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Hagerty Employee

Trailering 101: A guide for safe towing | Hagerty Media

Dive deep enough into wormhole of broken project cars and pampered race cars, and you'll eventually find yourself backing up to a car trailer for the first time. Here in the United States of Freedom, the options for trailering are restricted only by your skills; for the most part, drivers will never need a CDL (commercial driver's license) to haul around a car.

Why would you recommend not to cross the tie-downs in an "X" pattern but you do endorse crossing the safety chains? It's the same principle in essence. And as a former large-car (Freightliner, KW and Pete) operator, tying a load down on one of our lowboys involved left-to-right and "X" pattern chains and binders. Also, whenever possible, try to position the ratchet mechanisms on the right side of the trailer. That way, if you have to re-tighten the load, you won't be standing in traffic.

The distance between the safety chains is only about 18", minimizing the extra length needed to cross-tie them. However, cross-tying the load means the straps can be several times longer and at a much greater distance between the anchor point and the load tie-down point.
Pit Crew

They are absolutely not the same principal, I wouldn't be professing myself as a professional truck driver if I didn't understand the difference between safety chains and load straps.

The chains are crossed in order to catch the hitch if it drops, while forcing it to center, until the vehicle stops. This is SOP for regular trailers. Load straps are not used like this and there are consequences to having three corners crossed over after one breaks, notably in the forward movement allowed by a strap that's angled nearly perpendicular to braking forces.
Advanced Driver

Also by not crossing them on an X pattern you have shorter straps with less vibration from wind and less chance of strap failure.

THIS is the reason I would've posted if you hadn't mentioned it first.
Intermediate Driver

Thank you for this comprehensive article. I would add that Mr. Thomas should have devoted more details regarding the lights and the brakes of both the trailer and the tow vehicle. Remember: "Safety Third!"
New Driver

Pit Crew

Many towing failures, especially blown tires and sway, are caused by excessive speed. Most trailer tires aren't rated for 80 mph. I always tow at 65-70 mph. Towing with a truck with a lift kit isn't safe as well.

Trailer tires are rated to 65mph, but that is not at 100% load. Most trailer tire failures are due to 3 factors:
1- speed
2- cold inflation pressure
3- Made In China.

Lift kits aren’t universally unsafe for towing, but they don’t translate 1:1 either.
If a truck has a lift and/or bigger tires, the spring capacity must be considered as well as the reduction in effective gear ratio.

A factory “lifted” Power Wagon is derated compared to a regular 2500 4x4 with a 6.4 Hemi. This would apply to a comparable lift.

Towing with a 12” lift, 40” tires, and stock gearing is idiocy.
Intermediate Driver

Balancing the load properly cannot be over stressed. A buddies truck had problems and he asked me to pick up his latest prize which was about a 1000 miles away. Needing to get away for a while I agreed. Heck, all the hard work was done, the car was loaded and tied down, all I had to do was hook up and drive home. I knew the trailer well as I had owned it for years, it was an enclosed 22 foot trailer with two 3500 pound axles. Tires tread was good but they were pushing the age limit.
I arrived, got hooked up, checked the lights and brakes and we took off - yeah, should have checked the loading. About a hundred miles down the road I made a lane change a bit quicker than normal and I thought the world was going to end. The trailer started swaying so violently that I swear I saw the trailer next to my drivers window. It was a three lane interstate and I needed all three to get it under control. Thank goodness the traffic was light and I didn't kill someone. Knowing that only one thing would have caused that violent action we opened the trailer side door - everything looked normal, the Fairlane was sitting there just like it should have been. we opened the back ramp and found the problem; three Ford 351's behind the car. After loading the car my buddy got a deal on the engines so they just slid them in an lashed them down. No one thought about the extra weight added to the back end. After several heated words, and no way to move the engines we rolled the car as far forward as it would go and tiptoed home. Rest of the trip was pretty quiet. Valuable lesson learned - check the balance. . . . .
Intermediate Driver

This was a really good summary.

Two things to add:
1) Always always always confirm the trailer ball is correct for the coupler. A 2-5/16" coupler will "seem" to work on a standard 2" ball without giving it a second thought. That WILL end up in a disaster.
2) I see a lot of tow vehicles where the owner is using an under rated quick-link to connect the safety chains to the vehicle. If you do use one please make sure the working load limit of the quick-links is greater than the weight of the trailer and cargo.

It's not exaggerating to say the life you save may be your own.

