RV Driving Tips: 20 Ways to Stay Safe and Calm

Driving or towing an RV is an exciting experience but it’s a totally different ballpark compared to driving a car. You’re dealing with a lot more weight and bulk which will give you less control and precision on the road.

Driving an RV, whether it’s a motorhome or a towable isn’t the same as driving a car. No matter what RV you operate there’s a learning curve to RV driving. RVs are usually longer and heavier, they take longer to stop, and there are more (and different types of) mirrors along with a host of other RV driving techniques to consider.

In today’s post, I’m offering 20 RV driving tips from the perspective of an RVer who has been driving 37- to 41-foot motorhomes (and towing a car) for nearly three decades. That would be me!

Whether you have a motorhome or a towable RV, driving can be a daunting experience for new RV owners especially if you choose a larger model. However, with practice and patience, you’ll be a pro at navigating parking lots, fuel stops, and narrow campsites in no time.

Here are 20 RV driving safety tips for beginners to help you stay safe on your RV journey.

Staying safe and calm © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Practice driving your RV

A big, empty parking lot is a great place to get acclimated. A set of small traffic cones can be a big help for safely practicing turns, backing, and maneuvering. The single biggest difference to get used to when driving an RV, versus a car, is length—the overall length of the vehicle(s), the length of the wheelbase, and the length of the rear overhang.

Yes, RVs weigh more than cars and they’re taller. Those factors do come into play but nothing is more critical than learning to manage the length of your RV. More about those topics below but practicing maneuvering in a safe environment is hugely helpful for new RV drivers.

2. Be a patient driver

Other drivers of large vehicles (think truck and bus drivers) are working often on a demanding schedule. As RVers, we’re able to (hopefully) operate at a more leisurely pace.

Whenever possible, allow sufficient time to arrive at your destination early enough that you won’t feel rushed. This will help you to maintain a better mindset throughout your travels—one of not feeling rushed or in a hurry… being patient. This not only provides a safer driving environment but a more relaxing one as well. Stay safe by avoiding the rush.

Staying safe and calm © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Pay attention to your speed

In the same vein as the previous tip, higher speeds can increase stress and reduce safety. Things happen faster at higher speeds reducing the amount of time you have to think and react.

There’s no specific speed that’s right for every RVer. But since the demise of the 55 mph national maximum speed limit in the late 80s, some speed limits are now far higher. Many U.S. states especially in the West have maximum speed limits of 75-80 mph. But that doesn’t mean you have to drive that fast!

RVing shouldn’t be a race. In my opinion, there’s no RV on the road that isn’t safer being operated at a speed slower than those very high limits.

There is no one speed that works for every RV, every RVer, and in every situation? But you’ll know when you’re traveling too fast when your heart jumps into your throat or your right foot buries the brake pedal. But by then it might be too late. Take your time, both speed-wise and in figuring out what speeds are safest for you, your RV, and current driving conditions.

If you’re not sure about correct speeds when you first start driving an RV, figure it out from the bottom up. By that I mean it’s better to realize that you’re driving a little slower than you can safely manage rather than the other way around! Take your time and enjoy the journey.

Staying safe and calm © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Keep to the right whenever possible and appropriate

In general, the best place for a large vehicle on a multi-lane highway is the right lane. A primary tenet of Defensive Driving is to leave your self an escape route in the event another vehicle should come into conflict with yours.

The right lane is adjacent to the shoulder providing some built-in advantages:

  • It’s usually empty allowing a safe space to take evasive action if needed
  • Since the shoulder isn’t a travel lane the threat of another vehicle moving into your lane from the right is reduced
  • Because drivers in North America sit on the left side of their vehicles, the right side is the weak side due to your reduced ability to see what’s directly alongside or approaching your rig at an angle

Keeping the right side of your vehicle as clear of collision threats as possible provides better safety. Being alongside the (often empty) shoulder also provides a place to go should a mechanical problem require you to move off the road.

