2016 Toyota Tundra

Trailer Towing 101: Essential Tips For Safety & Peace of Mind

Towing strikes a sense of fear in many, uncertainty in some, and a disregard for critical criteria by others. To put it simply: It’s because most people don’t understand the guidelines and verbiage associated with towing a trailer. And to be honest, it can be confusing!

So, ultimately what ends up happening? Folks just hook up a trailer, load their belongings and supplies as they see fit, and ignore the importance of many details.

Understanding The Basics

My main objective here is NOT to confuse you with technical terms and complicated formulas. When hitching a trailer to the back of any vehicle, you have now increased the overall weight you are moving down the road. Make sure your designated tow-vehicle is capable of handling what you are wanting to tow.

You can check your owner’s manual to find the maximum towing capacity, or check with a dealership of your vehicle’s make.

You also don’t want to ignore your vehicle’s Gross Weight Rating. This is the total weight of your vehicle after adding you, your passengers, dog, fuel, and anything else you plan on carrying.

16 Silverado 1500 Towing
Does your vehicle have a factory-installed hitch? Check the rating to see if it is capable of pulling your trailer. Photo: Chevrolet.

Getting Hitched

Conventional hitches, which are mounted under the back of the vehicle, can vary. Class I, II, III, IV, and V hitch ratings are common, and each increase in capability as the number goes up. This now requires knowing the weight of your trailer.

There is an empty, or Curb Weight, which is the dry weight of the trailer. The curb weight is before filling water tanks, adding kitchen supplies, clothes, bedding, bicycles, and other cargo into a travel trailer. In the case of a boat and trailer, this is before adding gas, skis, life jackets, ice chest, beverages, and the actual ice.

You will be amazed at how quickly these items add up! If your maximum towing capability is 5,000 lbs., and your trailer’s curb weight is 4,800 lbs., you can only add 200 lbs. to your trailer. It doesn’t take much to go over that!

Consider The Tongue Weight

The trailer weight also needs to be balanced so that you are placing 10 to 15 percent of the total weight of the trailer onto the hitch of your vehicle. This is called Tongue Weight and it is an important number. Too much tongue weight may cause the back of the vehicle to sag or squat. This is hard on suspension and drivelines and may take away the critical front tire contact patch on the road, leaving you with unsafe steering.

On the other hand, too little tongue weight can cause the trailer to sway uncontrollably, as it lifts the back of your vehicle. The next time you’re on the road, look closely at the vehicles with a trailer. You will be amazed at the number that sag in the rear.

Proper tongue weight is essential when towing. Photo: Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc.

The Importance of Proper Braking

One of the most important safety issues when towing a trailer is stopping distance. Depending on the weight of the trailer, it may more than double your stopping distance.

Most trailers today have electric brakes behind their wheels, just as on your vehicle. An electric current applies the trailer’s brakes as you apply your vehicle’s brakes. Boat trailers tend to have Surge Brakes.

As the weight of the boat and trailer move forward under braking, this process activates the surge unit located on the Coupler of the trailer’s tongue, forcing brake fluid to the trailer’s brakes, causing brake activation.

For travel trailers, utility trailers, box trailers, and others, you should have a Trailer Brake Controller installed inside your vehicle if you don’t already have one standard from the factory. This device will give you added braking ability by being able to control the amount of braking at the trailer, without the trailer’s brakes locking while slowing or stopping. You can adjust the brake controller for heavier trailers, which will require more braking.

This process takes a load off your vehicle’s brakes. This is extremely helpful in the case of downhill grades, as the trailer’s weight “pushes” your vehicle, ultimately reducing brake fade.

Many trucks have integrated trailer brakes from the factory but there are aftermarket systems available. Photo: Ford Motor Company.

Difference Between 5th Wheel & Gooseneck

As you move into larger trailers, they may be built on a platform known as a 5th Wheel or Gooseneck. These are the types of trailers you see attached to hitches inside the bed of a truck. They allow for increased weights to be towed, as well as a more stable towing platform, as the trailer’s weight is mounted further over the truck’s frame, distributing the weight more evenly.

However, there is a difference between a 5th Wheel and a Gooseneck hitch. A 5th Wheel hitch is commonly found on travel trailers, whereas a Gooseneck is found on horse trailers and flatbed utility trailers.

The connections are also different in these two hitches. A 5th Wheel trailer attaches to a flat plate mounted in the bed of the truck by what is called a King Pin. Conversely, a Gooseneck attaches to a ball in the bed of the truck, similar to the ball mount on the back of a conventional hitch.

5th Wheel and Gooseneck trailers have a distinct maneuvering advantage over a conventional hitch, making for tighter turns, both going forward and during backing, without jackknifing. Photo: Ford Motor Company.

Towing Your Trailer: Essential Tips

You are about to embark on a vacation, an adventure, or a memory-making trip – it should be fun and stress-free! I began trailering when I was just 10. Was I fearful? You bet! However, through some words of wisdom back then, and throughout my many decades of trailering, I truly enjoy the frequency of having a trailer hitched to my truck.

After all these years, I still follow these tips:

  • Check It Twice: Make sure you conduct a thorough walk-around of your vehicle and trailer before you get on the road. I am extremely safety conscious, and check connections, chains, and lighting twice before driving away. This ensures you have not overlooked anything on the first check and will give you peace of mind as you drive.
  • Slow & Steady: Leave yourself a greater distance with a trailer than without. Watch well ahead in traffic for brake lights. If brake lights are visible ahead, better to slow down sooner than later to avoid unsafe braking at highway speeds. As a general rule of thumb, keep your speed down when pulling a trailer of any kind. 
  • Be Gentle: When you have a trailer hitched to your vehicle, make sure every action you take, and movement you make, is done with a specific intention. For example, you cannot change lanes as quickly with a truck and a trailer as you would be able to with a normal sedan. Things like this are a fact of life when towing, so don’t worry and take your time. Whether it is the safety check, merging into traffic, or backing your trailer, do everything slow and deliberate.

