Trailer drivin'
May 21, 2011 10:04 PM   Subscribe

What are your tips for driving with a trailer for (relatively) long distances? Plus other ID-to-CA driving questions inside.

We're driving down to San Diego from Twin Falls, ID. My dad will be the primary driver, and he knows the area like the palm of his hand, so no doubts about getting lost. However, we're attaching a trailer sort of like this one (albeit a little wider and shorter) to the 1996 Ford Explorer we're using to drive down there. My dad is a good driver, but he hasn't driven anything with a trailer in years. The trailer is expected to have quite a bit of weight on it.

Additionally, my husband is serving as a back-up driver, and being an Idaho child, he hasn't EVER been down in California and has no idea what to expect (traffic in Twin Falls is something you'd expect in California if the apocalypse happens).
We've made this trip before, without the trailer (and without the husband), with no problems. We plan to stop in Vegas to sleep.

My question is twofold: is there anything my dad needs to know about driving with the trailer? Do you have any tips for my husband on driving with the trailer AND driving in California? Many thanks are given in advance.
posted by cobain_angel to Travel & Transportation (9 answers total)
With the trailer pictured, being pulled by an Explorer, it shouldn't be an issue. Your dad will find that, after a few miles, he won't notice it is there.

Tips: Leave plenty of room between your car and the car ahead, it takes longer to stop with a trailer.

Stop once in a while to check lights and the hitch/chains.

Keep the speed down... the few hours saved isn't worth the increased risk.

As for the driving in CA part, you'll deal with it. My first trip to CA (after living in a rural area) was flying into LA, renting a car and driving to Pasadena.... traffic is traffic.... you'll be fine...
posted by tomswift at 10:19 PM on May 21, 2011

Having been raised in Idaho nearly my whole life and recently moved to Los Angeles, I would have to say the traffic does taking some getting used to. The main thing to remember there is a lot more people down here so the masses have to act accordingly. People generally drive much more aggressive here.. and you should to.

You should also know that motorcycles can cut in between cars. Also, please note that during peak traffic hours many people simply will not travel the Southern Californian freeways. It really gets that crowded. So until you learn the ins and outs of horrible SoCal traffic just try to keep patient.
posted by digdan at 1:33 AM on May 22, 2011

For mountain driving, don't forget your lower gears. Even if the truck is an automatic, shifting into 2nd or Low can help you ease off the brakes going downhill and gives you some extra pull going uphill.
posted by colfax at 2:09 AM on May 22, 2011

The Explorer should / might have a "tow" mode that changes the shift points in the transmission. Use it, especially when in the mountains.
posted by COD at 5:33 AM on May 22, 2011

"is there anything my dad needs to know about driving with the trailer?"

Because the cargo box on that trailer is centred behind the axle care must be taken to have weight on the tongue. Ideally you should have somewhere between 10% and 15% of the trailers mass at the hitch. In other words if your trailer weighs 3000 lbs you should have between 300 and 450 pounds at the hitch. For 200 pound between 200 and 300 pounds at the hitch. They sell special scales for this but you can just use a block of wood or a milk crate to keep the trailer level and a regular bathroom scale. You can see that at 300lbs of tongue weight you are covered for trailer masses between 2000 and 3000 lbs
posted by Mitheral at 11:45 AM on May 22, 2011

Has your husband ever driven pulling a trailer before? Maybe he should put in an half-hour or so driving around the neighborhood before getting on the road. Also he could take the highway stretches prior to city driving, and let your dad drive in Vegas, Riverside, and SD.
posted by attercoppe at 5:35 PM on May 22, 2011

The most common places trailers fail are tyres and wheel bearings, mainly because trailers rarely get much maintenance to the bearings and the tyres are often very old (because of low use/minimal wear). Make sure the tyres are correctly inflated, don't have any signs of cracking and that you have a spare (and make sure it fits the trailer hubs). Prise the cover off the hub and make sure there is plenty of grease there and jack each wheel up and spin it - if there is any rumbling noise, think about replacing the bearings. If the trailer has brakes, make sure they are working properly.

You say 'quite a bit of weight', but don't elaborate what you mean by this - do you mean several hundred kg or do you mean a tonne or more? Overweight is the biggest killer of trailers, coupled with tyre/bearing issues, in my experience.

The point that Mitheral makes about tongue weight is vital, too - a correctly balanced trailer (and there's a fair bit of latitude in this) will not even be noticeable behind such a large vehicle, but one that is too light on the hitch will be a nightmare all the way - not only dangerous, but uncomfortable, as it will bounce the car up and down all the time.

I've driven a lot of long distance trips towing trailers from small box trailers up to caravans and large race boats and a properly set-up trailer adds no difficulty to the drive, but a bad one will make your trip a misery.
posted by dg at 5:36 PM on May 22, 2011

dg, thanks for your comment! It's super helpful. I'm having my dad do all of those things. We just replaced the tires in anticipation of the trip, but I don't know if we have a spare. We'll be getting one for sure.
When my dad was taking the trailer home from where it was bought (a three hour ride), it was too light and it jumped all over the place; in the trip, it won't be, since it's being used to moving and lots of tightly packed things are going in it. Can't give a weight as I'm not very good at that, though. :/

The Explorer does have a Tow mode but the manual warns against using it in highways.

The closest my husband gets to having driven with a trailer is having driven a tractor and pulling a trailer (bigger than this one) around. Not the same at all, so I'll be making him practice.
posted by cobain_angel at 6:48 PM on May 22, 2011

Empty trailers are usually a bitch to tow.

Don't stress about towing a trailer, especially a small one. Apart from reversing, which is a whole new game (and usually much worse with small trailers than large), the only thing you need to watch is that the trailer will track narrower than the car in tight turns. If the trailer is no wider than the car, even that will be hardly noticeable. Watch those lane changes, though - don't forget the trailer is behind you ;-)
posted by dg at 8:16 PM on May 22, 2011

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