Matt Johnson

Beginner Tips For Towing A Travel Trailer For The First Time

Author: Matt JohnsonPhotos/Graphics: Mike HawthornePublished: Jul 2, 2023Updated: Dec 12, 2023

So, you’ve finally decided to embark on an adventure of a lifetime and hit the road with a travel trailer hitched to your trusty vehicle. Congratulations! The freedom and flexibility of towing a travel trailer are unparalleled. But, let’s face it, towing a trailer for the first time can be a bit overwhelming.

Maneuvering a large, heavy object behind you may leave you feeling a bit nervous and uncertain. Fortunately, we will walk you through beginner tips on towing a travel trailer. We’ll also help you gain the confidence you need to quickly hit the road.

So, are you ready to embark on your towing adventure? Get ready to learn more beginner tips and gain the confidence to easily navigate the road. 

Understanding trailer weight and tow vehicle capacity.

Travel Trailer too Heavy for Vehicle

Understanding the weight of your travel trailer and ensuring it is within the limits of your tow vehicle’s capacity is crucial when towing for the first time. 

Think of it this way. Imagine you have a compact SUV with a tow rating of 4,500 pounds. You decide to purchase a 25-foot travel trailer that weighs around 4,000 pounds. At first glance, it might seem like you’re within the limits since the trailer’s weight is less than the tow rating. However, you must remember that the trailer’s weight is not the only factor to consider.

When you add luggage, camping gear, and other belongings to the trailer, the total weight can quickly exceed the tow vehicle’s capacity. Additionally, you need to consider the tongue weight, which is the force exerted on the hitch by the trailer. A general rule is that the tongue weight should be around 10-15% of the trailer’s total weight.

Exceeding the tow vehicle’s weight limits can strain the engine, transmission, and brakes, leading to potential mechanical issues and unsafe conditions on the road. It’s essential to consult your vehicle’s manual or contact the manufacturer to determine the maximum tow rating and ensure you stay within those limits.

By understanding the weight of your trailer and the capacity of your tow vehicle, you can avoid potential problems and have a smoother towing experience. Always prioritize safety and ensure everything is aligned correctly and within the recommended limits – it’s better to be safe than sorry when towing your precious cargo.

Hooking up and properly aligning the travel trailer.

Hooking up and properly aligning a travel trailer can be overwhelming for first-time tow vehicle drivers. We understand the struggle. But don’t worry; we have a few tips and tricks to have you confidently hitched up and ready to hit the road.

The key is to ensure your trailer is securely attached to your tow vehicle and properly aligned. Start by lining up the hitch receiver with the trailer’s coupler. It may take a couple of tries to get it right, so don’t be discouraged. Once you have a good alignment, lower the coupler onto the ball hitch and secure it with the hitch pin.

Remember, it’s crucial to double-check that the hitch is securely locked before moving on. Give it a few good tugs and ensure the safety latch is engaged. This will give you peace of mind knowing that your trailer won’t unexpectedly detach while on the road. We usually put the tow vehicle in drive and very slowly pull forward. You might hear a “clink” but that’s okay. That means everything is locking into position.

Next, attach the safety chains to the designated points on your tow vehicle, crossing them in an “X” pattern. This provides an extra measure of security in case the hitch fails. Don’t forget to attach the breakaway cable or switch, which activates the trailer’s brakes if disconnected.

Once everything is connected correctly, it’s time to test your trailer’s lights and brakes. Have someone stand behind the trailer while you check the brake, turn signals, and running lights to ensure they all function correctly.

Remember, practice makes perfect. Take your time when hooking up and aligning your travel trailer. It may seem challenging initially, but with patience and persistence, you’ll soon become a pro at this essential step in towing. When we first started hooking up it would take 15-20 minutes. Now, after practice, it usually takes around 5 minutes.

Adjusting mirrors and getting comfortable with the extended length.

When it comes to towing a travel trailer for the first time, one of the essential skills to learn is getting comfortable with the extended length of your vehicle and trailer combination. Adjusting your mirrors properly ensures a clear view of the road and what’s happening behind you.

Here’s an example. Let’s say you’re driving down a busy highway with your travel trailer in tow, and suddenly you hear a loud honking sound from the vehicle behind you. Your heart races as a rush of panic sets in – did you accidentally change lanes without noticing? You quickly glance at your mirrors and realize your trailer moved slightly to the side from a gust of wind, causing your vehicle to drift.

This scenario could easily be avoided if you take the time to adjust your mirrors properly before hitting the road. Start by setting your side mirrors to provide a view of your travel trailer’s tires. This will help you see any potential sway or movement. You can also consider adding convex spot mirrors to give you a wider field of view.

As you drive, habitually scan your mirrors, both side and rearview, to stay aware of your surroundings. Remember, your trailer’s extended length can affect your ability to change lanes or maneuver through tight spaces. By constantly checking your mirrors, you can drive more confidently and avoid surprises or potentially dangerous situations.

