Use your cruise control or overdrive while towing?

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By Russ and Tiña De Maris
When towing a travel trailer, should or can you use your cruise control or overdrive? These are questions that can puzzle new RVers — and even some veterans.

First, can you use cruise control while towing?

Here’s a school of thought where most folks who’ve had cruise tend to agree: Towing a trailer with cruise control is fine — with certain caveats. Towing “on the flat” is a snap, and may save you fuel if your cruise control handles the accelerator. However, if you encounter a situation where your transmission begins to “hunt,” that is, to move from one gear to another and back, then you may need to make a change. Usually the “hunting” can be stopped by simply slowing down or speeding up just a tad. If this settles the transmission down, well and good. If not, you may be back to “flying manually.”

Cruise on hills can be a different story. We’ve found by our own experience that leaving the cruise control engaged when hill climbing is OK when the grade isn’t real steep. On steeper grades the cruise will try to maintain speed, downshifting and eating more fuel. If you have a fuel economy gauge in your rig, try using the cruise while hill climbing and see what happens to consumption. We often tow up hills with the cruise “off” and holding the accelerator at a given point — this means slowing down, of course, and downshifting where needed, but it pays at the pump.

On the downhill side, safety is the chief concern. Cruise control won’t hold your speed from going “over” the set-point, so on a steep downgrade we feel more comfortable with the cruise off.

Other places to forgo the comfort of cruise control include icy or otherwise slick roads, and in heavy traffic. We’ve found some bridge decks set up an awful “bounce” for our truck-and-trailer combination that’s enough to rattle your teeth out. Drop off the speed control and slow down to get these nasty bounces under control.

What about using overdrive while towing?

For automatic transmission users, what about overdrive while towing? There were some trucks produced in the past that decidedly recommended against towing in overdrive. This is because by the design of these transmissions overheating could be a problem. Towing adds a heat load, and to keep the transmission cool, fluid is pumped through a radiator-like device to cool it off. In overdrive, some transmissions couldn’t pump it fast enough to handle the added heat load, and the results could be really expensive.

First rule: Read your rig’s owner’s manual. If the manual rules out towing in overdrive, then lock out the overdrive. If the manual allows towing in overdrive, you could be conservative and safe by installing a transmission temperature gauge and keeping a close eye on it.

Finally, you may have a rig with a “Tow/Haul” switch. For many transmissions, that switch resets the shift points of your transmission to a selection more appropriate for the extra transmission load. It may also lock up the torque converter (reducing heat buildup), and may even lock out overdrive. Again, check your owner’s manual to be safe.

MORE ON THIS TOPIC

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Perry J Butler
26 days ago

We pull a 21′ Escape 5th wheel (5,200 #’s loaded) with our 2019 F150 max tow, with 3.5 EcoBoost. Previously we had a similar 2105 F150, but six speed tranny, and the tow/haul was terrible on the 2015, slamming in and out of gears. Gave up on tow/haul with the six speed.

Our 2019 with a ten speed tranny is a work of wonder. No more hard shifting from gear to gear, unless in tow/haul. Using tow/haul we got slightly under 13 mpg, but felt the 2019 also shifted too much, too hard. One day I decided to use Eco when hauling. Shifting dropped by 2/3 rd’s. It would pick up 5 mph down hills before shifting down (we travel at 55-60 mph) and drop by 5 mph when going up steeper hills. Mileage went to well over 14 mpg and my comfort level improved dramatically. Cruise control works much, much better with the ten speed tranny.

With both F150’s the mileage was better at 1,800 rpm’s vs 1,500 or below. Tenth gear is always locked out and many times 9th gear as well.

Last edited 26 days ago by Perry J Butler
Michael
26 days ago

Newbie question here!!
Do these rules still apply for a 45 foot motor home towing an enclosed vehicle trailer?

Steve
26 days ago

I run with cruise all the time. I have a 38 ft 5th wheel that weighs about 12K#’s. Pulled with a F-250 diesel, just upgraded to a F-350 Duelly w/ the 6.7 diesel. My cruise works great and I can over-ride if I want. The Ford has a work-able engine brake for downhill control.

I think the use of cruise control depends on the vehicle, trailer and conditions. Diesel trucks (and I may be bias) probably do the best with cruise as they have the size and power needed to handle the weight of a camper in most situations.

I guess you should do what you are comfortable with. Be safe!

Wayne
27 days ago

I use both cruise and overdrive when appropriate. My F-250 6.7 handles it very well

bisonwings
28 days ago

I pause cruise control in the mountains. As mentioned cruise will attempt to accelerate to the set speed and not only kill fuel mileage but will raise exhaust gas temperatures in Diesel engines rapidly to a point where serious damage all the way to catastrophic failure can occur.
I tow an 18,000 pound 5th wheel with a ‘06 Ford F-350 utilizing a modified 6.0L. International engine. I have added a Live Wire tuner not only for added horsepower and torque but also because of the ability for additional gauges. I am able to accurately monitor fluid temperatures in the transmission, differential and coolant and the EGT (exhaust gas temperature). EGT’s can rapidly spike when towing in the mountains and letting the cruise control try to maintain speed can result in serious engine damage or even catastrophic engine failure.
I also monitor turbo boost, voltage, fuel injection and others. All of this is displayed on a screen in a digital and analog configuration.

