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10 Common Towing Mistakes

What to look for when hitching up your trailer

Text By , Photography by , Courtesy of Gale Banks Engineering

Truck shops and RV service centers see more screwed up tow rigs come through their doors every month than most of us will see in a lifetime. Over the past year or so, we’ve taken note of the most common towing mistakes they come across. Many are not what you’d think, and we’ve covered the top 10 here.

1. Know Your Temps
Keeping an eye on a few pressures and temperatures will allow you to keep that powerplant humming along. At the bare minimum, every tow rig should have accurate coolant temperature, EGT (exhaust gas temperature), and transmission temperature gauges.

The majority of damaged engines we’ve seen can be traced to improper cooling, or running high EGT for prolonged periods of time. Overheating an engine can start a domino effect that creates multiple, permanent problems, such as a warped head, cracked pistons, and scored cylinder walls.

High EGT can even melt pistons in stock engines. Don’t assume that just because you don’t have massive injectors or a racy tune that you’re safe. We’ve seen stock rigs hit much more than 1,200 degrees on the pyrometer on dozens of occasions.

Transmission temps should be kept less than 210 degrees. At 270 degrees, most types of automatic transmission fluid will degrade rapidly, glazing over the clutch material and eventually causing a transmission to require a full rebuild. It’s important to note that most factory transmission temperature gauges are fairly inaccurate. So go aftermarket and put the temperature sender in the transmission pan, not the case.

Fuel and oil pressure, as well as oil temperature, are also good things to keep tabs on in the interest of engine longevity.

2. Overcompensating Weight Distribution
Those weight-distributing bars with the chains come in different strengths for different tongue weights and are extremely tunable. Most consumers look at a set of those bars and think bigger is better. In this case, that is not true, so you’ll want to check your tongue weight and purchase accordingly.

When loaded and with the correct bars, the goal is to have the load bars parallel to the frame of the trailer. Incorrectly set up weight distribution will result in excessive porposing (bouncing between the trailer and truck), and in many cases, loss of steering effectiveness, as well as the possibility of damaging the hitch and frame.

3. Brakes
If you’ve spent any time on mountain roads, you’ve undoubtedly seen a few trailer brakes smoking, or even bursting into flames. Considering the importance of the job they do, trailer brakes are one of the most overlooked and neglected trailer systems. The most common type is a drum design, applied using an electric magnet and cam and arm system in place of the hydraulic wheel cylinder. This magnet is a wear item, just like your tires or brake shoes. It needs to be checked and replaced often. When checking or servicing trailer brakes, they will generally need to be adjusted for wear as well. Unlike truck brakes that self-adjust, most trailer brakes do not. That’s your job.

4. Overloaded Vehicle
Heavy loads take a toll on every part of a tow rig. While most fullsize diesel trucks have plenty of reserve power to pull more than they should, it’s the rest of the truck that holds it back. Broken hitches, blown-out shocks, and worn bushings are very common on heavy tow rigs. Checking the suspension, hitch, ball mount, and frame for signs of stress should be done before every tow. To keep the truck level, a set of supplemental airbags is a great accessory.

5. Wrong Size Ball
As stupid as it sounds to tow with the wrong size ball, it was high on the list of common mistakes made by customers from just about every shop we’ve talked to. There are three different sized balls for standard bumper towing: 17⁄8 inch, 2 inch, and 25⁄16 inch—and all three of these balls come with a different weight rating. Check the tongue or coupling on every trailer; it should have the ball size required stamped on it.

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Kelsey Higgins
Kelsey Higgins

I didn't realize it was such a common mistake to use the wrong size ball. Granted, I didn't even know that there were different sizes until I got married! However, we have done enough towing and we have used enough different vehicles that I feel as though I am pretty confident when it comes to making sure I am using the right ball. My husband has made sure that I am proficient in that because he would hate for anything to go wrong if I am ever towing alone. 


I am missing something, or did we go from Tip# 3, straight  to Tip#6, without mention of Tips 4 and 5?

Dave Rehm
Dave Rehm

How do I install a tachometer on my 1993 Dodge Ram 250 Turbo 5.9L Cummins?