Towing a trailer is one of the most intimidating things a driver can face. Most people don’t know how to tow a trailer properly, and even fewer have enough practice to be called an expert. Trailers change the way your vehicle accelerates and handles, and there’s all that extra length to worry about in traffic. The worst part is when you have to back up a trailer, because it feels like everything you do is wrong.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. With a few simple tips, you can get through your tow with your nerves and your insurance rating intact. Mostly, it’s common sense, but there are a few not-obvious tips that will put you ahead of the game and have you towing with confidence.
I recently refreshed my towing skills pulling a couple of Polaris Razor buggies out to the Nevada desert, so I’ll use that as my example. The tow vehicle was a 2018 Chevrolet Tahoe Custom full-size SUV. The Tahoe comes with a 5.3-liter V8 rated at 355 horsepower and 383 pound-feet of torque. The engine is paired with Chevrolet’s six-speed automatic transmission, and your choice of rear- or four-wheel-drive. The 2018 Tahoe Custom will tow up to 6,600 pounds in standard form, or up to 8,600 pounds with the optional maximum trailering package.
A Class 3 hitch receiver is included with the Tahoe, along with a seven-way electrical connection. The trailer was a double-axle flatbed, weighing about 4,000 pounds with the two buggies on board. Our team also had a single-axle trailer built to haul just one buggy, and that was about 2,500 pounds.
Get the right setup
To make your towing experience a good one, you really want SUV or a truck with a proper towing setup. It may be as simple as a tow ball mounted on the bumper, but most mid-size and some compact SUVs these days include a trailer hitch and almost every truck will have a proper hitch, too. Hitches are more rare on passenger cars, but they do exist.
The big deal here is weight, and trucks or SUVs weigh more than cars. Towing around Las Vegas, my test Tahoe was great. It had enough power to get on the freeway and maintain speed without straining. The desert wind blew the trailer around a little bit, but the 5,356-pound weight of the Tahoe really helped. When it comes to towing, size definitely matters.
Jeff Zurschmeide/Digital Trends
Top: Jessica Walker/Chevrolet and bottom: Jeff Zurschmeide/Digital Trends
One critical thing to check is that your tow ball that matches the trailer’s coupler. Most tow balls are 1 7/8-inch, 2-inch, or 2 5/16-inch in diameter. The trailer’s coupler will have its ball size printed right on top. Get the right ball because if you use the wrong size, the coupler will bounce right off the ball and you’ll lose the trailer.
One other important thing is safety chains. Hitches and balls fail on occasion, and you really don’t want to lose your trailer on the road. Every trailer needs two safety chains that attach to the hitch and to the trailer. Get beefy ones, because if you need these, it’s for real. When you hitch up, wrap the chains around each other a few times under the trailer tongue and then connect them to the hitch. That way if the hitch fails, the wrapped chains catch the tongue of the trailer before it hits the pavement at speed. That one trick can prevent you from losing control and crashing.
Loading is critical
One quick thing before you get on the road. Pay attention to the way you load your trailer. You absolutely need some weight on the forward end, but not too much. The worst is when you load the rear of the trailer so the front has no weight on the tongue. That will send your trailer and tow vehicle out of control and crash you the first time you try to go around a corner or down a hill.
Generally, you want about 10 percent of the total loaded trailer weight on the tongue, but don’t worry about calculating that.
Just load heavier items at the front, or if you’re towing a car trailer, make sure the engine is forward of the trailer axles to keep weight on the tongue.
If you get too much tongue weight, it feels like you’re pulling a much heavier trailer and it will kill your acceleration and fuel economy, but that’s better than not enough weight. If you load the trailer right, it will feel lighter than you expect, and it will tow behind you very confidently.
The tow vehicle and trailer
When you’ve got your trailer hooked up, with good tongue weight, the lights all working, and everything in place, you’re ready to test the trailer brakes. Any time you have a trailer over about 1,500 pounds, you should have trailer brakes, and they’re legally required at 3,000 pounds. Using electric trailer brakes requires a separate trailer brake controller for the driver. A controller integrated into the dashboard just to the left of the steering column is optional on all Tahoe models, and well worth the small price bump.
Jeff Zurschmeide/Digital Trends
To test the trailer brakes, just get moving slowly and squeeze the two sliders on the controller together to actuate the brakes. At low speed, they should be almost enough to stop the whole vehicle plus the trailer rig on their own, but not enough to lock up. Adjust the brake force up or down from the controller as needed. The trailer brakes will work automatically when you step on the brake pedal, or you can actuate them separately.
While you’re getting ready to go, don’t forget to adjust your mirrors. You want to be able to see around the trailer clearly. It’s easy with the Tahoe because Chevrolet offers optional trailering mirrors on their trucks and SUVs. Trailering mirrors extend outward to give you a clear view of what’s alongside the trailer, and any auto parts store will have mirror extensions you can put on any vehicle.
Towing on the road
If you’ve done everything right, your first impression will be that towing is easier than you thought. But don’t get cocky. That’s when trouble will strike. The main thing to remember is that your vehicle with a trailer is slower to accelerate, but much slower to stop. Trailer brakes help a lot, but you’re still carrying a couple tons of extra weight. Panic stops are no fun at all with a trailer pushing you from behind.
So the rule is to be really chill at all times, accept that you’re going to be that guy in the right lane and give yourself all kinds of extra following distance, and signal your lane changes a long way in advance. If you’re lucky, other drivers will give you space, and flash their lights when it’s safe to move over.
When you’re going around tight corners, try to make the biggest possible arc. Go farther into the intersection and then turn sharply. Your trailer has to follow the back of your tow vehicle, so you won’t clip the curb or parked cars if you make a big arc in your turn.
Go slower than you think you should in all curves. If your trailer’s not loaded properly, it will start to sway back and forth on a curve or when you’re headed down a hill. That’s when your trailer brakes are a lifesaver. Just squeeze the brake actuator and the extra drag will pull the trailer into line behind you.
The other thing about going down hills is that you have to preserve your tow vehicle’s brakes. When brakes get hot, they can stop working entirely. So a long downhill grade has to be done slowly, downshifting your vehicle’s gears to keep speed under control. If you ride the brakes, soon you won’t have any brakes left to ride.
Backing up and handling parking lots
Backing up a trailer is a special skill. Maybe you’ve seen experts make it look easy, but it isn’t. The main rule is that the back of the trailer goes the opposite direction from the direction you turn the wheel. The trick is to hold the bottom of the steering wheel. Then the direction you move your hand is the direction the back of the trailer will go.
Next, bear in mind that the trailer will respond slowly at first, but then quickly as the back end rotates around, so use small adjustments and stay ahead of the trailer’s movements. Long trailers with two axles are actually easier to back up smoothly than short single-axle trailers because they’re less responsive to your steering inputs.
The best trick of all is to look for places where you don’t have to back up. Never pull into any space that you can’t see your way out of, or you’ll end up backing out of a narrow alley and around a corner, and no one needs that kind of stress.
Putting it all together for safe towing
The bottom line on towing is simple, but not always cheap. You need to have a tow vehicle that’s more than capable of pulling the trailer and load you have. If you load a trailer to the absolute max towing capacity of your vehicle, it’s going to be unmanageable. This is one area where max overkill is a good thing. The rest of the solution is to be really certain that everything is hooked up right, and then relax and take your journey at a comfortable pace. Do those things and you’ll get where you’re going, and you’ll look like a boss doing it.