You Got This: Everything You Need to Know about Towing

You've done the math, planned the strategy and dreamed the adventure. Now, take those toys to where the magic happens. This is what you need to know about towing.

Trailer Towing Tutorial
Summer is the perfect time to build your trailer towing skills. Photo: Annika Carter

Lesson #1: Don’t let it intimidate you. 

It seems so daunting: Hooking up a several-thousand-pounds trailer to your car and taking it on the highway, on scenic routes, possibly backing it into a lake or onto campsite pad.

With people watching. Including those inside the car who are holding their breath that you get it right. 

But towing can be the key to a truly magical vacation, to conquering your race track dream, to being suspended in the midst of a perfect moonlit lake. You just have to get there. 

We already shared how to calculate the math of towing, what you need to consider and the details of towing equipment. Now, put that magic math to work: here’s how to hitch your trailer, drive it, back it and problem solve when things go awry. 

Towing Schematic

These are the practical considerations when towing gear behind your car.

Hitching up the Trailer

The first step is to connect your trailer to your truck, SUV or car. Always hitch the trailer to your vehicle before you load it. If weight is added to the rear of the trailer while the trailer is not connected, the trailer will likely tip backward, which could cause damage to your property or injury to anyone standing around the trailer.

As an aside, even when the trailer is hooked up, never straddle the hitch when loading the trailer. I often see people do this when loading cars onto trailers because it gives the best vantage point to guide the driver onto the trailer. But if the trailer is incorrectly hooked, the tongue will fly up and cause some very painful damage.

When hooking up the trailer, first make sure that the trailer’s coupler is OPEN and the jack, if present, is holding the tongue of the trailer above the height of the ball hitch. Smaller, lighter trailers may not have a jack. In this case, you will simply lift the front of the trailer by hand and can walk it over to the ball hitch (when your vehicle is close, of course). 

Backup cameras have made lining up with the trailer significantly easier, but even with a backup camera, a second person may make it easier your first time. Carefully back up until the ball sits squarely beneath the trailer’s coupler, then set the parking brake and put the car in park (always set the parking brake when parking with a trailer!). Use the trailer’s jack to lower the coupler onto the ball hitch until fully engaged, then close the coupler latch. Remember to always replace the coupler pin. This pin prevents the coupler from bouncing open when driving. 

Next, connect the wiring and breakaway chains. If your car is designed for towing and you have a large 7-pin connector (it is circular in shape), be sure to use this plug, if available, as this connector has wires for trailer brakes. If you only have a 4-pin connector (small and rectangular in shape), don’t stress, but be aware that you will not have electrically driven trailer brakes, so be cautious under braking. After the trailer is plugged in, test the lights to ensure the connection is properly made. 

The safety chains will be hooked to the frame of your vehicle. Ensure that they are not too long to drag on the ground but long enough to allow you to turn without snapping or binding. If the chains are too long, simply twist one or two rotations to shorten them. If the trailer has an electric brake breakaway switch, attach this to the same point as the breakaway chains.

Towing In The Wagoneer

2023 Wagoneer L tow camera view. Photo: Wagoneer

Loading Your Trailer: Channel Your Inner Dolphin 

When loading your trailer, you need to consider tongue weight. Simply put, this is the downward weight on the hitch itself. Once you start towing, if you have too much tongue weight, you will feel the vehicle and trailer “dolphin” or bounce up and down after going over bumps. Proper tongue weight will also take weight off the vehicle’s rear suspension. Too much tongue weight will load the rear of the car too much, which takes the weight off the front tires and can make steering and braking difficult. 

If you notice that your car is sagging significantly with the trailer attached (remember, a little sag is OK and normal, but it shouldn’t be so much as to reduce your front tire traction or make it hard to see over your hood), or if you just want to decrease the load over your rear axle, you can purchase a weight distributing hitch. This hitch has a bar on each side of the coupler that serves to straighten the vehicle-trailer attachment point and level the car. It helps to stabilize the trailer and distribute the tongue weight so it doesn’t all sit over the rear axle. 

If you load too much weight in the rear of the trailer, the trailer will be prone to “fishtail,” or swing side-to-side, which is incredibly dangerous and can lead to jack-knifing. 

While there are maximum tongue weight ratings, it is very unlikely that you have scales at home while you are loading your trailer. The general rule of thumb is to have 60% of the trailer cargo mass in front of the axle and 40% behind. If you have heavy items that comprise most of the weight being towed (like a car), aim for this mass to be just in front of the axles. For example, I pull my cars so my driver’s door is over the axles, put the engine (the heaviest part of my car) right in front of the axles, and load my additional equipment in front of the car. 

Ensure that all items in your trailer are secured with tow straps that are properly rated for their weight. You do not want anything sliding, bouncing, or moving around while you are towing. 

Related: Tow All the Things

Watch Your Trailer Tire Pressure Levels When Towing. Photo: Annika Carter

Watch your trailer tire pressure levels when towing. Photo: Annika Carter

Trailer Brakes

Not all trailers have their own brakes, but larger, heavier trailers will likely have brakes. Some trailers, like many rentals and boat trailers that are submerged in the water, have hydraulically controlled brakes that do not require an electric signal from the tow vehicle, so they will work with the 4-pin connector.

Electric brakes are controlled by the tow vehicle and do require the 7-pin connector. While these also help with slowing down, they also allow for additional brake control, which is why they are common on large, heavy trailers like car haulers. If your vehicle is designed for towing, it may have a factory-installed brake controller. If not, you can purchase a brake controller. A brake controller allows you to adjust the brake pressure depending on the load or apply brakes to the trailer without applying brakes to the tow vehicle.