To everyone that says I'm wrong about crossing tiedowns, allow me to refer you to DOT rules regarding securing equipment, regardless of type, to a trailer deck. Many YouTube videos are available to watch, and then you can tell those people that they are doing it wrong.

One simple tip... after a couple of miles, pull over and check your straps tightness. I’ve been shocked after I am sure everything was tight only to find out something shifted and the car wasn’t as secure as I thought. In another case, it turned out a tire that wouldn’t hold pressure and as it went flat, it changed the tension. ALWAYS recheck at every gas stop too.
Intermediate Driver

Regarding the last photo:
Way too much length on the wire harness. With a bumpy road it's going to drag-won't take much to wear through. Same thing for the safety chains. Bumpy road may cause them to drag that causes sparks that could start a fire along the road. Wires and chains just need to be long enough to have some slack when turning.
Intermediate Driver

Thanks for stressing the need to cross the safety chains under the hitch. Seems like that's usually overlooked by nearly everyone.

Also, use "bearing buddies" on the trailer (especially boat trailers) to keep the axle bearings lubed and drive out water that can lead to corrosion and bearing failure.

I know that "Bearing Buddies" are convenient, but the old grease has to go somewhere when the new grease is squirted in, and that means the old stuff goes past the inner bearing seals. Not good. Be diligent and lube the bearings correctly. If there's water in the hub cavity, the seals are toast. They are designed to keep water and other debris out. If you are operating a boat trailer, use grease designed for occasional submerged use. Your bearings will thank you.


One suggestion. If you install a new receiver on your vehicle, make a good record of the specifications. Ten years from now, you may not recall whether you bought a class III or a IV.
Advanced Driver

Good article, but alas hastily prepared and not copy edited, as witness the many typos, in particular mixed singular/plural phrases. How about a cleanup pass?
Intermediate Driver

Over the next month, I have to teach my wife how to back up the 14 foot boat trailer I bought her last week. She is taking up canoeing and wants to go solo. My please keep me in your prayers guys. 🙂
New Driver

Could you provide a way to verify tongue weight on the hitch ball? The article says it should be 10-15% of gross towing weight but doesn't explain how to calculate that. thanks
Pit Crew

Good article and a lot of good comments.  I'm not going to get into any discussions about crossing tiedowns or anything like that I'm just going to add my comments on a subject that is not taken as seriously as it probably should be.  I am an over the road Class A CDL truck driver and I see a lot out there on the road.  So the first thing is a heads up.  There is a picture in the article of a Chevy 3500 dualie towing a large RV.  So to all you 1 ton dualie truck owners be careful with the tow weight of your trailer.  1 ton dualies normally have a GVWR of over 10,000 lbs.  Most are around 12K.  While that doesn't necessarily require you to have a class A or B license if you end up towing more than 10,000 lbs you would be required to have a Class A license.  Most of the time you're going to get away with it but it only takes one cop or DOT inspector to create a messy situation for you.  The other thing that I want to add is STFD (slow the f--k down) when towing.  I see people all the time in the number 1 lane doing 80 mph or more because the truck they're driving can tow that fast and they think they're good enough drivers to deal with it.  Towing changes the dynamics of your vehicle and allowing for extra space and distance is paramount to safely towing.  On most interstates you're not allowed to be traveling in the number 1 lane (except to pass) in the first place.  So take it easy, slow down and hang with the big rigs, well make room for you and we'll all arrive safely at our destinations.  Stay safe 

Pit Crew

So many other items to consider: (1) Don't trust a bumper hitch (especially on older vehicles with rust) for towing -- a properly welded chassis mount is the way to go (2) For loads exceeding 3500 lbs. considerer using torsion bars on trailer tongue (3) When loaded or unloaded your trailer/tongue should be level with your towing vehicle -- if your vehicle "squats" you have either too much weight on the tongue or your vehicle springs are overloaded.

The 3500lbs rule isn’t universal.


 I can tow a 7,000 lbs trailer and rock-krawler with little sag and no control issues.  Because my truck has a 3,000 lbs payload, long wheel base, and was engineered for that kind of weight.  


The wife’s SUV is rated to tow 7,200 lbs, but hooking that same trailer up to her rig would be a nightmare.  Not even equalizers and sway control will make that safe.   



Great piece! Thank you. Interesting that my father-in-law must have taught me all of this without my even noticing... I can’t think of how I would have known this stuff and used it otherwise, because my trailer-towing days pre-date the modern internet by some years (Montreal to Tucson, AZ, pulling a double-axle UHaul in 1989, to start). Here’s to you in the great beyond, Tom. 

