How to Safely Tow A Trailer

Whether you tow trailers as part of your job or for personal use, you need to know how to safely tow a trailer before you hitch up.  Because summer brings an increased volume of vehicle towing trailers, whether for moving to new homes, returning boats to the water, or taking campers to the great outdoors, now is the time for a thorough safety review!

Safely towing a trailer is extremely important because, if not properly performed, trailering can be dangerous and even deadly. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), an average of 500 people are killed each year in accidents involving a passenger vehicle towing a trailer.


Choose the Right Hitch

Hitch TypesFirst things first.  Check your fleet policy to ensure you are authorized to use your company vehicle for towing and what, if any, limitations are placed on this function.

Next, be sure to choose the right hitch for your vehicle and cargo weight.  There are five (5) classes of trailer hitches which align with your vehicle type and towing capacity.  Kelly Blue Book offers a guide to Towing Capacity and hitch classes that is helpful.

Be familiar with the hitch types available.  Here are some considerations for the most commonly used hitch types:

Ball Hitch

    • It comes in different sizes, and it is imperative you use the size hitch ball that matches your trailer coupling. Using an unmatched hitch ball can result in trailer separation which can cause a serious accident.
    • They are typically mounted on a removable draw bar that can be attached and removed from the hitch receiver which is permanently mounted on the vehicle.
    • Draw bars come in various offsets to place the hitch ball at an even height with the receiver as well as above or below the receiver’s height.

Pintle Hook

    • Pintle hook hitches are typically used to tow equipment and they are generally found on trucks rated at or above ¾ ton (250/2500 series).
    • The latching mechanism will be on the hitch itself with the trailer having a hook or loop to secure within the hitch

Fifth Wheel

    • Fifth wheel hitches mount in the bed or cargo area of a truck and attach directly to the frame.
    • These hitches offering the greatest towing capability however they are more difficult to operate as the jaws which secure the trailer are manually operated.


Hitch Up the Right Way

Before you hitch up a trailer to your truck, review the following safety tips:

Watch Your Weight

  • Do not exceed your vehicle’s towing capacity. This capacity includes both the trailer and the cargo.  Note that if the manufacturer shows a range of trailering capacity, it is for the different powertrain configurations available for your model vehicle.  For example, a 2022 Ford Explorer with a 4-cylinder engine has towing capacity of 3,000 lbs., while the higher performance V6-engine has a capacity of 5,300 lbs.  Your vehicle’s capacity is based on its year, make, model, and powertrain specifications.
  • Know the weight of the trailer or load. A weight distributing hitch is commonly recommended when the trailer weighs 1.5X the tow vehicle’s weight and aides in controlling the load.
  • Make sure you position and secure the load. And make sure the trailer is level. Ensure the load is not to far forward or back. The hitch should not be supporting more than 10% of the trailer weight.

Check Your Hitch

  • For ball hitches, inspect the tow assembly for scratches, gouges, chipped or flaking surfaces or other imperfections that can interfere with the coupling. Also, ensure that hitch pin fits snugly in its bore within the receiver, and that the cotter pin is installed through the hitch pin to prevent hitch separation. Give the trailer tongue an upward tug to ensure the coupler is fully engaged.
  • While a backup camera can help you align the truck’s hitch to the trailer hitch, it is still advisable to have a colleague or friend to help with positioning.

Connect Safely

  • Make sure you lock the trailer jack in the up position — not doing so is dangerous.
  • Use emergency chains — and cross them — to secure the trailer in the event the hitch fails.
  • Connect the trailer’s electrical cable to the truck so you have brake and signal lights integrated with your truck’s system. Not only is it safe, but it is likely the law. If possible, have an assistant or helper verify the function of all trailer lights before departing.

Use An Extra Ounce of Caution

  • Before heading out, do a walk around of the truck and the trailer, double check to make sure the trailer is level, the load is secure, the trailer is fully attached, and the trailer lights are working.
  • Start off slow and pull over to check the load after a few minutes to make sure that it is still secure.


Make Sure Your Vehicle Is Up to the Task

Your vehicle will be working harder when towing due to the extra weight. While vehicles have become very reliable and are engineered to manage heat in normal operation, towing necessitates a greater level of attention. Here are a few things to consider:

  • Tire pressure is critical not just for tire wear, its also essential for stability as your vehicle will be carrying a greater load
  • Towing should not be attempted with a vehicle that is in poor running condition as any loss of power may prevent you from pulling the added weight
  • Check all fluids before departing as well as at every fuel stop. Your vehicle will be generating more heat. Making sure the coolant level is full prevents overheating. Checking the oil level prevents engine damage. Verifying the transmission fluid level prevents slippage and damage.
  • Reposition your mirrors so that you can see past the trailer. If your mirrors are broken or inoperable, they should be repaired before towing


Operating A Vehicle While Towing

If you are not used to towing, make sure you are prepared to operate your vehicle differently, because with a trailer your vehicle is different.  It is heavier, it is longer, it is jointed in the middle, and it has different visibility. Some of the basics to prepare for include:

  • Never tow in overdrive. You can overheat your transmission and cause it to fail, leading to a dangerous situation on the road.
  • While you are driving, be aware that, because of the extra mass, it will take longer to brake — about twice as long as without the trailer attached — so make sure you adjust your following distance accordingly.
  • Turn wider than usual to accommodate the extra length of the trailer, and be extra cautious on curves. If you do not, it is not uncommon to clip a curb or other object, which could damage the trailer or your load. Remember the added length when changing lanes. Some jurisdictions have specific rules covering towing, so review those ahead of time.
  • Take care when parking. If you need to stop during your trip, it is best to find a parking spot where you are facing forward to pull through.  Backing up a vehicle with a trailer takes skill and is difficult to navigate for inexperienced tow drivers.
  • Be prepared to pay for additional axles when using toll roads. In some states, automated tolling may not available for vehicles pulling trailers.
  • Verify your connection every time you stop. Check the chains, ball coupler, wiring, and balance.


Towing May Require A Commercial Driver License

Apply for CDLDepending on the gross combination weight rating (GCWR) of your vehicle and trailer configuration, you may need a commercial driver’s license (CDL).

When Do I Need A CDL?

You are required to have a CDL when operating a vehicle in excess of 26,000 lbs.  This includes when a combination of the vehicle and the towed unit exceeds 26,000 lbs. when the towed unit has a GVWR, registered weight, or actual gross weight over 10,000 lbs. Check with your employer about the GCWR if you are towing for business purposes. Particularly if this is an infrequent task, your employer may be unaware of the license requirements related to weight.

Why Do I Need A CDL?

If you are towing a trailer for your own personal use, these rules still apply.  Personal use does not exempt you from abiding by licensing requirements.  You can be cited by enforcement officials  and not allowed to continue driving if they determine you have the wrong kind of license.

These rules exist for a good reason.  Towing a heavy load more than 10,000 pounds requires specialized training, and it is beyond the experience of most drivers. The CDL training process provides you with the knowledge and experience to tow a trailer properly and legally.


Before you set off on your journey, whether it is to a new home, vacation destination, or delivery location,  check your vehicle, watch your weight, and mind the road through the entire transport process.

Drive Safely!



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