Towing is one of the best uses of a pickup truck, and one of the main things many buyers choose a truck over an alternative vehicle. But it's not as easy to tow safely and efficiently as just hooking up the rig and rolling down the road. These five quick tips will help you get the most out of your truck.
1. Know your weights
Gross trailer weight, gross combined weight, tongue weight--they're not rocket science, but these are the primary facts to know about your trailer and tow rig to keep it within safe and stable limits.
Gross trailer weight is exactly what it sounds like--the weight of the trailer with its load. It's important to know how much your trailer is rated to carry so you don't overload it, and to know how much your total tow weight is so you don't overstress your truck. Roll your loaded trailer onto a scale, unhitch it and wait until the numbers settle. You can usually find full-size truck scales at truck stops and moving companies.
Tongue weight is the portion of the trailer's weight that is born by the tongue--the part of the trailer that attaches to the ball on the back of your truck. If your tongue weight is too low, the trailer may sway at speed, causing dangerous instability. If it's too heavy, it may affect steering or other handling characteristics of your truck. Determining tongue weight is as simple as resting the tongue on a scale--a bathroom scale may suffice for lighter trailers, as the tongue weight is only a fraction of total trailer weight, but larger trailers and loads may require a commercial scale. You can affect the tongue weight by redistributing the load around the trailer--you're ultimately shooting for a tongue weight that's around 9-15 percent of the gross trailer weight.
Gross combined weight is important to know in order to avoid overloading the truck's engine. To determine gross combined weight, add up the weight of all the cargo and passengers with the weight of the vehicle itself and the gross trailer weight. This figure needs to be smaller than the gross combined weight rating of your truck, a number the manufacturer determines based on the strength of the truck and the power of its engine. For example, if your truck weighs 5,000 pounds, has three 150-pound passengers, 200 pounds of plywood in the bed and 6,000 pounds of trailer and cargo behind it, the gross combined weight of the vehicle is 11,650 pounds.
This is salso an important number to know if you're crossing any smaller bridges or traversing residential streets--the capacity of some of these surfaces, though paved, may be under the gross vehicle weight, and could collapse, causing a serious accident.
2. Know your hitch
The size and strength of the hitch on your truck directly affects what sort of loads you can haul. A smaller, lighter hitch may be less expensive, but it may ultimately become the weak link in your chain. A big, heavy hitch might offer higher maximum load capacities, but if you only tow lighter trailers it may be more than you need.
It's also important to know if you have a weight carrying hitch or a weight distributing hitch. Weight-carrying hitches support the entire tongue weight directly, while weight-distributing hitches spread the load over a wider portion of the truck's frame through extra connecting braces. If you have a heavy duty truck and you're going to be towing big trailers, you probably need a weight-distributing hitch.
Most trucks are available from the factory with a towing package that's rated for the truck's capability. If you opt for this setup, you can generally rest assured that it can do anything the truck can. If you purchase an aftermarket hitch, however, be sure it's up to the tasks for which you plan to use it.