Most of us drive trucks, SUVs or passenger cars daily, and tow an RV only occasionally while vacationing. Thus, it’s always necessary to make a mental transition and try to keep the size and handling characteristics of the larger rig in mind.
Allowing solo-vehicle habits to take over may result in a tendency to make turns too tightly, to run over curbs, to hit stationary objects such as overhanging tree limbs or to follow too closely.
The first towing precautions are those that precede towing — matching the tow vehicle and trailer correctly, adhering to weight limits and making sure hitch selection and adjustment are correct, as described elsewhere in this guide. It’s also important to refresh defensive driving skills. From there, the real fun begins.
The combined length of the tow vehicle and the trailer, as well as the combined weight, must be in the front of your mind, right from the start. Maintaining extended following distances is one of the most important towing-related driving habits that initially is difficult to adhere to.
Even though trailer brakes may be functional, braking distances almost always are extended. It’s also important to make lane changes carefully and slowly, and to allow extended distances for passing. High-quality, properly adjusted towing mirrors with large reflective areas are also essential. Some manufacturers have factory-installed extendible towing mirrors available, and most such factory mirrors work well these days, such as those seen on many Ford trucks. If you need aftermarket portable mirrors, solidly mounted units like those from McKesh are a good idea.
Speedy traffic seems more tolerant of slower 18-wheelers than of slower RVs, which makes courtesy an important safety factor for RV owners because an irate driver trying to pass can pose a serious safety threat. Frequent monitoring of rearview mirrors is necessary while towing; when a vehicle is tailgating and trying to pass, we should help by driving slightly to the right to give the other driver a better view of the road ahead, even if a passing opportunity does not exist at the time. We should use turnouts whenever possible and avoid following another vehicle so closely that a vehicle overtaking from the rear cannot return to the proper lane.
While tow-vehicle and trailer brakes are adequate for most situations, care is necessary to avoid overheating, which can lead to brake fade. If brake fade occurs, it will likely be on steep downgrades. Brake fade happens when friction raises the temperature of brake pads and linings to extremely high levels, resulting in temporary loss of braking.
The only known cure is prevention, such as downshifting to a gear range that is low enough to retard speed sufficiently that brakes need not be used more than occasionally. This way, enough braking performance is reserved to make an emergency stop, should it become necessary.
When braking on a grade is necessary, apply the brakes intermittently, with moderate pressure, and release the pedal to allow the brakes to cool.
The action of electric trailer brakes should be apparent to the driver, and sufficient to handle the trailer’s weight. The controller should be adjusted so that maximum braking action does not cause trailer-wheel lockup. Improper controller adjustment is a major cause of inadequate braking, so it’s wise to study the manufacturer’s instructions. Travel-trailer instability (fishtailing) should not occur in a well-balanced, well-hitched combination, but if it does, independent actuation of trailer brakes usually will bring the trailer back into line. Ford, GM and Dodge all offer factory-installed, fully integrated brake controls on full-size pickups, and these units all work very nicely and are valuable safety components.
When towing with a diesel, an aftermarket exhaust brake can be extremely beneficial, and many newer diesel trucks now offer fully integrated exhaust-brake control.
All trailers require more space for turns, and travel trailers follow the tow-vehicle track more closely than do fifth-wheels, which track farther to the inside of a turn. There is need for continual awareness, which should eventually become second-nature after a modest amount of on-the-road experience.
Fifth-wheel trailers are different to back than conventional trailers, and require more practice for someone accustomed to backing a conventional trailer. A well-used technique involves placing one’s hand at the bottom of the steering wheel and moving it in the same direction the trailer is intended to go. It’s more effective with travel trailers than with fifth-wheels, which often require more turning of the steering wheel.
Handheld two-way radios can allow an assistant to more effectively relay backing instructions to the driver. In addition, back-up cameras — such as those available on many Ford and other trucks — help ease the difficulty of hitching up when a helper isn’t available.
Before each trip, it’s essential to check the tires to assure that inflation pressures match those molded on tire sidewalls (cold), or that they are appropriate for your load (consult the tire and vehicle load/inflation tables). Also, be sure to inspect all vehicle fluids, per standard maintenance procedure during heavy-duty vehicle use cycles, and make sure trailer-wheel lug nuts are tightened to factory specifications.
Trailering is a great way to explore the new horizons and a great way to check out the wonderful camping destinations that are available to owners of recreational trailers. And always keep in mind that defensive driving will pay off in safe travel.