The 6 Worst Towing Mistakes

Before you hitch up and hit the road, find out what to do (and not to do) when towing.

Labor Day weekend is coming up and that means roads full of vacationers towing their homes-away-from-home behind them. If you plan to be one of them, make sure to avoid these common towing mistakes — you’ll enjoy your holiday much more and so will the people driving behind you.

1. Not knowing your ratings

Your tow vehicle (the vehicle doing the towing) can only carry and haul so much weight. Overloading your tow vehicle, trailer, or both can cause a whole host of problems like failing brakes, broken suspensions, overheated transmissions, or blown-out tires. None of these things make for happy campers, and some can be very dangerous.

Remember to look up your vehicle’s tow ratings before you attempt to tow anything and make sure your hitch system matches your vehicle’s towing specs. All of the following numbers need to be checked and complied with. Your tow vehicle’s specs are generally listed in your owner’s manual and on the sill of your driver’s-side door. Your trailer’s unloaded weight (along with its weight ratings) can be found on its Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) plate.

Gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR): the weight limit for your vehicle (including the vehicle itself plus passengers, cargo, and accessories).

Gross combination weight rating (GCWR): the maximum weight of the tow vehicle plus the loaded trailer, equipment, passengers, fuel, and anything else you plan to haul or carry.

Gross axle weight rating (GAWR): the amount of weight a single axle can safely bear. It’s important to know this value for both your tow vehicle and your trailer.

Towing capacity: the amount of weight your vehicle can pull.

Tongue weight: the amount of the trailer’s weight that is borne by the trailer hitch. Ideally, this should be about 10 percent of the total trailer weight. Too much tongue weight will make your vehicle’s steering less responsive. Too little and the trailer might sway. Tongue weight can be measured using a specialized scale (available at trailer supply shops).

If you’re having trouble estimating the combined weight of your trailer plus cargo, take the loaded trailer to a vehicle scale at a nearby weigh station or truck stop.

2. Not checking the local regulations

A ticket is nobody’s idea of a great vacation souvenir, so remember that towing laws and restrictions vary from state to state. While most states require taillights on your trailer and safety chains that connect the trailer to the tow vehicle, some states also require special braking equipment or additional side and rearview mirrors.

States also differ on their maximum towing speeds, the maximum trailer width, and the number of vehicles you’re allowed to tow. So be sure to know the laws, not just for your home state, but for any state you might pass through.

3. Forgetting to put on the brakes (and the wires)

The added weight of the trailer gives your vehicle extra momentum, which means it takes longer to reduce your speed. For this reason, many states require trailers over a certain weight (usually 1,500 lb.) to be equipped with a separate braking system. Trailer brakes not only improve control, but also will stop the trailer if it gets separated from the tow vehicle. The 2 types of trailer brakes are electronic (which are attached to a controller in the tow vehicle) and surge (independent hydraulic brakes that are activated by momentum). Not all jurisdictions allow surge brakes, so check your local laws.

Because cars behind you can’t see the lights on your tow vehicle, federal law requires trailers to be equipped with brake lights, taillights, turn signals, and reflectors. These are powered by a connector that hooks up to your vehicle’s electrical system. Make sure your wires are taut enough not to drag on the road, but loose enough not to disconnect during turns.

4. Loading your cargo improperly

If your trailer is off-balance, it will be difficult to control. Make sure cargo is distributed evenly, with about 60 percent of the total weight in front of the axle (but not too far forward). Secure cargo items to prevent them from shifting and keep the overall center of gravity low.

5. Forgetting you’re towing a trailer

No matter how strong or nimble your tow vehicle is, it’ll be less responsive once it has a trailer behind it. Since you won’t be able to accelerate, turn, or brake as fast, you’ll want to look further up the road and give yourself extra time and space to change lanes or slow down. It’s also a good idea to do some short practice drives before heading out on your big trip.

6. Not checking tire pressure

If you haven’t taken your trailer out for a while, there’s a good chance the tires need inflating. Driving a fully loaded trailer with underinflated tires is very dangerous — underinflated tires produce more friction, which can lead to blow-outs and possible rollovers. Be sure to check the tire pressure on both your tow vehicle and your trailer before you go (and while you’re at it, check the tires themselves for signs of wear).

