Towing Tips and Techniques
Trailer towing is a special driving situation that places extra demands on your driving skills. I have included a few basic tips and tricks that you should know about in order to transport your trailer and its contents safely, comfortably and without abusing your tow vehicle.
Before setting out on a trip, practice turning, stopping and backing your trailer in an area away from heavy traffic such as in a large empty parking lot.
When backing up, the trailer turns in the opposite direction of the tow vehicle. So when you turn the tow vehicle left, the trailer will back to the right. When you back your tow vehicle to the right, the trailer will turn to the left.
An easy way to back the trailer in the direction you want it to go is to put one hand at the bottom of the steering wheel. To move the trailer to the left, move your hand to the left. To move the trailer to the right, move your hand to the right. Back up slowly, and if possible, have someone behind you to guide you.
Make small steering inputs because slight movements of the steering wheel always result in much greater movement in the rear of the trailer. After the trailer starts turning straighten out the wheel, otherwise the turn will get tighter and tighter and you'll end up in a jackknife position.
Read on for some practical tips for backing a trailer. (Of course, you can avoid the hassle all together by requesting a drive through campsite). But there will always come a time when you need to master the skill of backing up. Practice and you will get the hang of it, I promise!
Go to an empty parking lot and use water filled plastic jugs or small empty cardboard boxes to create corners and obstacles. You'll find that every trailer and motorhome has it's own unique handling characteristics and "pivot points". Get to know your own rigs idiosyncrasies so you can adjust your handling skills to it's particular characteristics.
If you have a back-up partner, you can develop your own communication system between the two of you with simple arm and hand signals. Motioning your hands toward you can indicate to the driver to keep backing up in a straight line. Pointing in one direction or the other can indicate to the driver that he/she needs to back the rear of the trailer in that specific direction. A typical stop hand signal used by truckers is holding up one or more clenched fists.
Before attempting the backup process, check for low-hanging wires, branches and other objects that could be in your way. Here's the secret: decide exactly where in the campsite you want to place the left rear tire of the trailer or motorhome. This spot will become your target in the backing up process.
Let's pretend a husband and wife team are backing up their trailer into a campsite. The husband is driving and his wife is navigating behind the trailer. The husband should position the RV so he is backing to his left. This allows him to use the driver's side mirror and occasionally stick his head out the window to watch where the left side of the RV is going.
His wife stands to the left (drivers) side and a few feet to the rear of the trailer or motorhome. This position is crucial to allow her to see everything behind the RV. She should stay where she can see her husband's face in his side view mirror. If she can't see her husband's face in his mirror, he can't see her.
She walks backward and keeps visual contact with her husband, using the signals they've agreed upon to direct the left rear tire of the RV or trailer into the target spot agreed upon earlier. Now and then, she will signal her husband to stop so she can check out the right side of the RV. He will also stop if he loses sight of her in his mirror. That will clue her in that he can no longer see her.
You should always take your time when backing and don't feel like a klutz if you need to pull forward and try again to reposition the trailer or correct any problems. You may need to pull entirely out of the campsite, drive through the campground and start all over! This is normal and you will improve with practice. Even those who've had years of experience in backing (like me), occasionally have to have a second or third go at it! Do be aware of the others who might be held up by your backing efforts. Please be polite and allow others to pass if you are having a difficult time getting it just right. This is especially important at boat ramps.
Here's a video that shows a technique called "The Scoop" for backing up your trailer:
Turning while towing can be tricky. Again, always take the time to practice in an empty parking lot before taking your rig out for the first time. Right turns are difficult, so you need to rely on your right side mirror to judge distances of objects behind and alongside of you.
Become familiar with your RV's "pivot point". There are blind spots to the side and behind your rig. You can buy a plastic lens that attaches to your rear motorhome window to get a wide-angle view of the rear for the driver.
