Marine News from the Great Lakes

DEFENSIVE DRIVING - Trailering Style

Published: Wednesday, February 14, 2018
By: John Tiger

Trailer towing doesn’t need to be a harrowing experience. To the contrary, when a trailer and tow vehicle is setup properly, and the driver uses the proper precautions and drives defensively, towing a trailer can be pretty uneventful. There are many thousands of experienced “towers” — including yours truly — who have towed for decades, and over hundreds of thousands of road miles with little, if any, incident. Reassuring, right? But, what about the newbies, those who are just getting behind the wheel and beginning their towing resume? While there is no substitute for experience and no guarantees of safe journeys, fortunately, there are simple steps and guidelines any neophyte can take to help minimize the chances for error.


There’s no substitute for good preparation before a towing trip. Even experienced trailering pros know that if something’s off — tire pressure is low, a trailer light is out, even lack of sleep — can put undue stress on the driver. The key is to minimize this stress so you’re able to handle extraordinary situations more capably.

Start with the tow vehicle and trailer. Here are the key checkpoints that should be “right” before you embark:

  1. Your tow vehicle and trailer should be matched properly; no overloading or towing a load that’s too much for your vehicle.
  2. Your tow vehicle’s hitch should be bolted securely to the frame, and should not be rusty or otherwise compromised.
  3. Your trailer’s weight should be balanced fore-to-aft and side-to-side. The trailer’s tongue weight (TW) should be between 5% and 10% of the gross trailer weight (GTW). If in doubt, measure it on a scale. The cargo in your tow vehicle should be similarly balanced. If the rear of the vehicle and tongue of the trailer are sagging, the package will handle poorly, steer badly, and sway dramatically.
  4. Your trailer’s running gear should be prepped, ready, and working properly. This means:
    1. The tires should have good tread, are not weather checked and cracking, and inflated to the correct pressure. Tire pressure is extremely important. Low tire pressure causes overheating of the tire sidewall, and leads to failure. Check them before and during your trip.
    2. The wheel bearings and grease should be fresh and ready for the trip.
    3. The axle and springs should be in good shape and support your boat adequately.
    4. The trailer frame, bunk supports, and bunks should be solid and support the boat properly.
    5. The trailer lights should all work properly, with a solid ground connection (NOT using the hitch ball as the ground!).
    6. The trailer brakes (if equipped) should be in operating condition. If your boat and trailer’s total load dictate the need for brakes and you don’t have them—don’t tow.
    7. The winch, winch strap, tongue jack, and coupler should all be in working order.
    8. The boat should be properly tied down with straps of adequate breaking strength.
    9. The boat should be retained with an emergency chain at the bow eye, should the winch and tiedown straps break.
    10. The safety chains should be in good condition, and of adequate size to hold the trailer should the coupler become detached. They should be crossed under the tongue and connected securely to the tow hitch’s safety chain loops.
    11. Last—but definitely not least—have  side mirrors, either factory or added on, that are large enough for you to see your boat and trailer and still see traffic around you. Adjust them for best all-round visibility before you drive.

If you’ve never towed a trailer, you’ll be far more confident if you spend time practicing before heading for the highway. Start in a large, empty parking lot, with an experienced trailer tower as co-pilot and instructor. You’ll need plenty of wide open space with few obstructions in order to feel comfortable. In this environment, you can drive slowly, focusing on how the tow vehicle acts with the trailer attached. You can also detach the trailer and perform the same maneuvers to determine the difference between towing and not towing.

When practicing, focus on these areas:

  1. Acceleration: You can feel that the rig will take a lot longer to accelerate to speed than it will without the trailer.
  2. Braking: Similarly, it will take a lot longer to slow down, with a lot heavier pedal pressure, than it does when not towing.
  3. Turning: Turns must be made more slowly and deliberately with the trailer attached, at any speed.
  4. Stability: The truck will feel heavier and “tippier” with the trailer attached. As a result, sudden maneuvers should be avoided, if possible.
  5. Length: The length of the trailer behind the truck must be constantly in your awareness, especially when overtaking slower traffic, turning, backing, maneuvering in tight spaces (such as gas stations), and selecting parking spaces.
  6. Timing: Turn signals must be activated earlier to warn others of your intent.

After several parking-lot practice sessions, try some back roads. Choose roads less traveled so the pressure will be less. If your local roads are less heavily populated at certain times of the day (midday, for example) then try to practice then, as opposed to rush hour.

Practice merging into traffic by accelerating deliberately and firmly up the on ramp, and signaling early to move into traffic. Learn to keep a larger distance between you and traffic up ahead, as it will take your rig longer to slow down. Lastly, learn to drive slower with the trailer attached; if you normally drive at the speed limit or slightly over, then slow by 5 mph or so when towing.

Until you become very comfortable and have several trips’ experience, do not employ cruise control when towing. Having appropriate reaction time to situations is critical.


Towing’s a lot like dealing with strange animals; no sudden movements allowed. Typical reactions won’t work when towing. For example:

  • Sudden lane change or braking directly in front of you: When towing, lay off the gas immediately and, if possible, gently tap the brakes to induce a slowdown without swerving or causing instability.
  • Flat tire on tow vehicle or trailer, or broken suspension/spring: If possible, avoid stomping the brakes suddenly. Deliberately steer to the shoulder and apply the brakes gently, if at all. Use your hazard flashers to warn other drivers.
  • Tongue/coupler failure: Again, no sudden braking. Steer firmly, but slowly, to the shoulder.
  • Trailer swaying/instability: Apply very little steering input while letting off the gas; do not apply heavy braking, as this will make the condition worse. In some cases, applying light throttle pressure will help alleviate the sway.
  • High winds/passing vehicles: These conditions can induce or worsen trailer sway. Again, apply very little steering input, and slow down gradually without applying the brakes.
  • Steep uphill grades: Move to the right lane to allow faster vehicles to pass. Use the “trailer tow” gear to keep engine RPM steady and engine/transmission temps in check.
  • Steep downhill grades (especially those that end in a “T”-intersection): These can be tricky and nerve-wracking. Start by approaching the hill slowly; decrease speed before descending. Drop the transmission gear to “trailer tow” or a lower gear. Do not apply constant brake pressure until absolutely needed (usually at the bottom of the hill), as this will only prematurely heat up the brakes, rendering them less effective. Rather, apply the brakes periodically but firmly, releasing them every few seconds to allow some cooling. If the hill is extremely steep, drop the transmission to low gear to keep speed in check.

Plan your route ahead of time, if possible, so fuel and rest stops are less stressful and less time is spent worrying about where your rig will “fit” when you stop. Remember to keep farther back when following traffic. Don’t hog the passing lane; stay in the slower lanes unless you’re overtaking traffic.

Of course, it should go without saying, no texting, no internet surfing, and, if possible, no talking on the cell phone when towing. Keep radio noise minimized, so you can hear any potential trailer noises and can focus more clearly on driving, towing, and the road around you. Pay attention to the drivers around you; take frequent looks at them in case they may try to signal you regarding your trailer (smoking tire, light out, swaying, etc.).


Parking with a trailer can be challenging. In parking lots, gas stations, rest stops, etc., be careful to leave enough room to maneuver and pull out, without taking up so much space that you make a nuisance of yourself. Pull over to the side, well out of the way of the traffic moving in and out.

If you have to park on an incline, be sure to angle the rig and the front wheels such that if the transmission and/or parking brake fail and the rig moves, it hits the curb and can’t move further.

tags: Boating 101, Hauling, Trailers, Travel

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