Purchasing a travel trailer and nervous about towing for the first time? You’re not alone- one of the most common reasons for people to choose an RV other than a travel trailer is due to anxiety around towing. For these very reasons, I devoured the countless articles on tips for towing a trailer for the first time before my husband, Justin, and I drove to tow our new-to-us Safari Condo Alto R1723 home (check out a tour of our Alto trailer here).
Most of these articles share helpful, but nearly identical tips about towing, like finding an empty parking lot to practice backing up, anticipating the drivers’ moves around you, checking to ensure you trailer’s brake and turn signals are working before driving, and making turns wider than necessary.
After actually towing my trailer across the country for the first time, though, I’ve realized that most of these articles are incomplete or miss the mark, as I strongly suspect these posts have largely been written by individuals who have been towing for a while and who have forgotten the true pain points of being a newbie tower. Conveniently, though, I just so happen to be a novice tower myself- so here are tips on towing a travel trailer for the first time that I wish someone had told me!
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Table of contents:
- Before you pick up your trailer
- Hooking up your trailer
- Driving while towing
- Fueling up while towing
- When you park your trailer
To be clear, you should certainly read blog posts written by master towers and follow their tried and true tips (for real, though- practice backing up in a parking lot!). However, this article is written from my perspective, as a new tower for other folks just dipping their toes in the RV community, that I feel have been left out by articles written by more experienced towers.
Before you pick up your trailer
1. Buy tow mirrors.
Fun fact: Unless you’re driving a massive tow vehicle that’s wider than your trailer, it’s likely that all of the mirrors on it will be largely useless while you’re driving with a 16-foot plus box behind you. Thankfully, there are extendable mirrors that clip on to your tow vehicle’s existing mirrors, like these ones, which allow you to actually see the sides of your trailer and behind you while you’re driving.
Despite the fact that I read countless blog articles prior to picking up our trailer, I somehow literally never saw a single blog post mention these. And given the fact that we weren’t aware of their existence, Justin and I did not bring any tow mirrors with us when we drove to pick up our new trailer from its previous owners. I’m SO glad that they thought to tell us about these mirrors and gave us theirs, as I think we would have had a rough (and dangerous) time trying to tow around our trailer without them.
2. Know the receiver tube dimensions, the class and size of your ball mount, and the rise or drop of your hitch.
Note: If you’re buying your RV from a dealer, they’ll help you figure out how to get your hitch properly set up, so, while it’s good for all new RVers to understand this information, it’s most applicable to those buying their trailer from a private party.
Before picking up your trailer, you will need to have a tow hitch that’s appropriate and safe to connect your trailer to your tow vehicle, so you’ll need to know certain information about your trailer (like its gross trailer weight and coupler height) to purchase the correct parts. There are a couple components of your tow hitch that you should know:
- Receiver tube: The receiver tube is a hollow, usually square tube that is directly bolted on to your tow vehicle and will receive the ball mount that will connect your vehicle to your trailer. Receiver tubes come in a variety of dimensions (1” × 1”, 1¼” × 1¼”, 2” × 2” and 2½” × 2½” sizes). You’ll need to purchase a ball mount that is the appropriate shape and dimensions for the receiver tube where you’ll be installing it.
- Ball mounts: Ball mounts are rated based upon how much weight they’re rated to pull (your gross trailer weight or GTW) and their maximum tongue weight or TW (i.e., the downward pressure your trailer exerts on your ball mount). They’re broken up into:
- Class I: up to 2,000 lbs for GTW and 200 lbs for TW;
- Class II: up to 3,500 lbs for GTW and 525 lbs for TW;
- Class III: 3,500 to 6,000 lbs for GTW and 800 lbs for TW;
- Class IV: 6,000 to 10,000 lbs and 1,200 lbs for TW; and
- Class V: over 10,000 lbs and 2,000 lbs for TW.
Therefore, you will need to buy a ball hitch that’s appropriately rated for your GTW and TW.
You’ll also need to attach a trailer ball of the correct size into your ball hitch- most smaller travel trailers use a 2” ball size, whereas larger trailers use 2 5/16” balls.