The turning radius for a trailer is much smaller than that of your tow vehicle, therefore, the trailer is prone to hitting soft shoulders, curbs, road signs, trees and other objects on a sharp curve. You can avoid this by driving your tow vehicle slightly past the normal turning point and allowing a wider turn. In other words, move further beyond your obstacle before turning your wheel to clear the obstacle completely. Practice this technique with plastic bottles filled with water in an empty parking lot. And remember your dash lights and turn indicator lights will flash whether your trailer lights are working or not. So check your trailer lights occasionally throughout your trip to make sure all the lights are functioning properly.
Although frequent passing is not recommended while towing, if you must pass, be certain you have enough time and distance to do so. You need more distance to pass a vehicle when you're towing a trailer. The added weight of the trailer can dramatically decrease the acceleration of the towing vehicle, especially if it is at or above the recommended weight limitations.
Signal well in advance and make sure your trailer will more than clear the vehicle you have passed before re-entering your lane. Remember that you must take into consideration the added length of the trailer that must clear the other vehicle before you can pull back in. Be sure you pass on level terrain with plenty of clearance, and if necessary, downshift for improved acceleration.
When you tow, double the following distance between you and the vehicle ahead of you. Extending your following distance will help you avoid situations requiring heavy braking or sudden steering maneuvers.
Before starting to drive down a long or steep hill, reduce your speed and shift the transmission into a lower gear before the engine lugs to assist braking. This reduces wear and tear on your tow vehicle and optimizes your control. On long uphill grades, downshift the transmission and reduce speed to 45 mph or less to reduce the chances of overheating your engine. Downshifting also provides added power at the drive wheels for climbing hills.
Parking your vehicle and trailer on a hill is not recommended. However, if you must park on a hill, do so as safely as possible:
- Apply your foot brakes and shift into Neutral
- Have someone place blocks (wheel chocks) behind the trailer wheels on the downgrade side.
- Release the brakes until the chocks absorb the load.
- Then apply the parking brake and shift into Park (or Reverse for manual transmission).
Note: with 4-wheel drive, make sure the transfer case is not in N (Neutral) where applicable.
When you are ready to resume your trip, do the following:
- Apply your brake and hold the pedal down while starting your engine in Park on automatic transmissions or Neutral on manual transmissions.
- Shift into gear and release the parking brake.
- Release the brake pedal and drive uphill until the chocks are free.
- Apply the brakes while someone retrieves the chocks.
Remember, even with these precautions, only park on hills or grades in an emergency situation.
When you are towing anything, you need to allow considerably more distance for stopping with your trailer attached. If you have a manual brake controller, "lead" with the trailer brakes if possible. (Most controllers have a small switch that allows you to set the "lead".) To correct trailer sway, manually touch your trailer brake controller momentarily without using the vehicle brakes. In other words, if you are being passed by a big rig and your trailer starts to sway, don't turn your wheel in the direction of the trailer, hold your steering wheel steady and apply the manual trailer brakes only.
The electric brakes on trailers are similar to the drum brakes on many cars and trucks. The basic difference between them is that your trailer brakes are operated by 12 volt DC power from the tow vehicle, rather than by hydraulic action. The brakes have been factory-calibrated for smooth, positive response. During break-in, they may squeak: this is normal and should cease after a few miles of wear.
The brake system on your trailer consists of several major components, all of which must function properly for safe braking. The system utilizes the tow vehicle battery, which is the primary electrical power source for the trailer braking system, and the Brake Controller, which is a separate unit mounted within easy reach of the driver. The controller is connected to the tow vehicle's brake system and is activated whenever the tow vehicle's brakes are applied. You can also manually apply the trailer brakes separately to control the tow vehicle. This is called "brake lead". This causes the trailer to pull against the tow vehicle, keeping the two vehicles in alignment. This is particularly important during rainy weather or whenever the road surface is slippery. If the tow vehicle sets its brakes first, the trailer will tend to push the tow vehicle and possibly "jackknife".
