It's off to the mountains we go...towing a trailer!
September 11, 2013 2:03 PM   Subscribe

I'll be towing a UHaul trailer 4500 km across Canada next week with my 2005 manual Toyota Rav4 (4 cylinder), including across 2 mountain ranges. As a relative newbie to towing, how do I not doom my transmission or new shiny vehicle to a early demise?

I'm moving myself, my dog, and about 1200lbs of stuff in a 4 x 8 UHaul trailer from southern Ontario to Northern British Colulmbia, which is 4500km. The tow capacity on the rav4 is 1500lbs, which I will be slightly under at 1200lbs. It will be my first time driving a trailer for such a long distance, on a manual vehicle, and through the Rockies and Colombias.

I'm nervous about pulling the trailer so far on a manual transmission, although I have been driving manual for about 4 years now. Any suggestions or tips for pulling a trailer on manual transmission, or in general? Particularily through the Rockies and on hills? I'll be bringing extra oil and will be checking my fluids at the end of everyday.

Bonus question: I"ll be driving from Calgary to Quesnel (an hour south of Prince George) and was thinking of going up 93 through Jasper, connect on 16 to Prince George and then head south along 97. Would this be a good route for pulling a trailer or should I go along the TransCanada through Banff to golden, then head up 97 at Kamloops?
posted by snowysoul to Travel & Transportation (19 answers total)
I would call Toyota and get the straight skinny from them about how best to do this in your vehicle.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:14 PM on September 11, 2013

You are better off pulling with a manual than an auto.

Is it the 4cyl or the V6? Big difference, though both should work, the 4 cylinder would be near its limit though.

Mostly common sense, keep the speed reasonable, check the tires, etc.
posted by Cosine at 2:18 PM on September 11, 2013

Yes, the manual is the better choice for this.

One thing to keep in mind is that your car doesn't just need to be able to pull the load, it needs to be able to stop it. You will have no choice but to go slowly up the steep grades, because slow is the best your car will be able to do pulling that sort of load. Don't be tempted to make up time by bombing down the other side. Take it slow on the downhills. Downshift and use the engine to slow the car; the brakes will quickly overheat if you use them to control your speed on a long descent.
posted by jon1270 at 2:23 PM on September 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

In general, for an underpowered car hauling a heavy load, you will want to downshift when heading up hills. A lower gear will give you more power. On an uphill, shift down before you think you have to, otherwise it's all too easy to find yourself slowed to a crawl, and you won't be able to regain your speed.

If you are changing in elevation more than a few thousand feet, you might notice your engine running differently because of the fuel mixture changing with less or more dense air. On my car, shutting off the engine and restarting a couple times will get the engine computer to refigure this, your car may be similar. Your manual may have a section on higher elevations.

Stop after you get to the top of the hill though, it's going to be hard to get back up to speed on a steep hill.

Of course you won't want to follow closely going downhill with the longer stopping distance you'll have with the trailer, but you also want to leave plenty of space going uphill so as to reduce the need to brake and loose momentum. I don't think I'm explaining it very well, but once you have to stomp on your brakes going up a steep hill, it will make sense.
posted by yohko at 2:46 PM on September 11, 2013

Here is my previously asked Uhaul question. Lots of applicable advice on that thread.
posted by timpanogos at 2:51 PM on September 11, 2013

You say you're towing 1200 lbs of stuff; is this including the trailer weight? A U-Haul trailer is pretty heavy, and this could put you at or above the Toyota's capacity. I would ask around a Toyota forum to see how well this went for someone with a fairly identical setup. I towed a small U-Haul with a 4cyl 4 speed across Illinois once, but that was a flat stretch. It still seemed a lot of strain.
posted by coldhotel at 2:58 PM on September 11, 2013

I've driven both those routes and if I was going to pull a trailer behind an underpowered vehicle I would choose neither. It's a little longer but I would go Calgary-Edmonton-Jasper-PG-Quesnel. The Banff-Golden-Kamloops route is going to be extremely hilly and would be my last choice.
posted by Sternmeyer at 3:42 PM on September 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

How to not roll backwards on an incline while driving a standard transmission.

When you come to a stop, your foot will be on the brake and the gear is in neutral. When you are ready to drive forward, engage the hand (emergency) brake, this will stop the car from rolling backwards. Now you can take your right foot off of the brake pedal and place it on the gas pedal. Press your left foot on the clutch and shift into first gear. You now have one foot pressing on the clutch and the other foot on the gas pedal. The car is not rolling backwards because the hand brake is still engaged. As you press on the gas pedal ease off of the clutch while slowly releasing the hand brake. If the car should start rolling backwards, quickly engage the hand brake and start over. You may want to practice this a few times before hooking up the trailer.

The engine needs to be running to check the transmission fluid. Be sure the truck is on a flat even surface to get an accurate reading.

