There are important things to know before you tow. Especially when you’re new to it, towing an RV can feel intimidating, but with the right mindset and these helpful tips, you’ll have the hang of it in no time.
1. Hitching Up
Proper hitching is a topic unto itself, but here are three basic pointers:
- Match your hitch and tow bars to your vehicle’s towing capacity and your load.
- Practice hitching a few times, so it becomes second nature.
- Stop about an hour into your trip to check your hitch, just to make sure everything is still secure.
A Guide to Hitching Your Travel Trailer
There are four main types of hitches to familiarize yourself with:
2. Know Your Numbers
There are several important numbers that can help you properly match your tow vehicle to a trailer or vice versa.
First, you need to know the GVWR (gross vehicle weight rating) of the tow vehicle. That’s the maximum weight of the vehicle and all additions, including the weight of passengers and cargo, as well as the tongue weight of a trailer, if towing. To properly stay within GVWR, you need to find out the curb weight of your tow vehicle and the tongue weight of your trailer.
Don’t forget to add in the weight of any aftermarket additions to your vehicle, as well as the weight of the people and all of the gear you will pack into the tow vehicle (this number does not include the trailer cargo—that is part of a separate measurement).
Your trailer will also have a GVWR of its own. This number tells you the maximum weight of the trailer, plus added cargo. Don’t overlook your water tanks. If you haul 30 gallons in the freshwater tank, that can add significant weight. Consider taking your vehicle and fully loaded trailer to a weigh station to find out the actual weight of each—you might be surprised.
Next, you need to know the tow capacity rating of your vehicle. This number tells you how heavy of a trailer you may tow. You can find this number by checking with your manufacturer or a towing guide. Just be aware that vehicles sometimes look like they can tow much more than they actually will. This is a problem with SUVs or with trucks with a lot of added gear and options. The GVWR of your trailer must fit within the tow capacity rating of your vehicle. It’s best to leave some wiggle room.
If you’re in the market for a towable RV and tow vehicle, choose your travel trailer or fifth wheel first, if possible. That way, you’re less likely to try towing your rig with a vehicle that can’t handle it.
What’s the Best Truck for Towing a Travel Trailer or Fifth Wheel?
3. Find Balance
Weight distribution is extremely important in towing. If your trailer is back heavy, you increase the risk of swaying and jackknifing—the major causes of towing accidents. The weight of the trailer should be evenly distributed from front to back and side to side.
Move heavier items to the front of your trailer. It’s okay for the front to have a little more weight than the back. (Note: Too much weight in the front of your trailer will cause your tow vehicle front to rise, making steering difficult, if not impossible.) Pack only what you need to keep your overall weight down.
How to Pack Your RV for a Camping Trip
Weight your trailer 60 percent to the front and 40 percent to the back.
4. Weigh Your Tongue
Tongue weight is the downward force of the trailer tongue and should be about 10 to 15 percent of your GTW (gross trailer weight). Tongue scales are handy and only cost around $100 to $150. That’s a pretty good return on investment, compared to losing your trailer or ripping the hitch off your truck.
5. Use a Safety Chain
Once you’re properly hitched, distributed, and weighed, add a safety chain for extra security. Cross the chain around the tongue and hitch, so it will hold if the hitch detaches. Make sure you buy a chain with the proper rating for your trailer weight.
6. Know How Your Trailer Measures Up
Always measure the height of your trailer yourself before you drive anywhere. Don’t just rely on the owner’s manual, which doesn’t account for any accessories you added—or that kayak you strapped to the top. Keep a note of the height in a place that’s easy to see while you’re driving, so you can double-check before heading under any overhangs.
Understanding RV Height Clearance
7. Pay Attention to Mirrors
After your trailer is hitched, sit behind the wheel and check your mirrors. Can you see to the end of your trailer and a decent distance out to the sides? If not, consider getting extension side mirrors. You can permanently install them or get clip-ons that you can take on and off as desired. If your trailer doesn’t have a wireless observation camera, you might want to add one. Maximizing your visibility not only makes driving safer, but it can also make parking and backing up much easier.