Getting comfortable with the extended length may take some time and practice, but it’s an essential skill for towing a travel trailer. Don’t let the excitement of your first trip overshadow the importance of adjusting your mirrors and staying aware of your surroundings. Your safety, as well as the safety of other drivers on the road, depends on it.

Mirror extensions make life easier on the road.

One thing we recommend, if your vehicle doesn’t have them, is mirror extensions. These extensions can either strap on or clip onto your existing mirrors to extend your view behind you.

They’re not expensive and they’re easily installed, but they can go a long way in making your trip that much safer.

When you’re done towing, just take off your mirror extensions and store them in your camper or RV until your next trip.

Practicing maneuvering and backing up in an open space.

When towing a travel trailer for the first time, one of the most daunting aspects is maneuvering and backing up in tight spaces. Trust me; we’ve been there too. With some practice and lessons learned, you’ll become a pro in no time.

First and foremost, find an open space, like an empty parking lot, where you can safely practice. Start by turning the wheel slowly and making minor adjustments to understand how the trailer responds. It may feel strange at first, like you’re in a different dimension, but don’t let that discourage you. Remember, practice makes perfect.

Take advantage of the open space to practice backing up. This is where many folks find themselves in a bit of a pickle. Use your mirrors to guide you, and remember to take it slow. As you back up, watch the trailer’s movement and adjust accordingly. Don’t be afraid to make corrections or pull forward to readjust your approach. It might seem confusing initially, but with some trial and error, you’ll get the hang of it.

While practicing, pay attention to the trailer’s turning radius. Remember, it’s longer than you might think, so give yourself plenty of room to maneuver around corners. As you gain confidence, challenge yourself by placing cones or markers to practice navigating obstacles. And always remember to go at your own pace; there’s no rush.

This is a good practice whenever you get a new tow vehicle or trailer. Each setup is different so you’ll need to get used to each rig and trailer combination.

So, next time you’re out practicing maneuvering and backing up with your travel trailer in an open space, remember these tips. With a good dose of patience, practice, and lessons learned, you’ll become a pro at handling your trailer in no time. Trust me; you’ve got this.

Maintaining safe speeds and distance on the road.

When towing a travel trailer, maintaining safe speeds and distances on the road is crucial. It’s not just about reaching your destination; it’s about ensuring the safety of yourself and others on the road.

Driving safely means minding your vehicle’s added weight and length and trailer combination. Remember that your stopping distance will be longer, especially when towing a heavy load. Give yourself sufficient space to brake and avoid sudden maneuvers that could cause the trailer to sway.

Now, picture this: you’re cruising along a highway filled with excitement for your first travel trailer adventure. Suddenly, you notice brake lights ahead. Instead of slamming on the brakes at the last minute, gently apply pressure, allowing the trailer behind you to slow down gradually. Maintaining a safe distance from the vehicle in front of you gives you ample time to react and avoid accidents.

Remember, paying attention to your trailer’s speed limits and adhering to them is crucial. Your tow vehicle’s high speeds don’t necessarily mean your trailer should match. Different trailers have different speed restrictions, so consult the owner’s manual or contact the manufacturer for specific guidelines.

Road conditions change rapidly, so be prepared for unexpected obstacles or hazards. Look for signs indicating steep grades, curves, or work zones. Adjust your speed accordingly and maintain a safe distance from other vehicles, especially during inclement weather.

By prioritizing safe speeds and distances on the road, you’ll enhance your safety and contribute to the overall well-being of everyone sharing the road with you. Stay vigilant, remain aware of your surroundings, and drive responsibly with your travel trailer.

Add a trailer brake controller for increased stopping power.

Brake Controller Banner

Most RVs, campers, and travel trailers have onboard brakes installed.  They typically respond just like your vehicle brakes, but they need something to tell them when and how much to brake.

That’s where a brake controller comes into play.

A brake controller is usually installed near the driver inside the tow vehicle and sends signals to the trailer when you apply the brakes. You can adjust how much braking pressure is applied through the brake controller.

These will undoubtedly increase your stopping power and make your journey safer.

Knowing your trailer’s height and clearances.

Tall Camper Low Overpass

When it comes to towing a travel trailer, it’s crucial to understand the height and clearances of your rig. 

A couple of years ago, my friends and I decided to embark on a road trip with our travel trailers. We came across a narrow underpass as we were driving through a scenic route. There seemed to be enough space for our campers to fit through, but we couldn’t be sure. Questioning the pass, we decided to pull over and investigate further.

With our measuring tape in hand, we carefully measured the height of our trailers. A wave of relief washed over us when we discovered our trailers had cleared the underpass with a few inches to spare. It was indeed a close call, but luckily, we were prepared.

