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A newbie’s guide to safely towing an RV (or just about anything)

You just need some practice and understanding and you can do this

Car towing an RV
Nissan

More Americans are heading outdoors now than ever. For some, that means disappearing far, far off-grid into the backcountry. Others prefer “roughing it” in a proper RV with all the comforts of home. If you’re in the latter camp and you happen to be a first-time buyer of an RV trailer and new to RVing, you might also be new to towing and RV. The idea of hooking up a multi-ton rig to your car, truck, or SUV and then barreling down the interstate at 65 miles per hour can be intimidating. But it doesn’t have to be.

We chatted with Mike Betts, former Test Operations Supervisor at the Nissan Proving Ground. He’s a passionate RVer, and thanks to his daily work, happens to know a thing or two about safe towing. He shared a few practical tips, along with the basic terms and acronyms that every RV owner needs to know before they tow.

Nissan towing an RV
Nissan

How to tow an RV: Essentials and vehicle weight types

Before getting started, your tow vehicle must be equipped with a few essentials:

  • Hitch receiver: This is a square metal tube at the rear of your vehicle, centered below the trunk or hatch. It serves as the central point of connection between the vehicle and the trailer. This is included in all factory-installed tow packages, so your truck or SUV may already have one.
  • Electrical connector socket: This is a female electrical socket located near the hitch receiver on your tow vehicle. The two most common types are 4-pin and 7-pin. Either one allows your tow vehicle to communicate with your trailer’s electrical system, including the lighting and brakes. This, too, is included in most factory-installed tow packages.
  • Ball mount kit: This is a group of components, including a ball mount, a trailer ball, and a hitch pin. Together, they connect your vehicle’s hitch receiver to your trailer.
  • Brake controller: This device lets your vehicle’s brake pedal automatically communicate with your trailer’s electric brakes. When you slow or stop your tow vehicle, this helps your trailer slow or stop simultaneously. It’s often an aftermarket add-on about the size of a radar detector and is typically installed near the steering column. 

Above all else, weight — or weights — is the first thing to get right when towing. But not all weights are created equal. According to Betts, the six key weight figures to understand are:

  • Curb weight: Weight of the vehicle without passengers or any cargo
  • Dry weight: Weight of the vehicle without passenger, cargo, or fluids
  • Gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR): The maximum total safe weight of the vehicle. This includes the dry weight plus the weight of anything in or added to the vehicle (people, accessories, cargo, fluids, etc.).
  • Tongue weight: Weight that a fully loaded trailer exerts downward on the hitch ball of the tow vehicle. Typically, tongue weight should be between 10-15 percent of gross trailer weight.
  • Gross trailer weight: The total weight of the trailer (includes everything inside the trailer)
  • Towing capacity: The maximum amount of weight a vehicle can tow.
Vehicle towing an RV
Nissan

Hitch classes for towing an RV

With an understanding of the various weights involved in towing an RV, the next step is determining your vehicle’s towing capacity. The exact figure can be found in every vehicle’s owner manual or by running a quick Google search. The lightest, most compact travel trailers can be towed with a sedan or small SUV. Something heavier, like most Airstreams, requires a larger SUV or even a full-sized pickup. Something like the 2020 Nissan Titan XD, for example, can tow an RV up to 11,000 pounds, which is more than enough for almost any travel trailer on the market.

Next, your vehicle needs to be equipped with the right tow hitch. Every hitch’s capability boils down to its strength and maximum weight capacity (i.e., how heavy of a trailer it can support). Betts broke down the four classes of ball-type hitches:

  • Class I: Light duty up to 2,000 pounds
  • Class II: Moderate duty – up to 3,500 pounds
  • Class III: Versatile/mix between 3,500 and 6,000 pounds
  • Class IV: Heavy-duty between 10,000 and 12,000 pounds

Once you’ve determined the right class of tow hitch, it’s simply a matter of choosing the one that physically fits your tow vehicle’s hitch receiver. Common things to keep in mind include the hitch ball size, the width of the hitch receiver, and the amount of rise or drop required to ensure your tow setup is as level as possible. “Ball size is determined by the size of the receiver of the trailer. The ball/receiver size is marked on top of the coupler latch on the trailer tongue,” Betts explained. ETrailer.com is a great resource to confirm whether your specific vehicle-trailer setup will be compatible.

“For heavier trailers,” he continued, “you should consider the use of a weight-distribution hitch, which will transfer weight to the front axle of the towing vehicle. Ideally, when setting up a vehicle for towing, the front axle should weigh the same before and after the trailer is attached. This is accomplished with the weight distribution hitch.” One hack to determine this without a scale is to measure the height of the front wheel well before and after attaching the trailer. To maximize safety, you want that number to stay the same. The more balanced and level your vehicle-trailer setup, the safer it will be overall.

Nissan towing an RV
Nissan

Final thoughts on towing an RV

With your tow vehicle and RV or trailer safely hitched up, the only thing left to do is drive. There’s no substitute for real-world experience. Betts recommended finding “a friend who is an experienced tower, and find an empty parking lot to practice in. Spend as much time as you can in a controlled, safe environment learning the ins and outs of your vehicle before heading out. Like anything else, the more practice and research you can do, the better!” It’s sure to be frustrating at times, especially when you discover first-hand how maddeningly difficult backing up a trailer can be! But, with plenty of practice, you’ll find it’s not as hard or intimidating as it looks.

Additional tips when towing an RV

  • Get inspected: Before embarking on your journey, ensure both your RV and tow vehicle are in top condition. Have them inspected by a qualified mechanic for any potential issues.
  • Use proper equipment: Equip yourself with the necessary safety gear, including safety chains, a breakaway switch, and trailer brakes if required by law.
  • Take your time: Towing an RV takes longer than driving a car, so factor in extra time for your trip and avoid rushing.
  • Be aware of your surroundings: Increased size and blind spots come with towing an RV. Maintain extra caution when changing lanes, merging, or backing up.

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Mike Richard
Mike Richard has traveled the world since 2008. He's kayaked in Antarctica, tracked endangered African wild dogs in South…
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