Trailering Fundamentals 101

…and Other Trailering Basics for Beginners

If you are planning to haul a trailer for the first time or know someone who is, this is for you.  Towing for the first time can be an intimidating undertaking, but with proper education, training, and practice it can be safe and easy.   This overview is to introduce you to pulling a small camping trailer and give you topics to consider and areas to research more in-depth based on your equipment and level of experience.  I’m not an expert, I’ve just been towing for a long time and learned lots of lessons along the way.  This won’t make you an expert either.  Just a more informed driver and camper. This is for education only, and I don’t assume liability for what you do with my comments or opinions.

There are advantages to hauling a tiny trailer. First, it is “tiny” and fairly light. Most tow vehicles will not have difficulty with the weight and proportions.  Second, it is fairly low and narrow.  With many tiny trailers you will be able to see around and maybe over it with your factory mirrors.  Most have two wheels and roll freely behind your tow vehicle, and many won’t need its own brake system.

In this blog, I’ll talk about basics that you should know before hooking up and setting out on your first time trailer adventure.  These are also great things to consider before you purchase or build your tiny trailer.  I’ll introduce you to some products you may be unfamiliar with, or might need.  I’m not saying these are the best or safest for your application.  If you buy something from my links, your price is the same, but I’ll get a small commission.  

Topics I’ll introduce you to include;

-Tow Vehicles

-Receivers, hitch mounts and balls

-Trailer lights

-Brakes

-Steps to Connecting and Disconnecting Your Trailer

-Weight distribution of loaded items

-Driving considerations, speed, turns, mirrors and backing

-Safety and breakdowns

Tow Vehicles (TV).  First and foremost, you need to tow with a vehicle that can safely pull your trailer.  Let’s face it.  Some vehicles are designed with towing in mind, others are not.  If your vehicle has a factory mounted receiver, you know that trailering was a design factor when building it by the manufacturer.  If your vehicle does not have a factory receiver, it may still be capable with the installation of an aftermarket frame mounted receiver or a bumper mounted ball.  

2″ Factory Installed Receiver with safety chain loops and plastic cover

Receivers, hitch mounts and balls. The receiver is a square tube below the back bumper that is designed for a hitch to be inserted into it.  There are two sizes of receivers.  Smaller capacity receivers, called Class 1 and Class 2, are 1 ¼ square tubes.  These are generally on smaller passenger vehicles like sedans and small vans.  A Class 1 Receiver can tow up to 2,000 pounds, while a Class 2 can tow 3,500 pounds.   Larger receivers, the Class 3 and Class 4, are the most common, and have a 2” square tube.  These are normally found on SUVs, crossovers and pickups.  A Class 3 receiver can pull up to 8,000 pounds and a Class 4 up to 10,000 pounds.  If you have a receiver on your TV, you should measure the inside from edge to edge with a tape measure to make sure of the size you have. Note that these are maximum load hitch numbers, and your tow vehicle max towing limit may be below that.  Every vehicle manufacturer has a published max towing weight for their vehicles.  This is normally found on the information plate inside your driver’s door sill.  Your max towing capacity is always limited by the lowest rated component your have; tow vehicle, hitch, ball mount, or other weight limited component.  

If you have a two-inch receiver, you need a trailer hitch mount with a 2” shank.  This gives the proper connection to your tow vehicle.  The other important connection between your shank and your trailer is the ball.  The ball needs to be the right size to match your trailer tongue coupler. The trailer ball, usually measuring 2 5/16” (make sure your ball and hitch sizes match), is attached to the hitch mount.  The shank is the part of the square tubing that slides into your receiver and secured by a pin.  This Curt Trailer Hitch Mount with 2 5/16″ Ball is available on Amazon for $36. The pin is not included. It is a good idea to use a lock instead of the standard pin to keep your shank and ball from being stolen when you are disconnected. It also helps prevent your trailer from being stolen by a thief who happens to have a 2″ receiver on their vehicle. I have used the Masterlock Receiver Lock (shown above), $23, for years with no problems. Also, this Trailer Hitch Plug Cover, $9, helps keep the inside of your receiver clean and prevents rust when your hitch is not installed. Some covers are just held in by friction and can come off while driving or in the car wash (like 2 of mine have). This one loops over the receiver so it doesn’t get lost. There are also some that have holes in them and go in deep enough that you can run your locking pin through to hold it in.

