Photo: eppicphotography

How to Safely Tow a Trailer

By Mark Richardson

Just because your truck or car has a hitch on the back doesn’t mean it’s cut out to tow a trailer. The engine may not be powerful enough, or the suspension incapable of carrying the weight. How can you be sure?

Stephen Kennedy, new vehicle sales manager at Edmonton’s Westgate Chevrolet, says the first place to check is your owner’s manual or driver-side door to locate the vehicle’s towing capacity — the combined maximum weight of a trailer and its payload. This is the upper threshold of how much your vehicle can tow, including cargo and the trailer itself.

Next, look up the vehicle’s gross combined weight rating (GCWR). This is the maximum combined weight of the trailer and its contents, along with the towing vehicle, including contents and passengers. You can find this rating in your owner’s manual or driver door as well.

Gear up for road-trip season

Towing vehicles will also possess a “tongue-weight rating,” which is the amount of downforce weight that the hitch can bear when it’s attached to the trailer. Typically, the tongue weight is around 10 percent of the trailer’s total weight. There are different grades and sizes of hitches, so be sure you have the correct-sized ball for your trailer’s mount.

Pay attention to these ratings—adding a cushion to the GCWR—and you’ll be fine, says Kennedy.

“From a safety standpoint, we recommend adding at least 1,500-2,000 lbs. weight difference between the weight of your trailer and your towing capacity,” he says. Too heavy a trailer can overheat the engine, damage your transmission, and overwhelm your vehicle’s brakes. Too much or too little tongue weight can also create unsafe handling on the road.

How to live the RV life

A more powerful engine will also give you a more relaxed drive. “Having more horsepower and more torque allows you to pull a little easier,” Kennedy says. “It doesn’t stress the vehicle as much with extra weight on the backside.”

Today, many vehicles are sold with optional towing packages—a smart investment, Kennedy says. A package can include the properly installed hitch itself, as well as a separate oil cooler, trailer-brake controller and adjusted gearing in the transmission.

Always use safety chains in case the trailer mount comes off its hitch ball. Cross them over each other to attach to the opposite hooks. This way, if the mount does come off while driving, it will fall onto the X-shape of the chains and not drop onto the road itself. “That’s an old one I was taught by my father, way back when,” Kennedy says.

• Some vehicles now come with rear-view cameras that help you line up your hitch for attaching to the trailer. If you don’t have a camera, it’s a good idea to ask a second person to be a spotter, to help guide the hitch as you reverse.

• A four-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive vehicle usually has a lower towing capacity than the equivalent two-wheel-drive model. This is mostly due to the extra weight differential.

• SUVs can haul a lot of weight, but pickup trucks can usually tow more and have the ability to install a gooseneck hitch, which attaches directly to the cargo bed. This more evenly distributes the weight of heavier trailers, rather than dragging everything from behind the rear bumper.