How to Pass While Towing

No passing zone
There are times when you're not allowed to pass another vehicle and other times when you simply shouldn't pass another vehicle. See more truck pictures.

Most drivers can relate to the frustration of following a cement mixer or even a huge recreational vehicle over a steep, seemingly never-ending mountain highway, or possibly down a twisty, single-lane country road. There's no place to go -- you're stuck. The vehicle in front of you is moving at a snail's pace, and for a reasonable amount of time, you're patient. "Surely this guy is going to turn off," you think to yourself. But as mile after mile ticks away on your odometer, you realize that you're simply stuck where you are right now -- staring at the back end of a giant camper with tourism stickers from all 50 states.

It's time to do something about this. First, you make a few tentative moves to the edge of your lane, avoiding oncoming traffic as you do, just to see if you can survey the situation ahead of the camper. It's exactly as you suspected: The trailer is the only thing standing between you, the open road ahead and the posted speed limit -- which happens to be nearly double the speed that you're traveling right now. Just as you have so many times in the past, you safely and successfully accelerate around the lumbering dinosaur and slip back into the correct traffic lane. Just as simple as that, you're back on schedule.


Now imagine that the shoe is on the other foot. Well, maybe not completely on the other foot, because we want to find out what it takes to be able to pass while towing. So, in the new scenario, imagine that you're driving a pickup truck that's pulling a large camper, one that's several feet longer than your tow vehicle, as a matter of fact. Now imagine that you're on that same two-lane country road. About a quarter of a mile ahead, you see that a farmer has just entered the roadway hauling a trailer full of freshly cut hay. It's a slow-moving rig, so you quickly find yourself approaching the farmer's rear bumper. Now, of course you're excited to get to your lake property to begin the long weekend of camping, backpacking and boating; however, there's just one thing in your way -- this load of hay.

It's important to understand that you might not be able to handle this situation the same way you would in your sleek sedan. Passing while towing is an entirely different ballgame. In fact, as you'll find out on the next page, there are times when passing may not even be an option -- at least not a safe option.



Precautions for Passing While Towing

A speed boat heading for the lake.
Is this driver planning to pass?
TIM MCCAIG/iStockphoto

Even if you're pulling a heavy trailer down the road, there may be times when you encounter slower traffic. Maybe it's a heavy piece of construction equipment or that trailer overloaded with hay that we just mentioned. Whatever the situation may be, you will probably be tempted to pass. Sometimes, passing is an appropriate action; other times, it may not be so wise.

It's true: Passing while towing requires more effort from the driver and a lot more effort from the tow vehicle. Good judgment on the part of the driver is essential to a successful (and safe) pass.


Of course, there are always going to be unlimited variables in every passing situation. These may include environmental issues like rain, glaring sunlight or even high winds, but in general, you should keep the following few key points in mind when you're passing while towing:

  • Signal early: When you're towing a trailer, it's a good idea to signal a little earlier than you normally would simply to alert the other drivers around you to exactly what you're up to. Ideally, they'll give you the extra room that you need to complete your passing maneuver.
  • Pass only on level ground: Never attempt a pass while towing on an incline or steep descent. Remember, you're pulling a significant amount of trailer weight behind you, and your tow vehicle won't behave the same as it does when there's no camper or boat attached. Trying to accelerate around slower traffic as you climb a hill may leave you stuck beside the vehicle that you're trying to pass. Attempting a pass on a steep decline may lead to higher speeds that are unsafe, too. Pass only on level ground when you can see what's ahead of you clearly.
  • Use your mirrors: Seeing what's in front of you is important, but seeing what's behind you can be just as important when you're passing another vehicle. Use your mirrors to make sure that another vehicle isn't attempting to pass you as you pull out into the passing lane. Your mirrors are also important tools to use to determine when you can merge back into your lane of traffic after the pass is complete.
  • Make slow movements with the wheel: Ease out into the passing lane, and ease back into your traffic lane once the pass is complete. Never make abrupt movements with the steering wheel when you're passing another vehicle. Rapid movement of the steering wheel could cause trailer sway -- and you definitely don't want that.
  • Regain control of trailer sway: Trailer sway can be caused by several things -- high winds, fast movement of the steering wheel at high speeds or even wind buffeting from passing vehicles (including the vehicle you're attempting to pass). No matter what the cause, trailer sway is always a little bit scary and rarely easy to recover from, so you should know what to do if it happens. First, release the accelerator, but do not brake. Braking will only magnify the situation. Keep both hands firmly on the steering wheel and allow your vehicle to slow down and straighten out. If you experience extreme trailer sway, you should activate your trailer brakes by hand. Again, don't use the tow vehicle brakes to stop trailer sway.
  • Allow for the extra length of the trailer: As simple as this seems, a lot of accidents are caused by drivers simply forgetting about the extra length of their trailer and returning to their traffic lane a little too soon. Using your mirrors throughout the passing procedure can prevent this from happening.
  • Be aware of your position on the road: This one is self-explanatory. Just stay alert, know what's happening all around you (in every direction) and perhaps, most importantly, use good judgment.

To read more about passing while towing, safety and other related topics, follow the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


  • Auto Zone. "Trailer Towing." (Sept. 19, 2008) encyclopedia_towing2.asp
  • Ingle, W.H. "Trailer Towing Tips: Towing Your New Trailer." MotorPoint. (Sept. 19, 2008)
  • National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "Towing a Trailer: Being Equipped for Safety." Sept. 17, 2002. (Sept. 19, 2008)
  • RV Basics. "RV Fifth Wheel & Travel Trailer Towing Safety Tips." (Sept. 19, 2008)