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If you are an experienced driver you already have the necessary skills to safely tow a trailer/RV. With proper attention to the differences – size, height, and weight – it will be easy to adjust to the new conditions of towing.
Check routes and restrictions on bridges and tunnels.
Measure your vehicle and your trailer at the highest, longest and largest points, in feet and meters. Weight the trailer/RV and the towing vehicle. Keep those numbers with you when driving and do not hesitate to refer to them as much as you need.
Use the driving gear that the manufacturer recommends for towing. Do not treat those recommendations lightly: specifications and limits exist for a reason called safety .
Remember that the trailer/RV tower must pay more attention to everything because of the slower reaction of the vehicle. Directional and speed changes are not as easy and fast than if you were only driving your usual vehicle. You must be aware of traffic around your vehicle and avoid roads during rush hours.
Before leaving take the time to sit in the driver’s seat and adjust all mirrors for optional road views. Seeing all the corners of your vehicle and of the trailer/RV can be delicate, don’t hesitate to buy more mirrors of different sizes.
If you change driver during the journey, always take the time to re-arrange mirrors. A few minutes can make a big difference.
Whatever the type of trailer/RV you are towing, always allow for the size of the unit when turning or braking. The vehicle’s and trailer’s wheels will track paths much farther apart. Allow more time to brake, change lane or merge onto highways. Remember that larger and heavier vehicles (and a fortiori vehicles towing a trailer or RV) take more time to accelerate and brake. Security distances should be proportional to the weight and size of the mean of transportation.
Most family cars can pull trailer, so can vans, SUVs and light-duty trucks. However do not gamble about your vehicle capacity. Check maximum weight it can pull in the owner’s manual and for additional confirmation ask you car’s dealer as well as your trailer/RV dealer.
Whether is you want to match a unit to your vehicle or a vehicle to your unit, always keep security in mind.
Make sure to use the proper trailer hitch for your vehicle and for the unit and make sure it is hitched correctly. Better check twice than be in trouble!
Carefully connect brakes and signal lights. When you buy your unit, have the dealer explain to you the process in details and do not hesitate to call the car’s or trailer/RV’s dealer or even confirm with the manufacturer. Before you leave, make sure that the unit’s brakes, turn signals, and taillights are synchronized with your towing vehicle and that all the lights function.
A little trick: if you place your hands at the bottom of the steering wheel and start backing up, the trailer/RV will move in the same direction you turn your hands to. Once the trailer is moving, avoid any sharp movement. Remember: slowly but surely.
If possible, have someone standing outside the vehicle for maximum security and make sure the driver avoids any obstacle and to guide him. If the driver is alone, a meticulous inspection of the area out of sight from the vehicle is required.
If you happen to have any difficulty, rather than trying to adjust direction with the steering wheel and making everything worse, pull forward and realign vehicle and trailer/RV and start again.
Always make sure every passenger wears a seat belt and do not ever allow somebody to ride in or on the trailer.
As much as possible, try to plan ahead. Proper planning can help stay away from holiday and week end traffic congestion. If you have a long way to go and suspect important traffic, try to drive early in the morning and late in the day, or even reserve a spot at a campsite on the way to avoid major traffic. If you decide to stop, remember that campgrounds fill early in the day.
Since you already know that roads to major attractions will be crowded, you may want to plan on a different route. Choosing smaller roads than major highways will get you out of traffic and will be a nicer and more serene drive.
Driving is not easy and can be really tiring. When driving, don’t stare at the road, keep your eyes moving. Always anticipate down times and have breaks every two or three hours. Get out of your vehicle, walk, have a coffee… anything that will improve your alertness. You can use the “break time” to inspect the vehicle, it is the opportunity to loosen tired muscles and rest your eyes while checking security.
Night driving is especially hazardous: your body naturally wants to sleep, which makes you less alert, while other vehicles and the general environment is less visible. Try do avoid night drives as much as possible. If you can’t and start to feel sleepy, get out of the road on a safe spot and get some sleep.
In addition to always consider the size and weight of your trailer/RV and to be twice more careful for any manoeuvring, remember to drive at moderate speeds. Driving slower will allow you to have more overall control because it will place less strain on you tow vehicle and trailer/RV and therefore provide more stability. You will also have superior action scope (keep in mind that even if your reaction time is the same, your vehicle’s is slowed down). A not inconsiderable advantage: by driving slower you save on gas!
Moreover by keeping your speed down, you will avoid sudden stops and starts that can cause skidding, sliding pr jackknifing. You will thus prevent your trailer/RV and your vehicle to experience breakdowns and you will keep control in all situations. You will also prevent sudden steering manoeuvres that might create sway or undue side force on the trailer/RV, helping to keep both in good conditions.
Important: trailers/RVs are heavier and have a higher center of gravity than your vehicle alone so always slow down when turning to avoid swaying.
Remember than when you are towing a trailer/RV you have to change your turning patterns. Think about a city-bus or a 3-ton truck turning at an intersection, and how it takes much more space to turn and how it seems to be uneasy and space-demanding.
