How to Tow a Trailer Behind a Pickup or Car

Pickup truck towing a trailer
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If you own a pickup truck, chances are good that you'll eventually use it to tow a trailer of some kind. Towing isn't difficult, but it does require a little advance study and some important set-ups before you hook anything to the trailer hitch. Our towing advice will help you get ready to tow.

Before You Tow a Trailer

  • Read your truck's owners manual to determine the pickup's maximum load limit and to find out if the manufacturer has included any special notes associated with towing.
  • Learn about different types of trailer hitches to ensure your hitch is appropriate for the item you want to tow.
  • Check the tires and tire pressure on the tow vehicle and the trailer and make sure all lug nuts are tightened correctly (the specs are in the truck and trailer owner's manuals).
  • Connect the trailer wiring to the truck; inspect all lights to be sure they are working.
  • Put a light coat of grease on the trailer ball before connecting it to the trailer's tongue. See Trailer Hitch Components for a visual.
  • Be sure the trailer tongue is locked or latched securely on the hitch ball, without excessive play or looseness.
  • Connect safety chains from the trailer to the tow vehicle.
  • Trailers equipped with electric brakes have a device that applies the brakes if the trailer becomes disconnected from the tow vehicle. The system connects to the truck or another vehicle with a small cable that pulls a lever to engage the trailer-mounted brake unit if the trailer becomes separated. If your trailer has this feature, use it every time you tow.
  • Adjust the exterior rearview mirrors so that you can see the sides of the tow vehicle and the sides of the trailer. I like to point the mirrors down slightly so that I can see where the tires are in relation to the pavement lines, but it's critical that you have a good view of vehicles behind and beside you. If you cannot see past the trailer, install new mirrors.

Loading a Trailer

Your owner's manuals are a good source of information for weight distribution instructions, but in general, balance weight from side to side and along the length of the trailer. Secure cargo to keep it from shifting.

If your loaded trailer isn't level with the ground, check your owner's manual to find out if the trailer's alignment is acceptable.

Pulling a Trailer

Connecting a trailer to your truck changes just about everything about the way the truck drives. It takes a harder push on the accelerator to get the truck moving, a greater distance to get it up to speed, and an extended distance to stop the truck when you hit the brakes.

Drive changes mean you have to be more prepared than ever to avoid cars that pull out in front of you or a ball rolling into the street, possibly with a child not far behind. But since quick braking can cause jackknifing, and abrupt steering changes can make the trailer sway, it's important to train yourself to look as far ahead as possible so that you can anticipate what might be in your path, and make slow and steady movements to handle the problem.

  • Slow it down in congested areas.
  • Put more space between you and the vehicle ahead of you than you normally would.
  • Watch what's happening several cars ahead.
  • Pass only on straightaways. Allow more distance between you and potential oncoming traffic and make sure there's enough room to pull back into your lane after you pass.

Make Wider Turns

When you are pulling a trailer, remember that as you go around curves and corners the trailer's wheels will not track the same as the tow vehicle's—they will track tighter. So if you are making a curve to the left, and the tow vehicle's left wheels are just right of the center line, the trailer's left wheel (or wheels ) will be on or past the line, putting the trailer in the path of oncoming traffic. Make wider turns to compensate for the tracking difference.

Towing Uphill and Downhill

  • Downshifting provides more uphill power and helps slow the vehicle on a downhill grade.
  • Brakes will overheat if you keep your foot on the brake pedal when going downhill.
  • Engage tow-mode if your truck has that feature.

Backing Up

  • Move slowly and don't over-steer when backing up—light movements of the wheel are all it takes.
  • If possible, have someone outside of the truck help guide your movements.

Read every manual that comes with every towing component before you head out, but safe towing takes practice, too. Fine-tune your curves and back-ups in empty parking lots and make some trial towing runs on roads that aren't packed with traffic.