The trailer tongue coupler is the part that connects your trailer tongue to your ball. You lift up the locking lever, lower the tongue coupler onto the ball, then latch the locking lever back down. The coupler should rest all the way on the ball and once the lever is closed, it should not come up. The first few times you connect it, I suggest trying to lift it once locked in place to make sure it is secure. It is also a good idea to put a small padlock through the hole on the coupler to prevent it from coming loose or your trailer being stolen.

Tongue Trailer Coupler

Your tow vehicle has two significant numbers you need to know; towing capacity and maximum tongue weight.  If you exceed either, you have potential problems.  Your trailer’s two most important towing numbers are; Gross Trailer Weight (GTW) and Tongue Weight (TW).  Your GTW is the total weight of your trailer and everything loaded on it or attached to it.  Your TW is how much weight is resting on the tongue of your trailer at the hitch.  Most experts recommend your max towing weight not exceed 80% of your max tow vehicle capacity with your trailer fully loaded.   Your tongue weight should normally be 10-15% of your trailer weight.  

If you tow with a vehicle that can barely tow your trailer, you are more likely to have handling problems, significant gas mileage reduction, and potential damage to your engine and transmission if you over-tax your TV on mountains and long driving stretches that labor your engine.  If you exceed your vehicle’s maximum tongue weight, the tongue pushes down the back of your car too much, thus lifting the front, affecting the grip and handling of the front tires.  

Some larger trailers need to have special hitches to prevent sway and balance weight distribution.  These distribution hitches are not normally needed for small trailers and beyond the scope of this blog.  If you do have a sway problem, this is an area you should research more.

Not trying to be a totally negative Nelly, but you should also know that if you haul with a tow vehicle setup that isn’t adequate to your trailer, your insurance may not cover damage from an accident, and you may have liability in an accident involving other drivers.

Also, some trailers require their own brakes, and if you have one of these, you need to get your tow vehicle equipped with a brake controller to tell the trailer when to apply it’s brakes.

Trailer Lights. One of the most important safety items in towing a trailer is your lighting system. This is also something people often have problems with. There is nothing more frustrating just before a trip than to hook up the trailer and find the lights won’t work, sometimes work, or some functions don’t work properly.

Most tiny trailers use a simple 4-wire electrical system. If the wiring on your trailer is also 4-pin, you are all set! However, if your TV has a big round socket, it was made for a 7-pin wiring connector. The big 7-pin connectors are usually found on larger trailer wiring that have more electrical needs. You can easily connect your 4-pin plug coming off your trailer to your car’s electrical system with a 7 to 4 Pin Adapter Plug that plugs into the socket in your car. Once connected, turn on your car’s electrical system and check your trailer’s brake lights, turn indicators, side marker lights, and running lights with your headlights on. You can also test the plug attached to the car to see if the circuits are working properly. Connect a 4-pin tester to your car’s trailer wiring, then check your turn signals, brake lights, etc. Small lights on the tester will light to show you if you are getting that signal from your car. If you don’t get a signal, you know you have a problem you need to run down on the car side, often a fuse problem. You should know where your car’s fuse box is, which fuse is connected to the trailer lights, and any in-line fuses that are in the wiring. Have extra fuses handy while on the road.

Once you have checked your signal from the car, you can connect the trailer’s plug to the other side of the tester, and the signal will pass through, allowing the trailer lights to function as well.

Once you are all hooked up and know your lights are working properly, make sure you have enough slack in the wiring that it won’t get pulled apart when cornering, but not so loose that it drags on the road. Many novice trailer haulers have had their wiring broken or friction burned in half (me too) by not being careful about this.

To ensure you maintain a good electrical connection, keep a small amount of Dielectric Grease on both male and female parts of your plug. This helps maintain your connection during the vibration and flexing of your wiring.

