9 Important Tips for First Timers Towing a Trailer

Kristin Shaw Avatar
Towing a trailer is easier than you think with these tips.
Photo credit: Nissan North America

If the idea of hitching up a camper and towing a trailer off into the wilderness seems daunting, you’re not alone. But this first-time camper says it’s a lot easier than it looks. As a college student, I picked up an unusual summer job through a local temp agency: Wide Load Escort Driver. That means that I drove a pickup truck from city to city in the north central part of Indiana, where I grew up. The truck was equipped with a CB. Breaker Breaker 1-9, for all of you 70s kids. From that experience, I learned a little about towing and how to park a large vehicle by working with my partner in the big truck behind me.

However, I was always skittish about towing a trailer with my personal vehicle, even though the camping part looked like a ton of fun. And I know I’m not alone; a lot of people tell me they shy away from towing a camper because it feels daunting.

What if I hook it up incorrectly? What if my brake lights don’t work? Will the trailer hitch hold? Or what if I run over a curb? 

All those questions and more are valid. But you just need to know the tow trailer secrets to success. Here’s how to tow a trailer.

SheBuysTravel Tip: If you’re dreaming of RV travel, rent one first to see how you like it. 

Read More: Iconic USA Road Trips to Add to Your Family’s Bucket List This Year

Traveling with a trailer is easier than you thought.
Yes, you can tow! It’s easier than you think, especially when you take a few minutes to learn the basics. Photo credit: Nissan North America

Just Like Driving an SUV

“People often look at the size of a trailer, which might appear to be bigger than their vehicle, and think, ‘How can my car possibly tow that?’” says Nissan Senior Manager, Product Planning Carl Phillips. “It might seem overwhelming, but in reality, as long as trailers are within the manufacturer’s recommended towing capacity, the vehicle can handle it.”

Nissan invited me to California to practice with towing experts who showed me how to hook up a trailer, how to tow it and how to park it. They gently corrected me along the way. Once I gave it a try, I discovered that towing wasn’t nearly as complicated or scary as it seemed at first. I gained confidence in the parking lot as I practiced, minded my corners and graduated from towing school with blazing colors.

With these towing tips, you (yes, you!) can get more comfortable with towing and increase your know how, too:

1. Get a Little Help from a Friend

The most challenging part, in my opinion, is parking, especially backing up. Pulling into a parallel parking space is as easy as parking an SUV. However, backing up requires a little patience, smart mirror placement and the guiding hand of someone you trust to help you. It’s a bit like playing pool when you want to hit the white cue ball into one ball in order to tap another (how’s your geometry these days?). My towing coach instructed me to turn left and to go right but that made no sense to me until I tried it myself.

Speaking of mirrors, Phillips says, “Backing up a trailer can seem daunting, but technologies like rear view cameras and digital monitors give drivers a better view of obstacles and the world around them to make trailer towing easier.”

Learning how to tow a trailer
Airstream’s Nest line is a little smaller and easier to tow and sleeps two. Photo credit: Nissan North America

2. Know Your Vehicle’s Tow Rating

One trailer acronym to know is UVW (Unloaded Vehicle Weight), which is the maximum weight capacity that an axle will carry. For example, the Wolf Pup Travel Trailer by Forest River (made in my hometown!) has a UVW of just under 4,000 pounds. Nissan’s Pathfinder can tow up to 6,000 pounds plus the weight of its passengers.

A Pathfinder holds up to seven people, continuing with our example, so you would check your owner’s manual for three more acronyms: GVW (gross vehicle weight), GVWR (gross vehicle weight rating) and GCWR (gross combination weight rating). You want to make sure your loaded vehicle does not carry extra weight, thus exceeding the manufacturer’s rating. Also, that the combined weight of the loaded vehicle and the total weight of your loaded trailer (gross trailer weight) do not exceed the manufacturer’s guidelines.

Don’t forget to bookmark these 5 Winter Driving Safety Tips.

3. Ensure the Vehicle and Trailer Are a Good Match

Overloading the vehicle means overloading the brakes and that is a definite no-go. Knowing the maximum tongue weight is important, too; that’s the amount of weight on the vehicle’s trailer hitch.

