Dragonwing - Towing a trailer

On the Road Again

A short guide to trailer towing

As your collection of tents, household furniture, and armor expands, you'll find yourself running out of room to haul it all around. Some people, at this point, will elect to get a bigger vehicle -- a van, station wagon, or truck. Sometimes, if you already have such a vehicle, you'll need to trade up to the next larger size.

(Have you noticed that practically nobody seriously considers the possibility of reducing the amount of stuff they carry? My lady and I have tried to do this on a regular basis, without much success. Every year, we go through our gear, and anything that hasn't actually been used in two years gets the heave-ho, except for bona fide emergency stuff like fire extinguishers or that roll of toilet paper we keep at the bottom of the tourney chest. Even with this strategy, the best we've been able to do is to keep the load from expanding.)

With the demise of my Toyota truck (which our household had already outgrown), we had the opportunity to re-think our transportation situation. We decided on a smallish station wagon -- a Ford Taurus, to be specific -- and a trailer. This solution gave us the best of two worlds: a fairly fuel-efficent car for everyday driving, and the ability to transport an entire household's worth of junk when we tourneyed. Although that particular station wagon isn't made any more, the current crop of small SUVs based on a car chassis (rather than a truck chassis) provide comparable mileage, towing power, and interior space.

A trailer has several advantages:

  1. It keeps everything together that we normally use for our camp. If a piece of equipment doesn't need constant cleaning, replenishing, or replacing, it goes into the trailer, giving us one less thing to have to pack the morning of the tourney. Otherwise, it goes into the back of the station wagon, which has to get unpacked anyway.

  2. It gives us the option, once we're at the site, of disconnecting the trailer and using our car for routine duty.

  3. A car uses much less gas than a truck, van, or SUV. Since we're not independently wealthy, we can't afford to maintain a vehicle just for tourneying, so we use the unloaded, trailer-less Taurus for our everyday driving and probably save $500 or so every year in gas, compared to the money we'd have spent on gas for a van, truck, or SUV.

But trailers aren't the perfect solution for everybody. Cars towing trailers don't handle and perform like they usually do, and you have to make allowances for that. Trailers put more load on the car's powerplant, and asking a car to pull a load far greater than its powerplant is designed to take is asking for mechanical trouble down the road. And because you're giving that powerplant more of a workout, with less of the margin of error that the designers allow for, it's important to keep the car maintained on schedule. You'll also have to pay attention to how you load the trailer, and how you distribute the weight of your cargo.

When you look for a tow vehicle (or consider using your present wheels for one), don't exceed the carmaker's recommendations. This holds true even if you live in Kansas, where you will never encounter any incline larger than a speed bump. The automaker wasn't thinking only about pulling trailers up hills. Remember that even if the car's engine and power train can take it, stopping is even more important than starting; you can usually control how much you have to accelerate, but you can't always control how fast you have to stop. So your brakes and suspension have to take the additional loads, as well.

Your stopping distances will greatly increase, too, so double the number of "car lengths" you usually keep between your car and the one in front of you. After all, you're twice as long now, right?

I'm assuming now that you've got a trailer that can hold the stuff you need, and a car that can handle the load, and that you've had the right kind of hitch and lighting connections installed. The car has been checked out by a mechanic and all systems are up to snuff, particularly the cooling systems for the engine and transmission. It's time to load the trailer.

The trailer is properly loaded when the "tongue weight" -- the weight that the trailer hitch actually feels when the trailer is attached -- is usually between fifty and a hundred pounds, or whatever figure the trailer manufacturer has given you. . THIS IS IMPORTANT! Too much, and your car's suspension has to handle more weight than it can safely bear. Too little, and the trailer's oscillations will try to lift the back end of your car off the ground. You'll have just as much weight exerted on the tongue in a side to side direction, but less downward weight on the car's suspension to control it. The result is a condition called "fishtailing" and, believe me, it is not pleasant at all.

That this simple principal isn't universally appreciated by those who tow trailers is a source of amazement for me. The SCA's West Kingdom had a very nice regalia trailer that was notorious for fishtailing. It wasn't a design flaw in the trailer, but a consequence of the habit of those loading it to put the lighter stuff up front and the heavier stuff (the royal tent, the thrones, and so on) in the extreme rear for ease of unloading later. This practice was a recipe for disaster. The Kingdom eventually sold the trailer to one of its Principalities, on the theory that they were just carrying around too much stuff in it and overloading it, and bought a new trailer (which was actually custom-built for it). They loaded up the new trailer, loaded it the same way as they did with the previous trailer, and headed down the road, and guess what?

The principality's teamsters, on the other hand, have been somewhat more scrupulous about loading their trailer properly and have had no problems so far with its performance and its handling.

Before you head out into the Big Wide World towing your trailer, spend an evening in your local deserted MegaMart parking lot. Practice backing up, and note all the funny things that happen when you try to keep the trailer in a straight line. You'll find that you'll need to turn the wheel slightly in a direction opposite to what you were expecting, to get the trailer going in the proper direction, and then turn the wheel in the "proper" direction to keep things on track. You'll also discover that the combined car-and-trailer, when run in reverse, is much more sensitive to steering input than the car alone would be, and that it's alarmingly easy to oversteer. Practice until you can control the trailer in reverse gear. Also, note how your turning radius may have changed.

On the open road, please keep in mind that your rig is much longer than it used to be, and make sure you have the room to change lanes. Anticipate traffic maneuvers well in advance, so you can take your time making them. You'll find that making small, subtle corrections will keep the trailer's ride much more steady and stable than quick, sharp corrections. If your trailer starts oscillating, sometimes it helps to tap the accellerater, increasing your speed slightly. Then carefully decrease your speed, keeping things as steady as possible, until you're below the speed at which the oscillation started. By all means, find out why you started oscillating. Was the trailer being hit by a gust? Is the load properly distributed? (See above.) Are the tires too soft? Until you find and correct the cause, proceed very cautiously ... not only for your own sake, but for that of everybody else on the road, too.

There's no denying that you have to be a little more aware of what's going on. On the way through northern California a couple of years ago, I thought I heard a faint "tick-tick-tick" sound. When I slowed down, the ticks slowed down. When I sped up, so did the ticks. I pulled over to investigate. Everything looked fine, until I got to the left wheel of the trailer and found, to my horror, that it was held in place by only one lug nut, instead of four ... and that nut was starting to back out. The "tick-tick-tick" was actually the sound of the wheel wobbling on the axle.

I took a lug nut off the right wheel, put it opposite the remaining nut on the left wheel, and tightened everything down. With two lug nuts on one side and three on the other, I was able to proceed slowly to the next town. I walked into the first auto parts store I came to and said to the fellow at the counter, "How'd you like to sell three lug nuts to the luckiest man in California?"

Index of Previous Columns

Other articles you can read, mostly on tentmaking and medieval tents

back to home page