Towing a trailer: Everything you need to know

From selecting the right tow vehicle to hooking up and loading a trailer, here's our how-to guide for towing safely.

Emme Hall Former editor for CNET Cars
I love two-seater, RWD convertibles and own a 2004 Mazdaspeed Miata for pavement fun and a lifted 2001 Miata for pre-running. I race air-cooled Volkswagens in desert races like the Mint 400 and the Baja 1000. I have won the Rebelle Rally, seven-day navigational challenge, twice and I am the only driver to compete in an EV, the Rivian R1T.
Emme Hall
7 min read
GMC Sierra towing

So, you're looking to buy a truck and some toys, and planning to tow them out to the lake or the wilderness for a bit of fun. Here's everything you'll need to know about finding the right tow vehicle, how to hook a trailer up and tow it, and all the new technology that makes trailering easier than ever before. Be sure to check out your state's local towing laws, too.

Vehicle weight and configuration

The most important four letters here are GCWR. This stands for Gross Combined Weight Rating, and refers to the weight not only of the vehicle, passengers and cargo, but also the trailer and its load. This number is determined by a car or truck manufacturer to be the maximum safe weight that a vehicle can tote all-in, so it's important not to exceed this guideline.

Towing all comes down to configuration, with drivetrain, wheelbase, engine, hitch and gear ratios all playing their part. Here are some key things to know:

  • Four-wheel-drive trucks and SUVs are heavier, which can diminish towing capacity. If you don't need four-wheel-drive capability, stick to rear-wheel drive for maximum towing ability.
  • Longer-wheelbase trucks and SUVs can tow more than their shorter counterparts, and generally offer better control when a trailer is hooked up.
  • When it comes to power, for towing, it's all about torque. That's why diesel-powered trucks tend to have higher tow ratings than their gasoline counterparts.
  • Many trucks and SUVs offer different axle ratios. A higher ratio means better pulling power, but can come at the expense of fuel economy. A lower axle ratio works the opposite way.

Example: A 2019 Ram 1500 with two-wheel drive, a 144.5-inch wheelbase, a 5.7-liter V8 and a 3.92 axle ratio is rated to tow 11,540 pounds. Switching to four-wheel drive reduces that number to 11,340 pounds. Switching to four-wheel drive and choosing the 3.21 axle ratio lowers the numbers further to 8,240 pounds.

Ford Expedition

Choosing a trailer

Flat trailers: When towing cars, all-terrain vehicles or general cargo, a flat-floor trailer works just fine. Single-axle trailers are better for light loads, up to about 2,500 pounds, while double-axle trailers are best for heavier items. Enclosed trailers are better for hauling general cargo, but are heavier than open trailers.

Towing a car without a trailer: If you've ever driven long distances on one of America's highways, you've probably seen an RV pulling a , dinghy style. Generally speaking, you can attach a tow bar to a rear-wheel-drive, manual-transmission vehicle and pull it with the towed vehicle in neutral. A four-wheel-drive vehicle with a two-speed transfer case can also be towed this way, in neutral. Check your vehicle's owners manual to see if it's able to be towed with all four wheels flat on the road, or if you may need something like a drag-behind single-axle tow dolly.

Travel trailers: If you want to take your home on the road, a conventional travel trailer, or camper, might be your jam. These can be tiny little things weighing 2,500 pounds or 30-foot Airstream trailers tipping the scales at 10,000 pounds or more. These are attached to a standard hitch. You may also want a fifth-wheel or gooseneck trailer (see the next section for more information), which is more substantial, but its unique hitch setup means it's a bit easier to tow.

Trailer hitch
Steven Ewing/Roadshow

Hitches and balls

There are five different classes of conventional hitches, able to tow different levels of weight:

  • Class 1: Up to 2,000 pounds
  • Class 2: Up to 3,500 pounds
  • Class 3: Up to 8,000 pounds
  • Class 4: Up to 10,000 pounds
  • Class 5: Up to 12,000 pounds

Most cars and crossovers come with Class 1, 2 or 3 hitches, while larger trucks and SUVs can be equipped with Class 3, 4 or 5 hitches. Each conventional hitch has a different sized receiver tube. This is where the ball and ball mount go.

  • Class 1 and 2: 1.25-inch receiver tube
  • Class 3: 2-inch receiver tube
  • Class 4 and 5: 2- or 2.5-inch receiver tubes, depending on configuration

The important thing is making sure your trailer sits level, front to back, and ball mounts can be purchased that lower or raise the ball as needed.

2019 Ram Heavy Duty
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2019 Ram Heavy Duty

Towing a large camper like this requires a fifth-wheel or gooseneck-style hitch.


Ball sizes are determined by the weight of the trailer. Many manufacturers label the ball size right on the coupler. Common ball sizes are 1 7/8, 2, or 2 5/16 inches. Always use a ball with a weight capacity that exceeds that of your loaded trailer.

Should you need to tow more than 12,000 pounds, you'll likely need a heavy-duty truck with a gooseneck or fifth-wheel hitch. The hitch and ball are placed in the bed of the pickup truck, just over or in front of the rear axle.

