Towing a trailer is a skill many Jeep drivers find themselves needing at some point in their lives. Whether you are pulling a small fishing boat or a pop-up camper, a car hauler loaded with your precious Jeep cargo, or a massive 5th wheel vacation home…there are some common sense principles that hold true for any load.
The first is use to the right tool for the job. I was at a boat landing not long ago watching a Prius (I’m not making this up…I should have taken a picture) pulling a pretty big waterski boat out of the lake. It was a battle the Prius was losing, and the owner assured us if we could just pull his boat up to level ground for him, he would be able to get it home OK. I have towed many things with many different vehicles in my life and I can tell you that there is no such thing as too much truck for the job. This schmuck was putting himself (and anyone who got in his way) into a life or death situation. I hope his house was just around the corner, because there was no way his car could safely handle the load he was planning on moving.
In addition to having the right vehicle, it has to be equipped properly. That means it has to have a hitch with a high enough rating to handle the load and the correctly sized ball for the coupler. The wiring has to be in place for connecting the trailer lights (and a brake controller if the trailer has brakes). Extended mirrors make seeing what is back there easier. An external transmission cooler can help extend the life of your automatic transmission. The tires and suspension of the tow vehicle have to be up to the job, and of course, the driver needs to be every bit as well prepared as the vehicle.
Start by looking at the door jamb and confirming that the Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GWVR) is adequate for the load. In addition to the GVWR, the sticker will also tell you the Gross Axle Weight Rating (GAWR) for both front and rear axles and the appropriate tires (look specifically at the load range usually expressed as a letter at the end of the size) and tire pressure for carrying this load. The numbers tend to be lower than you’d expect (because lawyers and engineers have a hard time agreeing on the exact capacity), and a truck with aftermarket tires (and/or wheels) might not have the original load capacity recommend by the manufacturer.
Next take a moment to inspect the hitch. These are broken down into classes and most bolt in applications are sized appropriately for the vehicle (I doubt the aforementioned Prius had a Class V hitch rating). In addition to the tow rating of the hitch, it should also identify the tongue weight rating. Check that the size of the ball and coupler are the same. The 3 most common sizes are 1-7/8”, 2”, and 2-5/16”. You can find a single insert for the receiver that has all 3 and even get a setup with an adjustable drop step to match the height of the truck to the trailer (you want the trailer to be pretty close to level with the hitch).
While you are inspecting the hitch, you can get a look at the wiring plug. Smaller trailers may only have a 4 way flat connector (brake lights and running lights on one circuit, left turn, right turn, and ground. If your tow vehicle has a different plug, you can get an adapter at a local autoparts store to match the 4 way. However, if your vehicle is only set up for a flat plug, you will be out of luck adapting in the other direction. That’s because a trailer large enough to require a 7 pin round has some extra equipment that the tow vehicle needs to able to activate (brakes, accessory lights, break-away battery recharging, etc.)
Any time you are hooking up a trailer, you should grab your tire pressure gauge and confirm that the tires are up to the task. That means not only checking the tow vehicle, but also checking the trailer (and the spare). A common oversight is tires that are getting too old. They have a manufacturing date stamp, and are supposed to be replaced every 5 years. Sitting in the sun (and rain and snow) day after day can be tough on the tires and most tire failures actually occur on a cracked out sidewall.
If you tow frequently, consider purchasing a TPMS (tire pressure monitoring system). Mine monitors both the tow vehicle and the trailer. I got it for two reasons: it confirms the tire pressure is right when I start towing, and it constantly monitors the temperature and pressure as I drive. That way, when a tire starts to heat up (indicating a bearing starting to fail) or lose pressure (tires that blow out often lose pressure slowly at first, then heat up because the pressure is low and finally blow out completely), I can make a safe stop and correct the problem on my terms. That sure beats a panic stop and changing a tire amidst heavy traffic on the side of the interstate.
Another pre-tow inspection is to confirm the lights are working properly. A loose ground wire is often the culprit when lights work intermittently or appear dim. One of my wife’s favorite jokes involves helping me test the turn signals…I ask, “Are they working?” and she replies, “Yes/no, yes/no, yes/no.”
Before turning the key, make sure the trailer is loaded properly. That means the weight should be distributed equally side to side, and biased about 10%-15% toward the front of the trailer. This keeps the trailer coupler down on the ball. Remember the tongue weight rating of the hitch? It’s not hard to exceed it. When I started hauling my Jeep, I spent a few dollars at a truckstop scale and determined EXACTLY what my load weighed (including passengers, full fuel and water, and gear). I was surprised to find how close I was to the upper limits of the GWCR.
