The humble travel trailer makes for a great introduction to RV life. These smaller vehicles have at least half the heft of a traditional motorhome, yet the number of amenities and passengers you can squeeze into one is nothing short of astounding. From king-sized beds to kitchens, televisions, bathroom nooks, and even a fireplace, travel trailers are a preferred option for many RV fans for a reason. Not to mention, you can often squeeze up to 11 other travelers with you.
Of course, with the much more diminutive size of these trailers compared to other motorhome options, you may be wondering how much they can tow? After all, according to RV resource Family RV USA, camper trailers often have a width of between 18 and 25 feet. At that size, travel trailers tend to occupy about 400 square feet, or the size of a small living room, but stretched horizontally.
It’s not that these trailers can’t tow some significant weight, because they can. It may not be as much heft as you’re used to with a full-sized RV, but travel trailers are not to be underestimated.
That said, if you’re thinking about buying your first travel trailer, you want to make sure you don’t try to hitch too much weight to it. You also want to ensure that your truck, SUV, or other vehicle is compatible with the travel trailer by comparing the weights of both. After all, you want to enjoy a smooth, relaxing, memorable trip with family and friends.
These seven tips and tidbits should help you do just that. By the time you’re done reading this article, you’ll know all you can (and cannot) do when towing your travel trailer.
1. Understand the Trailer Weight Distribution
Every travel trailer has its own weight distribution that varies by model and manufacturer. The weight distribution considers factors like the tire pressure, wheel position loads for all four wheels, and the Gross Axle Weight Rating or GAWR.
Once you calculate those three numbers for your travel trailer, what do you do with them? You should use that data to determine where the weight of your trailer should be distributed.
It’s recommended that the front of the trailer takes the most weight, more than half in total. By shifting the remaining 40 percent of the weight to the back end, you create a good balance.
The front half of the travel trailer won’t be too heavy, which should make driving more comfortable and natural, as you won’t feel weighed down by the trailer. The back half won’t be too weighty either, which prevents issues like you potentially moving off the highway accidentally because the back of the vehicle is so unstable!
In truth, your travel trailer was built by the manufacturer to naturally balance itself out. That said, you should still be cautious about how you position things (including people!) in your trailer and ensure the proper weight distribution before you set out for your next adventure.
Do remember that by adding extra gear, equipment, and other accessories, you’re making changes to the weight distribution. You might want to recalculate the distribution with those additions.
2. Have the Right Equipment
Now, the biggest difference between your travel trailer and a traditional RV is that you don’t drive the travel trailer. Instead, you’re going to hitch it onto a truck or SUV and drive that.
Towing can be quite an intimidating feat at first glance, especially if you’ve never done it before. Now that you know the right weight distribution for your trailer, though, you’ve already done most of the hard work.
You next need to go out and purchase the equipment for towing.
Here’s what you’re going to need:
- A wiring harness
- A trailer hitch ball
- A pin and clip
- Ball mounts
- The trailer hitch receiver
We will now unpack each of these items, explaining more about them and what they do as well as providing links where you can conveniently shop for them.
The wiring harness looks like a series of wires held together by a black connector box. It allows your towing trailer’s lights to turn on when necessary, so that when you stop or turn, other drivers on the road know what you’re doing.
This is one piece of equipment you cannot afford to skip. Many state laws mandate that you must have a wiring harness installed on your travel trailer.
Product recommendation: This Jammy wiring harness is eight feet long and has a round plug connector.
Trailer Hitch Balls
You’ll need at least three trailer hitch balls. You can choose from sizes like 1-7/8 inches, two inches, all the way up to 2-5/16 inches. Don’t just choose the size of the trailer hitch ball randomly; instead, measure the trailer’s coupler to determine the correct size.
Product recommendation: MaxxHaul’s triple ball mount includes all three ball sizes in one convenient product. Additionally, you may be interested in this cover for larger ball mounts from Equal-i-izer.
Pin and Clip
The pin and clip are detachable but must be used together. These may include hitch locks that prevent anyone from stealing the ball mount. At the very least, the pin and clip on their own are useful for preventing the ball mount from slipping out of the trailer hitch receiver opening.
Product recommendation: This pin and clip set from CURT doesn’t have a lock, but it’s pretty inexpensive.
Different from trailer hitch balls, the ball mount is often shaped like an L. It’s a big piece of metal, sometimes known as a drawbar, that connects to the hitch opening. You can then attach the trailer hitch balls securely.
Product recommendation: CURT’s loaded ball mount will be compatible with the pin and clip linked to above. You can even choose the year, make, and model of your travel trailer to ensure you get the right fit.
Trailer Hitch Receiver
The travel hitch receiver is like a long metal half-circle. It’s supposed to connect to your vehicle frame (with a precise fit) underneath. The openings may be 1-1/4 inches by 1-1/4 inches on the smaller side and even two by two on the bigger side. You can even get a travel hitch receiver that’s 2-1/2 inches by 2-1/2 inches, although this is only used for larger vehicles.
Product recommendation: CURT’s trailer hitch receiver is Custom Class 2 and is 1-1/4 inches by 1-1/4 inches. Once again, you can choose the year, make, and model of your travel trailer for an exact fit.
3. Don’t Rush It
Okay, so you’ve figured out the weight distribution for your travel trailer and you ordered the necessary equipment. You installed it all, packed up some gear for your trip, and gathered your passengers.
You’re now ready to hit the road!
This is an exciting time, but if you’ve never driven with a travel trailer before, it’s also a time to take it as slow as possible. It’s going to be a strange driving experience at first, so you’re going to have to adjust to that.
