Towing is one of the main reasons people buy trucks and large SUVs. However, despite all the towing that people do every day, towing safety is hit or miss. For every smart and safe driver with towing experience, there’s a yahoo throwing caution to the wind and putting everyone in his or her immediate vicinity in danger.
Here are the most common towing mistakes I see, as well as ten towing safety tips that anyone who tows should know.
Common Towing Mistakes
Most towing mistakes have to do with driving too fast, following too closely, or overloading their vehicles. Failing to secure cargo and improper brake controller calibration are issues as well.
Most people follow too closely or drive too fast out of habit. If you drive a car or unloaded truck and trailer most of the time, the tendency is to drive a truck or SUV pulling a trailer in much the same way. The problem is, vehicles pulling trailers don’t stop very well, and aren’t at all easy to control when there’s an emergency, which means you can not drive a truck pulling a trailer the same way you’d drive the family sedan. You need to leave a lot of space between your vehicle and the vehicle ahead, and you need to drive the speed limit.
As for overloading, I believe the basic problem is math. Some people have a hard time figuring out just how much they should be pulling, and in their defense the vehicle manufacturers absolutely love to mislead the public about what kind of weight trucks can and should pull. The best advice is to study your owner’s manual, get your vehicle weighed with and without a fully-loaded trailer attached, and then double check that neither the trailer nor the combined weight of the truck and the trailer exceed your vehicle’s rating.
10 Essential Towing Safety Tips
1. The Walk-Around
The first and most basic thing you can do is walk around your vehicle, and trailer and perform a visible inspection.
- Check everything. The tires on the truck and trailer, the tow receiver and ball on the truck, the hitch and neck of the trailer, anchoring points on the trailer, and any hinges, ramps, or doors on the trailer.
- Repair or replace any rusted, bent, or broken parts before towing. Don’t put off repairs – especially when replacement trailer hitches and accessories are so affordable!
- Ensure that your truck has the towing capacity to move your cargo, and also that the tow hitch, ball, receiver, and trailer are able to handle your cargo payload.
2. Setting Up
Once you have inspected your equipment, it’s time to attach the trailer to your truck.
- Connect the truck to the trailer. For small open trailers and dollies, the easiest method is to back the truck to near the trailer, and then lift the trailer by the neck and settle the receiver over the hitch yourself. This is easily done by one or two people for trailers up to about 12’ long.
- For larger rear mount and gooseneck trailers, it helps to have an assistant to guide you. If an assistant is not available, some simple ingenuity will get you far. A stick or piece of PVC piping duct taped to the tow ball and sticking straight up is a lifesaver. Pull the truck forward until you can see the trailer and receiver in your rear view mirror. Use the stick or PVC pipe to center the truck to the trailer and back straight up. When the makeshift guide taps the receiver, you’re close enough that the trailer jack will be able to lower the receiver directly onto the hitch.
- Make sure to lock it down onto the ball and secure the locking mechanism. Then attach your trailer wiring harness and emergency chains to your tow hitch on your truck and check your trailer lights – turn signals, rear lights, and brake lights. Once these are checked, you’re ready to load!
4. Loading Onto A Dolly
Now it’s time to load up your cargo.
- Sort out which direction you will load the vehicle onto the trailer or dolly. For a 2 wheel dolly, you want the active axle on the dolly. If the car is rear wheel drive, the rear wheels should go on the dolly. Front wheel drive vehicles should load onto the dolly front wheels first. It’s not recommended to use a 2 wheel dolly for all wheel drive vehicles.
- Ensure that the car is in NEUTRAL and that the emergency brake is off. Before loading a vehicle, ensure the brakes and/or emergency brake are working so that the loader can stop the car on the trailer.
- CHOCK YOUR WHEELS. We’re shouting this bit of advice because some people think that a truck’s emergency brake (or perhaps having someone stand on the truck’s braking system) is enough to keep a vehicle and trailer from moving while it’s being loaded. They aren’t…so chock your wheels when it’s time to load and unload.
5. Trailers and Running vehicles
For an open or enclosed full trailer, the direction the car loads is mainly up to personal preference and convenience. If a non-running vehicle is only accessible to pull up from the rear, there’s no reason to do the extra leg work of turning the vehicle nose-first before loading it.
- Running and driveable cars: USE A SPOTTER. Lower the dolly or trailer ramps, approach the ramps and trailer from a far enough distance to ensure that the car is completely straight. Have your assistant guide you forward so your front tires are centered on the ramps as they make contact.
- Low cars will sometimes require wood planks to lessen the angle of entry to the ramps. 2x4s are suitable for this. Lay them ON TOP of the trailer ramps. Putting them under the ramps can compromise the stability of the ramps. Watch your spotter and gently pull the vehicle up the ramps and onto the trailer.
