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We often find great satisfaction in accomplishing life’s tough endeavors; learning to tow is definitely an example. Getting comfortable towing is an empowering feeling, but it takes hard work and practice to get there.
That’s why we’re here to help you gain the confidence you need to safely tow your rig. Then it’s just a matter of getting out on the road and mastering the skills.
In this Togo RV Towing Guide, we’ll cover setup, towing capacity, hitching, driving, and parking—plus insurance, and some specific considerations for trailers and fifth wheels.
Now, it’s time to loosen that grip.
Buying a tow vehicle
Don’t get too big for your britches
Not surprisingly, the biggest factor when it comes to towing safety is selecting the right tow vehicle in the first place. So it’s smart to choose your travel trailer or fifth wheel before you buy your tow vehicle, if at all possible. That way, you’re less likely to try towing your trailer with a vehicle that lacks the muscle to do it.
When you buy your tow vehicle, it’s best to get the appropriate towing package straight from the factory. (If it’s too late for that, your dealer can help you set up a towing package.) Regardless, you should pay more for quality hitch equipment to make your towing experience as safe and fun as possible. Don’t skimp here.
Already own your tow vehicle? Don’t buy an RV that’s bigger than what it can safely tow.
Towing takes raw power, a transmission that’s built to distribute it, axles crafted to carry the weight, and a suspension designed to give you a comfy ride. So, automakers are always striving to crush it on towing capacity without killing fuel economy.
Carefully check the towing specs of any tow vehicle you’re considering because the engine, gearing, length, axles, cab style, bed style, and towing package all affect the vehicle’s towing capacity. For example, a beefed-up Ram 3500 can tow north of 30,000 pounds (GVWR), but that capacity drops to about 11,000 pounds (GVWR) without the right features and options.
As Consumer Reports warns, never assume a pickup truck can tow like a beast just because it looks like a beast. This holds true for any type of tow vehicle.
With that in mind, here’s a brief overview of the four truck segments you can choose from, with a list of some trucks in each category. (For a more in-depth look, check out our Best Truck for Towing a Travel Trailer guide.)
Loved by weekend warriors, mid-size trucks are great for pulling small campers, with maximum towing capacities (or GVWRs) ranging from 5,000 to 7,700 pounds.
Trucks in this segment:
Full-size trucks are incredibly popular with consumers and are designed with plenty of torque for pulling power. Maximum towing capacities in this segment range from 9,740 to 13,200 pounds GVWR.
Trucks in this segment:
Chevrolet Silverado 1500
GMC Sierra 1500
If you’re towing a large fifth wheel, you’ll want to look at heavy-duty trucks. They tow a maximum of 12,760 to 18,500 pounds GVWR.
Trucks in this segment:
Nissan Titan XD
GMC Sierra 2500HD
Chevrolet Silverado 2500HD
Ford Super Duty F-250
You can’t get any more ultra than these monsters. Their maximum towing capacity ranges from 20,000 to 32,000 pounds GVWR. While they’re powerful, they likely won’t ride as well as their slenderer cousins.
Trucks in this segment:
GMC Sierra 3500HD
Chevrolet Silverado 3500HD
Ford Super Duty F-350
As you shop for a truck, you’ll need to think about which type of hitch you’ll need. Here are the different types of hitches and how they’re used:
A weight-carrying hitch is mainly used to tow small- and medium-sized trailers. You want it to uniformly distribute your trailer tongue loads through the bumper and frame.
A weight-distributing hitch works with a hitch platform to distribute tongue load to all trailer and tow vehicle wheels. Weight-distributing platforms are welded or bolted to your trailer frame. Equalizing arms that connect the hitch to a trailer’s A-frame can be adjusted for the best towing performance. Spring bars bend upward as lengths of chain are pulled up and tightened, which lifts some weight from the rear wheels and transfers weight to the other wheels of the vehicle and the trailer.
A gooseneck hitch attaches in the truck bed with universal or custom rails. Commonly used for agriculture and horse trailers, this type of hitch gives you great stability and is suitable for heavier loads because the weight of the tongue rests directly on the truck bed, over the rear axles.
