How to Tow a Trailer

Mar 25, 2022

Last Updated on April 29, 2024 by Alex Bobb

Last Updated on April 29, 2024 by allprotrailersuperstore

When it comes to towing a trailer, there are many critical factors to consider, including the capacity of your towing vehicle, the weight of the load and various other factors. You’ll also need to learn a few skills, including how to hook up the trailer, pack the trailer and, of course, how to tow a trailer safely.

If you’re towing a trailer for the first time, you’ve come to the right place, because we’re going to teach you what you need to tow a trailer and how to do it safely. Here are the steps to follow:

Table of Contents

1. Make Sure Your Vehicle Has the Capacity to Tow the Trailer

If you’re wondering what size trailer you can tow, you must make sure that the total weight of your setup, which includes the weight of the vehicle, trailer, cargo and passengers, does not exceed the rating determined by your vehicle manufacturer. This rating is known as the Gross Combined Weight Rating (GCWR) and refers to the maximum weight that your vehicle can safely tote all-in.

When towing a trailer, you should also make sure your vehicle has the right configuration. Some vehicles are better suited for towing than others, with wheelbase, engine, drivetrain, hitch and gear ratios playing an important role.

Regarding configuration, here are some important things to keep in mind:

  • SUVs and 4×4 trucks weigh more, which may lower the towing capacity. Unless you need 4×4 capability, use a rear-wheel-drive vehicle for the best towing ability.
  • SUVs and trucks with longer wheelbases have greater towing capacity than those with shorter wheelbases. They also tend to provide more control when a trailer is connected.
  • Towing power all comes down to torque, which is why diesel trucks boast greater better towing ratings than gasoline-powered ones.
  • Axle ratios also vary from vehicle to vehicle. The higher the ratio, the better the pulling power, but keep in mind that a higher ratio may mean lower fuel economy. Likewise, a lower ratio usually means better fuel economy.


2. Pick the Right Trailer

There are various types of trailers, and some are better for certain applications than others. The most common types include:

Flat Trailer

If you’re planning to tow a car, ATV or just general cargo, a flat-floor trailer is a great choice. If you’re towing a lighter load that does not exceed 2,500 pounds, you should use a single-axle trailer, but if your load is any heavier than that, you should opt for a double-axle trailer.

You can also choose between an enclosed or open trailer. The former is more suitable for general cargo, although keep in mind they also weigh more than their open counterparts.

Vehicle Without a Trailer

If you’ve done a lot of driving on American highways, chances are you’ve seen an RV towing a Jeep. Generally, if you have a manual-transmission, rear-wheel vehicle, you can tow another car in neutral using a tow bar. If you have a 4×4 vehicle with a two-speed transfer case, you can also tow a car in neutral in this way. However, always check the owner’s manual to find out whether your car can tow a vehicle with all four of its wheels flat on the road or whether you’ll need something additional, such as a single-axle drag-behind tow dolly.

Travel Trailer

If you’re interested in taking your home with you on your travels, you’ll want to choose a travel trailer, also known as a camper. Travel trailers, which are attached with regular hitches, vary widely in size, ranging from 2,000 pounds to over 10,000. Alternatively, you can choose a gooseneck or fifth-wheel trailer, with a unique hitch that makes it a little simpler to tow.

3. Choose the Right Hitch and Ball

Conventional hitches fall into five classes, each of which can tow a different level of weight.

  • Class 1 has a 2,000-pound maximum weight.
  • Class 2 has a 3,500-pound maximum weight.
  • Class 3 has an 8,000-pound maximum weight.
  • Class 4 has a 10,000-pound maximum weight.
  • Class 5 has a 12,000-pound maximum weight.

If you have a car, it probably has a hitch that’s no higher than Class 3. However, some larger SUVs and trucks can be equipped with hitches in Class 3 through 5.

All conventional hitches have receiver tubes, which receive the ball and ball mount. The size of the receiver tube depends on the class of the hitch. Classes 1 and 2 have receiver tubes measuring 1.25 inches, Class 3 hitches have 2-inch receiver tubes, and Class 4 and 5 hitches have receiver tubes measuring either 2 or 2.5 inches, which depends on the configuration.

The most important thing is that the trailer sits level from front to back. If your trailer is not sitting level, you can buy an adjustable ball mount that can raise or lower the ball to the height you need.

The size of the ball depends on the trailer’s weight. Manufacturers will often display the size of the ball directly on its coupler. Balls commonly come in 1 7/8-inch, 2-inch and 2 5/16-inch sizes. Make sure that your ball’s weight capacity exceeds the weight of your trailer when fully loaded.

If you have to tow a load exceeding 12,000 pounds, you will probably need to use a heavy-duty truck and a fifth-wheel or gooseneck hitch. In this setup, the ball and hitch go in the truck’s bed, just in front of or over its rear axle.

A fifth-wheel hitch has a mount shaped like a horseshoe, similar to the ones found on semi-trucks but smaller. Generally speaking, these hitches can handle a maximum of 25,000 pounds.

Gooseneck hitches, on the other hand, have a ball-type setup. They generally have a 30,000-pound maximum.

