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How to drive with a trailer

The trailer can have a profound affect on the way your vehicle handles, so it's important to ensure everything is set up properly right from the beginning.
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Driving with a trailer in tow is different from driving solo. You will notice slower acceleration, increased stopping distances and a much wider turning circle. The trailer can have a profound affect on the way your vehicle handles, so it’s important to ensure everything is set up properly right from the beginning.

The first thing to check is that your trailer sits level behind the tow vehicle. This is important, particularly with tandem-axle trailers, so hitch it up and perform a visual check. Height differences between the hitch ball and the trailer itself can be accommodated by using a special tow bar to drop or raise the ball to the correct height, or with an adjustable hitch.

You’ll also want to check the tongue weight to ensure it is correct. Tongue weight refers to the proportion of the trailer’s total weight that the coupler and hitch must directly support. Normally, this will be somewhere around 10 per cent of the trailer’s total weight, so a 2,000 lb. trailer would have a tongue weight of 200 lb. Any significant variance above or below this weight can result in the trailer handling poorly, and presenting an unsafe situation. If you know the actual trailer weight, the simplest way to check tongue weight is with a jack and a scale.

You’ll also want to ensure that the trailer is loaded properly. Balancing the weight of any gear you load into the trailer, from front-to-rear and side-to-side, will preserve the trailer’s balance and handling. Be sure to properly secure loose items so they don’t shift in transit. On long trips, it’s wise to stop and check the load periodically, especially if driving on rough roads.

Once you’re underway, the most obvious difference between towing a trailer and driving solo is the additional length of your combined vehicles. Turning will require extra space, to accommodate the additional length of the trailer. This is particularly true in the case of 90-degree corners. You’ll want to be well out into the intersection before you turn the wheel, in order to avoid having the side of the trailer cutting the corner short and mounting the curb. Your trailer tires will not follow those of the tow vehicle, but will go through the turn in a much tighter arc. You’ll need to allow for this, in order to avoid hitting curbs and road signs. If you’re new to towing, it’s a good idea to practice in a quiet parking lot, manoeuvring around pylons or other markers, till you get the hang of it. Wet the tires before making a 90 degree turn, and you’ll see how much tighter the trailer takes a corner.

Remember that when towing a trailer you’ll need much more space when changing lanes or passing other vehicles. Not only is your vehicle now much longer than it was before, you won’t be able to accelerate as you might have when driving solo – particularly on even gentle grades. Until you become comfortable driving with a trailer, it’s probably best to take greater care when changing lanes, and to avoid passing other vehicles entirely.

SWAY IT ISN’T SO

A trailer that is properly hitched and balanced should not sway excessively as it travels down the road. However, swaying may occur as a result of influences like passing trucks or gusty crosswinds. Trailers may also sway when descending steep grades. If the trailer begins to sway, slow down and try to keep the steering wheel steady – don’t stomp the brakes or try to steer in the opposite direction of the trailer’s movement. If the trailer has electric brakes, use the hand control to apply them, and stop at the first safe opportunity so you can check things over before continuing. Some hitches incorporate an anti-sway device near the coupler, that consists of a couple of arms that extend back along the trailer tongue. A dampening device controls side-to-side movement to reduce sway while underway.

REVERSE LIKE A PRO

Backing up with a trailer can be frustrating the first few times you try, as the end of the trailer always seems to go in the opposite direction that you want. The key is to go slowly, and to use one hand to hold the bottom of the steering wheel. To turn the trailer to the left, move that hand to the left. To go right, turn your hand to the right. It’s really that simple.

If you have to reverse in confined areas, you’ll need to watch the back of the tow vehicle as well as the progress of the trailer. Remember, the point where the vehicle and trailer meet functions as a pivot – if you turn the wheel to move the trailer to the right, the back of your tow vehicle will move to the left. Have a helper get out and assist you when you need to back into a tight spot like a garage, to avoid accidental contact with either the trailer or the vehicle itself.

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