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)

6 Responses to “The 6 Worst Towing Mistakes”

  1. Dickie Wallabee
    September 18, 2013 #

    Dont forget to take the item in tow with you when you leave. Yeah, I know a guy who went camping out of state. Came back and realized he forgot to hook up the camper about 100 miles after leaving. Needless to say I wouldn't be going with him unless I have my transportation.

  2. VaNessa Josey
    September 18, 2013 #

    If u r going to tow something please learn the rules of the road first.

  3. run4bear
    February 6, 2014 #

    OK, I have a question: I have a tri-axle gooseneck trailer with a GVRW of 21,000# and a GAWR of 21,000#. This is a BIG trailer. I have gone on Cat Scales and have about 20,000 over the 3 trailer axles. But I am puzzled. WHY does the VIN plate show a GWVR the SAME as the GAWR? I have 3 7000# axles, so I understand the GAWR. But I do NOT understand why the GVWR is the same since I know there must be tongue weight.

    • Ellen Hall
      February 18, 2014 #

      Thanks for your question! GAWR and GVWR ratings are determined by the manufacturer. I think your best bet is to contact your trailer’s manufacturer to find out why the numbers are the same.

      • run4bear
        March 9, 2014 #

        The GAWR is determine by the axle ratings. That much I do know. Bu with a big trailer like mine I have a great deal of tongue weight on my truck. So if I have say 20,000# over 3 7,000# axles (more than the 100# difference) and the GAWR is 21,000# I think I am OK. But the GVWR has me stumped. There is a great deal of weight carried by my truck. If I add the hitch (gooseneck) weight to the GAWR the GVWR is exceeded! So the GVWR does not make sense to me.

      • Ellen Hall
        March 11, 2014 #

        It seems some trailer manufacturers don’t include the trailer hitch capacity in the GVWR, so the GAWR and GVWR would be the same. This might be to help make sure the driver doesn’t exceed the safe weight limit. I would suggest contacting your trailer’s manufacturer to find out why they've listed the numbers the same and get their advice.

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