If you’re new to RVing or new to towable RVs, one of the most daunting things to learn is how to tow an RV. Even if you’ve towed trailers or boats in the past, RVs can be bigger and a little more complicated. We definitely remember the butterflies the first day we hooked up our new RV and drove it off the dealer lot for the first time! After years of towing a variety of RVs, we’re sharing the basics and some hard-learned tips to make your experience as smooth as possible.
Learning How to Tow an RV Is Easier Than You Might Think
Whether you’ve purchased a travel trailer or a fifth wheel, learning how to tow an RV can be intimidating, but it’s easier than you might think.
There are several trusted YouTube channels with videos offering tips as well as online video courses for towing your travel trailer or fifth wheel. Many dealerships also offer in-person experiences to help new RVers learn to tow safely. While all of these are great at educating new RVers, nothing replaces getting behind the wheel and practicing your towing technique. After a few outings, you’ll likely feel like a pro!
First: Understand Tow Capacity and RV Trailer Weight
The towing capacity of a vehicle is how much weight it can tow. The towing capacity is determined mainly by which axles the truck has and their ratings. Usually, towing capacity applies to SUVs and trucks since most sedan or smaller cars don’t have towing capabilities.
Because no two vehicles are the same, knowing your specific vehicle ratings is essential. You can usually find it on the doorframe on the driver’s side. These numbers may be easy to overlook, but they determine what type of trailer you can tow safely.
Keeping your trailer’s weight in mind is integral as well. If your trailer weighs too much for your tow vehicle, it increases the stopping distance and likelihood of damage to your tow vehicle or RV.
Pro Tip: Learn more about The Most Important Question New RVers Don’t Ask: RV Weight
Pack Your Trailer Properly
One easy mistake beginners often make when packing their trailer is not distributing the weight properly. You should distribute weight equally side-to-side and emphasize it upfront. While this can be less of an issue for fifth wheels, whose weight sits over the rear wheels of your truck in the bed, it’s still important for ride quality and handling.
By placing the weight towards the RV front, you increase the amount of weight placed on the hitch, thus granting a steadier tow. If you’re experiencing less control or your trailer is swaying, it probably means there’s too much weight on the back of the RV.
Traveling with full tanks can also cause weight distribution issues. A gallon of water weighs approximately 8 pounds, and your water storage weight can quickly add up. If an RV has full black and gray water tanks, that could easily be an additional 400+ pounds in your RV.
Depending on the tanks’ location, their weight could cause potential instability while towing. Empty your black and gray tanks before heading out, especially if they’re toward the back of your rig.
There are products for travel trailers called weight distribution hitches that help with sway, but these should not be a replacement for real weight redistribution. To find out how much weight is where, we highly recommend taking your RV setup to be weighed.
Learn How to Hitch Your Trailer Correctly
You should know how to hitch and unhitch your trailer correctly before pulling out the first time.
Because hitching and unhitching vary between hitch types and trailer styles, you must understand your unique hitching setup and the order in which to do each step. Otherwise, you might damage your RV or tow vehicle or, worse–critically injure you, someone helping you, or an innocent victim on the roadway after you pull out.
For example, fifth wheel hitches are different than gooseneck 5th wheel hitches. Each has their own process and safety mechanisms to ensure proper latching. The aforementioned weight distribution hitches have more steps than standard ball hitches.
Many RVers, even those who’ve been on the road a while, create checklists for both the hitching and the unhitching process. That way, they can double-check their work and avoid potentially fatal mishaps.
Always Do a Pre-Trip Walk-Around
Once you’ve hitched your RV, it’s understandable to get excited and want to hit the road! But remember that even veteran RVers make mistakes when they’re in a hurry. As you’ll soon discover, RVing errors usually aren’t cheap or easy to fix.
Once you’ve completed the hitching process, walk around your rig with a keen eye. Double-check all connections for hitching, verify doors and compartments are sealed and locked, and confirm brakes, mirrors, and tires are all in good working condition.
Know Your Specs
While the length and width rarely change once the RV leaves the factory, any additions to your RV’s roof could increase your RV’s overall height. One popular upgrade many RVers make when purchasing a new unit is to add a second AC unit. This is often placed towards the front and can add 12 inches to an RV’s height.
You should hitch your trailer to your tow vehicle and measure your RV from the ground to the highest point. Then, you should place a sticky note or printed label on your dashboard for easy reference. You don’t want to approach a bridge at 55+ miles per hour, trying to remember how tall your RV is.
Bigger campers can be more difficult to tow. Here are our tips and tricks for making towing big rigs less dangerous.
Know Your Route
The key to towing an RV effectively and efficiently is knowing your route. This involves planning in advance the driving course and checking for any potential hazards.