Bring a roll of duct tape with you. It is great for emergencies such as busted hoses (as you limp to a repair station), muffler bracket breaking, etc.
posted by JujuB at 4:15 PM on September 11, 2013

Towing anything on a short wheel base high center of gravity vehicle is tricky. Especially as you will be near the weight limit of the vehicle and driving unfamiliar roads. Everything I said in the thread timpanagos goes for this with some additions:

1. SLOW DOWN. Don't count on maintaining the speed limit. Your car won't be able to anyway on uphill stretches and you will likely lose control and maybe flip on downhill stretches in you try. So count on your average speed being well below the speed limit and everything taking much longer than you think it will.

2. be considerate of the those behind you not having to drive slowly and pull over/let them by. Think of how maddening it can be to be stuck behind an RV. You are now the RV.

3. Gas up early and often. You will get half or less of the mileage you are used to getting on the highway.

4. Load the trailer with the heavy stuff on the axle. An ideally loaded trailer with have the load balanced over the axle such that you can (barely) lift the tongue of the trailer yourself. While your vehicle has a trailer limit of 1500 lbs, it probably also has a tongue limit of 200 lbs or so (depends on the class of your hitch (likely class 1) and the strength of your rear suspension.

5. Not only does your vehicle have a tow weight limit, it has an overall gross vehicle weight limit (GVWR) listed on the inside of the door opening, usually the drivers side. THIS MATTERS as it represents what the vehicle can handle safely without tipping/becoming unstable and while the trailer weight is not included the tongue weight is and if the combined weight of vehicle and trailer exceed this number your brakes are going to be very easy to overheat and the engine will also if you push it too hard.

6. Downshift uphill to climb and use the engine to compression brake downhill. You should be going slow enough downhill that you don't really need to brake for normal corners. Think of your vehicle as now becoming a little mini tractor-trailer big rig and drive accordingly.

7. This is going to put a lot of strain on your rav4, especially as they weren't built to tow anything. They lack the heavy differentials, coolers and brakes of vehicles built for this. So make sure your rav4 is in great mechanical shape before you leave. Change the oil and air filter. If you haven't changed the spark plugs in the last year, do that too (its cheap). Get the brakes checked and make sure you have good pad material left and the rotors haven't worn too thin. Make sure you keep an eye on your temperature gauge and if it starts getting halfway to hot or more slow down and ease up. DONT turn off a hot engine, but if it is still getting hotter while climbing a hill very slowly, pull over and let it cool down at idle (better to keep air flowing through the radiator if you can though by just slowing down).

8. Check you oil and water often and carry spare with you to put in as needed (if needed).
posted by bartonlong at 4:21 PM on September 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

The engine needs to be running to check the transmission fluid. Be sure the truck is on a flat even surface to get an accurate reading.

This is not true on a manual transmission (but VERY true on every automatic every made). Manual transmissions don't really need oil changes the way engines or even automatic do. Most can go 50k or more just fine without being touched. I have drained ones with over 100k and the oil looked brand new.
posted by bartonlong at 4:24 PM on September 11, 2013

A 2005 Rav4 is not a "new shiny vehicle," it's an 8 or 9 year old one, that is going to be asked to run at near its peak power output, intermittently, for many hours in the coming days. If you haven't had your cooling system thoroughly serviced recently (flush and change of coolant, pressure check and new pressure cap, new radiator hoses, maybe new thermostat), now's the time. Anything looks or tests weak (radiator discoloration or internal buildup, water pump weep hole drips, etc.), replace it, too. And I'd have a real good look at your brakes, too, and certainly have the brake fluid changed, at a minimum. Change your engine belts and air filter, too. Brake fluid is hygroscopic; under heavy, prolonged brake use, old brake fluid is prone to forming vapor bubbles, which makes your brakes mushy. If they're more than moderately worn, they'll fade faster from heat buildup, too.

And boy do I concur with the advice above to choose the flattest route, not the shortest route, possible. What you pay in extra U-Haul miles will more than be made up in safety and vehicle wear and tear. Keep the U-Haul tires inflated to maximum pressure, too, and check the wheels for unusual heat (bad bearing indication) every 50 miles or so. That's a lot of load for a trailer that size.

