No Truck? No Problem! How to Tow with Your Car

1955 Ford_airstream

1955 Ford Ranch Wagon towing an Airstream, Source | Flickr

A truck is great for getting work done, but what if you don’t have one? Fear not—you can still make things happen. If you have a car, van, or crossover, odds are your vehicle has a tow rating. As long as you follow common sense when towing, you can probably get the job done with your car. Here’s how.

All show, no tow?

Check if towing is even possible in your vehicle by looking in your owner’s manual. In the cargo and towing section it might state something along the lines of, “Manufacturer does not recommend towing with your vehicle.” At this point, it’s time to look into a truck rental. But if the manual lists a certain towing capacity of “x” pounds, this is the manufacturer’s weight limit for towed loads. If you don’t have your owner’s manual, you can find many vehicles’ tow ratings online.

Don’t base your opinion of towing success on looks or power, as there are several cars that can tow surprising loads. The current Ford Mustang GT, with a 5.0L V8 making 400 lb/ft of torque, has a tow rating of 1,000 pounds. Oddly, the small 10th-generation Toyota Corolla, equipped with a 2.4L four cylinder, has a 1,500-pound tow rating. If you have a Honda Odyssey with a 3.5L V6, you can tow up to an impressive 3,500 pounds.

You may be wondering why these tow figures are so low compared to modern full-size trucks. The short answer is safety. The Mustang GT has the torque to theoretically tow a space shuttle. The issue is, it can’t do it safely on public roads for an extended amount of time.

Let’s say you have that Mustang with its tow rating of 1,000 pounds. A buddy asks you to dramatically exceed that and tow his or her 3,000-pound Ford Focus across town. It can be done… badly. The Mustang could physically tow the Focus, but it would do so with dramatically increased drivetrain wear and potential serious damage to the chassis. The brakes would be inadequate for the increased weight, and the trailer or towed car will sway on the highway as it tries to match the movements of the tow vehicle. In short, it would be a scary and damaging drive, so in the real world don’t ever exceed the tow ratings.

Get hitched

To connect that trailer to your tow vehicle, you’ll need a hitch. A tow hitch attaches to the chassis of the vehicle to create the strongest point to connect a trailer or camper. Most hitches bolt onto the vehicle with basic tools and take less than an hour to install. Like with vehicles, don’t go by looks alone, as similar-looking hitches can have wildly different tow ratings. The two main points you will need to look at are the class rating and the receiver opening.

Class I hitches are rated up to 2,000 pounds gross trailer weight, with a 200-pound maximum trailer tongue weight. The tongue weight is simply the force exerted on the hitch from the trailer. For a real-world example, this means if you have a 400-pound light trailer hauling a 560-pound Harley-Davidson Sportster, you’re plenty safe with this hitch. The Corolla mentioned above would have no problem towing 960 pounds out of its 1,500-pound tow rating, if the tongue weight stayed under 200 pounds. Set the Harley above the trailer axle for a neutral load on the trailer tongue. This Class I hitch usually has a 1-1/4″ square receiver opening. This size accepts ball mounts but can also take bike racks, cargo carriers, or other accessories.

Class II hitches are medium duty, rated for up to 3,500 pounds of trailer weight and 300 pounds of max tongue weight. Class III are even heavier duty, with a trailer weight of 6,000 pounds and tongue weight of 600 pounds. Keep in mind, it’s the hitch that can handle that, not your Corolla.

For more details about tow hitches and getting geared up for towing, check out our tips for first-time towers.

Going the extra mile

For a single trip towing across town, no extra equipment is required. If it looks like you may need to tow more often, here are some additions that can help make it easier and safer.

  • Towing mirrors help you see past the trailer. Since rear visibility takes a huge hit while towing, these extended mirrors let you see around it. Other motorists will appreciate that you can see them.
  • Trailer wiring kits make it easy to stay safe and legal out on the road. Most passenger cars don’t have trailer wiring from the factory, so getting the brake lights and turn signals to work can mean splicing wires. Trailer wiring kits are plug-and-play.
  • Transmission coolers keep the temperatures down in one of your vehicle’s critical drivetrain components. Heavy loads make your vehicle work harder, increasing heat, which can damage a transmission. These affordable add-ons reduce the potential for expensive damage from towing.
  • Larger rotors with heavier duty pads will allow you to safely stop that heavy load. The factory brakes were meant to stop just the vehicle’s weight, so they can overheat when trying to stop additional weight.
  • Hitch covers look cool. Technically they offer some protection from the elements so the receiver doesn’t rust, but mainly they offer a unique way to customize your ride.

You can tow without a truck, but you have to do it the right way to stay safe. Ever towed something with a car? Share your towing tips in the comments.

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!

Towing Information: 10 Maintenance Tips Before You Tow

Recreational vehicles on the highwayEven when you have a vehicle built with towing capacity, there’s still plenty to check and double-check before you get on the road.

First, check your owner’s manual to answer these questions:

  • Is your vehicle designed to tow?
  • If so, what is the maximum amount that you can safely tow?

If the answer to the first question is “yes,” then here is our overall recommendation:

  • If your vehicle’s owner’s manual provides recommendations for severe-duty use, towing qualifies – and you should follow these guidelines carefully.
  • This will include checking vehicle components and replacing them more often than is typical.
  • Do not exceed maximum towing limits. When exceeded, it’s more likely that you’ll damage your vehicle and/or get into an accident.

