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Trailer towing tips for newbies

by Gary Brinck

Here is a collection of towing tips for newcomers to the RVing world. Nothing profound - just the accumulated wisdom of those who tow have a lot of different things numerous miles. For further definitions of many terms, see the Glossary of RV Terms on the left of your screen.


A vehicle will handle and respond differently while towing a trailer. You should hitch the trailer to the vehicle and practice turning, stopping and backing in an area away from heavy traffic to gain experience in handling the extra weight and length of the trailer.

Acceleration and Passing

The added weight of the trailer can dramatically decrease the acceleration of the towing vehicle, especially if it is near the maximum recommended weight limitation. If you must pass a slower vehicle, be sure to allow extra distance. Remember, you also have the added length of the trailer which must clear the other vehicle before you can pull back in.


Back very slowly, with someone outside at the rear of the trailer to guide you. In most situations you should make small steering corrections instead of large ones -- a slight movement of the steering wheel will generaly result in a much larger movement of the rear of the trailer. The exception is the initial motion of a fifth wheel - it takes a lot of steering to get the fifth wheel started in the direction you want to go. After that, though, it's back to small motions.


The extra weight when towing a trailer will increase the distance needed to stop so allow considerably more stopping distance when the trailer is attached. This is true even though the trailer or towed vehicle may have brakes of its own.


For correcting trailer side sway, use the manual brake controls to touch the trailer brakes for a moment without using vehicle brakes, and the trailer should settle down and track steadily again.

Downgrades and Upgrades

Downshifting assists braking on downgrades and provides added power at the drive wheels for climbing hills.

Driving with an Overdrive Transmission

Vehicles equipped with an electronic 4-speed automatic transmission should operate in Overdrive for best fuel economy. However, in some situations the use of overdrive may cause the transmission to "seek", i.e. constantly shift between two gears. This can cause the transmission to overheat and should be avoided, so lock out the overdrive using the overdrive button or shift lever.

When descending a steep grade with a trailer, operate the electronic 4-speed automatic transmission in Overdrive Off for third gear engine braking. If additional braking is needed, shift into second gear or low.

Cruise Control

When driving uphill, especially with a heavy load, significant speed drops may occur. A speed drop of more than 8 to 14 m.p.h. will usually cancel the cruise control. Temporarily use the accelerator pedal until the terrain levels off. If your vehicle does not maintain speed without frequent bursts of accelleration, turn the cruise control off.

High Altitude Operation

Gasoline engines lose power at the rate of 3% to 4% per 1000 ft. elevation. You may have to use lower gears to climb hills and it may even be necessary to lighten the load. One way of lightening is to eliminate water from the holding tanks, if so equipped. NOTE: Do NOT dump gray or black water except in approved dump stations!


Load Carrying (Non-Equalizing) Hitch

Choose a proper hitch and ball and make sure its location is compatible with that of the trailer. Use a good weight-carrying hitch which uniformly distributes the trailer tongue loads through the bumper and frame for towing trailers up to 2000 lbs. gross loaded weight with maximum tongue load of 200 lbs (Hitch Class I). Vehicles with strong frames may be able to use a Class II non-equalizing hitch, which can tow up to 3500 lbs with a tongue weight of 500 lbs.

Load-Equalizing Hitch

Used in conjunction with a hitch platform (receiver), distributes tongue weight to all towing vehicle and trailer wheels. Required for Class IV & Class V applications. They are generally not used for loads under 5,000 lbs. unless a particular vehicle application specifically requires it. With a load equalizing hitch, spring bars are connected from hitch to trailer's A-frame, and lengths of chain are pulled up to bend the spring bars upward, lifting some of the weight from the rear wheels and transfering weight to the other wheels of the vehicle and trailer.

Safety Chains

Always use safety chains when towing. Safety chains are used to retain connection between the towing and towed vehicle in the event of separation of the trailer coupling or ball. Cross chains under the trailer tongue and allow enough slack for turning corners.

When using a frame-mounted trailer hitch, attach the safety chains to the frame-mounted hitch using the recommendations supplied by the hitch manufacturer.


After traveling about 50 miles or so, stop in a protected location and double check:
  • Trailer hitch attachment.
  • Lights and electrical connections.
  • Tire pressure.
  • Trailer wheel lug nuts for tightness.
  • Check engine oil and coolant level regularly.


Vehicles with trailers should not be parked on a grade if at all possible. However, if it is necessary to park on a grade, turn the steering wheel so that the rig will turn OFF the road if the brakes slip. Generally, turn the steering wheel to the right so it will turn off when facing downhill and back to the right if facing uphill. Better yet, place wheel chocks under the trailer's wheels as follows:

Apply the foot service brakes and hold. Have another person place the wheel chocks under the trailer wheels on the downgrade side. Once the wheel chocks are in place, release foot service brakes, making sure that the chocks are holding the vehicle and trailer. Apply the parking brake. Shift the transmission into P (PARK) with an automatic transmission and make sure it is latched there. NOTE: With four wheel drive, make sure the transfer case is not in N (NEUTRAL).

To start, after being parked on a grade:

Apply the foot service brake and hold. Start the engine with the gear shift selector lever in P (PARK) on automatic transmissions. Shift the transmission into gear and release the parking brake. Release the foot service brakes and move the vehicle uphill to free the wheel chocks. Apply the foot service brakes and hold while another person retrieves the chocks.


Under-inflated tires get very hot and will lead to early tire failures and possible loss of control. Lolw pressure is the #1 cause of RV tire failures.

Overinflation can cause uneven tire wear but is generally better than under-inflation. However, the maximum pressure embossed on the side of the tire should not be exceeded except for special conditions specified by the tire manufacturer. Tires should be checked frequently for proper inflation. See your owners manual.