The trailer/RV’s wheels are closer to the inside of a turn and may roll over the curb if you don’t keep some rules in mind. Make sure you go further into the intersection before starting to turn and adjust the line position to increase the turning radius.
Curves on roads and highways can also be delicate. When turning right: stay at the center of the lane as much as possible so the trailer/RV’s wheels will not move off the pavement. When turning left: keep your right to prevent the back of the trailer from tracking into the oncoming lane traffic.
If a turn or a curve is really tight, do not hesitate to significantly slow down and take your time. Too much precaution is better than not enough.
Same motto: a trailer/RV is heavy and the heavier a vehicle, the longest the slowing time.
Allow considerably more distance for stopping, and to avoid any trouble make sure to double or even triple safety distances on the road between you and other vehicles. That way, it will be easier to anticipate the need to slow down. It will allow you to reduce speed by shifting to a lower gear and pressing the brakes lightly instead of sudden and strong action. Your vehicle is heavier and should thus need more space, but how much more? A little trick is to use the one-second rule: for every three meters of length of you trailer/RV, leave one second clearance. How to calculate clearance? Look at a reference point along the road (big tree, house…) and when the vehicle in front of you passes it, start counting. The number of seconds you need to reach the same point is your clearance.
If your trailer/RV have an electric brake controller and excessive sway occurs when braking, activate the brake controller by hand. Do not try to control the trailer/RV’s movements by applying the tow vehicle brakes, your take the risk to make the sway worse.
For more information about breaking, please read “downgrades”
Before passing a slower vehicle or changing lane, signal well in advance your intentions and make sure the other lane is free from vehicle on a long distance to avoid sudden manoeuvres that could cause swaying. Always pass on level terrain with plenty of clearance and avoid passing on upgrades or downgrades. Remember than when towing a trailer/RV your vehicle has less powerful acceleration and the time and space you need to pass a vehicle is significantly longer. When passing another vehicle you should consider three to four times the distance you would normally use when you are not towing your trailer/RV. A good habit to get into is to downshift for improved acceleration and speed maintenance.
Beware of soft shoulders on narrow roads that could cause your trailer/RV to jackknife and go out of control. Keep in mind that your trailer/RV is larger than your vehicle. It’s a good thing to practice some manoeuvres at home with plastic plots to learn to “feel the size” of your trailer.
On a multiple-lane road, try to stay in the right lane with the slower vehicles and try not to pass other vehicles if you can avoid it. You would tie up the faster lanes because you don’t have enough power which can causes sudden slow-downs and thus accidents.
On narrow road or two-lane roads, faster vehicle behind you may not be able to pass you safely. Some roads sometimes have special turnout areas or passing lane. You may pull into these areas and allow vehicles behind you to pass. If you are followed by some vehicles on narrow roads, try to stay to the right of the lane so the vehicles behind can see ahead.
If you are driving on a two-lane or narrow road where passing is unsafe, remember that you are considered a slow-moving vehicle and should allow faster vehicle to pass you. Although they may be impatient and you may feel pressured, never disregard safety . Stay on the right of the lane and whenever it is safe (beware of soft shoulder and prefer signalized pull-out or passing areas) pull to the side of the road to let the vehicles pass.
If a larger vehicle pass from either direction, air pressure changes and wind buffeting may cause swaying and loss of control over the trailer/RV and/or your vehicle. To avoid troubles, release the accelerator pedal to slow down and keep a firm grip on the steering wheel. If the trailer/RV starts swaying, gently brake and activate the electric brake of the unit (if any) by hand.
Since Newton, when you are going down steep hills, gravity will tend to speed you up. The first thing to do is to lower significantly your speed. Use enough braking power to hold you back but don’t let the brakes get too hot. Try to apply breaks at intervals to keep speed in check and not to leave brakes on for extended periods of time; they may overheat. Apply the brakes hard enough to slow down below your “safe speed” and then release the pedal. When your speed has increased over your “safe speed”, repeat the breaking process. Your safe speed is the speed at which you would be able to go up the same grade. Using your brakes too much while towing a trailer/RV brings the risk to not be able to stop as required by roads and traffic conditions. A good thing to do is to select a low gear that will allow you more control, using the braking effect of the engine.
Remember to slow the vehicle and shift the transmission before reaching the downgrade.
Many mountain roads or steep grades have escape ramps. They are used to stop runaway vehicles safely without injuring driver and passengers. They use long beds of soft material like sand to slow down vehicles. Signs show where ramps are located; learn to notice them, it can be useful in case of danger.
Almost all grades, regardless of severity, will cause your vehicle to slow down, supporting the weight of the trailer/RV pulling it down. The solution is to downshift to add power to climb the hill and avoid overheating of the engine. The steeper or longer the grade and the heavier the load, the more you will have to use lower gears to climb it safely. It is better to go up slowly but powerfully that to count on speed, remain cautious.
