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

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By Dave Kendall

Dear RV Travel,

I’m writing this about towing because it has become dear to my heart, and is probably the most important issue for towing RVers. What really stimulated my thinking is my experience towing a travel trailer for 22,000 miles and towing a 5th wheel for about 15,000 miles all in the past five years. We recently returned from a trip across the U.S. – north into Alberta and British Columbia, down the West Coast and back to Virginia. I towed through just about every terrain: mountains to plains, sunshine, wind and rain. I’m still learning.

Even more, I am writing because I have become aware that various organizations offer towing classes that only teach people how to back up an RV. That’s good, but it greatly concerns me to think that once someone is given instructions on how to back up an RV, that they are now “trained” to tow. Occasionally a person will tell me, “I hand the keys to my spouse and then I sleep!” Out of curiosity, I might ask a very basic question and realize that the driver knows very little. Someone hooked up the trailer and did all of the checks and then handed the keys over. Considering my experiences towing, that’s a scary thought!

Towing 6,000 to 18,000 pounds is serious business with potentially serious consequences. I’d rather ride with someone who does not know how to back up a trailer than someone who doesn’t understand towing, doesn’t observe road conditions, is impatient, and passes other vehicles frequently. Backing up might be only 5 percent of what a person should know.

The most dangerous aspect of towing comes when we’re driving, understanding what the tow vehicle is doing, what it is capable of, and what the trailer is doing. Driving a tow vehicle with no understanding of what’s going on is dangerous. Towing is physically tiring, requiring 100 percent of your attention. You’re constantly listening to your tow vehicle, watching the road ahead, avoiding obstacles, keeping the trailer tires on the road, being aware of your truck brakes, being aware of your trailer brakes, watching for overhead obstacles, watching traffic behind you, knowing where you can pull off, knowing the height of your trailer, knowing about tire pressures and tire loads… whew!

Here’s a quiz. If a driver cannot answer these basic questions, they are at risk for problems:

  1. Do you know what kind of fuel your truck uses?
  2. Do you know how to measure your tire pressure and what the pressures should be?
  3. How often should you check tire pressure? Can you do it?
  4. Do you understand how a tire pressure monitor works and what it tells you?
  5. Do you understand your truck engine’s RPMs and when the engine is working hard?
  6. Do you understand the transmission options for shifting gears on your truck and when to use them? (Regular automatic shifting, tow/haul mode, manual shifting…)
  7. Do you know how to read engine or transmission temperature?
  8. Do you understand engine and transmission temperature and can you determine when they are running hot?
  9. If your engine and/or transmission are running hot, do you know temporary techniques to reduce their temperature?
  10. How many feet do you think it takes to stop your rig? Can you visually describe how far that is?
  11. What techniques do you use to manage your rig’s speed on downhills?
  12. Do you know how to adjust trailer brake gain?
  13. Do you know when you might add or subtract trailer brake gain?
  14. Do you know how to test your trailer brake adjustment?
  15. Do you know how to visually inspect truck wheels for excessive brake pad wear?
  16. When you see a sign on a hill that reads, “Cars may need to turn off their A/C,” why is that?
  17. What should you do when you see a sign on a hill that reads, “6-degree grade next 10 miles”?

For experienced people who tow, I watch as they zoom past in the fast lane, merging in and out of lanes, exceeding the speed limit for RV tires. I feel my own 5th wheel being affected by road conditions (wind, bridge approaches, rough roads) and watch as their trailer sways like the Mayflower sailing ship… and they don’t slow down. I watch as they zoom downhill at 65+ mph on steep grades, unable to see the turn ahead, wondering if their rig is going to be the next viral RV YouTube accident video.

I really wish the RV community would promote “Towing 101.” If we don’t educate our drivers, the government will eventually do it for us.

— Dave Kendall, Fredericksburg, VA

##RVT949

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jillie
1 month ago

Try driving a school bus for one year. You will be a pro by the time school is over. Also a family friend owned an auto shop so growing up I know what to do even before I started driving.

Wayne
1 month ago

One reason I read rv travel is to get educated about most of the points listed and to discover what I need to research further to avoid trouble

Bill
1 month ago

We also had a saying in the electronics repair shop where I worked for 35 years “RDM” (Read the Damn Manual) There are less family friendly versions of this saying in other industries I am sure.

Bill
1 month ago

I’ve read that a lot of folks are requesting a teacher .. fine and good. But I’ve come to believe the best teacher is an enquiring mind and the self sufficiency to “look it up” aka “ask Google”

Scott R. Ellis
1 month ago

If you see a sign that says “6-degree grade” you should probably have your eyes checked before you go much further.

