How Not to Tow a Trailer

A n00b’s Guide to Avoiding the Common Pitfalls in Towing.

I am not an authority on towing. However if you are the typical person considering a tiny house on wheels, chances are you are not either. If you are experienced or an authority on towing, you are not going to learn anything below.

However if you are considering a tiny house on wheels and have never towed anything (or towed very little) then I will offer the following lessons-learned information so you might avoid making the same mistakes I did. In spite of my mistakes our journey was a success by a combination of dumb luck and a the things I did do correctly, so I’ll offer a few details on that as well.

THE TRAILER

The deck is 8′ x 28′ with an overall length of 33′ with the tongue. It was carrying all the windows and some spare lumber for our build so the trailer gross weight was about 2,000 lbs. It was a custom-built trailer by a reputable manufacturer so I assume it had a typical tongue weight of about 10% the gross weight.

However we loaded materials starting in the front and worked our way backwards and finished before covering the entire deck. So the trailer was a little front-heavy. Front-heavy trailers will not be as prone to trailer sway issues as tail-heavy trailers, but front-heavy trailers can overload the tow vehicle’s rear axle Gross Axle Weight Rating (GAWR) and reduce traction on the front tires which, of course, are your only means of steering; a very undesirable situation!

THE TRIP

The trip was six days across the country to Maine covering over 3,700 miles using Charley, a 1994 GMC G2500 van (3/4 ton, 5.7L V8, towing package, rear GAWR 3400 lbs). The main reason my towing effort wasn’t nearly as dialed in as it should have been is we had bought and stored our trailer in Northern California, but were departing from Idaho. The trailer had never been hauled by Charley; I had never hauled anything with Charley. So I had to drive Charley from Boise to the trailer in Northern California in order to pick it up and then haul it to Maine. Consequently there was no way to test certain towing interactions beforehand as I will recommend below.

PREPARATION

On our Ambling Full Tilt journey we stopped in at Tumbleweed Tiny House Company in Colorado Springs, CO. While we were there a young couple from Iowa had driven all the way there to buy and tow home a trailer for their future tiny house. The tow vehicle was borrowed. As we chatted with the wife about tiny living, the husband worked with the Tumbleweed employees to hook up and test the trailer. After 10-15 minutes of not getting the electric connections to work, they tried a second trailer. It also didn’t work. Suspicious, the technician dug out some test equipment and soon verified that the electrical connection on the tow vehicle wasn’t working. The couple had to leave their newly-purchased trailer behind and figure out how to fix a vehicle that they didn’t own in a strange town far from home. I did not want to repeat that mistake.

My parents loaned me their pickup for the trip where we expected to buy our trailer in Modesto, CA. The pickup had recently towed a large trailer from Alaska to Idaho successfully so I knew the truck (and it’s towing electrical connection) was in good working order. We bought and moved the trailer to a friends place in Nevada County, CA because, even though our two previous land deals had fallen through, we were still hopeful we would find land in the area. It would make no sense to haul a trailer to Boise, only to haul it back in a few weeks. Once it became apparent that land was available in Maine, not in Northern California, the full scope of the trip came into focus.

THE DOs

  • Verify all weight ratings: Gross Trailer Weight, GAWR, GVWR, and estimate your cargo weight. This is easy provided you have the manufacturer badges still on your vehicles.
  • From this you can estimate your tongue weight and determine the hitch equipment rating (Class 1 – Class 5) for receiver, ball mount and hitch ball). Build in adequate safety margin! The cost of a higher class than strictly necessary is cheap insurance. You WILL hit nasty potholes or other road hazards on your tow. If you dial your ratings down to the gnat’s ass based merely on the actual weights, you could have a component fail. The forces (sometimes called dynamic load) from a shock on the road will easily exceed the normal weight loading (sometimes called static load) while towing.
  • Verify actual weights:  Finding a scale can be a challenge; they are often at truck stops, but you have to haul the trailer there first to use one. Actuals were easy for me because the weight we added was so little (300-400 lbs on a trailer rated for 21,000 lbs). If you have a light gross trailer weight, however, you can verify tongue weight on a bathroom scale. I did not do this beforehand and I wish I had.
  • Verify hitch ball size and torque requirements: I have included reference links below. I needed at 2 5/16″ ball, which come in two different shank sizes (1″ and 1 1/4″). You need to ensure proper torque on the ball shank nut; it could be hundreds of foot pounds! I used some very large pipe wrenches and thought I was employing overkill while tightening. But I never verified and things went very wrong. WHEN WE PULLED IN TO OUR FINAL DESTINATION THE HITCH BALL NUT WAS ONE TURN AWAY FROM FALLING OFF. It was sheer dumb luck that we did not suffer a disaster and possibly risk harming others on the road. Do NOT do what I did! Research the torque requirements and make sure you are following them! My particular ball requires 250 ft-lbs; but a 1 1/4″ shank ball might require 450 ft-lbs!
  • Make an Informed Decision About the Lock Washer: this really gets into the esoteric side of towing. Read the instructions with the ball you purchase; they will likely recommend one of the first two of the following three choices. There are risks with any choice. But regardless of your choice, torquing to the right amount and regularly checking the nut tightness are essential.
    • Place the washer under the ball flange. Argument for: it will stop the ball from rotating under load and potentially loosening the nut. Argument against: properly torqued, a ball should not rotate under normal load. Additionally a lock nut will likely break when torqued to 200-400 ft-lbs.
    • Place the washer between the nut and the ball mount. Argument for: a lock nut is intended to keep a nut from spinning loose once it first cracks loose. A manufacturer that recommends this procedure will also recommend checking nut tightness before each tow. Argument against: a lock nut will likely break when torqued to 200-400 ft-lbs. Check nut tightness before each tow and there is no need for a lock washer.
    • Do not use a lock washer. Argument for: a lock washer will likely break when torqued to the specified torque if it’s over 200 ft-lbs. A broken washer is worse than no washer at all. Argument against: I have not come across an argument for using a lock washer that was not simply following manufacturer’s recommendations. The only purpose a lock washer serves is to prevent a nut from immediately free spinning loose after it initially breaks loose. The reason my tow hitch ball came loose is less likely that I didn’t torque it enough – the lock washer cracked in two places and part of it fell out over the haul. With missing a large piece of lock washer the nut was no longer tight and things went downhill from there. As the ball wiggled in the mount, the threads became destroyed and I could not reuse the same ball even once I got the lock washer remains removed. I have decided to not use the lock washer on the replacement ball, instead opting for regular checks on the nut tightness.
  • Verify Hitch Ball Height: The trailer deck should be as level as possible. It is rarely possible to get it perfectly level. Just keep in mind that as the hitch ball height goes above-level, this will decrease tongue weight, increase sway potential and, if excessive, reduce grip on the rear tires. As the hitch ball height goes below-level this will increase tongue weight (load the read vehicle axle more) and, if excessive, can cause reduce grip on the front tires decreasing steering performance.
  • Verify Tow Vehicle Electrical System: If you have the trailer near the tow vehicle this is easy. If not you need to drive to the trailer or a good equivalent (in weight and electrical requirements) test trailer. A great overview can be found here. More details on the different types of electric systems are below.
  • Verify Trailer Electrical System: If possible do not do this the day you intend to tow! If you cannot get to the trailer, try to find someone with an equivalent test tow vehicle (similar weight ratings, towing capacity and electrical system) who can test drive it for you.
  • Verify Electrical System Adapter, if present: there are four types of trailer electric connections common in the US. Each has “standards” but it seems deviations from them are not uncommon, so be sure to test!
    • 4-Pin Flat: Ground, Left Turn Signal, Right Turn Signal, Running Lights
    • 5-Pin Flat: adds Trailer Brakes (though I have seen people try to add Reverse lights instead instead of brakes with this connection)
    • 6-Pin Round: Adds a 12V auxiliary wire
    • 7-Blade/Spade Round: Adds Reverse Lights
  • Verify Trailer Brake Controller: Charley came with one installed and I had no idea how they worked or how to test them. Here is a great summary article on controllers in general if you’re just getting started and need to buy one. If you bought a vehicle that already had a controller installed, get the make and model and research the manufacturer. Look for manuals and test/troubleshooting procedures on their websites. Or contact the manufacturer directly and request the information. However you find it, perform the recommended tests on the controller and verify it is working. I performed every check needed with just a test probe and a voltmeter.
  • Verify Trailer Brake Performance: this was unfortunately impossible given the trailer I wanted to haul was hundreds of miles away. There was no way I could ask an acquaintance to to do a test haul for me (I didn’t know anyone with a tow vehicle). I spent five days overhauling every jot and tittle of Charley’s towing system. As the trip commenced I drove all day to the trailer and spent three hours rigging before having the trailer ready to test. It was beyond disheartening to finally plug the electrics in and find I had ZERO trailer brakes. I decided to haul it across the country without brakes. I had tested Charley on a trailer of similar weight with no brakes and knew he could handle it; it just required sufficient following distance. There was no way to troubleshoot the trailer brakes themselves and maintain our rigorous, cross-country travel schedule. DO NOT PUT YOURSELF IN THIS SITUATION. We made it to Maine without calamity, but that is more due to dumb luck than anything else. This rig is probably about 50′ long and I had to run a red light at the bottom of a Maine hill because of insufficient brakes – it was mere happenstance that there was no accident or law enforcement to witness the stupidity.
  • Research the Manufacturer’s Guidelines for towing with your particular tow vehicle. Many other little details you never expected may pop up there.
  • Use Drag Chains Properly. Crossing them under the tongue can help prevent the tongue from dragging on the ground in an emergency. Also twisting them to the right length before attaching them can prevent them from dragging on the ground as well as minimize the tongue drop distance in the case of a failure of the hitch ball/mount.
  • Increase Following Distance to four or five seconds, even with a little trailer. Without trailer brakes, increase it even more. Even with trailer brakes on a heavy trailer, increase it further. It’s easy enough to maintain a large following distance, even if it’s not strictly necessary. If something goes wrong, you’ll be glad you did.
  • Periodically check rigging AND towing equipment: I checked my trailer rigging daily (either as I stopped each night or before I started each morning) to make sure everything was still tied down securely. I never thought the hitch equipment itself could come loose. It can! Check the hitch pin and tow ball and nut.
  • Practice reversing with your trailer. This is an art unto itself. Regardless how much you plan in order to avoid it, it is almost impossible to avoid completely. Research and practice! The short story is the trailer tail tends to go in the opposite direction of the tow vehicle tail when reversing. Some just say “in a straight line reversing, grasp the steering wheel with one hand at six o’clock. If you want the trailer to go left, move your hand slightly left from six o’clock. The opposite for right. While this is true, it’s very limited in scope so I haven’t found it particularly helpful. But others may find it useful advice. Find what works for you and stick with it.

THE DON’Ts

  • Don’t assume ANYTHING (ratings, rigging, adequate torquing).
  • Don’t ignore weather reports.
  • Don’t leave terrain (uphill/downhill road profiles) unresearched.
  • Don’t tread heavily on brakes, even with trailer brakes. Jackknifing commonly occurs during high speed travel when the brakes are applied too suddenly (especially if the trailer brakes lock). Always maintain a much farther following distance than is strictly necessary. When you see brake lights, modulate the brakes and slow more gradually than you think is required. This will keep the trailer in line with the direction of travel and prevent jackknifes.
  • Don’t brake through a turn. This again is a jackknife risk. It may work great approaching an apex in a racing situation, but when pulling a trailer primarily brake in STRAIGHT LINES before you enter turns.
  • Don’t assume you will never need to back out with your trailer. You will.
  • Don’t jackknife your trailer while parking. If a person backs carelessly it’s possible to get the trailer misaligned at an acute angle with respect to the tow vehicle. If this happens you will likely need to disconnect the trailer, pull the tow vehicle away, then realign and reconnect.  Otherwise you could get locked into an Austin Powers turning situation or not be able to move at all!

REFERENCES:

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