The Art of Towing Your Trailer

If you spend enough time towing a trailer, you are bound to have some good stories. Personally, I think towing is an art form. Whenever I see somebody expertly back a trailer into a tight spot or driveway, I make sure to give them a man-nod and a thumbs up for a job well done. On the other hand, sometimes hilarity ensues, which makes for a good laugh and perhaps some assistance.

Don’t get me wrong, I have had my share of towing mishaps. There was the time a ratchet-strap tail I had tied up came loose and got caught up in the trailer tire. Busted the ratchet, and snapped to the top of an entertainment center with the percussion of a gunshot. Of course, this just had to happen directly in front of a snowmobile swap meet where multiple buddies happened to be looking around. I sure caught some grief for that one. I’ll take the blame for that, and urge you not to buy ratchet straps at the disposable tool store.  

How to deal with troublesome trailer lights and electric brakes

Since I don’t own a trailer, I either  offer a case of beer to borrow one, or worst case scenario, rent one. Simply put: I just hate renting equipment that requires maintenance and inspection with my safety on the line. I’ve never paid a mechanic in my life, and I like knowing the job is done right. I also have a hatred of surge brakes (common on most rentals) stemming from an experience trying to back a rental trailer up my very steep, blind driveway to avoid having to back down loaded. The empty trailer put so much weight on the tongue going backwards uphill that the brakes came on and locked up the wheels solid ¼ of the way up my driveway. When borrowing one from a buddy, I generally know who keeps their stuff in good shape and who fixes their stuff properly (or calls me when in doubt). Either way, I still make sure to give the trailer a quick function test before I go anywhere.

Why am I so thorough? Well just so happens I’ve found out the hard way that my definition of ‘fixed’ differs from many folks I’ve encountered over the years. For example, I do not think electrical tape origami over a broken wire means it’s fixed. Solder and shrink wrap my friends. Also, zip-ties are not an adequate mounting solution for a tail light on a trailer I PAID for the privilege of using for an afternoon. Ever pick up a trailer to find a light circuit doesn’t work and have the place automatically assume it is your truck and not their trailer?  Been there, done that. The resulting conversation was pretty enjoyable, and left me feeling like Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men. Why? I keep a towing socket tester in my truck at all times for a quick verification that my tow socket is properly sending power to the trailer plug. In all of 2 minutes, my truck and my reputation as a guy who takes care of his equipment was restored, and the onus for the malfunction levied solely on the rental yard.

Trailers really aren’t that complicated, neither is inspecting them. You power the individual circuits, and ensure the corresponding lights work. If not, it’s not rocket science to fix them either. Start simple: check the bulb/connections first. If the bulb is good, then it is probably a wiring issue. Harnesses are typically color coded, unless installed incorrectly. Check the wire integrity, check your grounds, and look for corrosion on the harness and the main plug which is a common occurrence on trailers that sit dormant. The presence of electric brakes adds another level, but instead of checking bulbs you are verifying the function of the electromagnets. This covers the electrical side of the equation, however, you can’t neglect the frame, flooring, ramp hinges, axles, hubs, and tires either. If you own it, hopefully your grease gun has been in frequent contact too.

Whether you are a professional or take care of your personal trailer, there are a number of great tools to help. My aforementioned vehicle side tester saved me a wasted afternoon at a rental place, and you can get them in a kit with cleaning tools to keep your plug/socket free from corrosion too. Regarding testing the trailers, no longer do you need to call a coworker/buddy/wife over to sit in the cab while you walk around either. Wouldn’t you know you can buy a one-man trailer tester? The IPA #9101 Trailer Tester is a good start for casual use in low volume shops and personal use on work/play trailers and RVs. It gives you the ability to power each circuit individually with a labeled knob, and inspect the corresponding lights (and/or brakes) for function.  

Test Lights and Electric Brakes with the Light Ranger MUTT
The IPA #9101 is a good start for casual use in low volume shops and personal use on work/play trailers and RVs.

By working smart, a healthy trailer can be verified in minutes. If you caught a problem, just think of what you’ve now saved yourself from dealing with. You have cut the damage risk to your precious truck, trailer, or whatever you are towing. Additionally, you may have avoided Mr. Sheriff and a court date for a ticket. Nothing like getting up early to hit the lake for some fishing only to be pulled over on the way. Finally, and most importantly, you have ensured your safety and the safety of those you share the road with. Sloppy work, skipped inspections, and assumptions that borrowed equipment is working properly can have dangerous consequences. Don’t fall into this trap; verify the condition of whatever you are using yourself, and continue with the peace of mind it has been done right!

The Ranger MUTT Allows for quick one-man testing of trailers
The IPA #9101 is a good start for casual use in low volume shops and personal use on work/play trailers and RVs.

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