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Getting Hitched

Getting Hitched

U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center
Fort Rucker, Alabama

As a kid growing up in southern Florida, we used to go down to the boat ramps on weekends to see just how funny some people could be. It wouldn’t be too long before someone would show up towing a 28-foot cabin cruiser with an expensive car. While watching them try to back their new boat down the ramp was funny, watching them try to pull it out of the water was downright hilarious. Something about weight versus thrust versus traction. I’m not sure if that’s a scientific formula, but I do know that people hate when you laugh at them while their car is sinking. Hey, what can I say; we didn’t have video games back then.

Ask anyone who regularly pulls a trailer and they will have at least one story about it coming off its hitch, pushing them through a busy intersection, losing its brakes or suddenly getting blown into another lane of traffic. Most of these stories have a humorous side and an uneventful ending. For inexperienced drivers, however, some of these events end in disaster. Here are a few things to consider before you tow a trailer:

  • Know the towing capacity of the vehicle you will use to tow your trailer.
  • Know the weight capacity of your trailer, trailer ball and trailer hitch.
  • Know the proper technique for loading items in your trailer.

Let’s break this down into three main areas: the tow vehicle, the trailer and weight distribution.

The tow vehicle

The tow vehicle and hitch must be capable of safely handling at least 15 percent of the gross weight of the trailer (total weight of the trailer plus its contents). Fifth wheel trailers normally can carry up to 25 percent of their gross weight on their hitch. However, if you load a cargo trailer with all your household goods, hook it to your pickup and find that your headlights are aimed at the treetops, that’s a clue something is wrong.

Make sure your trailer hitch is the right class. If you didn’t know, there are five classes of trailer hitches — each designed to handle a certain maximum tongue weight and gross trailer weight. What can your vehicle handle? Maybe now is a good time to actually read your owner’s manual. You also need to make sure your trailer ball is the correct size and weight capacity. Yes, you could put a 1.5-inch trailer ball in a 2-inch receiver, but having your trailer pass you in traffic is seldom a good thing.

In addition, don’t forget towing mirrors. If you cannot clearly see your trailer using your vehicle’s original mirrors, consider purchasing temporary mirrors for towing. These mirrors are inexpensive and will save you the embarrassment of needing 10 tries to back your trailer into the driveway. They’ll also help keep you safe on the road. After all, if you can’t see the back of your trailer, how will you know it’s safe to change lanes? Make sure you practice, practice, practice backing and driving your trailer.

The trailer

It is important to find out what the maximum gross weight of your trailer should be. The ball should be located so the trailer sits level when connected to the tow vehicle. Safety chains should be long enough so you can make tight turns without binding and be crossed (right to left and left to right). This will help create a saddle if the tongue fails and will help maintain control while stopping. Be careful not to allow these chains to drag on the pavement as they can be ground down and weakened in a very short time.

Also, don't forget to retract the jack or stop halfway through the process of hooking up your trailer — you just might forget to finish the job! In addition, don't ever leave the receptor pin out of your trailer hitch — not even for a minute. And no, a screwdriver is not an acceptable substitute for a receptor pin in any circumstance! Other important things to check are the wheels and lug nuts, wheel bearings, vehicle and trailer brakes, and trailer lights.

Weight distribution

When towing a trailer, it’s critical to know how much weight you’re towing and how it is distributed. Knowing how much weight you’re towing allows you to determine if it is within the capacity of your vehicle. Making sure that weight is properly distributed in the trailer is critical to the way your rig will handle on the road.

While it would be easy to just put the heaviest items over the axles, that doesn’t always work. Sometimes a lot of little items can far outweigh a single large one. Top-heavy loads can cause problems when cornering and during hard braking. During hard braking, top-heavy loads tend to make the trailer dive. This increases weight on the tongue while decreasing weight on the front axle just when you most need to steer and brake effectively. Center top-heavy items, or arrange the remainder of the load to act as a counterweight to minimize this effect.

Overloading a trailer beyond its rated capacity, even though it may be well balanced and seem to handle fine, is a very dangerous practice. Eventually, something is bound to fail — often with unpleasant results. How unpleasant? Just imagine your trailer coming loose and crashing into the free beer stand at a biker rally. You get the picture.

Your responsibilities as a driver

Towing a trailer has a responsibility similar to properly driving your vehicle. You wouldn't think of letting your 10-year-old child practice driving during rush hour while text messaging a friend. Why, then, would you try to learn how to handle a trailer by fully loading it and taking it onto a busy road? Towing skills have to be developed, and the responsibility to be safe is one that should never be taken lightly.


What to Know Before You Tow

  • Learn how to properly use your transmission and brakes when pulling heavy loads up a hill or braking as you go down the other side.
  • Use extra care when parking on an incline. Remember, your trailer does not have a parking brake.
  • Know what to do if your trailer begins to sway. Driving in windy conditions can make it difficult to stay in your lane on the road.
  • Understand how the airflow from a passing tractor-trailer can affect your trailer and be ready for it.
  • Backing a trailer is 10 times more difficult than pulling one.
  • Perhaps the hardest skill of all — learn when it’s best not to tow a trailer.
  • 1 July 2015
  • Author: Army Safety
  • Number of views: 10736
  • Comments: 0
Categories: Off-DutyPMV-4