Finally, you will need to determine the rise or drop of your hitch. Essentially, your trailer should be as level as possible- if your hitch is too low, there will be too much weight on your hitch and if your hitch is too high, the weight will be transferred towards the back of your trailer.
Your ball mount can be used to make up the difference between the height of your hitch receiver and your trailer’s coupler- here’s a helpful guide to figuring out the correct rise (the height that your ball mount adds to your hitch receiver to match that of your coupler) or the correct drop (the distance the ball mount subtracts from the height of your hitch receiver to meet that of your coupler).
Long story short, the previous owners of our trailer happily told us we could use their tow hitch and we assumed it would work okay for our vehicle as well. Spoiler alert- turns out that a Jeep Wrangler is a completely different height than our Toyota Highlander and, even though the previous owner had three different ball mounts we tried, we had a hard time configuring our hitch such that our trailer was level.
We eventually got it to work after Frankensteining a couple parts of the various ball mounts they had together, but we were pretty nervous for a while- if we had done these calculations before we made the two-day drive to their house, we would have been able to purchase a ball mount that perfectly coupled with our trailer and avoided last minute panic.
Hooking up your trailer
3. Get yourself a pair of decent work gloves.
The act of hitching your trailer to your vehicle can be dirty work- your hands will wind up covered with dirt, grease, and all the stuff kicked up along the road from working with the trailer tongue jack wheel, weight distribution bars, and other components.
To prevent your hands from getting grody, keep a pair of work gloves (like these) in the trunk of your vehicle to slip on whenever you’re hitching or unhitching. Bonus- if you wind up camping in cold weather, they’ll also help keep your hands toasty and nimble, despite the chill!
Driving while towing
4. You’ll need to start driving slower on the highway.
When driving while not towing, most people drive at or, let’s be honest, above the maximum speed limit. While you’re towing, though, it’s a whole different story.
Reason #1- safety! While towing shouldn’t scare you away from having a travel trailer, it 100% makes driving more challenging- you’ll have decreased visibility behind and around you, you’ll be pulling a heavier load (so you’ll have to be quicker to brake than if your vehicle was uncoupled), and you’ll always need to be cognizant of where your trailer is at in relation to objects around you (which can make things like turning in tight spaces or backing up challenging).
Driving fast will make all of the above factors more challenging- you’ll need a greater distance to brake, you’ll have less time to react, it’s harder on your vehicle (and, thus, you’re more likely to have something fail while driving fast), and in the event you do get in an accident, you’re more likely to suffer serious injuries or death. Another fun fact: many trailers use ST (or “Special Trailer”) tires, which are generally only rated for driving up to 65 mph. So perhaps it should not come as a surprise that the number one insurance claim for RVs is related to tire blow-outs.
Reason #2- gas mileage. If you’ve never towed before, get ready to be absolutely horrified at how terrible your gas mileage is (and, thus, spend a LOT more on gas!). No, really- for every 100 lbs of extra weight you’re towing, you can expect to decrease fuel efficiency by about 2%. And if you’re driving fast? It will be even worse!
Real world example- Justin and I drive a 2006 Highlander Hybrid that usually gets about 25 mpg highway. When we picked up our 2,000 lb. Alto trailer from its previous owners in Louisiana, we were on a tight timeline to get back to our home in Seattle, making a 38 hour drive in just two days. So, being the newbie towers that we were, we left the previous owners’ house driving the posted speed limit of 70 mph and were a bit unsettled when we realized how quickly we were burning through gas. When we looked at the display that shows what miles per gallon we had gotten since our last fill-up, we were absolutely floored- we got an abysmal EIGHT miles per gallon!
After that one tank, we drove between 55-60 mph all the way home to increase our fuel efficiency and wound up averaging a slightly less abysmal 17 miles per gallon. Thus far, we have only towed in cold weather (which also decreases your fuel economy), so I’m hopeful we can get this number higher in the warmer months. That being said, a 100% increase in fuel economy, by simply dropping our speed about 15 miles per hour, makes the case for towing more slowly a no-brainer.
Note that each tow vehicle will have a different fuel economy sweet spot, generally between 50-65 mph- find yours and ride that baby on home.
Reason #3– stress management. RVing is about exploring and relaxing in nature- driving slower is just more chill. Embrace the chill, friends.