If your trailer tongue weight is less than 10 percent of the fully-loaded trailer weight, the trailer is more likely to sway, which affects control. It’s a narrow margin, because if you have too much weight on the tongue (more than 15 percent of total trailer load weight), your tow vehicle’s rear tires may overload. As a result, stopping and handling could be more challenging, with more potential for danger.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Be sure that items are a proper match. Trailer hitch ball sizes should match the size of the trailer.

4. Stop the Sway

You don’t want your trailer to sway to the music or otherwise: to avoid trailer sway, place heavier cargo forward, in front of the trailer’s axle. Also center the cargo and tie it down, because shifting causes sway too. Balance the weight of the trailer with the placement and you’ll have a smooth ride.

Be prepared when traveling
Gloves and advance practice will make the towing experience less stressful and easier on your hands. Trailer swaying? Check the weight distribution. Photo credit: Nissan North America

5. Check the Tires

Ensure the tire pressure on both your tow vehicle and your trailer tires meet the specifications set by the manufacturer. Under-inflated tires will negatively affect handling and cause more of the tire’s surface to touch the ground. The result is more friction, which means the tires are more likely to overheat and blow out. You’ll get better fuel economy with properly-inflated tires, too.

Take a look at the tire pressure label (usually on the frame on the driver’s side) to find the correct inflation pressures for your vehicle. Then check the speed rating on the tires for the trailer and your vehicle, and stick a Post-it in the middle of your steering wheel, if you need to, to remind yourself to stay under that max speed.

For good measure, check the tire pressures of the spare tires for your vehicle and your trailer if you’re taking a longer trip.

6. Enlist the Teens for Oversight

Cross-check everything. This is a good opportunity to involve the kids in this process. One of you would line up the hitch ball mount, hook up the safety chains and cords, and another could serve as quality control to ensure everything was done properly. Even tweens can learn how important it is to cross the safety chains to prevent detachment if the trailer decouples from the hitch, ensure that the chains aren’t dragging and that there is enough slack for the chains when you make turns. They can also help you check the taillights and turn signals to see if they’re working the way they should.

7. Check the Backup Systems 

Make sure the emergency breakaway cable is attached to your towing vehicle before you drive away. If the trailer somehow disconnects from the hitch, this cable is designed to trigger the trailer brakes and stop it quickly. Think of the emergency cable like an emergency cord on a treadmill – if it disconnects, it will stop the trailer quickly.

8. Always be Prepared

Pay attention and watch the road a few cars ahead to anticipate any sudden braking ahead. Every time you brake, your vehicle and trailer push you forward more than if you’re just driving the vehicle by itself, so you’ll want to make sure your speed is steady and any acceleration and slowdowns are as gradual as possible.

It should go without saying, but a little reminder won’t hurt: let someone else do the DJing for the music and answering the phone. Keep your eyes on the road, your hands on the wheel and enjoy the ride.

Traveling around the world
Be sure to check your tires before you leave and every time you stop to ensure the best performance and safety. Photo credit: Nissan North America

9. Start Small

Happier Campers, Forest River, Jayco, Airstream and more make cute 2-person campers if you want to escape with your partner for a weekend. As you become more confident, work your way up to a larger fifth wheel trailer and bring the whole family. Personally, I love the full-size Airstream’s climate controls, solar power pre-wiring, sleek kitchen area and classic lines.

Coming from the RV capital of the world, I can tell you there is a camper for every family out there, once you figure out what you need. Hitch it up and move ‘em out!

Kristin Shaw is a freelance writer, adventurer, and motorsports competitor with bylines at Popular Science, Edmunds, The Drive, Motor1, Road & Track, Car and Driver, Forbes Wheels, U.S. News and World Report, GearJunkie, and more. Her work on parenting and relationships has been featured often at The Washington Post and the TODAY show site. Follow Kristin on these channels: Instagram Facebook LinkedIn TikTok
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38 responses

  1. Being prepared does sound quite important when it comes to any kind of towing service. If you don’t have someone to call and have some idea of how to prepare, the problems you may end up dealing with will be too difficult. I’ll work on that when I find a 24/7 towing expert in the area so they can give me their details to call.

