Trailering Tips for Newbies header image

Trailering Tips for Newbies

With nicer weather coming, you may be dreaming of some fun outdoor activities. Before you can hook up that ATV, boat trailer or camper trailer, there are a few things you’ll need to before even getting on the road. Along with general vehicle maintenance such as checking the tires, lights, safety chains and coupler connections, we’ll walk you through making sure you have a safe trip. 

Before You Tow a Trailer

Before you even start your truck, check if you are under the gross vehicle weight and gross combined weight ratings for both your truck and the trailer. You should also check the hitch receiver, trailer hitch and hitch ball to ensure they can handle the weight that will be towed. Before you back your pickup truck to the trailer, make sure that the connections are greased keeping the kingpin or hitch ball greased will prolong the life of your towing equipment. 

Hooking Your Trailer Up

Once everything is ready, it’s time to hook up the trailer. Start by plugging in the lights, then connect the chains and breakaway cable. Your chains should be crossed and adjusted so they are not dragging on the ground. Most couplers need to be locked into place so you want to be sure to lock them correctly.

 Once everything is connected, check all the lights by walking around the truck and trailer. You may need a buddy to help activate the turn signals and brakes for you. While you’re walking around the vehicle, check the tires on the truck and trailer to make sure they are properly inflation and don’t show any signs of damage. 

Testing the Brakes

You’re another step closer to towing your first trailer! After you’re sure everything is connected properly, you can move on to checking the trailer brakes. If your truck has a trailer brake controller and electric brakes, or elective over hydraulic brakes, push the brake pedal and shift into Drive. Apply the trailer brakes, release the truck brakes and let the vehicle roll forward until they stop. It can take a few yards for the trailer brakes to apply, don’t be alarmed if it doesn’t stop immediately. If after a few yards, they still have not stopped, check the wiring connections, the settings on the trailer brake controller and the trailer brakes themselves.

For surge brakes (commonly found on boat trailers), testing is a little more difficult. You have to test them at while going faster so they have time to engage before the truck stops the load. It can take some practice, but with experience you will be able to find the threshold of when they are and aren’t working. Check the battery, if your trailer has one, to make sure it is charged and working, otherwise the breakaway cable may not function correctly.

Getting On the Road with the Trailer in Tow

Time to get your trailer towing! Now that you’ve connected the trailer correctly and tested the brakes, you’re ready to drive. Pulling a trailer requires you to be more attentive but if it’s correctly connected and properly loaded, driving shouldn’t be any more stressful than it usually is. Assuming you’re in a pickup, use Tow/Haul mode to set the engine and transmission parameters for towing.

While driving, remember to take wide turns. Trailers will cut corners sharper than the truck pulling it. Right turns will need more space.

 Make sure you also consider the width of the trailer. Trailers can be much wider than the truck pulling them. That means there’s less room for error when keeping the truck and trailer in its intended lane or squeezing into small spaces.

It’s also a good idea to give more space between you and other travelers. Acceleration and braking are both affected by the additional weight of the trailer.

While going up and down hills, shift into a lower gear early. Even if you have an automatic transmission, it should allow you to manually shift. Getting into a lower gear will help keep the speed up while going uphill and provide engine braking while going down.

 If your truck has an exhaust brake, you will want to use that going downhill. It helps slow the vehicle without heating up both the truck and trailer’s brakes.  If your truck just has service brakes, slow the vehicle in 10-mph increments to keep them for overheating on long descents. For example, if the desired speed is 55 mph and vehicle is accelerating past that speed, apply the service brakes until the vehicle is at 45 mph. You’ll hold the brakes with just enough pressure to keep a constant speed. Using your brakes for shorter times and allowing them to cool before between uses can prevent overheating or fading them.

Make Sure Your Mirrors are Effective

Keep your mirrors extended past the width of your trailer, or you’ll be left with large blind spots that make changing lanes and making turns dangerous. Your mirrors will also help while backing up. If your mirrors aren’t wide enough or your vehicle doesn’t have adjustable side mirrors, you can buy extended mirrors to help you when you’re towing a trailer.

Go Easy When Backing Up

The biggest thing to remember when you’re backing your trailer is to go slow. If you go too fast, even small movements of the steering wheel can quickly cause a trailer to jackknife. If you have trouble remembering which way to turn the wheel, put a hand on the bottom of the steering wheel. If you want to turn the trailer to the right, move your hand to the right. If you want to turn it to the left, move your hand to the left. Practicing in an open parking lot before can help you feel more comfortable. Remember, the longer the trailer, the slower it responds to changes. Take your time, and if you aren’t sure about the positioning, just stop, pull forward and try again.

Like many new things, trailering for the first time can be stressful and uncomfortable at first. As you gain more experience, that stress will go away, it may even become fun. Developing good habits early helps make sure every ride is safe. Before you hook up your trailer, contact your Farm Bureau agent to make sure you’re covered properly. 

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