New Driver

To go to the source, the guidance for safety chains and load securement comes from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA).  Safety Chains are found in CFR 393.371[10] and load securement in CFR 393.128.  Basically with a trailer you are required to have two properly rated and crossed safety chains with properly rated hardware and latching hooks.  Crossing the safety chains is to prevent the tongue or towing device from falling to the ground and control the trailer if something happens.  If you don't cross the chains and the trailer gets  loose it will take you for the ride of your life, try it pass you or take off into the oncoming traffic lane.

Load securement, CFR 393.128, for vehicles under 10,000 pounds Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) requires a four point tie down system between the vehicle and the trailer that prevents movement side to side, vertically and most importantly, motion front to rear.  As to the "big X " tie down securement method, over the years and after a lot of research on the subject I could find no where in the the FMCSA regs, state regulations, towing and transport info, SAE, towing equipment manufacturers and training organizations where this method of securement is reccomended, its just not there.  In a hard stop or starting and stopping in traffic, most of the resistance or load force is going to be moving front to rear and the straps will be stretching out at an angle to the force as well as affecting their strength, as well as as well as extending the strap which may loosen up. 

It has been pointed out that the CFR's are only for commercial drivers.  Not quite true as all states are required to adapt the FMCSA rules and in doing so there is probably a non-commercial regulation that would also apply to your combination being an "unsafe load or vehicle".   

Polyester straps can stretch 10 to 15 per cent under load which is why stopping after a few miles and during a trip to check the load is always a good idea.

As to the comment on towing speed, most rigs can tow at 70-80 mph but will have no chance of stopping if something happens, what are you chances of being able to safely steer, stop and control your vehicle in an emergency situation?

Remember that gravity is not a retention device and when you are loading up always ask yourself, Self, is this the safest way to be doing this?


Intermediate Driver

When is Xing the straps used? For bracing against lateral loads, not forward/backward loads. The most load on your straps is during stopping, followed by starting. To best support these loads the straps need to be as straight and parallel to the center line of the trailer as possible. As the straps are angled, such as when "Xed", they loose effective strength. If you need to secure against lateral loads, add extra straps for those loads.
The percentage tongue weight is simply the weight on the tongue [TW] divided by the total weight of the trailer and the load it is carrying (gross trailer weight [GTW]), times 100. Calculating the desired tongue weight is easy - gross trailer weight times desired percentage divided by 100 (TW=GTWx%TW/100). Easy to calculate, not so easy to actually determine as few of us have the necessary scales available, and few of us know how much trailer or the load actually weighs. Having adequate tongue weight is important for more than just preventing the trailer from swaying across the lane. It also is important to keeping the hitch connected. If the tongue weight is too low the trailer will rock with enough force to pull the hitch off the ball.
Addition weight limitations to consider is the combined weight rating of the towing vehicle - the maximum allowed weight of BOTH the towing vehicle with its occupants and load added to the trailer and its load [the CVWR] and the towing vehicle's tongue weight limit. For most vehicles the CVWR leaves little, if any, extra in the towing vehicle for more than the driver; maybe a driver and one small passenger; and a full tank of fuel when towing a trailer weighing the maximum allowed towing weight (gross trailer weight). Caution the towing vehicle's tongue weight limit may require use of a load distributing hitch.
A safety check - make sure the safety chains do not drag on the ground. You'll be surprised how fast a dragging chain will wear so thin as to be useless.
Not mentioned is the need for trailer brakes. Any trailer over 3500 lbs. needs (requires?) brakes. Best is electric with a momentum sensing portioning controller. Surge brakes also work well if you like them, but they do not work in reverse.
Pit Crew

Good article but you've missed an important consideration for car guys. How about the load, my precious car? I have heard you can't get out of a car if it is in a 7 foot wide enclosed trailer because you can't open the door far enough. I've also heard that covering a car in an open trailer will cause damage from the chafing. How about this? I'm sure your readers will have other cautions.
Intermediate Driver

Must have a readable Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) plate...Had my trailer impounded because the data plate was non readable by Pa trooper in a safety check coming back from Carlisle on the PA pike. Get one that is engraved...not the cheap ones the OEM use which is just printed and after a few years in the sun is non readable...also the oem always seems to locate them on the tongue which gets battered by road debris..... and have 2 of them..just in case
Intermediate Driver

