How to Tow a Trailer With a Truck
Never towed a trailer before? You got this.
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You’ve got yourself a truck and trailer, and now you need to put these two rigs together and hit the road for some fun. Learning how to tow a trailer with a truck can be intimidating, but if you follow a few key steps, you’ll be surprised at how quickly you get the hang of things.
How to Find Your Truck’s Tow Rating
First, you have to know how much you can safely tow. The mighty Ford F-Series Super Duty—like the one pictured at the beginning of this article—can tow up to 35,400 pounds while the humble Hyundai Santa Cruz can tow only up to 5,000 pounds.
However, not every Super Duty can handle that kind of weight. Towing capacity depends on the wheelbase, driveline, axle ratio, and engine specs. To find the tow rating for your specific vehicle, find the gross combined vehicle weight rating of your rig. It’s usually on the driver’s side door placard. This number takes into account the weight of the vehicle and the trailer, as well as any cargo you have including people and their gear. Then subtract the vehicle’s curb weight, which includes fluids, but no people or cargo. This is often found on the driver’s side placard, as well. The remainder is how much the manufacturer says you can safely tow.
It’s prudent to keep to 80% of your max tow rating just to be safe. Overloading your trailer can result in an overheated transmission or engine plus poor braking performance. Additionally, exceeding your vehicle’s rated towing capacity could also result in a crash.
You’ll Need a Hitch, Possibly a Brake Controller
If not already installed, you’ll have to buy a separate hitch to tow a trailer with your truck. Be sure you’re getting the right hitch and ball mount for your trailer’s weight. You’ll also need a trailer wiring harness to connect your vehicle’s brake lights and turn signals to the trailer. Remember that the weight of your hitch counts against your tow rating. So if you’re installing a 150-pound hitch, your tow rating decreases by that much.
You should check your state’s requirement for trailer brakes, and any states through which you may be towing. California requires that loads over 1,500 pounds have electric trailer brakes. However, Texas doesn’t require trailer brakes until the load is more than 4,500 pounds. If you’re adding a hitch, you may need to purchase an aftermarket brake controller to be legal.
Connecting Your Trailer
Small steering inputs go a long way when you’re reversing, and there is no shame in asking someone to act as a spotter. Slowly reverse so the ball hitch is under your trailer tongue. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but get it as close as possible. Put your vehicle in park and set the brake, then lower your trailer onto the ball. You’ll hear it “clunk” in place. Lock the ball down, connect your wires, check that your brake lights and turn signals work, attach the safety chains in a criss-cross pattern, and you’re ready to go!
Driving Style Adjustments
Slow down! Keep to the posted speed limit for vehicles with trailers. You’ve just added massive weight to your vehicle and it will take you longer to stop. You’ve also lengthened your vehicle, so take your turns wide to avoid driving over a curb. Remember, trailers tend to track toward the inside of a turn, so swing wider than if you were turning without a trailer. If your trailer is wide, you might want to install extended side mirrors for better visibility. However, some newer trucks offer blind-spot monitoring that can cover the length of a trailer. Many Chevrolet and GMC trucks are also available with up to 15 camera views so the driver always knows what’s around.
Driving with a trailer will take some practice and it’s best to practice somewhere familiar, if possible. When you’re out on the road, plan your pit stops accordingly and account for the extra size and reduced maneuverability, especially at gas stations.
Backing Up Your Truck and Trailer
An essential skill for drivers towing a trailer with a truck is being able to back up. Many newer trucks have a backup assist feature that allows drivers to use a knob to control the trailer’s direction. Even with these systems, practice is recommended. Find an empty parking lot and get used to what the trailer does.
In order to help prevent trailer sway, you should put 10 to 15% of your load toward the front of your trailer. This ensures proper tongue weight and helps keep the trailer from swaying from side to side. If you feel the trailer swaying behind you, gently lift your foot off the throttle. Do not brake and do not input any sudden steering movements.