Trucks 101

How to Tow a Trailer

This incredibly useful skill gives any old car the capability of a full-size truck

Bowie, excited for a rare pit stop. (Wes Siler)

My girlfriend and I just moved all our worldly belongings to Montana. I didn’t pay movers, I didn’t have to drive 1,100 miles in a janky moving van, and I didn’t break a single thing.

Putting a trailer behind your car is easier than you might think and can give virtually any vehicle the utility of a truck.

Why a Trailer?

Let’s crunch some numbers. Renting a 6-by-12-foot trailer from U-Haul in Los Angeles and returning it in Bozeman cost me $1,024. I averaged 16 miles per gallon on the drive up there; assuming a fuel cost of $4 per gallon (the most expensive I saw), that was another $275 or so. I spent one night in a Motel 6 ($50) and consumed roughly $75 in crappy roadside food and end-of-a-hard-day beers. The total cost of this move was approximately $1,424.

Renting a 15-foot truck from U-Haul would have cost more than $4,000 for the same move, I’d have spent $440 on fuel, and I would have had a much less comfortable ride. Paying movers would have cost even more, and they’d have broken or lost all our stuff.

Those numbers add up day to day and around town, too. Need to haul something too big for your current car? U-Haul’s trailer rentals start at $15 a day if you’re returning it to the same location, and there are no added fees for miles.

This means that, for most people, there is no need to own a large pickup, SUV, or van. Instead, you can likely buy a more affordable, more economical vehicle that better suits your daily needs while still accomplishing the same infrequent utility through the simple addition of a trailer hitch. Heck, all your rental costs and even end-of-a-hard-day beers should fall well within the money you save simply through lower fuel costs.

Can My Car Tow?

Yes, and you’ll probably be surprised by how much. This Volvo V90, for instance, can handle up to 3,500 pounds. Even something like a Toyota Prius can pull 1,600 pounds. That’s more than most full-size pickups can carry in their beds!

You can find your vehicle’s max towing capacity in your owner’s manual or through a simple Google search. Any car or truck’s capacity to tow is about more than how much weight it can get moving. You have to factor in the wear and tear moving that weight will place on the engine and transmission, the effect pulling it will have on your cooling system, the maximum weight your tires and suspension can support, and, of course, how much weight your brakes can safely handle. Never, ever exceed your vehicle’s listed towing capacity. In fact, it’s a good idea to leave a healthy safety margin between it and the weight you’re actually towing.

Note that towing capacity must include both the weight of the trailer and the stuff you’re putting in or on it. It can be pretty easy to estimate total weight with simple loads (a 1,000-pound trailer and a 500-pound motorcycle add up to—you guessed it!—1,500 pounds), but loading a big trailer full of random crap for a move can prove challenging to ballpark the weight. You can find a public vehicle scale near you here; one of those will give you a definitive number.

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I've spent a ton of time off-roading in Death Valley, but I've never driven through it on pavement. It added an hour or two to my trip, but I'm glad I did it. The curvy mountain roads into and out of the valley helped me grow comfortable with how the trailer behaved, expanding my confidence for the rest of the trip. And there are much worse days to be had than watching a desert scroll past at a recorded average speed of 47 mph. (Wes Siler)

Loading It Up

You’ve probably seen videos on the internet of dangerously swaying trailers, causing the vehicles towing them to flip over. It’s a good idea to avoid that.

So long as your tow hitch is properly installed and the trailer isn’t damaged, you can control sway by carefully positioning the trailer’s load. Weight in the trailer should be carried low, centered, and as far forward as possible. You want at least 60 percent of the weight ahead of the trailer axle or axles. Here's a great video explanation of how trailer weight distribution causes or prevents sway. 

Loading up for my move, I was able to place a heavy wooden headboard flush against the trailer’s front wall, then scoot my large chest freezer up against it, along the trailer’s centerline. I filled that freezer with rifles and shotguns in their cases, which helped protect them and kept their weight distributed forward, low, and along the centerline as well. On top of the freezer, I strapped an antique stainless-steel doctor’s desk upside down, because its weight is mostly on its top surface. Those were my heaviest items, and I progressed downward in weight as I worked out toward the sides, back toward the rear, and up toward the ceiling. By turning it into a game of Tetris and packing stuff as tightly as possible, I was able to keep everything from shifting or bouncing around. Mirrors, my Big Green Egg, and framed art all survived intact.

Towing

I haven’t pulled a trailer in a decade, and I have never pulled a trailer this large or one that’s enclosed, which blocked my rearview vision. Yet I got through 1,100 miles of highways, mountain roads, high winds, and tight parking lots just fine.

You can do this.

The best advice anyone will give you about towing is to go slow. Highways have lower speed limits for trucks and cars pulling trailers. Your braking distance increases massively with weight behind your car. The time it takes for you to respond to anything ahead of you increases. And lower speeds equal lower forces acting on your trailer, decreasing the risk and severity of sway. For most of the drive, I just set the Volvo’s cruise control at 60 miles per hour and enjoyed the extra time that gave me to enjoy the sights.

I lived in constant fear of reversing with the trailer attached, so I tried to plan every parking lot and gas station so I could drive forward through them. This worked pretty well up until the last day, when I took a wrong turn and had to reverse down a narrow street for about 100 yards. There’s a ton of advice and tricks out there for making sense of the trailer turning the opposite direction of your vehicle while reversing, but none of it is going to make much sense or be much help until you actually experience reversing under pressure. Do it really slowly, don’t turn too sharply, and don’t be afraid to pull forward, straighten out, and take a second shot at it.

The other big challenge is tight corners. Whenever you’re turning with a trailer, it’s a good idea to take a wide line. Turning too tightly can cause a trailer tongue to make contact with and damage your rear bumper or bring the trailer too close to obstacles like curbs and parked cars. Adjusting your wing mirrors so you can see the trailer wheels—in addition to traffic behind you!—can help you develop a sense of where the trailer tracks in corners and drive accordingly.

Lastly, it’s a good idea to give your brakes the easiest time possible. Manually select lower gears to employ engine braking to control speed on long descents, leaving your brakes to shed speed only immediately before a corner or in an emergency. And, oh yeah, try to brake before any corner, then accelerate gently or hold maintenance throttle as you turn.

It Adds Up

To get out of Los Angeles before traffic got too bad, I took off at 5 a.m. on the first day of the drive. And to avoid the need to fight trucks the entire way, I took a route on lonely desert byways through California, Nevada, and Idaho. I navigated that trailer through the twisty mountain two-lane into and out of Death Valley (which was 103 degrees), then through rural Nevada, where the longest distance between gas stations was nearly 200 miles. I found a Motel 6 at about 10 p.m., crashed for a few hours, hit the road at 6:00 the next morning, and finally arrived in Bozeman around 7 p.m. on the second day.

The biggest problem I had was that the trailer’s length and fragile tires prevented me from pulling off the road anywhere interesting for photos. Sure, I was incredibly relieved when, the day after the drive, I pulled the trailer off the hitch to return it, but that was because I was looking forward to driving a fun car again, not because the trailer made things all that difficult.

I had to turn around after the move and drive right back to Los Angeles to tie up a few loose ends. This time, I was driving a car that gets 31 miles per gallon on the highway and makes miles disappear with the aid of semi-autonomous driving. Thanks to the trailer hitch, I can have that vehicle and the world’s best moving van all in one car. If you don’t need to haul every single day, that might be the best option for you, too.

Filed To: Trucks / Cars / Indefinitely Wild
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