Often, you need to lug more cargo than your vehicle was designed to carry. If you frequently find yourself in this fix, you might consider towing a trailer such as a camper or a smaller device, say, for hauling your motorcycle. Whatever you tow, your vehicle must be rated for the proper weight or class of trailer and have a towing hitch assembly, along with several accessories.
First, let's look at how trailers and tow vehicles are connected. The connection is called the hitch, and it's mounted to the vehicle's chassis. Permanent hitches have a fixed ball mount, while temporary hitches have a removable one. The ball mount allows the trailer to swivel and turn with the tow vehicle. The ball mount lock keeps a temporary ball mount in place within the hitch.
The tongue fits over the hitch's ball mount and shoulders the force exerted by the trailer (the tongue weight). The trailer coupler and tongue lock secure the trailer's tongue to the ball mount. Safety chains attach the trailer to the tow vehicle and provide a backup attachment if the trailer hitch should fail. The wiring harness connects the electrical wiring of the trailer to that of the tow vehicle.
Beyond these basics, most towing accessories that you may need will fall into these categories:
- Tools and loading ramps for installing and connecting the trailer
- Straps, bungee cords, chains and antitheft devices for securing the trailer and its contents
- Alarms and cameras for warning drivers of theft or obstacles
- Mirrors, brakes and antisway devices for safely operating the trailer
Let's get started.
Where the Heck Is That Wrench?
With trailers, you often need tools. You might use them to hook up the trailer to your tow vehicle or to have handy for some unforeseen situation. Rather than have wrenches, screwdrivers, pliers and other gear scattered around your vehicle and usually impossible to find in an emergency, you may want to invest in a toolbox in which you can stash these items.
Standard towing toolboxes may fit in your tow vehicle or on the bed of the trailer itself. In addition to centralizing your tools, the secure storage will prevent your tools from sliding around and flying out of the truck bed, which they've been known to do.
Some toolboxes can be integrated into the tongue of the trailer. These boxes are usually made of aluminum or steel for durability and weather-resistance. Tongue toolboxes have the added advantage of carrying tools without wasting space in the tow vehicle or trailer bed. These chests may run you about $100 for a basic plastic model that mounts to the front of an A-frame style trailer to several hundred dollars for a fancier aluminum one.
Next, learn about two handy items that won't fit in your toolbox.
Load-minimizing Liftgates and Ramps
How do you get your load into the trailer? One way is to lift the cargo simply by picking it up with your impressive muscles. However, depending upon your cargo, this could be strenuous work and land you in bed with severe back pain or worse. To avoid this scenario, some trailers can be outfitted with a mechanical liftgate to load heavy cargo.
Alternatively, you can drag or push the cargo up into the trailer by using a ramp. Some trailers already have ramps built into one side. For example, many auto trailers already come with ramps for driving your vehicle onto the trailer. If not, you might consider purchasing or building one to load your cargo. You may find suitable ramps in many auto parts stores.
After you finally get the cargo into the trailer, you'll need to secure it. Keep reading to find out how.
Protecting Precious Cargo with Tie-downs
Unless you're transporting beach balls rather than breakable items such as your grandmother's china, you should prevent the trailer's contents from moving during the trip. Shifting cargo will not only be damaged by the wild ride, but also cause the trailer to sway as it's towed, and that's a major danger in towing.
One way to prevent shifting is to pack the cargo tightly together, leaving no room for it to move. If you're not a master packer or you have unwieldy items, tie-downs may offer a better solution for securing cargo. Tie-downs can be straps, bungee cords or rope. Bungee cords will stretch and apply pressure to the cargo. Cargo nets use many bungeelike strands to keep the cargo safe. Ratchet tie-downs use a locking ratchet mechanism to tighten the strap and secure the load. They attach to openings, attachment points or eyeholes on the trailer. They can be found in many hardware and auto parts stores, and they're inexpensive compared to the cost of replacing damaged items.