- The movement of the car coming up the ramps and onto the trailer is generally rather abrupt. Be prepared and don’t panic if you hear clanging or some thuds as the trailer settles. Your spotter should stop you when your vehicle is just forward of centered over the axle(s) of the trailer.
6. Trailers and Non-Running Vehicles
- A winch attached to the center of the front of the trailer is the easiest method of loading the vehicle. If a winch is unavailable, a second choice is a hand-cranked come-along. If neither are an option, brute strength will get the job done.
- Back the trailer as close and straight to the car as you can. Then, attach the winch or come along to the tow point. Have someone get in the driver seat to control the steering and drop the trailer ramps as close and as centered to the tires as possible.
- Turn on the winch or begin cranking the come along and spot the car as it comes up the ramps. Communicate with the steering person if the wheels need to turn.
- Load without a winch at your own risk. While it’s not very safe, some people will load a non-running vehicle without the aid of a winch, merely pushing the car as hard as they can up the ramp while someone steers. Obviously, this isn’t very safe. If you were to losing your footing and trip while loading, the car might roll back towards you and…you know the rest. So if you must do this, push from the sides of the vehicle.
7. Strap It Down
- Once the vehicle is on the trailer, the “hard” part is done. Now it’s a matter of strapping everything down and getting headed out on the road.
- Use ratchet straps rated for double or triple the weight of whatever you’re strapping down. If you’re strapping down a race car that weighs 2,000 lbs, you want to use 4,000 lb ratchet straps at the minimum. That way, when your brake or accelerate, the shift in momentum doesn’t overwhelm the ratchet straps.
- A dolly will generally have a tie down system built in, utilizing straps or netting over the wheels that connect behind the wheel and ratchet down. Crank the ratchet down as tight as you can get it.
- As far as the front contact, find the factory tow hook for the vehicle. Then, attach it to the trailer’s anchoring point using a ratchet strap. If there is not an anchoring point directly in front of the vehicle, attach two straps to the tow hook and have one going to each anchoring point.
- For the rear, you want at least two points of contact in order to stabilize the side-to-side motion of the car. There have been many discussions about the proper location to connect the ratchet straps – I’ve always attached to the rear control arms or axles and run the straps diagonally (left side of car to ride side anchor). Wherever you attach, make sure it’s a component that’s attached to the frame.
- Crank all of the straps down HARD. The less movement the car exerts, the more control you will have over the load. As you crank the straps down, you should see the car settle down on its suspension half an inch to a full inch.
- Now that the straps are cranked down, attach one emergency chain to the front and rear of the car. These chains should have as little slack as possible, and are intended to catch the car if a strap fails.
- Once everything is set, put the vehicle in gear and engage the emergency brake to ensure it doesn’t move.
8. Re-Check and Roll Out
- Give your vehicle, cargo, fasteners, and trailer one final walk around before you head out. Make sure that all straps are tight, chains are connected, and ramps and loose ends are safely stowed away.
- Also look at your setup from a bit of a distance. The trailer and truck should both be close to level, with minimal sagging to the rear of the truck.
9. Take It Slow
Once you’re content with your final inspection, hop on in and head out. Keep your speeds low, especially if you are a novice at towing a vehicle.
- The steering of your truck will feel a slight bit lighter than when it’s unloaded. This is because there is weight pressed on the back. If the steering is too light, pull over to the nearest safe area.
- To rectify steering that is too light, you’ll need to unstrap your cargo and move it a few inches to the rear of the trailer, allowing the weight to come off the tongue.
- Drive 55mph. Believe it or not, most truck owner’s manuals (and trailer manuals) explicitly state that the maximum speed for towing is 55mph. If you drive faster, be aware that you’re likely ignoring the recommendations from both the company that made your truck and the company that built your trailer.
10. Better Safe Than Sorry
- It’s always a good idea to re-check your equipment after about 10 miles of driving. This will give everything time to settle, and you may need to tighten some straps and chains. Remember, the less movement of the cargo, the better.
- Take your time getting to your destination and exercise extreme caution when changing lanes and turning. Don’t let other drivers on the road pressure you into going faster. Stay in your right lane and go a moderate speed to avoid accidents.
- Do not follow closely. The easiest way to make a mistake while towing is to fail to plan ahead. Planning starts with giving yourself lots of time to correct, which means you want a few vehicle lengths between your vehicle and the one ahead. That way, if you have to stop in a hurry, you can do so without risking a loss of contro. Trailers have been known to swing around in hard stops, and that’s not fun.
Keep these tips handy to ensure that your towing experiences are safe and happy. And remember, there’s no feeling quite like towing home your new car.
A self-described “car nerd,” Jason is a automotive columnist who has written for the eBay Motors blog, Motor Car Digest, as well as his own sites TundraHeadquarters.com and AccurateAutoAdvice. With an engineering degree, a full-time job in the automotive parts industry, and a decade of experience working in auto dealerships, Jason brings an interesting perspective on all things automotive.