Many RVers take the relatively easy route: you choose a motorhome, put the key in the ignition, and hit the road, ready for adventure.
But for those of us who prefer to travel in a towed vehicle, it’s not always quite so simple. Although towing a camper trailer is certainly possible (and doesn’t even require any special licensing, most of the time), there’s definitely a learning curve that you just don’t encounter when you’re traveling in a Class A, B, or C.
But that doesn’t mean you should lay down your dreams of traveling in a towable rig. Because in many ways, travel trailers offer benefits that motorhomes just can’t keep up with: they’re less expensive, often roomier, and give you an automatic getaway vehicle to use when you’re ready to set up camp and explore your destination.
You do want to be sure you’re armed with plenty of knowledge as a beginner, however. So without further ado, here’s our ultimate guide to all things RV towing!
Pulling a Travel Trailer
Before we dive into potentially-confusing figures and terminology, like “GVWR,” let’s get a more generalized overview. How is pulling a travel trailer different from driving a motorhome?
Well, when you’re towing a travel trailer, you’re not actually driving your RV. Rather, you’re hauling the RV behind a regular (but powerful) street vehicle, such as a truck or a large SUV.
That may make it sound like travel trailers are easier to operate than motorhomes for beginners. After all, most of us feel pretty comfortable slipping behind the seat of an SUV, even if we’ve never driven anything larger. But because that everyday vehicle is hitched to a large, weighty RV behind it, things get a little bit more complicated.
For one thing, even lightweight travel trailers add a lot of weight to your overall vehicle setup. And bigger vehicles are also harder vehicles to stop. That’s one reason why it’s so important to choose an RV tow vehicle that’s suited to match the size and weight of your trailer… and it’s also the reason many trailers come equipped with electric brakes, to help aid in the stopping process.
Electric Brakes and Brake Controllers
Rather than relying solely on the brakes in your tow vehicle, many trailers come equipped with electric brakes to give them some stopping power of their own. In fact, this safety measure is legally required in several states for RVs above a certain weight, and it’s almost always a better idea than going without them.
Of course, you can’t step on the brake pedal in your trailer, which means your RV’s brakes need to be connected to your main vehicle controls. This is done through the electric trailer connection that also enables your brake lights, turn signals, and flashers — and it can also link up to you in-cab electric brake controller.
An electric brake controller can work to automatically sense how much breakage the trailer needs at a given time, and can also be overridden by the driver in an emergency situation when you need extra stopping power. Some modern trucks come equipped with electric brake controllers built in, but you may also need to have one installed aftermarket. It’s important to ensure your brake controller and connection are compatible with your trailer!
RV Tow Vehicles
Safely towing a travel trailer is all about choosing the correct vehicle to tow the trailer with. Even the best driver in the world couldn’t safely haul a heavy trailer behind a motor that’s not fit for the job!
When it comes to RV tow vehicles, power and size are important… but that still doesn’t mean you should just aim for the largest possible vehicle and call it a day. Sometimes, even powerful-looking trucks have surprisingly small tow capacities, and on the other hand, some large SUVs are endowed with surprisingly large ones. That’s why it’s important to get up close and personal with a few key terms when you’re shopping for an RV tow vehicle: GVWR and tow capacity.
GVWR is short for Gross Vehicle Weight Rating, and it refers to the maximum amount of weight a vehicle is built to withstand fully loaded. While both your trailer and your tow vehicle have a GVWR, in this case, the most important one to look at is your trailer’s: that’s the absolute max weight your trailer can safely withstand while still being roadworthy.
Your trailer’s GVWR will be significantly more than its dry hitch weight, which refers to how much the trailer weighs as-is — without any water or supplies added on. However, in order to ensure your tow vehicle is powerful enough to haul the rig up hills and after you’ve packed it full of food and other goodies, it’s a better bet to use the GVWR when trying to determine how much tow capacity you need.
Max towing capacity is the measure you’ll want to look at on your truck or other tow vehicle, and refers to the total amount of weight the vehicle can safely tow behind it. Be sure to keep in mind that different models of the same vehicle sometimes have radically different tow capacities based on engine upgrades and other factors; for instance, the 2019 Ford F150 features max tow rating between 5,100 and 11,700 depending on engine, axle ratio, and cabin size. That’s a big difference!
The most important relationship to understand and maintain, when towing, is this one: your tow vehicle’s max tow capacity should be equal or, ideally, greater than your trailer’s GVWR. There are also other factors to consider, such as payload, which you can discuss with your RV dealer if you have questions. Although some SUVs do have surprisingly high towing capacities, in our opinion, the best RV tow vehicles are generally plain old pick-up trucks, especially 3/4 or 1-ton versions (250s or 350s).
5th Wheel Towing
Most conventional travel trailers are hauled with a 2-inch ball hitch, which works pretty simply: the trailer tongue lowers down onto the ball, and is then secured by a locking mechanism and chains before you’re ready to roll.
However, when it comes to 5th wheel towing, you need a different kind of hitch to account for the fifth wheel’s unique shape — and the extra weight that these big vehicles often pack. Most often, modern 5th wheel RV towing requires a special in-bed wheel hitch, which is powerful enough to handle big loads and also makes it possible to hook up the trailer regardless of its gooseneck shape.
Along with purchasing the proper hitch, those towing large, fifth wheel trailers should understand that all the basic rules of towing are amplified when you’re traveling with such a massive vehicle. Stopping takes even more time and energy, and you definitely want the largest and most powerful tow vehicle possible. There aren’t many fifth wheels that can be towed with anything less than a full-on, one-ton truck.
Going Where You’re Toad: How to Pick an RV Towing Car
For the end of the article, we’re going to switch gears a bit and talk about a towing scenario motorhome drivers DO encounter: towing an auxiliary vehicle, or “toad,” behind the rig in order to have something to use for exploring your destination.
Motorhome towing is similar to travel trailer towing in some ways, in that it often uses a similar hitch situation and does mean your RV will be carrying extra weight behind you. And although the car may seem small in relation to your motorhome, don’t underestimate how much work that adds for your RV! Motorhome towing does require taking extra precautions, and makes operations like backing up a lot harder (and in some cases, impossible).
It’s also important to understand that not every road vehicle can be an RV towing car. Just like a truck towing a trailer, your motorhome does have a towing capacity you have to worry about, and some vehicles simply can’t be towed with their wheels on the ground (though you may be able to opt for flatbed towing). Many RVers find the best option for toad vehicles are manual transmission vehicles with front wheel drive… which can be a bit challenging to find these days!
There’s so much more to know and understand about RV towing, but we hope this post has given you a good overview. For even more information, check out the following RVshare blog posts:
- RV Tow Bars: How To Select The Best One For Your RV
- What Are The Best RV Tow Vehicles: Read This First!
- RV Towing Guide: Read This Before You Do Anything
- How to Safely Tow a Travel Trailer
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