Tackling the Trouble with Trailers


Are you thinking of buying a trailer? Probably not; but you may thinking about getting a new boat or a snowmobile or a jet ski or perhaps a pop up camper. Whatever grown up toy you are considering you’re going to need a trailer to get it from point A to point B.

The idea of towing a trailer can be scary for some and for good reason. Hooking up a 21 foot boat trailer to your 16 foot long SUV or pickup is obviously going to present different driving challenges than a Sunday drive to the lake. Safely maneuvering your trailered load along the highways and byways isn’t rocket science but it does require more prep time than a run to the grocery store and a significantly increased sense of situational awareness.

Move That Trailer Like a Pro

What follows are simple guidelines to help you successfully select and safely operate the trailer you need get your load to where you want it to go.

It Starts With Your Vehicle

When people think towing people think trucks, but pickup trucks are not the ideal vehicle for everyday use for most people. The truth is you don’t need a Ford F 350 to tow your new toy. Many full sized SUV’s come with towing capacities ranging from 3,000 lbs. to 9,000 lbs. which will haul almost any small to medium sized load. If your trailer and cargo weigh under 2,000 lbs. you may be able to tow it with an automobile.

Your first step is to browse your vehicle’s owner manual and determine what towing capacity it has. The numbers you are looking for are the Gross Trailer Weight (GTW) which is the total weight of the trailer and the item being towed, and the maximum tongue weight which is the downward pressure on the trailer’s ball hitch.

When you have these two numbers you’ll be able to determine if the trailer that comes with your toy is compatible capacity wise with your vehicle.

And Then the Trailer Hitch

Ideally your vehicle came equipped with a manufacturer installed hitch but if it didn’t you’ll have to buy and install one. Hitches come in 5 classes and now that you know your vehicle’s GTW and tongue weight you can choose one with ease:

  • Class 1: 2000 pounds GTW/200 pounds tongue weight
  • Class 2: 3500 pounds GTW/350 pounds tongue weight
  • Class 3: 5000 pounds GTW/500 pounds tongue weight
  • Class 4: 7500 pounds GTW/750 pounds tongue weight
  • Class 5: 10,000 pounds GTW/1000 pounds tongue weight

The smart move would be to get a hitch that is equal to your vehicle’s maximum capacity even if you are planning on buying a lighter trailer. The only issue you might have is the compatibility between the ball hitch and the tongue of the trailer. Balls come in three sizes and you may have to install a correct size ball if you have a lighter weight trailer. If you have to do this you might consider purchasing a separate, removable draw bar (the piece of the hitch that the ball is mounted on) and simply swap out drawbars to get the right size ball hitch/trailer combination.

We would also recommend that unless you have a big hummer torque wrench and biceps to match you have a pro install the ball, or the entire hitch for that matter.

Hooking Up

Almost every state requires that trailers have brake lights and turn signals. As a consequence, almost all trailers have either an electrical or mechanical system to illuminate taillights based on your actions behind the wheel. Connecting to the hitch assembly is a pretty straight forward exercise in matching color coded cables or just plugging in.

All trailers come with safety chains which are in a sense the hitch of last resort. If for some reason the trailer separates from the ball, the chains will prevent it from going on its own unguided way. Crossing the chains under the ball hitch will keep the trailer tongue from hitting the road digging up pavement and sending your cargo over a guardrail or into oncoming traffic.

Before you set off on your trek, check the tire pressure (with the trailer loaded) to ensure it is at the manufacturer’s recommended psi. Make sure your lights work (you will obviously need an assistant for this) and ensure you haven’t added weight to the load (like fresh water to a camper’s tank) that would put you over capacity.


Think, Practice, Think and Practice Some More

The biggest difference between driving a vehicle that is towing a trailer and driving that same vehicle to work each day is speed and situational awareness. Your pickup truck or SUV is now 20+ feet longer and weighs several thousand pounds more than when you drive the ride share crew downtown. It will not be as nimble as it normally is and it will not accelerate like you are accustomed to.

The key to maintaining control is to do everything slower than you normally would. That means you accelerate slower, you turn slower, and you give yourself significantly more time to brake.

The key to avoiding having an unfortunate meeting with another vehicle, or a guardrail or a curb is understanding just how much room your rig takes up. You will obviously need to allow for more room when merging on an interstate, changing lanes and maintaining a safe distance behind the car in front of you.

And then there’s backing up, a maneuver that you for sure will have to perform if you are headed to a public boat launch. A great idea is to find someone with trailering experience to go with you to an industrial park on a Sunday to practice. Backing up, accelerating, braking and turning are basic skills you want to get a level of confidence in before you hit the road for real.

Like anything else, the more you trailer your toy the more comfortable and confident you’ll become. Just take it easy at first and don’t worry about looking like a newbie at the boat launch…everyone there has gone through the same thing.