Tips on How To Tow a Trailer

With the right know-how and equipment, towing a trailer should be easy and safe. If you are new to towing, or you are experiencing problems when towing, the following information can help you tow easily and safely. Below, you can learn towing basics and see common towing equipment.
SUV with trailer hooked up

Equipment Capacity

All towing components have a maximum weight capacity. This value is usually displayed on each piece of equipment. All of your components should be rated at a higher capacity than the heaviest trailer you will tow. Some parts have more than one capacity. For example, hitches are usually rated for maximum weight capacity and maximum tongue weight capacity. The maximum weight value represents the heaviest trailer the hitch can pull, and the maximum tongue weight represents the maximum weight that the hitch can handle pushing down on it.The weight capacitity of each component - the tow vehicle, the trailer hitch, ballmount, ball, and safety chains - must be greater than the gross trailer weight (GTW). The towing system will only be as strong as the weakest piece.Gross Trailer Weight (GTW) - the weight of the loaded trailer. To determine GTW, weigh the loaded trailer on a vehicle scale.Tongue Weight (TW) - the downward pressure placed on the ball by the coupler. On smaller trailers the TW can be measured using a bathroom scale and a box. On a level surface, place the coupler of the loaded trailer on the scale at normal towing height (Figure A). For heavier tongue weights, use the method diagrammed below (Figure B) or use a tongue weight scale.Learn more about how to determine tongue weight here.
Trailer on Tongue Weight Scale Illustration
Illustration - measuring trailer tongue weight

Trailer Loading

The way you load a trailer can determine how easily you can tow it. While loading, keep in mind that the tongue weight should be 10% to 15% of the overall trailer weight. Not enough weight on the trailer tongue can cause sway. To keep your trailer from swaying, place heavier cargo forward, in front of the trailer's axle. Also center the cargo left-to-right and use tie-downs to keep the load from sliding.Trailer sway can also lead to a loss of vehicle control. When starting out with a new load on a trailer, gradually increase your speed in intervals until highway speed is reached. If the trailer does begin to sway, try adjusting the cargo and equipment accordingly. Also, make sure your trailer's tires are properly inflated. If repositioning the load doesn't reduce sway, you may need a sway control or a weight distribution system with sway control. Read more about weight distribution systems here.
Weight distribution hitch
Weight distribution hitch

Driving

The addition of a trailer adds weight and length to the tow vehicle. With additional weight, your rig will accelerate slower and take longer to stop. You should allow for extra time when switching lanes, stopping, and passing other vehicles when you're towing a trailer. Trailer brakes can help improve your rig's stopping power. The extra length that a trailer adds can also cause problems on turns. Because the trailer does not follow the exact path as the vehicle on turns, you must swing out wider when traveling around bends and corners.To conserve fuel when towing, travel at moderate speeds. Faster speeds increase wind resistance, reduce gas mileage, and place added strain on the vehicle and trailer. When traveling over long or steep hills or on gravel roads, use a lower gear to ease stress on your transmission and engine. Shifting out of overdrive and into a lower gear may also improve vehicle gas mileage. Be extra cautious of potholes and other large bumps. They can damage the tow vehicle, trailer hitch, and trailer. When pulling a trailer, take your time and be careful. If for some reason (a gust of wind, a downgrade, a pass by a larger vehicle, etc.) the trailer does begin to sway, the driver needs to assess the situation to determine the proper course of action. Here is a list of dos and don'ts to think about.
Truck towing fifth wheel trailer
Do's - Good Towing Practice
  • Gradually reduce speed
  • Steady the steering wheel - sudden turns can cause more sway
  • Apply only the trailer brakes to help reduce trailer sway
Don'ts - NOT Good Towing Practice
  • Do not slam on the brakes - jackknifing could occur
  • Do not attempt to steer out of a sway situation
  • Do not increase speed - trailer sway increases at faster speeds
  • Do not tow a trailer that continues to sway (consider reloading the trailer or perhaps adding sway control or a weight distribution system with sway control).

Trailer Towing Components

Find out more about the various kinds of equipment related to towing in the information, below. And remember to keep up on the maintenance of your trailer and your tow vehicle to help ensure safety and long life of your equipment.Learn more about proper trailer maintenance here.
Trailer Hitch Receiver

Trailer Hitches

Trailer Hitches are specific to each vehicle and are rated accordingly. To find out how much weight the trailer hitch can tow, look for a sticker on the hitch. This sticker will display the weight carrying capacity, which indicates the maximum trailer weight the trailer can pull and the maximum tongue weight, which indicates the maximum weight the hitch can handle pushing down on it. If a weight distribution system can be used with the hitch, the sticker should display a weight distributing capacity. This value represents the maximum capacity of the hitch when used with a weight distribution system - a system that includes spring bars that attach to the trailer to help distribute the load.Learn more about trailer hitches here.
Trailer Hitch Ball Mount

