Do you tow a travel trailer?
The towing hitching up tip we are about to share with you can LITERALLY save lives. Not to mention your travel trailer.
MOST people don't know that this commonly misplaced trailer connection could one day cause a horrible accident.
This 'secret' about towing a camper trailer safely definitely came as a surprise to me (Camp Addict Kelly). Like many others, I'd been doing it wrong for years. What's the tip?
Well, it will be much more effective with a personal story backing it...
The Photo That Spoke A Thousand Words
It all started while I was scrolling through Instagram.
I came upon a friend's photo (below) that gave me serious pause and made me look twice. Something was way off.
"Wait a minute, is that space between her Airstream wheels and the ground?" Turned out, it most definitely was. Which we all know 'ain't right'.
I know this full-timer, and she's no newbie and she's very intelligent. But it was HER Airstream that was dangling off of a cliff. Wuuuuuuuuuuuuuut happened??!!!
Completely intrigued, I read her Instagram story. When I finished it, a scary thought dawned on me.
Her Airstream accident could easily happen to SO many other trailer owners out there, myself and Marshall included.
Originally, I was thinking that this couldn't happen to me. But when I found out why the trailer didn't stop after disconnecting, I realized it COULD happen to me.
I did the same thing she did regarding one particular aspect of hitching up. Therefore, I was guilty as well.
Now let's make sure you can also prevent this from happening to you.
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The Disconnected Trailer Horror Story
My friend Kerri (Asolojourner on Instagram) had been full-time RVing in her Airstream for about two years when this happened in 2013.
That day, Kerri was cruising slowly through a campground (Thank goodness! She could have just as easily been at a fast speed.)
She was going pretty slow when she heard a loud noise. She looked in her rearview mirror.
What she saw was so shocking, it must have been hard to even comprehend. The Airstream was rolling backward away from the truck.
It somehow COMPLETELY disconnected. And it wasn't stopping.
It actually rolled right into a camping spot. (Kind of ironic. And a bit funny.
At least it is to us now, after the fact, knowing nothing TOO bad happened.)
It was finally and thankfully stopped by a small, VERY appreciated tree that was only about 6 inches in diameter.
It came within feet or even inches of tumbling down a small ledge. It stopped with three wheels dangling precariously off of the ground.
We are showing you this picture again as it's THAT amazing and scary. Only a couple more inches and bye-bye beautiful Airstream!
What happened? Her Chevy receiver failed. Wait, 'failed' is too tame. It broke apart.
In case you are wondering, yes her trailer was well within the tongue and the gross weight limits.
NOTHING about the hitch failure was Kerri's fault. Yes, her safety chains were connected. However, the chains were attached to the receiver.
The part of the receiver that holds the chains also broke off of the truck. (See below)
Therefore, the chains went, helplessly, with the trailer and broken-off receiver. Which is terrifying.
But this is why there are safety mechanisms in place. (Your chains and your breakaway switch.)
And yes, she had her breakaway cable connected to the truck. So why didn't the breakaway cable engage the trailer brakes?
We will get to that in a second. First, let's make sure you know what a breakaway cable does and how it works.
The Breakaway Cable
Every trailer should come equipped with something called a breakaway cord or cable. It is a quick disconnect cord.
One end is connected to a switch on the trailer brakes. The other end gets connected to your tow vehicle.
If your trailer comes detached from your tow vehicle, the breakaway yanks the pin out of the little brake box, engaging the trailer brakes.
This stops your runaway trailer from crashing into other vehicles, people, or objects.
In Kerri's incident, she DID HAVE her breakaway switch connected. So why didn't her trailer brakes kick on? Herein lies the potentially deadly mistake.
The Towing Safety Tip You MUST Know
What is the tip that could have saved Kerri's trailer from getting damaged and from possibly being totaled?
Do Not connect your breakaway cable to the receiver!!
Like most people, you probably connect the cable to the hitch receiver where the chains are attached, as seen below.
This is exactly what Kerri had done. (And Marshall and I did this, too. Not anymore.)
The problem is that what happened to Kerri's receiver rendered the breakaway cable useless. The part of the receiver that she attached her breakaway cable to broke off as well.
Proper Breakaway Cable Attachment When Towing
So, DO NOT connect your cable to the hitch receiver or anything associated with the receiver.
Instead, connect it directly to the truck somewhere. Kerri thoughtfully added an eye bolt screw that holds on her license plate and now connects it there.
I added mine to the same place. It is reinforced with a large-diameter washer behind the bumper.
You can do that or add your own place to connect the breakaway switch. Some people have it wrapped around their bumper.
Others have connected something wide or thick on the end and shut it inside their tailgate.
Be aware that it doesn't take much force to pull the pin out. Still, you may need to reinforce the point of connection if it seems iffy.
Also, you may have to adjust the length of the cable after connecting it to a new point.
Don't Become A Victim
Yes, what happened to Kerri is very unusual. However, it's not unheard of.
Failure of the steel could happen to any hitch.
Or your bolts connecting the receiver to the tow vehicle could fail or come out.
In fact, we JUST (May of 2019) had another friend have his fifth wheel hitch receiver fail. The metal simply broke apart. Luckily he also was just leaving a campground, so no other vehicles were involved in the failure. We do not know details about his weights and if he was or was not well within his rated limits.
What this means is that if it happens to you, if you connected your breakaway switch to anything on the receiver, and your chains also go with your trailer, your trailer is up a creek with no paddle.
Breakaway cable placement is of paramount importance in the event of a catastrophic failure.
There are enough things to worry about in life to not include something like this happening to you.
