Towing can be stressful business. But, you can take measures to make it safer and easier even before you leave the house.

iStockPhoto/Sebastian Iovannitti

adAfterSmallInset

Loading and Unloading Towed Vehicles

Whether you're uprooting the family and moving to a new city or just taking a nice, long vacation, you may end up towing many of your big, important items for the ride. As if packing isn't enough of a pain, towing can unfortunately be even more work.

Don't spoil the fun of a road trip with a towing accident -- improper towing is a major safety hazard for you and other drivers on the road. Many traffic accidents occur each year as a result of mistakes involving towing. Even if you've towed stuff before and think you know how it's done, it's good to brush up in the basics before you start.

As it turns out, many accidents are caused by improperly loading towed vehicles [source: Land Transport NZ]. Although the first-time tower may not think twice before carelessly stuffing a trailer or plopping items on a towing platform, there's a science to loading towed vehicles. The items you're moving -- which may be heavy and valuable -- will be subjected to strong physical forces during your trip, causing them to shift around, perhaps violently. What's worse, even if you follow guidelines for how to drive a towing vehicle safely, improper loading could cause your vehicle to tip over. It goes without saying that, giving these possibilities, it's wise to think ahead and strategize your loading procedure.

Before you go loading up your towed vehicle and driving off into the sunset, take some time to consider an important physical force that will play a large part in your trip -- inertia. Inertia is simply the idea that objects in motion tend to stay in motion and that objects that are still tend to stay still. If your vehicle makes a sudden stop or a sharp turn, the items in tow will want to continue in the direction they were going, which could cause loss or damage. And although your brakes may safely stop your driving vehicle, the attached towed vehicle could react dangerously as a result of imbalanced loading.

Unloading towed vehicles takes some careful thought as well, and may not be as simple as you thought. Luckily, there are some great tips for loading and unloading towed vehicles to prevent driving disasters and other problems. We'll go over the most important ones next.

­

Top-heavy loads can make for a dangerous situation. During hard brakes, the trailer will "dive" putting stress on the rear of your driving vehicle.

© 2008, Sherline Products Inc.

Tips for Loading and Unloading Towed Vehicles

Before you hit the road, take a look at these tips for loading towed vehicles. First, make sure you're not overloading. This may seem like common sense, but many forget about it. Check your vehicle's manual for weight capacity. After everything is loaded, you may want to make a stop at a public scale, especially when using a vehicle for the first time [source: Martin].

There are a lot of wrong ways to load cargo in a towed vehicle, so properly distributing items in tow will make a big difference. Top-heavy loads and loads that are focused too far to the front of the towed vehicle will cause it to dive when you brake and make the front wheels of the one you're driving lift off the ground. You can imagine how difficult it is to drive in that position. Conversely, when most of the weight is toward the back, this could lead to sway. Lopsided loads will also make it difficult to stay in control while driving.

Lopsided loads can cause your trailer to oscillate.

© 2008, Sherline Products Inc.

Instead, distribute and spread out the weight of your load as much as possible to avoid dive and sway. Start with the heavy things on the bottom, and then place lighter things on top. This gives you a low center of gravity, making it more difficult for it to tip over. Experts recommend that you place about 12 to 15 percent of the total weight of the load on the hitch [source: Martin].If you're loading on a flat bed platform, keeping the load as low as possible will prevent the wind from affecting it when you're driving.

Of course, this strategic distribution won't matter much if the stuff won't stay where you put it. To counter the problems of inertia, you can use the principles of another physical force to your advantage -- friction. Gluing down rugs on the bed of your trailer adds friction so your items don't slide around [source: Martin]. Rugs certainly won't prevent it altogether, however, and they can hardly keep something from flying upward when you hit a bump in the road.

Both badly distributed loads and hard breaking can put too much stress on the tongue weight of a vehicle. This can make the trailer dive and lift the front end of the driving vehicle (illustrated left). Adding a weight distributing hitch can help.

© 2008, Sherline Products Inc.

The best way to stop your box of special china from flying off a bed and tumbling into rubble is to tie it down. Your cargo will probably be pulled every which way during a rough ride, so account for every angle when you're strapping ropes around items. Make sure nothing is sticking out -- projections that protrude from an open trailer will be hazardous on the road, and many states have restrictions on them.

You've taken the time to thoughtfully load your towed vehicle and have finally made it to your destination without any disastrous loss of cargo. So it's time to relax, right? Wrong. Unloading takes both care and proper equipment. It would be a shame to go through all this trouble only to see things broken in the last phase.

The first step in unloading towed vehicles is to make sure you are parked on level ground [source: Carrabba]. If you must disconnect the towed vehicle on an incline, use blocks to stop it from rolling away. Ramps and dollies make it easier to unload heavy items. This makes sense in terms of physical forces as well, as ramps allow you to do the same amount of work using less force over a longer distance [source: Bloomfield]. When moving heavy items, make sure to move slowly to avoid damage and injury.

Safe towing involves not only following these tips for loading and unloading towed vehicle, but also using plain common sense, especially while driving. Learn more from the links on the next page.

adAfterBody

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

adLastPage

Sources

  • Bloomfield, Louis A. "How Things Work: The Physics of Everyday Life." 2nd Ed. John Wiley & Sons, Inc, New York: 2001
  • Byrnes, Mike. "How to Prepare for the CDL." Barron's Educational Series, 2003. [Sept. 17, 2008] http://books.google.com/books?id=D7aSXfgOFEAC
  • Carraba, Jim. "Trailer Safety Tips." NYCAMH/NEC. Country Folks Grower. June 5, 2006. [Sept. 17, 2008] http://www.nycamh.com/resources/safety_pubs/entry_detail.asp?article=58
  • Land Transport NZ. "Loading and towing safely." Land Transport New Zealand. [Sept. 17, 2008] http://www.ltsa.govt.nz/road-user-safety/motorists/loading-towing-safely.html
  • Martin, Joe. "Trailer Loading and Towing Guide." Sherline Products, Inc. [Sept. 17, 2008] http://www.sherline.com/lmbook.htm