Follow these trailer basics to live out your summer road trip dreams
We’ve all seen photos on Instagram in which a tear-dropped trailer overlooks a grassy coastline or a shiny Airstream sits peacefully at the bottom of a tree-dotted hillside. Those images evoke a serious case of road trip envy, and the truth is, camping trailers enhance even the simplest road trip adventures. You can park at campsites near lakes and mountains, sleep comfortably in windy weather or on rocky terrain, and in the process, convert friends and family to that oh-so-photogenic glamping lifestyle.
So you’ve decided trailering is something you want to pursue, but it’s dawning on you that driving around with an extra vehicle attached to the back of your car is a bit intimidating. It’s not as difficult as you’d think! Below, we distill the most worrying parts of the process.
You don’t have to own a truck: whatever car you own right now might be able to pull a trailer. Of course, you’ll need to check the manufacturer’s specifications for the towing capacity and install the proper class of hitch. Make sure the trailer ball of your hitch matches perfectly with the trailer coupler. We’ve heard of cars as small as Mini Coopers pulling the ultra-light Happier Camper HC1. If you plan to do a lot of regular trailering, consider investing in a car with trailer-specific features like a trailer light check button on the key fob and integrated trailer brake and sway control as found in the Nissan Titan PRO-4X full-size pickup. A truck like that can pull trailers as big as an Airstream International Signature with ease. Whichever trailer you’re interested in renting or buying, head to a local dealership for more information and a test drive.
Always check your tire pressure, especially if the trailer has been sitting awhile. Grease your wheel bearings if you’ve been driving through water. Pack a spare tire, a tire pressure indicator, and a lug wrench in case you need to use the spare. Grab a padlock for your trailer coupler to prevent theft when you leave the trailer unhitched and unattended at a campsite.
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Hook It Up
Back up your car and get in a centered position to line the ball on the vehicle’s hitch with the trailer coupler. Crank down the trailer until you feel your vehicle take weight (in some trailers the crank is manual, and in others it’s electronic). Latch the trailer coupler so that it clicks in. Hook up and cross your safety cables (required by law in most states). Hook in your emergency breakaway control, if your trailer has it, and make sure it won’t drag on the ground. (The breakaway control will activate the trailer’s brakes if your vehicle separates from the trailer, so this is an important step to take.) Plug in your electrical connector–you’ll want the automotive lights on the trailer working! Lastly, crank up the jack and now your car and trailer are the new power couple.
Once your trailer is connected, make sure to check your lights and especially your tongue weight for safety purposes. You want the trailer tongue and the car’s hitch to lie flat with each other. The cause of most trailering accidents is when this alignment creates a “V” (too much weight) or upside down “V” (too little). The car won’t drive right in the case of misalignment; it will sway one way or the other. To easily check, measure from the ground to the top of the fender well on both a front and rear tire. Is the measurement different? Crank up or down the coupler to adjust the weight balance. The same? You’re good to start driving.
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Hit the Road
Driving Straight On: Maneuverability is a cinch when driving with a trailer. On the open road, drive as you would a regular car. Your trailer will follow within the road lines as you drive curved roads and make slight adjustments. The key is to keep looking ahead.
Turning: You’ll need to drive a little farther before initiating a turn to compensate for the additional feet attached to your car. When starting out, make use of those side mirrors! Look to see if you’re clearing the corners. Avoid “jackknifing” by never making too tight of a turn – the car and trailer should never hit each other. It’ll take a little while getting used to the longer distance you’re towing, but once you’re acquainted, you’re golden.
Backing Up: Parking is arguably the hardest part of driving with a trailer. It’s counterintuitive because when you turn, the trailer will move the opposite way your car does. It’s harder to stay on a straight course with shorter trailers because the pivot length is smaller. Make it easier for yourself by getting a car with extendable mirrors or a backup camera installed behind the trailer. Otherwise, get a friend to hop out of the car and help direct you into the space.
The author attended a trip to Yosemite to learn about trailering, sponsored by Nissan.