Dielectric Grease makes a better electrical connection

As a side note, never use wire nuts in repairing your electrical connections. They are not waterproof and will come loose. If you have to make wiring repairs, use heat shrink wiring butt connectors to connect your wires that will stay permanently attached and waterproof. You cleanly cut both ends of your wire, strip a short section, insert each end into the butt connector then crimp it with a crimping tool. Then, slowly heat each end with a heat gun until it shrinks and seals to your wire.

If you are building a homemade tiny trailer, make sure you follow the US government’s regulations pertaining to vehicle trailer lighting. These regulations can be found under Title 49, Part 571, Section 108 of the Code of Federal Regulations. This section covers lamps, reflective devices, and associated equipment related to motor vehicles. To see these regulations and to get the most up-to-date information, visit the US government’s Electronic Code of Federal Regulations. More info on trailer lighting can be found at etrailer’s website, https://www.etrailer.com/faq-trailer-lighting-info-and-regulations.aspx#trailerless80less30

Brakes. Most tiny trailers don’t need their own brakes. As long as your empty trailer weight is not over 3,000 pounds, your tow vehicle’s brakes are all that is required. If you need to have brakes on your trailer, or if it already has brakes installed, you should research “Trailer Brake Controllers” for your tow vehicle that signal the trailer to brake when you press your brake pedal.

Steps to Connecting and Disconnecting your Trailer. After making sure you can tow your trailer from the discussion above, let’s hook it up! Here is the process that I follow;

Get the trailer into position. Because I keep my trailer stored sideways in my garage, I use Wheel Dolly Car Skates to move it around. I also made a small three-wheeled roller for the front leg. I have a folding tongue, so I don’t use the tongue jack until I have it extended and the safety pin in place. If you have a light tongue weight, you may be able to manually lift the tongue by hand and pull it to your hitch. If your tongue is too heavy to do this, I recommend you get a bolt on tongue jack. You buy this based on the size of your tongue, the weight rating, and how far your need it to extend. The Fulton XP10 0101 is the one I use, and the best price I could find at $64. Once installed, you pull the retaining pin on the center swivel, rotate the wheel down, then crank the handle to get the trailer tongue coupler high enough to be just above your trailer ball on your tow vehicle.

Fulton Swivel Trailer Tongue Jack

Back the Tow Vehicle to the trailer’s tongue coupler. If possible, use someone as a backing assistant to get your ball right under the tongue coupler. I can see my ball through my backup camera, which makes getting aligned much easier. Lots of folks get dents or scratches in their bumper by backing into their hitch coupler. Get close, than move it around by hand if possible.

Connect the trailer. Lower the coupler onto the ball, ensure it goes all the way down, close the latch, and insert a safety wire or trailer tongue coupler lock on the lever to prevent it from coming open. It is sometimes handy to have a rubber mallet in getting the coupler in place. After connecting, raise the tongue jack to stowed position as shown above.

Connect Trailer Light Wiring. Connect your trailer-side electrical connector to your car-side electrical connector. Route wiring with slack, test lights.

I also use a little bungee on my jack handle and wiring to keep it off the ground and scraping

Connect Safety Chains. Connect your safety chains by crossing them in an “X” under the hitch from the trailer to the tow vehicle. Make sure you leave enough slack for the trailer to corner, while keeping it taut enough that they don’t drag on the road when driving.

Conduct Final Walk Around. Once fully connected, do one final walk around of the trailer, paying attention to all the connection points, ensuring you stowed the tongue jack, and all the wheels are clear to roll. I always make sure I’ve removed my wheel dollys and gotten them clear from the trailer. Also, if you have used wheel chocks to hold the trailer in place, make sure you have removed those before pulling out.

