It’s usually pretty easy to tow a travel trailer. This blog will give you the basics you will need to know for your first trip. Towing a travel trailer is scary, to begin with. The more trips you take the more comfortable and confident you will get.
There are a few things you can do to make sure you have a good trip before you ever leave home. Being prepared will make sure you have very little challenges on the road. This should give you peace of mind while traveling.
Hitch Your Vehicle Correctly
Always make sure you are safely hitched. For details on getting a safe and secure connection check out our guide to safe hitching and unhitching. There are a few basics which include making sure your hitch is on, locked in, and the cables are connected and working. Weight distribution is also something you want to pay attention to. When looking at your trailer and tow vehicle make sure there is a flat plane between the two.
If either is tipping towards or away from the hitch you are not balanced well. If you are not balanced this can cause the trailer to sway. We will discuss this further in the driving section of this article. You can go to a truck scale and have them measure the weight on your tires for the most accurate weight distribution check. You can still generally get a good feel of the weight distribution by eyeballing it as long as you are parked on a flat surface.
Check Your Visibility
Your rearview will always be limited to the side mirrors of your tow vehicle unless you have a rearview camera. You always need to be able to see the rear end of your trailer through both side mirrors. If this view is too limited for you, you can always purchase side mirror extensions. These will not only give you a wide-angle view but also your normal view. These are made for towing.
Check Your Brakes and Brake Controller
The brake controller turns on the trailer brakes when you use your tow vehicle brakes. Always make sure your brake controller is configured correctly before you leave on your trip. There are settings that control how hard the trailer brakes are applied. You can test it by accelerating to 10 mph and applying the brakes normally. You should be able to feel a tiny tug from the trailer as you come to a full stop. If you don’t feel the tug or feel the trailer pushing you then you need to set the brake controller higher. Turn the controller down lower if your stop is jerky.
The Ideal setting is having the trailer brake a little more than your tow vehicle. This will give you the fastest and smoothest stop by keeping the trailer from pushing forward during braking. The trailer pushing forward while braking can cause you to jackknife.
Know Your Height
Always know the height of your trailer. Once you know your height add afoot to it to be on the safe side. You don’t want to hit a low clearance bridge.
Know Your Route
Always have your route mapped out before you leave to avoid any confusion. While towing a trailer it is harder to make course corrections or maneuvers in traffic. It is especially harder on narrow roads or urban areas.
It is recommended to have a navigation system that has a trailer or RV option. Having this option helps with avoiding low bridges and keeping you off narrow one-way roads. It will also give you the proper speed for your type of vehicle. The navigation system will also help in mapping out a good route to travel.
Driving Your Trailer
Diving a trailer is pretty easy. Your trailer will naturally follow you, as long as your tow vehicle is rated to tow your trailer. It will not be hard to travel up hills, brake, or anything else you do while driving. There are always some challenges or dangers while towing a travel trailer. Some of those are listed below.
Turning is easier than you would think. Your trailer will follow your path naturally. The one rule is the longer your trailer the wider your turn. If you don’t turn wide enough a longer trailer can cut a corner that was close by the vehicle. With almost any right angle if you keep your turn as wide as the roadway allows you should be fine. As far as curves and round-a-bouts they are normally easy to navigate. If a turn is sharper than 90 degrees it can be an issue. Always try to avoid these turns if possible. If the turn can’t be avoided make sure to turn as wide as possible. Trying to back up to get more room to turn will most likely not work with a trailer. It is pretty difficult to back a trailer. Also never take a turn too fast. A trailer has a higher center of gravity than a regular vehicle. A higher center of gravity means a turn at a high rate of speed could tip a trailer but be perfectly fine for other vehicles. Just make sure to obey speed limits and take your turns slow and steady.
Backing up is not very easy. It becomes even harder the bigger the trailer is. I recommend practicing where there is nothing to back into before trying it out for real. It takes practice backing a trailer before it starts to feel natural. Nothing about backing a trailer is intuitive. I would recommend you read our article on pro tips for backing up a trailer complete with diagrams, techniques, and advice. I would try my best to avoid any situation that you have to back up under pressure. The pressure and stress will make it harder to back up with making an error.