Bob p
1 month ago
Reply to  Scott R. Ellis

I agree, a 6 degree grade is barely noticeable, a 6 percent grade is much different, personally I have never seen a grade labeled in degrees except possibly a loading ramp in a building.

H Goff
1 month ago
Reply to  Bob p

be careful – 6 degrees is over 10%

Mel S
1 month ago

All very good points. I would however like to know how you got into Alberta and British Columbia unless of course you were there before the border closure for non-essential travel came into effect back in March 2020????

Patrick Cahill
4 months ago

this article would be more useful if it provided answers to the questions and not just raise the issues.

Viper
3 months ago
Reply to  Patrick Cahill

It’s just a millennial content creator that doesn’t know the answers.

Howard
4 months ago

Excellent!

TravelingMan
4 months ago

Another test question…Can you select the correct axle ratio for your tow truck? How does the axle ratio affect mpg and performance?

See these informative websites about selecting a proper axle ratio. Many may not have considered this before…

https://www.edmunds.com/car-buying/how-to-choose-the-right-axle-ratio-for-your-pickup-truck.html

https://www.forconstructionpros.com/trucks/trucks-accessories/article/10288893/select-the-correct-pickup-axle-ratio

https://www.hardworkingtrucks.com/understanding-axle-ratios/

Viper
3 months ago
Reply to  TravelingMan

Its a package deal in most consumer grade trucks 1/2-1 ton. You choose your tow rating and it matches engine, transmission, and differential options spaced out by, oh you know, an engineer. There may be certain situations where you may want a tall or short gear, but generally, for most RV towers with consumer grade trucks, knowing you payload and towing capacities is much more important.

Bob p
1 month ago
Reply to  Viper

That’s well and good if you’re buying new. If you all ready own a truck you better know you axel ratio before looking for a trailer. Don’t listen to a salesman because their goal is to sell whether it’s capable or not.

Bill
1 month ago
Reply to  TravelingMan

Also, everyone who tows anything should know their particular vehicles Gross Combined Vehicle Weight Rating (GCVWR). That figure is the absolute maximum your entire unit (tow vehicle and towed or carried unit) can weigh as it is ready for travel. This includes all passengers, pets, food, clothes, tools, water, various fuels, kitchen equipment, batteries, in short EVERYTHING!
Also, if you trusted a dealership to order you the right engine, transmission, rear axle and suspension without double checking, independently, you may be in for a nasty surprise. In my humble opinion most ½ ton pickups and SUVs shouldn’t tow anything bigger than a garden trailer or have anything attached to the bed other than a topper shell (hardly any true camper like a 9′ or bigger Lance is light enough)

TravelingMan
4 months ago

Descending Grades:

How many people know what a run-a-way ramp is? Do you know how to use it?

When your rig and tow vehicle brakes get too hot from riding them (it’s called “Brake Fade”), you will soon be WITHOUT any brakes. The best thing to do is to avoid the use of brakes or use them sparingly.

First, maintain control of the vehicle by using a lower gear. If you have an engine brake, use it. I’ve been on grades of 8% and more with a 42′ rig and Ram 3500 Dually. You will EASILY pick up speed (and a lot of it!). To avoid the use of the truck brake, I set the engine brake and dropped to 2nd gear. It’s slow. It’s noisy from the transmission and engine whine. Engine and transmission temps will go up. Even with the lower gear, I had to use brakes on occasion. Once your speed picks up and the truck can no longer overcome it, you’ll have to apply brakes (Don’t forget to set your trailer brakes for mountain driving prior to starting down). Apply the truck/RV brakes hard to slow the vehicle(s) and then back off. Let them cool before hitting them again. If its not too much overspeed, you can use the pumping method. On that 8% grade over several miles, I applied the brakes just 3 or 4 times. Mostly just prior to the curves in the road.

Back to the Run-A-Way ramp…

Each can be made of different materials. You are going to make a mess of the vehicles but which would you rather be? Alive or possibly dead? You’ve already lost your brakes and you are in a run-a-way condition.

TYPES OF RAMPS:

Per Wikipedia (Read the article here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Runaway_truck_ramp)

Arrester bed: a gravel-filled ramp adjacent to the road that uses rolling resistance to stop the vehicle.[1] The required length of the bed depends on the mass and speed of the vehicle, the grade of the arrester bed, and the rolling resistance provided by the gravel.