Now that everything's loaded and secured, you might want to consider investing in our next towing accessory.
Backing Up Safely with Alarm Systems
A trailer may extend the back of your vehicle, but it also makes it difficult to see and be seen, especially when reversing with the vehicle or trailer. That's why it's useful to have a backup alarm system installed on the trailer. These alarms can warn others of your intentions when backing up.
Many backup alarms simply emit beeping or chirping sounds when the tow vehicle and its trailer are in reverse. Others, however, use ultrasound to detect and warn the driver of obstacles in the trailer's path. Backup alarms can be wired onto the trailer and to the tow vehicle through the harness or may be wired independently of the trailer. Many of these alarms are relatively inexpensive (under $50), can be found in auto parts stores and are useful safety devices.
Now that others know you're backing up, it might be helpful to see where you're going. This next towing accessory will help you to do that.
Backing Up Accurately with Camera Systems
We can think of two main instances in which it would be highly advantageous to see behind you when you're at the wheel of a tow vehicle:
- When you're aligning the tow vehicle hitch with the trailer tongue
- When you're trying to see obstacles in your path before backing up
When you try to hitch the trailer and tow vehicle, you must align the two. Remember that the trailer hitch and trailer tongue are only 2 to 4 inches (5 cm to 10 cm) wide, so it may be difficult to back up the tow vehicle to blindly align the hitch and tongue. With a camera, however, this tricky task becomes easier, as does avoiding potential obstacles.
Some camera systems, such as the Swift Hitch, rely on wireless cameras that are magnetically mounted to the vehicle or trailer. Typically, the camera sends the image to a handheld receiver located in the cabin of the tow vehicle. It may transmit over a range of 300 feet (91 meters) with a night vision range of 15 feet (5 meters).
But we're not quite done with this line of tow accessories yet.
Side Mirrors and Tow Lights for Seeing and Being Seen
We just finished pointing out that it's difficult to see behind you when you're towing a trailer, but what about around you? How are you going to see other drivers who want to pass you or whom you want to pass? That's where having wide side mirrors that extend farther out from the vehicle than conventional mirrors do is handy. Often, these towing mirrors can be attached to conventional mirrors with clamps and extend the rear view. Some newer truck models, such as the Ford F-150, even have extendable side mirrors built in.
It's also important for other drivers to be aware of you and your trailer on the road. That's why the U.S. Department of Transportation requires that all trailers be equipped with lights that indicate when the tow vehicle and its trailer are about to turn or brake. The lights also should make the trailer visible at night. They can be hardwired into the trailer and connected to the tow vehicle through the wiring harness. Alternatively, wireless towing lights are available, too.
Now that you can see all around the trailer and everyone can spot you, you'll want to keep your eyes peeled for thieves bent on stealing your stuff.
Securing Your Stuff with Antitheft Devices
Towing trailers are relatively easy to hitch and unhitch; consequently, they're stolen easily. Several antitheft devices are available for trailers. One gadget resembles the "boot" that police fasten to the wheel of parking violators: It locks around a tire of the trailer and prevents it from moving. The wheel locks are priced at $100 or so, but that seems like peanuts when you compare it with someone stealing your entire trailer.
Other less expensive devices attach to the ball mount of the hitch and can be locked with a key or combination lock. Some antitheft mechanisms also are equipped with an alarm that sounds when someone tampers with the device. Door locks and gate locks are useful for securing the trailer doors and gates to prevent someone from lifting the contents.
Keep reading to find out what made the No. 3 spot on our list.
How Much Does Your Tongue Weigh?
Besides the weight of the trailer, it's important to know the tongue weight of the hitch. By tongue weight, we mean the downward pressure that the coupler exerts on the hitch ball. This weight can change depending upon how much cargo you load into your trailer. Knowing this weight is crucial. If the tongue weight exceeds the recommended weight for the hitch, then the trailer will likely become uncoupled or damage the hitch while in tow.