Not only that, but you should also take it easy so you can ensure you got the weight distribution correct. If something feels off and you can feel the vehicle is pulling you more towards the front or lagging in the back, you should pull over and recalculate your weight distribution. You may have to shift some things around in the trailer before you get the weight distribution just right.
Even once you feel you have the correct weight distribution, you still shouldn’t rush things. It’s so much easier to control your vehicle when you’re already at a slow pace, so even if you have to make a quick stop, you won’t cause any accidents.
Of course, eventually you will get used to driving at higher speeds, and you should always match the required speed limit when you drive. At the beginning though, you can be a little more relaxed with your pace until you feel you’ve gotten the hang of things.
4. Learn to Stop (Again)
The main reason to take it so slow is that you now have several hundred pounds of weight behind you. You’re not just driving your truck or your SUV, where if you want to brake, you can do so a foot or two ahead of your destination. You have the travel trailer, too.
Due to the weight of your travel trailer, slowing down now takes longer. You should be able to anticipate what’s going on 15 seconds in front of you at all times, and, if you’ve been at this a while, up to 12 seconds.
Of course, this will take some time to get used to, which is why it’s recommended you spend several afternoons in an empty parking lot learning to maneuver your travel trailer. This may take you back to your days of driver’s ed, but it’s necessary. Just like you had to learn how to drive a car for the first time, you have to learn how to drive a with a travel trailer.
You will find that if you want to stop, make turns, or do any other sort of maneuvering with your trailer, you will have to plan your move far ahead of time. There are no immediate swerves, turns, or curves allowed with a travel trailer. Everything has to be precise, planned, and calculated.
If this seems intimidating, it isn’t! It’s just going to take time and practice for you to get used to planning your stops and turns with enough advanced notice that you have the time and the room to perform the maneuver.
5. Check Your Vehicle’s Towing Capacity
You have a big truck or SUV, so there’s no question about whether your vehicle can handle the weight of towing a travel trailer, right?
Actually, that’s not necessarily true. Some sturdy and bulky-looking trucks and SUVs lack the towing capacity necessary for travel trailers.
Now, it’s important you do your homework before buying your travel trailer. It’d be unfortunate for you to spend the time and money shopping for the perfect trailer only to have to return it because your vehicle doesn’t have a high enough towing capacity.
How do you even know what your vehicle’s towing capacity is? That’s a good question.
Hopefully, you kept the owner’s manual and other documentation for your truck or SUV. If you did, it’s time to look at these papers again. In them, you should find the towing capacity for your vehicle.
Now, to determine if your truck or SUV has an adequate towing capacity, you want to fill your travel trailer with all the gear, passengers, and other equipment you’d bring with you when traveling. Once you do that, weigh the trailer.
Once you get that weight, you can determine if your vehicle has a high enough towing capacity to pull the trailer.
6. Limit What (and Who) You Bring
If you’re setting off for your first adventure in an RV, you might feel inclined to overpack. It’s only natural. After all, you don’t want to forget even a single necessity.
That said, the more stuff you bring with you, the heavier your travel trailer becomes. We’ve already talked in-depth about why weight distribution is so important. Again, remember that if your trailer is too heavy, your truck or SUV may not be able to tow it either.
Unless you’re off-roading, you’ll undoubtedly pass stores over the course of your journey where you can stock up on supplies once you start to run low. That means it’s best if you bring moderate food stock. Also, be sure to leave those huge gallon water jugs at home, or at least a few of them.
Also, although you wouldn’t think it, your clothes can be quite weighty, too. This is especially true if you’re prone to overpacking. To keep your clothes count contained, imagine you’re packing for a vacation and you only have a small suitcase. How would you fit all your clothes?
You wouldn’t bring everything. Instead, you’d pack staple items, like a few pairs of jeans and shorts and a few t-shirts. Encourage all your passengers to pack with this mentality.
Speaking of passengers, they often weigh the most! While sure, some campers can handle up to 11 passengers, if you have that many people, each of them has to pack extremely lightly. It’s better to bring a few friends or family members rather than push the weight limits of your travel trailer.
7. Check Your Mirrors and Brakes
Okay, now you’re sure you have everything you need. You’re ready to go. Before you head out though, you might want to check your vehicle’s mirrors and brakes.
Your mirrors are meant to cover the extent of your vehicle, giving you access to your truck’s sides and rear. Now that you have a travel trailer attached to your vehicle, you need to make sure you adjust your windows and mirrors to the point where you can see the trailer as well.
What if your windows and mirrors won’t go that far? It may be within your best interest to get replacements. You’ll at least need extended-side view mirrors. Some drivers even spring for rear-vision cameras. These extra cameras, found in the driver’s cockpit, come equipped with some travel trailers and motorhomes. If you don’t have one, though, you may want to invest in one. You’ll be happy you did.
These cameras allow access to the back of the roadway, If you want to switch lanes or pass other drivers and be as safe as possible about it, the rear-vision camera will help you out tremendously.
If your vehicle with the travel trailer exceeds 1,500 pounds (only 1,000 pounds in some states), then you need to add another braking system to the travel trailer itself. This allows you to brake more efficiently, reducing your chances of accidents on the road.
Owning a travel trailer is a great way to dip your toes into the RV lifestyle and get a first-hand feel for what it’s really like behind the wheel. These trailers can attach to many SUVS and trucks, but not all.
To make sure your first trip on the road with your travel trailer is as successful as possible, take heed of the advice offered above. These seven recommendations are more than just tips, but steps you absolutely should follow before you leave.
Now get out there and experience all the fun there is to be had in your travel trailer!