Still, my dad pulled a 45 foot long 8 foot wide trailer, with all interior plumbing and furnture, plus our family personal belongings, from Lincoln to Denver with a 1951 Plymouth flat head 6 cylinder, which had a 3 speed stick transmission, and made all of about 60 horsepower. It did kill the Plymouth's clutch, but that was $35 and a Saturday afternoon to replace, back then. Anything is possible, if you take your time.
posted by paulsc at 4:49 PM on September 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

When your car is in a low gear, it may sound bad, but think about riding a bike up a hill - sometimes you downshift and pedal fast, and it's less wear and tear on your legs. In an emergency, you can downshift into 2nd or 1st to slow the car. It will be better and more effective than trying to stand on the brakes. It's a very good idea to practice this before you're loaded up with the trailer. Make sure your car will downshift into 1st, seems to me some manuals won't. For safety and for being nicer to your car, take the flatter route, if you can. Lots of good advice in this thread. I miss my RAV4.
posted by theora55 at 5:30 PM on September 11, 2013

Don't go through Kicking Horse Pass (Calgary to Golden). The stretch from Field to Golden is brutal. It's narrow, there are lots of sharp corners, no shoulder to speak of, and it's a steep, consistent grade for a very long way. I would be seriously worried about your braking power going down that hill in your little RAV4 towing a heavy trailer. If I had to guess, I would say that in 2nd gear, you aren't going to get enough braking power from the engine to keep under 80kph (and you aren't going to want to be going faster than that) unless you are riding your wheel brakes hard. They are going to get hot and mushy for sure. Putting it in 1st gear will probably be almost as bad, with the added bonus of your revs in the red the whole time.

And then after that, you have Rogers Pass, both up and down, to look forward to, which is almost as long, just as steep, though a much nicer drive.

The Yellowhead, by contrast (Jasper to PG), has only one mountain pass that is much lower with a much more gradual approach, and a road with wide shoulders instead of sheer cliff faces and precipitous drop offs into river canyons. The Rocky Mountain Trench terminates northwest of the pass, and provides a natural route out of the mountains that dumps you in Prince George.

All this aside, have you considered just having your stuff shipped instead? I used these guys to move stuff from Vancouver to Toronto last year. It cost me $600 including tax to move a 700lb pallet. If you can fit what you are taking on two pallets, you will probably only pay $1000 to have it shipped door to door.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 5:45 PM on September 11, 2013

I have done a lot of towing and I probably wouldn't do this as described. For starters that trailer weighs 850lbs empty. Have you factored that in?

The next question mark is your route. Your route is pretty tough. You need trailer brakes to haul safely in the mountains. The ebrake will def NOT stop this rig or hold it on much of a grade and I doubt you will make it down a long extended grade without overheating the brakes on your car. I would tow it on the flat on side streets and at low speeds, no problem but a breakdown in the mountains is likely to cost you more in towing fees than going around or shipping the stuff would have.

Besides which most rental places will not rent you a trailer that can hold more than your hitch is rated for. A 4x8 trailer is most likely rated for more than your hitch is so look into that.
posted by fshgrl at 6:01 PM on September 11, 2013 [5 favorites]

I don't know any specifics about trailer towing in the mountains, but reading what everybody else says here, it seems like a bad idea. Just in case you haven't thought about it, could you rent a small U-Haul truck and a car trailer and tow your car with the truck? That's what I'd try in your situation.
posted by Weeping_angel at 6:40 PM on September 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you load 1200lbs of stuff into a 4x8 trailer and tow it with a vehicle rated for 1500lbs you will be wildly overloaded. I'd bet that U-Haul weighs at least 800 lbs.

Personally I believe that NA tow ratings are too conservative; identical cars in Europe are often rated at twice as much and the RAV4 isn't an exception. However the cops (both regular RCMP and Transport cops) have no sense of humour about exceeding the limits and sometimes setup portable scales at the BC-Alberta and weigh everyone they suspect of being overloaded. If you are over the rating they'll both write you a ticket and prevent you from proceeding until you somehow get under the limit (usually by making two trips).

On the upside you are avoiding both the high temperatures of summer and the dicy condtions of winter. Go slow, pay attention to grade signs and you'll probably be fine.

However if it was me and I could swing it economically I'd rent U-Haul's smallest moving van and either fly back for my car or tow it on a dolly/trailer.
posted by Mitheral at 8:13 PM on September 11, 2013

Short wheel-base, high center of gravity and steep downhills is nothing to mess around with, especially if you are inexperienced towing. If you really must do this, go effing slow downhill.
posted by humboldt32 at 1:13 AM on September 12, 2013

I'm a Banffite, and I can assure you that there is probably no better drive in the world than taking the 93N from Banff to Jasper, aka the Ice Fields Parkway. You're in luck, as next month I would probably discourage you from doing it, but right now the weather is fine. It can be done in 3 hours, but I'd budget a whole day so that you can stop along the way and take in some sights.

As for doing it with a trailer, you're fine from Banff to Lake Louise, but you'll want to take it easy on a few stretches afterwards, in particular either from the town of Lake Louise up to the Chateau, if you decide to check it out, and also up to Bow Summit and Bridal Veil Falls area. There's no commercial trucking though and no hairpin turns, and aside from a few steady gains it's easy driving.
posted by furtive at 3:59 PM on September 12, 2013

Also, I'm seconding others that if you go through Rogers Pass in Revelstoke National Park you're asking for trouble... way bigger than anything you'll see on the 93A.
posted by furtive at 4:04 PM on September 12, 2013

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