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Before You Tow — Fall 2009 | Out Here Magazine

To avoid overloading the towing vehicle and the trailer, always check their maximum tow weight according to each manufacturer’s specifications.

Safely moving your cargo requires more than loading it up and hitting the road

By Amber Stephens
Photography courtesy of Tractor Supply Co.

Towing a trailer safely requires more than hitching it up and driving away.

Using the correct trailer for the job, securing the load, hooking up safety lights, and proper maintenance — they're all part of getting your cargo safely from one place to another.

"It all starts with what you want to tow," says Dana Goff, vice president of sales and marketing for Carry-On Trailer Corp.

Tow operators first must decide the size and weight of what they want to tow, how they plan to secure the load, and whether the load needs to be protected.

Once you know what you want to tow and how you want to tow it, calculate the Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) — the combined weight of the trailer and the load.

Select a trailer with a higher GVWR than what you expect to need, Goff advises. "We find people always under buy and always over load," he says.

It's possible to overload the towing vehicle, as well, so always check its maximum tow weight according to the manufacturer's specifications.

After you have the correct vehicle and trailer for the load, it's time to select the proper weight-rated hitch.

"The whole process is only as strong as its weakest link," Goff says.

Many vehicles are sold with at least part of a proper hitching system already in place. Several types of hitches are available, but the most common types are the weight-carrying hitch, weight-distributing hitch, and fifth-wheel hitch.

Those who need to buy a hitch should follow the standard rule of thumb: the heavier the load, the stronger the required hitch.

Safety chains also are required to prevent the trailer from separating from the tow vehicle if the hitch fails.

Before towing, operators must know their state's requirements for brake systems. Typically, a trailer's brakes are one of two types:

  • Electronic — They're connected to the tow vehicle's electric system and are controlled by the driver.
  • Surge — These hydraulic brakes activate when the trailer presses forward against the hitch during the tow vehicle's slowing or braking.

Once the brakes are in place, it's time to hook up wiring for brake lights, taillights, turn signals, and other safety features required by law. Many trailers have braking and lighting systems as standard equipment. If so, check to ensure they are working properly.

When the trailer is properly licensed and finally on the road, avoid two common mistakes operators usually make: driving too fast and turning too short. Installing mirror extensions may be necessary when trailers are wider than the towing vehicle.

Finally, the trailer itself needs to be loaded properly.

"Ten to 15 percent of total weight should transfer to the tongue," Goff says. Too much cargo weight behind the axles or on the tongue will make the trailer sway.

"A big key people forget is to make sure the load is properly fastened," he says. Straps, tarps, and other accessory items should be on hand to secure the load.

Amber Stephens is a freelance writer and editor in Amanda, Ohio.