How hard is it to drive with a hitch?
May 17, 2012 4:21 AM   Subscribe

I was asked to help a friend move. I'd be driving a small two door hatchback. Attached would be a U-Haul U-Box hitched on to the back (See here for details). I have never driven anything with a hitch on the back. I would need to drive it 4 times, each time it would be about 15 miles or so. It would help save a lot of money if i could do this. How hard is it to drive with something big hitched behind? Should I help out? Any thoughts, or tips on the situation would be very appreciated.
posted by Mr.X to Travel & Transportation (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Not difficult at all. The weight is more of an issue than the size. You'll probably find that the car feels like it has less power on slopes, and braking distances are increased because of the extra momentum.

Just drive cautiously. Remember that sudden changes of speed mean that stuff gets thrown about in the box. Keep your distance from anything ahead of you, be aware that you won't be able to see much behind, brake in plenty of time, and signal early and clearly. You'll be fine.

Don't even try to reverse if you've never reversed a trailer before. Park so that you can move off forwards.
posted by pipeski at 4:45 AM on May 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

Adding to what pipeski said, also when turning, you need to go deeper into the turn before cutting your wheel or you will bounce the box over the curb.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 4:49 AM on May 17, 2012

Where are you driving? A City situation with traffic/parrallel parking, or just around town?
posted by smalls at 4:49 AM on May 17, 2012

Is this your personal vechical? I would be very concerned about damaging the engine (unless you have a souped-up engine?) by expecting it to produce so much more power than it was built for. If it is their car, drive carefully and plan your route to have as few turns as possible. Driving at night, when traffic is lighter, may be easier for you. Have someone with you whose sole job is to keep an eye on the trailer soyou can focus on the road.
posted by saucysault at 4:52 AM on May 17, 2012

I'd add to pipeski's good advice that you'll probably want to make your right hand turns a little wider (on preview, JohnnyGunn beat me), and to address visibility behind you should adjust your side mirrors so that you see the length of the trailer on the inside edge. Remember, you will still be able to head check to see cars behind and on the side of your own car, but the trailer will create a blind spot on at least its right side that you will need that side view mirror to cover.

You should also verify that the car you're driving is ok to pull the weight of the box, sounds like a pretty small car for towing.
posted by solotoro at 4:54 AM on May 17, 2012

My sister drove halfway across the country with a trailer in her Civic, so I doubt the car will be a problem. I've driven all manner of things with trailers (no big rigs though), including a 14-foot trailer cross-country, a 30-foot Christmas tree, and an entire car wash system. Here's my advice:

-Make sure you put slightly more weight in the front of the trailer than the back. You don't want the tongue pulling *up* on your car.
-Cut your turns really wide. No, wider.
-If you can avoid backing up, do so. Backing up is a pain. Backing up while looking backwards through your car makes it easier. The basic theory is that, at first, the tongue has to go the opposite of the direction you want the trailer to go. So if you want to back up to the left, cut your car wheels to the right, back up a little to get the tongue going to the right, then start working the steering wheel to the left.
-If you can keep a navigator in the front passenger seat with you, that'd be great. If you can have the navigator on the phone with a follower car, even better.
-After you've strapped everything down, drive one mile and then pull over. Re-tighten everything. Trust me on this.
-If you wind up on the highway, and you feel the car start to shimmy, do *not* hit the brakes (brakes at wrong time = jackknife). Hit the gas - it straightens out your train.
-Drive like your passenger is very, very nauseated and you're trying to keep them from striping your car with puke. Gently, gently.
posted by notsnot at 5:27 AM on May 17, 2012 [4 favorites]

You've been getting good advice. Pipeski mentioned this, but it's worth restating:
You absolutely 100% do not want to try to reverse with a trailer. Especially if the first time you end up needing to try it is maneuvering backwards down a curved drive with obstacles on either side, or avoiding traffic, or nonsense like that.

It's complicated, because when the car pushes back on the trailer tongue, the tendency is for it to fold sideways unless you're dead-straight. Turning involves steering the "wrong" way to get the hinge to push the trailer the right way, then straightening out to the right way to get the car where you want it, without accidentally hingeing the trailer off-course... I haven't done it successfully, though my dad let me try once. Usually I was just the passenger in the car as he attempted to back our camper-trailer around while swearing fiercely.

My point being, plan your route, plan your parking, send friends ahead to clear out a parking space, and be sure there will be no need to reverse your way out of anything.
posted by aimedwander at 5:41 AM on May 17, 2012

Seconding/Nthing "Try not to reverse if you can help it" and "Double-check that the car is rated to tow the total weight of the UBox plus the weight of the load."

To be totally honest, that UBox seems kind of tall. You'll almost certainly feel some wind effects (from the sides) that you don't really feel in a car, especially if you're doing any highway driving. Also, when you say "drive it 4 times" I'm guessing 2 round trips - full to the new place, empty on the way back to the old place - and keep in mind that an empty trailer will behave & feel different than a full one.

So things to think about when loading the Ubox, which will help when driving it:

Keep the weight towards the bottom of the box, don't put heavy stuff higher up - and remember size doesn't necessarily equal weight.

