The arrival of spring and warmer weather means the start of the trailering season for many drivers, as families break out their boats, campers, and other outdoor gear after a long winter. But before you hitch up and go, it's important to think safety, both in terms of maintenance and once you're on the road.
A trailer may not be as complex as the car, truck, or SUV pulling it, but it can be every bit as dangerous at highway speeds. And most recreational trailers tend to sit unused for longer periods than the family chariot, which can be detrimental to safety components such as bearings, tires, wiring, and lights.
If you're a first timer, have recently stepped up to a larger trailer, or just want a refresher, start with our towing guide for the basics. That has plenty of information about how to match your vehicle to the load. (Also read: "Pulling your weight.")
And whether you're an experienced trailer veteran or hitching up for the first time, take a few minutes to read the following tips.
Once you're ready to go, remember that accelerating, turning, and especially stopping all take longer with a trailer, so make sure to leave plenty of room, and slow down. Not only will you improve the odds of getting to the great outdoors safely, chances are you'll be less stressed out when you get there.
- Always do a safety walk around before setting out, checking lights, tires, and all connections.
- If your trailer is wider than your tow vehicle, you'll need a set of extended side mirrors to see around it.
- Two safety chains between your trailer and tow vehicle are a required safety item in case the trailer tongue comes off the tow ball. Anchored to each side of the tongue, they should have enough slack to allow sharp turns without dragging, and should cross under the trailer to form a sling to support the tongue if the trailer separates from the tow vehicle.
- Many states require a separate braking system and breakaway switch for loaded trailers with a weight greater than 1,500 pounds. Check with your state department of motor vehicles for local regulations. If your trailer has brakes, make sure they're in good working order. Attach the breakaway cable to the tow vehicle, not to the hitch.
- Federal law requires that trailers have operating taillights, brake lights, turn signals, and side-marker lights. Vibration and moisture can wreak havoc with these components, particularly with boat trailers that are occasionally submerged. Check all your lights as part of a walk around check every time you use the trailer. Corroded connections can be freshened up with spray electrical cleaner, available at auto parts stores. Water resistant, non-conductive Dielectric grease can help protect connections.
- Make sure all lug nuts are tight, check tire pressure regularly, and inflate your tires to the trailer manufacturer's recommendations. Consider investing in a spare tire and wheel if your trailer doesn't have one, and include a lug wrench and a scissor-style jack or other compatible jack. Always bring along a wheel chock.
- Remove trailer wheels at the start of the season to inspect wheel bearings, or have your mechanic do it. Bearings may need to be repacked with grease after a long winter or exposure to water. While you're at it, lubricate all moving parts of the hitch assembly with grease, and check all nuts, bolts and fasteners to make sure they're tight.
- Trailer tires often don't wear very much, but they do dry rot, crack, and generally go bad with age as they sit stationary and loaded while being exposed to the sun. We recommend replacing trailer tires no more than 10 years after manufacture, regardless of wear. You may need to check the tire sidewall to confirm the build date.
- Make sure to load your trailer evenly, from side to side and front to back, and secure the load.
- Make sure you have the proper size tow ball for your trailer coupler. Towing handling is improved if the hitch puts the ball at the same height as the trailer tongue, keeping the trailer level, and puts the ball as close to the tow vehicle's rear bumper as possible. Heavier trailers may require more work to ensure proper weight distribution, along with anti-sway equipment.
- If you're traveling through another state, check to make sure your trailer complies with all local regulations and weight restrictions, and always plan any route ahead of time to be aware of bridges, tunnels, and other potential concerns.
Trailers can often bring a load of fun to your road tripping, and by following these tips, you may avoid misadventures along the way.