This incident taught us a valuable lesson about the importance of knowing our trailer’s height and clearance. It’s not just about avoiding underpasses but also navigating low-hanging tree branches, bridge overpasses, and other obstacles that could damage your trailer or cause accidents.

We always recommend knowing exactly how heigh your trailer is including all extras such as air conditioners and antennas. Then give yourself a few more inches just to be safe.

Preparing for braking and sway control.

Built in Brake Controller in Truck

When towing a travel trailer for the first time, braking and sway control is one of the most important things to prepare for. Trust me; we learned this lesson the hard way.

You see, having a heavy trailer behind your vehicle can cause it to push and sway, especially when you hit the brakes suddenly.

It’s crucial to adjust your braking technique to ensure a safe and controlled stop. Instead of slamming on the brakes, start by applying steady pressure and gradually increase it. This will give your vehicle and trailer ample time to come to a stop without causing any unwanted swaying or skidding.

Another tip we found helpful is to invest in a brake controller. Remember when we mentioned this? This device allows you to adjust the braking force applied to the trailer’s wheels, helping you maintain stability and control during braking. Check your trailer’s weight; the brake controller should be appropriately calibrated to handle the load. A good starting point is either 60% or a 6 on the screen – depending on what model you have. Then from there adjust your settings based on your driving.

In addition to braking, it’s essential to address sway control. Sway can occur when strong winds or sudden lane changes cause the trailer to shift from side to side. Consider investing in sway control devices such as stabilizer bars or sway control hitches to minimize sway. These will help distribute weight evenly and keep the trailer stable while towing.

Knowing how to handle braking and sway control is essential for a safe and enjoyable towing experience. By following these tips and implementing the necessary equipment, you’ll be well-prepared to handle any unexpected situations on the road. Trust me; we wished we had known these things before our first towing adventure.

Dealing with crosswinds and unexpected weather conditions.

Dealing with crosswinds and unexpected weather conditions while towing a travel trailer can be nerve-wracking, especially for a first-timer like me. I’ll never forget that time my partner, and I were cruising along an open highway, appreciating the breathtaking scenery, when out of nowhere, a powerful gust of wind slammed into us from the side. Suddenly, our trailer started swaying back and forth, gripping our hearts with fear and turning our grip on the steering wheel into a vise-like hold.

During moments like these, it’s crucial to remain calm and composed. Our first instinct was gradually reducing our speed, trying to regain stability as we went. We made sure to grasp the steering wheel firmly and keep both hands on it at all times. By maintaining a solid grip and making minor adjustments to counteract the wind’s force, we managed to stay the course and keep our trailer in check.

Another key factor to consider is keeping a close eye on weather forecasts before starting your journey. If high winds, thunderstorms, or other severe weather conditions are predicted, it’s best to postpone your trip if feasible. However, suppose you encounter unforeseen weather conditions while on the road, it’s wise to slow down and seek shelter in a safe location, such as a rest area. In that case, it’s far better to wait until the weather clears up rather than jeopardize your safety and other road users.

Handling crosswinds and unexpected weather conditions demands quick thinking and a steady hand. You can confidently navigate these challenges by staying alert, reducing speed as necessary, and pulling over during severe weather, ensuring a safe and pleasurable journey with your travel trailer.

You’re ready to hit the road with your travel trailer!

So there you have it, folks! Your beginner’s guide to towing a travel trailer is complete. It may seem daunting initially, but with the proper knowledge and practice, you’ll become a confident trailer tower.

Understanding trailer weight and tow vehicle capacity are crucial before embarking on any towing adventure. And don’t forget to properly align and secure your travel trailer to maximize stability on the road.

Adjust your mirrors properly and get comfortable with the new dimensions as you hit the open road with your extended length. Practicing maneuvering and backing up in an open space can help build your confidence and make parking a breeze. And, of course, always maintain safe speeds and distances to ensure a smooth and stress-free journey.

Another essential aspect to consider is knowing the height of your trailer and the clearance of any overhead obstacles. Pay attention to low-hanging tree branches or bridges, and plan your routes accordingly. And when it comes to braking and sway control, make sure you’re familiar with the functions and features of your trailer’s braking system.

Mother Nature can throw curveballs anytime, so be prepared for crosswinds and unexpected weather conditions. Driving in windy conditions can be challenging, but maintaining a firm grip on the steering wheel and reducing your speed can help you stay in control.

Remember, practice makes perfect. Take the time to get comfortable with towing your travel trailer before setting off on a long journey. With experience, you’ll become a pro at navigating campgrounds and enjoying all the benefits of the RV lifestyle.


Matt Johnson

Senior Content Writer

Matt is an experienced camper and glamping enthusiast with a Master's degree in Wildlife Science from Texas A&M University. Authoring posts for GlamperGear, he shares his wealth of knowledge on picturesque campsites, luxurious accommodations, and the best gear for outdoor adventures. His passion for nature and knack for comfort in the wilderness make him an expert guide for your next camping endeavor.

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