Commonly used for RVs, a fifth-wheel hitch is mounted in the pickup bed to put more trailer weight directly over the towing vehicle.
Once you select what hitch type you need, you’ll need to figure out how to hitch your trailer to your tow vehicle. Check out our Guide to Hitching Your RV for everything you could possibly want to know.
As the tire turns
If you have a smaller or medium-size trailer, here are some helpful tips.
Know your state laws: Many states require a braking system installed for the trailer if it’s over a certain weight threshold. Avoid fines by knowing what’s required both where you live and where you plan to travel.
Pack light: Some newbies pack their camper like they’re never returning home. But not you. You’re going to read our How to Pack Your RV guide and only bring what you truly need.
Empty your tanks: Empty the freshwater, black, and gray holding tanks before you leave home. You can also dump these tanks again at certain campsites. By reducing your overall weight, you can increase your fuel economy. Your wallet will thank you when you gas up.
If you’re going to drive a fifth wheel, here are some helpful tips for you.
Overdrive is overrated: When it comes to fifth wheels, anyway. Overdrive reduces the wear and tear on your truck over long trips, with less noise and better gas mileage when not hauling anything. But while it’s fine for driving your pickup, overdrive can strain your transmission when you’re pulling the added weight and size of a fifth wheel.
Mirror, mirror: Extended mirrors are even more important for large RVs. Without them, you can have some major blind spots.
Blowin’ in the wind: Strong wind gusts can threaten the stability of your fifth wheel. If winds are 30 miles per hour or stronger, you probably don’t want to chance it. And if you do, you’re going to feel some pain at the pump. If you’re worried about strong winds, check out our RV Sway Bar and Stabilizer Basics blog.
Rocky Mountain high: If you’re planning to adventure at altitude, be aware that high altitudes can deplete engine power, which makes it tougher to pull your trailer load even with the proper hitch setup. Lighten your load and stock up on stuff once you reach elevation. Also, think about lowering your truck’s gear, especially for particularly steep inclines.
Don’t feel the need for speed
Easy on the gas there, Maverick. We know you’re amped about your adventure, but there’s a lot of weight behind you now, and that means it takes longer to speed up, slow down—and stop. So hang out in the right lane and let those speed demons pass you all the way to Albuquerque. You’ll still get there, and you’ll have a heavier wallet from all the money you saved on gas.
Here are our other suggestions for safe RV travel.
You, up front: Never have passengers in your RV while you’re towing it. Not only is this unsafe, it’s possibly illegal. (Which isn’t something you want to find out.)
Watch your weight: Properly distributing the weight of your trailer’s load is key to road safety. You want 60% or more of the trailer’s total load weight concentrated in the front end of your rig. Otherwise, your RV could become “tail heavy.” Not good.
Keep your distance: Don’t rely on driving instincts you’ve developed from driving a car. You want to stay about four to six seconds behind the vehicle in front of you.
My, how you’ve grown: Know how tall your trailer is. Add six inches for safety and avoid any bridges with a lower clearance than that.
Avoid a route canal: Knowing exactly where you’re going helps you avoid the pain of course correcting on narrow roads or in traffic. So plan your route ahead of time, and get a navigation system with a trailer or RV setting.
Magic mirrors: The standard mirrors that came with your truck likely aren’t adequate for RV towing, as you won’t be able to see the entire rig behind you—creating dangerous blind spots. Buy some extended side-view mirrors. You can get them permanently installed or get clip-ons that you can put on and take off as needed.
Turn, turn, turn: Turning isn’t terrible. Really. But the longer your trailer is, the wider you typically want to take those turns. So keep your turn as wide as you reasonably can—and don’t take turns too fast!
Beep. Beep. Beep: Backing up can be tricky, especially for the newbie. Take your time when you’re in reverse, and avoid doing it on roadways, if at all possible.
