RV 101: Safe Towing
With a little know-how, pulling a travel trailer or fifth-wheel can be a stress-free experience
Towing a travel trailer or fifth-wheel is a skill that just about any driver can master. It isn’t difficult, but it does require a different thought process from driving an ordinary passenger vehicle.
When moving up from a single vehicle to a combination vehicle, such as a truck and trailer, the most obvious difference is mass. An RV is taller, wider, longer and heavier than a passenger car, and because of that, the driver must learn to anticipate traffic and road conditions sooner.
Start by paying closer attention to the driving environment and trying to predict what other drivers are going to do. Is traffic merging up ahead? Are drivers swerving around slower vehicles? Look carefully when changing lanes, signal early and allow room to maneuver out of potentially difficult situations.
In addition to having more mass than a passenger car, a tow-vehicle-and-trailer combination generally has a higher profile, making it vulnerable to sway caused by cross- winds and turbulence created by passing trucks and other large vehicles. Slowing down, keeping a distance from large vehicles and having the right hitch equipment, properly adjusted, can reduce these effects.
Step by Step
Hitching Travel Trailers and Fifth-Wheels
Knowing the height of your RV, and adding a few inches for safety, is essential. Some RVers post that number where it can be seen from the driver’s seat. When driving and backing, watch for overhead obstructions, including tree branches and building overhangs. Be aware that low-clearance bridges and overpasses are more common in some parts of the country, particularly on older roads.
Knowing the RV’s width is also important, particularly when negotiating narrow roads, turns and obstructions. Many trailers and fifth-wheels push the legal width requirement of 81⁄2 feet. Extendable side mirrors or add-on towing mirrors are a must.
Most people don’t pay much attention to the weight of a passenger car, but when they move up to an RV, weight becomes an important consideration. It’s critical to avoid overloading, which can cause adverse handling and excessive wear to various components. Overloaded tires can blow out, brakes can fade or fail, and structural components can break, which can all lead to loss of vehicle control. Staying within the engineering limits of your vehicle is the best way to prevent this from happening.
Because of the additional mass, it takes longer for a tow vehicle and trailer to stop. Increasing following distance behind other vehicles, reducing speed and applying the brakes sooner contribute to safer stopping.
The best way to keep track of weight is to weigh the RV on a truck scale while fully loaded for a trip. These weights can be used to stay within gross vehicle and axle limits and determine if the RV can be driven on weight-restricted roads and bridges.
Practice Makes Perfect
To get a feel for how the combination of a tow vehicle and trailer handles — especially if you are new to trailering — take the RV to a large, empty parking lot and practice driving. Keep nearby objects in mind when making turns and backing up, and take your time to avoid hitting obstructions. Try not to curb the tires, as this can lead to tire failures more easily than with cars because of the heavier weight.
Backing a trailer can be a challenge, depending on the environment and the size of the trailer, but it’s a skill that isn’t difficult to learn. Use the parking spaces as targets when practicing. Some people find it helpful to steer one-handed, with the hand placed at the bottom of the steering wheel to direct the trailer. Then the steering wheel is simply turned to the right to back right, and vice versa. Practice makes perfect.
Before backing up, particularly into a tight campsite, examine the area closely to make sure there’s enough room to maneuver. Be aware of trees, branches, signs and other vehicles. Don’t forget picnic tables; move them out of the way before backing into a site. Take note of the hookup location and park in such a way to make the necessary connections, including running a dump hose to the sewer inlet.
When backing into a campsite or a parking space, it’s best to pull past the intended spot and position the trailer at an oblique angle to make the reverse turn into the space less severe. Try to predict how the trailer will move. Use a spotter and a means to communicate. Portable two-way radios and cell phones (hands-free, of course) are ideal for communicating with a spotter. Common hand signals are also a good way for the spotter to let the driver know which way to maneuver; just make sure the driver can see the spotter.
Turning and backing a travel trailer differ from maneuvering a fifth-wheel. Travel trailers turn tighter, while fifth-wheels track to the outside when making turns. Travel trailers also respond more quickly when backing.
Vehicle Setup and Braking
Proper tow vehicle and trailer setup is essential for a good towing experience. When possible, select the trailer or fifth-wheel before buying the tow vehicle. That way, you won’t fall into the trap of towing with a vehicle that isn’t suitable for the RV, although a shady salesperson could try to steer you toward a vehicle that’s not suitable for towing the trailer you have. If you already have the tow vehicle, don’t buy more trailer than it can safely tow. Never exceed the maximum tow rating for any vehicle.
When buying a tow vehicle, it’s best to opt for the proper towing package from the factory. If the vehicle is not factory-equipped for towing, the dealer can help integrate the proper components. Don’t skimp here. Good-quality hitch equipment, whether for a travel trailer or fifth-wheel, will make the towing experience safer and more enjoyable.
Almost all towable RVs come with electric brakes. These utilize an electromagnet that is attracted to an armature that moves the brake shoes so they press against the inner diameter of a brake drum on each wheel. To activate the brakes, a built-in or add-on electric brake controller is used to meter the amount of power applied to the brakes. A breakaway switch tethered to a cable that is attached to the tow vehicle activates the trailer’s brakes in the event of a trailer separation.
Adjusting the trailer-brake controller is important, and it’s fairly simple to do. Carefully follow the instructions in the vehicle’s owner’s manual or provided with the add-on controller. The basic idea is to set the controller so that the trailer “tugs” on the tow vehicle without locking the brakes.
A common method of testing this is to tow the trailer on a paved surface at about 25 mph and fully apply the brakes using the brake control’s manual activation lever. If the wheels lock up, then the setting is too aggressive and needs to be adjusted. If you can’t feel the trailer, then increasing the power is in order. Remember that it may be necessary to readjust the setting on the brake controller depending on trailer loading, because weight will affect braking efficiency.
Trailer brakes can also act as an anti-sway device when lateral movement (yaw) affects towing stability. During a sway episode, don’t hit the brake pedal. Instead, lift your foot off the accelerator and engage the trailer-brake activation lever on the brake controller. Activating the trailer brakes will allow the trailer to move back to center and arrest the sway condition. Sway is usually more noticeable with travel trailers than with fifth-wheels, but it can happen with both.
Riding the tow vehicle’s brakes while driving downhill can cause them to overheat and fade. As the brakes heat up, their effectiveness is reduced until they cool off. This is called brake fade. The best way to avoid this situation is to slow down and downshift the transmission, which increases the engine’s rpm and slows the vehicle without excessive braking. Most newer pickups have tow modes built into their transmissions that help with compression braking. Later-model trucks with diesel engines are equipped with an exhaust-brake feature that is very effective and helps limit the overuse of service brakes.
Towing a travel trailer or fifth-wheel is one of the best ways to see all the great things North America has to offer. With attention to tow vehicle and hitch selection and setup, and some practice with proper driving techniques, your towing adventures will be more enjoyable and hassle free.