Tips on Towing a Large Travel Trailer by Car for the First Time

Thousands of drivers use their cars or pickup trucks to pull a trailer. The last several years have shown a substantial increase in the purchase and use of recreational vehicles (RV’s) and trailers. 

This chapter of our car maintenance website can help you tow any vehicle, whether it is a small boat trailer, a carryall trailer, a tent trailer, or even a large travel trailer.

Via: SportChassis Trucks

General Information

You can refer to the Owner’s Manual for information and suggestions before towing any trailer. 

Passenger cars are designed to be used primarily as passenger conveyances, and a vehicle used for towing a trailer handles differently, requires more frequent servicing, and costs more to operate. 

Safety depends on avoiding overloads and using the correct equipment properly.

The highest trailer weight that any car can pull efficiently depends on the vehicle’s mass and the special equipment installed on the car as recommended by the manufacturer. 
Never tow any trailer unless your vehicle is adequately equipped.
The best way to tow a massive (2,000 pounds or more) trailer and load is with a frame-mounted, load-equalizing hitch with sway control for stabilization. 
A hitch that bolts to the frame is better than a welded hitch because welds sometimes crack or break. Avoid bumper hitches if possible, except on the recommendation of a reputable trailer rental agency.

Do not use axle-mounted hitches, causing damage to the axle housing, wheel bearings, wheels, and tires. Follow the advice of your trailer dealer or a reputable installer of trailer hitches.

All trailer hitches should have two safety chains adequately attached. Some states require safety chains to be attached to the trailer tongue between the ball and the trailer as the ball is the most likely part to fail in case of an accident.

As a rule of thumb, the trailer’s tongue load should be no more than 10 percent of the loaded trailer weight. 

Shifting the distribution of the load in the trailer can vary the tongue load. The mass of the tongue load on the rear of your car means you should carry less weight inside your vehicle, particularly in the trunk. 
Since you need more air pressure in your tires when your car is carrying loads, ask a tire dealer for the correct pressure. 

But do not put in more than the maximum pounds/square inch (psi) of pressure given on the side of the tire.

Maintenance schedules differ for cars that pull trailers. The automatic transmission should be serviced every 12,000 miles, or twice as often as regular car use. 

Change the engine oil about twice as often as you usually do. 

Depending on the amount of the load to be pulled, the cruising speed, and the distance to be traveled, you may require to install a transmission fluid cooler; consult your automobile dealer.

Mount a standard ball-and-socket towing hitch on the passenger side of the front bumper of your car to maneuver a small boat trailer or other small trailers into tight spots. 


This tip is helpful for boat launching or for turning around on narrow roads.

You may be eligible for a trucker’s discount on gas if you use a pickup truck to pull your trailer; ask about this discount when you buy gas.

Travel Trailers

The following tips will be beneficial for drivers towing large travel trailers:

Selection of Trailer and Towing Car

Trailers with tandem wheels (four wheels and two axles) have less sway and are more easily controlled on the highway. 

Do not use small or medium-sized cars to tow medium to large (twenty-two-foot to thirty-foot) travel trailers or trailers that are too heavy. 

Check with your car dealer; too big a trailer is unsafe and places a severe strain on the smaller car’s body and engine.

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You can equip a towing car with a low-ratio differential at the time of purchase or later. 

It causes the engine to turn faster than the wheels to produce more power and consume more gas when you operate the car without the trailer. 

An alternative is to select a vehicle with a larger engine and a standard ratio differential.

Some trailer owners use air shocks or booster shocks on the tow car to permit the trailer and car to “level up.”

It means the shocks on the rear of the vehicle can maintain the trailer’s weight and keep the car level. 

Booster shocks are especially desirable for a car with soft springs; heavy-duty springs can be stiff and give you a bumpy ride when you do not pull the trailer.

Trailer Hitch

Medium to heavy trailers place a heavy load on the rear of a car, and some of this weight must be shifted to the front wheels of the tow car. 

This weight shift involves tremendous forces in the trailer hitch and points mounted to the vehicle. 
Using tension bars, weight-distributing hitches are engineered to distribute hitch weight equally to the four wheels of the tow car and the trailer. 

You should also install one or two sway bars, as they are essential for minimizing the trailer’s sway in poor road conditions, high crosswinds, sudden swerves, and passing large vehicles, such as trucks.

Buy a hitch recommended by a reputable and experienced travel trailer dealer and has the hitch installed by a professional. 

Examine the hitch often during use, especially during the first few days of towing, paying particular attention to welding that may have developed cracks or other signs of failure. 
Be sure to install a breakaway switch, which usually consists of a cord or fine wire strung between the hitch’s two halves. 

When the cord or wire is broken for any reason, the trailer’s electric brakes are applied automatically.

Another system operates when the cord is pulled, closing a switch that activates the brakes. Incidentally, safety chains are required in most states.


Heavy trailers cannot be towed safely without the ability to brakes the trailer wheels.

Thus the trailer should have electric brakes. These can be activated manually or using a brake pedal switch. 
In which case, your foot on the brake will operate the electric brakes before the car’s brake pedal moves enough to actuate the car’s brakes. 

Test the trailer braking system at the start of each trip after being hooked up to the vehicle.


The tow car’s tires should be of high quality, in excellent condition, and explicitly inflated for the load you carry. 

Radial tires are especially recommended for vehicles pulling trailers: they are more dependable, give more miles of service, and run cooler under loads than other types of tires. 

Buy the best tires you can get for your trailer if you pull a heavy trailer long distances.

Trailer tires don’t give a readily detectable warning when they start going flat. Once flat, the tires are soon ruined if the trailer is moving. 

Carry a spare wheel and tire for your trailer, and do not forget a lug wrench for your trailer wheels. Every new trailer owner should practice changing a tire before he has to do so on the road.