It's 100% avoidable, once you know about it. And, now you know!
Other Important Towing Information
There are some other very serious things to know and to consider when towing. Also, there are others you should check often.
Your trailer should not exceed the towing capacity of your tow vehicle. You should try not to be close to the limits of the towing capacity.
Trust us, it's way better to have too much power than not enough. It's safer, AND it's much less stressful climbing grades.
Watch your trailer tongue weight.
It should not exceed what your hitch can manage. A good tongue weight is between 10 and 15% of the trailer weight. (How to measure tongue weight.)
Also, check your receiver for max tongue weight in the event it is an aftermarket receiver.
Camp Addict Co-Founder
I found out AFTER buying my Raptor that the hitch was aftermarket and only rated to 5,000 lbs. (UGH!)
Like you, I am still learning as I go. I don't know everything about RVing by a LONG shot.
I'm only as well off as I am with knowledge because of Marshall. He's the secret 'Einstein' behind Camp Addict!
And he's the one that looked at my receiver and saw the weight rating.
Thank goodness I have a very light trailer or I would have had to upgrade my receiver.
(Also, my receiver was not installed properly. It has been corrected.) More on this below.
Hitch Receiver Maintenance
Periodically check your receiver for tightness where it's bolted to the vehicle's frame. The bolts CAN come loose.
I (Camp Addict Kelly) recently found mine to be loose on one side of the receiver of my new truck.
My aftermarket receiver was not installed properly (shocking) and still moved even with the bolts tightened.
Below, you can see how the receiver and hitch are not level. Yikes! I had it remedied ASAP after noticing this.
Turns out, I had to have a part of it welded to keep it in place. It was welded on 4/11/19.
KNOW Your Receiver Numbers
You need to make SURE your hitch receiver is rated high enough to pull your trailer.
If it's an aftermarket receiver, like mine, CHECK IT.
How do you know if it's aftermarket? Well, that's easier said than done.
There's not any reliable visual indicator. We tried to find out how to tell.
We only found three ways to make a guess:
- If the sticker on the receiver is rated for LESS than the vehicle is rated for, then it's aftermarket.
- If the receiver has a sticker with the tow rating numbers on it, it is likely an aftermarket receiver. (Camp Addict co-founder Marshall had a Ram 2500 truck with a sticker on the factory-installed receiver, but it only says what class the receiver is.)
- You COULD try to see if you can get the original window sticker. This shows what all the vehicle originally came with. Simply Google your VIN.
My receiver came with my Ford Raptor when I bought it used. I mistakenly assumed it was factory installed.
Instead, it's an aftermarket hitch.
Turns out, after looking at my actual receiver, the sticker says it's only rated for 5,000 pounds.
The Raptor itself is rated for 8,000 pounds. (Oops. Dead giveaway of an aftermarket hitch)
I had assumed that EVERYTHING about my truck was rated for 8,000 pounds. Not so.
Good thing my trailer is only about 4,400 pounds. Yikes, and Grrrr.
Cross Your Chains
YES, it's true. You are supposed to cross your travel trailer safety chains.
In the event your trailer detaches, in theory, they will keep the tongue of your trailer from digging into the pavement.
The crossed chains will catch the tongue and keep it off the ground (well, unless your receiver breaks in half).
CHECK Your Breakaway Switch On Occasion (The more often the better)
Recently (9/2020) Marshall decided to manually check each of our breakaway cables to make sure they still had power after solar installs.
Turned out NEITHER of them worked! Not because of lack of power, but due to failure of the switch itself.
Check by manually pulling the pin out and either listen for the brakes to be engaging, or try to pull forward when connected to your tow vehicle. You should not be able to if the brakes are fully engaged.
Weight Distribution Hitch
If your trailer weighs more than half of what your tow vehicle weighs, you need to have a weight distribution hitch.
Oftentimes, it's the law.
A weight distribution hitch can also raise your towing capacity a bit.
(Warning: Some truck hitches say RIGHT ON THEM that you are not to use a WDH with them. Read yours to make sure it doesn't say not to.)
PLEASE check your tire pressure at LEAST once a month. It should also be checked before each trip.
If you have a good tire pressure monitoring system, this can be helpful, but it's still a good idea to manually check.
(Many tow vehicles come with a TPMS, but many won't tell you the actual pressures. It will only alert if there's low pressure on ANY tire.
In this case, we suggest getting an aftermarket tire pressure monitoring system.)
For an even more in-depth article (with great photos) about do's and do not's of towing, click HERE.
Towing a trailer is a serious deal. Doing EVERYTHING you can to empower yourself with knowledge about towing will only keep you safer.
We think it's best not to connect your breakaway cable ANYWHERE on your receiver. It will become useless if your receiver somehow fails and comes off or apart.
Change up your connection point. Find a place that's part of the TRUCK to connect your breakaway.
This will at least, in the event of a disconnect, cause your trailer to stop like it's supposed to.
We want you all to be safe out there on the road. We need as few accidents as possible. After all, we could be right in front of you! (Aren't we so selfish?)
Be safe, and Camp On!
Author: Kelly Beasley
I dedicated myself to living the full-time RV life for over 6.5 years, immersing myself in the unique quirks and joys of the boondocking lifestyle and gaining a wealth of knowledge and experience along the way. In December 2020, my business partner and I made the transition to part-time RVing, but in January 2023, we hit the road once again, this time in our trusty vans. My mission is to help others embrace the RVing lifestyle with confidence and excitement, armed with the knowledge and resources needed to make the most of their adventures. I believe that the more you know, the more you can truly appreciate and enjoy the freedom and flexibility of the open road.