How RV Towing Safety Works

Nancy Louie/iStockphoto Driving an RV as big as this one can be rather difficult. Towing a vehicle behind adds a level of complexity to the whole process.

In September of 2007, in the parking lot of a restaurant near Philadelphia, a driverless recreational vehicle (RV) with a trailer in tow somehow slipped out of gear and rolled into a nearby street. A Volkswagen Jetta, traveling down the road at approximately 35 mph (56 kilometers per hour), crossed the path of the RV and was struck. The car was extensively damaged and the driver was taken to the hospital but not seriously injured.

The RV had rolled out of the parking lot at a speed of only about 5 mph (8 kilometers per hour) when it struck the faster-moving Jetta. Police blamed the sheer weight of the RV-trailer combination for the damage. It's a pretty good bet that nobody involved with this accident felt very good about it afterward. Any car accident is potentially serious, but accidents involving an RV and a towed vehicle are especially serious because of the size and weight of the rig.

If you own a recreational vehicle, there will be times when you want to take it on the road with a trailer or second vehicle in tow -- perhaps a car that you can drive once you've reached the RV park or a boat that you can spend time on once the RV is safely tucked away. If you have a fifth wheel RV, which is designed to be attached to a tow vehicle, you may be towing the RV itself to your destination. Either way, there are a lot of things that need to be taken into account if you're going to have a safe trip while using an RV for towing or while using another vehicle to tow an RV.

Towing an RV safely, or towing another vehicle behind an RV, requires knowledge -- arguably, as much knowledge as driving a large commercial truck does. And yet, most jurisdictions don't require that an RV driver have the same training that a professional, over-the-road truck driver does. So how does a first-time RV driver know how to handle a rig the size of a huge tour bus -- especially one that's towing another vehicle? Well, as a driver, you'll need to acquire the necessary knowledge and skills yourself. This article will give you some basic information about RV towing safety standards (enough to get you started, anyway) but you should definitely seek out additional information on your own. RV safety is serious business.

RV Weight Safety

Never exceed your vehicle's weight limits -- and don't forget to properly balance the load, too.
Never exceed your vehicle's weight limits -- and don't forget to properly balance the load, too.
Kent Weakley/iStockphoto

Some of the most serious problems that can occur when using an RV for towing, or when towing a fifth wheel Page SavedRV, can be prevented simply by knowing the your vehicle's weight capacities or weight ratings and acting accordingly. Every RV has a manufacturer-recommended carrying capacity -- and exceeding it is asking for trouble. Let's define some terms that will help us better understand RV weight safety:

­Tongue Weight is the weight that a towed trailer places on the tow vehicle's hitch.

Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) is the maximum weight that the vehicle can safely carry, including its own weight plus the weight of any fuel, oil, water, cargo, passengers and the tongue weight of any trailer being towed. GVWR is calculated by the manufacturer and should be discussed with you when you purchase the RV. In many cases, the GVWR of an RV is clearly displayed on a placard somewhere inside the RV.

Gross Axle Weight Rating (GAWR) is the maximum weight that should be placed on any single axle of a tow vehicle or trailer, as measured at the wheel.

Dry Weight is the weight of the RV without any fuel, water, oil, coolant, cargo, or passengers.

Gross Combined Weight Rating (GCWR) is the combined weight-carrying capacity of a tow vehicle plus its trailer.

Curb Weight is the weight of the RV with fuel, water, oil and coolant, but no passengers or cargo.

Net Carrying Capacity (NCC) is the total weight that an RV can carry, including cargo, passengers and trailer tongue weight. NCC doesn't include the weight of the vehicle itself and can be calculated by subtracting the vehicle's curb weight from the GVWR.

Once your vehicle is fully loaded, how do you go about finding out how much your tow vehicle and trailer weigh? Some truck stops have large public scales that you can use for a small price. Look in the phonebook under "Public Scales" or "Scales, Public" to see if any are available in your area. You can also use these terms to search the Internet to find nearby scales.

You should never attempt to carry more weight than your RV is rated for -- and remember, the weight you're adding to your RV includes the tongue weight of any trailer or other vehicle being towed. You may be tempted to ignore the weight limit because overloading a vehicle doesn't necessarily cause any immediate problems. But over time, the extra weight can literally destroy the suspension, the brakes, the frame, the tow hitch, the engine and any other parts of the vehicle involved in carrying, moving (or stopping) that weight. Furthermore, the excess mass gives the vehicle a dangerous amount of inertia -- giving your RV the tendency to keep moving even when you don't want it to. Imagine that you're towing a fifth wheel RV down a hill and need to slow down or stop. Your tow vehicle's brakes might be overwhelmed by the excessive weight -- and even if the brakes do work properly, it will take you a great deal longer than usual to stop. The result could be a serious accident, damaging not only your RV but other vehicles, too; not to mention the personal injury you may cause to yourself, your family and other bystanders.

