Towing 101 – What You Need To Know

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The fact that anyone can hook up a trailer/boat/camper and tow it down the road can make professional drivers, insurance companies and the general public extremely nervous. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should,  not without at least some basic knowledge.

Before you hook up that 34’ foot speed boat to your 1980’s era station wagon, here are a few things to keep in mind.

Know Your Weights

The first step to a safe towing operation is determining your weights – how much both the load you plan to tow weighs, and how much the vehicle is capable of towing.


Starting with the vehicle, you can often find this information printed on a metal plate or sticker on the vehicle itself. Typically, this plate/sticker is near the driver’s door and lists tire pressure, maximum towing weight and maximum payload. Write down the maximum towing and payload numbers.

Next, determine how much your load weighs. In the case of campers and boats, this information is also quite often found on the trailer itself on a similar metal plate like on the vehicle.

Tow-Hitch-RatingFor trailers, you will often find the empty weight listed and will either need to weigh the load at a scale or have a pretty good idea how much cargo you are planning on carrying.

While every trailer is different, an example to use for reference is a 6’x12’ U-Haul cargo trailer. This four-wheel trailer (2×2) has a maximum capacity of 2,500 lbs of cargo. The average weight of an empty dresser is between 100-150 lbs depending on height and the wood it’s made from. On the heavy side, this trailer can tow around 16 dressers.

On the other hand, flatbed trailers can often haul upwards of 7,000 lbs depending on the number of axles. This is quite a bit when you consider the average ATV weighs between 350 and 400 lbs.

Putting the Numbers Together

Now that you know how much you plan to tow and how much the vehicle you plan to tow with is capable of towing, it is simple math right? Not exactly. There are some terms you also have to know, such as:

Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) is the maximum amount of total weight the vehicle can handle including towing and payload. It is also the gross amount of weight the trailer is able to carry, including the weight of the trailer itself. So, a 7,000-pound trailer may be able to handle only 6,000 poundds, once you subtract the weight of the trailer.

Tongue Weight (TW) is the downward pressure on the ball by the trailer coupler (attachment part from the trailer, boat or camper).  Put too much weight on the ball, and your tow vehicle will raise in the front and the rear brakes will be overworked. If you have ever seen a vehicle towing and it is far from level, it is likely there is too much weight on the ball.

Gross Combined Weight Rating (GCWR) is the total mass of everything – including what you are towing, what you are putting in the cabin and the passenger’s weight along with fuel.

Adding this all together and matching it against the vehicles GCWR maximum will tell you whether you are being safe or not.

Towing Safety


If you have done your math correctly and everything you are towing/hauling is under the GCWR, then it is time to start the towing operation. There are several keys when hooking up a load that apply to everything (trailer, camper or a boat). These keys are:

  • Check the hitch and ball – make sure you have the right load capacity. Hitches and balls come in different classes with different maximum weights. If you don’t have the right one, don’t worry, they are sold in many stores for not a lot of money.
  • Weight-distributing hitch – generally mandatory for loads more than 5,000 lbs. Check your owner’s manual for more information.
  • Check lights – plug in the lights for your load and check the brake lights, turn signals and hazards.
  • Hook up to the ball completely – when putting a trailer hitch on a ball make sure the hitch falls completely done on the hitch and it isn’t lose. Also, make sure you clamp it down completely and put a pin in the hitch to prevent it from popping free.
  • Cross chains for safety – after hooking up the hitch, next hook up the chains by crossing them. This is the last resort item for the hitch if something goes wrong. This gives you two benefits: if the hitch comes free, it will land on the chains and not on the pavement; also, on tight turns the chains will be equally used instead of putting all the pressure on the outside chain.
  • Level the load – visually stand back or use a level to inspect the load. If need be adjust items until the trailer is sitting level. If your ball and hitch is considerably lower, find a new ball setup that equalizes the load. Again, having the tongue pressing down on the rear of the vehicle means you are much more likely to lose control of the load.
  • Tires – finally check the tire pressure and wear/tear of all your tires. The last thing you want to do while towing is to blow a tire – a very serious issue.

On the Road

Finally, when out on the road, there are a variety of items you need to keep in mind. For starters, you have to adjust your driving habits to accommodate for the load you are towing.

This means no sharp turns, no sharp accelerations and no reckless driving.

IMG_2423_THQWhen towing, you will want to do everything nice and slow. This means from a dead stop, you will want to slowly gain speed and likewise when slowing down, you will want to anticipate stopping and ease into it.

Also, when turning, make sure that your turns are as wide as you can make them. Glide through the curves and gradually bring the load along. The sharper you turn, the more volatile the load becomes and more likely it could sway out of control.

While towing doesn’t have to be extremely difficult, understanding the right way to tow can be the difference between a safe towing operation and a disaster. Follow these tips and you’ll keep yourself and others on the road safe.

Tim Esterdahl

Tim Esterdahl

Hailing from Western Nebraska, Tim has covered the automotive industry for many years. He has written for a variety of outlets including Truck Trend,, and others. He is a married father of three and an avid golfer.