Tips on Towing for First-Timers

Source | Paul Townshend/Flickr

Last February alone, light-duty truck sales in the U.S. totaled over 800,000 units. Drivers are moving from traditional coupes and sedans to SUVs and pickups due to their safety, practicality and, in many cases, their ability to haul large and heavy objects. But though many utility vehicles are fully capable of towing, there’s more to it than simply connecting a hitch.

First things first: The lingo

Before you think of towing along that RV across the country during summer vacation, you’ll want get the terminology down pat and heed a few easy tips first. Learn the lingo. Nobody likes acronyms, and unfortunately, the world of towing is full of them.

No need to memorize them all, but ones you will undoubtedly run into:

  • GVWR: gross vehicle weight rating
  • GVM: gross vehicle mass. This refers to the manufacturer-specified maximum amount of weight/mass the vehicle is rated for, including all passengers, fuel, and cargo, and does not change.
  • TW: tongue weight. This—the weight placed on the hitch by the trailer’s attachment—also factors into the above maximum allotment, so you would remove it from a vehicle’s overall GVWR while calculating how much stuff you can carry.
  • GCWR: gross combined weight rating. Again determined by the automaker, is the maximum allowable weight of both vehicle and trailer together.
  • GTW: gross trailer weight. It’s the accumulated weight of trailer and whatever contents are inside.

Get hitched

Hitches come in many shapes and sizes. Typically, when someone thinks of hitch, they think of a ball mount and trailer ball fastened underneath the rear bumper. This style is one of the most common, and it requires a receiver hitch.

Curt Class 3 Fusion Mount

Curt Ball Mount, Source | Curt

Essentially, a receiver hitch is a metal apparatus that bolts onto the frame of the tow vehicle, and provides a square tube to accept a ball mount like the one shown above.  This provides the direct link to the trailer, shouldering the load of the trailer via its tongue weight. Another benefit of a receiver hitch is that you can change out the mounts depending on what you’re towing. Curt class 3 trailer hitch

Curt Class 3 Multi-Fit Trailer Hitch, Source | Curt

You can optionally add on extra parts to turn a receiver hitch into a weight-distributing hitch (or WD hitch). A WD hitch is so called because it helps spread the tongue weight between the towing vehicle and the trailer.

Curt Weight Distribution Hitch

Curt Weight Distribution Hitch, Source | Curt

When the towing gets serious, there are fifth-wheel hitches, typically used for towing an RV or travel trailer. Installed onto the truck bed, they can handle higher capacities.

Your local Advance Auto Parts store should have in stock the equipment needed for the job. If not, they can always special order parts you need.

How to find the right hitch for your vehicle:

  1. Use your vehicle year, make and model to find a compatible hitch
  2. Look up the gross trailer weight (GTW) of your tow item (remember, that’s the accumulated weight of trailer and contents inside)
  3. Check the towing capacity of the vehicle and all towing components to make it’s safe to tow. Never exceed the lowest-rated towing component.

Hooking up

Regardless of whether your first towing experience involves a U-Haul box on wheels or pulling a boat or snowmobile on a trailer, the steps for basic jobs are pretty much the same. After checking your vehicle’s towing capacity and hitch weight rating for compatibility, you will then:

  1. Back up the tow vehicle so the hitch ball lines up with the coupler on the trailer
  2. Lower the coupler until it completely covers the hitch ball
  3. Close the latch and insert the retaining pin
  4. Cross the trailer’s right safety chain under the tongue and connect to the left side of the tow vehicle’s hitch (making sure there is enough, but not too much, slack for turning around corners), and repeat the process with the opposite chain
  5. Plug in the lighting—which leads us to…

Get electrical

Before you get out there on the main roads, there is a legal requirement to have the built-in lights (tail, brake and turn signals) on a trailer working in tandem with those on the tow vehicle. This will allow you to avoid trouble with law enforcement and help communicate your actions to other drivers for safety reasons.

Some newer vehicles come with a plug-and-play connector to accept the wiring harness from the trailer, while others may need a more custom approach. Again, we sell a variety of kits, and a quick conversation with a staff member may be all you need to get the job done.