  2. It really helped when you mentioned that you should be aware of the air pressure of your tires for safety. One of my parent’s friends told me yesterday that he was looking for dump trailers for the liquid wastes of their workplace, and he asked if I had any idea what would be the best option to consider. Thanks to this helpful article, I’ll be sure to tell him that he can consult a well-known dump trailers company as they can answer all his inquiries.

  3. It really helped when you said if the tongue weight of your trailer is less than 10% of the total loaded trailer weight, the trailer is more prone to wobble, compromising control. I have a cousin who is doing a research paper this should help him, I’ll share it with him. Thank you for the information about auto trailers.

  4. I’m glad that you talked about parking, particularly backing up, which is, in my opinion, the most difficult aspect. It’s just as simple to pull into a parallel parking spot as it is to park an SUV. My family and I are planning an excursion using our mobile RV. I believe that hiring One Way Trailer Moves will be more convenient for us. I’ll enquire about one as soon as possible.

  5. Thanks for the tip that I should always know the tow rating of my vehicle in case of emergencies. I’m interested in looking for a good emergency towing service soon because I’m planning to drive all the way home for Thanksgiving this year. I think that it would be best to be ready for any sort of roadside emergency while I’m traveling there.

  6. My first time towing a trailer was a daunting task as I’m sure you’re aware by now. After doing it for some time you start to get the hang of it. Wait until you have to back a trailer up a driveway, that’s when the real fun begins. As a tow truck business, this is great information to have. Thanks for the post!

  7. There are many things I love about this Trailer King ST Radial Trailer Tire: First, the enhanced shoulder design is something my particular trailer would benefit from through its ability to boost tread life and even wear, the center groove with help my trailer deal with all the wear and tear it’s going to experience on all those highways. Additionally, the nylon overlay adds to this feeling of this tire being able to handle the workload I require.

  8. I’m glad you talked about how important it is to ask for help when it’s your first time towing your RV. An uncle just got himself an RV. He’s always wanted one, and now that he has the time and money for it, he didn’t hesitate. He’s researching the basics of owning one, and I think this article will help him greatly. I’ll be sure to share it with him. And I’ll definitely suggest that he gets some help the first time he transports his RV around to avoid any accident.

  9. This is great information for someone that doesn’t pull a trailer very often. It can be a daunting task and it is easy to get yourself in a difficult position.

  10. My sister has been thinking about getting a trailer. She would really like to get a utility trailer from a professional. I really liked what you said about how she should make sure to have someone check her while backing up.

  11. I like your tip to always pay attention and anticipate the need to suddenly brake. My brother just found an old trailer for cheap that he wants to have repaired and start using it for his local service business. I’ll send him this article so he can stay safe while learning how to navigate with the trailer.

  12. I really like how you said that once you know what type of trailer you need, go get it and hitch it up. I would love to own an RV one day but right now I need a trailer. I’ll go look into renting one for right now so I can get used to hauling stuff behind my truck.

  13. When you go into a city, where can you safely leave a camper after you detach it from the car. I want to be able to leave the camper somewhere and travel around the city with my car and then re-attach the camper later when heading on the highway.

    1. Well, that depends on the city, I imagine. If you’re in a suburban area of a city, you might be able to park it in the parking lot of a big box store. Make sure you have plenty of room to re-hitch it when you return.

  14. Trailer camping is always one of those things to look forward to during my vacations! If it’s you’re first time towing a trailer, tip #2 is essential. You can read more about a vehicle’s payload and towing capacity on DigMyRide. The towing capacity indicated in your car might be the upper limit to what your car can pull, and the actual amount might be lower. It’s always best to observe safety precautions and not to push your cars limits, cause you might cause yourself harm and to others as well.

  15. I like that this post shared that there is no harm in asking friends for help when we first use side tipper trailer. My friend just bought a new trailer and he is unsure of how to have it installed or towed. I will share with him there is no harm in asking help from friends.

  16. I like what you said about making sure that your trailer’s emergency systems work properly. My sister wants to use a trailer to haul some items in the coming weeks. I’ll share this information with her so that she can look into her options for professionals who can help her with this.

    1. Let us know how the trip goes!

  17. Thanks for your useful information. I’m just afraid of a trailer to sway from side to side uncontrollably. This is one of the scariest things that could happen to me when I am towing my trailer.