Gravity escape ramp: a long, upwardly inclined path parallel to the road. Substantial length is required. Control can be difficult for the driver; problems include rollback after the vehicle stops.

Sand pile escape ramp: a short length of loosely piled sand. Problems include sudden, forceful deceleration; sand being affected by weather conditions (moisture and freezing); and vehicles vaulting and/or overturning after contacting the sand pile.

Mechanical-arrestor escape ramp: a proprietary system of stainless-steel nets transversely spanning a paved ramp to engage and retard a runaway vehicle. Ramps of this type are typically shorter than gravity ramps, and can work even on a downhill grade. These systems tend to be costly, but may save expensive real estate in crowded areas, and prevent even more costly crashes. One such ramp at Avon, Connecticut in the United States has an electrically heated pavement surface to prevent snow and ice accumulation.

Alternatives: such as a vehicle arresting barrier.

Here is a great source for mountain driving grades if you don’t have it:

https://www.mountaindirectory.com/

It downloads to your laptop, i-pad or other device to view off line.

Here are a couple of YouTube Videos showing truckers that had to use one…

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h5KgKebgkwk

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jk6mvUqqQ6E

Brake Fade Article/Run-A-Way Ramps:

https://auto.howstuffworks.com/auto-parts/brakes/brake-problems/brake-failure5.htm

https://www.fullbay.com/blog/runaway-truck-ramp/

Just another item that everyone should know before getting an RV License. It applies to all forms of RVing.

If you don’t know this, now is your chance to start. If you know this, its a good time to brush up before hitting the mountains. Yellowstone, Wyoming has some of the steepest I’ve experienced. Some are 13%.

TravelingMan
4 months ago
Reply to  TravelingMan

Here is yet a better run-a-way truck video…

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qYpIXsbLUgE

There are plenty of these on YouTube to watch.

Just look up run-way truck or RV ramp.

Bob p
1 month ago
Reply to  TravelingMan

The correct way to use your brakes on a downhill grade used in the trucking industry, put your truck in the lower gear before you start down using the same gear you would normally use to climb the hill, as you start gaining speed step on the brake pedal hard enough to slow you back to a comfortable speed, let off the brakes allowing them to cool, repeat this process until you’ve made it to the bottom, do not ride the brake pedal as that will hold light pressure on the brake pads and discs keeping them hot.

Dalton Mccormick
4 months ago

I have read the comments, and I think this article is good because people are talking and showing an interest in knowing more, but you need to do your own homework,just like in school,otherwise you won’t retain it

Larry Blaha
4 months ago

Thank you, good check list.

Kathryn Arnold
4 months ago

Okay… I’m grateful that the light’s been shone and revealed the great gaps in my knowledge of how to RV safely. Where do I sign up for instruction??

TravelingMan
4 months ago
Reply to  Kathryn Arnold

Escapees club…They have a week long boot camp for newbies and those looking to improve their skills. They are in Livingston, TX but I think they do training across the US from time to time. Check their website:

http://www.escapees.com/education/

Kathryn Arnold
4 months ago
Reply to  TravelingMan

Thanks. I’ve heard good things about them.

Jim
4 months ago

Great questions — definitely need to consider a series of articles to review these question and provide answers.

wendy
4 months ago

good questions, couldn’t answer all the questions about my truck — #9 — I’ve googled until my eyes are crossing…still don’t know that answer 🙁

Michael R Hale
4 months ago
Reply to  wendy

Turn on the heater. Helps remove heat from the engine. Not sure about the transmission; when we towed, I had two transmission coolers in parallel.

Rev Carole Brickey
4 months ago
Reply to  wendy

My late husband had auxlliary fans he clicked on and or run the heater in the truck, turn off air conditioner

Skip Gimbrone
4 months ago
Reply to  wendy

Turn on your dash heater

TravelingMan
4 months ago
Reply to  wendy

If you don’t have a heavy duty radiator with the right fan and a heavy duty auxiliary transmission cooler, you need to get one. This is the leading way to reduce heat. Heat transmits to engine and transmission failure faster than a pirahna can clean a beef rib.

2nd… Don’t just shut off your engine when you stop. Gradually slowing down helps best but at least allow the engine and transmission to cool down prior to shutting down. When we need fuel, I coast or slow down a few miles prior to an exit.

Some of the trucks are coming out with a shutdown timer. Ram has it as an option in their truck line.

Benny H Smith
4 months ago
Reply to  wendy

Lower the loading where possible. Use a higher gear on manuals, ensure automatics are in drive, not 1 or 2, Turn off auxiliary equipment such as AC. Start the heater even in summer. It removes heat from engine. If these aren’t enough then pull over leaving the engine run open hood and let the drive train cool before shutting off and checking fluid levels. There is more but these will address most overheating.