If at all possible try to balance the load evenly on both sides (left to right).

notsnot's point about re-tightening straps is a great idea, but it doesn't look as if the Ubox has any place for straps, so you'll want to use your super-tetris skills to pack the trailer so stuff doesn't shift around.
posted by soundguy99 at 5:45 AM on May 17, 2012

Okay just to clear up the "reversing" thing; it's not that bad.

Here's what they teach in Coast Guard Boating School:

1. Make sure your wheels are straight and the trailer is straight behind you.

2. Put one hand on the bottom of the steering wheel.

3a. If you want the trailer to go to the left side of the car, hold the wheel and move your hand left. To get the trailer to go right, move your hand to the right.

3b. Just steer with one hand on the base of the steering wheel, moving the wheel in the direction you want the trailer to go. Don't let mirrors, or turning your head, fool you. The trailer follows your hand.

4. Back slowly, slowly, slowly.

5. If you screw up, just pull forward and try again.

It's not hard, it just takes patience. If you can avoid it, do so. But if you can't, don't throw up your hands and say "OH MY GOD I CANT DO THIS". Just put your hand on the bottom of the steering wheel and take your time.
posted by seanmpuckett at 7:11 AM on May 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

Another perspective here: I have pulled trailers of all shapes and sizes with all types of vehicles since I was 12 years old...yes, I used to even "parallel park" (for lack of a better term) an 18-foot camping trailer behind a van when I was 12 years old because my mom was too afraid to do it. No exaggeration.

My point is that I used to take trailer-pulling for granted, and some of the people who are responding do, too, in my opinion, because:

1) That trailer is a weird shape. If it is filled to the top with no regard to weight distribution, a small, 2-door hatchback will notice it...A LOT. Stay off the freakin' highway. If you get that thing above 50mph on a highway and even a tiny wind comes up, you are screwed. Now, if you were using a much larger/taller vehicle to pull it, then this point would be invalid.

2) Trailers like that, when filled and behind a tiny car will push the car on flat ground and downhill. Because of the tiny car, you are going to need waaaaaaaaaaay more stopping time and following distance than you think.

3) Remember that the speed limit is the LIMIT, not the minimum, so you don't have to drive the speed limit. In other words, if you are going uphill and you are doing 5-10mph under the speed limit, that is fine because your tiny car probably won't handle it any faster.

4) Do not unhitch the trailer if it is full of stuff. I have seen this done before. It will send the trailer right through your bumper.

5) Trailers make noises. A lot of noises. You will hear all kinds of thumping sounds behind your bumper. That is the hitch and ball flirting with each other.

6) Yes, turn wide, but the trailer axle isn't all the way at the back. Just use your side mirrors and watch where the trailer wheel are.

7) Adjust your side mirrors to cover your blind spots. The first time you look around with that trailer behind you, you are going to freak out when you realize you can't see a darn thing. Looking over your should won't account for anything along side the trailer. So, never, ever change lanes unless you absolutely must.

8) Backing that thing up will be exceptionally, exceptionally hard because the trailer is so short. Smaller trailers are way more difficult to back up than huge ones. I know from experience. Have you ever seen a big rig driver back up a 53' trailer like it's nothing, but then can't back up a 6-foot utility trailer to save their life? I have.
posted by TinWhistle at 8:32 AM on May 17, 2012

To expand on the mechanical aspect of what is happening to your car-small hatchbacks are not designed to haul trailers. This doesn't mean you can't do it, it just means you need to be aware of the mechanical limitations of the vehicle.

1. Make sure the tires (all the tires-car and trailer) are at their maximum inflation pressure. Tires ability to carry weight are really, really dependent on the air pressure in them. The tire will have some small print on the side that says how much they can be inflated-for a small car it is usually 35 psi. By inflating all the way you are helping your car deal with the extra loads the trailer will put on it. Make sure you deflate them to the car manufacturers recommendation when done, this information is on a small metal plate on the drivers door sill or door or the owners manual.

2. Your brakes are probably sized for just stopping the car. Not the car and the trailer. So you will probably need TWICE or more the stopping distance and when stopping on a corner or hill the force the trailer is putting on the car may push your car in an unexpected direction. So be prepared, go slow and be gentle.

3. Go Slow. Stay on surface streets. If you have to get on a highway or something, pull over to let faster traffic by. It is not a race. The point is to move your stuff and get to your new home safely. No one is timing you. The forces on the car increase exponentially as you speed up, so to repeat, go slow. This will also minimize wear and tear on the car. Chances are the very limited actual mileage you are doing this isn't going to hurt the car but you never know. Keep your eye on the temperature gauge if you have one. If it starts getting toward hot, turn on your heater on full blast. This is an extra little radiator that can make a big difference in keeping the car cool. The big danger isn't the engine though, it is the transmission, especially if you have an automatic. No real way to help this except driving slow and don't try to speed up hills or anything. I would suggest keeping it below 35 mph at the most if possible. You should minimize a whole lot of dangers by doing this and if the worst happens a wreck at 35 is a whole lot gentler than one at 65 or even 45.