Of course, there are exit and/or entrance ramps to consider. If you’re approaching one but you’re not exiting be alert for vehicles entering the highway. If traffic allows, move over one lane to the left to avoid conflict.

If you’re traveling on a highway with three or more lanes of traffic in each direction, consider staying one lane over (the middle lane of a three-lane highway, the second lane on a 4- or 5-lane highway) in areas with a high concentration of exit and entrance ramps. That’s especially helpful during high-traffic periods preventing you from having to repeatedly change lanes to avoid traffic merging onto the highway.

Staying safe and calm © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Know your rig’s braking power and plan accordingly

Large, heavy vehicles take longer to stop than passenger cars. That requires thinking ahead—and planning ahead. Keep your eyes scanning far down the road; be alert for brake lights in the distance or other indicators of slowing traffic or potential conflict. Use your height advantage to see as far ahead as possible. Slow down earlier and avoid braking hard.

Besides the longer stopping distances required to stop an RV you should also keep in mind a disadvantage that your large vehicle creates simply by being on the road—other drivers can’t see around you. That virtually guarantees that someone behind you isn’t able to spot potential conflicts up ahead.

But we’ve all seen how simple facts like lack of visibility seem to have little to no effect on other drivers. They often tailgate vehicles that block their view, like RVs. If you’re being tailgated especially by someone who can’t see around you (your vehicle is big!) the last thing you want to do is stop suddenly. Increasing your following distance is the best course of action to prevent you from having to stop suddenly and potentially getting rear-ended.

An additional braking consideration with RVs is the fact that you’re carrying around cabinets full of dishes, glassware, food, toiletries, and many other items not normally stored in a passenger car. Stopping suddenly can lead to things falling out of cabinets the next time they’re opened as contents may have shifted.

Staying safe and calm © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Keep your distance

Maintaining a safe following distance is one of the most basic safety practices to which any driver can adhere. Rather than attempt to guesstimate the number of feet between you and the vehicle ahead, use time instead.

Passenger cars generally follow the 2-second rule: Watch the vehicle in front of you pass an object (such as the shadow of an overpass or a utility pole alongside the roadway) and count one thousand one, one thousand two and you shouldn’t reach that same spot before two full seconds have passed.

Since RVs and other large vehicles take longer to stop, use a 4-second following distance. When the roads are wet, use a 6-second following distance. With snowy- or ice-covered roads, use 8 seconds. Keep in mind that these are minimum following distances. There is nothing wrong with leaving even more space between you and the vehicle ahead of you.

If you’re thinking “If I leave that much room in front of me, other vehicles will simply move over into that space,” you’re correct. They will. Other drivers will indeed change lanes in front of you (often right in front of you). But the only way to prevent that is to fill the space between you and the car ahead yourself. But that is tailgating—something that’s so critically important to avoid.

The best practice is to maintain a speed on multi-lane highways that’s slightly slower than passing traffic… about 2-3 mph is usually good. That way, vehicles that change lanes in front of you will continue to move ahead, re-opening that all-important safety cushion directly in front of your RV without you having to do anything about it.

Staying safe and calm © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Follow the 330 or 3/3/3 travel rule

The 330 rule refers to a policy of driving no more than 300 miles a day and arriving at your destination no later than 3:30 pm. That allows plenty of time to set up camp in daylight, get to know the amenities of the campground and the surrounding area, and further relax after your day of driving.

When we first started, I would hit the road and keep hitting the road until we crammed as much into one day as possible. In my mind, the more we drove, the more we would see, and the more fun we’d have. I recall a 2,000-mile trip we made in three and one-half days. And yes, it was tiring and exhausting! And, I vowed never again!

You may have heard of another RV rule of thumb called the 3-3-3 Rule. This rule is similar to the 330 Rule.

The 3-3-3 Rule is as follows:

  • Don’t drive more than 300 miles in a day
  • Stop by 3 pm (or stop every 3 hours, depending on who you ask)
  • Stay at a campground for a minimum of 3 days

I won’t go as far as saying every RVer needs to abide by the 330 rule. However, I will say that I do highly recommend it. I know that from my own experiences (and mistakes) and from countless RVers who say the same, the 330 rule makes traveling more enjoyable—and safer.