Unhooking the trailer. I follow the above steps in reverse when disconnecting at my camping location. You may want to carry a small board to put under the tongue jack if the ground is soft. I always chock my wheels with Folding Wheel Chocks before unhooking. Sometimes we will camp leaving the trailer connected to the car. If we need to unhook, our trailer has stabilizers that need to be extended before using the trailer. When disconnected at a campground, it is a good idea to use a lock specifically to prevent the coupler from being used. This is also a good visual deterrent to find an easier mark. This helps secure your trailer from being stolen when you are out and about with your tow vehicle. If you put one of these on, don’t lose your key! You’ll never get it off. I also run a cable through the spokes on my wheels so they won’t turn. Layers of security deter thieves.

Master Lock Coupler Trailer Lock, $27 on Amazon

Weight Distribution of Loaded Items.

There are many reasons you want your trailer to ride level and have an even weight distribution.  After making sure your tow vehicle is good, consider the physics of your trailer load.  After first making sure your tow vehicle is rated to tow your trailer, and you have the proper ball and electrical connections, you need to see how level your trailer rides.  If you are not level when hooked up on flat ground, it can cause gas mileage, handling, drag and sway issues.  A simple check is to put a 4′ level on top of your tongue when connected with a full load on level ground and check the bubble. You can also do a more thorough check by reading this. https://www.curtmfg.com/towing-accessories/ball-mounts/learn-more

There are hitches with various amounts of drop and rise to get it to ride level.  Even if you have a very capable tow vehicle and have very little road handling problems out of level, it is still good to follow the fundamentals.  And it is nice to sleep level if you leave it hooked up overnight.  You can buy a hitch that has the right amount of rise or drop, or get an inexpensive adjustable one like this to make adjustments as needed.  https://amzn.to/34HGKTu

You want to balance your load with your weight distributed over the trailer’s axle as much as possible.  Generally 40% of your weight should be behind the axle, 60% in front. Concentrate your weight as low on the trailer as possible. Keeping this in mind will help you be aware of your load weight when packing, especially where you put heavy things like water and batteries.  It is also good to balance the load as much as possible between left and right wheels if you can.

Tongue weight is a factor to consider.  The further back your trailer’s wheels are mounted on your trailer frame, the more weight is being carried by the tongue.  Also, if you add heavy items on your trailer’s front brackets or tongue, the closer to the hitch, the more the weight.  

If you add a heavy cooler or AC unit on the front, it is adding to your tongue weight and makes the tongue heavier to pick up.  If you don’t have a wheeled trailer jack, you may want to get something like this REESE Towpower 74410 Trailer Jack https://amzn.to/3CDibUa

A good indicator of your tongue weight is if you can lift the tongue off the ground when the trailer is loaded.  If you can’t do it by hand and have to use your tongue jack, you have a fair amount of weight on the tongue at the hitch.  

Driving considerations, speed, turns, mirrors and backing.

It is important to stay aware of the differences in driving while you are pulling your trailer. You have to take into account the length in clearing obstacles and other vehicles, and the height of your trailer to remain below overhead obstacles. If your trailer is higher than the roof of your tow vehicle, you should know exactly how tall it is, and be aware of height limit signs under bridges, fast food drive through lanes, etc.

Speed factors. You should be aware of the safe driving speed of your trailer. It may be specified by the manufacturer or molded onto your tires. You risk a flat or mechanical failure if you exceed your safe speed limit. One reason is that smaller diameter tires turn at a faster rate than larger ones. This puts more centrifugal force on smaller tires and they can blow out from too high a speed rotation. Also, the physical dimensions of your trailer are going to affect your vehicle’s handling. A tall, narrow trailer will be less stable than a short, wide one. If you have flat front surfaces catching wind, your aerodynamic drag will be greater. Also, tall sides will catch more sidewinds. The weight of your trailer will also have some affect on your braking. With practice over time, you will get to know your trailer, how it handles, and when it starts to get sketchy. Take it slower than you think you need to and enjoy the journey!

Turns and Cornering are important factors as well. If you make a tight right turn for example, you need to know how your trailer will track behind your car. You may need to pull further forward before turning so the trailer tires clear the corner, curbs, sidewalks, trees, etc. When making 90 degree turns at intersections, you need to factor in the length of your trailer to clear the turn. Also, you need to be aware of the time to clear an intersection given the additional length of your trailer. On gradual curves in the road, the trailer will track behind your tow vehicle with little compensation necessary.

