Photo courtesy of Flickr user Bill Ward's Brickpile
Learning to tow is like learning to drive: with minimal effort, it becomes quite natural—and by then, chances are, you’re hooked (pun intended)! Here are a few things you should know to hitch up and head out–safely–on your journey into the RV lifestyle.
- There are Different Types of Towables
Well, there are two types, really. The first includes travel trailers, pop-up campers, or tent trailers; tent/travel trailer hybrids; fifth-wheel and gooseneck trailers; and toy-hauler trailers. You hitch all of these to a tow vehicle–a family car, SUV, pickup truck, or even a motorhome (a.k.a. motor coach).
The second group of towables includes the cars, trucks, and SUVs–affectionately called “toads”–and the motorcycle, boat, and other trailers you pull behind a motorhome, so you have ready transportation and can pursue your favorite recreational activity from home base at an RV park. Depending on the type of toad you have, you can flat-tow (all four wheels on the road) or cradle the front tires in a wheeled tow dolly.
The weight of your tow vehicle, towable, and hitch all matter. First, check your tow-vehicle owner’s manual for (1) its gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR), which is the maximum allowable weight when fully loaded with fuel, fluids, passengers, and cargo/gear; (2) its towing capacity, the maximum it can tow in addition to its GVWR; and (3) its hitch-weight rating, the maximum weight allowed at the point where the receiver hitch connects with the towable’s “tongue.” (For hitch-weight ratings on certain vehicles, you might need to contact the manufacturer directly.) Finally determine the GVWR of the towable (usually stamped or embossed on a plate or tag on the towable itself).
From here on out, it’s simple math. If your tow vehicle can only tow a maximum of 5,000 pounds fully loaded, don’t even think about hitching it to a 6,000-pound GVWR towable. And the weight at the hitch of a trailer should be between 10% and 12% of a fully loaded trailer’s actual weight; for a fifth-wheel, toy-hauler, or gooseneck setup, it shouldn’t exceed 25%.
Be conservative when packing for your first time out, which really should be to a truck scale along the interstate to check the weight of the towable and the tow vehicle. You also need to check the weight at the hitch; some dealers/service centers have portable scales that can weigh this.
When it comes to trailer hitches, it’s not a one type, size, or set of components suits all deal. For example, the hitch receivers that connect a tow vehicle to a towable come in classes ranging from I up to IV, the class needed for towables with a high GVWR. Then, you have your hitches for fifth-wheels. These are mounted over the rear axle in the bed of a truck and have jaws that are clamped around a fifth-wheel trailer’s kingpin. With certain towables, like some horse trailers, there are also gooseneck hitches, which are mounted over a truck’s rear axle. Finally, there are specialty, tow-bar-type hitches that connect a toad to a motorhome.
- Hitch Systems Have Many Parts
The list of hitch-system components and towing accessories is lengthy and includes hitch balls; ball couplers; break-away safety devices; four- and seven-pin electric couplers; safety chains; side mirrors; load-leveling and sway-control devices; chocks (or blocks) for parking; and supplemental brake-control systems, which control the sensitivity and force with which the towable or toad’s brakes are applied.
Toads and trailers also need working tail, brake, and turn-signal light systems (controlled from the tow vehicle) to make the whole setup street legal. Given that towing requires extra electrical power, you need to ensure that your alternator and battery are of the proper size and capacity to power everything.
- Using Checklists and Doing Maintenance is Key
Because trailer hitch systems have so many components, it’s important to stay organized. Having good checklists will prevent you from missing a component, skipping a step, or tackling a step out of the proper sequence. In addition, manufacturers of tow vehicles, towables, and towing equipment alike provide detailed guidance about maintenance and service–what needs to be done, when, and how often. Following their guidelines will prevent trouble down the road.
- It’s Important to Load for the Road
As noted, weight is an important factor for safe towing. Just as important, though, is the weight being distributed equally lengthwise and side to side. In addition, everything should be well secured so the weight doesn’t shift. After loading up, check that the trailer-hitch connection point is level. If not, try adjusting the height of the drawbar that goes into the hitch receiver to which the hitch ball is attached.
If this doesn’t correct the situation, you might have exceeded the towable’s hitch-weight rating, and it’s time to lighten the towable’s load. If the weight at the hitch is fine, look into using a weight-distribution device (hitch) to shift weight forward to the tow vehicle’s front axle and aft to the towable’s axle. This redistribution should not only level the hitch connection, but also prevent tire wear and improve steering control and braking performance.
- You’ll Have to Learn to Drive–Again
Driving with a towable takes a little practice. Formal lessons can help (search for “RV driving schools” online)–some states even require certificates from schools for you to legally operate larger RVs. But many folks like to learn by doing. Start by reading your tow-vehicle owner’s manual. There might be instructions on selecting the right gear for starting out or going up and down grades or, if applicable, how and when to use the tow mode. Next find a big, empty parking lot. Practice parking, accelerating, braking, turning, and backing up. This will give you greater confidence when it’s time to get out there and change lanes, pull out into traffic, pass, turn corners, and park on inclines and declines.
States and municipalities set their own rules for things like towing speed, traveling with propane aboard, required class of operator’s license, mandatory equipment, parking, and access to or gross-weight limits on city streets. In Utah, for instance, the towing speed limit is 70 mph, whereas in California it’s 55. In some states, passengers can ride in towable RVs; in others, it’s against the law.
It’s your responsibility to know and comply with these laws. Research them using your RV Navigation Device. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has loads of towing and other RV tips and information. RV industry sites, such as that for the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association, are also extremely helpful.