The Tow Vehicle for your Small Travel Trailer
- Get a good tow vehicle
- Purchase the required equipment and accessories
- Have everything setup and adjusted correctly
Other than choosing your camper or trailer, having a good tow vehicle and having it properly equipped is probably the biggest decision you have to make. The vehicle you already own may be perfect, but it's better to make sure ahead of time than to regret it when you're 1,000 miles from home.
Our tow vehicle history
No, that's not our first tow vehicle and small travel trailer in the photo! I would have enjoyed it when I was young though. Here's the three very different tow vehicles we've had over the years.
Traveled with three of us. The Jeep had plenty of power, but the short wheel base caused a lot of swaying. It felt unsafe at times, even with an anti-sway bar. Other issues we had were:
- We struggled with not enough storage space on every trip beyond our home area.
- The noise from canvas top and sides got extremely annoying before long when traveling long distances on the highway.
- The suspension was very bouncy and would get very uncomfortable after a while.
Chevy Astro Van-V6
Again, this was when we traveled with three of us. The van had plenty of power and was generally very stable on the highway. Being the shape of a big box however, you would feel it on a windy day. We used to take the middle seat out to provided a large area for our son in back as we traveled. There was room for a small TV and video games back there for him. We also had easy access to snacks and a cooler with drinks while we were driving. The back of the van still gave us a pretty good bit of storage, but with the minimal storage in the camper we would still run short on space at times.
Toyota Tacoma-Extended Cab-V6
This is our current tow vehicle and we travel with just two people. It has plenty of power, is very stable, and is comfortable for long trips. The best part though, is that we have plenty of storage both inside the cab and in the bed.
Choosing a tow vehicle
You don't want to have the wrong tow vehicle when you travel. It will keep you on edge and leave you worn out when you arrive at your destination. Problems you can encounter are:
- Loss of control
- Fighting with your rig trying to sway
- A bumpy ride
- Trouble stopping
- Difficulty going up big hills, or even just getting started from a stop
- Damage to your tow vehicle
It's important that you are safe, confident, comfortable, and relaxed when you drive. Review the following items and do your homework. You want to minimize any of the problems listed above.
- Trailer Weight
- Engine Size
- Tow Package
- Fuel Economy
- Towing Reputation
- Do you really like it?
- Will it fit in your garage?
Things to consider when selecting a tow vehicle
*** WARNING ***
READ THE OWNER'S MANUAL or check the manufacturer recommendations for any tow vehicle you are considering. DON'T JUST TRUST SOMEONE'S OPINION...IT'S EASY TO FIND A LOT OF CONFLICTING RECOMMENDATIONS FROM WELL INTENDED INDIVIDUALS. Even the people that sell small travel trailers will sometimes give you an opinion that's wrong. Only the manufacturer can give you guidelines and instructions determined by their engineers for the specific tow vehicle.
Know how much weight you are dealing with before you evaluate a tow vehicle. It probably won't be possible to actually weigh everything beforehand, so be sure to consider the following:
- Start with the weight of the trailer as it comes from the manufacturer.
- Add to that a good estimate of everything you will be carrying in the trailer. Obviously this includes all the "stuff" you put inside. Don't overlook however the weight of water in your fresh water tank, as well as waste water and sewage you may be carrying. Remember to include extra weight you add to the outside of your trailer, such as propane, bikes, generator, etc. You can get a lot of input from other travelers to help estimate this by checking various Facebook groups and forums on the Internet. (See my Helpful Tools page for possible places to look).
- Now estimate how much weight you will carry in your tow vehicle itself, and don't forget the weight of the passengers!
Plan for extra capacity with your vehicle as you compare the manufacturer's recommendation to your estimated weight. You will find more and more stuff to bring along when you travel as time goes on. You will also purchase things while on your trips.
Make sure the tow vehicle has enough power. You don't want to struggle every time you go up a hill and you don't want to increase the wear and tear on your vehicle.
For most suitable tow vehicles, the manufacturer offers a tow package. You should really consider adding this option if you are buying one new. Upgrades often included in a tow package are:
- Receiver Hitch
- Trailer Power Connector
- Transmission Cooler
- Larger Radiator
- Heavy Duty Suspension
- Upgraded Brakes
- Special Transmission Gearing
- Brake Controller or pre-wire
As you travel, there are three different places to store things:
- Inside the trailer Make sure you plan to store the right things inside. What will you want handy when you first get up in the morning, you've got your PJs on, you step out of the shower or it's raining outside? Also, check the trailer weight limitations and don't overload it. The trailer will also tow better if it's light, so put what you can in your tow vehicle.
- In your tow vehicle You'll want a few things convenient to you while you're driving, such as snacks, a cooler with drinks and maybe lunch. Also think about things you might be traveling with that you will want to keep in air conditioned space while you're on the road.
- Outside Storage on the trailer and your truck bed (if you have one) Everything else can go here. You will be surprised at the amount of stuff you accumulate including tools, camping equipment, things for emergency and "what if" situations, firewood, etc.
I suspect this one is pretty obvious! Pulling our 17' Casita with our Tacoma using premium gas, we generally average about 15mph as long as we're not in the mountains.
Evaluate how comfortable the seats are and whether the ride is too bumpy for long trips. Also be sure to pay attention to visibility and noise levels on the highway.
