The ability to trailer your boat from one location to another opens up virtually unlimited boating opportunities. Towing a boat, however, is not as simple as many novices perceive it. On the other hand, it's not an overly difficult skill to learn either. The following tips will help ensure that your towing experience is a positive and safe one.
TIP 1: Know Before You Go
The idea here is to avoid being in transit when you start wondering if your brake lights work, or if you cinched the tie-down straps, or raised the trailer jack, etc. You should know all those things and then some before you even pull out of the driveway. To do this effectively, it's good to have a checklist. A literal checklist written on a tablet or piece of paper that you keep in the tow vehicle's glove box is best, but in the real world, the majority of people are not likely to do that. So, at the very least, go through a mental checklist before taking to the road. Interestingly, it's the experienced tower that sometimes gets overconfident and develops a lackadaisical attitude in this regard. Don't.
Your checklist should include such things as making sure all lights work properly, the hitchball is secure, all wheel nuts are tight, tire pressure is adequate (including the spare), the coupler is secure (running a bolt through the coupler hole will ensure it won't pop open), the trailer jack is raised and locked in place, the trailer's emergency brake cable (or breakaway cable) is connected to the tow vehicle and the safety chains are hooked up. Incidentally, safety chains should be crisscrossed so that if the trailer comes loose from the hitchball, the chains form a cradle to catch the loose trailer tongue and keep it from digging into the pavement and flipping over. Additionally, make sure the boat is properly positioned and secured on the trailer.
TIP 2: Watch Your Weight
You should be aware of four weight ratings when you tow: Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR), Gross Axle Weight Rating (GAWR), Trailer Weight Allowance (TWA), and Gross Combined Weight Rating (GCWR). None of them should be taken for granted.
Both your tow vehicle and trailer have a designated GVWR, which represents the total allowable weight it's designed to safely carry. If GVWR is exceeded on either the tow vehicle or trailer, your solution may be as simple as transferring part of the load between the two vehicles. The GAWR, on the other hand, is the maximum allowable weight on each axle (front and rear on a tow vehicle). In some cases it's possible to be within the GVWR but exceed the GAWR, i.e. perhaps a small truck with a fully loaded camper and a boat in tow. The TWA is the maximum weight the vehicle can safely pull. The TWA rating can vary, depending on whether your tow rig has manual or automatic transmission and if it has four-wheel drive. And then there's the GCWR, which represents the combined weight of a fully loaded tow vehicle (fuel, occupants, cargo — everything) and the total weight of what's in tow (trailer, boat, fuel, gear, etc.). GCWR is determined by engine, transmission and rear axle ratio.
To determine exact weight, it's best to take the tow vehicle and trailer, fully loaded, to a public scale. Weigh each vehicle separately to get the needed weights. This may sound like a lot of work, but it's the best way to know if you are within safe tolerances.
TIP 3: Practice First
The first few times you climbed behind the wheel of a car and took control of it, you undoubtedly did so under an experienced driver's tutelage, and you likely did it on some out of the way road where there was no traffic. That same principle should hold true when it comes to towing for the first time, too.
Near empty parking lots provide an ideal training ground. Bring some 5-gallon buckets and practice turning around them, maneuvering between them and, most importantly, backing up along them. Such practice sessions will be time well spent and make the real thing a lot less stressful.
TIP 4: Make Wide Turns
Every time you hitch a trailer to a vehicle, the normal driving characteristics of that vehicle change. The added length, width and weight of a trailer in tow affect turning, acceleration, passing, stopping and practically every other facet of driving. You will need to compensate for these changes by developing different driving habits.
Take turning for instance. Trailers have a tighter turning radius than that of the tow vehicle, so if your tow vehicle barely cleared the curb or a parked car's bumper when turning, the trailer will hit it. Therefore, you'll need to develop the habit of making wider than normal turns. Which is why we see those signs on the back of 18-wheel trucks that warn of wide turns. This is not a difficult tip to learn, yet it is one of the most important to successful towing.
