For most of us, towing is not something we do every week and perhaps only attempt a couple of times annually.
When we do tow it will likely be with a trailer we don’t own; rented or borrowed from a friend.
Many factors can intervene and make what seems like a simple task into something frustrating and potentially dangerous.
Here’s how to ensure your towing experience is a successful one.
Match your trailer to your purpose
Different trailers fit different tasks but problems occur when adapting a trailer to do something for which it wasn’t designed.
Loads generally cannot protrude past the extremities of the trailer and every state has laws regarding how wide you can go.
When judging what size trailer you will need, the general rule is to over-estimate, check its maximum load capacity and what weight your vehicle can legally tow.
If possible, pick a trailer with caged sides. They are easier to load and less likely to start shedding items at freeway speeds. Using a ‘cap’ tarp will keep lighter items in place and provide some weather protection.
If you are carting something large like a car, the trailer must have operational brakes.
Make sure you’re legally protected
Any trailer towed on public roads must be legally registered. In states which don’t require registration labels, being sure that you are ‘legal’ can be difficult. If the trailer owner or rental site can’t guarantee the unit complies with the law, find another one.
You, not them, will be responsible for the fine and possibly the cost of personal injury.
Your comprehensive car insurance will usually cover the cost of damage you do with the trailer to other vehicles or property. If in doubt, call your insurer before towing.
Check you have all the necessary equipment
Look carefully at the tow-hitch, safety chains and the tow-bar and ball on your own vehicle. Make sure they are all secure with no cracked welds, serious rust or damage.
Also make sure when connected that the trailer coupling fits snugly on the tow-ball and cannot jump off.
Trailer tyres need to be legal just like those on the tow-car. Make sure the trailer comes with a suitable spare wheel and you have a jack that will lift it when laden.
Lights are connected to your car via cable – if it doesn’t fit the plug on your car you will need an adaptor.
Have somebody operate the car lights, brakes and indicators and watch to see that the corresponding lights on the trailer illuminate.
Ensure your vehicle can actually tow
Just because a vehicle looks big and brawny, its towing capacity may still be less than one that is physically smaller and lighter.
The owner’s handbook and a placard fixed to the vehicle will show the maximum towing weight (loaded) for braked and unbraked trailers.
Some manufacturers of high-performance and exotic models recommend no towing at all.
What you don’t want is the trailer forcing the back of the tow vehicle to droop significantly, resulting in wandering steering and poor brake performance.
Vehicles towing trailers can behave very differently and drivers need to recognise any change in the messages being transmitted through the steering wheel and ‘seat of the pants’.
The most vital adjustment you must make is to following distance. A trailer, even with brakes of its own, will exert load on the towing vehicle; pushing the nose lower, making the rear end unstable and increasing stopping distances.
Wind, bumpy roads and wet weather can all cause problems for people with loads to tow. Travelling 20 per cent below the speed you would normally travel on a given road is a common strategy.
Keep left where possible when climbing and if you must overtake something slower, allow a lot more distance than normal.
Coming down, select the gear you would use to climb with a trailer up that hill – even in an automatic vehicle – and do it before you reach the down-grade, not when the brakes are smoking and the car is gathering pace.
Very few of us can claim true expertise in the art of reversing a trailer.
The basic theory is very simple: if you turn the back of the tow vehicle to the left the back of the trailer will move to the right and vice versa.
In practice, the vast majority of trailers will not respond at all to steering inputs, then suddenly snap sideways. If you are reversing in a confined space this can cause damage to nearby cars or objects so do it slowly and watch where your trailer is headed.
When reversing large trailers and caravans where your vision is restricted, have someone positioned so they can see the rear of the trailer and signal you to stop if a collision is imminent.