If you plan to modify your towing vehicle to give it extra power or additional safety features, check your warranty. Will making these modifications void any warranties? If you’re purchasing a new vehicle to tow, ask the dealership about any towing or camping options that will be covered by the manufacturer’s warranty.

Also note that, even if you increase your engine’s power, this does not increase the maximum amount that can be safely towed by a particular vehicle.

Towing checklist

Here are ten specific items to check each time you’re getting ready to tow (note: these are not being presented as the ONLY items that you should check, only some of the most important):

1. Brakes

Test your brakes thoroughly before each trip. When towing, you need more stopping distance and so having brakes that are even slightly worn could be a hazard. When you’re towing, don’t ride the brakes; if you do, then you might overheat them and/or jackknife your vehicle. When driving downhill, drive at a reduced speed, using your brakes as necessary.

If you’re towing a trailer, some come with their own braking systems that need to be connected to your vehicle. Although it takes added skill to coordinate the braking systems, this system means less stress on the towing vehicle’s brakes.

Need help with any repairs? Find:

2. Cooling system

Proactively prevent a meltdown. Your vehicle will get heated up by pulling an extra load so your cooling system needs to work optimally to safely tow. So, add the following to your checklist, replacing worn parts:

  1. Radiator, including hoses and fluids
  2. Water pump
  3. Thermostat and housing
  4. Cooling fan and its switch

Here are:

3. Hitching devices

Check the hitch ball regularly to make sure that it hasn’t loosened and is still firmly attached to the draw bar. Make sure that the coupler and hitch ball fit together snugly, and ensure that any tow bar used is parallel to the ground when the towed vehicle is attached.

Each piece of towing gear comes with towing capacity limits. Double check that the equipment you have is suitable for what you plan to tow.

Find the towing parts you need.

4. Safety chains

If your trailer becomes unhitched when you’re towing, the only thing keeping the two vehicles together will be your second line of defense: your safety chains, which are required.

Make sure that the chains you use are sufficient for whatever you’re towing. Light-duty trucks often use 5/16-inch thick chains, while medium-duty trucks often use half-inch thick chains, with heavy-duty trucks using 5/8-inch thick chains. When choosing what thickness to use, make sure that they will help keep the trailer from drifting, while still allowing it to turn easily with your towing vehicle.

Find an assortment of safety chains here.

5. Springs and shock absorbers

Consider adding heavy-duty springs and the best shock absorbers you can buy and make sure that they are in good shape before each tow. Lighter-duty shocks can cause the towing vehicle to sag in the back while heavy-duty versions will help to keep your vehicle stable and level while towing. As a side bonus, they’ll also make the ride more comfortable.

Be sure to also check your hub bearings when doing your suspension check. While small in size, they can cause major problems when not optimal. If one falls off, the wheel can flip flop around, damaging the brakes and potentially even causing the wheel to become disconnected from your vehicle.

Here are:

6. Tires

Tires with the correct load rating and proper inflation are important. A common mistake that people make is to check the tires on the truck that will be doing the towing – but not the tires on, say, a camper or trailer that is being towed. Do you have a spare tire for both your truck and for whatever you’re towing?

Blowouts are doubly dangerous when they occur during towing. If this happens, stay calm and get off the road as quickly as is safely possible. Here are tips for quick tire repairs to get you to the shop. Also find tire gauges, cleaners and more.

mechanic working on a vehicle7. Wiring

Perhaps your truck came pre-wired for trailer towing from the factory or maybe your pre-installed hitch already contains the necessary connector. Whether one of these is true or whether you needed to do your own trailer wiring, you need to make sure that nothing has short circuited before you tow.

And, even if you’ve just bought a new truck, one pre-wired for towing, you will still need to double check that the wiring is adequate enough to run both your truck lights and the trailer lights. You can’t always count on that to be true.

8. Visibility

Visibility can be a challenge when you’re towing something behind you. You can’t see the other vehicles as well, and they may not see your truck as well, either. Lights, including brake lights and turn signals, are even more crucial in these circumstances, so make sure that all are in good working order.

9. Mirrors

Consider using extended towing mirrors for increased visibility. You can choose replacement mirrors or wide-angle clip-on mirrors, so test options out to see what works best. Extended mirrors are especially valuable when towing a wide vehicle.

Note: because you’re carrying a heavier load, it will take longer to accelerate so be very aware of that if planning to pass another vehicle. Here are options for your towing mirrors.

10. Fluids

Check and replace fluids more often, including motor oil. The added weight inherent in towing adds stress to the towing vehicle, causing it to run hotter than normal.

Choose products carefully. Synthetic oil, although more expensive, has no carbon—and therefore can’t leave carbon deposits on your pistons or in the combustion chamber as regular motor oil can. It also makes sense to use synthetic transmission fluid.

Also check and change filters often for optimal performance.

 

Bonus towing information:

The most important element in safe towing is you, the driver, so make sure that you:

  • Get enough rest before starting to tow
  • Feel confident backing up while the object being towed is attached; practice before starting on the road
  • Take breaks when necessary to rest if going for a long haul
  • Take turns more slowly when towing
  • Leave enough safe distance for braking
  • Have a fully stocked emergency kit with you at all times
  • Have the right hand tools, specialty tools and work gloves that you need for unexpected repairs

What tips would you add to our list? Leave a comment below!