Monday, December 4, 2023


The top 5 trailer towing mistakes owners make

Mark J. Polk, RV Education 101
How to safely and properly tow a trailer involves many factors. The tow vehicle and trailer must be properly matched and you need all the correct hitch components. Also, you need a thorough understanding of topics like tires, weights, hitching and unhitching and actually towing the trailer down the road. Today I want to look at five trailer towing mistakes RV owners make to prevent any from happening to you.

Mistake #1

Number one and possibly the most important mistake is not properly matching the tow vehicle and trailer. The first step is to determine exactly how much weight the tow vehicle can safely tow. Vehicle tow capacities are in the vehicle’s owner manual, and there are published towing guides available on the internet. You need to know how your vehicle is configured when you use a towing guide and pay attention to any footnotes.

After establishing the vehicle’s towing capacity make sure the trailer you plan to purchase is compatible with the tow vehicle. This is where you can get into trouble. Lots of people look at the trailer’s dry or Unloaded Vehicle Weight (UVW) and assume they can tow the trailer. When you load camping supplies and account for water, propane, and dealer-installed equipment, the tow vehicle might be overloaded. Try to find a trailer with a Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) equal to, or less than, the tow rating of your tow vehicle. There is typically a substantial difference between the dry weight and the GVWR. The trailer can be loaded to the maximum GVWR, and the tow vehicle is still rated to tow the trailer.

Mistake #2

Next, and this is another weight issue, lots of folks don’t consider any weight added to the tow vehicle itself. The vehicle manufacturer bases tow ratings on an empty truck with full fluid levels, and a driver weighing 150 pounds. As an example, let’s use a tow vehicle rated to tow 5,000 pounds. Add three passengers for a combined weight of 400 pounds, 150 pounds of cargo in the bed of the truck, 100 pounds of aftermarket products added to the vehicle, for a total of 650 pounds. This reduces your 5,000-pound tow capacity to 4,350 pounds. Any weight you add to the tow vehicle reduces the towing capacity by that same amount. So you can see how easy it is to get into trouble with weights.

Mistake #3

Number three on my list is trailer tires. Trailer tire blowouts are commonly blamed on faulty tires when the actual causes are old tires, overloaded tires, or under-inflated tires. When I say old tires I mean tires damaged by the elements, usually sun-related damage. If the trailer is stored outdoors, cover the tires to prevent exposure to direct sunlight. Periodically inspect the tire sidewalls for any cracking or checking. Never tow a trailer with any of these tire conditions.

Trailer tire weight ratings are based on the amount of air pressure in the tire. You should familiarize yourself with tire load and inflation tables that tire manufacturers publish. After you are familiar with these tables you need to have the fully loaded trailer weighed to see if any overload conditions exist.

For accurate tire information, you need to weigh each wheel position individually. Some RV  rallies and other organized events offer a weighing service to weigh by individual wheel position. The next best thing is to weigh each axle separately and then together. When you weigh by axles you’ll know if the trailer is within the axle weight ratings, but you won’t know how that weight is distributed side-to-side. At a minimum, it gives you a better idea of tire inflation based on axle weights.

Mistake #4

Number four is not using the proper hitch-work. It’s important to understand that every component in a towing system has a weight rating. The towing system is based on the weakest link in the chain. For example, if the vehicle is rated to tow 6,000 pounds and the hitch ball is rated for 5,000 pounds, the most you can tow is 5,000 pounds. The hitch receiver, hitch ball, ball mount, safety chains and every component in the towing system have individual weight ratings.

Next, make sure the trailer tongue weight is 10 to 15 percent of the loaded trailer weight for trailers weighing more than 2,000 pounds. Too much or too little tongue weight can have adverse effects on how the trailer tows. Your vehicle owner’s manual specifies when you need a Weight Distribution Hitch (WDH) based on trailer tongue weight. A WD hitch uses additional hardware to distribute a percentage of the travel trailer’s tongue weight to the axles on the tow vehicle and the axles on the trailer. Weight distributing hitches are used to tow heavier trailers, and to improve the tow vehicle’s handling characteristics. If the trailer you are towing has brakes, you need an electronic brake controller to activate the brakes. I recommend you use some type of sway control on any trailer that weighs in excess of 2,000 pounds.

Mistake #5

Number five on my list is not performing pre-trip checks prior to pulling the trailer. Lots of preventable towing-related incidents happen because a person didn’t complete pre-trip checks. Checklists help make sure nothing was forgotten or overlooked on the trailer or the tow vehicle prior to leaving on a trip.

For more information on safely towing trailers check out our Tow your Travel Trailer Like a Pro, and Tow your 5th Wheel Like a Pro online video courses.