Read my earlier post for more on the 330 Rule.

Staying safe and calm © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Don’t overload your rig

It’s very important to take note of the weight limits associated with your particular RV and to stay within those limits. When you overload an RV you’re putting yourself and everyone traveling with and around you at risk.

Both weight and weight distribution are important. RVs have several specific weight limits. There’s the maximum allowable weight of the loaded RV itself (GVWR, or Gross Vehicle Weight Rating).

There’s the maximum allowable weight for the entire rig which includes anything being towed (GCWR, or Gross Combined Weight Rating). Then there’s the maximum weight capacity on each axle (GAWR, or Gross Axle Weight Rating). Be sure to learn and follow your rig’s weight limits and avoid overloading it.

9. Don’t drive in high winds

Many RVers learn this one the hard way by traveling down the highway in high winds at too high a speed for the conditions. Remember that RVs are tall and frequently flat-sided. The aerodynamics of many rigs lends themselves to being blown about to some degree by high winds.

And while you may feel secure traveling down the highway on a relatively windy day, you may find yourself hitting a crosswind and hanging on with white knuckles for all you’re worth.

Avoid this at all costs. Travel in safe conditions. If you find yourself with a very windy day ahead either stay put or take a slow drive over to the beach or a field to have a picnic and fly a kite!

If you must travel during windy conditions, the most important adjustment to make is to slow down! The faster you’re moving when your rig gets hit with a gust from the side, the more likely you are to lose control of your vehicle. And the more severe the consequences will be.

Read my earlier post for tips on driving an RV in windy conditions.

Staying safe and calm © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Don’t drive distracted

Distracted driving is the cause of far too many accidents… many thousands annually.

Driving distracted can include anything from checking your phone to eating, to driving with a pet in your lap. Distracted driving refers to anything that takes your attention away from the road and the task at hand—safe driving.

Any non-driving activity that you engage in while operating your vehicle reduces your safety and that of your passengers and fellow travelers on the road around you.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), texting is the most dramatic driving distraction: “Sending or reading a text takes your eyes off the road for 5 seconds. At 55 mph, that’s like driving the length of an entire football field with your eyes closed.”

Don’t drive distracted! Your life and the lives of those around you are depending on your vigilance. That’s especially true for large vehicles that take longer to stop and maneuver than a passenger car. And doubly true for the largest vehicles capable of inflicting truly substantial damage if not kept under control at all times.

11. Never drive impaired

Impaired driving refers to driving while under the influence of anything that has the potential to degrade your reaction time as a driver, reduce your attention, or impact your driving ability in any way. This would include substances like alcohol or marijuana as well as narcotics and even prescription or over-the-counter medications that have the potential to impair a driver.

When you get into your RV to drive or into your vehicle to tow an RV, you need to be at your absolute best. And it’s always best not to self-determine whether you’re fit to drive. If you’ve had a drink or two, no matter how you feel, don’t drive. If you’ve been exposed to a recreational drug or a medication with the potential for altering your mind or reaction time, don’t drive. Read the labels on all medications. Benedryl is a good example of an over-the-counter medication that can have a significant impact on reaction time.

Part of the responsibility of driving a large vehicle is being aware of your own abilities. If you’re not sure you’re up to the task of continuing, stop as soon as safely possible.

Just don’t drive if there’s a potential for you to be impaired at all. It’s really that simple.

Staying safe and calm © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

12. Use proper steering technique

Turn the steering wheel slowly or partially when rounding a curve in the road (as opposed to making a sharp turn). This maintains the right hand on the right side of the wheel and the left hand on the left side of the wheel at all times.

Keep your hands on the outside of the steering wheel rim. This avoids getting your hands crossed up or reaching into the wheel where one of the spokes is in the way of your grasping it.

