By Russ and Tiña De Maris
For a “heart sinking into your stomach” experience, there’s nothing like looking in the rearview mirror and finding your travel trailer isn’t there. Friends of ours recall one such occasion when theirs “got loose” and rolled off the road and into the brush. Theirs was a “good” experience of a runaway trailer—nobody got hurt and the damage was minimal. But every year innocent folks are killed by runaway trailers. How can you ensure your travel trailer trip comes off without a hitch? Start with safety at the hitch.
The correct equipment is at the heart of the matter. The hitch ball must not only be the correct physical size to match the trailer hitch, but needs to be able to tote the weight of the trailer. There are three different sizes of hitch balls: 1 7/8 inches, 2 inches and 2 5/16 inches.
The smallest might be found on a lightweight pop-up trailer; the 2-inch balls are typically used on mid-sized trailers, and the largest balls—well, sure enough—on large trailers. The large size hitch balls have different weight capacities, and you need to be sure the capacity of the ball is greater than the total weight of your loaded trailer. You MUST match the size of the hitch ball on your tow rig to the size required by the coupler. Going with too small a hitch ball is to invite a disaster.
Hitch balls attach to the tow vehicle with a nut and lock washer. The larger the ball, the greater the torque required for a safe attachment. The hitch ball mounts through a drawbar and the thickness of the drawbar determines how long the shank, or threaded portion of the hitch ball, needs to be. Rule of thumb: At least one thread should be visible beneath the lockwasher and nut when the ball is installed in the drawbar.
When installing a hitch ball the philosophy of “just throwing a wrench on it and tugging” isn’t a safe one. If in doubt, have a hitch shop attach your tow ball. Trailer couplers need to be kept lubricated with grease. We prefer lithium grease, and we keep our hitch ball greased, and we cover it with a ball cover when not in use.
WHEN HOOKING UP, you’ll need to spot the ball directly under the trailer coupler. Set the coupler in the open or loose position and make sure the clamp inside the coupler is open. If you haven’t hitched up in a while, or the coupler isn’t well lubricated, the coupler clamp may not open properly. Lower the coupler onto the hitch ball. Some couplers have levers that slide shut to indicate the clamp has closed down over the ball. Don’t take it for granted. A physical inspection—looking or feeling to make sure the coupler clamp is securely clamped around the bottom of the hitch ball—is essential. If it isn’t, the only thing holding your trailer and tow rig together is gravity, and a bump in the road will break you loose in a hurry.
Next, connect the safety chains securely to the trailer hitch or tow rig by crossing them underneath the coupler in an X formation. That is, the trailer’s left chain should attach to the tow rig to the right of the hitch and vice versa. Safety chains should only be long enough to allow for tight turns; if they are longer they may not work if there is a breakaway. Don’t allow the safety chains to drag the ground. Not only can you damage the chains, but chains dragging the pavement can produce sparks – which in turn, can set fire to dry grass.
Hooking up the breakaway switch lanyard is critical. If the trailer does break loose and the safety chains fail, the breakaway switch system should activate the trailer brakes, stopping the trailer. Make sure the lanyard is long enough for tight turns—we’ve watched one RVer lock up the trailer brakes pulling a tight corner after an improperly routed lanyard pulled the safety switch open.
The breakaway system only works if the trailer battery is charged and the brakes are adjusted properly. You can test this in an empty section of a parking lot. With your rig hitched up, pull the breakaway switch open and drive forward with a spotter walking beside the rig. The trailer brakes should literally lock up if adjusted properly.