HOW-TO: TOW SAFELY AND LEGALLY
— There is something following us —
By the staff of Dirt Wheels with Vic Meymarian of Bear Trailersports
Some of us are lucky enough to ride on our own property, or are able to carry our machines to a riding area without utilizing a trailer. But, a large number of Dirt Wheels readers rely on trailers to get our machines to our favorite ride spots. We do enough towing that we don’t always give it the conscious thought that we should. Some of our staff cannot keep trailers at home, so they must store them remotely, and that compounds the problem of routine maintenance. Towing is pretty easy once you are accustomed to driving with a trailer behind your vehicle, but that assumes your towing setup is up to specifications.
We are concentrating on bumper-pull trailers. Basically, these are all trailers that don’t use a fifth-wheel or a goose-neck hitch. Most are not actually attached to the bumper but to a dedicated hitch. Some lighter, compact trailer may actually be safely attached to the bumper for towing. Bumper-pull trailers can start as extremely light arrangements that may be towed by nearly anything. They may only handle the weight and size of a single quad. We have owned bumper-pull trailers that are nearly 40 feet long, and many weigh over 10,000 pounds. These are the steps you must take if you want to tow safely.
Begin by learning the towing capacity of your tow vehicle. Some small cars have zero towing capability, while modern, half-ton, light-duty pick-up trucks and some SUVs are rated to tow over 10,000 pounds. Look at the manual for your model, or look it up online. There should be a sticker on the driver’s-side door jamb that provides some information. The truck in some of the photos is a 2002 Ford F250 SuperDuty Supercab with an automatic transmission and a 6.8-liter V-10 engine. It is rated at roughly 11,000 pounds towing capacity. Any weight that you add to the truck must be subtracted from the towing capacity. Carry four people with 1000 pounds of gear and tools with a 1000-pound bed cap and our legal (and safe) towing capacity is down to roughly 8000 pounds. Swap that shell for a 2500-pound truck camper and we are down to 6500 pounds of legal towing. You must watch the payload as well. The payload figure takes in everything in the truck, plus the tongue weight of the trailer.
The trailer will have a load rating as well. The Bear Trailersports trailer (www.beartrailersports.com) in the photos weighs 2500 pounds, and it is rated for 12,500 pounds of capacity. It is built very well, and is overkill for a couple of quads or a UTV. Bear will build lighter-duty trailers. Make sure that you get enough capacity from your tow vehicle and your trailer to handle what you intend to haul. Make sure that you include things like water, fuel, tools and other equipment so you have a realistic weight total to work with. Ideally you should hit a commercial scale and get an accurate weight for your loaded truck and packed trailer.
Many people unknowingly destroy the weight ratings of the tow vehicle or the trailer when they buy tires. Tires and axles have load ratings. This Carlisle trailer tire is designed for the specific loads that a trailer imposes on the tires. You must make sure that you buy tires that have a load-carrying capacity that allow your vehicles to tow up to capacity. As a general rule, smaller tires cannot carry as much as larger-diameter tires. Remember also that larger-diameter tires rotate slower at a given speed than a smaller tire, so they are easier on wheel bearings as well. One staffer had a big trailer with 15-inch wheels, and to really get the load capacity where he needed, it would have required heavier-duty axles, wheels and hubs with more lug nuts and larger-diameter tires. He chose to upgrade to a trailer with the correct capacity. You should buy truck tires for the tow vehicle and trailer-specific tires for the trailer. Go for tires with the highest weight rating available for the wheel size on your trailer.
Know your rig’s weakest link. Just as vehicles have a tow capacity, the trailer hitch has a maximum capacity. If the hitch employs a draw bar, it has a maximum capacity, and so does the trailer ball. The same is true of the trailer coupler. No matter the tow capacity, the part with the lowest rating determines the legal and safe capacity. The truck here normally tows a utility trailer with a 24-foot deck. We checked our capacities and found some issues. The truck has a max capacity of 11,000 pounds, but the factory hitch is only rated for 6000 pounds unless we add a weight-distributing hitch. Our 2 5/8-inch ball is also stamped 6000 pounds, but the draw bar is stamped 5000 pounds. Our maximum tow capacity is 5000 with our current equipment. Our trailer is 2500 pounds without a spare tire, and the load capacity is right at 4000 pounds. With 2 four-seat machines, we would be overweight without buying a draw bar rated for 6000 pounds. These two trailer couplers look similar, but the heavy-duty cast unit in front is rated for 20,000 pounds, while the stamped one in the rear is only rated for 5000 pounds.
Ideally, you want to tow with the trailer level. Towing with the trailer level makes sure that the tongue weight is correct, and the weight is correctly distributed on the axles. This is more important on trailers equipped with torsion axles. Leaf spring trailers (with multiple axles) have intermediate links that are somewhat self-leveling. Start by making sure that the trailer is level by measuring from the ground up to the front and rear of the trailer. You want the trailer parallel to the ground, so use a tape measure rather than a level. Use the trailer jack to raise or lower the trailer until you have it where you want it.
As you can see, with the trailer level, the draw bar is too low. And, of course, we had already determined that this draw bar is not rated high enough for the trailer and equipment we tow. We needed to make adjustments.