13. Learn proper mirror adjustment and use

It’s essential when RV driving to be able to see well all around you and to avoid blind spots. Depending on the size of your rig you’re driving or towing, this can be somewhat complicated but once you become comfortable with proper mirror adjustment and use, you’ll be amazed at how much it assists your safe driving.

Staying safe and calm © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

14. Monitor the weather and travel accordingly

This one is also known as Embrace Plan B.

Monitor the weather in your current area and along the path you intend to travel. If weather conditions are likely to impede an easy-going driving experience, make a plan B and settle into it. But be ready to adapt if conditions change.

RV driving means understanding that your plans can change at any given time. Not being rigidly controlled by a plan is part of RVing and its great! I know that most RVers aren’t full-timers and may have limited time to enjoy their RV vacation. But within those constraints, do your best to avoid traveling when conditions increase the risk to you and your RV.

15. Never drive when tired

Driving an RV while you’re tired is another version of driving impaired. When we’re fatigued, everything is affected including our sight and reaction time.

Besides substances, one of the most common and potentially most serious forms of impairment is fatigue. Calling back to the 330 rule above, make sure you don’t drive longer than your ability to stay alert. That includes getting a good night’s sleep the night before.

Studies have demonstrated that extreme fatigue can be as or even more dangerous as driving under the influence of some substances. And it can be more insidious as it takes no other action beyond staying on the road too long to create a risk.

This also includes driving while you’re feeling ill. If you have a fever or cold or another ailment that may affect your driving ability, leave the task for another day or to someone else.

Once again, if you’re tired, I strongly encourage you to embrace plan B and stop for the night and get some good rest, good food, and hydration—then drive again when you’re in top shape for the task.

Staying safe and calm © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

16. Have a good roadside assistance plan

Having a reliable roadside assistance plan is essential when traveling in an RV.

Choose a plan that suits you best but be sure to have a good, solid, reliable plan for roadside assistance. Having the peace of mind that if something DOES go wrong while on the road you have resources available to get you out of a bind can help keep you calm should something happen.

Read my earlier post for tips on choosing the best RV Roadside Assistance Plan.

16. Carry an RV roadside emergency kit

An RV roadside emergency kit is one of the most important things you can carry when you travel in an RV.

Read my earlier post for 25 must-have items to carry in your roadside emergency kit. Chances are good that you’ll use many of those items—if not in the event of your own roadside emergency, then perhaps to help a fellow traveler.

Staying safe and calm © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

17. Use trip planner apps and/or GPS to plan RV-safe routes

Remember that when you’re driving an RV, the height, weight, and contents of your rig are factors that you don’t generally need to consider when driving a car. This is why having excellent trip planner apps or an RV-safe GPS is so important.

There are areas (tunnels, in particular, and some ferries) that you can’t enter if you’re carrying propane on board your RV. Or you may be required to confirm that it’s been turned off at the tank. This is information you’ll want to know in advance of approaching the entrance to a tunnel. You want to be offered alternative routes based on what you’re driving and the best way to achieve this important end is to plan RV-safe travel routes.

Some GPS units and RV trip planner apps allow you to input the specifics of your RV and then you’ll be guided according to those specifics.

18. Keep current with RV maintenance

A well-maintained RV or tow vehicle is a safe vehicle. Be sure to keep up with the preventive maintenance and conduct regular inspections of your RV systems especially those that can cause an accident while traveling.

Make a pre-trip checklist and do an inspection of these items every time you get behind the wheel:

  • Belts and hoses (check for cracking)
  • Headlights, turn signal, tail lights
  • Hitch or towing equipment
  • Tires for the correct air pressure and sufficient tread depth

Read my earlier post on RV maintenance tips

Staying safe and calm © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

 19. Know how to back up your rig

The best way to learn how to back up your RV is to practice, practice, practice! Here again, an empty parking lot is a great place to get comfortable backing up your rig effectively.

I encourage you to first have a look at my post on backing up a motorhome where you’ll find some very helpful tips and techniques.