And lastly, never let your guard down and keep a keen awareness of your surroundings. Do that and you will enjoy any trailering experience.

Tracy Miller is the Host of Pink Flamingo RV Radio, with nearly two decades of radio background and a lifetime of RVing experience.

  1. I appreciate your specific instructions on how to do this safely and efficiently. My issue with towing a trailer is usually that it stresses me out while driving. Do you have any more tips on how to be confident and safe while towing? Thank you for such a helpful article and applicable tips!

    1. Hi Brooke – usually, what helps me out when I tow is to simply take it slow. I keep my speed down and I take my time with everything. I have towed before in heavy traffic out east, through New York City for example and you really have to keep your speed in check and try not to change lanes too quickly. I would also recommend both hands on the wheel for better control, and if your truck does not have trailer brakes, to get them installed and to have a trailer equipped with brakes.

  2. I’ve watched my dad hitch trailer after trailer over the years, usually with quite the heavy load. I always wondered where he got the confidence to pull a trailer, but it sounds like if you know what you’re doing, it’s pretty straight forward. Thanks for sharing these tips!

  3. My brother just bought a truck to go with his RV trailer and is wondering what he needs to pull it. You mentioned that “conventional hitches, which are mounted under the back of the vehicle can vary” with Class I, II, III, IV, and V ratings. I didn’t realize there were so many different types. Do certain trucks require certain hitches? It seems that finding the right hitch could be very helpful.

  4. I really like that you say to slow down when pulling a trailer! A friend of mine just bought a trailer, and he drove like a maniac. I will have to let him know that he should be more careful, and to do everything slow and deliberate like you say.

  5. You are right, there are a lot of trailers that have too much tongue weight. I like to look for them when I am on a long car ride. Most of the people who make this mistake are people who are moving. They probably don’t tow anything often and so don’t know what to look for when hooking up their trailer.

  6. You are right, there area unit plenty of trailers that have an excessive amount of tongue weight. i prefer to seem for them once I am on an extended automotive ride. Most of the people that create this error area unit people that area unit moving. They most likely don’t tow something usually and then don’t recognize what to seem for once draw up their trailer.

  7. I appreciate the information on towing safety and tips. I agree that one of the most important things to remember is that having a trailer can increase your breaking distance by almost twice as much. I would imagine that having electric brakes on your trailer can really help to save and cut down on that braking distance.

  8. I like the recommendation to conduct a walk around each time you’re about to head out. It makes sense that simply looking over the trailer would be a good way to make sure there are no major problems. It’s something I’ll have to remember for when I get a trailer to make sure it lasts a long time and doesn’t cause any danger to anybody.

  9. I’ve wondered exactly what they called the hookups for those bigger trailers. Thank you for clarifying the differences between 5th wheel and gooseneck hookups. Driving a trailer does seem like a stressful job if you are unfamiliar with it. It can be an adjustment to remember that you are dragging something that cuts corners more than you do.

  10. I like that you suggested doing a thorough walk through of your vehicle and truck before getting on the road. If I had known to do this then I might have had an easier time when I got a couple miles out. Having a professional that you can easily contact might be a good idea, just in case you break down.

  11. It’s interesting that there are different types of hitches used for different sizes of towing loads. I never knew that there was more than one hitch. I’ll have to look closer at my uncle’s RV and hitch next time he comes over to see if I can tell the difference.

  12. I like that you mention to just be careful and slow with every action. My brother is looking for a good towing service to move some stuff. I’ll be sure to talk to him about finding a service that will be very careful with his things.

  13. I am thinking about going on a road trip with my family and towing our trailer behind us, which means I will need to get a quality truck hitch. You make a great point that when we hitch our trailer we should make sure that our truck’s towing capacity can carry the trailer. Also, I like that you say to remember the importance of braking slowly and double the braking distance! This will help us to stay safe on the road.

  14. I wanted to thank you for this advice for towing a trailer. It’s good to know that you should try to move slowly so that each movement is done with a specific intention. This seems really important so you can make sure you don’t lose control of a trailer.

  15. This my first time hiring a trailer and I am not sure which I need. I like how you mentioned having a powerful truck makes it easier to carry equipment. Thank you for this information. I’ll contact a contractor so I can hire a trailer and have material carried to my new house.

  16. Keeping a fair distance between a towing vehicle is essential along with gear selection. You need to make sure that you are keeping a good distance and choosing right gears when going on road, moving up and down on in the hilly area. Proper gear selection can make this process safer and smoother. Tow truck driver need to reduce the amount of pressure placed on the tow vehicle and shift gears as per road and traffic situation.

  17. It’s awesome that this article talked about the importance of knowing your stopping distance when towing a trailer. In my opinion, not a lot of younger people realize the amount of force that is needed to stop a truck and trailer. Thanks for helping me to understand the importance of knowing that a trailer can double your stopping distance.

  18. Thank you so much for your advice on making sure to take a walkthrough of the vehicle and trailer to make sure everything is connected and working. I have never towed anything before but am thinking that I will need to move my four-wheelers to my cousin’s house for a family event. I hope I can find a trailer that will make loading and unloading easier, by maybe tipping, and that is pretty easy to tow.

  19. Thanks for explaining the vehicle’s gross weight because even while towing a bunch of stuff you still have to take all of the people and fuel with you. My dad has been thinking about renting a trailer so that he can help some of the younger kids move out of the home one weekend and then take it the rest of the week for a camping trip. Being able to rent a trailer from a professional could be really useful and allow him to know it will be safe and he can have a fun week.

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