How To Setup A Trailer For Towing
Get Your Load On...and keep it on.
From the November, 2010 issue of Mopar Muscle
By Randy Bolig
Photography by Randy Bolig
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.
The first thing we needed...
The first thing we needed to do was to get a trailer. We had a choice when looking, between a trailer with a rating of 7,500 pounds or 9,000 pounds. Even with a C-Body on our trailer, a 7,500 pound rating would be plenty.
Of the two choices of hitches...
Of the two choices of hitches you can use, the cheapest and easiest one to use is the simple weight carrying hitch. This hitch doesn't use any load leveler bars or sway control.
If you're carrying a heavier...
If you're carrying a heavier load, or even just want some added control of your trailer, getting a weight distributing hitch is a very good upgrade. While looking at www.jcwhitney.com, we found this 1,000 pound distributing system manufactured by Curt Manufacturing. Like we said before, a load distribution hitch provides better control of your vehicle and trailer by applying leverage across the trailer tongue and tow vehicle. This even distribution allows for a more stable ride and better control for braking and steering.
The first thing you need to...
The first thing you need to do is to make sure you have the height of the adjustable ball mount proper for your application. Following the instructions sent with the hitch assembly is straightforward.
An optional item that you...
An optional item that you may wish to check into getting is a sway control. This one shown is what's known as a friction style.
The unit actually clamps around...
The unit actually clamps around a flat bar that mounts from the tow vehicle hitch assembly to the trailer tongue, and prevents the trailer from swaying.
At some point, you will wish...
At some point, you will wish you had a winch on the front of your trailer. Let's face it, having a trailer means you will be hauling cars that are broke down, whether they be yours or not. The winch we got from www.jcwhitney.com is from Mile Marker, and it's definitely heavy duty with an 8,000 pound pull rating.
The first thing you'll need...
The first thing you'll need to do is mount your winch. Since our trailer is long enough and has a solid floor, we mounted it right to the bed of the trailer. Now, just because you have a solid floor doesn't mean that it's strong enough to support pulling a load. In our case, the floor is
The Mile Marker winch has...
The Mile Marker winch has a remote-mountable control box that we simply mounted to the winch as suggested by Mile Marker (www.milemarker.com).
Next, hook the supplied battery...
Next, hook the supplied battery cables to the winch. This means you'll need a battery, and we'll show you where we mounted that shortly.
Tag along hitches come in classes ranging from Class 1 to Class 5. Class I hitches can be used to tow a trailer with a gross trailer weight (GTW) of 2,000 pounds, and a maximum tongue weight of 200 pounds. Class II hitches will safely tow up to 3,500 pounds and handle 300 pounds of tongue weight. Class III hitches can pull up to 5,000 pounds of trailer weight with 500 pounds of tongue weight. Classes IV and V are considered to be heavy duty trailer hitches. A class IV hitch will handle up to 5 tons of trailer weight and a trailer tongue of 1,000 pounds. Class V hitches accommodate weights over 5 tons.
Tag along hitches come in two styles, a weight carrying hitch and weight distributing hitch. If you intend to tow fairly light loads (under 5,000 pounds total), then you will probably only need a weight carrying hitch. This is a simple hitch that fastens your trailer directly to the tow vehicle and carries the load itself directly behind the vehicle. While this system works fine, you may consider steeping up to a weight distributing hitch. A weight distributing hitch is one that uses sidebars (load levelers), to redistribute the weight from the rear axle of the tow vehicle towards the front. A weight distributing hitch is used to carry heavy loads and will help stabilize the trailer when being towed, and should be considered mandatory when hauling anything over 5,000 pounds total tow weight.
When deciding on a hitch class and style, don't forget to consider the ball size as well. Hitch balls come in three sizes; 1-7/8 inch, 2-inch, and 2-5/16 inch. While a larger ball generally means that it can handle more weight being fastened to it, hauling capacity is actually determined by the hitch class. However, trailer balls are classified by the dimensions on the different parts of the ball itself. First, there's the diameter of the ball itself (the distance around the center of the ball). Also to consider is the shank's (Threaded portion) diameter, the shank's length, and the size of the circular piece of metal between the ball and shank. The most common ball size is 2 inches, but heavy-duty industrial trailer balls can go up to 2-5/16 inch. The diameter of your ball mount's hole in the receiver of the hitch mount must be no more than 1/16-inch greater than the ball shank diameter in order to fit. The necessary shank length is determined by the thickness of your ball mount platform - you don't want to get a ball whose shank is so small you can't lock the nut in place. You'll also need to make sure that you buy a ball to properly fit into your coupler on the trailer.
Once you finally have the proper trailer for your needs purchased, what's the proper way to put your load on it? The way you load the trailer can determine how easy you can tow it. While loading, keep in mind that the tongue weight should be approximately 10 to 15percent of the total loaded trailer-weight. One of the main causes of trailer sway is not having enough trailer tongue-weight as compared to gross trailer weight. To help prevent the trailer from swaying back and forth, a few things can be done. Try moving the car forward on the trailer. Trailer sway can also lead to a loss of vehicle control. When starting out with a car on a trailer, make sure the trailer will not sway by gradually increasing your speed in intervals until highway speed is reached.
If you have too much tongue weight (load too far forward), you will notice problems with the steering--and this is a bad thing. Think of it this way, if you have too much tongue weight, the rear of the tow vehicle is pushed down. If the rear of the tow vehicle is pushed down, what does that do to the front of it--your steering wheels are leaving the ground and you can't steer.