  • Gooseneck: This uses a ball-type setup and can handle up to 30,000 pounds.
  • Fifth wheel: This uses a horseshoe-shaped mount -- think of it as a smaller version of what's found on a semi truck -- and can generally handle up to 25,000 pounds.
Trailer hitch
Steven Ewing/Roadshow

Hooking it up

If you're a first-time tower, it's perfectly normal to go through this checklist a couple of times before getting it right. Follow these steps to safely connect a trailer to your tow vehicle.

  • Secure the ball mount in the hitch's receiver tube.
  • Line up the vehicle so it's directly in front of the trailer coupler.
  • Be sure the trailer coupler is higher than the ball on the hitch.
  • Back up slowly so the ball is directly under the trailer coupler. Use your vehicle's backup camera for this, or have a friend spot you.
  • Put the tow vehicle in park and set the parking brake.
  • On the trailer tongue, you'll find a twist handle that can raise or lower the metal bar/pipe -- the one your trailer rests on when not attached to a vehicle. This is called the jack. Twist the trailer jack to lower the coupler completely onto the ball.
  • Use the attached cotter pin on the latch to secure the coupler to the ball.
  • Lift up on the tongue to make sure everything is connected.
  • Raise the trailer jack up and out of the way completely.

Once the trailer is attached, you'll want to secure safety chains from the trailer to the vehicle in a criss-cross pattern, and be sure the chains don't touch the ground. You will also need to plug the trailer's electrical connector into the vehicle. Always check the trailer's brake lights and turn signals before driving away.

2018 Ford F-150 diesel
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2018 Ford F-150 diesel
Emme Hall/Roadshow

Loading the trailer

The key thing to remember when loading a trailer is weight distribution. Too much weight at the rear of a trailer can cause it to fishtail. Too much weight up front can cause the vehicle to sag, which results in poor handling and reduced braking power.

Check out this demonstration video to see the dangers of a poorly balanced trailer.

In general, the "tongue weight," the weight at the front of the trailer, should be roughly 9 to 15% of the total weight. You can use a tongue-weight scale to determine this, and some ball mounts even have a built-in scale so you'll know right away if you're loaded up correctly.

A few other things to remember:

  • Use ratchet straps or tie-downs to ensure your load is secure.
  • Adjust your mirrors. If you're towing a wide trailer and you can't see around it, consider adding telescoping tow mirrors to your vehicle.
  • Make sure the trailer has actual trailer tires -- not passenger car tires -- and that they are properly inflated and in good shape (plenty of tread, no dry rot, etc.). Check your vehicle's tires while you're at it, too.
  • Keep your trailer wheel bearings greased so as not to risk damaging the axles.
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Emme Hall/Roadshow

Towing on the road

Because you're now driving a vehicle that's both longer and heavier than before, you need to take extra precautions. If your vehicle has a tow/haul mode, engage it with heavier loads to put your engine and transmission into its optimal setting. Additionally, remember these best practices:

  • Plan your route carefully to avoid impediments that could be even more frustrating with a trailer: Dense city traffic, construction and steep hills and mountains are all things to consider.
  • Consider filling up your vehicle's tank before hooking up the trailer and starting your towing -- it'll be easier to fill up without having a trailer in tow.
  • Make sure you've got a roadside safety kit with things like flares or reflectors, first-aid supplies and so on.
  • Drive as slowly as is safely possible. Most trailers have a recommended top speed of 55 miles per hour.
  • Brake early. You have a lot more mass to stop.
  • Stick to the right lane, or slow lane.
  • Initiate lane changes early and be patient. Always use your turn signals.
  • Take turns wider than you might think.
  • When pulling into a parking lot, consider the length and maneuverability of your vehicle-and-trailer setup to avoid getting stuck.
  • When driving downhill, downshift your transmission to slow speed, rather than riding the brakes and risking overheating.
  • If your vehicle starts to fishtail, reduce throttle input a bit, but don't hit the brakes.

Backing up can be daunting, but there's an easy way to do it. The best practice is to grip the steering wheel from the bottom. If you want the trailer to go right, move your hand to the right. For left, move your hand to the left. Remember that a little effort goes a long way with steering. And thankfully, many modern trucks and SUVs have specific trailer-steering tech to aid with this process.

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General Motors' new Heavy Duty pickups offer "see-through" trailering tech.


Towing tech

Modern trucks and SUVs have lots of features that make towing easier than ever before. Many automakers even offer tow/haul packages, which can automatically add the proper hitch, trailer brakes, larger mirrors and upgraded cooling systems to your vehicle. (This varies by manufacturer.)

Some specific examples of new towing tech include:

  • 2019 Ford F-Series: Pro Trailer Back-Up Assist can help with reversing when a trailer is attached. Ford also offers trailer tire pressure-monitoring and blind-spot monitoring systems that cover the vehicle and the length of the trailer.
  • 2019 Ram trucks: A self-leveling air suspension helps keep the truck and trailer stable. Ram also offers trailer-length blind-spot monitoring and a trailer tire pressure-monitoring system.
  • 2020 GM Heavy Duty trucks: The latest Silverado HD and Sierra HD have "see-through" Transparent Trailer View technology that stitches together camera views to let you see what's behind the trailer while towing. Plus, if your trailer is ever stolen, GM's OnStar system can help recover it.

Be sure to ask your dealer what sort of towing tech is available when buying a new vehicle.