Fred
28 days ago

Cruise control has changed dramatically in the newer trucks. My 2017 F350 diesel dually towing an 18K, 34ft 5th wheel, has adaptive cruise control which senses vehicles in front of you & adapts your speed to match theirs & keeps you at a distance that you choose. As the vehicle ahead of you picks up speed, or moves out of the way, the adaptive cruise control resumes the speed you originally set. If a vehicle passes me & pulls in front of me, it automatically adjusts to the distance I have chosen to keep between us & I can adjust that distance setting with the single click of a button on the steering wheel. I can travel thru a large city on their freeways without ever having to cancel my cruise control; I just flow with the traffic in front of me. It works down to about 12mph. This is one of the nicest features on my truck.

Gene Sannes
28 days ago

I’ve been towing a travel trailer and now a fifth wheel trailer. My first trip towing the lighter travel trailer and using cruise had me at 8 MPG and I used 4 of the 2.5 gal. jugs of DEF over 8K miles driving my 2014 RAM 3500. Two years later I took the same trip with our new heavier fifth wheel RV. It had been recommended to me to lock out the 5th gear and still use cruise except for steeper hills. My mileage went up to 12 MPG and I used just 2 of the jugs of DEF fluid. I can only say that I’m a pretty conservative driver and I’m really happy with the change I made to my driving practices.

William T Elliott
28 days ago

My 2012 Ford F-350 controls down hill speed using the turbo to restrict exhaust flow in combination with the tow mode in the transmission.

Bob P
28 days ago

you have a very unusual turbo since they spin on exhaust gases and don’t have anything to keep it from spinning.

Hal
28 days ago
Reply to  Bob P

The variable vane turbos are used for engine braking these days on many diesel applications.

Eddie D.
28 days ago

I had a hell of a time towing my trailer with an Xterra through the Rocky Mountains, because I couldn’t turn off overdrive.

Thomas D
29 days ago

I use cruise all the time.Caveat,diesel engine with Allison. It holds speed up the hill and down the hill. You’d be surprised how little if at all you have to brake going downhill. Transmission never “hunts”. Like Tim the Toolman grunted, more Power. My daughter and I were discussing that just yesterday about cruise control and driving in the rain. I have a habit if using cruise almost all the time, even in city at 30 mph. My finger us always on
or very near “cancel”.

Dale e Rose
29 days ago

Many of the newer vehicles with tow-haul have the added benefit of having engine braking on downhill runs. It helps prevent most of the braking with the pedal. If you’re going down a hill, it only allows a small increase in speed before it kicks in and slows you down. Read your owners manual to see if you vehicle has the engine braking with tow-haul.

Judy S
26 days ago
Reply to  Dale e Rose

Thank you! I’ve wondered why my transmission sometimes braked on downhills! I didnt connect it with having tow/haul turned on.

Dave
29 days ago

I dislike cruise control while towing. Cruise control causes lots of transmission shifting and engine revving, and in my experience, worse gas mileage. I can personally enjoy a more pleasant drive while towing when I manage and control hills myself and save wear on the truck.
On open road, I use manual mode and much prefer it, especially downhill.

Scooter
29 days ago

Spot on. Know your vehicle and the conditions around you. Unless the road surface is contaminated I always have the cruise control on. With regards to gearing, know where the engine is lugging or running efficiently. Sometimes you need to sacrifice fuel economy and comfort (loud engine from high rpms) to run the best gear. Strangely I avoid tow mode as much as possible. It does change shifting points when accelerating and modifies how the transmission locks up but it downshifts too aggressively for my taste. I would rather maintain speed with the exhaust brake than jumping two gears and wrapping up the rpms to ridiculous levels.

Judy S
26 days ago
Reply to  Scooter

I agree. Mine downshifts too aggressively on hills during tow/haul.

Richard A Mantz
29 days ago

I find that in Tow mode, my 2010 Raptor pulling our Cruiser MPG 2120RB trailer will hold the speed in cruise control down grades. As the speed increases, the transmission will downshift, slowing and holding the set speed. There have only been a couple of times where I turned it off on really steep grades, only because I didn’t want the engine revving too high. Well, that and the fact my wife said to slow down! Living in Colorado, it’s pretty much up and down hill everywhere.

Donald N Wright
29 days ago

I checked with the Ford Service department, towing my Aliner was too light for “tow/haul”, cruise control was fine. When i grow up and buy a real trailer, use the “tow/haul”, but they were iffy about cruise control.

Judy G
29 days ago

Could just be the particular vehicle in question, but mine did ‘jack-rabbit’ starts from a stop sign – not my style.

Tom
29 days ago
Reply to  Judy G

Not sure I understand the “jack-rabbit starts”. You shouldn’t engage you cruise control until you are near the speed that you want to maintain. If you are trying to engage it when you are at a stop, then stop. You are not using it correctly.