An uphill battle: Steep hills and mountain passes can be stressful at times. Keep to your right if you’re going to be climbing a hill slowly. Also, turn on your hazard lights if you’re well below the speed limit.
Give yourself a brake: Coming down a hill can be more challenging, but you should be fine if you play it safe. Use engine braking if your tow vehicle is capable; this shifts your engine down into a lower gear as you go down a hill and take your foot off the accelerator. Engine braking controls your speed and eases wear on your brakes. You may still need to apply your brakes as well, though, especially on an extremely steep grade. Avoid braking too hard when you’re in a turn and going downhill, as this can cause your trailer to jackknife. Instead, make sure you’re driving slowly enough going into the turn and then maintain that speed or decelerate gently.
Under pressure: Always check the tire pressure on your rig and tow vehicle before you leave home, and inflate the tires to the appropriate pressure level. That includes your spare—you never know when you might need it.
Charge up: Remember to keep an eye on your RV batteries and recharge them as needed.
Pro Tip: Drive your RV in an empty parking lot before you hit the open road. Make some turns and practice backing up. That makes for less sweat on the highway.
Now you’re ready to drive your rig safely from here to Helena. But you might want to look into emergency roadside service just in case. Also, remember to tell your family and friends where you’ll be staying before you leave town.
Nearly all towable RVs feature electric brakes with a built-in or add-on electric brake controller that manages the level of power applied to the brakes. If the trailer should separate from the tow vehicle, a breakaway switch activates the trailer brakes.
Adjusting this trailer brake controller is important, and it’s fairly easy if you follow the instructions in your owner’s manual or provided with the controller. Basically, you want to set the controller so the trailer “tugs” on your tow vehicle without locking the brakes. Your tow vehicle should slow down at the same time so it’s more like one large vehicle stopping than two separate ones.
We recommend testing the “gain,” or intensity, of your brakes by towing your trailer on a paved surface at about 25 miles per hour and then fully applying your brakes using the manual activation lever on the brake control. If your wheels lock up, your setting is too aggressive, and you need to adjust it. On the other hand, you need to increase the braking power if you can’t feel the trailer. Note: You might need to readjust your brake controller setting depending on your trailer load, as weight will affect how efficiently you brake.
When you brake, your RV shouldn’t pull hard at your tow vehicle or rely too much on the tow vehicle’s brakes to stop. Adjust the brake control so your trailer responds well during both slower and faster stops. You’ll have to try until you get the brake control just right, but once you do, you’ll feel much better about towing your rig.
Parks and recreation
Part of parking safety involves research before you ever leave home. Most reservation websites give you details for each campsite, including its length and obstructions like low-hanging tree branches. Make sure the campsite you select is long enough for both your rig and tow vehicle before you hand them a fistful of dollars. Also check for any warnings for drivers with longer rigs, as some campsites have some tight squeezes you’ll want to know about ahead of time.
Never just assume your site will be flat. When you get there, check the campsite before you pull in, if at all possible. Walk around and look for any potential hazards like ditches, branches, and power hookups.
Ready to park? Take it slow, because speedy parking can end in accidents and injuries, including your ego.
It’s smart to have a spotter, especially as you’re getting used to maneuvering around a campsite. You can use two-way radios so they don’t have to yell.
Don’t leave home without it
Like car insurance, RV insurance can provide liability, collision, and comprehensive coverage to protect you and your passengers in the event of an accident, personal injury, theft, or natural disaster. And you’ve got plenty of insurance plans to choose from because it’s offered by most major insurance companies.
The RV coverage you need—and how much you’ll pay—will be mostly determined by the class of your recreational vehicle. Compare your RV insurance options by looking closely at the coverage and benefits, as well as the cost and customer support. You might also want to ask your RV buddies which company they use.
See, that wasn’t so bad. We’ve covered the types of pickup trucks, towing capacity, hitches, and how to drive and park an RV. Not to mention specific considerations for trailers and fifth wheels and even how to insure your RV.
Now you’re ready for adventure mode. Minus the white knuckles.
Jan 28, 2020
15 min. read