Trailer Jack

Carry a hydraulic jack with ample capacity. 

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With some trailers, if you use a jack under the axle to raise it enough for the bottom of the tire to clear the ground, you will have difficulty getting the spare into the wheel well and onto the hub. 
A better method is to raise the trailer by placing jack stands beneath the trailer frame at the front. 

Then use a hydraulic jack and some wooden blocking under the rear bumper to lift the trailer body. The axle sags and the tire will go on or come off quickly.

Wheel Bearings

Keep an eagle eye on the wheel bearings; be confident they are properly lubricated and adjusted.


Some types of refrigerators must be level to operate correctly. 


You can use a carpenter’s level in the freezer compartment.

Or two small levels that are designed to be mounted on the exterior of the trailer.


Your engine’s ability to pull a trailer of a certain weight without over-heating depends on several things: the horsepower, the differential gear ratio, the cooling system, the transmission cooling system, the speed traveled, and the terrain. 


A skillful driver knows the safe range of his car and stays within these limits.

Since your car engine will need to dissipate more heat when pulling a trailer, additional cooling capacity is a good investment with heavy models.

You can order a car from the manufacturer with a “trailer-pack,” which usually includes a heavy-duty radiator and a transmission fluid cooler; the dealer can install both if the vehicle isn’t provided at the factory.

Install a water temperature gauge on your car if it has only a warning light to signal heat build-up. Slow down, turn off the AC, or take other steps before the engine gets too hot and is damaged. 


If you drive in the mountains, shift to a lower gear before the engine labors and strains.


Some states require $100,000/$300,000 minimum liability insurance on all travel trailers.
Know your coverage and the insurance laws of your state.

Things You Should Carry for Your Travel Trailer

I recommend that you carry a spare tire and wheel for your travel trailer, a lug wrench for the trailer wheels, and a hydraulic jack of sufficient capacity. 

Your trailer should have two levels mounted on the outside. 

One on the tongue end and the other on one side of the trailer. In addition to this, you should carry:

  1. Four-wheel chocks or blocks
  2. Two stabilizer jacks (preferably four)
  3. A small shovel
  4. Ax
  5. A tow rope, about fifty feet of %-inch or 1-inch nylon, is satisfactory
  6. An assortment of small tools, adjustable wrenches, etc.


When you first get your travel trailer, practice towing and back¬ing up on a shopping center parking lot, a school ground, or a vacant athletic field. 


Skillful trailer drivers are not born that way; they achieve handling skills through practice. With a properly equipped car, trailer towing is safe, provided the driver is careful and confident.


You can often find a drive-through pad when parking your travel trailer.

When it is necessary to back a trailer into a parking space, you will find it helpful to have someone stand outside the car and direct you.


Emergencies and problems may arise when towing a trailer. Keep calm and use common sense, and you can probably solve the problem without undue stress or risk and little or no damage.

If your car brakes fail without warning, activate the electric brakes on the trailer. Apply them firmly with a snubbing action (apply brakes, then release, use, and release). 

Applying the brakes consistently with no cooling interval may result in the brakes getting so hot they will no longer operate correctly. 
A twenty-foot or larger travel trailer probably has enough braking capability to stop itself and the towing vehicle if the driver handles the brakes correctly. 
Simultaneously, with automatic transmission, move the gear lever into second gear, then into low. 

With the manual trans, keep shifting down until the towing vehicle’s speed is reduced as much as possible by using the engine as a brake.

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What do you do if your brakes fade? The brakes on your car may fade away on lengthy downgrades that require frequent braking, a problem that is more likely to occur with drum brakes than with disc brakes. 

You will smell a strong odor of overheated brake linings. Stop your car and trailer using the procedure already mentioned. 
Pull off the road and let the brakes cool for thirty minutes or longer; re¬moving the hub caps will help the hubs to cool quicker. 
Drive more slowly and in lower gears when you start again, using engine drag for a brake. 

At the earliest opportunity, get a reputable mechanic to check your brakes’ condition and make any needed repairs.

If you are driving up a steep incline while pulling your trailer, and your engine dies, but the emergency brake will not hold, stop the car with your foot brake, holding it down while you get someone to put wheel chocks or blocks behind the rear wheels of the trailer or the vehicle.

If you don’t have some wood blocks, perhaps your helper can locate rocks, logs, bricks, or other material to block the rear wheels. 


Spare tires and wheels can be used for chocks.

Suppose your trailer disconnects at high speed. When the weight-distributing hitch fails, the trailer tongue will probably sink to the ground, either by breaking the safety chains or pulling down the rear of the car. 

Do not slam on the brakes! Doing so will probably snap the safety chain, and the trailer will plow into your vehicle, damaging both of them. 
Take your foot off the gas and manually use the trailer brakes. If they are not working, you will have to coast to a stop. 
Continuously drive to the side of the road. If road conditions permit, drive onto the shoulder to help decrease the car’s speed and the trailer. 

The breakaway switch should apply the trailer brakes immediately if the trailer breaks away wholly.

If you have a blowout at high speed, do not slam on the brakes! Take your foot off the accelerator and manually apply the trailer brakes. 

Let your car and trailer begin to slow down and get your car’s steering under control. Hold the wheel firmly and gradually edge the vehicle over to the side of the road. 
Try to avoid using the car brakes, and stop with the trailer brakes instead. 
If necessary, use the car brakes lightly and cautiously, holding the trailer brakes manually. 
If there is a wide shoulder, ease the car onto it. If there is no shoul¬der, use emergency flashers to alert other drivers. 
It is more agreeable to drive on a flat tire to get off a busy highway than to try to replace a tire where heavy traffic endangers your life.

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