Have a non contact infra red thermometer with you to check the temperature of the wheel bearings. It is an excellent, and cheap, tool to determine if you have a dragging brake or a HOT bearing. Also I always recommend to boaters to check the temperature of the bearing before launching the boat. Nothing is worse for the bearing than to submerse them in cold water. That rapid cool down draws water past the seal and in the bearing area which leads to water contamination of the grease and rust in the bearing.
Intermediate Driver

Another consideration is the rear loading door/ramp on enclosed trailers. Make sure that the door/ramp can handle the weight of the vehicle your are loading into it. I had ordered an enclosed trailer from a MAJOR trailer manufacture to haul a museum piece fire truck...14K slipper springs on a 14K chassis. The manufacture assured me that the door/ramp was more than capable of handling the 10K truck...long story bent into a u shape the first time....and the manufacturer would not fix it....had to have a new stronger one fabricated.

Lug nuts. Check their torque every time before pulling-out. Simple and fast way keep your day from being ruined.
Pit Crew

Always do a walk around safety check before heading out. Check to ensure your brake, signal, and running lights are all functioning properly and tires are at their proper inflation rate. If so equipped, verify the trailer breakaway brakes are working. You do this by pulling the pin from the breakaway switch, the trailer brakes should engage immediately and prevent the trailer from moving. If you are able to move the trailer with pin removed from the switch I highly recommend you investigate the cause of the problem and correct it before traveling. If brakes are working, reinsert the pin and have a safe and enjoyable trip.
New Driver

Two simple habits for safe trailering or trucking in general. A trucker friend that long hauled for decades passed these along to me.
1- stop every two hours on your trip and walk around your vehicle/s. “Twang” your straps like a guitar string as you do your visual walk around inspecting everything. As you gain experience the twang will sound right to you if have them taught enough. While you are out there whack the tires with your favourite tool, bat, etc., again listening / feeling for the correct thud. I carry a child’s wooden baseball bat that doesn’t take up much room and doubles as a road rage personal protection device. Not only will you prevent the load from getting away on you but you will be more alert, and your butt, legs and back will all thank you.
As a bonus I’m adding one more tip; as I position the vehicle on the trailer I watch the back end of the truck to know when I reach just past the COG -Center of gravity - and follow up by getting out and viewing the trailer truck combo from the side to evaluate the tongue load. FYI, I am using a 3/4 ton 4x4 with a class 4 hitch and an H&H aluminum tilt deck with a 7500lb GVW. This allows the trailer with a 6” drop ball mount to be level. Because the truck GVW exceeds the fully loaded trailer by a wide margin the truck is almost perfectly level while hauling. I also haul only a maximum of 80% of the allowed trailer GVW or 6000 lbs. the trailer weighs a mere 1800lbs so almost any car can be hauled. If you are using a 1/2 ton with a heavy trailer and car your truck may require extra helper springs, air bags or a weight distribution hitch to keep your front tires firmly planted. Pushing the GVW is not always the smart way to go.
For the novice out there, there is a tongue weight scale available to add to your hitch, but as a rule if you move the car slowly forward you will feel the weight shift and placing the 10-15% weight on the hitch is relatively simple to estimate after doing it a few times. You can also take it over the scales to see exactly how your load is distributed.
By not pushing the GVW, following the advice of these contributors you will be well on your way to a safe trip each time you head out. I have seen countless people on the side of the highway with flat tires, burned out bearings loose loads and worse. All of it was either lack of knowledge, excess speed road conditions or maintenance issues. Careful, slow and steady not only gets you there in one piece but saves on fuel, component wear and tear, insurance premiums and reduces both fatigue and stress. Good luck and Happy hauling 🙂
New Driver

One thing missing from the article and from the posts is having proper mirrors for towing, and using them. Tow mirrors are for just that; towing. They extend out wide enough to allow you to see along the side of your load, and into the next lane. I watched a pickup truck pulling a large camper sideswipe a car because he could not see along side his trailer; he simply changed lanes not knowing the car was next to him. Luckily, no one was hurt, but the camper ended up on it's side, with propane bottles spilled around the freeway, when he bounced off that car, realized his mistake and overcorrected to get back into his lane. If you are going to tow, this article and comments have a lot of good advice, but also add tow mirrors to your list of equipment and know how too use them. My son and I have towed many types of trailers tens of thousands of miles, and it still amazes us when we see people without proper mirrors. We try to avoid being near those people. We assume that if they don't know enough to have proper mirrors, they are probably inexperienced towers. We would prefer to not be the vehicle they tangle with learning that lesson