TIP 5: Compensate For Parasitic Power Loss
Actually, your tow vehicle has the same power with a boat in tow. It's just that power is being utilized differently. Much of your vehicle's zip is being zapped by the extra load you're pulling and you must allow for it. Where you really feel the difference is in acceleration. Merging and passing need to be calculated differently than when you're not towing. Under normal, non-towing driving conditions you may be accustomed to using your accelerator to "beat" merging traffic, or to pass another vehicle quickly to avoid oncoming traffic. However, it is imperative that you understand hitting the gas pedal will not have the same effect when towing. Of course, the amount of acceleration deficit you will experience depends on the power of your tow vehicle and the amount of load you're pulling. Nonetheless, there will be a difference. Therefore, learning to be a patient driver is an attribute to successful towing.
TIP 6: Allow More Room
Never forget your overall length has greatly increased. Even if you're towing a small boat, your combined length is likely more that double what it is when not towing. You'll need to compensate for this in more than one way. For instance, regardless of your speed, it will take you at least twice as long to pass another vehicle because your combined rigs are physically twice as long (or longer). That's not even taking into consideration that your added load also affects acceleration (see Tip 5). So you'll need to allow more room and, consequently, time when passing vehicles and switching lanes.
The added length also requires being cognizant of not cutting other vehicles off when pulling in front of them. When passing professional towers, you'll notice that they often flash their lights to indicate when you've put enough distance between them and you to safely pull back into their lane. This is a good courtesy to imitate.
TIP 7: Allow Greater Stopping Distance
The added weight of several thousand pounds in motion can dramatically increase the distance it takes you to stop. Granted, most trailers are required by law to come equipped with their own set of brakes. Nonetheless, your tow vehicle's stopping ability still isn't as good as when you drive it alone. If not careful, the boat and trailer can push you too far into an intersection, or into the back of another automobile. You can allow for this by driving slower and giving yourself greater distance in which to stop.
Driving slower not only permits you to stop more quickly and in less distance, but it also provides you more time to react. And with several thousand extra pounds pushing you forward, you need every second you can get. Regarding distance, it's recommended you leave the equivalent of one length of your car/trailer combination for every 10 mph.
TIP 8: Make Sure You Have Adequate Mirrors.
Many tow vehicles today come with side mirrors that provide meager rear visibility. If that is the case with your tow vehicle, then buy aftermarket mirrors to remedy the problem. Small circular convex mirrors that can be attached to your existing mirrors will help eliminate blind spots. However, larger mirrors that extend farther out from the vehicle provide a better view of what's behind you. There are several portable mirrors now available that can be put on and taken off with ease. Some even attach to your existing mirrors. Most RV stores carry a variety to choose from.
TIP 9: Don't be Swayed
Trailer sway is one of the more serious, and intimidating, things you may experience when towing. In worst case scenarios, trailer sway can force the tow vehicle out of control and cause a serious accident. If your trailer begins to sway, or "fish tail" from side to side, the first thing you want to do is slow down and, if necessary, stop, to determine the cause.
Realize that gusts of wind generated by topography (canyons and bridges for instance), or from passing vehicles — especially large trucks — can cause a temporary sway. So can a quick turn of your vehicle's steering wheel. The key here is to slow down and don't overreact. If the sway stops, proceed cautiously. However, if the swaying persists or is drastic, you need to stop immediately and do some inspecting.
Check to see that the hitch is still fastened securely to the tow vehicle and that the hitchball and coupler haven't worked loose. Check that the tire lug nuts are tight and that the tires have adequate air. One of the chief causes of sway, however, is that the load is not situated properly. Too much weight in the rear of the boat — whether it's a result of gear, loaded fuel or water tanks — can result in too light a tongue weight, which contributes to sway. Rearrange the load and try again. Also make sure the boat is properly situated on the trailer.
TIP 10: When Backing Up Keep Your Hand at the Bottom of the Steering Wheel
Backing a trailer is perhaps the most difficult part of towing to master. Yet, once you learn this art it becomes second nature and you don't even have to think the process through. Initially, however, you'll find it easier to put your hand at the bottom of the steering wheel and face forward using the side mirrors to direct you. All you need to remember is that if you want the trailer to go left, move your hand to the left, and if you want it to go right, move your hand right.
These tips don't cover everything there is to know about towing, but they cover some of the most important aspects. The most important thing is to be careful and use common sense. And remember, the more you do it the better you'll become. In the meantime you can begin experiencing the wide world of boating opportunities trailering affords.