How Travel Trailer Towing Works

Travel trailers help us bring the comforts of home into rugged Mother Nature.
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Cell phones, the Internet, plasma TVs, PDAs … as much as civilization and its technologies advance, people still love escaping from it all. Nothing beats packing up the family and getting in tune with nature on a camping trip. Perhaps it's the remnants of the ancestral caveman inside us that prompt us to temporarily shirk material comforts and rough it for a few days. For some reason, fresh air and campfires never lose their charm.

But few of us want to give up the comforts of the modern world entirely -- at least not for too long. Some of us are willing to trade a few minutes of the wilderness experience for the luxury of sitting on an ergonomic toilet seat, for instance. A travel trailer helps us have the best of both worlds and bring the necessities of civilization wherever we roam.


But are you prepared for travel trailer towing? As fun as it can be, towing a trailer can make driving more difficult. You have to factor the large, heavy trailer into maneuvers like turning, braking and parking. Towing requires adjusting your driving habits, which takes concentration and awareness. And then there are the fundamentals like knowing how to properly hitch your trailer to your vehicle. We'll talk about these issues later in this article. But first we'll help you decide what kind of travel trailer is best for you.

If you're in the market for a travel trailer, you have plenty of options. You may yearn to feel the cool breeze while sleeping in your trailer. Or, maybe you'd rather it be a haven from the elements of nature. Do you need to shower daily or are you comfortable with smelling outdoorsy during a vacation? Whether you want sparse necessities or full amenities, you'll find something to fit your needs. So that the terminology and varieties of travel trailers don't get overwhelming, we'll lay out the basics.


Types of Travel Trailers

If you just want the bare necessities, you should look into teardrop trailers.
iStockphoto/ Michael Westhoff

When you decide you're ready to buy a travel trailer, it's probably not the best idea to buy the first one you see. If you're new to the travel trailer world, you may not realize just how many travel trailers types are available. You don't want to be suckered into a quick sale only to envy other vacationers on the road who are towing more appealing trailers.

As with any major purchase, you should analyze your needs and budget. If you have a big family, for instance, or a spouse who doesn't like the idea of living without a shower as much as you do, you'll probably need a trailer with plenty of amenities. You'll also want to look at the limits of your towing vehicle. Towing a travel trailer might add more weight than your vehicle can handle.


Let's get familiar with some of the more popular types of travel trailers. Conventional travel trailers usually have plenty of amenities, like separate bathroom and shower, kitchen, and sleeping areas. Pop-up trailers are a sort of combination tent and trailer. The pop-up trailer is compact (allowing good visibility while driving), but when it's time to set up camp, you can crank a handle or use a hydraulic lift to open up the trailer. The extendable sides and walls are usually made of flexible canvas material. Pop-ups have fewer amenities than other types, but they're relatively inexpensive.

Pop-up trailers may take an extra few minutes to set up, but they are great for packing extra amenities into a small space.
iStockphoto/ Richard Stouffer

Popular in the 1940s, teardrop trailers are making a comeback among minimalist travel trailer towers. These retro models are smaller than your typical travel trailer. A kitchen and a two-person bed are squeezed into the small space. But that tradeoff brings plenty of advantages like easy setup and lighter weight, making for easier towing and better fuel efficiency. It even means you don't need to buy a truck to pull them like you do for our next kind of trailer.

You can quickly tell fifth-wheel trailers or 5ers apart from other trailers because of their shapes and the way they attach to the towing vehicle. Instead of attaching to the rear bumper, a fifth-wheel trailer extends over and attaches to the bed of the truck. These are typically the choice of more serious RVers; they're more expensive but bigger than other kinds of travel trailers. Keep in mind, however, that they usually demand lots of power and drive down your fuel efficiency. On the plus side, they can offer smoother driving because they distribute the load better.

Storage trailers are in a different class. Like the name implies, they're made for lugging stuff rather than living in. Aside from these, there are lightweight trailers (often by virtue of their aluminum frames), telescoping trailers with hard sides that expand and toy haulers which are part storage, part living quarters.

Once you've settled on the travel trailer that fits your needs and budget, you'll need to know the basics of travel trailer towing. Next we'll take a look at some special towing tips.


Travel Trailer Towing Tips

If you don't distribute the weight evenly in your trailer, you may end up with too much weight bearing down on the hitch.
Blaine Franger/UpperCut Images/Getty Images

Travel trailer towing isn't as easy as you may think. Learning how to tow can be as nerve-wracking as learning how to drive -- all over again. You may want to find an empty parking lot to practice driving maneuvers before you head out on the highway. Until you get comfortable with towing, a simple maneuver like parking can become exponentially more difficult. Here are some tips for travel trailer towing to get you revved up.

Getting hitched: First things first -- let's go over the basic process of hitching a trailer to your vehicle for non-5ers. Check the label on the hitch to make sure it can handle the weight of the trailer. If not, you will need a higher class of hitch. With the trailer raised on a jack, drive your towing vehicle in reverse so that the hitch ball is centered to receive the trailer coupler. Once you've got things lined up, put your truck in park and put the parking brake on. Lower the trailer onto the hitch ball until it's completely seated. Then engage the locking mechanism [source: Hedgepath]. After this, you can plug the trailer's wires into the towing vehicle's electrical outlet. Finally, attach the safety chains in a crisscross pattern, allowing enough slack for turns, but short enough to not drag.


Braking: Towing a travel trailer inevitably means lugging around a lot more weight. The heavier your rig, the more momentum you'll have, meaning slowing down gets more dangerous. On the road, make sure you always give yourself plenty of space for braking. The faster you're going, the more space you should allow between yourself and the vehicle in front of you.

Weight distribution: To avoid trailer sway and generally maintain more control over your trailer, make sure to load it properly. This entails spreading the weight around from side to side and from front to back.

Backing up: This is always frustrating for the first-time tower, but easy once you know this trick: Place your hand at the bottom of the steering wheel and move your hand in the direction you want the trailer to go. Turning the wheel clockwise will turn the trailer left, and counter-clockwise will turn it right.

Turning: Keep in mind that you are carrying a long rig. The wheels of your trailer will always make a much sharper turn than the wheels of your towing vehicle. So give yourself plenty of slack by making a wide turn. To learn more about this, take a look at "How to Turn While Towing."

Parking: It's always smart to have someone stand outside and guide you while you park, especially if you're unsure of the dimensions of your rig. Once you're in the right place, shift into park, apply the parking brake and let go of the brake pedal. Then have someone stick blocks behind the tires to prevent them from rolling [source: RV Basics].

If you follow these tips, you'll have a smoother and more enjoyable trip. To learn more about the maneuvers discussed above and other towing information, take a look at the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


  • Bayliner. "Tow Guide." Bayliner, 2006. [Oct. 15, 2008]
  • Brown, Jerry. "Tow-able Choices: Travel Trailer vs Fifth Wheel."[Oct. 18, 2008]
  • Camping Earth. "Popup Campers." Camping Earth. [Oct. 18, 2008]
  • Camping Earth. "The Definitive Guide to Travel Trailers." Camping Earth. [Oct. 18, 2008]
  • Camping Earth. "The World of Teardrop Campers." Camping Earth. [Oct. 18, 2008]
  • Hedgepath, Albert. "How to Hook Up a Trailer to a Vehicle." Expert Village. [Oct. 18, 2008]
  • RV Basics. "RV Fifth Wheel and Travel Trailer Towing Safety Tips." RV Basics. [Oct. 18, 2008]