Five Tips For Towing With Your New Truck

May 4, 2010

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.

3. Know your brakes

Once you've got your truck all loaded up and hitched, it'll be significantly heavier than the unladen truck. Some trucks accelerate and turn nearly the same when towing, but all will require longer stopping distances, particularly from higher speeds. Knowing the condition and capacity of your brakes is a key safety element, so be sure to inspect them (or have them inspected) before heading out with a trailer in tow.

Part of knowing your brakes is also knowing your route. Are you going to have any long hill descents on the way to your destination? If so, even new brakes may not be up to the task if the truck is loaded to maximum capacity--extended braking periods can generate excessive heat, causing the fluid in the braking system to boil and the brakes to fail. If possible, route around long descents, and if not possible, be sure to have your entire braking system evaluated regularly by a professional, including keeping to regular fluid change intervals.

4. Know your lights

If the drivers behind you can't see your taillights, and your trailer has no lights of its own, how will they know you're slowing, stopping or turning? Wiring harnesses or adapters to connect your trailer to your truck's lighting system are available from many aftermarket outlets, and are required equipment in most states.

It's not enough to just hook them up and forget about it, however--be sure to check your trailer's lights and signals before every outing, as bulbs can burn out and the wiring and connectors can fail due to exposure, friction, and vibration.

Trailer lighting is a fairly simple and straightforward subject, but getting it right will be much appreciated by the other cars on the road.

5. Know your skills

Practice, practice, practice! If you're new to towing and trailers, you probably aren't an ace at backing up and turning with a trailer attached, particularly a loaded one. Heavy trailers and uneven surfaces may change the low-speed throttle response of the truck when backing up, making it tough to start moving smoothly and slowly. Practicing in a safe environment will help build the feel necessary to get the trailer going safely.

There's also the skill of getting a trailer to go the direction you want it to--it's often counter-intuitive how a trailer will behave behind a truck, as it can move in the same or opposite direction of the truck's movement depending on the angle between the two. If you're having a really hard time getting it right, consider asking a friend or family member with experience to give you some in-truck pointers.

Practicing before heading out into the wild will also expose any weaknesses in your setup, whether it's the hitch, the trailer, the weight distribution or the mirrors. It's important to see where the trailer is when backing up, and many trucks' standard mirrors aren't large enough to see and see around larger trailers. If you're having visibility issues, you can add a small circular convex mirror to expand the short-range field of view, or it may be necessary to upgrade the mirrors entirely to larger units, particularly with tall or wide trailers.

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