A Newbie’s Guide to Safely Towing an RV (or Just About Anything)

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 new to RV’ing, you might also be new to towing. The idea of hooking up a multi-ton rig to your car, truck, or SUV, 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, Test Operations Supervisor at the Nissan Proving Ground. He’s a passionate RV’er 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, every RV owner needs to know before they tow.

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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 vehicle and 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 typically installed near the steering column. 
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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.
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With an understanding of the various weights involved in towing, 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 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 breaks down the four classes of ball-type hitches:

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

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,” says Betts. ETrailer.com is a great resource to confirm whether your specific vehicle-trailer setup will be compatible.

Nissan

“For heavier trailers,” he continues, “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.

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 recommends 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.

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