5. Because of #4, everything will take longer.
When you’re driving 20% slower, everything is going to be, well, 20% slower. And even if you have a diesel engine or a larger engine (whose fuel economy will be less impacted by towing than gas or smaller ones), you will still need to stop a lot more often than you would have if you weren’t towing. It’s also a good idea to limit the hours you’re actually towing each day to about 5 or 6 hours- it’s surprisingly draining to tow and you need to be mentally sharp while doing so. So always leave earlier than you think is necessary, give yourself plenty of time (or days!) to get wherever you’re going, and again, embrace the chill.
6. If you hear or feel something funny, pull over and check it out.
Towing a multi-thousand pound box behind your vehicle has a bit of a learning curve and your ride will, of course, feel slightly different while you’re towing your trailer behind it, as opposed to when your vehicle is trailer-free. That being said, if something feels or sounds unusual, it’s always going to be worth pulling off to the side of the road to double check.
For example, we recently towed our trailer a very short distance and, for the first time, didn’t use our weight distribution bars, which help decrease trailer sway and make for a smoother time towing. We immediately felt the difference in the ride, but we couldn’t believe how much noisier our trailer was without the WD bars on. Turns out, we had forgotten to take off the trailer tongue jack wheel, so a lot of the trailer’s weight was being transferred to that, which, in turn, was noisy af. I’m glad we had decided to pull over to investigate the source of the noise as I suspect, if we had driven on the wheel for much longer, we may have broken it or something else on our trailer.
7. Research and plan your route ahead of time.
Before you set out on your journey, you should look at your route (and the weather along your route), try to anticipate things along it that may make your drive more challenging, and plan around it. For example, during our epic journey from Louisiana back to Washington state when we bought our trailer, we learned that towing in rush hour traffic in major cities is to be avoided at all costs (Dallas, there’s no love lost between us).
We also learned that towing through snow and ice on steep mountain passes is REALLY scary and it’s worth adding a few hours to your drive (or even staying the night somewhere) if you can avoid driving through bad weather. We’ve had some really stressful and frankly, scary situations that could have been easily avoided if we had just done a bit more research on the front end.
Which is related, in part, to my next point…
Fueling up while towing
8. Plan your gas stops ahead of time.
If you’re driving any significant distance, it’s likely that you’ll need to stop to fuel up along the way. To make sure that you don’t run out of fuel in the middle of nowhere or get stuck in a tiny town with one gas station with exorbitantly inflated prices, it’s helpful to plan your next gas station stop while you’re driving or, even better, before you even leave the last place you fueled up.
While you’re driving over a meaningful distance, you’ll generally get a pretty good idea of how many miles you can get out of a tank of gas while towing with your vehicle (playing it extremely safe, we usually plan to stop around every 175 miles driven with our Highlander).
Once you have a ballpark for that number, you can then use that number of miles to figure out, conservatively, the next place you should fuel up. We do this by plugging in our final destination to our Google Maps, searching along route for gas stations, and finding one that’s within our gas tank’s mileage range. Bonus- Google Maps shows a lot of gas stations’ pricing, so you can usually pick one along the way that’s conveniently located and affordable.
The GasBuddy app is also popular with RVers, which shows real-time fuel prices at gas stations provided and updated by the apps’ users and has similar functionality to Google Maps, allowing you to search along your route. I still prefer Google Maps, as it will reroute you if there is traffic, an accident or some other closure along your route and there’s no ads (GasBuddy can feel a bit spammy), but GasBuddy is still a good tool to have in your arsenal!
9. You won’t be able to pull into all gas stations.
Not all gas stations are created equal for my RV fam. Some of them, especially in crowded cities or tiny towns, have itty bitty lots, which, when you add other drivers and their vehicles into the equation, make turning, backing up, or most importantly, getting out of while towing nearly impossible. We’ve had a couple hyper embarrassing moments while everyone at a gas station stops and stares at us as I get out of the car and help Justin try to maneuver around a vehicle that parked somewhere inconvenient after we we already pulled up to the pump.
To avoid this, you can plan to stop at stations that are designed for heavy trucks and other large vehicles. For example, Love’s (my very FAVORITE) is a popular chain, catering to professional drivers, around the Southern and Midwestern United States or Pilot Flying J is another similar chain of truck stops. If big rigs can get around the pumps here, so can you and your travel trailer!
