Tips for Easing Your Towing Anxiety
Pulling a trailer is low stress, as long as you’re properly prepared.
Whether it’s bringing the comforts of home to the wilderness or hauling powersports toys out to lakes and trails, there’s no question that towing opens up the very best Canada has to offer.
However, it can also be intimidating. Trailers don’t always move in the most intuitive ways, and the thought of navigating them along busy highways and around aggressive drivers can be enough to make people throw in the towel before they’ve even given it a shot.
This described me not so long ago. But now that I’ve experienced towing several styles of trailer with a variety of vehicles, I’m here on the other side of it to tell you that, with a little planning and a few solid tips, towing doesn’t need to cause a lot of stress.
Here are some pointers to consider that just might give you the confidence you need to sign on the dotted line for that trailer you’ve been eyeing and head out onto the open road.
Choose the Right Combination
This is the issue that’s often front of mind for those considering towing for the first time. How do I know how much power, size, and feature content I need for the trailer I’m considering? Do I really need to ditch my family car and buy a huge truck?
The answer: sometimes you do, but often you don’t. When I showed up at Can-AM RV in London, Ontario, to pick up a loaner 19-foot Airstream earlier this summer, they had a 32-foot Airstream on their lot that was being comfortably towed by a retrofitted Chrysler 300. The staff there told me that just about any modern engine with six cylinders or more will have enough power for the vast majority of towing jobs. So, clearly a lot more is possible than most people realize.
Of course, half-ton trucks come with higher towing capacities for more reasons than power, most notably their properly reinforced chassis. They also come with a lot of very handy tools these days, from hitch guidelines on back-up cameras to extended blind spot monitoring and even the ability to save multiple trailer profiles. For those who tow large, often, and perhaps with variety, trucks are the obvious choice.
But if all you want is to pull an ATV to the cottage or a small tent trailer to the lake, you may be surprised to find that the vehicle that’s already in your driveway can do the job. There are plenty of mid-size or smaller SUVs, minivans, and even a few larger cars that are rated up to 3,500 pounds when properly equipped. They won’t come with all the bells and whistles, but by employing some of the tips below, you may find that you don’t really miss them.
It should be noted that towing weights above the manufacturer’s recommendation may void some or all of your warranty in certain cases. If you’re not sure, it’s best to ask.
Identify Your Needs and Habits
There are a few other attributes that can make or break your towing experience. One of them is the relative proportions of the towing vehicle versus the trailer. A trailer with a floor that sits closer to the ground is going to feel more comfortable with a vehicle that also has a lower centre of gravity, and this becomes truer as the trailer gets larger. This is why that Chrysler 300 and Airstream combination works: Airstreams sit lower than a lot of camping trailers do. If yours sits higher, a truck or higher SUV might make things easier.
It’s also important to know whether the trailer you want needs a brake controller. Aftermarket units are available, but a factory controller will give you a more natural and responsive brake feel that’s nice to have if you can factor it into your purchase decision in advance.
Weight balance is another discussion that gets tricky. The tongue weight of a trailer, which is the amount of weight that pushes down on the vehicle’s hitch, needs to be within 9 and 15 percent of the trailer’s total weight. This is important to reduce the risk of trailer sway, prevent the vehicle’s rear axle from taking too much load, ensure proper sightlines, and mitigate that ka-chunking tugging sensation that can be very unpleasant.
This sounds like a big deal – and it is – but if you buy a trailer at a reputable dealer, the staff there can explain all of this and ease your mind about a lot of it. For example, Can-Am RV set up the hitch rig including anti-sway bars, verified that the weight balance was correct, showed me step-by-step how to disconnect and reconnect the trailer if needed, and took me for a test drive to ensure everything was set up correctly before they would even let me leave the lot. The entire delivery process took a couple of hours, and it was worth every minute for the peace of mind.
I’ve also learned that the 19-foot Airstream I towed earlier this summer is pretty darned close to the limit of my personal comfort level. This is because when I travel I rarely stay in one place for long, and I also have a terrible habit of doing things like driving into a scenic lookout without checking whether it has a turnaround circle first. I found that at this length I could get myself out of messes without having to back out onto roadways or otherwise create unnecessary stress for myself. If you’re the sort to go straight to a destination and stay there, and to think far enough ahead to make sure you’ll always have room to turn around and park, then you could easily be comfortable with something longer.
One more thing: if you’ll often be burning a lot of fuel because your trailer is heavy or driving through remote areas with infrequent gas stations, a larger truck’s oversized fuel tank can go a long way toward relieving potential range anxiety.
Improve Your Lines of Sight
One thing that’s sure to raise your heart rate while you’re towing is not being able to see around your trailer properly as you’re pulling it. There are a few things you can do to help.
Your side mirrors play the biggest role. In a large SUV or half-ton pick-up, if the trailer you’re towing isn’t terribly long and matches the width of your truck, you should be fine. And if your trailer is long, better towing mirrors are readily available.
As your vehicle gets smaller, though, it might not be as wide as the trailer, and the mirrors might not be large enough to have a good view around it. There are clip-on towing mirrors available that can help with this. They tend to vibrate at higher speeds and become harder to focus on, so they’re not a perfect solution. But they’re far better than nothing.
While towing the Airstream with the Chevrolet Colorado, I learned that the shadows other vehicles cast onto the road can be very useful. They not only give you guidelines for the back of your trailer relative to the rest of traffic, but they can also alert you to the presence of a driver who’s following you too closely, often when nothing else would.
Find the Backing-up Trick that Clicks
There are various tricks that make the rounds for remembering how to reverse a vehicle and send the trailer in the direction you want it to go. One of the more common ones is to put your right hand at the bottom of the steering wheel with your thumb sticking out; this is supposed to remind you that the trailer goes in the same direction as the bottom of the steering wheel. I never had much luck wrapping my head around that one.
The tip that did stick for me, though, came from the delivery staff at Can-Am RV: turn the steering wheel in the same direction that you want the hitch of the trailer to go. Ding! Since hearing that, I’ve become a trailer-reversing pro. Sometimes, you just need the explanation that makes the most sense to you. If neither of these suits you, a Google search turns up additional suggestions that might.
If your vehicle is newer and has a back-up camera, you might be inclined to ignore it while reversing, but don’t. A quick glance at it while you’re rotating through a tight squeeze gives you the best possible view on exactly how steep your angle is, which helps a lot with aim and trajectory – and, where applicable, shows you how close you are to putting a ding in your propane tank case.
The Airstream had an aftermarket reversing camera on it, but to be honest, I found it to be more of a hindrance than a help. The separate screen was too large to stick to the windshield, so it bounced around loose in the cabin, and its perspective was oddly angled and often made objects look farther away than they really were. Even after I gave up on having a spotter – my sweet eight-year-old daughter tried very hard, but she was too easily distracted by birds and butterflies to be of reliable assistance – I quickly found that hopping out of the truck for 15 seconds to assess the situation was the easiest and most foolproof method.
Don’t Be in a Hurry
Far and away, the number one tip for keeping towing anxiety at a minimum is to give yourself plenty of time. You might occasionally need to back yourself out of a mess; at other times, you might need to go around the block, choose a different fast food joint with a better parking lot, or make an Austin Powers style 17-point turn to get into a campsite. If you take a deep breath and slow down, there’s very little that can’t be fixed with a bit of time and patience. Consider it good practice – after all, you’re supposed to be on vacation anyway.