Towing

Be mindful of the lanes you drive in while you are towing gear. Photo: Annika Carter

How to Drive with a Trailer

While driving with a trailer is not hard, do take extra care while towing. First and foremost, watch your speed. Trailer tires do not undergo the same testing as passenger car tires and also tend to have lower speed ratings. Check the speed rating for your tires – it will be designated with a letter on the sidewall, corresponding to a maximum speed – and then keep your speed at least 5 mph below that. It is also important to watch your speed because it will take longer to slow down and because your steering reaction will be slower. 

Along with this, I do not recommend having a lead foot when towing a trailer. It can cause your cargo to shift and greatly reduce your already-low towing gas mileage. Brake earlier than you normally would, remembering that it will take you significantly longer to slow down to a stop. 

While you drive, pay attention to posted signs about trucks and trailers. Many cities do not allow trucks and trailers into the left lane (or left two lanes). Be aware of cars behind you, and remember that you are likely going slower than them – keep right except to pass, as the rule of the road goes. I also like to try to minimize my lane shifts. You can’t tow in a rush – and don’t even try to tailgate or weave traffic with a trailer. That’s just insane.

The Optional, Extendable Towing Mirrors Are Larger Than They Appear. While They Increase Visibility To The Back, They Can Also Create Blindspots Up Front. Photo: Allison Bell

The optional, extendable towing mirrors are larger than they appear. While they increase visibility to the back, they can also create blindspots up front. Photo: Allison Bell

Mind Your Blindspots

These are now much larger, and this is where tow mirrors come in handy. If your car doesn’t have factory tow mirrors, there are options that stick on or strap to your car’s mirrors. Also, leave extra space in front of you. Other drivers tend to drive erratically around trailers and will gun it around you and cut you off. If you leave extra space, you can give these cars that “out” without putting anyone in danger. 

When making a turn, remember to swing wide. Your trailer doesn’t steer, so it will cut every corner tighter than you do. If you have tow mirrors, you can adjust them to see the trailer tires behind you, which allows you to watch the tires against curbs as you turn. The larger your trailer, the more you will have to swing. 

Lastly, try to avoid situations where you have to back up. Pull into large gas stations (I recommend truck stops) and find a pump where you can pull straight in and out. Also, plan an exit when parking – choose a large lot and park somewhere you can just pull straight out (no matter how many spots you take up!).

A Girls Guide To Cars | You Got This: Everything You Need To Know About Towing - 66491461010 341Fbd6F C783 4011 B64E 17Cc24Ae7236

Pick-up trucks are a great choice when you have lots of gear to tow. Photo: Teia Collier

Problem Solving with a Trailer

You may encounter a few scary situations when towing. The most common of which are fishtailing and a blown tire (which can cause fishtailing). 

Remember, railer tires do not undergo the same testing as passenger car tires and thus are more prone to blowouts. If your tire blows, slowly reduce your speed while holding the wheel straight with both hands and pull safely into the shoulder to change the tire. Always carry a spare and the tools to change your tire. 

If your trailer begins fishtailing, do not brake. Your instinct will be to immediately take your foot off the accelerator and slam on the brakes, but this will actually make the situation worse! If your trailer fishtails, begin by giving it a little bit of gas. This will apply pressure to the hitch and pull the trailer back straight. Then, you can slowly bring the trailer back down to a safe speed or stop. If you have a brake controller, instead of hitting the gas, you can manually apply the trailer brakes with the brake controller, and then slow your vehicle down. 

Fish-tailing can occur for a few reasons, including a blown tire, speed, or improper loading. If it occurs due to a blown tire or improper loading, pull off and replace the tire or adjust the load in the trailer. If you are exceeding the speed of your tires, driving too quickly for the trailer or load, or too fast for the road surface, adjust your speed to keep the trailer from fishtailing.

2020 Gmc Sierra Hd Heavy Duty Truck

Towing becomes easier with a multi-view camera, so you can see all around your trailer. Photo: GMC

Backing up a Trailer

Reversing with your trailer is an art in itself. It will take time to master, which is why I generally recommend avoiding reversing except when absolutely necessary. Remember, a trailer isn’t nearly as nimble as a car, so ensure you always have ample room for all maneuvers.

If you do have to back up, have a spotter if possible. While your car has a backup camera, your trailer doesn’t (unless you have fitted one, which is a good idea towing is a regular thing), and your visibility right behind the trailer can be limited, depending on the trailer size. The dynamics of the trailer will depend on the size of the trailer – in general, a large trailer (in my opinion) is actually a little easier to back up, as it is slower to react, while a small trailer can react a bit more erratically. 

Ensure you have ample space to back up and that nothing is behind the trailer. When turning in reverse, the trailer will go the opposite way of the car, so if you steer the car to the right, the trailer will go to the left. While everyone has their own method of backing up a trailer, I have a personal favorite way to remind myself which way is which with the trailer. Put your hand on the bottom middle of the steering wheel. If the trailer needs to go to the right (from your perspective as the driver), move your hand to the right. If the trailer needs to go to the left, move your hand to the left. 

While towing is a skill that will take time to build up and gain confidence in, it is a skill that is fully worth learning. Educate yourself and avoid skipping any steps or cutting any corners, and you’ll discover it is an easier skill to learn than most.

Next time you get the itch to go outdoors, don’t let a fear of towing be why you don’t make the trip! 

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Annika Carter has over four years of performance driving experience, both with and without professional instruction. She has driven... More about Annika Carter

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