RV Trailer Hookup and Trailer Safety Basics

Trailer loading and trailer safety are critical issues for all RV owners, as well as all the drivers and passengers who share the road with them. Too many people, however, are not loading and hitching trailers properly, resulting in significant hazards to everyone involved – not just to property, but to life and limb, as well.

Here are some key tips to help ensure your safety and the safety of your fellow drivers on the road, as well as to help prevent damage or property loss to your trailer cargo.

When it comes to weight, there are four weight factors you have to consider:

  1. The Gross Trailer Weight (GTW), which is, of course, the total weight of the trailer and everything on it, and;
  2. The Tongue Weight. That’s the downward force the trailer tongue exerts directly on the hitch when you hook it up. These are different things, of course. The tongue weight will represent the weight not absorbed by the trailer wheels.
  3. Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR). That’s the maximum weight of your RV (or any other vehicle) when fully loaded.
  4. Gross Combination Weight Rating (GCWR). That’s the total, combined weight of the vehicle and trailer when fully loaded.

You should know your trailer hitch class, as well. There are five of them.

  1. Hitch Class 1, designed for a max of 2,000 pounds, will enable you to tow a small car or light truck, or a recreational item like a Jet Ski or motorcycle. Cargo boxes are usually fine if you don’t load them with gold bars or blocks of lead or plutonium, however, the maximum trailer tongue weight in this class is 200 pounds.
  2. Hitch Class 2, designed for up to 3,500 pounds, will also enable you to tow something like a small camper trailer, a small boat, or one or even two ATVs; or a larger trailer, obviously. The max tongue weight is 300 pounds.
  3. Hitch Class 3 is designed to haul loads of up to 6,000 pounds, with a tongue weight of up to 600 pounds - think medium trailer or a fishing boat. Consult the owner’s manual for specifics on its weight characteristics. Naturally, you’ll have to add the weight of whatever you’re loading.
  4. Hitch Class 4 gets you up to 10,000 GTW and 1,000 pounds vehicle tongue weight, unless they are used for weight distribution, in which case they will support GTW of up to 14,000 pounds and a tongue weight of 1400 pounds.
  5. Hitch Class 5 will pull up to 12,000 pounds GTW with a max tongue weight of 1,200 pounds, but the hitches used for weight distributing will support up to 17,000 GTW with a maximum tongue weight of 1,700 pounds. Both the ball and the hitch mount have to be rated Class V to move this kind of mass, though.

Both Hitch Class 4 and 5 should be attached directly to the vehicle frame, as opposed to a bumper.

Consider a Weight Distribution System

When you hook up a trailer to an RV, truck or any other prime mover vehicle, the tendency is for the tongue weight of the trailer to press down on the rear axle of the vehicle, increasing the weight on the rear axle, and pulling the front of the vehicle up, reducing traction for the front wheels. It’s easy to imagine how this can be a problem, especially for front-wheel drive movers!

A weight distribution system helps to distribute weight evenly among all the axles. They are usually only a few hundred dollars, and can go a long way to increasing the load you can safely carry while reducing the strain and wear on your rear axle.

You should definitely have one if your gross trailer weight is 50 percent of your vehicle weight, if you see that the back end of your vehicle is sagging under the weight, if you notice your trailer is fishtailing or swaying, or it’s hard to brake or steer your vehicle.

If your headlights are pointed at the sky when you drive, that’s a good indicator.

See here for more information on trailer weight distribution systems. And here’s a good video on how to set one up.

Loading Your Trailer

◾Always load your trailer on a flat level surface

◾Take the time to set the trailer hitch height correctly

◾Put as much weight as possible directly above the trailer axel, or axles.

◾Engage the parking brake

◾The lowest-rated component in your towing system determines the maximum weight you can tow.

◾Check your tire pressure before loading and hauling. Tire pressure should be the same on both sides, and tires should be inflated to the manufacturers’ specifications – which you should find stamped on the side of the tire.

◾Those little hook-up chains should criss-cross when you hook them up.

◾Double-check the brake battery on your trailer.

◾Double check the brake and turn signals on your trailer after the hookup, but before you move.

Insurance Considerations

Check your RV insurance policy for language relating specifically to towed items and trailers. This coverage can vary widely by insurance carrier and by state. If your base policy does not cover travel trailers or towed items, however, it’s usually available as a rider or as a separate policy, or you may need to get a policy specific to your trailer. RV-specific insurers tend to do a better job at covering the unique risks of RV owners than generalist carriers.

You may want to look specifically at the any weight or classification limits or exclusions on your trailer liability policy, and whether the coverage extends to rented trailers. You may also need different levels of coverage if you live in your RV and/or travel trailer full time.

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