If the idea of hitching up a camper and towing a trailer off into the wilderness seems daunting, you’re not alone. But this first-time camper says it’s a lot easier than it looks. You just need to know the secrets to success.
Disclosure: The writer was hosted by Nissan for the purposes of writing this post. All opinions are her own.
9 Tips for First Timers Towing a Trailer
As a college student, I picked up an unusual summer job through a local temp agency: Wide Load Escort Driver. That means that I drove a pickup truck from city to city in the north central part of Indiana, where I grew up. The truck was equipped with a CB. Breaker Breaker 1-9, for all of you 70s kids. The amber emergency light on the roof and bright yellow signs announced that a mobile home frame on a tractor-trailer was coming up. Through that experience, I learned a little about towing and how to park a large vehicle by working with my partner in the big truck behind me.
However, I was always skittish about towing a trailer with my personal vehicle, even though the camping part looked like a (literal) ton of fun. And I know I’m not alone; a lot of people tell me they shy away from towing a camper because it feels daunting.
What if I hook it up incorrectly? What if my brake lights don’t work? Or what if I run over a curb?
All those questions and more are valid, but maybe misplaced, say trailer-towing veterans.
Just Like Driving an SUV
“People often look at the size of a trailer, which might appear to be bigger than their vehicle, and think, ‘How can my car possibly tow that?’” Nissan Senior Manager, Product Planning Carl Phillips says. “It might seem overwhelming, but in reality, as long as trailers are within the manufacturer’s recommended towing capacity, the vehicle can handle it.”
Nissan invited me to California to practice with towing experts who showed me how to hook up a trailer, how to tow it, and how to park it. They gently corrected me along the way. Once I gave it a try, I discovered that towing wasn’t nearly as complicated or scary as it seemed at first. I gained confidence in the parking lot as I practiced, minded my corners, and graduated from towing school with blazing colors.
With these towing tips, you (yes, you!) can get more comfortable with towing and increase your know how, too:
1. Get a Little Help from a Friend
The most challenging part, in my opinion, is parking, especially backing up. Pulling into a parallel parking space is as easy as parking an SUV. However, backing up requires a little patience, smart mirror placement, and the guiding hand of someone you trust to help you. It’s a bit like playing pool when you want to hit the white cue ball into one ball in order to tap another (how’s your geometry these days?). My towing coach instructed me to turn left to go right, and that made no sense to me until I tried it myself.
Speaking of mirrors, Phillips says, “Backing up a trailer can seem daunting, but technologies like rear view cameras and digital monitors give drivers a better view of obstacles and the world around them to make trailer towing easier.”
2. Know Your Vehicle’s Limits
One trailering acronym to know is UVW (Unloaded Vehicle Weight), which is the maximum weight that an axle will carry. For example, the Wolf Pup Travel Trailer by Forest River (made in my hometown!) has a UVW of just under 4,000 pounds. Nissan’s Pathfinder can tow up to 6,000 pounds plus the weight of its passengers.
A Pathfinder holds up to seven people, continuing with our example, so you would check your owner’s manual for three more acronyms: GVW (gross vehicle weight), GVWR (gross vehicle weight rating), and GCWR (gross combination weight rating). You want to make sure your loaded vehicle does not carry extra weight, thus exceeding the manufacturer’s rating. Also, that the combined weight of the loaded vehicle and the total weight of your loaded trailer do not exceed the manufacturer’s guidelines.
Don’t forget to bookmark these 5 Winter Driving Safety Tips.
3. Ensure the Vehicle and Trailer Are a Good Match
Overloading the vehicle means overloading the brakes, and that is a definite no-go. Knowing the maximum tongue weight is important, too; that’s the amount of weight on the vehicle’s hitch.
If your trailer tongue weight is less than 10 percent of the fully-loaded trailer weight, the trailer is more likely to sway, which affects control. It’s a narrow margin, because if you have too much weight on the tongue (more than 15 percent of total trailer load weight), your tow vehicle’s rear tires may overload. As a result, stopping and handling could be more challenging, with more potential for danger.
4. Stop the Sway
You don’t want your trailer to sway to the music or otherwise: to avoid trailer sway, place heavier cargo forward, in front of the trailer’s axle. Also center the cargo and tie it down, because shifting causes sway too. Balance the weight of the trailer with the placement and you’ll have a smooth ride.
5. Check the Tires
Ensure the tire pressure on both your tow vehicle and your trailer meet the specifications set by the manufacturer. Under-inflated tires will negatively affect handling and causes more of the tire’s surface to touch the ground. The result is more friction, which means the tires are more likely to overheat and blow out. You’ll get better fuel economy with properly-inflated tires, too.
Take a look at the tire pressure label (usually on the frame on the driver’s side) to find the correct inflation pressures for your vehicle. Then check the speed rating on the tires for the trailer and your vehicle, and stick a Post-it in the middle of your steering wheel, if you need to, to remind yourself to stay under that max speed.
For good measure, check the tire pressures of the spare tires for your vehicle and your trailer if you’re taking a longer trip.
6. Enlist the Teens for Oversight
Cross-check everything; this is a good opportunity to involve the kids in this process. One of you would line up the hitch ball, hook up the safety chains and cords, and another could serve as quality control to ensure everything was done properly. Even tweens can learn how important it is to cross the safety chains to prevent detachment if the trailer decouples from the hitch, make sure the chains aren’t dragging, and that there is enough slack for the chains when you make turns. They can also help you check the taillights and turn signals to see if they’re working the way they should.
7. Check the Backup Systems
Make sure the emergency breakaway cable is attached to your towing vehicle before you drive away. If the trailer somehow disconnects from the hitch, this cable is designed to trigger the trailer brakes and stop it quickly. Think of the emergency cable like an emergency cord on a treadmill – if it disconnects, it will stop the trailer quickly.
8. Always be Prepared
Pay attention and watch the road a few cars ahead to anticipate any sudden braking ahead. Every time you brake, your vehicle and trailer push you forward more than if you’re just driving the vehicle by itself, so you’ll want to make sure your speed is steady and any acceleration and slowdowns are gradual, as much as possible.
It should go without saying, but a little reminder won’t hurt: let someone else do the DJing for the music and answering the phone. Keep your eyes and hands on the wheel and enjoy the ride.
Check out our post on 10o items for your emergency car kit.
9. Start Small
Happier Campers, Forest River, Jayco, Airstream, and more make cute 2-person campers if you want to escape with your partner for a weekend. As you get braver, work your way up to a larger trailer and bring the whole family. Personally, I love the full-size Airstream’s climate controls, solar power pre-wiring, sleek kitchen area, and classic lines.
Being from the RV capital of the world, I can tell you there is a camper for every family out there, once you figure out what you need. Hitch it up and move ‘em out!
About the Author
This post was written by Kristin Shaw, editor-in-chief of CarsHerWay.com and a freelance writer often featured by The Washington Post and the TODAY Show parenting team. She lives in Austin TX, admits to an ice-cream-and-cookie obsession, and lives online at KristinVShaw.com.