4. The first time you haul the loaded trailer go even slower until you get a feel for it. Plan your moves way ahead. Drive the route without the trailer and look for problems like congestion, hills any other obstacles that might be challenging, like backing up with a trailer. it can be done with some practice but it sucks, is stressful and really challenging without a spotter.

5. double check the safety chains and the wiring connections every time you load AND unload the trailer. Have someone stand behind the trailer and check that all your signals and brake lights work at every loading/unloading. Better safe than sorry and looking at an accident claim or ticket.
posted by bartonlong at 9:35 AM on May 17, 2012

I was going to comment on the increased stopping distance, but as others already have, I'll add one more thing. In addition to stopping taking more distance, it's going to generate more heat. If clever routing can avoid you some stops, do it. Also, take your foot off the gas and coast up to the stops you have to make so you don't have to do much braking. It's not like this is likely destroy your brakes or anything, but if your overly aggressive with them you're going to grind through about a months worth of brake pad in a day.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 10:30 AM on May 17, 2012

As a former employee of uhaul, salesperson for UBox, etc, I'm unsure how exactly you plan to TOW a UBox. A UBox is a storage pod, not a trailer. It has neither wheels nor a hitch and is most definitely not intended for towing.If you plan to place it on a flatbed trailer, I can tell you with certainty that this will (1) absolutely void any liability coverage on the UBox and/or the contents, and (2) be well beyond the standard tow weight limits of a compact vehicle.

If, on the other hand, you are not towing a UBox but a Uhaul TRAILER, that is a very different scenario. Your car will need a permemant hitch, if it does not already have one; from there, UHaul will be able to tell you exactly what your vehicle and hitch are rated to tow based on your specifics. Based on what you've said here, they will probably refuse to rent you anything larger than a 6x8' at most, but feel free to ask. Then, as everyone above has said - load heaviest items towards the front, drive slowly, don't try to back up. And be extremely aware of your extra length while changing lanes and merging. I can't even tell you how many accidents I've seen occur because the driver momentarily "forgot" he had 12 extra feet of vehicle behind him.
posted by celtalitha at 8:08 AM on May 18, 2012

I recommend renting a van instead. I've driven a U-Haul van quite a distance; it's perfectly manageable. Plus, if you make multiple trips, you lose helpers each time; a van can hold more. Backing up a van is very manageable, esp. with another person to guide you.

If you decide to tow a trailer, check the car manual, and see how many pounds it's rated to tow. Then check the weight of the trailer, empty and full.
posted by theora55 at 7:49 AM on May 19, 2012

Please don't tow this trailer with a 2-door hatchback. Really. And definitely not if you load it to its max weight of 2,000 pounds. (Think there's no way you'd get 2,000 lbs in there? A pallet of copy paper is 2,000 pounds and is 4' x 3' x 5'. This trailer is 5' x 8' x 7.5', or five times the cubic volume. Cramming it full of furniture, books, and household stuff, 2000 pounds is easily doable.) Your average 2-door hatchback's brakes aren't up to towing duty. Allow yourself at least double the stopping time and distance you're used to. Your average hatchback's transmission isn't rated for towing, and almost certainly doesn't have a transmission cooler. Sure, you're only going 15 miles, but if this is 15 hilly miles, you run a very real risk of damaging your automatic transmission (or severely wearing out the clutch in a manual transmission.)

A trailer is not a magic box that you pile things into and away you go. There is very real science and reasoning behind loading out a trailer. The trailer shown in your link has its axle very far to the rear. This means much of the weight of the trailer is going to be far forward of the trailer's axle, giving it a high tongue weight. This is the weight carried at the hitch. The more heavy stuff you pile at the front of the trailer, the greater the tongue weight will be. Your average 2-door hatchback's suspension is not designed for towing. Ever see a kid heading for college and the rear of his little Honda looks "bottomed out"? That's all that weight in the back, and that's just what he could fit in the trunk of the car. The more weight you put on the car's rear end as tongue weight, the more it will have a tendency to be light in the front end. This is bad news because most of your braking power (especially in non-sporty cars with front disc/rear drum brakes) is at the front wheels. When a heavy tongue weight shifts most of the car's weight to behind the rear wheels, your braking effectiveness is greatly reduced. On top of that, if you really load down the trailer, you can run into steering difficulty as well.

The hitches supplied by and sometimes installed by U-haul shops are pretty sad, and I have yet to see a U-haul trailer of any size with sway bars. That trailer is tall. Really freakin' tall, especially for how small it is. If you must do this, make sure that when you are loading it, you put as much of the weight as low as possible. If you load this thing top-heavy and you have never towed before, I can almost promise you that you're going to tip or roll this trailer.

If it sounds like I'm trying to talk you out of doing this, it's because I am. Spend the little extra for one of the box trucks.
posted by xedrik at 11:17 PM on May 19, 2012

Thanks to the advice here, I ended up not towing anything. Partly because of never towing anything and partly due to worry over what it would due to my car. We ended up using 1-800-Pack-Rat instead. It was more expensive, but worth it for peace of mind.
posted by Mr.X at 7:41 AM on July 2, 2012

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