So, you're looking to buy a truck and some toys, and planning to tow them out to the lake or the wilderness for a bit of fun. Here's everything you'll need to know about finding the right tow vehicle, how to hook a trailer up and tow it, and all the new technology that makes trailering easier than ever before. Be sure to check out your state's local towing laws, too.
Vehicle weight and configuration
The most important four letters here are GCWR. This stands for Gross Combined Weight Rating, and refers to the weight not only of the vehicle, passengers and cargo, but also the trailer and its load. This number is determined by a car or truck manufacturer to be the maximum safe weight that a vehicle can tote all-in, so it's important not to exceed this guideline.
Towing all comes down to configuration, with drivetrain, wheelbase, engine, hitch and gear ratios all playing their part. Here are some key things to know:
Example: A 2019 Ram 1500 with two-wheel drive, a 144.5-inch wheelbase, a 5.7-liter V8 and a 3.92 axle ratio is rated to tow 11,540 pounds. Switching to four-wheel drive reduces that number to 11,340 pounds. Switching to four-wheel drive and choosing the 3.21 axle ratio lowers the numbers further to 8,240 pounds.
Choosing a trailer
Flat trailers: When towing cars, all-terrain vehicles or general cargo, a flat-floor trailer works just fine. Single-axle trailers are better for light loads, up to about 2,500 pounds, while double-axle trailers are best for heavier items. Enclosed trailers are better for hauling general cargo, but are heavier than open trailers.
Towing a car without a trailer: If you've ever driven long distances on one of America's highways, you've probably seen an RV pulling a Jeep, dinghy style. Generally speaking, you can attach a tow bar to a rear-wheel-drive, manual-transmission vehicle and pull it with the towed vehicle in neutral. A four-wheel-drive vehicle with a two-speed transfer case can also be towed this way, in neutral. Check your vehicle's owners manual to see if it's able to be towed with all four wheels flat on the road, or if you may need something like a drag-behind single-axle tow dolly.
Travel trailers: If you want to take your home on the road, a conventional travel trailer, or camper, might be your jam. These can be tiny little things weighing 2,500 pounds or 30-foot Airstream trailers tipping the scales at 10,000 pounds or more. These are attached to a standard hitch. You may also want a fifth-wheel or gooseneck trailer (see the next section for more information), which is more substantial, but its unique hitch setup means it's a bit easier to tow.
Hitches and balls
There are five different classes of conventional hitches, able to tow different levels of weight:
Most cars and crossovers come with Class 1, 2 or 3 hitches, while larger trucks and SUVs can be equipped with Class 3, 4 or 5 hitches. Each conventional hitch has a different sized receiver tube. This is where the ball and ball mount go.
The important thing is making sure your trailer sits level, front to back, and ball mounts can be purchased that lower or raise the ball as needed.
Ball sizes are determined by the weight of the trailer. Many manufacturers label the ball size right on the coupler. Common ball sizes are 1 7/8, 2, or 2 5/16 inches. Always use a ball with a weight capacity that exceeds that of your loaded trailer.
Should you need to tow more than 12,000 pounds, you'll likely need a heavy-duty truck with a gooseneck or fifth-wheel hitch. The hitch and ball are placed in the bed of the pickup truck, just over or in front of the rear axle.
Hooking it up
If you're a first-time tower, it's perfectly normal to go through this checklist a couple of times before getting it right. Follow these steps to safely connect a trailer to your tow vehicle.
Once the trailer is attached, you'll want to secure safety chains from the trailer to the vehicle in a criss-cross pattern, and be sure the chains don't touch the ground. You will also need to plug the trailer's electrical connector into the vehicle. Always check the trailer's brake lights and turn signals before driving away.
Loading the trailer
The key thing to remember when loading a trailer is weight distribution. Too much weight at the rear of a trailer can cause it to fishtail. Too much weight up front can cause the vehicle to sag, which results in poor handling and reduced braking power.
Check out this demonstration video to see the dangers of a poorly balanced trailer.
In general, the "tongue weight," the weight at the front of the trailer, should be roughly 9 to 15% of the total weight. You can use a tongue-weight scale to determine this, and some ball mounts even have a built-in scale so you'll know right away if you're loaded up correctly.
A few other things to remember:
Towing on the road
Because you're now driving a vehicle that's both longer and heavier than before, you need to take extra precautions. If your vehicle has a tow/haul mode, engage it with heavier loads to put your engine and transmission into its optimal setting. Additionally, remember these best practices:
Backing up can be daunting, but there's an easy way to do it. The best practice is to grip the steering wheel from the bottom. If you want the trailer to go right, move your hand to the right. For left, move your hand to the left. Remember that a little effort goes a long way with steering. And thankfully, many modern trucks and SUVs have specific trailer-steering tech to aid with this process.
Modern trucks and SUVs have lots of features that make towing easier than ever before. Many automakers even offer tow/haul packages, which can automatically add the proper hitch, trailer brakes, larger mirrors and upgraded cooling systems to your vehicle. (This varies by manufacturer.)
Some specific examples of new towing tech include:
Be sure to ask your dealer what sort of towing tech is available when buying a new vehicle.
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