While narrowing down your choices, post questions in a Facebook group or Internet forum. You will find a lot of people wanting to help who have experience with the most popular tow vehicles.
Do you really like it?
Once you've decided it's a good choice for towing, step back and take a broader look. Is it a vehicle you really like and will be happy with?
Will it fit in your garage?
If it's a possible issue in your case, check the measurements of the tow vehicle you are considering. Make sure it will fit where you intend to keep it. Many of the larger vehicles may surprise you. I actually had a neighbor a few years back purchase a Chevy Suburban, then discover that it was too large to fit in his side-entry garage. Unbelievably, he converted his garage into front entry to solve the problem!
Preparing your vehicle for towing
Once you have your tow vehicle, you need to get ready for travel.
Tow Package Components
If your tow vehicle does not have the factory tow package, make sure you get it setup properly. Be sure to check manufacturer's requirements and recommendations. As a minimum, verify that you have each of the following items covered:
- Receiver Hitch Some trucks still have a hole in the bumper (like in the old days) where you can mount a ball. I've never seen anyone towing a small travel trailer using this, and doubt that it would last long or be safe. Receiver hitches are how it's always done today. This type of hitch mounts to the vehicle's frame and has a removable mount and ball that can be stored out of the way when not being used.
- Trailer Wiring Connector There are many different types of wiring connectors used to attach trailers to tow vehicles. Most small travel trailers either use what's referred to as a 7-way or a 5-way connector, but not all. This provides the power connections between your tow vehicle and your trailer including Brake Lights and Turn Indicators, Tail Lights, Backup Lights and Trailer Brakes. If you are installing a new wiring harness in your vehicle, be sure you install the right kind to match your small travel trailer. If you already have the wrong kind installed, there are many adapters available that may be of help.
- Transmission Cooler You will probably need an auxiliary transmission cooler. Be sure to check your vehicle manufacturer's recommendation.
- Larger Radiator This is a less common requirement for a suitable tow vehicle with a small travel trailer. But again, check your vehicle manufacturer's recommendation to be sure.
- Upgraded Suspension To support the extra load on the rear of your tow vehicle, you may need to upgrade your suspension. There are a variety of heavy duty springs, air bags, and air shocks available that can be easily installed.
Hitch-Ball / Mount
You must have a ball and mount to attach your trailer to the receiver hitch. Both the bar on the mount and the ball come in various sizes. The bar size must match your receiver hitch and the ball size must match your trailer. Two inches for both seem to be what's commonly used for many small travel trailers, but be sure to confirm.
You need a brake controller in your vehicle if your trailer has electric brakes. The brake controller senses when you are stopping your vehicle and sends the signal to the trailer to engage it's brakes. It has an adjustment as to the sensitivity and comes with instructions on how to get it adjusted correctly.
Some vehicle tow packages include one, some are just pre-wired for it, and some seem to ignore this requirement all together. Trailer brakes help take the stopping load off of your vehicle's brakes and make a huge difference in the comfort and safety when you are driving. Whether your trailer has or needs brakes is a function of the trailer weight and your vehicle's braking capacity. It is also affected by various laws from state to state.
A Sway Control (often just called a sway bar) substantially reduces your trailer's side-to-side sway. This is most noticeable at highway speeds when passing or being passed by large trucks, when high winds are present, or sometimes when going around major curves such as a highway exit ramp. When severe, it can be very dangerous and even cause loss of control of your vehicle and trailer. (Be sure to watch the video on the top of my On the Road page to better understand this risk!)
Whether a sway control is necessary is dependent upon many things including both your trailer and vehicle weight, and in particular how you load your trailer (weight distribution between front and rear). For peace of mind, I would personally always use a sway control when driving at highway speeds for any setup where sway occurs at all.
Weight Distribution Hitch
Unless you know exactly where you're going, a GPS is an invaluable travel accessory. Even when you are familiar with your route, a modern GPS will alert you of traffic issues and constantly try to estimate your arrival time. Many GPS systems also include information on restaurants, gas stations and other stops along your route.
Most people have moved away from using a dedicated GPS in favor of using a GPS app on their smart phones. The function in these apps tends to exceed those of many dedicated devices, and they are updated and enhanced on a ongoing basis. One in particular (Waze, owned by Google) has a social media component allowing users (please let your passenger to be the one to mess with the phone while you're driving) to report incidents along their route including delays, police, etc.
While the smart phone apps are great, you should realize that many of them will not work if there is no cellphone signal available. On our cross-country trip we found that if we had signal when we started driving, we would have good luck with the GPS even during short stretches of no signal. If we had no signal at the start of our drive however, the GPS app would not work at all until it got a cell signal and could download the current map. I'm sure these apps will improve as time goes on. For now, I suggest carrying a dedicated GPS device with you as backup. Otherwise, check if you can download maps in advance if you use an app on your phone. This feature is becoming available on some apps today, and will hopefully become standard in the future.
Truck Bed Storage
Small travel trailers don't have a lot of storage, so you will most likely be storing things in your tow vehicle while you travel. We have a collection of storage bins that we use in the extended cab and the bed of our truck. We started with some large ones, but over time have found that smaller ones are easier to move around and handle as we travel.