trying to park somewhere you normally wouldn’t give a second thought to squeezing into.
- If it’s your first time towing a trailer, it’s best to practice some in a big empty parking lot before taking it out on the road. You want to be as familiar as possible with the vehicle’s response time and turning radius.
- Accelerate and brake slowly. You must always compensate for the extra weight, especially when slowing down, and especially when driving on inclines. Play it safe and be cautious. You also need to pay especially close attention to the added length of your rig anytime you’re:
- Changing lanes
- Exiting the interstate
- Stopping for gas
- Pulling over
- Prepare for the difference in fuel economy. Towing a significant amount of weight will negatively affect your fuel economy, so keep a close eye on the gauge. Making frequent pull-offs in crowded gas stations can be stressful for first-time towers, so try to anticipate your fuel needs ahead of time to avoid difficult maneuvers.
- Stop frequently and check the connection. Even if you checked and doubled checked your connections and everything is up to code, there’s always the possibility that something in the road will jostle the trailer lose a bit. It’s best to stop sometimes, especially on long or especially bumpy trips, to make sure everything’s still hooked up. Seeing your trailer careen off the road isn’t the time to double-check
- Stay calm if you take a turn too narrowly. It’ll probably happen eventually that you’ll mis-time a turn, or lack sufficient space to clear a turn like you figured you would. Don’t panic. Make sure there isn’t traffic behind you and back up slowly and as straight as possible to give yourself the clearance you need. Get a passenger to hop out and watch the trailer from a different angle to give you steering tips, and use your mirrors judiciously.
- Get ready. No lie: backing up a trailer is one of the most difficult driving maneuvers there is, but it’s easy to master with the right technique and a bit of smarts. To get ready, roll down your windows and kick a passenger out to act as a spotter. It might take a few runs before you get it perfect, so it helps to have another set of eyes.
- Set yourself up for success by getting perpendicular. To get yourself oriented properly, pull more or less straight perpendicular to where you want the back end of the trailer to go, keeping the truck and the trailer straight. Pull past the spot by 8–10 feet (2.4–3.0 m) to give yourself adequate room to back up.
- When you’ve got it lined up, turn your wheel opposite the direction of the parking spot. So, in other words, if you’ve pulled up perpendicular to a spot on your passenger side, enough ahead of the spot to back up, stop the car and jack the wheel to the left, or the driver’s side.
- Learn the “S” turn. Basically, to get the back end of the trailer to go right, you need to make your car back up going left and then straighten it back out to avoid a jackknife. Start backing up slowly and quickly straighten the wheel back out by turning it back toward the right. Watch your back end closely and straighten it back out if your angle gets too sharp. This’ll take some practice.
- Go extremely slowly. If you’re in an automatic transmission, the idling speed should be plenty fast to make you nervous. Use gas only sparingly and don’t make unnecessary or fast changes.
- Avoid jackknifing. If, at any point, the angle of the truck to the trailer becomes smaller than a right angle, straight it back out and give it another go. Don’t try to force it, because it won’t work.
- Don’t neglect your front end. Make friends with your side mirrors so you can keep an eye on where your front end is at all times, taking special caution to watch out for parking obstacles and bumps that might mess up your approach and be a problem when you’re trying to straighten back out. Drive like a pro and use your side mirrors.
- Your rear-view will be basically useless in the task. Use the help of a spotter and your side-mirrors to back up correctly.
Hooking it up
If you’re a first-time tower, it’s perfectly normal to go through this checklist a couple of times before getting it right. Follow these steps to safely connect a trailer to your tow vehicle.
- Secure the ball mount in the hitch’s receiver tube.
- Line up the vehicle so it’s directly in front of the trailer coupler.
- Be sure the trailer coupler is higher than the ball on the hitch.
- Back up slowly so the ball is directly under the trailer coupler. Use your vehicle’s backup camera for this, or have a friend spot you.
- Put the tow vehicle in park and set the parking brake.
- On the trailer tongue, you’ll find a twist handle that can raise or lower the metal bar/pipe — the one your trailer rests on when not attached to a vehicle. This is called the jack. Twist the trailer jack to lower the coupler completely onto the ball.
- Use the attached cotter pin on the latch to secure the coupler to the ball.
- Lift up on the tongue to make sure everything is connected.
- Raise the trailer jack up and out of the way completely.
Once the trailer is attached, you’ll want to secure safety chains from the trailer to the vehicle in a criss-cross pattern, and be sure the chains don’t touch the ground. You will also need to plug the trailer’s electrical connector into the vehicle. Always check the trailer’s brake lights and turn signals before driving away.
Modern trucks and SUVs have lots of features that make towing easier than ever before. Many automakers even offer tow/haul packages, which can automatically add the proper hitch, trailer brakes, larger mirrors and upgraded cooling systems to your vehicle. (This varies by manufacturer.)
Some specific examples of new towing tech include:
- 2019 Ford F-Series: Pro Trailer Back-Up Assist can help with reversing when a trailer is attached. Ford also offers trailer tire pressure-monitoring and blind-spot monitoring systems that cover the vehicle and the length of the trailer.
- 2019 Ram trucks: A self-leveling air suspension helps keep the truck and trailer stable. Ram also offers trailer-length blind-spot monitoring and a trailer tire pressure-monitoring system.
- 2020 GM Heavy Duty trucks: The latest Silverado HD and Sierra HD have “see-through” Transparent Trailer View technology that stitches together camera views to let you see what’s behind the trailer while towing. Plus, if your trailer is ever stolen, GM’s OnStar system can help recover it.
Be sure to ask your dealer what sort of towing tech is available when buying a new vehicle.