Mountain passes and steep hills can be hard for some trailers. If you are close to your maximum tow rating, it can get a little difficult. But if you know what you are doing it is usually not an issue. Just make sure that if you are going slow uphill you keep to the far right. You might want to turn your hazard lights on if you are going under the speed limit. It is more dangerous to going downhill. As long as you are safe there should not be a problem going downhill. It is good to practice your engine braking if your tow vehicle is capable. To try engine braking put your vehicle in low gear and take your foot off of the accelerator. Mechanical resistance will slow your roll downhill while the drivetrain will run your engine. This will help the wear and tear on your brakes and help control your speed. If you are on a steep grade you may still need to use your brakes. Make sure not to brake too hard while in a turn going down a hill. Braking too hard can cause your trailer to jackknife. Make sure you are going into your turn at a slow rate of speed than either maintain that speed or gently decelerate. The key to safety in this situation is steady controlled speed.
Always remember that when towing a trailer your stopping distance is longer. You will want to make sure you leave a good distance between you and the car in front of you. You want to have lots of room to stop. Never trust the intuition you have driving a smaller vehicle.
When towing a travel trailer, trailer sway is one of the dangers. A tow vehicle and a trailer wiggling back and forth are called trailer sway. This happens when something pushes on the trailer then the trailer pushes on the tow vehicle. The swaying motion will get stronger and stronger until it causes a crash.
The best way to avoid trailer sway is to avoid it ever happening to begin with. As discussed earlier to avoid swaying is to make sure your combined weight is distributed evenly. When weight distribution is off it lowers traction and amplifies the swaying. You also do not want to drive in high winds. The trailer is bigger than your tow vehicle so the wind doesn’t push evenly on them. Because of this the trailer will move more and start to sway. The bigger your trailer the more it will be moved by the wind. Never drive too fast. The faster you drive the more your trailer will sway and the harder it will be to control the sway.
The hardest sway to avoid is other vehicles passing your trailer at a high rate of speed. If this happens do not try to correct it by counter steering. This makes the sway faster. Just stay calm and get your tow vehicle and trailer going in a straight line.
The best way to stop swaying is to use the manual trailer brake on your brake controller. This will force them into a straight line by engaging the brakes and pulling back on the tow vehicle. I would practice this type of braking in a parking lot. Practice will help you execute it calmly and you’ll know what it feels like. This is actually very jarring. You can use regular brakes with success if you have your brake controller set so it applies brakes a little stronger than your tow vehicle brakes. If someone is close behind you and you can’t brake you can temporarily hit the gas while steering straight ahead. Doing this will cause the tow vehicle to yank the trailer straight. The only problem with this method is the faster you go the stronger the swaying can become making the situation worse. Just keep this option available in case you need it. Travel Trailers are great to have because you can take the tow vehicle where you can’t take the trailer.
In almost every state larger and slower-moving vehicles are required to travel in the right lanes of the highway. One problem this can cause is it is harder to merge with traffic when it is necessary. Many drivers that don’t tow trailers do not understand you’re limited with your acceleration and deceleration. You can use the next lane to the left to keep from having to merge so often.
You can watch the commercial truck drivers around you and follow their lead. Commercial truck drivers travel these roads daily and know the smoothest travel lanes and laws.
Take It Easy
It is always more important to arrive alive than on time. I tell all drivers this but it needs to be stressed when towing a trailer. Excessive speed can be bad in any vehicle but it is especially bad while towing a trailer. Speed can cause trailer sway and make any situation even more difficult. All trailers have a speed at which it becomes unsafe. Always stay safe and drive at a safe speed. Even if you feel like you are driving too slow and holding up traffic, do not drive faster then you feel is safe. You can always pull over and let the other motorist pass. If you have a long line of vehicles behind you it is usually the law for you to pull over. It is usually a 5 car rule. If there are five or more cars behind you you should pull over.
When it is time for you to change lanes or make a turn make sure you give the other drivers enough time to react to you by using your signals early. You can now tow a travel trailer with ease. Have a safe trip.