Ball Mounts

Keep in mind the trailer's gross trailer weight and tongue weight when selecting a ball mount for the trailer hitch. Class III ball mounts are selected not only with gross trailer weight in mind, but also trailer height. A level trailer handles better than a trailer that isn't level. Class I and class II ballmounts are specific for each vehicle and are recommended by the hitch manufacturer. To find a ballmount for a class I or class II hitch, use etrailer.com's fitguide for custom-fit hitches.Learn more about trailer hitches here.
Trailer Hitch Ball

Hitch Ball

Always make sure the hitch ball weight rating is greater than the gross trailer weight. The hole diameter in the ballmount must be less than 1/16" greater than the ball shank diameter. When tightening a hitch ball to a ballmount, always use the lock washer and make sure a portion of the ball shank extends past the bottom of the nut.Information needed to get the correct ball:
  • Gross trailer weight (GTW)
  • Hole diameter on the ballmount
  • Ball mount platform thickness
  • Trailer coupler size
Learn more about hitch balls here.
Safety Chains

Safety Chains

Always connect the trailer's safety chains securely to the trailer hitch or tow vehicle by crossing them underneath the coupler. The safety chains should only be long enough to allow for tight turns. Anything longer may weaken the safety feature of the chains if other connections fail. Also make sure the chains cannot wiggle or bounce free and do not let them drag on the ground.
Trailer Wiring

Trailer Wiring

Always make sure the turn signals, brake lights, tail lights, electric brakes, and breakaway switches are working on the trailer prior to each use. If you need to wire a tow vehicle to tow a trailer, see etrailer.com's custom-fit wiring harnesses.Read more about installing and troubleshooting trailer wiring here.
Electric Trailer Brake Controller

Electric Trailer Brake Controller

For use with trailers that have electric brakes, electric brake controllers send the signal that applies the trailer's brakes.Read more about brake controllers here.
Trailer Coupler

Trailer Couplers

The inside of the coupler should be clean and slightly lubricated with grease. This will help prevent binding during turning and help any moving parts inside the coupler move smoothly.Learn more about trailer couplers here.
Weight Distribution Hitch

Weight Distribution

Weight distribution systems are recommended if the vehicle is pulling a trailer that weighs more than 50% of the tow vehicle. The systems improve braking and handling while increasing the towing capacity of some trailer hitches.Learn more about weight distribution hitches here.
Sway Control

Sway Control

Available in three different styles, sway controls reduce the effects of wind gusts and sudden maneuvering by applying resistance to the trailer and vehicle with respect to each other. Sway controls can help prevent sway on trailers with a large surface area, such as enclosed or travel trailers. They can also help prevent sway on trailers with a low tongue weight percentage.Learn more about weight distribution and sway control systems here.
Trailer Tire

Trailer Tires

Check tire inflation and tread wear often. Fill the tires to match manufacturer's guidelines. Tires with too much or too little air pressure can cause the trailer to sway. Trailer tires should usually be filled to the maximum air pressure listed on the sidewall.Learn more about trailer tires here.
Trailer Towing Mirror

Towing Mirrors

Available in a custom or universal fit, towing mirrors increase visibility by allowing the driver to see the end of the trailer. This makes backing up and passing other vehicles much easier and safer.Learn more about towing mirrors here.
Transmission Cooler

Transmission Coolers

A must for all towing vehicles with automatic transmissions. Transmission coolers lower the operating temperature of the oil by up to 60 degrees. Every 20 degree drop in temperature can double both oil and equipment life by reducing deposits and stress on the seals. Overheating causes 90% of transmission failures.Learn more about transmission coolers here.
Bearing Kit

Trailer Bearings, Races, and Seals

Another important area to be aware of is the trailer bearings, races, and seals. The bearings, races, and seals are all vital parts that should be kept in good repair in order to keep your trailer working correctly. If the bearings are not working correctly, the internal rollers are not moving freely, and this could cause damage to the spindle and hub assembly. If the bearings are not properly greased, they can get so hot that they will actually weld themselves to spindle assembly. In order to prevent this the wheel bearings should be repacked every 6,000 miles or every 12 months. Pulling the trailer more often will actually help to distribute the grease throughout the bearing.Learn more about packing wheel bearings here.

Questions and Comments about this Article

John H.

I was shocked when I was recently told by a supposedly knowledgeable source that trailer GVWR does not include tongue weight. Is this true?

Etrailer Expert
Reply from Jon G.

That is not true. Tongue weight is very much part of the GVWR. What they may have been talking about is the GVWR of the axles. It's not uncommon to see the GVWR of the whole trailer exceed the GVWR of the axle(s) for the trailer. For example, if a trailer has 2 axles that are rated for 7K it wouldn't be surprising to see the GVWR listed somewhere around the 16,000 lb mark. That's because anywhere between 1,400 lbs - 2,100 lbs will be placed on the tongue.

Kelly P.

Im planning on pulling my 18 ft trailer behind a dodge caravan. Can you tell me of this will work.

Etrailer Expert
Reply from Kef G.

To find out if this will work, you will need to know the towing capacity of your Caravan and the gross vehicle weight of your trailer. You will also need to consider what type of brakes your trailer has and what components you'll need to operate those brakes.



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