One of the questions we seem to receive frequently is one asking about setting up a car trailer for use, and how to properly load it. Let's face it, there are times when driving your car to a particular location just isn't as feasible as throwing it on a trailer (I know, driving it is much more fun, but sometimes, you just gotta haul it). Anyway, since we get this question a lot, we decided to shed some light on the subject.

Lucky for me, this gave me the perfect excuse to go buy a trailer for myself. "Yes dear, it's for work so I HAVE to buy it". Anyway, before you plunk down your hard earned cash, there are a few things you need to think about. The first, and this an important one, how much weight can your vehicle SAFELY tow? To find out what the maximum towing weight of your vehicle is, check the owner's manual. If you can't find it in there, you can ask your local dealer, or do an online search. Once you have determined the maximum load your vehicle can safely tow, deduct the trailer's weight from this figure. Example: Our 2008 Dodge Ram 1500 quad cab has a rated towing-capacity of approximately 9,100 pounds. This is the amount of towed payload the truck can theoretically haul with a particular trailer. So, if you get a trailer weighing 1,500 pounds, the load you can theoretically put on the trailer is no more than 7,600 pounds. The actual number will also be limited by the weight rating of the trailer. We found that the average weight rating of an open trailer is usually around 7,500 pounds. When determining the capacity of the tow vehicle you plan to use to pull your trailer, don't just think about its ability to pull the trailer, you also need to eventually stop at some point. (If the trailer and payload weigh more than the vehicle, it will be harder to stop.) Most full-size pickups can come optioned from the dealer with a Class IV trailer hitch that is rated for up to 10,000 lbs.

Tongue weight is also a much overlooked part of trailer hauling that needs to be addressed. A safe tongue weight is usually considered to be 10 percent of the hitch's total rated-capacity. This isn't the rating of the ball on the hitch, but the hitch rating itself. A ball is rated by its towing capacity. A hitch is rated by not only its towing capacity but also by the tongue weight. If you are only using a bumper-mounted type hitch, don't even think of towing anything your wife can't lift onto the ball by herself.

Another mistake we often see is people pulling a loaded car trailer without any trailer brakes being used. This is not a very bright idea. Let me be clearer about this--these people are idiots. There is no excuse for pulling a trailer that does not have the brakes connected to the tow vehicle. Any trailer with a capacity of over 3,000 pounds should have a mandatory, functioning brake system of its own. If you are not sure about hooking an electronic brake system to your vehicle, then the trailer you ultimately decide to purchase should have what is called surge brakes.

There have always been questions about the legality of the use of surge brake systems. DOT regulations specify that trailers with brakes must be fitted with an actuator that allows the tow-vehicle driver to operate the trailer brakes independent of the tow vehicle brakes. In other words, he must be able to actuate the trailer's brakes without stepping on the tow vehicle brake pedal. Surge brakes do not offer this feature. They work using the deceleration force present as the tow vehicle stops. When the driver applies the tow vehicle brakes, the surge brake coupler's internal master cylinder compresses against the coupler body--much like your brake pedal against the master cylinder of your car when you stop it. Unfortunately, there's no way for the driver to independently apply the trailer brakes in case of emergency. Until April of 2008, surge brakes were technically illegal to use. But that was a "technicality" that was overlooked for decades. Surge brakes are still fairly popular, and probably will continue to be for years into the future.

It's the 21st Century, and trailer brakes have come a long way. How many of you guys reading this remember hacking into the brake line of your tow vehicle, and splicing in a fluid line for your trailer brakes? Now, it's all controlled by electronics. There are two types of electronic brake controllers that you need learn about to know what will work best for you. The first type we'll talk about is proportional brake controllers. With this style of controller, once the brake pedal is stepped on, a motion sensing device in the controller knows how fast or hard the tow vehicle is applying the brakes. It then applies power to the trailer brakes equally as fast (or slow) as the towing vehicle. This allows the trailer to stop at the same rate as the tow vehicle. Therefore, in an extreme stopping situation where the vehicle brakes are slammed on, a proportional controller will immediately send the maximum preset power to the trailer brakes.

This type of brake controller provides the smoothest and quickest braking while also providing the least amount of wear on both the vehicle and trailer's brakes. Proportional controllers are activated by the brake pedal switch in the tow vehicle. When properly adjusted the trailer will decelerate at the same rate as the tow vehicle, increasing braking efficiency and reducing brake wear.

The next electronic system we'll look at is a timed-delay controller. With time delayed trailer brake controllers, when the tow vehicles brakes are applied, the pre-determined amount of power--preset by the user--is sent back to the trailer brakes. On time delayed controllers, a delay always exists from when the brake pedal is pushed to when the unit reaches the user set, maximum power output. The delay can be shortened or lengthened with the sync switch, available on most time delayed controllers, but it behaves the same way for every stop (slow or fast). If the sync switch is set too low, the vehicle will do most of the initial braking, putting extra strain on the vehicle's brakes. If the sync switch is set too high, the trailer will be braking harder. So in most cases, either the truck or the trailer will be doing the majority of the braking, resulting in uneven brake wear.

Whichever electronic brake controller you choose, for the brakes to work, the trailer must be connected to a tow vehicle equipped with an electric brake controller. Unlike surge brakes on a trailer, electric brakes are not independent of the tow vehicle. When you step on the brake pedal in the tow vehicle, the controller receives a signal from the brake light switch that the brake has been applied. This causes the controller to switch higher current power to the trailer brake. The degree to which the trailer brake is applied is determined by the adjustments the driver makes to the controller.

Hitches for towing come in many different styles, you can have 'tag-along styles which consist of a trailer hook up behind the frame, or a fifth wheel or goose neck style where the trailer connects to the truck via a hitch system on top of the frame in the bed of the truck. For most of, a tag along style will be used, so that's what we'll focus on.