Losing control of your towing rig while driving is a nightmare that you don’t want to come true. A common control problem with travel trailers is the sway that occurs with wind gusts or passing big rigs. You can minimize the effects of trailer sway and make for a more enjoyable driving experience with just a bit of planning and preparation. Know how to evaluate equipment options and how to maintain and trim your rig by gaining an understanding of what causes sway and how it can be controlled. See the page on maintenance for more about what you can do to minimize sway problems with your rig. Sway controls are designed to be used in situations where sway is a direct result of some type of road condition, like high winds or large vehicles passing. If you have sway with a trailer under normal towing conditions, sway control will most likely not correct the problem. The best defense against trailer sway in all conditions is proper trailer loading. You will need to check your trailer tongue weight and gross trailer weight and get the weight distributed properly. Most times sway is induced by too little tongue weight on the trailer ball. Your trailers tongue weight should be 10 to 15 percent of the total trailer weight, loaded and ready to tow. Most of the time redistributing weight in the trailer will solve sway issues especially if a weight distribution system with sway control is used.
Rear End Squat of the tow vehicle is a typical sign of too much tongue load. This is dangerous because the front axle weight will be light, resulting in altered steering response. This condition may also cause the rear tires and/or the rear axle to fail due to overloading. Rear End Lift is a typical sign of too little or negative tongue load. The rear end of the tow vehicle is lifted up. (no figure shown) This is dangerous as it causes the trailer to sway.
Optimal – Most trailers and tow vehicles should be level (parallel to the ground) during travel. Some vehicle manufacturers may call for a slight squat. Safety Chains – Safety chains are required by most states. When connected, safety chains should have some slack to permit sharp turns but should not drag on the road. In addition, they should cross under the trailer tongue to help prevent the tongue from dropping to the road in the event that the trailer separates from the tow vehicle.
Stopping When Pulling A Trailer
Stopping your truck/trailer combination is a learning process. Electric trailer brakes operate completely differently than the hydraulic brakes of your tow vehicle. Most electric brake controllers available today operate on the principle that they start with light brake application and ramp up or increase the tension on the brakes the longer you hold your foot on the brake pedal. In this way, the brakes will gradually slow you down without locking up the trailer’s wheels (which could put you in the position of an uncontrolled skid). This is all well and good, as long as you give yourself plenty of time to slow down and ease up to stop signs. By leaving extra room between you and the vehicle in front of you, a gradual slowing and light touch on the brake will bring you to a smooth, controlled stop. The bad part of an electric brake system is when the unexpected happens. A panic stop translates into a situation where your trailer brakes will not fully apply, and you must rely on the tow vehicle to provide most of your stopping power. If you jam on the brakes, the same light application of trailer brakes will take place and over a second or two of time, the brake application pressure will increase until you finally have the full application of the trailer brakes. If you’re following closely, those required 2 to 3 seconds just aren’t available, and the results can be disastrous. Also remember, if you lift your foot off the brake pedal, the trailer brakes release and, again, the 2- to 3-second hesitation will occur before the full application will resume.
Unite Truck to Trailer
When using the ball hitch or weight-distribution hitch, you’ll elevate the trailer with a tongue jack until it matches up to your truck’s hitch platform. Keeping your hitch unlocked, you’ll then lower the trailer onto the ball. Use a padlock or coupler safety pin to secure the tongue in place.
