Learning Center

Driving with a Trailer

With practice and common sense, you can tow a trailer with ease.

Driving with a Trailer

Whether you’re off for a north-woods camping trip, moving your kids into their first apartment or picking up a load of firewood from across town, you may need to tow a trailer.

Driving with a trailer isn’t the same as “regular” driving, but it doesn’t have to be a white-knuckle experience, either. With a little planning and practice, you can navigate safely and confidently with your trailer firmly attached.

Here are some tips for an easier driving experience when you’re towing a trailer.

Preparing for the drive

  • Check your owner’s manual for what your car can safely tow.
  • Have a mechanic check your car to make sure it can handle the strain of towing.
  • Check laws in your state regarding any special licenses or registration for towing.
  • Make sure your trailer’s brake lights and turn signals work.
  • Make sure safety chains are installed and connected.
  • If you’re new to towing, find a large, empty parking lot and practice. Get the feel of how acceleration, braking and turning will be different.
  • Evenly load your trailer from side to side and front to back. Lopsided loads make a trailer difficult to control. A properly loaded trailer should have about 60 percent of the weight in front of the axle.
  • Make sure contents are secure to avoid shifting and causing uneven weight distribution.
  • Check the tongue weight – the weight your trailer hitch can handle from the trailer's tongue. The tongue weight should generally be about 10 percent of the gross trailer weight.
  • Make sure your trailer is level.

Getting on the road

  • Use the gear your vehicle manufacturer recommends for towing. 
  • Driving at moderate speeds places less strain on both your vehicle and trailer.
  • Avoid sudden stops, starts and steering. 
  • When passing or changing lanes, signal well in advance and allow extra distance.
  • Slow down on bumpy roads and railroad crossings. 
  • Take all turns wider.
  • Leave extra time and distance between you and other vehicles so you can stop safely.
  • After the first 10-20 miles, recheck tie downs to make sure they’re still tight.
  • Downshift to help with braking on downgrades and to add power for climbing hills. 
  • On long downgrades, apply brakes at intervals to slow down. Never leave brakes on for extended periods or they may overheat. 
  • If you’re a novice, try to park in a place where you can pull forward so you don't have to back into or out of a parking space.
  • If you must park on a hill, have someone place blocks on the downhill side of the trailer’s wheels. Apply the parking brake, shift into park and remove your foot from the brake pedal. This sequence helps take the strain off the transmission due to the extra weight of the trailer.
  • When uncoupling a trailer, place blocks at the front and rear of the trailer’s tires. 

Backing your trailer

This can be the hardest part of driving with a trailer. If you’re a novice, find a large, empty parking lot and practice. Soon, you’ll be backing with ease.

  • Place your hand at the bottom of the steering wheel and move your hand in the direction you want the trailer to go.
  • Use slight movements of the steering wheel. Don’t crank the wheel from side to side.
  • If you have difficulty, pull forward, straighten out and start again.
  • Don't be afraid to stop, get out and see where you are. It's better to check where you are than to hit something.
  • Check overhead for tree limbs, wires and garage overhangs.
  • While short trailers are more maneuverable when driving, they’re actually more difficult to back up.

With a little practice and patience, you’ll soon be driving your trailer like a pro. Before hitting the road, check with a local American Family Insurance agent to make sure your trailer and its contents are protected against damage or theft.

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