Whether you’ve camped in a new or used travel trailer hundreds of times, or you’re renting your first trailer, towing is stressful. Learning how to safely tow a travel trailer will reduce that stress and help you account for unexpected moves that other drivers might attempt.
The Importance of Towing Safety
With the right preparation, towing doesn’t have to be a stressful part of owning a travel trailer, but a lack of preparation can have disastrous consequences. There is a lot to be aware of if you’re new to towing a travel trailer.
All drivers of towable campers (even those with smaller campers like the Happier Camper) must be aware of and avoid bridges with low clearance, tight turns, fast food drive-thrus, and, perhaps the most dangerous thing of all, other drivers.
Knowing how to safely tow a travel trailer protects you, your investment, and others on the road. So let’s talk about everything you need to know to tow safely!
Getting Your Trailer Ready for Safe Towing
Your first order of business starts well before you climb behind the wheel. Be sure your vehicle is capable of towing the full payload of your trailer (i.e. loaded weight). Use our towing guide to double-check your math before you hitch up your trailer.
Once you’re sure your vehicle is capable, securely connect the trailer’s tongue to your vehicle’s hitch ball. Double-check all of your turn signals, running lights, brake lights, and hazard signals. You may need a spotter to help you with this.
Also, consider installing a weight-distribution hitch to minimize bounce and sway that can cause you to lose control of your vehicle. These hitches distribute weight to the front axle of your tow vehicle and help to level your payload.
Towing with a high tongue or high rear bumper is never as safe as towing a trailer that is level with your tow vehicle. Consult this video to learn more about how to adjust a weight-distribution hitch.
Also, check tire air pressure and adjust according to your manufacturer’s recommendations. Towing with under or over-inflated tires increases your odds of suffering a blowout and under-inflated tires also reduce your fuel economy.
Becoming Aware of Your Trailer’s Size
Odds are, your trailer is wider than your tow vehicle. That’s why travel trailer owners use mirror extenders to help them check traffic when changing lanes or making turns. This is always a wise investment to help you tow safely.
In addition to the extra width, you also need to get used to the length and height of your trailer. If you’re new to towing, take your trailer to an empty parking lot to practice before you hit the open road.
Ideally, find a lot with a few light poles scattered throughout so you can practice navigating around and between them. Swing wide when making turns with a trailer behind you. The arc of your trailer’s rear bumper will be smaller than the arc of your tow vehicle’s front bumper.
Pay close attention to how your trailer follows your tow vehicle and observe how wide you need to swing when turning around obstacles. Go slow as you’re practicing and be aware of the lean of your trailer when you turn.
Street signs and traffic signals sometimes hang over the roadway. So being aware of how much your trailer leans in turns will help you avoid these nuisance obstacles. Also, practice pulling into parking spots and work on your reverse skills. It’s helpful to practice backing your trailer up several times before many watchful eyes are on you at an RV park.
A Note on Travel Trailer Height
If you don’t know it off the top of your head, measure the height of your trailer or find it in your owner’s manual. Post that height on a sticky note somewhere you can see it while driving. That will remind you how much clearance you need when going under bridges and overpasses.
To avoid height issues altogether, map out your route before you leave for your next camping adventure. Use an RV-specific GPS system to make sure there aren’t any height restrictions on your desired route. This will help you avoid detours that add hours to your driving time.
Following Road Etiquette Driving a Travel Trailer
There are many RV rules, regulations, and road restrictions to be aware of before setting out. Here is a quick summary of general travel trailer etiquette to follow when towing:
- Use the right lanes unless turning, passing, or entering or exiting a roadway
- If you’re brand new to towing, avoid passing until you feel more comfortable
- On roads with no passing lane, pull over and allow vehicles to pass if there are four or more following closely behind you
- Signal turns and lane shifts early to alert other drivers
- Follow all posted speed limits and traffic signals
Using Appropriate Speeds
Driving at appropriate speeds goes a long way towards safe towing. Reduce your normal speed by 10 to 20 miles per hour when towing a travel trailer. That means doing 60 instead of 70 on major highways and reducing your speed even further on smaller, windier roads.
The tires on most travel trailers are rated for 60 to 65 miles per hour. The silver lining to this is that traveling between 55 and 65 miles per hour will improve your fuel economy, especially when traveling long distances.
And there’s another benefit of slowing down while towing a travel trailer. It will reduce how much all of your camping gear shifts from the time you leave your house to the time you reach your camping destinations.
Abrupt starts and stops are apt to cause your gear to move around in your trailer. This can cause damage to your gear and your trailer itself. Towing more slowly helps to ensure that you arrive with everything in the same condition it was in when you left.
Slowing Your Travel Trailer Down
Using appropriate speeds also comes into play when slowing your trailer down. Your vehicle and trailer need two to three times more distance to slow down and stop than your vehicle on its own.
