Your tow vehicle is the first item you must consider in towing safety. Keeping your tow vehicle in tip-top shape is the first step in towing safety and enjoyment of your trip.
One of the fundamental rules regarding towing safety is to correctly match up the strength of your tow vehicle with the size trailer you would like to tow. The hitch must safely "connect" both the tow vehicle and your trailer in such a way that provides both ease of handling and safety under the most extreme conditions.
If you are in the lucky position of being able to purchase a brand new tow vehicle, it goes without saying that you should analyze exactly what you want to tow, both for your present needs and future requirements, before deciding on which new tow vehicle you will eventually purchase. Always keep your long term needs in mind.
For instance, you think you may want to upgrade your 17-foot boat to a 24-foot boat in the future, and you're saving up money for the eventual purchase. Buy a tow vehicle that can handle the future load! I've had to witness the heartbreak and disappointment of some of my customers who've just purchased a beautiful big boat or RV trailer and then discovered that their current truck wouldn't pull it! I've even had some customers try to "get away" with towing a heavy trailer with an undersized truck.
I should warn you that no reputable dealer will sell you a hitch package that we consider unsafe for your towing needs. I've had to refuse to install hitch equipment in some cases because I knew it was unsafe for what the customer wanted to do. So, always purchase your tow vehicle with your heaviest load capacity in mind to avoid this situation.
There are many optional features available from your dealer, which may be important for optimum performance in towing. Luckily, all the major auto manufacturers have studied the special needs of their vehicles for towing use and have printed brochures to help you properly match the tow vehicle equipment to your particular sized trailer.
Here are just some of the items you may need for your own towing needs:
- Axle ratio
- Increased engine cooling system
- Transmission cooler
- Alternator and battery size
- Heavy duty suspension system
- Tire size or rating
- Engine size, torque and capacity
- Towing Package (includes some degree of pre-wiring)
- Special mirrors
- Hitch Equipment
If you are purchasing a used vehicle, many of these options can be added on later. Depending upon the weight of your trailer and the type of driving you plan on doing, the auto manufacturer may or may not recommend all of these options. Most of the options listed are recommended for extensive traveling under any conditions; mountain driving, hot climate driving or when towing heavy class trailers. More about trailer classes here.
Even if the tow vehicle you choose has all of these options, try to avoid any type of driving that will overheat your engine such as following a slow-moving truck up a long grade.
Let's talk about transmission coolers and engine oil coolers for just a minute. I'm sure you've seen people parked on the side of the road with steam rolling out of their engine. You felt sympathy for them right? Well, when you tow, your transmission operates at it's maximum level. Towing puts extra strain on your engine and transmission, causing them to run at a much hotter temperature. To avoid becoming one of those unfortunate people on the side of the road, you should seriously consider at the very least, a trans-cooler and if possible, an engine oil cooler as well.
Since excessive heat is your transmission's worst enemy, a trans-cooler is an ideal and often necessary towing accessory. Long trips, hill climbing and towing larger trailers are especially hard on your transmission. Hot transmission fluid running through the cooling system causes 50% of all radiator boilovers. When oil temperatures exceed 200 degrees F., oil breaks down causing seals to crack and leaks to occur. Every 20-degree drop in oil temperature will double oil life!
So what does the trans-cooler do that's so great for your transmission? I'm glad you asked. A transmission cooler will protect your radiator by reducing the temperature of transmission fluid by as much as 80 degrees! The fluid constantly passes through a series of air cooled tubes before re-entering your transmission. The engine oil cooler functions much the same way. You can purchase these two types of coolers separately or together. You should also check your engine oil regularly throughout your trip.
Tire size and pressure is also an important subject for both your tow vehicle and your trailer. Under-inflated tires get very hot and can lead to tire failures and possible loss of vehicle control. Over-inflated tires can cause uneven tire wear. Tires should be checked often for conformance to the cold inflation pressures recommended on the Safety Compliance Certification Label for original equipment tires. And remember-mini spare tires should not be used while towing Class II or Class III trailers.
Most people don't realize that they shouldn't tow anything with a new vehicle for the first 500 miles or so to "break it in". To properly break the motor in you should drive the vehicle exactly the way you plan to drive it for the rest of it's life. In other words don't baby it if you don't plan on babying it after it's broken in. If you are hard on a vehicle, drive it hard in the break-in period. This will properly seat the seals and rings.
Your tow vehicle might require special mirrors, one flat to see the road, and one convex to see the side of your trailer. These mirrors extend out from your tow vehicle, which enables you to see all the way down the side of your trailer. Remember, if you can't see beyond your trailer with your regular mirrors, you need extended towing mirrors for safety.
Special light and wiring systems need to be installed on your tow vehicle before you can tow any trailer. The trailer lighting system must not be directly spliced into your tow vehicle lighting system. Your qualified hitch installer will wire up your taillights, signals, and brake light functions into a special plug or connector in order to access the trailer's light systems.
Basically, when you flip on your turn signal or push your brake pedal, the lights on the trailer must also signal your intentions for the driver behind you. The law says that any trailer that protrudes 4 or more feet behind your vehicle or visually blocks your taillights must be equipped with it's own taillights, and your vehicle must have a connection to the trailer's taillights. Hence the need for wiring your vehicle.
If a trailer is longer than 15 feet or weighs more than 1500 lbs., it must, by law, come equipped with a brake system. The law states that if you are towing a trailer equipped with electric brakes, you must have a brake control installed and working in your tow vehicle.
Some tow vehicles come equipped with automatic overdrive transmissions and speed cruise control. I'm often asked about using these features when towing. With certain automatic overdrive transmissions, towing, especially in hilly areas and with heavier trailers, may result in excessive shifting between overdrive and the next lower gear.
If this occurs, it is recommended that the overdrive gear be locked out to eliminate the condition and provide steadier performance. When there is no excessive shifting, use the overdrive gear for best fuel economy. Overdrive also may be locked out to obtain 3rd gear engine braking on downgrades.
It should be noted that most auto manufacturers do not recommend utilizing the Speed Cruise Control while towing. But I know that you may be tempted to use it so here are some tips. When using the Speed Cruise Control option, significant speed drops may occur when driving uphill with a heavy load. A speed drop of more than 8-14 mph will, by design, cancel the automatic speed control. In this case, temporarily resume manual control through the vehicle's accelerator pedal until the terrain levels off.
The last thing I want to mention regarding the tow vehicle is altitude. Since gas engines lose power at a rate of some 3-4% per 1000 feet of elevation, you should reduce the gross vehicle weight and gross combination weight of your trailer by 2% per 1000 feet of elevation to improve the engine's performance.
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