10. Fuel up before you hitch up if you can.
We have gotten into a habit of fueling up the night before we go on a camping trip so we have one less gas station to worry about maneuvering around. Plus, with all of the extra steps that slow you down while towing, as discussed above, this is one easy step to speed up your towing process!
11. Carry cash for discounts.
Many gas stations provide a serious discount for customers that pay with cash instead of credit (or even debit) card. On average, the cash discount is usually about 5-10 cents per gallon, ranging up to as much as $1 per gallon.
If you have a credit card that offers points or cashback, you will have to do some math to figure out whether you’re getting a better deal by paying for gas with your card and racking up those points or, alternatively, paying in cash. Even if you have a card with a great point system, it’s a good idea to keep some dollar bills on hand, in case you run into one of the stations with a killer cash discount.
12. Check your tongue every single time you stop for gas.
Attaching a heavy trailer to a vehicle that’s moving 55+ mph is serious business and, with so many components, it’s easy enough to forget to latch or plug something in if you aren’t incredibly methodical and focused while you’re hitching your trailer. And even if you do everything 100% perfectly, there’s outside factors, like debris from the road or prankster kids at gas stations, that could do something to mess up your perfectly hitched trailer.
As such, take the time before you get back into your car from fueling up to examine your trailer’s tongue and make sure everything looks right. During one of these inspections for us, Justin realized that our trailer’s plug had been dragging a bit on the ground while we had been towing- so much so that a bit of the insulation had worn off. Luckily, we were able to pick up some electrical tape from the gas station and repair the wire before anything catastrophic happened- thanks to our gas station check-in habits!
When you park your trailer
13. Remember to unplug your trailer from your car when you park for the night.
Your trailer will likely plug into your vehicle via a 4-pin flat connector or a 7-way blade connector, which will feed the trailer’s brakes, running lights, and turning signals. If your trailer has a 7-way connector, it’s likely because it has its own brakes.
To ensure your trailer’s battery doesn’t die from powering its own brakes, one of the 7-way connector’s wires runs all the way to your tow vehicle’s battery. This has the nifty side effect of charging up your trailer’s battery as you drive, but if you leave it plugged into your vehicle while parked, though, like if you’re camping someplace for a few days, you could potentially drain your tow vehicle’s battery. Therefore, whenever you’re stopped overnight someplace, it’s best practice to unplug your trailer from your vehicle to avoid a dead battery and a trailer without a vehicle to pull it.
It’s worth mentioning, some vehicles are wired in a way that cuts the power to the 7-way connector when the ignition is off (similar to most 12-volt “cigarette-lighter” outlets), eliminating this issue. It’s worth contacting the manufacturer of your tow vehicle to confirm whether or not this is the case. If not, this is generally a quick and affordable option to add to your tow vehicle.
14. Be prepared to talk about your trailer.
Before becoming a part of the RVing community, I had heard that you should be prepared for people to want to chat with you about your trailer whenever you’re at a campground. What I was completely unprepared for was being constantly barraged by folks at gas stations, Jiffy Lubes, grocery stores, you name it with people who are curious about our trailer and, more often than not, immediately ask how much we paid for it.
I obviously have no problem with transparency with how much our trailer cost with people who are genuinely curious because they’re interested in getting a similar travel trailer and want to know whether it’s something they can budget for. I don’t have the same level of comfort, however, when it’s a stranger yelling “HOW MUCH DID THAT THING COST?” across a gas station parking lot at me. So, while I imagine this occurrence is, in part, because our trailer is really super neat-looking (cuz, let’s be real, it looks cool as hell- if you’re interested in it, check out my tour of my Safari Condo Alto and my 100-night review of my Safari Condo Alto trailer), I imagine that lots of RVs attract a similar amount of (sometimes unwanted) attention.
I’d recommend proactively coming up with some talking points about your trailer for times when you feel like chatting and, more importantly, for the times when you don’t- you’ll thank me later!
There you have it- 14 things I wish I had known when I was a first time tower. What about you? Any tips you think that conventional wisdom has left out? Let me know in the comments below!
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