If you can’t answer these questions, you shouldn’t be towing

Half-ton trucks: What to know before you tow



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Walt Sinkhorn (@guest_139120)
2 years ago

While everything stated above is absolutely true, there is one very critical component that has been overlooked. It really doesn’t matter what the rated tow capacity of the Porsche is. If it’s 7,000 or 10,000 lbs. Horsepower is useless if the wheelbase of the tow vehicle is too short. This is a classic example of the Tail wagging the dog! No matter what kind of sway control you have installed, the sway effects from the trailer will override a car or small truck that is not heavy enough or have a long wheelbase to handle highway wind effects. A knowledgeable RV Dealer should never allow a customer to leave their lot with a trailer set-up like this.

Dave (@guest_120402)
2 years ago

Just because a truck can tow something doesn’t mean it’s the safest. I moved up from a 1/2 ton to a 3/4 ton, and the improvement was amazing.

GARY L KOONCE (@guest_118205)
2 years ago

Trailer tires inflated to the maximum air pressure listed on the tire can also cause blowouts with some tires. Trailer tongue weight is not an easy weight to measure, could you explain how to weigh trailer tongue weight?

Bill Richardson (@guest_118043)
2 years ago

You might consider doing an article on tow vehicle wheelbase vs trailer length. Short vehicles should not tow long bumper pull trailers.

John (@guest_117965)
2 years ago

“Any weight you add to the tow vehicle reduces the towing capacity by that same amount.”

This is only true if the limiting factor is gross combined weight.

Often the limiting factor is payload of the tow vehicle. In that case, every 100 lbs added to the tow vehicle reduces trailer *tongue* weight by 100lbs, meaning overall trailer weight by around 650lbs (assuming about a 15% tongue weight).

John Macatee (@guest_117933)
2 years ago

Also; correctly adjusted mirrors, having a spare tire w/ tools to change a tire with the proper emergency triangles and or road flares.

Phil Atterbery (@guest_117930)
2 years ago

I grew up in the ’60s, when the best tow vehicle was a Chrysler Town & Country wagon w/a 440. I’ve always maintained that a tow vehicle should weigh 10% more than the thing being towed. The automotive ad agencies & RV salesmen don’t help either.

Matt Johnson (@guest_117974)
2 years ago
Reply to  Phil Atterbery

Sooooo I have a 22,000lb Fifth wheel, by your math I need a 24,200lb truck? Even a Volvo conventional cab with a sleeper and single rear axle doesn’t weigh that much. Yet a Ford F-450 at 9980lb is rated to tow it.
Just make sure the tractor has properly working breaks and a engine or exhaust break helps too.

Wayne campbell (@guest_117978)
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt Johnson

Also, consider a fully loaded semi. Tractor about 20,000 lbs and trailer 60,000 lbs.

warmonk (@guest_117928)
2 years ago

I remember one fellow coming into the RV park where I worked with a brand new F-150 pulling a brand new Airstream. We got talking. He said that the truck dealer and the trailer dealer had both said he was good to go. I asked if he had weighed his rig. He had and he had the numbers. I said, let’s check one thing: the weight on the rear axle divided by two compared to the max tire capacity on the brand new factory tires on the rear axle.

Oooops. Too much weight for the tires.

Bob Berends (@guest_117924)
2 years ago

The whole deal comes down to weight! The truck and what it is pulling are soooo very critical as to the weight, that it cannot be stressed enough. Total weight, tire capacity, trailer suspension rating, truck capacity, hitch configuration, and competency of the driver.

This is coming from a 23 year OTR driver and lifelong truck guy. You don’t need to have years of OTR experience to be safe, but driving is a steady process to continue learning. It never ends!

You may have heard the saying “Don’t drive faster than your angel can fly”

Terry Kester (@guest_117916)
2 years ago

I would like to suggest something that missing from mistake 1 and 2. Watch the Payload of the tow vehicle as indicated on the door sticker. The towing capacity seems to seldom be an issue, but Payload (weight of occupants, tongue weight, articles in the bed) is real easy to exceed.

martin a (@guest_117934)
2 years ago
Reply to  Terry Kester

You also must add tongue weight into the payload numbers.

James Shoe (@guest_117936)
2 years ago
Reply to  Terry Kester

I agree with Terry. Max tow weight is where I believe newcomers go wrong. When towing a Travel Trailer or 5th wheel the door sticker is probably the most important piece of information to understand. All owners manuals are generic. The final weights and loads of a vehicle are determined by the Model & options. Payload is the first piece of info to look for on a tow vehicles door sticker.

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