BONUS TIPs for drivers towing a trailer:

20. Understand trailer sway control

I mentioned this tip in a previous section related to RV weight and weight distribution but its well worth mentioning again—it is that important.

It is critical that you understand trailer sway control BEFORE you need the information. We strongly encourage you to consult my linked post on this topic before you tow.

Worth Pondering…

Speed was high

Weather was hot

Tires were thin

X marks the spot

—Burma Shave sign

Methods for Trailer Sway Control

There are a few simple, practical things you can do to reduce the risk of trailer sway

When you’re traveling down the road hauling a travel trailer or a fifth-wheel or any other kind of open/enclosed trailer, various weights factor into your towing experience and, more importantly, your safety and the safety of everyone traveling the roads with you. One of these is tongue weight.

In an earlier post entitled What Is Tongue Weight and Why Is It Important? I discussed how tongue weight impacts the operation of the tow vehicle and the trailer. Improper tongue weight can have very serious consequences including trailer sway.

In today’s post, I’m looking straight at trailer sway—what is it, how to prevent it, and how to control it when it happens. I’ll also include some general towing tips while we’re on the subject.

This is important information for anyone who tows anything (even a flat-bed trailer or utility trailer), so let’s dig in and get started.

Camping in a trailer on Padre Island National Seashore, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What is trailer sway?

Trailer sway is the side-to-side motion of a trailer that can happen when you reach a certain speed as you’re towing a trailer of any type or size. As you might imagine, it’s extremely uncomfortable to be towing a trailer that’s swaying from side to side.

However, what makes trailer sway so dangerous is that it can build to the point of whipping which is a more violent tossing back-and-forth of the trailer that can quickly become uncontrollable.

Generally speaking, this type of side-to-side motion occurs when a trailer is improperly loaded and is heavier in the back than in the front.

Let’s take a look at the best methods for preventing trailer sway.

Driving Utah Scenic Byway 12 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Methods for preventing trailer sway

Fortunately, there are a number of ways to prevent trailer sway, all of which are easy to apply for any driver. The only requirement is to be conscientious in your planning and towing.

Load your trailer properly for trailer sway control

Perhaps the greatest contributor to trailer sway is an improperly loaded trailer. A trailer that’s loaded too heavily in the rear of the trailer will be prone to trailer sway from the get-go.

So, one of the top tips to prevent trailer sway is to be sure to load 60 percent of your cargo weight in the front half of the trailer box. This is one of the most important actions you can take to prevent trailer sway. Just be sure that you don’t exceed your tow vehicle’s and hitch’s tongue weight.

Camping at Alamo Lake State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Load all cargo inside the trailer

By this, we mean that you should always load your cargo so that none of your load extends outside the trailer.

Don’t allow any cargo to stick out of the rear of the trailer, for example, or to extend outside the trailer body in any way. That cargo will move the center of gravity of the trailer further backward increasing the likelihood that sway will be a problem.

This is more applicable to utility/box trailers but be aware of it even with RVs.

Never exceed your trailer’s maximum gross weight

Your trailer is rated with a maximum gross weight (GVWR or Gross Vehicle Weight Rating) with good reason. Adhere to the boundaries of that rating without fail.

Never exceed the maximum gross weight rating of your trailer.

Never overload your tow vehicle

Likewise, never overload the vehicle you’re using to tow your trailer. This can be easy to do. Many people use their tow vehicle to haul lots of stuff—extra clothing, recreational and sports-related items, extra food, etc. It’s amazing what people will try to use their tow vehicle to carry.

Overloading your tow vehicle is a sure way to invite sway and potentially whipping which could be disastrous.

Driving La Sal Mountain Loop Road, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Maintain a maximum speed of 55 mph

When towing a trailer of any type, it’s best (imperative, really) to maintain a maximum speed of 55 mph if you want to prevent trailer sway.

Rest assured that you won’t arrive at your destination much more quickly if you’re driving 65 or 75—or at least not quickly enough to be worth the risk that speed over 55 mph carries.

When towing a trailer, always maintain a speed of 55 mph or less.

