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The Ultimate Guide to DIY Towing

Many of us want to travel this summer and get outside. Many compact and midsize crossover SUVs can light tow. In response, there are many suitable lightweight trailers.

What if you have never towed a trailer? If you have never towed a trailer before, how do you start? Maybe you’ve rented a U-Haul once, and the attendant set everything up for you. Perhaps your dad allowed you to drive his truck for an hour on a family vacation. However, he did all the hookups and drove the trailer in tight spots.

Towing is not an easy task. However, there are many things you should know to safely and confidently tow. Towing can be a broad topic with many variations, but we will concentrate on the lighter end, where small and medium SUVs are.

This comprehensive guide will tell you everything you need to know about the subject.

Know your tow rating

First, check if your vehicle has a towing rating. If so, what is it worth? Your owner’s manual will have a section on Trailering and Trailer Towing. Therefore, the tow rating is the best place to begin. However, you might need to adapt to the terminology of your carmaker. For example, the Towing section may refer to emergency towing behind a tow truck, while the Dinghy Towing is for towing your vehicle behind the motorhome.

If your vehicle has more than one tow rating, it is possible to find the exact engine size, transmission type, and trim level by searching the appropriate section. It can be challenging to determine truck tow ratings for full-size trucks. However, compact and midsize SUVs are easier to identify.

Your tow rating must be higher than your practical tow limit

To determine your practical limit, you need to know your tow rating. Public tow ratings are best-case limits based on an unmodified, lightly-equipped tow vehicle and a driver of 150 pounds traveling alone with no luggage or cargo.

The practical tow limit will vary depending on whether you are overweight, traveling with others, toting baggage or carrying cargo, or if your tow vehicle is loaded with all options or has additional weight. Therefore, it would help to subtract this weight to get your vehicle’s actual tow rating.

Considerations for your hitch

Trailer hitches that can tow a load may not be standard on all vehicles. If the car has a high tow rating but no hitch, the manufacturer usually offers an accessory they can purchase from the dealer. These hitches are designed to fit your vehicle perfectly and often come with a trailer wiring adapter.

Although you can buy your hitch from third-party manufacturers, they might not be as well-designed to fit the vehicle as the factory-engineered one. In addition, third-party sellers can sell hitches for cars without a tow rating. The reason is that receiver hitches are great mounting points for accessories and bike racks. Although this distinction may not always be obvious, it should not override an automaker’s recommendations regarding towing.

Ratings for hitch components

Three parts make up a hitch. The receiver is a rectangular structure that attaches to the vehicle. The ball mount is intended to be connected to the receiver and secured and pinned there when it’s time for towing. It can also be removed from the receiver and stored away when unused. After being chosen to match the specific trailer requirements, the trailer ball will be permanently attached to the ball mount. There are three sizes available.

Each of these three components will have its weight ratings and be labeled. All three ratings must equal or exceed the vehicle’s tow rating. It is important to remember that while overrated components don’t increase a vehicle’s tow rating, they make it less reliable. However, undersized components are the weakest link in the chain and must be lowered.

Find out the trailer’s weight

Sometimes it is impossible to weigh a trailer before buying or renting. Using the trailer’s Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) as your guideline is best. The GVWR is on the specifications sheet but always printed onto a plate attached to the trailer body. The GVWR is the trailer’s maximum weight. It should not be confused with the trailer’s tow vehicle’s gross vehicle weight.

Trailer GVWRs can sometimes exceed the vehicle’s actual towed weight. For example, a 1,000-pound trailer with a 3,500-pound GVWR can weigh just 1,700 pounds when loaded. Take care as loading considerations can vary depending on the trailer type and individual habits.

Hitch up before you load up

You must connect the trailer to the tow vehicle before loading it.

Why? To ensure that trailers are stable when towable, you must adequately balance them. Balance is done by the trailer tongue pressing down on the hitch point. The trailer’s balance can fluctuate as you load it. The Tongue Weight can go temporarily negative, or the tongue may tip over when you load something heavy from the back.

Connect with others

While backup cameras are helpful, it is not the best way to spot potential dangers. However, they can be a great helper as you gain more experience. First, you should ensure that the trailer wheels are properly chocked, that the trailer tongue is sufficiently high, and that the trailer receptacle has not been unlatched. Next, place the trailer ball carefully on the ground. Once it is centered, move the parking brake into Park. You can use the trailer’s jack to lower the tongue receptacle onto your ball until it engages fully.

To prevent your latch from opening while driving, insert a pin or bolt.

Connect the safety chain hooks to any holes or loops already made in the receiver. Cross-cross left-right and vice versa, so the coupling is under the trailer neck. This will prevent the trailer’s neck from hitting the ground and possibly digging into it. You must ensure that the chain hooks are not too tight when turning corners but don’t drag on the ground when driving straight. Next, you will plug in the trailer light harness. Make sure to take into consideration the same problems with slack. Attach the trailer light harness if it has an electric brake system and breakaway switch.

Tongue weight and loading your caravan

To ensure the trailer is stable and straight, there must be a certain amount of pressure on the tongue ball (or tongue weight). This amount is usually 10% of the trailer’s total weight. However, heavier trailers may require more. The tow vehicle’s rear suspension will shrink a bit as it carries this load. However, that is normal and included in the rating. It’s not the weight that matters in all cases but what it represents: the trailer’s center of mass is located ahead of its axle.

Although accessing scales is rarely done for loading, there are some rules:

  1. Place heavier items in front of the trailer axle but not to the trailer’s extreme forward edge.
  2. Place heavy objects as far as possible to the left.
  3. Lock loose items, significantly heavier ones, so they don’t move or alter the trailer’s weight.

Your cargo should be 60% ahead of the trailer axle and 40% behind.

Trailer brakes

Brakes are not always available on trailers. However, brakes are more common on heavy trailers and are sometimes required by law. A carmaker might also recommend trailer brakes above a particular tow rating. For the recommended vehicle, consult your owner’s manual. You can also use the AAA Digest of Motor Laws to check your state’s requirements.

There are two types of trailers with brakes. First, you can find hydraulic surge brakes in the trailer’s tongue. They use the natural hitch compression, which occurs when the vehicle slows down to apply trailer braking. These can be found on trailers submerged in water or rental trailers that move-it-yourself companies have rented out.

The tow vehicle must send an electric signal for them to work. Electric brakes are more complex. These brakes are more common in large camping trailers towed by full-size pickups. This is why electronic trailer brake controllers can be optional (pictured right). Some crossovers and midsize pickups can be wired to interface with an aftermarket tractor brake controller but may require additional wiring. To make your electric trailer brakes work, you must install an aftermarket trailer brake controller. This is because the weight threshold at which such brakes are required overlaps with some crossover SUV tow ratings.

Electrical connections

There were many trailer lighting plugs in the past. However, today there are only two: the flat-four connector and the round-seven connector. Although vehicles with factory hitches might be wired for one or the other, many add-on wiring kits use the flat-four type. To determine which one you will need, you need to be familiar with the details of your trailer.

The flat-four connector focuses on essential trailer lighting, including brake lights, turn signals, and running lights. These connectors are used on trailers without brakes or with surge brakes. The seven-pin connector can perform three functions, the primary being an indication for electric trailer brakes. A seven-pin round connector will be attached to the umbilical of any trailer with electric brakes.


Towing objects using your car can be easy if you know the right way. Knowing this information can help you secure your load and ensure that your vehicle will not be damaged.

However, if your car cannot handle the weight of the objects you need to bring, consider looking into services such as roadside assistance or towing Framingham.

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