4. Hook It up Properly

If you’re new to towing, it’s completely normal to revisit this list several times before you get it right. To hook up a trailer safely to your towing vehicle, just follow the steps below:

  1. Secure your ball mount: It must go in the receiver tube of your hitch.
  2. Line up your vehicle: It should be positioned so it’s right in front of your trailer coupler. Make sure the coupler is higher than the ball.
  3. Slowly back up: Back up until your ball is right below the coupler. If your vehicle has a backup camera, use it. If not, get a friend to spot for you. Once you’re directly below the coupler, put your vehicle in park and set your parking brake.
  4. Lower your coupler: On the tongue of the trailer, you’ll notice a twist handle. This is used to lower or raise the jack, which is the metal bar on which the trailer rests when it’s not connected to your vehicle. Twist this jack so the coupler will lower onto your ball.
  5. Secure your coupler to your ball: This is done using the attached latch or cotter pin.
  6. Ensure a good connection: Lift up on the tongue to ensure it’s connected properly.
  7. Raise your trailer jack: Make sure the jack is completely out of the way.
  8. Secure your safety chains: Once you’ve attached the trailer, secure the safety chains, which must be done from your trailer to your vehicle using a criss-cross pattern. Make sure your chains don’t touch the ground.
  9. Test your trailer lights: Plug the electrical connector of the trailer into your vehicle, then test the turn signals and brake lights on your trailer.

5. Load Your Trailer

When loading your trailer, the most important consideration is the distribution of weight. If the trailer’s rear is too heavy, this may result in fishtailing. If the front is too heavy, your vehicle may sag as a result, which will negatively affect your handling and braking power.

As a general rule of thumb, the weight in your trailer’s front, known as its “tongue weight,” should be no more than 15% of the trailer’s total weight. Tongue-weight scales can help you figure this out, and ball mounts sometimes even feature a scale built-in, letting you know immediately whether you’re correctly loaded or not.

A few additional tips to keep in mind include:

  • Use tie-downs or ratchet straps: This will help you make sure the load is secure.
  • Adjust the mirrors: If the trailer you’re towing is wide and blocking your rear view, you may want to equip your vehicle with telescoping tow mirrors.
  • Check the tires on your trailer: Your trailer should have special trailer tires, not standard car tires. They should also be in good condition and inflated properly. While doing this, it’s a good idea to check the tires on your vehicle, as well.

Know What to Do on the Road

Now that you’ve completed all the steps for hooking up and loading your trailer, it’s time to hit the road. However, now that you’re operating a vehicle much heavier and longer than before, you need to take some extra precautions. If you’re towing a heavier load and your vehicle comes with a tow/haul mode, make sure to engage it — this will put your transmission and engine into their optimal settings.

Some additional tips for towing your vehicle include:

  • Carefully plan out your route: Potential impediments along your route, including construction, dense traffic and steep inclines, can be much more challenging when towing a trailer. Plan ahead and make sure to avoid them if you can.
  • Fill up before you tow: We recommend you fill up your tank before you connect your trailer, as filling up is much easier that way.
  • Get a roadside safety kit: This should include things like reflectors, flares and first-aid supplies.
  • Brake sooner: You’re carrying more mass than usual, so you’ll need more time to stop it.
  • Don’t drive faster than recommended: Trailers usually have a 55-mile-per-hour (mph) top speed recommendation. You should also stay in the slow lane at all times.
  • Make wider turns: You’re driving a longer vehicle than usual, so make wider turns than you think are necessary. When you pull in to park, think about how long and maneuverable your setup is so you won’t get stuck.
  • Signal early: Initiate your lane changes earlier than you normally would. Be patient.
  • Downshift the transmission when going downhill: This is much better than riding your brakes, which may lead to overheating.
  • Don’t brake when fishtailing: If the trailer starts fishtailing, just slightly reduce your throttle input.

Luckily, many modern SUVs and trucks feature technology to help with trailer steering. Some automakers also offer trailer tow packages that add the right hitch, bigger mirrors and trailer brakes to your vehicle. The exact offerings vary from one manufacturer to the next.

Frequently Asked Questions

If you’re a first-time buyer of a trailer, you probably have a lot of questions. To help you out, here are the answers to some questions that first-time towers frequently ask us.

  1. Do you need a special license to tow a trailer? In some states, you may be required to have a special endorsement on your driver’s license to operate a vehicle towing a trailer. Other states do not have this requirement but may require you to be either 18 or 21 years of age to so. You may be required to have additional insurance to tow a car legally.
  2. Can towing a trailer damage a transmission? Towing can do significant damage, although it doesn’t have to — just make sure your vehicle is well maintained and don’t commit common towing mistakes.
  3. What is the speed limit for towing a trailer? Every state is different, although many impose a maximum speed of 55 mph. Find out what the limit is in your state.
  4. How does towing a trailer affect gas mileage? Towing significantly decreases gas mileage. Whatever gas mileage your vehicle is rated, that mileage will decrease in direct proportion to the amount of weight you’re towing.
  5. Can you tow an unregistered trailer? This almost completely depends on your state. However, as a rule, you should assume that a license plate is required unless specific exceptions are met. These exceptions may include a recently purchased trailer or the use and type of your trailer.
  6. Does car insurance cover towing a trailer? Auto insurance policies generally provide liability coverage for a trailer if you own the trailer and are pulling it with your insured vehicle when the accident occurs. However, insurance company rules and state laws vary widely, so the best way to know for sure is to check with your insurance provider.
  7. Should the trailer be level while towing? Yes. Keeping your trailer level will improve braking performance, ground clearance and stability. If this isn’t possible, then the next best option is having the nose of the trailer down slightly.
  8. Can you tow a trailer without lights? Light requirements vary widely from state to state, which you can see on AAA’s Digest of Motor Laws.

Talk to an Expert at All Pro Trailer Superstore

At All Pro Trailer Superstore, we’re here to provide you with any information you might need, whether it be about the trailers we’re selling or our delivery options. Just reach out to us using our contact form and we’ll be in touch shortly. If you can also talk with one of our friendly Trailer Superstore representatives by calling us at (717) 795-9116.

We also encourage you to browse our wide selection of towing accessories on our site.