Invest in a sway control kit

You can also invest in a sway control kit appropriate to the trailer you intend to tow. These help to limit lateral trailer motion, thus reducing sway.

These kits usually include the sway control unit and appropriate attachment pieces.

The sway control unit attaches to your vehicle and to the trailer at the coupling point and is designed to counter any wandering/sway.

Note that TWO sway control units are recommended for use with larger trailers.

Camping at Sunshine RV Park, Texarkana, Arkansas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Invest in a weight distribution hitch/sway control hitch

While a weight-distribution hitch is NOT a reliable trailer-sway prevention method on its own, it can be effective when combined with a sway control unit. In fact, there are packages that combine a weight-distribution hitch with sway controls.

It should be noted that weight distribution hitches and sway control kits are not intended to be the sole means of controlling trailer sway. You’ll still need to employ operational methods of preventing trailer sway such as proper trailer loading, proper speed (55 mph or lower), and proper weight management.

Sway control kits and weight distribution hitches are intended to provide additional assistance with sway control on winding roads and windy days.

Just be aware that not all hitch receivers are compatible with weight-distributing hitches. Check with your manufacturer before purchasing.

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

Methods for controlling trailer sway (once it happens)

Let’s look specifically at methods you can use to control trailer sway when it’s occurring.

Remove foot from gas pedal

First, remove your foot from the gas pedal. While your instincts may move your foot to the brake pedal, don’t apply the brakes. Simply remove your foot from the gas pedal and allow your vehicle to slow down on its own.

Camping at La Paz County Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Do not apply brakes

Again, don’t apply the brakes though once your speed has decreased from removing your foot from the accelerator, you can very gently apply your trailer brakes manually if you have them.

However, don’t apply your tow vehicle brakes.

Gradually reduce speed to control trailer sway

Gradually reduce your speed to at least 10 mph less than the speed at which you were traveling when the swaying began.

Do not increase speed

Do NOT increase your speed. Higher speeds make trailer sway more severe leading to whipping and an inability to control the trailer. This presents a very dangerous situation.

Camping at Gulf State Park, Alabama © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Maintain steering wheel in straight position

Don’t try to steer out of the sway. It won’t work and is very likely to make matters worse.

Instead, try to keep your steering wheel in a straight position at 12 o’clock and don’t make any sudden turns.

Stop and reload trailer

As soon as you’re able to safely do so, stop and reload your trailer moving the heavier portion of your cargo to the front of the trailer.

When you resume travel, be sure to keep your speed at or below 55 mph.

General Towing Tips

Anytime you’re towing anything, these general towing tips will keep you safer.

Camping at River Run RV Park, Bakersfield, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Slow down

When towing a trailer, always reduce your normal driving speeds. Your combined vehicle size and weight are increased when you’re towing so going slower will help to ensure you can maintain control.

When going downhill, never ride brakes

Never ride your brakes when traveling downhill. Instead, slow down and shift into a lower gear allowing your engine/transmission to help keep your speed down.

Camping at Whispering Hills RV Park, Georgetown, Kentucky © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When going uphill, shift into lower gear and slow down

When traveling uphill, shift into a lower gear and slow down. Stay in the slow lane, turn your flashers on if you’re driving below the speed limit (or below 45 mph on the highway) and keep an eye on your temperature gauge.

If engine temperature rises, exit the roadway as soon as safely possible

If your engine’s temperature rises, exit the roadway as soon as you can safely do so. If your engine’s temperature increases too much, your vehicle will stall leaving you stranded in traffic and possibly damaging your engine.

Slow down

As I close out this post on methods for trailer sway control, this one is well worth repeating. When you’re towing a trailer, slow down for everything including curves, inclement weather, road construction, and prior to exits.

SLOW DOWN is the mantra of safer trailer towing.

Worth Pondering…

Speed was high

Weather was hot

Tires were thin

X marks the spot

—Burma Shave sign

What Is Tongue Weight and Why Is It Important?