Also, when going uphill you might find that you simply can't reach the top, or that you can reach the top only at the expense of straining the engine, which can lead to costly repairs. Or you might just find yourself far from home with damaged tires and a faulty suspension -- that's enough to ruin any vacation.

Even if you keep the vehicle's weight within appropriate limits, it's also important to distribute the weight for proper balance. Not doing so can affect your ability to control the vehicle including loss of steering control, reduced braking effectiveness and even an increased chance of trailer sway in some circumstances. Experts recommend not only keeping weight evenly distributed from side to side but from front to back, too. The tongue weight of a trailer should be between 10 and 15 percent of the total weight of the loaded trailer. Fifth wheel hitches can accommodate much heavier weights at the tongue -- often as much as 25 percent of the trailer's weight. One critical point to remember when loading up any tow vehicle or trailer -- don't forget to maintain the proper axle weights, based on the GAWR.

Up next, we'll take a look at a basic RV towing safety checklist. Read the next page to find out if you're prepared for that cross-country road trip.

RV Towing Safety Checklist

Practice makes perfect. Find a large open area where you can practice driving maneuvers without placing your vehicles, yourself or others in danger.
Practice makes perfect. Find a large open area where you can practice driving maneuvers without placing your vehicles, yourself or others in danger.
Katrina Brown/iStockphoto

This RV towing checklist is intended to give you just a small taste of some of the safety concerns that you'll need to consider when you're planning to use your RV to tow another vehicle. You might want to use this list as a starting point when creating your own RV towing safety checklist:

Go to RV driving school -- Take a course in RV driving. Truck drivers are required to have a certain minimum level of training; why shouldn't you? If the course includes towing instruction, that's even better.

Practice, practice, practice -- If you have little or no previous RV-towing experience, practice before you hit the road. Find a vacant lot and practice parking, steering and braking to get a sense of how the RV and trailer handle.

Find level ground -- When hooking a trailer to an RV or a fifth wheel RV to your tow vehicle, make sure you're on a level surface. You don't want the trailer to start rolling downhill before you have it on the hitch.

Check the lights -- Make sure all lights (headlights, taillights, turn signals and marker lights) on both the tow vehicle and the trailer are working properly.

Check the tires -- Check the tires on all vehicles to see that the tread is in good condition and that they're properly inflated.

Make detailed plans -- Plan your trip ahead of time. Make note of locations where you might run into trouble with traffic or dangerous road situations.

Secure the load -- Tie down loose objects in the RV and trailer. You don't want things flying around every time you make a turn, hit the brakes or go over a bump.

Be alert -- In bad weather, don't park the RV where something dangerous can fall on it -- like a tree or an electric line.

Pass with care -- Remember that your tow vehicle and trailer take up a lot of space. Between the RV and the trailer, you'll need plenty of extra room to maneuver in and out of traffic.

Choose the correct gear -- When descending or climbing a hill, put the RV or tow vehicle into a lower gear. This gives the vehicle more power for the climb and it will slow the vehicle's descent as well.

Braking concerns -- Don't ride the brakes all the way down an incline; if you do, the brakes will quickly overheat and fail. When it's safe to do so, downshifting may be a good alternative.

Give yourself the space you need -- Give yourself plenty of extra room for stopping. Your RV and trailer have a lot of momentum and even the best brakes won't allow you to stop as quickly as you could without the extra weight behind you.

Avoid reverse gear -- As often as possible, try to avoid situations where you have to back up. If you absolutely have to put the tow vehicle into reverse, have someone stand behind the RV and trailer to guide you using hand signals.

Always be prepared -- Take along a first-aid kit, a fire extinguisher, a flashlight, a toolkit and a cell phone, so that you can handle emergency situations. And don't forget the battery charger for that phone, too.

Carry the right insurance policy -- If you're towing another vehicle behind your RV, make sure your insurance specifically covers this. You may need to add special RV towing insurance to your policy. Remember to keep your insurance information with you whenever you're on the road. You never know when you're going to need your insurance company's help.

­If you'd like to read more about towing, RVs and other related topics, follow the links on the next page. ­

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

More Great Links


  • "RV Travel Safety Tips." (Nov. 19, 2008)
  • Greig, Peter M. "Weights & Balance For RV'ers." RVers Online. (Nov. 19, 2008)
  • McLellan, Ivan P.W. "Notes." Ivan's NZ Photographic Web site.(Nov. 19, 2008)­
  • Ruvo, Christopher. "Empty RV rolls onto highway." The Intelligencer. Sept.13, 2007. (Nov. 19, 2008)
  • RV "RV Fifth Wheel & Travel Trailer Towing Safety Tips." (Nov. 19, 2008)
  • RVers Online. "Practical Tips For Towing." (Nov. 19, 2008)
  • Walter. "RV Safety & Education Foundation Pre-Trip Safety Checklist -- Motorhome." Feb. 7, 2007. (Nov. 19, 2008)