Never use the trailer brakes alone for extended periods of time. They are designed to stop the trailer, not the tow vehicle. This action places excessive loads on the brakes, causing overheating, fading and premature wear.
On the other hand, never use the tow vehicle brakes alone when towing a trailer equipped with electric brakes. The added weight of the trailer will more than double the load on the tow vehicle brakes, causing overheating, fading, and premature wear on the tow vehicle brakes. Driving control can also be affected, due to the force of the trailer pushing against the tow vehicle. On a slippery road this can result in "jackknifing".
Always use the automatic brake controller. This synchronized braking system allows you to drive in the manner recommended by experts: with both hands on the steering wheel. The brake controller is properly adjusted when the trailer brakes slightly "lead" the tow vehicle's brakes. This will help keep the vehicles aligned for a safe, straight stop. Additionally, here in California, it is illegal for you to tow a trailer equipped with electric brakes without a brake controller. If you are in an accident, and the police notice you do not have the proper brake control device, you will be found criminally negligent and could face a lot of problems, monetarily and otherwise.
It is never recommended that you transport passengers in your trailer while traveling, and is illegal in most states.
Your car or truck will have very different handling and stopping characteristics when it is towing a trailer. The following rules will help you develop needed driving skills for safe trailer towing.
- Travel very slowly if you are new to trailer towing, or if you have a new trailer or tow vehicle, until you have learned the handling and stopping characteristics of the tow vehicle/trailer combination. Practice turning, stopping, and backing in a secluded place away from traffic.
- Do not permit a driver who is inexperienced at towing to operate your tow vehicle/trailer combination without your direct supervision. Remember-it's slow speed for beginners.
- Tow at moderate speeds allowing for adverse highway and wind conditions. Even under the best of conditions, it's against California law to exceed 55 mph while towing. (In many other states, however, you can tow up to the posted speed limit). As speed increases, trailer sway, stability, stopping ability and the ability to make emergency maneuvers is greatly reduced.
- Reduce speed before starting down hills-even short ones-and avoid heavy tow vehicle braking on downgrades. Trailer towing stability is reduced when traveling downhill, and is further reduced by tow vehicle braking.
- Slow down before entering turns and avoid heavy braking in turns. Trailer stability is reduced in turns, and the weight of the trailer tends to push the back of the tow vehicle outward in turns, which can cause loss of control and "jackknifing".
- If it is windy or passing vehicles are affecting the trailer, slow down until full, comfortable control can be maintained. Crosswinds and the wind from passing vehicles, especially trucks and busses passing from the rear, can initiate trailer sway. Reduced speed improves trailer stability and handling.
- Do not use an automatic cruise speed control while towing. These devices can interfere with your ability to slow down in an emergency.
- Avoid quick steering movements that can start the trailer swaying.
If the Trailer is Swaying:
- Steer as little as possible while maintaining control of the vehicle. Because of your natural reaction time lag, quick steering movements to counter trailer sway will actually cause increased sway and loss of control. Try to hold the wheel as straight as possible until stability is regained.
- Slow down but avoid strong tow vehicle braking. In some instances, actually accelerating while manually applying the hand brake control will pull you out of a sway situation. Reduce speed gradually whenever possible. Use the hand brake control to gradually apply the trailer brakes: this will help keep the two vehicles aligned. Tow vehicle braking reduces trailer stability, and sliding tow vehicle tires causes loss of control and "jackknifing".
- If a reduction in trailer stability has occurred, once you regain control, slow down immediately and stop as soon as possible. Check tire pressures, sway control device adjustment, hitch spring bar adjustment, cargo weight distribution, and look for any signs of mechanical failure. Until the problem has been identified and corrected, travel at reduced speeds that permit full control.
I hope you're never in an emergency situation such as that just described, but if you are, I hope these tips will help you to come through the situation with you, your family and your rig intact and unharmed.
Don't miss our other articles about towing safety: