Towing Your Vehicle: A Basic Overview

The most common reason for towing a vehicle is basic convenience. Having your everyday vehicle with you means that you don't have to manuever a large, unwieldy motor home through back roads or parking lots when driving to and from your campsite or heading out on errands. You can use a trailer to tow your vehicle, or a tow dolly, but both of these options take up too much space at campsites and RV parks. A more convenient, space-saving method of towing your car is to use a tow bar. With a tow bar you can easily bring your everyday vehicle with you on your trips, quickly detach once you arrive at your destination, and store the towing system components out of the way until you're ready to hitch up and leave.There are 5 basic components required to flat tow a vehicle ("dinghy") with an RV or other vehicle ("tow vehicle").
  • Tow bar
  • Base plate kit
  • Safety cable set
  • Tow bar wiring
  • Supplemental braking system
Towing a Vehicle
Flat Tow a Vehicle - Tow Bar Setup

Tow Bar

The tow bar is the most recognizable part of a towing system. It is designed to link your dinghy to your tow vehicle so that it can be safely flat towed. The function of the tow bar is the same regardless of model or manufacturer. The differences lie in the type of mount, towing capacity, and basic design.Beyond those aspects, there are a wide variety of features associated with the various models, all of which are discussed in detail in our Roadmaster, Blue Ox, and Demco tow bar feature articles.

Mounting Options

RV Mount: RV-mounted tow bars provide the most reliable, direct connection. Because this type of tow bar inserts into your motor home's trailer hitch receiver, there is no need for that additional connection point that car-mounted models require. Not having to use a coupler means that there is one less spot at which your system can become uncoupled. And there is no annoying rattle and play like you may find with a coupler. Using a hitch lock you can secure the tow bar to your receiver. And because most RV-mounted tow bars can be safely stored on your motor home when they're not being used, you won't have to worry about packing away your tow system at the campsite.The benefits of an RV-mounted tow bar include:
  • Sturdy, stable connection - no coupler needed
  • Safe, secure storage - lock tow bar to receiver with hitch lock; fold tow bar and stow it alongside motor home
  • Less hassle - no need to remove for storage; no need for separate ball mount and coupler
  • Easy to adjust - use a hitch adapter to achieve the rise or drop required to match your dinghy's height
Hitch-Mounted Tow Bar
Hitch-Mount Tow Bar
Vehicle Mount: Vehicle-mounted tow bars were the first introduced to the towing and RVing market. They function the same as an A-frame trailer, attaching to the trailer hitch ball on your RV with an integrated coupler.The benefits of a car-mounted tow bar include:
  • Economical models are made for occasional RVers
  • Integrated coupler can be locked to hitch ball for security
  • Couplers for 2" and 2-5/16" balls, as well as pintle hitches, are available
Vehicle-Mounted Tow Bar
Vehicle-Mount Tow Bar

Design and Structure

The design and structure of tow bars varies between manufacturers. The basic configuration, though, is similar to that of an A-frame trailer. The tow bar attaches to your dinghy at the ends of the tow bar arms. The other end of the bar then hitches up to your tow vehicle via either an integrated coupler or by means of a receiver mount.Crossbar vs. Hidden Brackets: Some tow bars include a crossbar that mounts between the arms near the connection point between your tow bar and dinghy. This is designed to lend extra support for your towing system. Not all tow bars require this additional support. Some base plate kits are made to attach to your dinghy's frame in such a way as to provide enough support for it to be towed without the aid of a crossbar.Fixed vs. Telescoping Arms: Some economical, car-mount tow bars are made with rigid arms that do not adjust. Tow bars with adjustable arms are easier to hook up. You do not have to drive your dinghy into an exact position to connect your towing system rather; you pull the telescoping arm out, or push it back in, to get the length you need.

Extra Features of Tow Bars:

  • Non-binding release latches (hassle-free disconnect, even on unlevel ground)
  • Self-aligning arms (telescope for easy hookup; automatically center and lock when pulling away)
  • Aluminum construction (lightweight and simple to store)
  • Pivot joints (allows tow bar arms to adjust for easy hookup on uneven ground)

High/Low Adapters

When your dinghy is connected to your motorhome, the tow bar should be within 3" of level. If it is not within this acceptable range of level, you will need to use a high/low adapter to properly connect up. Click here to learn more about high/low adapters.
Tow Bar with Telescoping Arms
High-Low Adapter
High-Low Adapter
Base Plates Installed on Vehicle

Base Plate Kits

Base plates are the only vehicle-specific piece of the puzzle. All vehicles require custom-designed base plates that specifically fit their frames. Once installed on your car's frame, the base plates provide attachment points for your tow bar.Base plates install on your dinghy's frame using as many existing attachment points as possible without sacrificing strength or safety. When multiple base plate kits are available for a specific vehicle, installation will be nearly the same for each kit. The differences lie in the draw bar type and the number of frame bracket pieces. Typically, base plates consist of two main parts:
  • Frame bracket(s): Mount directly to the dinghy's frame
  • Draw bar arms: Provide attachment points for the tow bar
    • Removable arms attach to frame brackets using a pin/clip or twist-lock feature. They create a cleaner look with no visible brackets.
    • Fixed arms are welded to the frame bracket and are visible at all times. They are typically the economical option.
Different brands offer different base plate styles. Roadmaster offers four styles of base plates, which you can read more about here. Demco offers two different styles, which you can learn more about here. Finally, Blue Ox offers a lug-style base plate system, which you can read about here.

What is a Base Plate Adapter, and Do I Need One?

While most base plate manufacturers construct products to fit as many applications as possible, it is not uncommon to find that the company that made your tow bar does not have base plates for your vehicle. Each tow bar manufacturer has a unique type of connection used to secure the tow bar to the base plate arms. Because of this, you will need to purchase an adapter if you have a tow bar and base plates manufactured by different companies. Roadmaster Base Plates: Most Roadmaster tow bars and base plates use quick disconnects to attach the base plates to the crossbar and tow bar. One quick-disconnect bracket attaches to the arm or crossbar. The other bracket attaches to the base plate draw bar arm. Both brackets then interlock with one another and are secured with a linch pin. Blue Ox Base Plates: The draw bar arms have two lugs that interlock with the lugs on the ends of the tow bar arms. They are then secured in place with a pin and clip.Demco Base Plates: The draw bar arms have two-prong ends that slide around the tow bar arm extensions and secure in place using a pin and clip.So... If you have a Blue Ox tow bar, but you only have Roadmaster base plates with quick disconnects, then the Blue Ox triple-lug ends on the tow bar arms will not work with your base plates. The adapter you need will have one side that connects with the lugs on the Blue Ox tow bar and one side that has quick disconnects for use with Roadmaster base plates. If you need an adapter, but aren't sure which type, consult the table here to help you choose.
Roadmaster Base Plates
Blue Ox to Roadmaster Base Plate Adapter
Blue Ox to Roadmaster Base Plate Adapter

Safety Cables

Safety cables are crucial for any tow bar setup and are required by law in most states. They ensure that your dinghy does not detach from your RV in the event that your tow bar somehow uncouples from it, or that your dinghy uncouples from your tow bar.
In most towing setups, safety cables link two or three components together. The long cable connects the RV hitch to the base plate arms on the dinghy. The small cable connects the base plate arms to the frame-mounted brackets on the dinghy.Long, straight cables: Designed for tow bars with integrated cable channels Note: Cables should not be wrapped around Blue Ox tow bars with protective rubber boots.Long, coiled cables: Won't drag during towing. Note: Do not use coiled cables with tow bars that have safety cable channels.Short safety cables: Required when using the Roadmaster EZ or XL base plates.
Safety Cable Diagram
Magnetic Tow Light Kit

Tow Bar Wiring

You are required by law to have a lighting system on your dinghy that functions in sync with your tow vehicle's tail lights.Removable exterior light kits: Magnetic towing lights and hitch-mounted light bars. Separate tail light bulb kits: Mount inside vehicle's tail light housing and bypass dinghy lighting system. Diode light systems: Wires in-line with dinghy's existing tail light bulbs. Requires little to no maintenance after initial installation.Wiring extensions: Connect towed vehicle wiring to motorhome wiring. Most installations require an extension.Charge line kits: Connects to 6-way or 7-way plug and allows RV to charge vehicle's battery while towing. Prevents the vehicle's battery from being drained if being used to power a braking system. A power line must be present on the RV. If power is not at the 6-way/7-way plug, a charge line kit for RVs must be installed. For detailed information on the types of dinghy lighting available, click here.
Supplemental Braking System

Supplemental Braking Systems

Required in most states and Canadian provinces, a supplemental braking system can decrease braking distance up to 30% on some towing setups. Supplemental braking minimizes wear on both vehicles and smooths braking. Plus, many RV manufacturers will only honor your warranty if a braking system is in place when towing.For more information on supplemental braking systems, click here.
Roadmaster Nighthawk Hitch Mount Tow Bar

General Setup Tips

Before Choosing a Tow System

Be sure that your dinghy can be towed before taking it on the road. Some vehicles must be equipped with a transmission lube pump, an axle disconnect, a drive-line disconnect or free-wheeling hubs before they can be towed with a tow bar. Failure to properly equip your vehicle could lead to severe damage to its transmission. Check your owner's manual or call your dealer for specific information on your vehicle.If your vehicle cannot be towed for any of the above reasons, you may be able to use a tow dolly instead.

Initial Setup

Some important notes for your initial flat-tow setup:
  • Never exceed the maximum weight capacity of your tow bar or any other component of your system.
  • Always hook up on level ground. Even non-binding tow bars may be difficult to maneuver if your system is not in line.
  • Set your dinghy's steering and transmission to "tow".
  • Check to make sure tow bar arms are locked in place before heading out.

Towing Tips: Why Your Setup Should Be Level

Ensure that your tow bar setup is as level as possible, from the hitch of the tow vehicle to the base plates of the dinghy. Improper leverage can cause stress and wear on the tow bar and base plates. When braking, stress is applied to your towing system and to the frames of your RV and dinghy as a result of the downward braking force placed on both vehicles. This can cause flexing at the base plate installation points and adversely affect both the frame and suspension of your towed vehicle.The end of the tow bar that attaches to the base plates should not exceed a rise or drop of 3 inches from the center of the RV hitch receiver. So how do you determine if your setup is within this range?A: Measure the height from the center of your hitch pin hole on the RV to the ground.B: Measure the distance from the center of your dinghy's draw bar arms (when installed in frame brackets) to the ground.A - B = C: Subtract the difference (A - B). If there is more than a 3 inch difference, a hitch adapter is needed.
Level Flat Towing Setup

Safety Cable Tips

Tip #1: Cross your safety cables under your tow bar coupler as an extra safety measure. This prevents the front of the tow bar from dragging in the event of a disconnect. Otherwise, if the tow bar were to hit the ground during a disconnect, it could cause the dinghy to jackknife into the tow vehicle.Tip # 2: Use quick links. Place quick links on the RV's hitch and the dinghy's base plates to make clipping on safety cables quick and easy. No awkward hookups—just a clip that attaches to the cable hook.
Flat Tow Safety Cables
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