Tow and reverse a trailer
Do you know what it’s like to have a whining child grumping along behind you in the supermarket? Ever wanted to get rid of one at the butcher’s counter? You’ll feel just the same about a trailer. Loaded well, it’s a pleasure to pull. Loaded badly, you might wish you’d never got hitched.
Like your car, a trailer must be registered and have a current warrant of fitness.
How to hitch a trailer
First, the trailer must be hitched correctly. Attach the cup-like end of the trailer raw bar to the tow ball of your car. Some will fit directly over the ball. Others will have a handle on top which must be pulled upwards (and sometimes turned) before being lowered onto the ball. There’ll be a chain hanging from the trailer drawbar. Making sure that the chain isn’t tangled, fasten it directly to the car tow bar (usually using a D-shackle). This is your extra security should the major coupling break. Some car drawbars have a spring-loaded coupling through which the safety chain can be attached.
A D-shackle is shaped like a D. Unscrew the bolt in the straight side. Pass the D through the chain and around the hole in the drawbar (with the non-threaded side upwards. Screw the bolt downwards through the top shackle hole, through the drawbar and into the lower threaded hole of the shackle. Hand tighten. (Do not screw the bolt upwards through the shackle and drawbar. It is likely to undo in transport.)
Connect the electric cord and plug on the trailer to the lights connection on your car. Then, make sure your trailer lights are synchronised with your car indicator lights.
How to load a trailer
Always place a heavy load (bricks, sand or piano (!)) in the middle of your trailer, over the main axle or axles. This will keep the trailer balanced. If placed at the front of the trailer, a heavy load will tip your trailer down in front, put weight on the drawbar and pull your car down at the rear, making it groan like a constipated hippo. A heavy load on the back of the trailer will lift the draw bar, and the rear of your car, so the car’s wheels will lose
Make sure your car is able to pull the load safely. The weight of the load and the trailer (standard trailers are about 240–250 kg) should be less than the rated weight of your tow bar. If you’re considering pulling a very heavy load, consult the retailer for advice on relative weights. If there is any doubt, carry a smaller load or hire a truck. Check the internet for your local requirements. For example, www.ltsa.govt.nz provides fact sheets on trailer loading requirements.
How to secure or tie down a trailer load
When you’re tying articles onto a trailer, remember that the load will tend to move forward if you stop suddenly. Pack soft material between items of furniture to stop them rubbing against each other in transit, and protect them from rope burns with rolled-up newspaper or old towels. Place the heaviest items in the centre. If you have to stack your load, place the heavier items at the bottom. If any part of your load overhangs the length of the trailer, check your road code for allowable limits. Attach a rag or moving object to the overhanging portion to make sure the overhanging portion is visible to following traffic.
Cover the load with a tarpaulin and then cover that with a bungy net pulled tight to the trailer hooks. Take care that no part of the load or the tarpaulin is covering the trailer lights. If you’re carrying your favourite furniture, cover the tops with fabric, before you apply the tarpaulin, to protect it from the sandpaper effect of movement of the tarpaulin in transit. If the load is made up of small particles, such as plant clippings, sawdust or firewood, you’re obliged to cover it with a tarpaulin under the bungy net to prevent particles flying into following vehicles.
If you use a rope to tie down the tarpaulin, it should be at least 14 metres long. You will need to know some basic knots. See 'Knots and their uses' in the Contents List of this website.
Lay the tarp evenly over the load. If the load is a low one, for example firewood or sand, begin tying your rope with a bowline loop or a half hitch on a trailer hook or steel loop on the side of the trailer closest to the front.
Squeeze a corner of the tarp and tie a half hitch around it.
Pass the rope under the drawbar and cross to the other side of the trailer at the front, keeping the rope taut as you go.
Tie a half hitch around the corner of the tarp there and hook the rope around the trailer hook on that side, pulling the rope taut.
Crisscross the rope from side to side down the length of the trailer, pulling the rope tight at each trailer hook.
Tie the occasional half hitch to a hook as you go to keep the rope from slackening off.
Repeat the process with the corners of the tarp at the far end.
Pull the end of the rope through the last trailer hook and tie it off on a trailer rail with a double half hitch, or — better still — pass it under a rope in the middle, at right angles to the end you’re holding, and pull it up tight. This will help tighten the crossing ropes as well.
Tie off with a double half hitch.
If you have a high load and need to pull down as you tie off the last of the rope, tie an overhand loop in the rope about a metre from the trailer rail or hook, loop the rest of the rope around the trailer rail or under a trailer hook and pass the rope back up through the overhand loop (see illustration bottom right). Pull it taut and tie it to the rail below with a double half hitch.
If you own or use a trailer regularly it’s a good idea to purchase some trailer tie-downs. These are straps that can be pulled up tight on a ratchet or cam buckle and don’t need fancy knot-tying (See 'Tie downs for roof racks, car trailers and boxes'.
Click to enlarge images
Double half hitch
Tie off a tall load
How to drive with a loaded trailer
You’re loaded and ready to go. Test drive the trailer for a kilometre or so. If the trailer sways unnervingly, you might have to reload and balance the load more carefully.
Throughout your trip, keep an eye on the load in your rear-vision mirror to make sure it remains stable. Any wobbles in your superstructure should be checked out! If you remove any part of the load during the trip, reassess the load positions and tie-downs.
The road code will determine the legal speed at which you can travel with a trailer.
When driving, the extra length of your vehicle group must be taken into account! Because the trailer doesn’t follow the exact path of the car and tends to ‘cut the corner’, you have to swing out wider when travelling around bends or corners. If you’re going through a narrow gateway, line up the car and trailer straight to the gateway before entering (if you value the gatepost!).
Remember that a trailer is like a shunting locomotive. It’ll push you from behind if you stop suddenly. MAKE ALLOWANCES for the weight of the trailer. You’ll take longer to stop than usual, so allow a three-car-length stopping distance between you and any car ahead. Slow down well before intersections to make sure you can stop in time.
Things to avoid
If the trailer starts to sway, DON’T apply the brakes. Take your foot off the accelerator and let the car slow down. Steady the steering wheel. Do not attempt to steer out of the sway. Sudden turns can worsen the sway. Always use a lower gear when travelling downhill.
Avoid changing lanes or cornering suddenly, especially on gravel or greasy roads. If you apply your brakes suddenly the trailer could jack-knife (i.e. swivel round sideways, pushing your car out of control).
Don’t be a road hog. Drive carefully but be considerate of following traffic by pulling over at a suitable place to let them pass.
How to reverse a trailer
Turn the front wheels to the left to pivot the trailer to the right (and vice versa if turning right) then straighten the wheels as the trailer moves in the desired
Looking out the back window and turning the steering wheel always feels counter-intuitive at first. But persevere. You’ll do it easily once you know how — just like riding a bike. Remember, turn the steering wheel to the left to make the trailer go to the right. Turn the steering wheel to the right to make the trailer go to the left. Straighten up gradually as you go.
Back slowly and check direction often. ALSO check clearances from nearby objects
(houses, gates, power poles) at the front of your car as well as near the
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