Nicer weather is coming, and with it comes dreams of outdoor activities. Plenty of them involve hitching up a trailer to your vehicle and towing it to a fun new location. But before you can hook up that ATV, boat trailer or camper trailer and get on the road, you’ll need to do a few things. General vehicle maintenance — such as checking the tires, lights, safety chains and coupler connections — is important, of course. 

But to pull a trailer safely, you’ll need to follow some extra tips for trailer towing. Before you start your warm-weather activities, walk through these tips to ensure everything goes well, and you can concentrate on making memories. 

Before You Tow a Trailer

Before you even start your truck, check if you are under the gross vehicle weight and gross combined weight ratings for both your truck and the trailer. You’ll also want to check the hitch receiver, trailer hitch and hitch ball to ensure they can handle the weight that will be towed. Before you back your pickup truck up to the trailer, make sure that the connections are greased. Keeping the kingpin or hitch ball greased will prolong the life of your towing equipment.

Hooking Your Trailer Up

The moment is here. Once everything is ready, it’s time to hook up the trailer. Start by plugging in the lights. Then, connect the chains and breakaway cable. It’s important to make sure that your chains are crossed and adjusted so they are not dragging on the ground, which creates a safety hazard. Most couplers need to be locked into place. Make extra sure that they’re locked in correctly.

Once everything is connected, do an extra check. Walk around the truck and trailer, observing each light to be sure it works properly. You may need a buddy to sit in the vehicle and activate the turn signals and brakes for you while you take a look. While you’re walking around the vehicle, check the tires on the truck and trailer to make sure they are properly inflated and don’t show any signs of damage. 

Testing the Brakes

Are you certain that everything is connected properly? Then let’s move on to the next step before you start trailer towing any type of equipment: checking the trailer brakes. If your truck has a trailer brake controller and electric brakes, or elective over hydraulic brakes, push the brake pedal and shift the vehicle into drive. Then apply the trailer brakes, release the truck brakes and let the vehicle roll forward until it stops. It can take a few yards for the trailer brakes to apply, so don’t be alarmed if it doesn’t stop immediately. If after a few yards it still has not stopped, check the wiring connections, the settings on the trailer brake controller and the trailer brakes themselves.

For surge brakes (which are commonly found on boat trailers), testing is a little more difficult. You have to test them while going faster so they have time to engage before the truck stops the load. It can take some practice, but with experience you will be able to find the threshold of when they are and aren’t working. Check the battery, if your trailer has one, to make sure it is charged and working. Otherwise, the breakaway cable may not function correctly.

Getting on the Road With the Trailer in Tow

Time to get your trailer towing! Now that you’ve connected the trailer correctly and tested the brakes, you’re ready to drive. Pulling a trailer requires you to be more attentive than you may typically be on the road. But if it’s correctly connected and properly loaded, driving with a trailer shouldn’t be any more stressful than it usually is. If you’re in a pickup, use Tow/Haul mode to set the engine and transmission parameters for towing.

While you are driving, remember to take wide turns. Trailers will cut corners sharper than the truck pulling it. Remember, right turns will need more space. Make sure you also consider the width of the trailer. Trailers can be much wider than the truck pulling them. That means there’s less room for error when keeping the truck and trailer in its intended lane, or when squeezing into small spaces.

It’s also a good idea to give more space between you and other travelers than usual. Acceleration and braking are both affected by the additional weight of the trailer.

While going up and down hills, shift into a lower gear early. Even an automatic transmission should allow you to manually shift. Shifting into a lower gear will help keep your vehicle’s speed up while going uphill and provide engine braking while going down.

If your truck has an exhaust brake, make use of it when going downhill. This helps slow the vehicle without heating up both the truck and trailer’s brakes. On the other hand, if your truck just has service brakes, slow the vehicle in increments of 10 mph to keep them from overheating on long descents. For example, if the desired speed is 55 mph and vehicle is accelerating past that speed, apply the service brakes until the vehicle is at 45 mph. You’ll hold the brakes with just enough pressure to keep a constant speed. Using your brakes for shorter times and allowing them to cool before between uses can prevent them from overheating or fading.

Make Sure Your Mirrors Are Effective

Adjust your mirrors before you drive — remember, your vehicle is effectively much longer with the trailer hooked up. Keep your mirrors extended past the width of your trailer, or you’ll be left with large blind spots that make changing lanes and making turns dangerous. Your mirrors will also help while backing up. If your mirrors aren’t wide enough or your vehicle doesn’t have adjustable side mirrors, you can buy extended mirrors to help you when you’re towing a trailer.

Go Easy When Backing Up

Backing up with a trailer can be tricky. The most important thing to remember when you’re backing your trailer is to go slow. If you go too fast, even small movements of the steering wheel can quickly cause a trailer to jackknife. If you have trouble remembering which way to turn the wheel, put a hand on the bottom of the steering wheel. To turn the trailer to the right, move your hand to the right. To turn it to the left, move your hand to the left. Practicing in an open parking lot before can help you feel more comfortable. 

Remember, the longer the trailer, the slower it responds to changes. Take your time, and if you aren’t sure about the positioning, just stop, pull forward and try again. Safety is the most important thing you can practice when you’re towing your trailer behind your vehicle.

Be Safe and Comfortable When Trailering

Like many new things, trailering for the first time can be stressful and uncomfortable at first. As you gain more experience, that stress will go away, it may even become fun. Developing good habits early helps make sure every ride is safe. Before you hook up your trailer, contact your Farm Bureau agent to make sure you’re covered properly. 

Want to learn more?

Contact a local FBFS agent or advisor for answers personalized to you.