Grades steeper than 6 percent are considered extreme and require additional attention and consideration.
Some vehicles (mostly trucks and heavy-duty vehicles) have specifically calibrated transmission tow-modes. Confirm with the dealer the existence of it on your vehicle and listen to the recommendations on how to use it.
Depending of the size of your trailer/RV, you may not be allowed to park wherever. Make sure you respect the regulations. Try to avoid parking on grades; it is a simple way to avoid hassles. If possible, have someone outside guiding you as you park, making sure everything is aligned and safe.
Once stopped, make sure to follow this sequence, otherwise your vehicle might get locked in Park because of the extra load on the transmission. Stop first, and then have someone placing blocks on the downhill side of the trailer/RV wheels. Next, you can apply the parking brake, shift to Park, and only after remove your foot from the brake pedals. For manual transmission, apply the parking brake and then turn the vehicle off in either first or reverse gear, depending on the inclination of the grade (if the front of your vehicle is lower than the back, use the reverse gear, if it is the opposite use the first gear).
If you want to uncouple the trailer/RV after parking your vehicle, make sure to place blocks at the front and rear of the tires to prevent it from rolling away (even if the terrain seems flat, it may not be!). An unbalanced load may cause the tongue to suddenly rotate upward. Even if you were cautious when loading the trailer, you never know how things are after driving. Therefore, before uncoupling, place the jack stands under the rear of the trailer to prevent unwelcome moves.
When driving on roads and through places and areas you don’t know, be more attentive. Easiest and smartest thing to do is to make sure you have maps for the different areas you are going to and through. When driving, ask a passenger to help you with directions and guide you according to what was planned. If you are alone, pull off the road before looking at a map.
Listen to the local radio stations that will keep you informed of traffic slow downs, accidents, constructions… Frequencies of local weather and road conditions radios are usually displayed on the side of the roads. Pay attention and try to remember them, they might provide useful information.
Strong winds can be really dangerous, and this is especially true when towing a trailer/RV.
Crosswinds are the greatest threat because they can push the trailer/RV into the fast lane, the opposite lane or the side of the road if you are not prepared. In most cases, slowing don is the easiest and safer thing to do. It is actually the best defence against most elements and things that can interfere. If you feel that the wind is strong, you should gradually apply the trailer/RV brakes to help control an eventual swaying. Headwinds will slow you down and require a heavier throttle to maintain usual speed. Be careful, the wind might change direction and the road could turn, which would suddenly push the trailer/RV to the side.
In any case, even if you feel able to control the trailer, you have to remember that natural elements are unpredictable: winds can change direction or force in a second. The safest thing to do is to pull over and wait it out. If you get caught in a large storm, try to get shelter (under an overpass per example).
If you will be driving in windy areas and know it, be especially careful and make sure you know how to obtain local weather and road conditions (usually available at airports, highway patrols, police or ranger stations). You can also check radio stations which frequencies are displayed on road signs.
Of course, you must take precautions when driving through snow countries or going skiing. However, even in the middle of the summer, mountain roads can endure a storm and get snowy. The safest thing to do is thus to always carry drive wheel and trailer wheel chains when you travel. Even if you might not use them during a summer trip to California, you should still have them on you check-list between October and April and whenever you go in mountainous areas. Chains are needed for both axles on the vehicle and at least one on the trailer/RV.
If the roads are icy, go slowly, especially downhill, and use the lower gears to have both more control and more power. If needed, you may be able to gain additional traction for your vehicle by moderately releasing the tension of the load equalizing hitch. If you do so, remember to readjust the hitch after the icy condition has passed.
When you are just driving your usual vehicle you might not notice them, however when towing a trailer/RV, you need to worry about them: road signs.
Dead ends, limited weight and height, are all insignificant on typical drives. However, with your trailer/RV, manoeuvres are not easy and you might not be able to turn around or back up. The easiest way to avoid troubles is to pay attention to road signs.
Because of the extra weight of your trailer/RV, you will have slower acceleration capacity when you enter a freeway. You should thus look for larger gaps that could fit your vehicle. If you don’t allow enough space and time, you may need to swerve quickly into another lane. Any sudden action may end up as skid, over steering, sway, or fishtail. Beware of following distances that need to be increased because you can’t slow down or stop your vehicle as easily.
When you want to exit the freeway, start to slow down before you would normally do, to allow it to be soft and avoid sudden braking. Most exits have ramps with reducing radius curves; stay on the external side to prevent your wheels to rub the curve or get off the pavement.
If you have to drive on a dirt or unpaved road (you might find them around campgrounds), you should slow down to be able to keep control of your vehicle.
If the unpaved part of the road is unexpected, pull off the road, check maps or ask someone, to make sure this it the right road and if there is no other way around. In any case, pay close attention to sign and believe them. If a sign prohibit trailer/RV, do not use the road, it must be for a good reason. Even if the path seems fine, you may encounter rocks, trees or washed-out sections and be unable to make your way around.