Use of a tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS) such as the Pressure Pro is highly recommended.


The amount of the trailer's weight that presses down on the trailer hitch. Too much tongue weight can cause suspension/drivetrain damage, and can press the vehicle down in back causing the front wheels to lift to the point where traction, steering response and braking are severely decreased. Too little tongue weight can actually lift the rear of the vehicle, reducing rear-wheel traction and causing instability which may result in tail wagging or jackknifing.

For towing trailers up to 2000 lbs. gross loaded weight (Class I), the maximum tongue load should not exceed 200 lbs. For towing trailers over 2000 lbs., the tongue load should be 10-15% of trailer weight.

For fifth-wheel trailers, the tongue load should be approximately 20-25% of trailer weight. Note that this can easily exceed a 1/2 ton (F150/C1500) pick-up truck's rear axle carrying capacity and can quickly reach that of a 3/4 ton or 1 ton too.

To measure actual tongue load, disconnect the trailer and place only the tongue, with the coupler at hitch ball height, on a scale. If the tongue load exceeds the upper weight limit, move more of the trailer contents rearward to achieve the recommended tongue load. If the tongue load is less than the lower limit, shift the load forward.


Most states require brakes on trailers weighing over 1500 lbs. when loaded. For your safety, we urge that a separate functional brake system be used on any towed vehicle. There are basically three types of trailer brake activation:

Electronically Controlled Electric

Provides automatic and manual control of electric trailer brakes. Requires the vehicle to be equipped with a controlling device, and additional wiring to supply the electrical power.

Hydraulically Controlled Electric

Trailer brakes are applied in proportion to brake pedal pressure. Trailer brake system should not be connected directly to vehicle's brake system.

Surge (Hydraulic)

Independent hydraulic brakes activated by a master cylinder at the junction of the hitch and trailer tongue. Be sure the trailer brakes conform to federal and local regulations.


Make sure the trailer is equipped with lights that conform to federal and local regulations. Do not connect a trailer lighting system directly to the lighting system of the vehicle.

TRAILER WEIGHT Probably the single most critical factor in trailer towing is weight, since overloading a vehicle can put you in danger by reducing braking capability. It also places undue stress on components and can lead to shortened service life or failure. And, you must always remember that added weight of the trailer decreases the acceleration of the towing vehicle. Weight Distribution For optimum handling, the trailer must be properly loaded and balanced. Keep center-of-gravity low for best handling. Approximately 60% of the cargo weight should be in the front half of the trailer and 40% in the rear (within limits of Tongue Weight). Load should also be balanced from side to side for good handling and proper tire wear. Load must be firmly secured to prevent shifting during cornering or braking, which could result in a sudden loss of control.

Trailer Towing Weight Definitions

Base Curb Weight - Weight of the vehicle including a full tank of fuel and all standard equipment. It does not include driver, passengers, cargo or any optional equipment.

Cargo Weight or Payload - Includes all weight added to the Base Curb Weight -- including cargo and optional equipment. When towing, trailer tongue weight is also part of the Payload Cargo Weight.

Gross Axle Weight (GAW) - The total weight placed on each axle (front and rear). To determine The Gross Axle Weights for your vehicle and trailer combination, take your loaded vehicle and trailer to a scale. With the trailer attached, place the front wheels of the vehicle on the scale to get the front GAW. To get the rear GAW, weigh the towing vehicle with trailer attached, but with just the four wheels of the vehicle on the scale. You get the rear GAW by subtracting the front GAW from that amount.

Gross Axle Weight Rating (GAWR) - The total weight each axle (front and rear) is capable of carrying. These numbers are shown on the Safety Compliance Certification Label, located on the left front door lock facing or the door latch post pillar. The total load on each axle (GAW) must never exceed its GAWR.

Gross Combination Weight (GCW) - The weight of the loaded vehicle (GVW) plus the weight of the fully loaded trailer. It is the actual weight obtained when the vehicle and trailer are weighed together on a scale.

Gross Combination Weight Rating (GCWR) - The maximum allowable weight of the towing vehicle and the loaded trailer (including all cargo and passengers) that the power train can handle without risking costly damage. The measured GCW must never exceed the GCWR. (Important: The towing vehicle's brake system is rated for safe operation at the GVWR -- not GCWR. Separate functional brake systems should be used for safe control of towed vehicles and for trailers weighing more than 1,500 lbs. when loaded).

Gross Vehicle Weight (GVW) - Base Curb Weight plus actual Cargo Weight plus passengers. It is the actual weight that is obtained when the fully loaded vehicle is driven onto a scale.

Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) - The maximum allowable weight of the fully loaded vehicle (Base Curb Weight plus options plus cargo plus passengers). The vehicle's measured GVW must never exceed the GVWR. The GVWR along with other maximum safe vehicle weights, as well as tire, rim size and inflation pressure are shown on the vehicle's Safety Compliance Certification Label, located on the left front door lock facing or the door latch post pillar.

Maximum Loaded Trailer Weight - Is the highest possible weight of a fully loaded trailer the vehicle can tow. It assumes a towing vehicle with mandatory options, no cargo and the driver only (150 lbs.). The weight of additional optional equipment, passengers, cargo and hitch must be deducted from this weight.

For fifth wheel towing, the maximum allowable trailer weight is the GCWR minus the actual tow vehicle weight. If stated in a brochure, it will be the GCWR minus the Base Curb Weight and 150 lbs for a driver. It is an idealized maximum and not a "real world" capacity. The weight of additional optional equipment, passengers, cargo and hitch must be deducted from this weight.

Payload - Combined, maximum allowable weight of cargo and passengers that the vehicle is designed to carry. It is Gross Vehicle Weight Rating minus the Base Curb Weight.