Making sure that your trailer is properly prepared can mean the difference between life and death for the family in the minivan behind you.
For that and so many other reasons, it’s important to take towing seriously. There are some simple rules to remember when hooking up so that your trip doesn’t end up a disaster, many of which apply from the largest car carriers down to the smallest scrap haulers.
It All Starts With Your Vehicle
First, you need a properly equipped vehicle. Just about any car on the road can be fitted with a hitch and it is important to consult the owner’s manual of your particular vehicle to find out how much it is rated to tow. Ideally, you shouldn’t be pulling more than 75 percent of the listed maximum for a safe feeling load. Hitting or exceeding the maximum weight not only puts extra strain on your vehicle, but it also makes driving more dangerous. That is why pickup trucks and SUVs are commonly used for hauling, because their heavy curb weights allow heavier loads to be controlled more easily. Powerful engines and body-on-frame construction also qualify pickups and SUVs over cars, but they aren’t essential for all hauling jobs.
SEE ALSO: Why Your Pickup Truck’s Tow Rating is BS
There are also different types of hitch receivers ranging from class I to class V, with each designation representing how much a hitch can tow, how that particular hitch is set up and what type of specific hardware must be used. Class IV hitches are the most common and can be found on most new half-ton pickup trucks like the Chevy Silverado, Ford F-150 and Ram 1500.
SAE says that a Class IV can tow up to 12,000 pounds gross-trailer weight and 1,000 pounds of tongue weight. It must use a two-inch hitch receiver opening, which has to use a five-eighths inch pin to secure the ball mount in place. The ball itself must be a minimum of 1.25-inch diameter.
Starting with the proper hardware for your hitch is essential, and getting the right size hitch ball is a big part of that. Different trailers call for hitch balls ranging from one and seven-eighths of an inch up to 2.5 inches. Making sure the ball is the right size for the receiver will ensure a safe connection between your vehicle and the trailer, but that’s only the beginning.
Even Weight is Essential
Weight distribution is one of the most important factors to consider. As you increase weight on the tongue of the trailer, the rear end of the vehicle will sink, causing the front end to lift. That puts more strain on the rear suspension and reduces contact between the front tires and the road. In turn, that means less stopping power and reduced steering ability. Tongue weight – the actual amount of downward force being put on the rear end of the tow vehicle – should be between 15 and 20 percent of the overall trailer weight, though that can be tough to measure accurately. The easy way to check for proper weight distribution is to eyeball your rig and make sure that both the vehicle and trailer are sitting flat.
There’s more than one way to combat poor weight distribution. Ideally, you want about 60 percent of the weight on the trailer to be on top of or in front of the axle, distributed evenly from side to side. If you are hauling an ATV or a snowmobile, this is easily achieved by simply moving the machine until the weight is centered. With something like a travel trailer or a load of gravel, where you can’t simply shift the weight around, there are still ways to achieve proper weight distribution.
Hitch height is an important part of this. Measure from the ground to the top of the hitch ball on both your vehicle and trailer to make sure your tow vehicle isn’t too tall, or too short for your trailer. If the two numbers are different, the difference can be addressed with a drop hitch. Some drop hitches are actually adjustable, which is an ideal setup if you plan to pull more than one trailer with the same vehicle. These adjustable setups will usually also accommodate a trailer this is taller than your tow vehicle as well, although that isn’t as common.
If your hitch height is perfect but you near the vehicle’s maximum tow rating, odds are the rear end of your vehicle will still be sagging, the solution for which is a weight-distributing hitch. This type of hitch will spread the weight on the tongue out onto the trailer axle and to the front wheels of your tow vehicle, helping to achieve a flat ride.
There are several rules to keep in mind while hooking up your trailer, but one reigns supreme: never rush. Taking the time to double check connections and tie downs can mean the difference between arriving safely and going to the hospital.
With that in mind, the next step to hooking up is backing your vehicle up to the trailer. You always need a spotter to guide you into position with your hitch ball sitting underneath the hitch ball housing. Once lined up, open the handle on the ball housing and drop it onto the ball using the tongue-mounted jack. Close the handle on the housing and your trailer is now hooked up. But you aren’t ready to hit the highway yet.
Always use safety chains to ensure that your trailer will remain attached even if the ball somehow becomes disconnected. The key thing to remember with these chains is to cross them. The left-mounted chain on the trailer goes to the right side hookup and vice-versa. That way, if the tongue of the trailer falls off, the chains will act as a cradle and keep it from dragging on the road.
Once the chains are on and the tongue is hitched, it’s time to connect the lights. Most modern pickups and SUVs are fitted with receivers for both four-pin and seven-pin connectors. Adapters are available to make sure you can hook up the lights if your vehicle isn’t fitted with the right connection.
Smaller trailers generally use the four-pin setup, while larger trailers tend to use seven-pin. The difference is that larger trailers usually have their own brakes.
As a side note, make sure the connector is off the ground and covered to prevent it from rusting when the trailer isn’t in use. If your connection isn’t working, try spritzing it with WD-40. Sometimes that’s enough to solve the issue.
Always Double Check
So now your trailer is properly balanced, the safety chains are on and the lights are connected. That means it’s time for a circle check.
Commercial vehicle operators are required to walk around their entire truck before driving on the highway and it’s a habit that is important for personal vehicle owners as well.
Start by double-checking all of the connections at the hitch. Then walk around the trailer looking for any problems that may arise. Specific things to watch for are tire pressure , anything loose on the trailer or debris lodged in or around the axle. Make sure to check that all of the lights functions are working properly as well. Finally, make sure that whatever it is that you are hauling is secured properly to the trailer.
And that’s it! You’re ready to haul. Whether you’re taking toys out for a weekend adventure or hauling a load of scrap to the dump, towing can be hugely helpful and even fun as long as you remember to take it seriously.