While towing a trailer may seem like an easy task, it can be more complicated than you might think. The extra length and weight, the trailer’s pivot points when turning, the increased difficulty in reversing, and even whether your vehicle is up to the task of towing or not and that your trailer is hitched correctly are all things that need to be taken into account if you’re wanting to tow as safely as you can.
Certainly, towing is something I’ve never had much experience with myself and have been eager to learn more about, and luckily for me the opportunity to learn more about towing the right way presented itself when I was invited along to one of Isuzu UTE Australia’s manufacturer-backed I-Venture Club training days at the Mallala Motorsport Park around an hour outside Adelaide.
Although going to a hands-on training session such as this where you’ll actually be shown how to manoeuvre your vehicle correctly – and where you can have trained professionals assess and advise you on how your trailer is hitched and vehicle is set up for towing – is the best way to learn, one thing that I, an admitted rank amateur, am in the position of being able to do is give you some simple tips and tricks to remember that were passed down to me at this course.
Vision and anticipation: the most important human skill sets
While vision and anticipation are two of the most important skills to remember in all circumstances behind the wheel, it’s especially pressing you remember their importance when towing a trailer. After all, towing a trailer is something that’s only safe until you forget it’s dangerous.
As such, it’s always important to scan the road ahead and plan well in advance for anything that might mean you need to slow down or perform an evasive manoeuvre – be it a corner, other traffic, an obstacle, or anything else.
If your trailer is long and wide enough for you to require them, making sure your tow mirrors are correctly adjusted and fitted to the vehicle is important as well to give you enough visibility, and to ensure safety as you don’t want them to fall off. The additional length of your trailer will need to be accounted for when overtaking and merging, so it’s important that you’re able to adequately see it.
A trailer will affect how you need to take corners
With a trailer behind your vehicle adding not only length but additional pivot points, taking corners is something that will require a different approach to how you’d normally drive in your two-axle’d vehicle (or three-axle’d, if any Mercedes-Benz G-Class 6×6 owners are reading, which they probably aren’t).
A trailer’s wheels will travel in a tighter path to those of the tow vehicle – something known as ‘cutting in’ – so it’s important to remember to take corners wider compared to when you are driving your vehicle without a trailer.
However, the rear overhang of the trailer will travel in a wider path – known as ‘swinging out’ – so a focus on keeping your outside front tyre wide rather than your inside rear tyre narrow will help you mitigate any issues here.
There’s no need to go at a snail’s pace as long as you’re driving safely
With perfect weather and road surface conditions, a vehicle and trailer that is correctly set up should comfortably hold 90-100 percent of the posted speed limit, so unless there’s something wrong with your rig, there’s no need to crawl along at a snail’s pace, and if there is you’ll want to make sure you address it.
However, all advisory speed limit signs for corners (such as the yellow ones we have here in Australia) should be strictly adhered to and actively looked out for. You should be mindful of using overtaking lanes when they do come up, and should keep left and shave 20 percent off your speed if there’s a long queue of traffic behind – something many drivers are guilty of not doing.
Concerning gear changes – as automatic drivers are likely to manually shift their vehicles when towing, and manual drivers obviously must – it’s important to remember to downshift when you fall below the torque band (which is 2000rpm in the case of the Isuzu MU-X I used for this training course), and to upshift when you go over the peak power point in the rev range (3600rpm in the MU-X).
Do also remember that when towing for a longer period of time – such as when towing a caravan on a holiday – that because it is more stressful than ordinary driving, it will also be more fatiguing, so the overall distance you travel each day should be reduced and you should plan for more rest stops along the way.
Know your braking distances, and don’t be shy with the middle pedal
With a trailer making your overall carriage heavier, allowing for increased braking distances is important and it’s of the utmost importance to take the weight of your trailer and the functionality and setting of its brakes (if the trailer has brakes, which is only required on trailers above 750kg in Australia).
It’s important to remember to not be timid with the brake pedal in an emergency situation, too. One of the practical activities we undertook at the I-Venture Club day was performing full ABS stops from a range of different speeds, and it’s something that certainly seemed intimidating to a few attendants who hadn’t done such a thing before.
To know that you’re using all of the braking power available to you – which is possible in all modern vehicles with anti-lock brakes – you’ll want to be feeling the brake pedal giving some resistance as the system allows for maximum pressure and prevents the brakes from locking up, and as there’s no chance of locking up with a fully-functioning ABS system, there’s no need to be afraid to really bury your foot in the pedal.
When it comes to reversing, less is more
Reversing a trailer is something that will only get easier with more practice, although even the I-Venture Club experts there on the day noted that you can still have a bad day whether you’ve reversed a trailer two times or 2000. However, there are some things that will always make it an easier process.
When it’s possible, using a guide/spotter will be beneficial, but you should only have one as two people will only make the process more confusing, and the commands the guide is giving to the driver should be clearly established. If you see someone trying to reverse a trailer whether they have a guide or not, though, don’t whatever you do go and tell them how to do it unless you’ve been asked – unless they’re obviously about to hit something they haven’t seen!
Reversing towards the driver’s side of the vehicle when practical will allow for the best visibility when reversing, and the easiest tip to remember is that if you see the trailer in your mirror and don’t want it there, pull the steering wheel down that way.
Ultimately though, the less steering movements you make and the slower you take it, the easier and quicker a process it will actually be.
Know the towing legislation of where you’re driving
It’s a bit of a boring one, I know, but if you don’t feel like getting stung with a fine while enjoying your holiday or moving your things around, remembering the legislation of the region you are driving in is important.
Things such as maximum speed limit reductions for those towing a trailer (in Australia, this is only applicable in the state of Western Australia where the max speed is 100km/h), the safe following distance between vehicles (two seconds in Queensland, three seconds in all other states; five seconds is recommended when towing a trailer, however), the rules surrounding the use of safety chains and shackles, and even whether a weighbridge slip is required as well should all be considered to avoid your wallet and the points on your license getting stung.
Get some practical training
Whether you’re a seasoned professional getting a refresher, or a total novice to towing like I was before attending the I-Venture Club Towing Experience course, getting some hands-on practical training is always going to be beneficial.
Be it from a professional driver training school or a manufacturer-backed program like the event I attended (and don’t worry, they aren’t paying me to say this!) it’s the best way to ensure that you’re towing as safely and effectively as possible.
Full Disclosure: The cost of our attendance to the I-Venture Club Towing Experience was covered by Isuzu UTE Australia, who also fed us and provided us with a vehicle for the day.