How to Tow a Trailer

How to Tow a Trailer

Borrowing a friend’s boat for a weekend at the lake sounds great until you realise you have to drive it there. Whether you’re connecting a camper, a vehicle, or another type of trailer to your car, knowing the specifications and techniques for doing so will make your job a lot easier. Learn how to properly hitch your trailer, drive it, and back it up safely. For more information, see Step 1.

Part 1 Hitching Your Trailer

1. Check to see if your vehicle is capable of towing the load. A Honda Civic is unlikely to be capable of towing an 8,000-pound full-size camper trailer. Depending on the trailer you need to haul, you should consult the owner’s manual to determine the weight limits and the appropriate hitch to install.

The manufacturer should generally specify the weight and list it in the owner’s manual. If you don’t have the manual, look online or at an auto shop.

To determine the class of hitch you’ll need to tow the load, you’ll 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.

2. Install the appropriate class of hitch for your load. In most cases, a hitch receiver will be installed that can be used for various sizes of trailer hitches, class 3 and up. These receivers come with a detachable draw-bar that can be used to install different sized hitches for different loads. If you install the largest receiver on your vehicle, you’ll be ready for any size load your vehicle can handle, as classified by the following specifications:

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

3. 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:[4]

1 7⁄8 inch (4.8 cm)

2 inch (5.1 cm)

2 5⁄16 inch (5.9 cm)

4. Connect the trailer to your vehicle. Raise the trailer and align it with the ball using the tongue jack. Before lowering the trailer onto the ball and securing the tongue, make sure the hitch lock is unlocked. Cross the safety chains to the hooks near the vehicle hitch or frame, making sure the chains have enough slack but not so much that they drag on the ground.

Using the tongue jack, attempt to lift the tongue off the ball. If you can do this, the ball and tongue sizes do not match, or the ball is not properly locked. In this case, replace the ball with the proper size or properly lock it and try again.

Once the trailer tongue is on the ball, you can secure it by inserting a bolt or padlock through the ball lock mechanism to prevent it from accidentally opening.

5. Connect the lights to the wiring harness. In general, these use a simple color-coded connection that makes it simple to connect the lights to the harness and should make it simple to properly install the connector to the tow vehicle’s harness.

After you’ve connected the lights, perform a quick brake check to ensure that everything is working properly. To ensure a safe trip, make sure your turn signals and brakes work on the back of the trailer (as well as no traffic tickets).

To keep the connection from corroding, apply a small amount of dielectric grease to the contacts.

6. Examine the tongue weight. The amount of weight resting on the hitch should be around 10% to 12% of the total weight of the trailer. To check, place a standard bathroom scale under the beam.

If the weight exceeds the capacity of your scale (which is likely for trailers weighing 4000 pounds or more), move the scale higher up the trailer to obtain a smaller measurement. To get an approximate weight, go a third of the way up the scale and triple the weight.

Depending on the weight of the trailer, an equalising bar may be used to even out the pressure on the hitch. These are typically long metal brackets that shift some of your vehicle’s weight to the front axle. Use an equaliser if you’re hauling at the upper end of the specs.

7. Make sure your load is secure. You may need to use a tarp to secure loose objects in boats or refuse trailers, depending on the load you’re hauling, because you’re responsible for anything that flies out and causes damage.

You can also use this time to ensure that the hitch height is set correctly, your trailer’s tyres are inflated to the proper specifications, and you haven’t overloaded the trailer in such a way that the careful checks you’ve already performed are null and void.

Part 2 Driving

1. Get acquainted with your new rig’s clearance. Get out your tape measure before you hit the road. Is your rig significantly taller as a result of the trailer? How much is it? How much length is added to the back of your vehicle? These will be important considerations any time you try to park somewhere you wouldn’t normally think twice about squeezing into.

If this is your first time towing a trailer, it’s best to practise in a large empty parking lot before hitting the road. You should become as acquainted as possible with the vehicle’s response time and turning radius.

2. Slowly accelerate and brake. You must always account for the extra weight, especially when slowing down or driving on inclines. Be cautious and play it safe. You should also pay special attention to the increased length of your rig whenever you’re:

Changing lanes


Exiting the interstate


Stopping for gas

Pulling over

3. Be prepared to notice a difference in fuel economy. Towing a large amount of weight will reduce your fuel economy, so keep an eye on the gauge. For first-time towers, frequent pull-offs in crowded gas stations can be stressful, so try to anticipate your fuel needs ahead of time to avoid difficult manoeuvres.

4. Check the connection on a regular basis. Even if you double-checked your connections and everything is in working order, there’s always the chance that something in the road will jostle the trailer and cause it to lose a few pounds. It’s a good idea to pull over every now and then, especially on long or bumpy trips, to make sure everything is still connected. When your trailer careens off the road, it’s not a good time to double-check.

5. If you take a too-narrow turn, stay calm. It’s inevitable that you’ll mistime a turn or not have enough space to clear a turn as planned. Don’t freak out. Check for traffic behind you and back up as slowly and straight as possible to give yourself the clearance you require. Get a passenger to step out and observe the trailer from a different angle to provide steering tips, and use your mirrors wisely.

Part 3 Backing Up

1. Prepare yourself. Backing up a trailer is one of the most difficult driving manoeuvres, but with the right technique and a bit of knowledge, it’s simple to master. Roll down your windows and let a passenger out to act as a spotter to get ready. It may take a few runs before you get it perfect, so having another set of eyes is beneficial.

2. Get perpendicular to set yourself up for success. To get yourself oriented properly, pull straight perpendicular to where you want the trailer’s back end to go, keeping the truck and trailer straight. Pull 8–10 feet (2.4–3.0 m) past the spot to give yourself enough room to back up.

Turn your wheel in the opposite direction of the parking spot once you’ve lined it up. So, 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 driver’s side.

3. Learn how to do the “S” turn. To avoid a jackknife, make your car back up going left and then straighten it back out to get the back end of the trailer to go right. Begin slowly backing up and quickly straightening the wheel out by turning it back to the right. Keep an eye on your back end and straighten it out if the angle becomes too sharp. This will require some practise.

Travel at a glacial pace. If you’re driving an automatic transmission, the idling speed should be fast enough to make you nervous. Use gas sparingly and avoid making unnecessary or quick changes.

Stay away from jackknifing. If the angle of the truck to the trailer becomes less than a right angle at any point, straighten it out and try again. It will not work if you try to force it.

4. Don’t overlook the 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 care to avoid parking obstacles and bumps that could muck up your approach and cause problems when you’re trying to straighten back out. Use your side mirrors and drive like a pro.

In this task, your rear-view mirror will be completely useless. To back up properly, use a spotter and your side mirrors.

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