Tommy Molnar
1 month ago
Reply to  wendy

About the only way to ‘cool’ your tranny when it overheats and you’re on the road is to pull over and give it a rest. This happened to us with our old 97 Powerstroke coming out of Death Valley once. Unbeknownst to me, we were only a block from the top of the hill at the time and probably could have made it. But I guess you could call it being safe, rather than sorry. Having a transmission temp gauge should be a must, especially of you do mountain driving.

Gordy B
1 month ago
Reply to  Tommy Molnar

Might want to add for newbies keep the engine running, watch the temp gauge. If it goes up you have a bigger problem.

Jim Collins
5 months ago

Used to tow a 30 ft. Airstream in the seventies, with a Chevelle 4 door , luckily I had a good teacher, then we went to a suburban, at the time I was still driving a 30 ft. Straight box truck, never had a problem, probably my teacher taught me well, now I have a 29 ft. Jayco motor home.

Samuel
5 months ago

That was some very good questions and some answers may very some depending on the situation but number 1 thing is using common sense I had to learn every thing by myself that I know and it would have a big help would I have had some one to teach me what to check and look for as I started pulling trailers and big trucks i never had something happen but looking back there were somethings that should have been done differently to be safer I’m looking forward to seeing more on this educational and safety in towing

James
5 months ago

If you don’t know What type of fuel your vehicle uses I don’t think you should be driving at all .

STEPHEN P Malochleb
4 months ago
Reply to  James

Thanks for the laugh James, but boy are you so right.:):)

Don Yeoman
5 months ago

Having been in sales at a horse trailer dealership for over 6 years I saw some very dangerous situations. When people asked the weight of the trailer in the beginning of the conversation I came to understand that, most likely, they had too light of a pull vehicle. I would ask the question “what is your towing capacity”. Probably 80% of these people had no clue what I was talking about and the balance of the conversation was used to educate and get their sights set on safety for them and their horses as well as other people on the road.
Towing capacity is set by the OEM and cannot be changed by adding lift kits, beefing up engines, etc. I always liked the answer “oh, my truck is a beast, it can pull it”…….really? How about getting it stopped? And how about in the case of an accident that you were not at fault, but because of being overloaded on tow capacity found to be liable?
Learn your vehicles towing capacity. I fault the
OEM’s for making it difficult to determine in their owners manuals and lack of training for their dealership sales people. I personally have talked to numerous dealership salespeople in trying to find an older trucks TC and they tried to give me GVWR……it’s not the same and much higher. There is also a difference between 5th wheel and gooseneck towing capacities.
Have a safe season.

Ron V
5 months ago
Reply to  Don Yeoman

What is the difference between gooseneck and 5th wheel towing capacities? I had no idea they were different since both tow from just over the rear axle. I had a standard 5th wheel hitch but bought a new truck and installed an Anderson hitch to the gooseneck ball in the bed. Does this equal a gooseneck hitch?

Bob p
4 months ago
Reply to  Ron V

I believe the reference is to goose neck and fifth wheel towing capacity is different from “bumper pull” ratings. The goose neck/fifth wheel ratings are the same.

Bill
1 month ago
Reply to  Don Yeoman

Great comment from a knowledgeable person! My 2003 GMC Dually lists it in the owners manual as Gross Combined Vehicle Weight Rating (GCVWR) in the tow section.

Chris
19 days ago
Reply to  Don Yeoman

One other point about this. Your owner’s manual will doubtless be filled with qualifiers, optional equipment ratings, “ask your dealer” (HA!) admonitions, and other bewildering charts, lists and information that doesn’t provide you with the what you need to know about your actual capacities. And if you buy a used vehicle, the manual might not even be around anymore.

Every manufacturer has a customer service telephone number (NOT the dealer). Call them, read them your VIN number, and they can look up your specific vehicle to tell you all the ratings you need to know. Do not rely on guesswork or your fast talking dealer (“Oh, yeah, that factory tow package can haul anything, don’t you worry.”)

TomS
5 months ago

Good questions but you need to add a few, like is your trailer ball the correct size and greased, is your vehicle hitch of the proper weight class, are your mirrors or camera adequate for the tow, if your tow is a toad is the tow bar attached correctly and appropriate for the load, do the towed lights work, is the safety chain hooked up, is the trailer near level on a flat surface so the hitch isn’t overloaded, etc.