    1. I agree! But Kristin says it’s easy. It just takes some getting used to.

      1. Yes, I have read to know more in here: https://www.listatrailer.com/do-i-need-a-sway-bar-for-my-trailer/ . Maybe it quites easy.

  18. I like what you said about having patience when backing up a trailer. My sister wants to move in the coming weeks, and she’ll need a trailer. I’ll share this information with her so that she can look into her options for getting the right trailer to help with this.

    1. Good luck with the move!

  19. We are thinking about purchasing a Mobile Home as we are selling our primary residence and building a new house in a new city. We would like to travel around during the period while the new house is being constructed. Your information was very helpful.

  20. My dad is thinking about getting a trailer so that he can do some landscaping things and can be extra safe. He would really like to get a trailer from a professional so that it will look better and it can haul everything he needs to. It was interesting to learn about how taillights and turns signals should work correctly and the safety chain can prevent detachment by crossing them.

  21. I love that you mentioned that we will get better fuel economy if we are to properly inflate the tires of our trailer before we haul it. My wife and I have been talking about finding a trailer that we could rent soon, so we could use it to haul various things while we go on trips. When we do, so we could maximize the fuel efficiency, I will be sure to check the tires’ air pressure.

  22. You mentioned that there is an emergency break away cable to help strop the trailer if it comes disconnected from the hitch. Is this also included with dump trailers as well? My neighbor is renting a trailer next week and this is his first time towing anything.

  23. Thanks for sharing this checklist which is a nice addition for the towing experts. Checking tires, battery water level, having all necessary tools, tin food and proper navigation and weather monitoring system all are important. Just make sure that you have taken all necessary information from customer like vehicle model, size, location and current weather. Also, keeping a fair distance with wise use of breaks and gears can make tow process a lot easier and smoother!

  24. I liked that you mentioned you will always need to have the help of a friend when trying to park a towing trailer. My husband and I are thinking about buying a towing trailer for our vacations, and we are looking for advice about what to do as first time owners. I will let him read your article to help him understand how to move around with a towing trailer.

  25. Thanks for these tips on how to find a good towing service. I agree that you want to consider your mirrors so that you can watch it as you tow it. I’m looking to buy a new trailer, so I’ll have to remember to adjust my mirrors when I do.

  26. This was a really helpful article. I’m glad you mentioned that parking your trailer can be made easier with smart mirror placement, especially since I find parking hard as-is. I want to go on a road trip with my boyfriend. He has an RV, so I want to learn some good driving tips before I go.

  27. I like what you said about knowing the weight that an axle can carry before trying to use a trailer. My brother has been telling me about how he wants to travel across the country next year with a trailer. I’ll share this information with him so that he can look into the carry weight of his axle.

  28. Thanks for the tip to keep a steady speed and make accelerations as gradual as we possibly can. My husband and I are planning a home remodel for next month, and we think renting a dump trailer would help simplify the cleanup process. Keeping your tips in mind should help us stay safe when we drive the trailer!

  29. I’m looking to potentially buy a trailer that will be effective in towing my Tiny House that I am currently building. Your tips about checking the tires to make sure that both the tow vehicle and the trailer are meeting specifications and are able to carry the load. I will use these tips when I look for a professional for flatbed trailers which is what I’m leaning towards investing in.

  30. Thanks for mentioning that you should pack the heavier cargo in the front of your trailer so that it’s balanced and doesn’t sway. I’m planning on taking my family camping with my new trailer. It’s good to know how to drive it and pack it properly.

  31. It’s good to know that you should know the maximum tongue weight. My husband and I are moving and we’re using a trailer to pack thinks in and it would be the first time my husband has ever towed a trailer. I’ll make sure to pass this information along to him as we begin to prepare to move.

  32. Thank you for the tip about having your teens help you with making sure that everything is hitched up and working right. My sister has been thinking about getting a trailer soon, but she has never towed anything before. I think she should make sure she practices a lot in an parking lot before taking to the road.

  33. From a guy who has always been into caravans and campers but never rode one – wow! You gave me some food for thought. I never expected cruising around with a trailer requires some much things to take care of. However, for me, campers win over caravans and trailers because they seem so much easier to navigate in an urban environment.

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