The solution? You can use a simple bathroom scale to measure the tongue weight. For many types of trailers, just place the scale on a concrete block. Next, set the trailer tongue on the scale and read the tongue weight. You can also purchase specific scales for measuring tongue weights.
After you stop in a bed and bath store to pick up that scale, you'll be heading back to the automotive parts store again for the next towing accessory.
Stopping Your Trailer with Supplementary Brakes
Lugging a trailer behind you will obviously add to the overall weight of the tow vehicle. That's why the tow vehicle responds more slowly to acceleration and deceleration. The extra weight also means that your vehicle's brake pads will wear out faster (because of the additional force required to stop). Many people solve this problem by equipping their trailers with an independent electronic braking system. In these systems, the trailer's brakes are coupled electrically to those of the tow vehicle and respond simultaneously. Trailer braking systems come in three different types; each type operates on a different principle:
- Timed controls apply a fixed amount of braking over time.
- Inertia controls apply a fixed rate, but with override controls for high-speed stops.
- Proportional controls apply the same amount of force to the trailer as the tow vehicle's brakes apply to the tow vehicle.
You can install the controls for the electronic braking system in the tow vehicle.
At last you've arrived at the No. 1 towing accessory on our list. Read about it next.
Antisway Bars and Weight Distribution Hitches
The most important problem in towing trailers is that they sway. Air pressure changes and wind turbulence can move the trailer in a direction opposite the tow vehicle. To counter this effect, you can purchase packages that contain antisway bars or weight-distribution hitches. These devices connect the tow vehicle and the trailer in more than one place (the ball mount). The extra attachment points help to stabilize the trailer.
Imagine holding on to a person over the side of a building with one hand. The suspended person can rotate freely about the one hand. Now, imagine that two or three people are holding on to that suspended person at different places. Suddenly the suspended person has much less freedom of movement. Antisway bars work in much the same manner. Kits are available to add antisway bars to existing hitches. Depending upon the type, antisway bars can range from $200 to $600 or more.
Why don't you set all those new towing accessories down and roll over to the next page for tons more towing content?
Trailer bearing protectors are a great way of prolonging the life of your bearings. Learn about trailer bearing protectors at HowStuffWorks.
- Berger, Mike. "Tow the Line - What You Need to Safely Handle a Trailer." Handyman Club of America Magazine, August 2006. (Oct. 9, 2008) http://www.snowbear.com/page/Tow_The_Line
- Cook, Miles. "How to Tow a Trailer." 2008. Edmunds.com. (Oct. 9, 2008) http://www.edmunds.com/ownership/howto/articles/44921/article.html
- Cook, Miles. "Trailer Towing Q&A." Edmunds.com. (Oct. 9, 2008) http://www.edmunds.com/ownership/howto/articles/44921/page001.html
- Johnston, Jeff. "Towing Package Essentials." Trailer Life Magazine, February 2008. (Oct. 9, 2008) http://www.trailerlife.com/output.cfm?id=1452151
- Smith, Bruce W. "The Art of Towing - Tips, Ideas, and Hard-Learned Lessons." Motor Trend's Truck Trend. (Oct. 9, 2008) http://www.trucktrend.com/features/consumer/163_0812_towing_tips_and_lessons/index.html
- Tellem, Tori. "Towing Parts Buyer's Guide: Everything but the Truck." Motor Trend's Truck Trend. (Oct. 9, 2008) http://www.trucktrend.com/features/gear/163_0812_towing_parts_and_accessories/index.html
- TrailerLife magazine. "Your Guide to Towing 2008." (Oct. 9, 2008) http://www.trailerlife.com/SharedCode/tlford/index.cfm
- U.S. Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "Towing a Trailer." April 2002. (Oct. 9, 2008) http://www.nhtsa.gov/cars/problems/equipment/towing/index.htm