When you position your car on the trailer begin by making sure that the car's weight is close to being evenly distributed over the trailer's axles. If your car is too far forward on the trailer, you'll have too much tongue weight, see above paragraph. Similarly, if the car's weight is positioned too far back on the trailer, you won't have enough tongue weight, again see paragraph above.
Once the vehicle is safely onboard, you can put your car in gear. Make sure to secure the car from both the front and rear, with your tie downs pulling in opposite directions. This keeps the vehicle from rolling forward and backward on the trailer. If both ties are pulling in the same direction, you've got a problem and will need to reevaluate your system. Make sure to connect to good, solid mounting points on both the car and the trailer, and stop to check everything once you've gone 10-15 miles. We try to attach the tie downs to the FRAME of the car. If you attach the tie downs to the suspension, or the axles, the suspension on the car can still "work". Think of it like this, if your car's suspension is working, it is basically bouncing on the trailer. If you tie the car down using point ABOVE the suspension, the force of tying the car down will inhibit the suspension from bouncing.
Speaking of tying the car down, don't plan on using small 1-inch ratchet ties like those you can purchase at a swap meet. The most common straps that people use for a car trailer are rated for at least 2,500 pounds of breaking strength. So, theoretically, if you use two straps for each end of the car--and you should--hat gives you 5,000 pounds of breaking strength. Is that enough? Let's look at it this way, if you tie your car down using a 30 degrees-from-vertical angle, you'll effectively have only 75 percent of the strap's rated value. Now, if most people use two straps at each end of the car, which gives a rating of 5,000 pounds, don't forget that the adjusted value is only 3,750 pounds due to the strap angle. Now let's say that the average weight of a vehicle is 3,000 pounds. This may sound like you still have a lot of extra strap strength, but in a crash, it is easy to pull 2 or 3 G's in an impact. So if we take just 2 times the weight of your 3,000 pound car (2 G's), that is 6,000 pounds. Your 2,500 pound rated straps have just broken and your car is now flying towards the front of the trailer--and you. In other words, making sure your straps will support the load during BAD conditions is a must. An easy formula to remember when choosing straps is this; choose a strap with a single-strap breaking-strength rating of at least 2 or 3 times the weight of your car that you are hauling.
Now that we've gotten the basics out of the way, where do you go to get the stuff you need to outfit your new trailer? We found a company that has been around for as long as we can remember, and we're almost positive that every car enthusiast has purchased at least one part from them in their lifetime. J.C. Whitney (www.jcwhitney.com) has long been a supplier of anything automotive, and when we found out that they have everything we needed to outfit our trailer at reasonable prices, we decided to check it out.
When you get a trailer, you'll...
When you get a trailer, you'll also need to get tie down straps, and hitching supplies. So, you might as well have a place to keep them.
A tool box like this one from...
A tool box like this one from Delta is large enough to hold all the accessories you will need for your trailer, including the previously mentioned battery. Simply bolt it to the tongue, and you're done.
To run the winch, an Optima...
To run the winch, an Optima yellow top battery (www.optima.com) was chosen because of its deep cycle capabilities. Here you can see we have already run the winch connections through grommets in the back of the tool box.
If you are utilizing a winch...
If you are utilizing a winch and battery, you now have to figure out how you'll charge it. You can either charge it before each use with a portable battery charger, or wire it so that the alternator of the tow vehicle charges it each time it's hooked up. If you choose the latter, most 7-pin trailer connections have a fused hot-lead coming from the truck--it should be the very center pin in the connector. Connect the red wire coming from the trailer plug's center pin, to the positive side of the battery. A good idea is to also at least wire a fuse into the system as well. The negative battery terminal will also need connected to something and since our trailer connector had a ground wire going directly to the trailer frame, that's where we connected the trailer's battery ground.
Once you have your trailer...
Once you have your trailer outfitted, how do you properly position your load? Positioning your car too far forward makes the front of the truck light, and steering becomes unsafe. Too much weight near the rear of the trailer, and your loaded trailer will sway dangerously while going down the road.
As a rule of thumb, place...
As a rule of thumb, place the front of the car slightly ahead of the trailers axles, so to SLIGHTLY lower the rear of the tow vehicle below its normal ride-level. This is a trial and error game until you learn what your trailer and tow vehicle like.
When it comes to actually...
When it comes to actually strapping the car to the trailer, there are varying opinions. One person might say to strap the car by its axles. On the other hand, some say to fasten the car by strapping down the body. We choose the later scenario. By strapping the body down, the car's suspension is unable to "work", and this prevents the car from having more "leverage" as it's hauled. Look at it like this; if you allow the suspension of the car AND the trailer to work, it not only allows the car to possibly bounce around on the trailer, but it can add an extra instance of centrifugal force to a given situation.
You also want to make sure...
You also want to make sure that your tie down straps are of sufficient rating. Remember, the tie downs strength will be tested the hardest during a bad situation. Why wait until then to find out your straps are not strong enough. You can buy a cheap 2,000 pound rated strap, that might be sufficient, or you can spend a couple extra bucks for a higher rated strap, and know for sure. We personally got 4, 6,000 pound straps--we should be fine.
What's Back There Many a...
What's Back There
Many a tail gate has been damaged by backing into the tongue of a trailer. Short of having a buddy back there to guide you in, what's a guy to do? Thanks to modern technology, simply install an inexpensive, economical camera and you're good to go. We got our hands on a new Roadmax system (www.roadmaxgear.com). The Roadmax not only has the back up camera feature, but it's GPS enabled as well. So, after your camera screen guides you in, it can then take you to where you need to go.