YOUR GUIDE TO TOWING AN RV
According to a report by the RV Industry Association, more than 11 million households in the United States now own an RV. And if you are interested in joining the ranks of RV owners—especially if you’re looking to buy a travel trailer or fifth wheel—it’s important to know exactly what towing an RV will entail.
Here we’ve put together a helpful guide that aims to answer all of your towing questions. This covers everything from choosing the right tow vehicle to understanding towing capacity to knowing the different hitches. Our goal is not only to educate but to help you feel confident and comfortable when pulling an RV behind you.
CHOOSING THE RIGHT TOW VEHICLE
We highly recommend choosing your RV before buying your tow vehicle. This way you’ll know exactly how much your RV weighs before you figure out how much weight your tow vehicle will need to pull. When figuring out how much your RV weighs, be sure to ask your dealer about both the dry hitch weight (how much the RV weighs when it is empty) and the cargo carrying capacity (the maximum amount of weight you can add to your RV). On average, your RV will weigh 1,500 pounds more once it’s been filled with water, gas and gear.
Once you know your RV’s total weight, then you can look to find a tow vehicle that matches it. If possible, opt to have a tow package added to your RV so you can maximize your towing capacity. If you already have a vehicle that you plan to use to tow your RV, make sure you buy an RV that doesn’t exceed the weight limit that your current vehicle can pull. This is where you’ll need to understand your vehicle’s towing capacity.
Towing capacity is the maximum amount of weight your vehicle can tow when pulling your RV. This number lets you know exactly how heavy your trailer can be. If you don’t know your towing capacity and try to pull a trailer that is too heavy, you could end up in a very dangerous situation so it’s vital to know your tow vehicle’s limits.
To determine maximum towing capacity, you’ll need to find out the vehicle manufacturer’s weight ratings and compare them to the weight of your RV. You can usually find your vehicle’s weight rating on the inside of the driver door or in the owner’s manual. If the vehicle’s ratings are higher than the total weight of the RV, then the RV is safe to tow.
Another good number to know is the Gross Combined Weight Rating (GCWR). This number is established by the vehicle’s manufacturer and represents the maximum weight the vehicle can handle with an RV attached. The GCWR takes into consideration the weight of the vehicle’s axles, wheels, suspension system, and frame, as well as the weight of the RV. You can also find the GCWR in your owner’s manual, or you can call your dealer or vehicle manufacturer and give them your VIN number and they should be able to tell you the specific GCWR.
In addition to towing capacity, you’ll also need to understand the different types of RV hitches. Whatever hitch you choose is heavily dependent on the type of RV you purchase, so we’ve listed three basic hitch types and their corresponding RV types here.
FIFTH WHEEL HITCH:
This hitch is specifically used for towing fifth wheels. It is installed inside the bed of a truck and sits above the bed of the trailer. The trailer then attaches to the truck with a kingpin mechanism. These hitches are able to handle a lot of weight (anywhere from 16,000 to 30,000 pounds) due to the fact that the fifth wheel’s weight is pressing down directly over the rear axle of the truck.
This is another hitch option for fifth wheels but rather than using a kingpin, this hitch system uses a ball and coupler. Some people prefer gooseneck hitches because they take up less space in the bed of a truck and they can pull more weight than a fifth wheel hitch (30,000 pounds). Gooseneck hitches are great for heavier fifth wheels, like large toy haulers.
WEIGHT DISTRIBUTION HITCH:
This hitch system is most commonly used for heavier travel trailers (up to 15,000 pounds) and allows you to tow the maximum capacity. Unlike a standard bumper hitch where all of the weight of the trailer sits on the back of the tow vehicle, the weight distribution hitch spreads the tongue weight across all of the axles. You can also use this hitch with a sway control unit to help reduce sway while driving.
STANDARD BUMPER HITCH:
Also called a weight-carrying or non-weight distributing hitch, this hitch system is mainly used for smaller travel trailers (3,500 pounds). Like the gooseneck hitch, this system also uses a ball and coupler, with the weight of the trailer resting directly on the bumper of your tow vehicle. There are two basic styles of standard bumper hitches: a fixed drawbar, where the ball platform is permanently fixed to the hitch; and a removable drawbar, where the ball platform can be taken on and off.
DRIVING BASICS WHILE TOWING YOUR RV
Now that you have a better understanding of how to connect and manage weight, here are some quick tips for driving your towable RV.
When towing an RV, keep in mind that you have a lot of extra weight and it’s much harder to slow down. Plus, half the joy of RVing is in the journey so enjoy the drive and focus on getting to your destination safely rather than quickly.
Make sure you maintain some extra distance between you and the car in front of you. It’s much harder to stop quickly with all of the extra weight behind you.
The key to turning with a trailer is to take it slow and take it wide. You need to leave enough room for your RV to follow behind without hitting the curb. And remember that the longer the trailer is, the wider you are going to have to take the turn.
A good tip for reversing is to put your hand at the bottom of your steering wheel—this way your RV will move in the same direction as your hand. If you move your hand to the left, the rear end of the trailer will go left. If you move your hand to the right, the rear end will go right. Take your time and don’t exaggerate any of your turning motions. Quick turns while reversing can cause your travel trailer to jackknife and damage both your RV and your tow vehicle.
When reversing with a fifth wheel, use the same steering wheel tip as a travel trailer—place a hand at the bottom of the steering wheel and move the steering wheel in the direction that you want the fifth wheel to turn. If you’re backing into a spot, try to angle the fifth wheel away from the driver’s side to keep your visibility clear. We also highly recommend using a spotter any time you reverse a fifth wheel. Have a pair of walkie talkies handy so the spotter can clearly communicate with the driver and help direct. A back-up camera is also helpful and can easily be installed if your fifth wheel doesn’t already have one.
QUESTIONS TO ASK YOUR RV DEALER
- If you already have a tow vehicle, your first question for the dealer should be if your vehicle can actually handle the RV you are considering. Be clear about your tow vehicle’s weight ratings and GCWR. Ideally, your dealer should show you different RV models that will put you below your vehicle’s towing capacity to give you some extra flexibility and assurance.
- Second, check and see if your dealer provides any additional or special hitch packages. If they do, ask if there is an installation fee and how long the installation will take.
- Next, ask if your dealer would be willing to connect the RV to your tow vehicle. This way you can learn how to do it yourself and you can make sure that your turn signals and brake lights are paired properly with the RV.
- And lastly, ask your dealer to show you where the trailer weight information sticker is located. This sticker should have three numbers on it: Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR), which is the maximum weight your RV can be when fully loaded; Unloaded Vehicle Weight (UVW), which is the weight of the RV straight from the manufacturer; and Gross Axle Weight Rating (GAWR), which is the maximum weight that can be placed on the axles of the vehicle.
Our hope is that this guide will help you feel confident about towing an RV. If you are armed with the right information and know what questions to ask, finding the perfect trailer is easier than you think. Besides, there is truly nothing better than being able to bring your home along for the ride.