One of the most important things you can do to keep your family and yourself safe while towing a trailer is making sure you know the various weights and weight limitations associated with your rig

When you’re traveling down the road hauling a travel trailer or a fifth-wheel or any other kind of open/enclosed trailer, various weights factor into your towing experience and, more importantly, your safety and the safety of everyone traveling the roads with you. Many people are well aware of what terms like GVWR (gross vehicle weight rating), dry weight, and tow capacity mean but the meaning of factors like tongue weight is not as well understood.

So, what is tongue weight and how might it impact your travel?

In today’s post I’ll answer those questions and more as we investigate the term tongue weight and the reason why it’s so critical to understand. If you ever plan to tow a trailer you’ll want to pay close attention because in order to tow safely, you’ll need to understand this important topic.

Fifth-wheel trailers at Rain Shadow RV Park neat Clarkdale, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What is tongue weight?

Tongue weight is a term related to towing. Sometimes denoted as TW, it’s defined as the downward force that the tongue of a trailer applies to the hitch of the tow vehicle. In other words, the force the trailer tongue exerts on the hitch ball.

Improper tongue weight can be the difference between a safe towing experience and a very dangerous one.

The trailer is like a lever and the axle of the trailer is the pivot point (or fulcrum) for that lever. If too much or too little weight is applied to the tongue of the trailer, a dangerous situation can result (more on that in a minute). Tongue weight can’t be too heavy and it can’t be too light. It has to be just about right—balanced—like the weights of a couple of people on a seesaw at the playground.

Travel trailers at Creek Fire RV Resort, Savannah, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Is tongue weight the same as hitch weight?

Yes. The terms tongue weight and hitch weight are interchangeable as both refer to the force a trailer exerts on a hitch.

Sometimes the term pin weight is used instead of either of the other terms but while pin weight refers to the very same concept it’s usually used in reference to fifth-wheel trailers specifically.

>> Related article: The Pros and Cons of Buying a Travel Trailer

Regardless, all three terms refer to the downward force the trailer/fifth-wheel applies to the hitch on the vehicle towing it.

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

How do you calculate tongue weight?

To calculate tongue weight you’ll take the weight of your tow vehicle alone and subtract it from the weight of your tow vehicle with the trailer attached. 

Weight of tow vehicle while trailer is connected–tow vehicle’s weight=tongue weight

If the result of your calculation is within the proper tongue weight range for your loaded trailer and the capacity of your hitch and tow vehicle, then your setup is properly balanced. If not, some adjustments need to be made.

At the end of this post, I’ll describe a few different ways to check the weight of your trailer’s tongue.

Trailers and a tow vehicle at A+ Motel and RV Park, Sulphur, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What is proper tongue weight?

Proper tongue weight for a trailer with a ball-mounted hitch is between 10 and 15 percent of the Gross Towing Weight of the trailer.

For example, the proper tongue weight for a trailer that weighs 1,000 pounds would be somewhere between 100 and 150 pounds.

Using a real-weight scenario if a 3,000-pound trailer is loaded with 1,000 pounds of cargo, the proper tongue weight of the loaded trailer should be somewhere between 400 and 600 pounds (between 10 percent and 15 percent of the 4,000 pound total).

There are some complexities to navigate here, however. For instance, fifth-wheel or gooseneck trailers are designed to handle significantly larger loads so proper TW for these trailers is generally agreed to be between 15 and 30 percent of the total loaded trailer weight.

Fifth-wheel trailer at Hacienda RV Resort, Las Cruces, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What happens if tongue weight is too heavy?

If the tongue is too heavy, the tow vehicle’s steering will be impacted. Traveling ahead of its axis, a too-heavy trailer tongue will also affect the way the trailer moves along the road and the way it stops.

When TW is too heavy, stress is placed on the frame, suspension, tires, drivetrain, or brakes of the vehicle being used to tow. Because of the excessive weight transferred through the hitch ball, the rear tires of the tow vehicle can become overloaded, pushing the rear end of the vehicle around.