Chain It Up
Always attach safety chains between your vehicle and your trailer. You’ll want to cross them under the tongue of the trailer as a precaution in the event that the hitch gets separated. Should this happen, you will have increased the chance that the trailer doesn’t drag. And that’s a good thing. Oh, important tip: make sure to leave enough slack in the chains so you can corner in your truck without impeding the movement of the trailer. Let There Be Lights Your next move is to make sure your trailer displays your truck’s turn signals and brake lights. Most newer trucks come with a “plug and play” system that will allow you to directly connect the wiring harness from the trailer to the truck. Trailer Hitch Classification
Class I 2,000 pounds GTW
Class II 3,500 pounds GTW
Class III 5,000 pounds GTW
Class IV 7,500 pounds
GTW Class V 10,000 pounds
GTW GTW = Gross Trailer Weight (including car or boat together, if applicable)
Driving The addition of a trailer adds weight and length to the tow vehicle. With additional weight, your rig will accelerate slower and take longer to stop. You should allow for extra time when switching lanes, stopping, and passing other vehicles when you’re towing a trailer. Trailer brakes can help improve your rig’s stopping power. The extra length that a trailer adds can also cause problems on turns. Because the trailer does not follow the exact path as the vehicle on turns, you must swing out wider when traveling around bends and corners. To conserve fuel when towing, travel at moderate speeds. Faster speeds increase wind resistance, reduce gas mileage, and place added strain on the vehicle and trailer. When traveling over long or steep hills or on gravel roads, use a lower gear to ease stress on your transmission and engine. Shifting out of overdrive and into a lower gear may also improve vehicle gas mileage. Be extra cautious of potholes and other large bumps. They can damage the tow vehicle, trailer hitch, and trailer. When pulling a trailer, take your time and be careful. If for some reason (a gust of wind, a downgrade, a pass by a larger vehicle, etc.) the trailer does begin to sway, the driver needs to assess the situation to determine the proper course of action. Here is a list of dos and don’ts to think about.
Do’s – For Good Towing Gradually reduce speed Steady the steering wheel – sudden turns can cause more sway Apply only the trailer brakes to help reduce trailer sway
Don’ts – NOT Good Towing Do not slam on the brakes – jack-knifing could occur Do not attempt to steer out of a sway situation Do not increase speed – trailer sway increases at faster speeds Do not tow a trailer that continues to sway Consider reloading the trailer or perhaps adding a sway control or a weight distribution system with sway control
Towing on the road If you’ve done everything right, your first impression will be that towing is easier than you thought. But don’t get cocky. That’s when trouble will strike. The main thing to remember is that your vehicle with a trailer is slower to accelerate but much slower to stop. Trailer brakes help a lot, but you’re still carrying a couple tons of extra weight. Panic stops are no fun at all with a trailer pushing you from behind. So the rule is to be really chill at all times, accept that you’re going to be that guy in the right lane and give yourself all kinds of extra following distance, and signal your lane changes a long way in advance. If you’re lucky, other drivers will give you space, and flash their lights when it’s safe to move over. When you’re going around tight corners, try to make the biggest possible arc. Go farther into the intersection and then turn sharply. Your trailer has to follow the back of your tow vehicle, so you won’t clip the curb or parked cars if you make a big arc in your turn. Go slower than you think you should in all curves. If your trailer’s not loaded properly, it will start to sway back and forth on a curve or when you’re headed down a hill. That’s when your trailer brakes are a lifesaver. Just squeeze the brake actuator and the extra drag will pull the trailer into line behind you. The other thing about going down hills is that you have to preserve your tow vehicle’s brakes. When brakes get hot, they can stop working entirely. So a long downhill grade has to be done slowly, downshifting your vehicle’s gears to keep speed under control. If you ride the brakes, soon you won’t have any brakes left to ride.
Backing up and handling parking lots Backing up a trailer is a special skill. Maybe you’ve seen experts make it look easy, but it isn’t. The main rule is that the back of the trailer goes the opposite direction from the direction you turn the wheel. The trick is to hold the bottom of the steering wheel. Then the direction you move your hand is the direction the back of the trailer will go. The best trick of all is to look for places where you don’t have to back up. Never pull into any space that you can’t see your way out of, or you’ll end up backing out of a narrow alley and around a corner, and no one needs that kind of stress.
Passing Check the rearview mirrors and be sure to signal lane changes before passing. When you are safely ahead of the other vehicle, go ahead and signal your lane change and return to your original lane. Some truck drivers will flash their headlights to you to indicate you’re clear for a safe return to the right-hand lane. Many drivers towing trailers return the favor for the big rig truckers.
Other Resources and Links
California RV Driving