Check your coverage capacity

One safety precaution you should always take is having adequate insurance. If your tow vehicle is insured, you can get basic liability coverage for your trailer under your auto policy. But travel trailer insurance offers much broader coverage, including total loss recovery, personal effects replacement, funds for lodging if your trailer is damaged, and even a full-timers package (if you live in your trailer year-round).

Share your tips

Do your vacation plans generally involve a trailer or RV? Where’s your favorite place to go? And do you have any safety or planning advice to share? 

Related links

Raise your safety IQ with our Summer Vehicle Safety Quiz
Find out how to insure your other summer toys (motorcycles, ATVs, boats, and more)

45 Responses to “The 6 Worst Towing Mistakes”

  1. Jerry
    July 14, 2014 #

    my tire specialist recommended 5 lbs above max, more air will let tire run cooler..also cross chains between trailer and tow vehicle, creating a sling, in case trailer disconnects from ball it most likely will not drop onto road

  2. Steve King
    July 15, 2014 #

    One thing I learned driving Firetrucks that applies to towing is the "Safety Circle". Start at the Driver's door and walk completely around the tow vehicle and trailer. Tug and pull on EVERYTHING. Make sure everything is secure. I even yank on the LP tanks.

  3. Larry Walton
    July 15, 2014 #

    Check the towing guide published by the manufacturer of your vehicle. One of the most important bits of information is when your setup requires a weight distributing hitch, which is a very important piece of equipment for safe towing of conventional (non-5th wheel or gooseneck) trailers.

  4. Bob P.
    July 16, 2014 #

    Here is few a tips for people driving around Travel trailers. My trailer is not a shady spot for you to drive in. That's my safety buffer zone. The large space in front of me is also my safety buffer, it's not a spot for you to get in front of me and slow down. I'll just pass you and keep my buffer and speed where I want it. Trailers sway and bounce and sometimes come close to the line. Don't be a jerk and swerve into my lane when passing because you think I almost came into your lane. Use your safety buffer too. Don't be a sissy and ride in my blind spot. Don't expect me to slow down for you when you merge onto a highway at 35 mph. You are supposed to merge at freeway speeds. You have the yield sign not us drivers whom are already on the freeway. Use common sense.

  5. Gary Wheaton
    July 16, 2014 #

    Use COMMON sense :O I've driven SEMI OTR and a fifth wheel was second nature to me, My tow vehicle~~'01 F-250 super duty 4×4 with the V-10 fifth wheel was GVW of 11,000 I also have AIR BAG assistance a K&N FIPK air intake and BANKS HEADERS Never even knew the trailer was there even used my OD and cruse control. Unless you know your vehicle don't TRY the things I just mentioned, as their is A LOT you need to be aware of…….My best advice to all that pull heavy TRAILERS is to get a TRANSMISSION TEMPERATURE GAUGE and watch it >>>

  6. silom
    July 17, 2014 #

    well my 100,000 horse power engine can haul anything so im not really worried about nothing

  7. Jonathan Bluemel
    July 19, 2014 #

    And stop towing your trailer in the carpool lane!!! The right two lanes are yours and that's it! I don't care how many people you have in your vehicle.

  8. Waddy Peytona
    July 24, 2014 #

    What a lot of people don't know…. and I learned the hard [Expensive] way is that you should not tow in the Drive with the "D" with the circle around it position. That circle indicates "overdrive". Some vehicles have a switch to turn it off. By using overdrive and towing you will burn out the Transmission. Everything was fine on a 150 mile tow until I stopped for gas and had no transmission after getting off the highway.

  9. Claudia Anderson
    July 25, 2014 #

    We have a very heavy 5th wheel and had to go to 14 ply tires, no more blow outs. Also most people don't know but in California any 5th wheel trailer over 15000.00 lbs. you must have a Class A license. A hard test but glad I did it, at least I know if I am ever in an accident my insurance will know I have the proper license and knowledge.

  10. Casey P. Amos
    July 26, 2014 #

    Trailer tires are for trailers…Do NOT use regular tires on your trailer. I speak from first hand experience on this one.

  11. d dave
    July 27, 2014 #

    unbelievable ….not one mention about safety chains.

    • Don
      August 7, 2014 #

      The chains you cross and hook to the tow vehicle are the safety chains.

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