>> Related article: RV Weight Distribution Tips for Packing your RV

A too-heavy tongue weight may also negatively impact vehicle handling especially when rounding curves and taking corners. This is due to the fact that the front of the tow vehicle is being lifted up, reducing the weight on the front tires and thus their grip and steering effectiveness. Moreover, the vehicle’s stopping distance may be impacted such that you’re unable to stop fast enough after depressing the brake pedal.

These are very dangerous situations owed to improper tongue weight. Fortunately, tongue weight can be adjusted relatively easily. If you’ve ever seen the rear of a vehicle in a low position while towing, what you were likely seeing was an improperly loaded trailer resulting in excessive tongue loading. In such a case, the load in the trailer would need to be adjusted so that more of the weight was moved toward the back, behind the trailer’s axle.

Trailers at Columbia River RV Park, Portland, Oregon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What happens if tongue weight is too light?

If there is insufficient weight on a trailer tongue, the trailer may be difficult to control and may sway from side to side. If the tongue is too light, cargo needs to be moved forward of the trailer’s axle.

What happens with a too-light tongue weight is that the tongue of the trailer isn’t exerting sufficient downward force on the tow vehicle’s hitch ball. This leads to trailer sway, a very dangerous situation that puts the trailer at risk of slipping off the ball and disconnecting from the tow vehicle.

Fifth-wheel trailer at Edisto Beach State Park, South Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to check your tongue weight?

There are a few different ways to check.

>> Related article: Meet the RVs: The Towables

The first method requires you to drive to a public scale or weigh station and follow these steps:

  • Load your trailer and the vehicle you’ll be towing it with exactly as they’ll be loaded for an upcoming trip (including food, fuel, water, and propane)
  • Drive onto the scale at the weigh station making sure all four wheels of the tow vehicle are on the scale while also making sure the wheels of the trailer are NOT on the scale
  • Make a note of the weight of the tow vehicle
  • Without moving the vehicle(s), unhook the trailer and jack up the trailer tongue so that there is no weight on the hitch ball
  • Make a note of the weight of the tow vehicle only (this is your GVW or gross vehicle weight of the tow vehicle)
  • Subtract the GVW from the weight of the tow vehicle with the trailer attached (this is your tongue weight)

The second way to check is to use a trailer tongue weight scale.

A scale with a 5,000-pound capacity would be appropriate for most fifth-wheels and goosenecks). Scales are also available with 1,000 and 2,000-pound capacities.

If you expect your tongue weight to be less than 300 pounds, you can use a bathroom scale. To do this, you’ll place the tongue or jack directly on the bathroom scale (or, you can place a small piece of plywood on the scale to protect it).

If you anticipate that the weight may be more than 300 pounds, you can use a special arrangement of boards and pipes to reduce the amount of weight being placed on the bathroom scale, multiplying it appropriately to calculate the actual weight. That method, complete with instructions and diagrams can be found on the Curt Manufacturing website.

Travel trailer at Cedar Pass Campground, Badlands National Park, South Dakota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why is tongue weight so important?

As I’ve noted throughout this article, tongue weight impacts the operation of the tow vehicle and the trailer. Improper tongue weight can have very serious consequences.

In the case of too much, the rear tires of the tow vehicle can be overloaded resulting in the rear end of the vehicle being out of control and reducing the tow vehicle’s ability to both steer and stop.

>> Related article: 6 Great Tips for RV Beginners

In the case of too little, extremely dangerous trailer sway can result even to the extent of the trailer being moved off the ball and disconnecting from the tow vehicle. This could easily lead to a horrible accident involving not only damage to your trailer but injury and loss of life.

So, tongue weight is extremely important—and fortunately, also easily adjusted.

Worth Pondering…

Speed was high

Weather was hot

Tires were thin

X marks the spot

—Burma Shave sign

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.

Related Article: Why are RVs So Popular?

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.

Related Article: Meet the RVs: The Towables

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.

Related Article: Meet the RVs: Find the Right RV Class for Your Travel Style

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.

Related Article: The Safety Checklist for When Your RV is Parked

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