Mirrors. Have you ever followed a semi truck with a sign saying “if you can’t see my mirrors, I can’t see you!” The same applies to you when trailering. You will have blind spots behind your trailer where you can’t see. Generally directly behind the trailer, and possibly to the sides. If your vehicle’s factory mirrors don’t let you see the length of each side of your trailer, you should consider getting mirror extensions that give you a better view.

Trailer Restrictions. Even though your trailer may be tiny, it is still a trailer, and subject to traffic laws and restrictions regarding trailers. You’ll also pay for your trailer on toll roads at the same rate of big commercial trailers (seems unfair, I know). There are also often lower speed limits when pulling a trailer or restricted lanes you can’t drive in. You just need to be aware of the rules of the road.

Little Trailer with the Big Trailers

Backing is a big challenge for novice trailer drivers. Initially, look for places you can pull through and not have to back up whenever you can.  Practice backing up in your driveway to get a feel for it and learning your blind spots, amount of clearance etc.  Turn your head around and look out the back window when backing; it will be less disorienting than trying to do it with your mirrors, with everything seeming backwards.  Once you get the hang of it, you’ll use your mirrors more. If you have someone who can help guide you, get in the habit of hand and arm signals rather than verbal commands, which can be confusing. Also, some folks communicate over cell phones while backing. Make sure you can see your partner in your rearview mirrors to make things easier.

A good habit to get into is to stop before you back into a spot and get out and walk the ground. It will give you a better idea of the ground surface, obstacles, and how much room you have. I’ve sometimes backed partway in and gotten out to check my progress, especially if backing alone. I back my trailer uphill in my driveway and then into my garage by myself. Sometimes it takes more than one try and I’ve been doing it for a long time!

Safety and Breakdowns. If you focus on safety, you’ll have a better trailering experience. The more visible you are, the better for others to avoid you. Adhesive Reflectors and auxiliary lighting are a cheap and easy way to make you more visible.

Flat tires. If you do have a breakdown, it will often be from a flat. You should carry the proper spare that is serviceable and properly inflated. If you don’t have a spare, or have a minor leak, you may want to keep a can of fix a flat in your kit along with a portable compressor. I use this DeWalt portable tire inflator which is powerful enough to refill vehicle tires if aired down for sand driving. Note it works with the family of DeWalt 20V batteries. Battery not included.

HighLift Jack mounted on my trailer

Check your spare along with your tow vehicle and trailer tires for wear and proper inflation before every trip. Make sure you have a jack that can lift your trailer. Many car jacks are made specifically for your car, and are not adequate for safely lifting your trailer to change a tire. A light duty scissor jack is often the best choice for little trailers. I use a 48″ HighLift Jack that can lift 3 tons, and is way more jack than I need to lift this trailer, but it can be very handy to get your tow vehicle out of sand or loose dirt. I bought mounts for it that fit Jeep tubing. I also bought the base plate to use it in the sand, and it is very stable. With 4 feet of travel, this jack can be used as a come-along with recovery straps or chains. Note that this jack is heavy at 28 pounds.

Lastly, make sure you have the proper lug wrench that fits your lugs. Don’t assume a standard size car lug wrench will fit. A small can of WD 40 can be a lifesaver if you have a frozen nut. If you need to change a flat, use your wrench to loosen half a turn or so on each nut, then jack it up to remove the lugs, change the tire, tighten as snugly as you can, lower the tire to the ground, then tighten the nuts firmly. Alternate which nuts you tighten from one side of the wheel to the other. Get your flat fixed as soon as possible, and get your fresh spare stowed if you need it later.

Echoangel USB Rechargeable LED Road Flares

If you do need to stop to change a tire or deal with a roadside problem, it is a good idea to put out a warning triangle or roadside strobe warning lights to let oncoming drivers know you are pulled over.

I hope this blog has been helpful in providing some basic knowledge and some ideas on configuring your trailer setup. If you have comments or suggestions, let me know and I’ll revise this over time.

Good luck and happy trails!

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