Driving Your RV for the First Time
8. Give Yourself a Brake
Braking while towing can take some getting used to. Take your trailer to a safe location and practice braking at low speeds. Get a feel for it. Adjust your trailer brake controller (follow the instructions in your owner’s manual or provided with the controller itself) until you feel the trailer braking just a little bit more than your vehicle.
Your trailer needs to stop first. You want to set the controller so the trailer “tugs” on your tow vehicle without locking the brakes. Your tow vehicle should slow at the same time, so it’s more like one large vehicle stopping instead of two.
Test the intensity of your brakes by towing your trailer on a paved surface at about 25 miles per hour, and then fully apply your brakes using the manual activation lever on the brake control. Did the wheels lock up? Your setting is too aggressive. Can’t feel the trailer? You need more braking power. You might need to readjust your setting depending on your trailer load.
When you brake, your RV shouldn’t pull hard at your tow vehicle or rely too much on the tow vehicle’s brakes to stop. Adjust the brake control, so your trailer responds well during both slower and faster stops.
Before traveling, it’s a good idea to check your brake battery with a voltmeter to make sure it starts with a decent charge. It will recharge as you drive.
While driving, remember these driving and braking basics:
- Allow yourself extra room. You have extra weight behind you, which means it takes more time to accelerate, slow down, and—most importantly—stop.
- If your route has hills, braking on the downslope can be tricky. Brake gradually to avoid sway. Take your trailer to hilly local roads to practice climbing and descending.
- Never brake suddenly. Sudden moves with a trailer are an accident waiting to happen. If you feel sway (which can be alarming) remember not to panic. Slow your trailer down gradually until the vehicle and trailer get back into alignment.
- Look down the road for possible issues. Be alert, so you have time to make moves or corrections.
- Keep to the right when it comes to your driving lane. You can keep an eye on what lane commercial truck drivers are in and follow their example.
- If you’ll be braking on extreme slopes, like those found on mountain passes, use engine braking to keep your foot brakes from overheating.
Leave at least 400 feet between you and the vehicle in front of you. To determine 400 feet, when the vehicle in front of you passes a point of reference (for example, a mile marker), start counting to four. You should reach four before you reach the mile marker.
9. Take Your Turn
Turn slowly and widely. Your trailer needs room, especially for right turns. Watch for cars in adjacent lanes and give yourself plenty of space. The longer your trailer is, the wider you usually need to turn; out on the road, you’ll want to keep your turns as wide as you reasonably can.
Understanding the Turning Radius of Your RV
10. Know Before You Go
Did you map out your route with your trailer in mind? Check your route for low overpasses, bridges, tunnels, tight turns or exits, roundabouts, and any other tough-to-maneuver areas. Whenever possible, adjust your route to avoid these trailer-testers.
Consider getting an RV-specific GPS, such as the Togo RV app’s RV GPS, which accounts for your RV’s size when creating a route. You can choose your driving preferences and get step-by-step navigation right from the app.
Research your campsite before you leave home to make sure the campsite you selected is long enough for both your rig and tow vehicle. Most reservation websites provide details for each campsite, including its length and obstructions, like low-hanging branches. Also, check for any warnings for drivers with longer rigs, as some campsites have tight squeezes. Never assume your campsite will be flat. When you get there, walk around and look for obstructions before you park.
11. Don’t Rush
Remember that traveling with a trailer takes longer. You won’t be able to go as fast. You’ll likely be driving in the right lane a lot. You may have to take the long way to avoid challenging spots, and it might take you 20 minutes to park. Allow more space and time for everything you do. Take a deep breath, adjust your travel time expectations, and enjoy the journey.
12. Expect a Learning Curve
Driving with a trailer feels different, so look at it as a skill you’ll gain through practice. Take your trailer to an empty parking lot and practice backing up and parking. Go for a drive on a lightly traveled road where you can go slowly and get familiar with your vehicles. Practice towing on local roads similar to those you’ll encounter on your trip. Confidence makes for better, safer towing, and practice builds confidence.
Towing doesn’t have to be tough. With preparation and practice, you’ll soon be on your way to new adventures.
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