Drive mindfully

Piloting any automobile with a big payload at the rear requires some extra-careful attention on the road. Here are a few tips for managing a larger load:

  • Do everything more slowly than normal, such as making turns or changing lanes, and ensure there’s enough room to maneuver.
  • Coming to a stop will take more time, so allot for that at lights and stop signs.
  • Hills can be tricky—climbing steep inclines may be more difficult, so if that’s the case, pull to the right and flash your hazards to alert other drivers. Shifting down a gear and using the engine to help brake can make descents easier.

Above all, always employ common sense. Happy towing!

Got any more tips for towing newbies? Leave ’em in the comments!


  1. Tom W. Colcord says:

    Don’t use hazard flashers on the road in California, unless you are stopped at the side of the road.
    Driving with hazard flashers while moving on Roadways is a ticket waiting to be written.

  2. Yilliang Peng says:

    Thanks for the advice on how to tow for the first time. My wife and I just made an impulse buy on a snowmobile because it would be so much fun during the winter — plus, it was really cheap with summer coming up! We also need to get a trailer and I do not have much experience with them. Thanks for the help!

  3. Great article. A few years ago I was looking for a truck to tow my 26 foot 5th wheel. I was looking at a 3/4 ton Dodge Cummins. I called around to several RV dealers to ask their opinion on what they thought about that combination. All of them said they thought it would be fine. After installing the 5th wheel hitch and hitching up the trailer, I took it for a test drive. There were problems right off the bat. The truck temperature gauge climbed up into the red, and the truck struggled to climb even a 4% grade. I was not able to use that truck for that purpose. It did fine without the trailer.
    I learned from that experience that you can’t rely on opinions. I have found out since then that ratings by the manufacturer are often exaggerated, sometimes severely exaggerated. It’s probably better to use a truck that’s overrated than one that just barely meets the requirements.
    Most trucks have a maximum trailer weight rating as well as a maximum tongue weight rating. Tongue weight can be calculated using a tongue weight tool.
    It’s always a good idea to allow some slack in the numbers. So if a truck has a maximum trailer weight rating of 10,000 pounds, consider hauling a trailer with a maximum weight of 7500 pounds. If the maximum tongue weight is 1500 pounds, consider towing a trailer with a maximum tongue weight of 1200 pounds.
    This allows for a margin of safety. Plus there is a little room to play with if a person starts loading the trailer with personal stuff and forgets to add the weight of those items in the total weight.

  4. I agree with you about the Dodge Cummins, I had the same thing happen to me. The temperature gauge would start to climb about 3 miles down the road and would be in the red. I did get it fixed though and it pulled fine after that, it had a bad sensor and I can’t remember which one it was. I will look it up and come back and post it here. Anyway it pulled very strong after that.

  5. Also check your owners manual… Some vehicles require transmission coolers or and power steering cooler’s. Just installing a hitch without the proper cooling on the transmission may void your warranty or wreck your transmission. Manual should also say what type of receiver you should get. Some makes require a weight distributing receiver while others frown upon that. Our Honda pilot requires a non weight distributing receiver, a transmission cooler and a power steering cooler to reach max towing capacity.

    Also be careful when looking at the weight ratings. Our pilot can tow a max of 4500 pounds. Unfortunately unless the pilot is empty you will hit the max combined gross weight before hitting the max trailer weight. In this case you were limited by the weight of the pilot and the trailer, not just max trailer weight.

  6. Good article however you failured to mention that there are several different size diameter trailer hitch balls. The most common are 2.0 DIA and 2 5/16 DIA. The smallest is 1 5/8 DIA. And the part that the trailer hitch ball is mount to is called the draw bar which is inserted into the recover hitch. The article did briefly discuss the recover hitch class rating. There are also several different class hitch ratings.

  7. many places that sell trailers have certified mechanics that know what the minimum hookup is for safety. I used a local trailer sales mechanic that safely connected my 9,900 pound trailer and tractor and it was worth the extra labor money for piece of mind in the hookup. Most mechanics also know about the DOT laws for trailer towing so you are connected and legal

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