The faster you go, the longer (and further) it will take to slow down. This is true even for travel trailers with electronic brake controllers, which take some burden off your tow vehicle’s brakes.
What To Do When It Gets Windy
The wind is one of the trickiest factors when towing a travel trailer. You are basically driving a large sail down the road and, unfortunately, it will be affected by wind much more than your tow vehicle.
A crosswind is more dangerous than a headwind or tailwind. When you feel the wind pushing you left or right as you drive, you will need to steer into it gently to keep going straight. Depending on the size of your trailer, even minor crosswinds of 10 to 15 miles per hour can impact your steering.
Heed all posted wind warnings along your driving route. If a posted recommendation suggests doing so, or you feel uncomfortable continuing to drive, pull over and wait until conditions improve.
Tips for Driving in Inclement Weather
In addition to the wind, driving in inclement weather must be approached with caution. Rain, snow, ice, fog, and other environmental factors should make you pause and think twice about continuing your journey.
Use your preferred weather app to check the weather early and often along your route. Just like the wind, it’s better to pull off and wait for a storm to pass than to continue driving into unsafe conditions. If you do pull off, some of these tips for staying entertained when the weather turns bad may prove useful.
Also, tune into AM radio stations broadcasting road alerts and weather warnings along your route. As a good rule, if the lights on those road condition signs are flashing, tune into the advertised station to learn why.
Handling The “Pull” of Large Vehicles
In addition to the wind, you will contend with the pull of RVs, semi-trucks, fifth wheels, and any other large vehicle you pass. This happens when two large vehicles are moving in opposite directions and the effect is greatest on two-lane roads without a center median.
As a driver, you’ll feel your tow vehicle and trailer pulled towards oncoming traffic. To be clear, you DO NOT need to overcorrect in this scenario. On calm days, slightly steering away from oncoming traffic will suffice, but you will need to gently correct once the vehicle has passed.
This effect increases in windy conditions. If you’re dealing with a crosswind from left to right, for example, you’ll already be steering slightly towards oncoming traffic to keep your trailer straight.
When a semi-truck passes, it acts as a momentary windbreak. To correct, you’ll need to gently reduce how much you’re steering into the wind and then correct once the truck passes.
This effect can be very subtle and may not require major corrections in the orientation of your steering wheel. Reducing your speed can also minimize the impact of pull when passing large trucks and other RVs. If at any time you feel unsafe on the road, then pull over and take a break.
Navigating Steep Mountain Grades
There are two main issues when navigating steep mountain grades. When descending, be conscious of burning up your vehicle and trailer brakes and, when ascending, engine overheating is a concern.
If you are towing a travel trailer up steep mountain grades, you must accept that you will go much slower than normal. If you’re well below the posted speed limit, move to the furthest lane to the right and consider turning on your hazard signals to warn other drivers.
Taking your time is recommended on steep inclines because it lessens the strain on your engine, drivetrain, and transmission. On long mountain grades, you may need to pull over at regular intervals to allow your engine to cool. Keep an eye on your engine temperature gauge and pull over if engine temp starts to rise.
Coming Back Down
When descending steep mountain grades, use your transmission to assist the braking systems on your tow vehicle and trailer. This is also when you can engage your electronic brake controller to reduce the stress on your vehicle’s brakes.
It’s a good practice to downshift early and prevent your trailer from reaching high speeds in the first place. It’s smart to maintain a slower average speed than allowing your trailer to speed up dangerously. The latter puts unnecessary stress on your braking systems to slow you back down to a reasonable speed.
Also, you never want to ride your brakes for a long period of time on a descent. Depress them to bring your speed well below the posted limit and then let off again. Continuous application of brakes is what burns them up.
Planning Gas Stops
Even getting gas, which is normally quite simple, can be challenging when towing a travel trailer. Plan your gas stops further in advance to avoid stations that can’t be navigated by larger vehicles.
Finding big rig friendly gas stations is imperative on your travels. Travel centers and truck stops along major highways won’t be hard to find, but you can use The Good Sam Trip Planner to find navigable gas stations in more remote locations too.
Be Proactive, Not Reactive
As a final word, always practice smart, mindful driving techniques when towing a travel trailer. It takes longer to execute all driving maneuvers in a travel trailer. Keep a watchful eye for other drivers and start moving over a few miles before your next highway exit.
It’s always safer to pass a highway exit, for example, than to make a quick, last-minute maneuver in an attempt to exit. There is always another exit ahead and a slight delay is better than the alternative.
With the right preparation, a little practice, and diligence on the road, you’ll be safe towing your travel trailer wherever you want to go. If you want some travel ideas, check out these seven romantic campgrounds calling for a couple’s getaway!
What tips do you have for towing a travel trailer? Leave a comment below!