Preparation and Driving Tips for Safe Towing – Consumer Reports

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Whether you’ve been hauling large trailers for years or you’re about to embark on your first family vacation with a small travel trailer, towing isn’t something to be taken lightly.
To pull a trailer behind another vehicle, a driver needs to develop a whole new set of skills. Just the process of hitching and unhitching a trailer from a tow vehicle requires know-how and numerous steps, and forgetting even one crucial element in the process could compromise safety.  
We talked to industry experts and John Ibbotson, Consumer Reports’ chief mechanic and towing master, and consulted the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s trailer towing guide to compile a list of things all towers should think about before they hit the road. We delve into key tasks that should be part of any pretowing checklist and finish up with some driving tips to help towing adventures go more smoothly and safely.
Be sure to check out our primer on towing, a rundown of the tow ratings for the most common compact and full-sized pickups on dealer lots, and more on the configuration needed to achieve maximum tow capacities.  
Once your trailer is safely hooked up to your tow vehicle, it’s finally time to hit the open road and let the adventure begin.
But wait: Towing a trailer—regardless of whether it’s a small pop-up camper trailer, a 20-foot powerboat, or a 30-foot, dual-axle RV travel trailer—requires practice, skill, and an even greater degree of driver attention than what most people are used to.
Below we highlight some important tips for getting you, your truck, and your trailer on down the road to your destination safely.  
Know your trailer. “In many cases, the trailer weighs more than the truck,” says Romain at Ram Trucks. All that extra weight behind the truck will have a huge impact on the truck’s ability to stop quickly and navigate sharp turns. “Height can also be an issue, as travel trailers can be much taller than the truck, so keep clearances in mind when pulling into gas stations or low bridge situations,” Romain says.
Make wider turns at curves and corners. Because your trailer’s wheels will end up closer to the inside of a turn than the wheels of your tow vehicle, the trailer tires are more likely to hit or ride up over curbs. Safe towing requires that the driver take constant care to give a wider berth than usual around any corner.
Allow for longer stopping distances. Stopping distances will increase from what your tow vehicle can normally achieve on its own, because of the added weight of the trailer. This means you’ll need to be more attentive to vehicles stopping suddenly ahead of you when towing, and begin braking sooner than if you weren’t towing.
Drive in the right lane on highways. “Try to drive in the right lane as much as possible, so you can use the extra stopping room of the right shoulder of the road in case you need to brake suddenly,” says Sundling at Driving in the right lane will also make it easier to get over to the shoulder in the case of a tire blowout.
Adjust trailer brakes according to load. Many trailers have electric brakes, and the power level can be adjusted by the driver if the truck is fitted with an optional in-vehicle trailer brake controller system. “It’s important to adjust how heavily the trailer’s brakes are applied,” says CR’s Ibbotson. “For example, you’ll want the trailer’s brakes set to use a lot of force when towing a heavy boat. But when the boat isn’t on the trailer, the trailer’s brakes need to be readjusted for that lighter weight, so the trailer’s tires aren’t locking up and skidding.”
Don’t ride your truck’s brakes on long downhills. Shift the truck’s transmission to a lower gear to help slow the vehicle and take some strain off of the brakes. Many of today’s pickup trucks have a tow/haul mode that, when the driver engages the system, will automatically downshift the transmission when it senses the truck is on a long downhill. Applying the brakes at intervals to keep the speed in check (as opposed to constant application on the brake pedal) will help keep the brakes from overheating.
Use a spotter when backing up. Have someone outside at the rear of the trailer while backing up whenever possible; mirrors—even wide tow mirrors—typically can’t provide all the visibility you may need, particularly in situations where there are other vehicles, objects, or people in close proximity.
Practice driving with a trailer. “Before hitting the road, it’s a good idea to practice accelerating, backing up, braking, making wide turns, and using your sideview mirrors,” says AAA’s Bennett. This is especially important if you are brand-new to the art of towing a trailer behind your vehicle.
Disconnect wiring before launching a boat. Disconnect the trailer’s wiring from the tow vehicle before backing the trailer into the water at a boat launch. This will avoid any electrical problems that might arise from submerging the trailer’s lights in the water.
Check your route ahead of time. “Some roads don’t allow trailers on them, and certain roads also have weight, height, and width limits,” says Mel Yu, CR’s automotive analyst. Planning your route ahead of time will save you from the hassle of having to backtrack to find roads that allow your rig. 
Do you have other tips to make towing easier and safer? Share them in the comments below. 
There are so many vehicles to satisfy your inner adventurer. On the "Consumer 101" TV show, Consumer Reports expert Mike Monticello explains to host Jack Rico what to know about getting these beauties from point A to point B.
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Mike Monticello
After my dad gave me a ride on his Yamaha two-stroke motorcycle when I was 3, I was hooked on anything with an engine. I got a master’s in journalism as a means to an end: To drive cars and get paid for it, which led me to jobs at Road & Track and My most thrilling moment so far has been hurtling down the autobahn at a GPS-timed 217.1 mph in a Ruf Rt12. On weekends you can find me churning dirt on my mountain bike or doing car or motorcycle track days. Follow me on Twitter. (@MikeMonticello)
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