A heavy-duty, adjustable draw bar turned out to be just the ticket. It is rated higher than the hitch on our truck, and it is quickly adjustable to match the height of the trailer. If you can only get close, then err on the side having the front of the trailer a bit lower than the rear rather than the opposite. You will need to make sure that you load your machines in such a way that you don’t throw off the tongue weight of the trailer. Try to keep the heavy machines over the axle(s). If you are not employing the entire deck, make sure that the load is even or slightly biased to the front. Too little tongue weight is a hazard, so you want to make sure the tongue weight is at least 10 percent of the trailer weight.
Lower the trailer coupler onto the ball. Make sure that the coupler and the ball are the same size. The coupler needs to lock over the ball, and it shouldn’t have unnecessary slop or clearance. If the trailer is heavy enough you may not be able to feel if the fit is correct. You must inspect the coupler and ball, and physically read that they are compatible.
Once you have locked the coupler, you must always secure the coupler’s locking mechanism. In this case we are using a simple pin with a spring clip to secure it. Locking hitch pins are a popular and wise investment. Investigate the options and check with the company that sold the trailer or with the company that built it to choose an option to lock the handle down.
Trailers should have a matched pair of safety chains or safety cables that back up the coupler. The chains or cables should be rated (together) to hold the weight of your trailer. Bear Trailersports prefers cables over chains, and they claimed the California Highway Patrol prefers them as well. Cables have some twist to them, so they don’t drag on the ground and make sparks like chains will. The chains or cable must be long enough to allow the trailer to turn to the maximum without restriction. Make sure to cross the chains or cables under the trailer tongue. They are designed to catch the trailer tongue if something goes wrong with the ball or coupler.
This hook is weight-rated to match the rating of the cable, and the hook features a spring clip designed to keep the hook from bouncing off of the hitch. Many factory hitches, including our Ford, are too large and the clip doesn’t fit right. If it does go on, it is almost impossible to remove. Using a quick link like this does not have enough weight rating and shouldn’t be used.
Instead of using an intermediate link of some sort, add a larger hook – even though it will likely be rated much higher than the chain or cable. It is a small price to pay for the security of attaching correctly. The open side of the hook should face the trailer.
We like to see trailer brakes on all trailers, but at a certain weight, all trailers must be equipped with brakes. Some trailer brakes are hydraulic, but most are electric. Disc brakes are also gaining popularity. Check with towing professionals to help you make a decision here. In our area any trailer weighing over 1500 pounds needs trailer brakes. This cable is the failsafe if the trailer pulls loose somehow, and the brakes will lock up when the cable pulls out of this unit. The trailer must have a battery for this to work. The safety cable should be completely independent of the safety chains or cable.
Bear Trailersports noted that you should always inspect both the male and female ends of the trailer’s electrical connection before plugging it in. This trailer is new, so there is no problem with the trailer side. Also, we don’t have a lot of rain in SoCal, so dust is usually the only issue on the truck side. If the connections get corroded, they should be cleaned or replaced. A 7-pin connector like this is required for trailer brakes. The connection can only be inserted one way.
Now everything is hooked up and secured as it should be. The trailer is level with the tow hitch, the safety cables are correct, and the coupler is locked and secured. The break-away brake system is connected, and wiring is routed where it will not drag or get caught in the coupler.
Don’t simply trust the wiring. Turn on the lights and ensure that they are bright and steady. On some trailers the ground may be through the ball. You may need to drive around the block to wear away rust and get a good connection if you haven’t used the trailer in a while. It is better to have a wire ground. Bear Trailersports believes that the trailer lights should be recessed so they can’t be easily broken or knocked off. We agree with that.
Bear Trailersports is a custom builder. Every trailer it builds is unique. This one has loading lights for loading in the dark as well as a winch. If you have broken machines, they can still be winched onto the trailer. This is a nice setup.
In addition to checking the wiring routinely, you should check the tire pressure, wheel bearings and lug nuts before you load the trailer. Grab the top of each wheel and push it back and forth to see if the bearings are still tight. If not, you must correct the bearing tension. Check the lug nuts as well, and especially if you have a new trailer or new wheels. Make sure to grease the wheel bearings at least once a year. More if you tow often or in extreme climate conditions. You need to maintain the trailer for safety and to keep from ruining a riding trip.
Ideally you should know what the actual weight of your tow vehicle and trailer are. You can determine that at a truck scale. Weigh your whole rig loaded, as well as just the trailer. You can buy special scales to check the tongue weight, or you can go to a trailer specialist like Bear to weigh the tongue with a typical load on the trailer. Finally, make sure you have proper tie-downs and tie-down points. Stay tuned for a story on tying down machines correctly.
Make sure that you are acquainted with towing laws in your state. Common tickets that shock drivers in our area are those for overall length. A big motorhome with a long trailer can easily be over the maximum length allowed. Another “gotcha” happens to drivers with three-axle trailers. Three-axle trailers are large enough to need three axles and six tires to accommodate the weight of a massive unit. But not all dealers tell you that you need a different license in California for a trailer with three axles. Know also the towing speed limit and the lane restrictions you will face. Be smart enough to know that a legal speed may not be a safe speed. In parts of Utah, the legal towing speed is 80 mph. We would never tow at that speed. We don’t feel it is safe for our families or for the vehicles around us. Be safe out there.