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Guide to Travel Trailer Towing

New to pulling an RV? You need to read this guide to travel trailer towing.

Learn why RV towing isn’t as simple as hooking a travel trailer to the rear bumper of a tow vehicle and heading down the road.

Trailer towing
Travel trailer towing takes practice. (Image: iRV2)

Your Guide to Travel Trailer Towing:
Where to Start

Proper travel trailer towing requires the right equipment, preparation, knowledge, and experience. Voluminous books have been written detailing all you need to know. Here are the basics to get you started.

Know Your Equipment:

  • Make sure your tow vehicle is rated to pull the weight of the trailer, batteries, potable water, propane, personal gear, passengers, and anything else you plan to carry with you.
  • Obtain the proper equipment to tow the travel trailer. This includes a receiver for your tow vehicle, most likely an equalizing hitch, brake control and possibly a sway control. You might also need tow mirrors to see around the trailer while towing.
  • Know the cargo carrying capacity of the travel trailer (think axles and tire ratings). Never exceed the rating. Exceeding the limit could void the manufactures warranty or worse. This leaves you personally responsible for injuries to others if involved in an accident deemed your fault.
  • Know, check, and maintain the recommended tire pressure of your tow vehicle and trailer. Tire failure while going down the highway can spell the end to your RV trip.
  • Understand how to use your tow vehicles transmission to your advantage. If you have a “tow mode”, understand what it does and how to use it. Understand engine RPMs and manually shift gears to maximize performance. Check the manufacturers recommendations for using cruise control when towing and abide by them.

Travel Trailer Towing – Practice!

Take your travel trailer someplace close to home that has a large vacant parking lot and practice trailer towing. Practice hitching and unhitching the travel trailer. This includes making sure the coupler is latched, safety chains are attached, equalizing bars are properly adjusted, brakes and turn signals are working, marker lights and brake lights work.

Now practice backing up. Pay attention to how the trailer follows the tow vehicle. Make mental notes on how much the trailer “cuts the corner” and how much the “tail” swings when turning.

Here’s a steering tip for RV trailer newbies:

  • Place one hand at the bottom of the steering wheel when backing a trailer.
  • If you want the back end of the trailer to go right, move your hand on the steering wheel to the right.
  • If you want the back end of the trailer to go left, move your hand on the steering wheel to the left.

To avoid confusion, have a helper refer to which way they want the back end of the trailer to move. For example, it could be verbal instructions such as “Back end my way!” Or, they can use hand signals.  

A large vacant lot is also a great place to adjust the brake control.

Check your trailer brakes before departing home, camp or descending steep grades. Review your trailer brake control manual for manufacturer recommendations specific to your unit.

  • Gently apply power to the trailer brakes manually via the brake control in your tow vehicle. You should feel the trailer give a “tug” on the tow vehicle. This tug lets you know the trailer brakes are activating.
  • If you don’t feel a tug, you have a brake problem that needs attention before hitting the road and especially before descending a steep grade. Often a “wiggle and push” of the 7-way plug between the tow vehicle and trailer will resolve the problem.

Travel Trailer Towing – On the road:

  • Allow plenty of distance between you and the vehicle in front of you. This provides you more time to react and brake when something unexpected happens in front of you.
  • Anticipate traffic problems. Pay attention to what is happening not only in front of you, but in the lanes beside you and behind you.
    • Look for large gaps between vehicles when merging or changing lanes that will accept the length of your rig. If someone is tailgating, it is best to move over and let them go past. On two lane highways be aware how many vehicles are stacking up behind you (five or more is typically over the legal limit). Find somewhere to safely pull off, allowing them to pass.
  • Shift to a lower gear when descending a steep extended grade. Downshifting allows the compression of the engine to keep your speed under control rather than your brakes. Extended braking on long downgrades can lead to overheating of your vehicle and trailer brakes resulting in brake failure.
  • If your tow vehicle has temperature gauges (engine coolant, transmission, oil), monitor them when ascending steep grades. Watch for overheating.
    • If the engine coolant rises significantly, try shifting down a gear to keep your engine from bogging. Turn off the air conditioner. Consider using the old timer’s trick of rolling down the windows and turning the cab heat on high.
    • Is the transmission jumping between gears (aka “searching”)? Manually shift the transmission into the lower of the two gears to avoid overheating the transmission.
  • When in doubt on any overheating issues, pull over and let things cool down.
Trailer Towing steep descents
Shift to a lower gear when descending steep grades. Photo – Cheri Helgeson

Understand travel trailer towing sway.

You will experience sway when towing a trailer. Knowing what causes trailer sway, how to avoid and how to deal with it are very important for a safe and pleasant experience.  

Sway from outside sources include side winds and passing large vehicles like semi-trucks and trailers. Trailer sway can also be introduced by improper loading of personal items in the trailer resulting in too light of tongue weight.

This video clearly demonstrates how violent sway can occur if not enough weight is kept forward of the axles.

What to do if you are experiencing travel trailer sway

When being pushed around by side winds, there is not much you can do other than slow down.

  • Does travel trailer sway happen when passing or being passed by a large vehicle? Move over in your lane as far as possible from the passing vehicle. Maximize the air space between the two of you. A larger air space will minimize the effect of being sucked in towards the other vehicle.
  • Is your trailer “pushing” you down a hill and causing sway? Take your foot off the gas. Slowly apply the trailer brakes manually via the brake control to eliminate the sway.  Learn more about trailer sway here.
Trailer towing
Avoid carrying heavy items at the rear of a trailer as they can cause sway. Photo – iRV2

With travel trailer sway under control, accelerate and stop gradually. Don’t be in a rush when travel trailer towing. After all, RVing should be leisurely. Starting and stopping suddenly is hard on your tow vehicle and trailer, wears components out faster, decreases fuel economy and keeps things from shifting in the trailer.           

Hopefully this short guide to trailer towing will provide you the needed information to confidentially hitch up your travel trailer and hit the road. Just remember to take it slow and enjoy the journey because that is what RVing is all about.


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