10 Maintenance Tips Before You Tow

You have places to go and stuff to haul, but you want to get there in one piece. Well, trailer safety is our first concern too. Learn how to tow a trailer with these expert tips then follow our trailer safety checklist to ensure a great experience.

truck towing trailer

Trailer towing safety tips

Before we get started with our checklist, there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Trailer towing requires increased steering and stopping awareness. Drive accordingly.
  • Make sure your trailer is level when attached to the tow vehicle to ensure safe towing.
  • Make sure the ball and ball shank fit snugly into the ball mount and trailer coupler.
  • Check trailer lights, tire condition and air pressure before towing.
  • Ensure cargo is safe and secure.
  • If you're heading to the lake or shore, stage your boat before you get in line at the ramp.
  • Good towing mirrors that extend past the trailer are a must. You cannot safely back up without them.

Backing up

If you're inexperienced at hauling a trailer, spend some time in the driveway practicing backing up. It’s a lot tougher than the big-rig drivers make it look, particularly when you’re holding up a line of traffic and all eyes are on you. Here’s an old tip truckers use when backing a trailer—grab the bottom of the steering wheel, and turn the steering wheel in the direction you want the trailer to go. Having an extra set of eyes standing off to one side to direct you is also a great help.

Trailer safety checklist

Here are nine items to check each time you’re getting ready to tow a trailer. We're not saying these are the ONLY items that you should check, but they're pretty important.

1. Brakes

Before you tow a trailer, have a helper stand behind the trailer while you run through a test of the brake lights. Also, make sure your brakes are in good working order. When towing, you need more stopping distance and so having brakes that are even slightly worn could be a hazard. When you’re towing, don’t ride the brakes; if you do, then you might overheat them and/or jackknife your vehicle. When driving downhill, drive at a reduced speed, using your brakes as necessary.

If you’re towing a trailer, some come with their own braking systems that need to be connected to your vehicle. Although it takes added skill to coordinate the braking systems, this system means less stress on the towing vehicle’s brakes.

2. Cooling system

Prevent a meltdown. Your vehicle will get heated up by pulling an extra load so your cooling system needs to work optimally to safely tow. So, double check the following before heading out:

  1. Radiator, including hoses and fluids
  2. Water pump
  3. Thermostat and housing
  4. Cooling fan and its switch

3. Hitching devices

Check the hitch ball regularly to make sure that it hasn’t loosened and is still firmly attached to the draw bar. Make sure that the coupler and hitch ball fit together snugly, and ensure that any tow bar used is parallel to the ground when the towed vehicle is attached.

Each piece of towing gear comes with towing capacity limits. Double check that the equipment you have is suitable for what you plan to tow.

4. Safety chains

If your trailer becomes unhitched when you’re towing, the only thing keeping the two vehicles together will be your second line of defense: your safety chains, which are required.

Make sure that the chains you use are sufficient for whatever you’re towing. Light-duty trucks often use 5/16-inch thick chains, while medium-duty trucks often use half-inch thick chains, with heavy-duty trucks using 5/8-inch thick chains. When choosing what thickness to use, make sure that they will help keep the trailer from drifting, while still allowing it to turn easily with your towing vehicle.

Also, when you attach the safety chains to the vehicle, crisscross them underneath the trailer's tongue. That way, if the trailer comes unhitched, the tongue will rest on the chains instead of striking the ground.

5. Springs and shock absorbers

Consider upgrading your tow vehicle's suspension. Add heavy-duty springs and shock absorbers and make sure they're in good shape before each tow. Lighter-duty shocks can cause the towing vehicle to sag in the back while heavy-duty versions will help to keep your vehicle stable and level while towing. As a side bonus, they’ll also make the ride more comfortable.

Be sure to also check your hub bearings when doing your suspension check. While small in size, they can cause major problems when not optimal. If one falls off, the wheel can flip flop around, damaging the brakes and potentially even causing the wheel to become disconnected from your vehicle.

6. Tires

Tires with the correct load rating and proper inflation are important. A common mistake that people make is to check the tires on the truck that will be doing the towing, but not the tires on their trailer. Trailer tires are more likely to wear out from dry rot and age instead of highway miles. Every tire manufactured since 2000 has a DOT alphanumeric code on its sidewall. The last four numbers tell the date of manufacture. For example, 5107 tells you tire was manufactured in the 51st week of 2007. Tires that are five or more years old need to be inspected for signs of possible age-related failure.

Blowouts are doubly dangerous when they occur during towing. If this happens, stay calm and get off the road as quickly as possible. Here are tips for quick tire repairs to get you to the shop, but always be sure to carry a spare vehicle and trailer tire with you.

7. Wiring

Perhaps your truck came pre-wired for trailer towing from the factory or maybe your pre-installed hitch already contains the necessary connector. Whether one of these is true or whether you needed to do your own trailer wiring, you need to make sure that nothing has short circuited before you tow.

And, even if you’ve just bought a new truck, one pre-wired for towing, you will still need to double check that the wiring is adequate enough to run both your truck lights and the trailer lights. You can’t always count on that to be true.

8. Mirrors

Visibility can be a challenge when you’re towing something behind you. You can’t see the other vehicles as well, and they may not see your vehicle as well, either. Consider using extended towing mirrors for increased visibility. You can choose replacement mirrors or wide-angle clip-on mirrors, so test options out to see what works best. Extended mirrors are especially valuable when towing a wide vehicle.

Pro Tip: Because you’re carrying a heavier load, it will take longer to accelerate. Be aware of that if you decide to pass another vehicle.

9. Fluids

If you're going to tow a trailer, you should be following the severe maintenance plan from your vehicle's owner's manual. Check and replace fluids more often, including motor oil. The added weight inherent in towing adds stress to the towing vehicle, causing it to run hotter than normal. Consider using both synthetic motor oil and transmission fluid for added protection. Also check and change your oil filters often for optimal performance.

Bonus towing information:

Lastly, the most important element in safe towing is you, the driver, so make sure that you:

  • Get enough rest before starting to tow
  • Feel confident backing up while the object being towed is attached
  • Take breaks when necessary to rest if going for a long haul
  • Take turns more slowly when towing
  • Leave enough safe distance for braking
  • Have a fully stocked emergency kit with you at all times

Did we miss anything? Leave us a comment and tell us about anything you would add to our trailer safety checklist.

Last updated June 16, 2017

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