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:
- Do you know what kind of fuel your truck uses?
- Do you know how to measure your tire pressure and what the pressures should be?
- How often should you check tire pressure? Can you do it?
- Do you understand how a tire pressure monitor works and what it tells you?
- Do you understand your truck engine’s RPMs and when the engine is working hard?
- 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…)
- Do you know how to read engine or transmission temperature?
- Do you understand engine and transmission temperature and can you determine when they are running hot?
- If your engine and/or transmission are running hot, do you know temporary techniques to reduce their temperature?
- How many feet do you think it takes to stop your rig? Can you visually describe how far that is?
- What techniques do you use to manage your rig’s speed on downhills?
- Do you know how to adjust trailer brake gain?
- Do you know when you might add or subtract trailer brake gain?
- Do you know how to test your trailer brake adjustment?
- Do you know how to visually inspect truck wheels for excessive brake pad wear?
- When you see a sign on a hill that reads, “Cars may need to turn off their A/C,” why is that?
- 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
I totally agree that we as a community need to promote education of proper towing.
A beginner should take a course that is both book learning and hands on.
I agree with Dave, that the government WILL step in and regulate, given the right numbers for wrecks
Driving a tour bus for 16 years you learn what to look for in driver’s passing you. oncoming traffic, and the traffic ahead of you generally 4 to 5 vehicles ahead. There are generally good drivers on the road. It is the few idiots that make it dangerous for safe drivers following the rules of the road to avoid a accident. I can tell you I have seen some really unsafe driver’s looking to be in an accident.
Dave has attacked the head of the snake with his commentary and quiz. Having also towed a TT and 5er and also have gone x-country, you see a lot of squirrelly things going on. I am no expert but I have never been in a precarious situation. At the same time, I am retired with no rush to get anywhere fast. This is not the case for everyone…
Something to think about… no matter how good of a driver the person is, if they are tired, they shouldn’t drive. Also, the passenger should consider themselves a co-pilot and pay attention. My husband and I were driving across I-90 in ND recently. We had been out late having dinner with friends the night before and had to get up early to get a trailer tire fixed that had picked up a nail. I didn’t realize my husband was tired as we headed across South Dakota. I was reading on my phone when I felt the truck go over a big bump. Turns out, my husband fell asleep, crossed into the left lane and then down into the median area. He finally got the truck and trailer under control and made his way back onto the highway. It was extremely scary and I vowed to always pay attention to the drive from then on.
“How many feet do you think it takes to stop your rig? Can you visually describe how far that is?”
I don’t think there is an answer for this question. At what speed? Uphill or downhill? Nice sunny day or a day with inclement weather? Snow or rain? Inquiring minds want to know . . .
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.
I drove a school bus for 6 years and it didn’t teach me anything about towing so what is your point? I also drove a semi for 8 years, that taught me a lot.
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
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.
My father taught me if at first you don’t succeed try and try again. If you still fail read the manual.
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”
If you see a sign that says “6-degree grade” you should probably have your eyes checked before you go much further.
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.
be careful – 6 degrees is over 10%
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????
this article would be more useful if it provided answers to the questions and not just raise the issues.
It’s just a millennial content creator that doesn’t know the answers.
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…
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.
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.
Not necessarily true. Our salesman strictly checked side of driver panel of our tow vehicle and told us which TT’s on lot to look at. His dealership had a strict policy in safety and informing customers what they could and safely tow.
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)
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. 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:
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…
Brake Fade Article/Run-A-Way Ramps:
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%.
Here is yet a better run-a-way truck video…
There are plenty of these on YouTube to watch.
Just look up run-way truck or RV ramp.
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.
What RV License?
Near where I live, two truckers died using an Arrester Bed a few years ago. Seat belts? Air bags? Speed?
It’s a shorter ramp that heads uphill steeper than most so that must have been a factor.
Safer than going over a cliff but has it own dangers.
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
Thank you, good check list.
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??
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:
Thanks. I’ve heard good things about them.
Great questions — definitely need to consider a series of articles to review these question and provide answers.
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 🙁
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.
My late husband had auxlliary fans he clicked on and or run the heater in the truck, turn off air conditioner
Turn on your dash heater
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.
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.
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.
Might want to add for newbies keep the engine running, watch the temp gauge. If it goes up you have a bigger problem.
Send the VIN to the Customer Support section of the manufacturer. I did that with my RAM and they sent back ALL the specs.