Low-clearance bridges, tight turns, and narrow lanes are just a few potential hazards you might experience. While the risks may not be unavoidable, being mentally prepared to face them will help you handle the situation.
Services like RV Trip Wizard can help you plan the safest route based on your RV’s specifications.
When RV Towing, Drive Slowly and Keep Your Distance
Slow and steady wins the race, especially when it comes to towing an RV. There are no awards handed out when you arrive at your campground, so the most important thing to remember is safety. Driving slowly and keeping your distance are two great ways to ensure you arrive safely to your destination.
Not only does driving slowly help you keep your distance, but your tires could also depend on it. Trailer tires come with speed ratings that vary based on the specific model of tire. Exceeding the speed limits can cause increased damage to tires and lead to blowouts, which can cause trailer and bodily harm.
As a general rule of thumb, many RVers never exceed 65 miles per hour when towing.
Increasing the distance between you and the car in front of you while you are towing takes into account your stopping distance. The heavier and larger the load you’re pulling, the greater your stopping distance will be.
If you’re not driving at a safe distance and must stop suddenly, you’ll ruin your front fender, the leading car’s back fender, and the rest of your day.
Watch for Sway (& How To Stop It)
It’s not uncommon, especially for travel trailers, to suffer from swaying while driving. Swaying might happen because of too much weight on the trailer’s rear, windy conditions, or an improper hitch setup.
The best way to minimize RV sway is by using the correct hitch. Many trailer hitch setups utilize anti-sway control that basically adds resistance between the trailer and the vehicle in turns.
In addition, many of these hitches include weight distribution. A weight distribution hitch helps distribute the weight from the back of the tow vehicle to the front, which will put more weight on the steering tires and give you more control.
If your load does begin to sway, first apply the trailer brakes using the hand override. This frequently will bring the sway under control. In fact, some modern vehicles will come with “electronic trailer sway control” from the factory. All these systems do is detect the swaying movement and apply trailer brakes.
Keep in mind that the faster you go, the more likely you will encounter sway. Slower speeds reduce sway and are much safer with travel trailers.
Luckily, fifth-wheel trailers do not suffer from sway because the weight is placed over the truck’s rear axle.
Suggested Reading: Do You Need a Sway Bar to Pull a Camper?
The Longer the Trailer, the Wider the Turn
Towing an RV, long or short, is different than simply driving a vehicle. For example, you must account for making wider turns. Otherwise, you’ll hit a curb or possibly worse by taking a corner too sharply. And remember, the longer the trailer, the wider the turn. The longest travel trailer is over 40ft long, making over 60 ft of vehicle length when being towed.
A travel trailer often takes right-hand turns tighter than the tow vehicle, and you might hit poles or other objects. Taking turns slowly and methodically will help prevent accidents while turning.
In addition, learn to watch your trailer in your mirrors and make adjustments or stop your turn before you hit something. Before setting off on your trip, also make sure you have proper tow mirrors that stick out wide enough to see around the trailer and have a wide angle to see the trailer tires.
Braking While Towing an RV
Braking while towing an RV is vastly different than braking when not towing. As you increase the weight of your tow vehicle and the RV, the distance to stop increases as well. New RVers should account for this increased stopping distance, especially as it relates to stoplights and slowed or stopped interstate traffic.
RV trailers also have brakes and need a properly set up brake controller installed in the tow vehicle. These devices provide an electrical current to the trailer brakes to help slow the vehicle when you press the vehicle brakes.
Always test your trailer brakes when first starting out each time your hook up. Do this by manually actuating the trailer brakes with your brake controller as you are slowly rolling forward. You should feel the trailer pull the vehicle backward to a stop.
Pro Tip: Make hitching up your RV quick and easy with an Electric Power Tongue Jack for Trailers.
Practice Parking Your RV in an Empty Parking Lot Before Hitting the Campgrounds
Parking is one of the most intimidating aspects of towing an RV. Backing an RV into a site is not naturally intuitive for most people and takes practice.
A large and lightly trafficked parking lot is one of the best places to practice and grow your skills. You’ll see how your RV responds and maneuvers to the various adjustments you make. After practicing, new RV drivers should feel comfortable and confident towing into the campgrounds.
Towing an RV Is Tow-tally Doable!
To sum up, towing an RV for the first few times can be intimidating, but it’s doable. Don’t let fear hold you back from taking the next step and learning new skills. Towing an RV isn’t as hard as you’ve likely envisioned.
Now that you’ve got the basics, be sure to follow the 10 Camper Towing Rules You Should Never Break.
What’s your favorite memory of learning to tow your RV? Share it with us in the comments below.
Become A Mortons On The Move Insider
Join 10,000+ other adventurers to receive educating, entertaining, and inspiring articles about RV Travel Destinations, RV Gear, and Off-Grid Living to jump-start your adventures today!