How to Simplify Trailer Towing

Common-sense trailer towing tips

Perhaps you, like many drivers, are reluctant to tow a travel or fifth-wheel trailer. When towing, your vehicle becomes heavier, slower, and will require a greater stopping distance. However, even though several aspects of your normal driving experience may change, towing a trailer does not need to be a stressful experience. In fact, with the proper equipment and adjustments, towing can become almost as convenient and easy as normal driving.

SUV towing Bowlus Road Chief travel trailer © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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:

Four-wheel-drive trucks and SUVs are heavier which can diminish towing capacity. If you don’t need the four-wheel-drive capability, stick to rear-wheel drive for maximum towing ability.

Airstream travel trailer at Goose Island State Park, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Longer-wheelbase trucks and SUVs can tow more than their shorter counterparts and generally offer better control when a trailer is hooked up.

When it comes to power, for towing, it’s all about torque. That’s why diesel-powered trucks tend to have higher tow ratings than their gasoline counterparts.

Airstream trailer at Pleasant Harbor RV Park on Lake Pleasant, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many trucks and SUVs offer different axle ratios. A higher ratio means better pulling power but can come at the expense of fuel economy. A lower axle ratio works the opposite way.

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Before you hook up an RV trailer or even purchase a trailer hitch, you should first consider towing capacity. How much weight is your vehicle rated to tow? How much does your trailer weigh?

Teardrop travel trailer at Distant Drums RV Park, Camp Verde, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

An understanding of the terminology and acronyms used to describe vehicle and trailer towing capacity is essential to finding the towing capacity of your vehicle and how to measure the crucial weights involved with towing.

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.

Pechanga Casino RV Park, Temecula, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) is the maximum loaded weight of your tow vehicle, as determined by the vehicle manufacturer. If you exceed this weight, the vehicle’s engine, transmission, brakes, tires, and other systems may be loaded beyond their design limits.

The gross axle weight rating (GAWR) is the maximum weight that can be placed on your front or rear axles. The vehicle manufacturer gives each axle its rating. If you exceed these weight ratings, the vehicle components may be loaded beyond their design limits.

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The gross trailer weight (GTW) is the total weight of the travel or fifth wheel trailer and its cargo. It can be determined by putting the fully loaded trailer on a vehicle scale.

SUV towing Bowlus Road Chief travel trailer © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tongue weight (TW) is the downward force exerted on the back of a tow vehicle by a trailer or towable load. The tongue weight is greatly affected by where cargo is positioned and is important for maintaining good control of the vehicle. Proper tongue weight should be about 10-15 percent of the GTW.

The best means for determining your tow vehicle’s towing capacity is to read your vehicle owner’s manual. The owner’s manual will provide detailed instructions and limitations, usually accompanied by tips for safe towing.

Cougar travel trailer at Whispering Hills RV Park, Georgetown, Kentucky © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After familiarizing yourself with your vehicle’s weight capacities and general towing capacity, it is time to look at trailer weight. Your trailer should have a VIN plate (Vehicle Identification Number). This plate not only carries the trailer’s serial number, but will also list the trailer’s unloaded GTW, maximum GVWR, and GAWR for each axle.

The only way to be sure of the gross trailer weight is to load the trailer as you expect to use it and weigh it on a vehicle scale. Such scales are sometimes available to recreational users at state highway weigh stations, refuse transfer stations, and commercial truck stops.

Travel and fifth-wheel trailers at Sea Breeze RV Resort, Portland, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The advantage of using a vehicle scale is that you learn the actual weight of your loaded trailer. Be sure to call ahead and confirm that you are welcome to use these scales before driving over.

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After finding the tongue weight and comparing it to the gross trailer weight, you may realize you have too much or too little. Remember, the ideal tongue weight is 10-15 percent of the gross trailer weight.

Travel trailer at Wind Creek Casino RV Park, Atmore, Alabama © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The best way to achieve proper tongue weight is by distributing the weight of your cargo. If you place more weight in front of the trailer axle, you will generate more tongue weight. If you place more weight behind the axle, the tongue weight will decrease. A good figure to follow is 60 percent in front and 40 percent behind unless otherwise specified by the trailer manufacturer.

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If you have too much tongue weight, your tow rig may not be as responsive as it should be. If you do not have enough tongue weight, your trailer may be more likely to sway. Always follow the tow vehicle and trailer manufacturer’s instructions for tongue weight.

Fifth-wheel trailers at Gold Canyon RV Resort, Gold Canyon, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With the right equipment, some practice, and a healthy amount of confidence, towing can be almost as easy as regular driving. Yet safety should always be one of your highest priorities when towing an RV trailer. No matter how comfortable you may become with towing, the fact is that the combination of your vehicle and trailer weighs more and does not maneuver or stop as easily as your vehicle alone.

Worth Pondering…

Everything that is really great and inspiring is created by the individual who can labor in freedom.

—Albert Einstein