When you hit the road, start out slow and easy. If your tow vehicle has an automatic transmission with a tow/haul setting, use it. This will keep the engine revving a bit higher in the powerband and lock up the torque converter (the slip creates additional heat which will put a great deal of additional wear on the transmission). The extra load will take longer to get rolling, so make sure you don’t pull out too close to oncoming traffic. The load will also take longer to stop, so make sure to leave extra room for that as well. The trailer will track through turns a bit tighter than the tow vehicle, so you need to remember to swing wide. Backing a trailer is a whole new challenge, and the novice driver is well advised to use a spotter, practice in an empty parking lot, and be very patient.
As you get up to speed, you might notice some trailer sway. That might be caused by a crosswind, possibly the trailer tires following pavement grooves, or even something wrong with the trailer (bent axle, tire out of balance, etc.). If it doesn’t feel right, you have to stop and check it out. The best situation would be to have a buddy follow behind and pull alongside to make sure things are rolling smoothly.
If everything checks out and you still get sway, there are products on the market to help gets things back under control. A sway control setup functions with a friction pad to dampen side to side sway. A weight distributing hitch shifts some of the load off the rear axle of the tow vehicle and onto the front. I felt much safer with that upgrade since the front axle does all of the steering and most of the braking and I was happy to get some of the load off the rear. Airbags on the rear axle of the tow vehicle can take up some of the “sag” of a heavy load, and, if independently adjustable, can compensate for uneven loading in the tow vehicle.
When taking a road trip, you should certainly plan ahead. This means looking at the map (or programming the GPS) before you roll. Figure out where you will be stopping for the night before your head is bobbing. By federal law, commercial drivers are limited to 11 hours driving per day with a mandatory 8 hour rest stop. Don’t push yourself past your limits. Towing can be strenuous business requiring a high level of concentration and your body needs rest to function properly and react quickly.
When pulling a trailer, even fuel stops require some extra pre-planning. The wider turn your trailer requires means you cannot cut as close to the pumps. Larger truckstops tend to have pull through fuel islands that make getting a trailer in and out easier. Even though you will be buying a lot of fuel over the next few days, saving a few pennies per gallon might not be worth it. Also consider that most restaurants near truckstops have plenty of parking lot room so it is unlikely you will get boxed in by cars too close on either side of you.
When heading out onto the open road, I like to go well prepared. In addition to carrying my usual tools, I also carry a spare trailer hub assembly. While that might sound impressive, it really isn’t. The trailer wheels are bolted to hubs that roll on bearings mounted on an axle spindle. If a bearing fails (because old, dried up grease is not an effective lubricant), the fastest and easiest thing to do is swap the entire hub. I never have to worry about finding the right parts (or the parts store being closed on a Sunday evening), and I can be confident the job is done right. That’s not to say my annual trailer maintenance gets overlooked…it’s just Murphy’s Law that anything that CAN go wrong, WILL.
A final bit of towing advice. Know the laws where you will be pulling. Different states have different requirements and what is legal where you live might not be where you are going. If you are reading this column online, it’s easy enough to Google up towing laws along your route. Out of state license plates seem to be a magnet for LEOs (Law Enforcement Officers), because they know it’s unlikely you will come back to contest a ticket.
Towing safely (just like Jeeping safely) is the result of good planning, responsible driving, and good old common sense. Taking the time to prepare yourself (and your vehicle) and putting in some practice are the keys to success. Don’t be intimidated by the task, but don’t overlook the basics and you’ll soon find yourself rolling down the highway with a smile on your face.
Iron Range Offroad is Minnesota’s only offroad driving school. The classroom setting is the spectacular Iron Range OHV Park, 3 hours north of Minneapolis and St. Paul. The classes are geared toward entry level Jeepers, stressing safety and environmental responsibility. Trail riding is broken up with class modules that cover trip preparation, vehicle maintenance and repair, driving skills for different terrain, extraction techniques, vehicle upgrades, and much more. Customers who register for classes also receive a copy of Jim Allen’s book, Four Wheeler’s Bible, Second Edition, an amazingly complete and detailed volume that incidentally features some fine photography of the Iron Range OHV Park and one of the offroad driving classes. To sign up for a trip or request additional information, log onto: www.ironrangeoffroad.com.