Without weight distribution the weight of the trailer pushes the rear of the tow vehicle down. Hazards associated with driving a trailer without weight distribution include loss of steering control, braking difficulties, and hitch dragging.
Basic Towing Gear (Continued)
Hitch balls and mounts– Like trailer hitches, hitch balls are assigned a maximum tongue weight (TW) and gross trailer weight (GTW) rating. Balls come in a variety of sizes – 1-7/8, 2-in. , and 2 5/16 in. balls are the most common – (you should chose the size that matches the size of the ball socket of the trailer’s coupler)
Chains– Safety chains prevent the trailer from coming loose from the tow vehicle if the hitch fails. Chains should be long enough to allow for tight turns and be crossed (right to left and left to right) when attached to the tow vehicle to aid in controlling the trailer.
Braking systems– Large trailers and those designed to carry heavy loads often feature brakes that work with the tow vehicle’s braking system. Electronically controlled brakes operate via a control box that is usually installed within the driver’s reach and can be adjusted to match the trailer’s load. Surge brakes are independent hydraulic brakes activated by a master cylinder mounted on the trailer. These systems do not require adjustment for variations in the trailer’s load.
Lighting connections– To be street-legal, a trailer must have operating taillights, brake lights and turn signals. The lights connect to the tow vehicle via a multiple-pin plug and work in conjunction with the vehicle’s lighting system. (When you step on the brake pedal, you activate the trailer’s brake lights.) A variety of plug configurations and adaptors are available to match the trailer’s wiring plug to that of the tow vehicle.
Basic Towing Gear
To avoid damaging your vehicle and trailer – not to mention endangering others’ lives – it’s essential that you understand the following towing gear:
Hitches – Towing hitches are differentiated by the amount of weight they can pull (see table, p. 49) and are divided into three categories: weight-carrying hitches, weight-distributing hitches and fifth-wheel or gooseneck hitches (which, because of their specialized nature, are beyond the scope of this article).
Weight-carrying hitches are designed to carry all of the trailer’s tongue weight (see “Understanding Weight,” opposite) and come in two basic styles: drawbar and receiver. A drawbar hitch is a one-piece welded unit with a fixed ball mount that permanently protrudes from the rear of the vehicle. A receiver hitch allows the ball mount to be removed so that nothing projects beyond the vehicle’s bumper (photo, above left).
A weight-distributing hitch differs from the weight-carrying variety in that it distributes the towing load among all of the axles of the tow vehicle – not just the rear axle – and helps to improve vehicle stability while towing.
Driving With A Trailer
Successfully attaching a trailer to a tow vehicle is only half of the equation. Understanding how the trailer handles on the road and being able to drive appropriately can mean the difference between safe operation and an accident waiting to happen.
After hooking the trailer to your vehicle, walk around and inspect all of the connections and trailer components. Check that the lights and indicators function properly, that the tongue is securely mounted within the receiver and that the ball is firmly bolted to the tongue. Make sure that the trailer’s coupler is securely locked, that the chains are crossed and firmly latched to the vehicle and that the trailer’s emergency brake cable is connected to the tow vehicle.
Always use the driving gear that the vehicle’s manufacturer recommends for towing. Avoid sudden stops and starts that can cause skidding or jackknifing, and drive at a moderate speed, as the trailer is more likely to sway at higher speeds. If the trailer begins to sway, slow down by removing your food from the accelerator rather than by braking.
Hills can present special problems to vehicles with trailers in tow. For downgrades, shift to a lower gear to aid in braking, and apply brakes at intervals to prevent them from overheating. When climbing, shift to a lower gear (as recommended by the tow vehicle’s manufacturer) to increase power, and keep an eye on the engine temperature, as the added strain may tax the cooling system and cause the vehicle’s engine to overheat.
Remember that the added length of a trailer in tow greatly affects overall turning ability. Because trailers have a tighter turning radius than that of the tow vehicle, you must make turns wider than normal. Be particularly careful in right-hand turns, as the trailer’s right corner or wheel may catch on an obstruction such as a signpost if you do not allow enough clearance.
Backing up a trailer takes practice, but it can become second nature. Start by placing one hand at the bottom of the steering wheel (photo, opposite). If you want the back of the trailer to go to the left, slowly move your hand to the left as you back up. If the trailer needs to turn to the right, simply move your hand to the right as you back up. The trailer will always turn in the direction in which you move your steering hand.
By understanding your towing equipment, knowing how your trailer responds and practicing safe driving, you can help to ensure that your load will arrive safely – and everyone else on the road will benefit from your efforts.
What To Look For When Buying A Trailer
With so many construction methods, finishes, sizes and options to consider when buying a trailer, it can sometimes be a little overwhelming. We want to help make the purchase of your new trailer as easy as possible. A good way to begin is to ask yourself some of the questions below to start thinking about the types of features you will need.
What are you hauling?
If your trailer will be used for hauling equipment or recreational vehicles most of the time (like power lawn equipment, ATVs or motorcycles), then you’ll want to consider a model with a landscape tailgate for easy loading. It’s also advantageous if the tailgate folds in to accommodate long loads and reduce drag when towing the trailer empty.
How much room do you need and how much weight do you need to haul?
For larger loads, you may want an 8’ or 10’ trailer for its higher load capacity. For smaller, lighter loads, perhaps a 6’ model would suffice.
What kind of vehicle do you have?
Smaller vehicles have a lower hauling capacity and are better suited to 6’ or 8’ models depending on the vehicle and its towing restrictions.
What type of flooring do you need?
If you were looking for something that can by easily cleaned, then a mesh floor may do the trick. The open, expanded holes in the floor not only allow for mud, dirt and grass clippings to fall through, but also for equipment to be washed while still secured on the trailer.
What type of sides do you need?
When hauling loose items, solid sides are best. Open sides work great for other occasions and offer additional tie-down locations for securing cargo (like an ATV).
Where will the trailer be stored between uses?
It’s important to have a storage space in mind to make things easier when you bring your new purchase home. It’s also vital to perform proper trailer maintenance when taking it out of storage. And remember, ongoing regular maintenance is always important too (especially before and after extended trips).
The key to buying the right trailer is to ensure it has the right features for the type of cargo you plan on using it for.
GREEN TIP: For times when you need extra cargo space, consider buying a trailer rather than upgrading to a larger vehicle and losing fuel economy.
When you tow, be aware of five weight ratings:
Tongue Weight (TW) is the downward force exerted on the hitch ball by the trailer coupler. In most cases, it is about 10 percent to 15 percent of the trailer’s gross weight. You can measure TW of up to 300 pounds by resting the trailer coupler on a household scale positioned so that it sits at normal towing height (such as atop a crate, as shown here).
For heavier tongue weights, place a household scale and a brick that’s as thick as the scale 3 ft. apart. Set a length of pipe on each and rest a length of 2x4 across the pipes. Reset the scale to correct for the weight of the beam and pipe; then block the trailer wheels and rest the trailer jack on the beam. Position the trailer jack so that it rests 1 ft. from the brick and 2 ft. from the scale.
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