Read the current Progressive Forage digital edition

Equipment Hub: Safe towing with the pickup truck

Brad Nelson for Progressive Forage Published on 27 April 2018

Just because it can be done doesn’t make it a good idea. Time for a review of the basics of towing behind the trusty farm pickup.

A proper hitch is the starting place. I remember my dad borrowing a flatbed implement trailer. He pulled it behind his 1956 Ford automobile. The hitch was clamped onto the rear bumper of the car. He did get his errand completed and the trailer returned without incident, but the rear bumper on the Ford never seemed straight after that.


A frame-mounted receiver hitch should be the minimum for any serious trailer pulling. A square tube or receiver accepts multiple ball mounts and pintle hitches, either fixed height or adjustable. Two inches for the inside measure is the standard, with 1 1/4-inch used for light-duty applications, typically on ATVs and passenger cars. There is a 2 1/2-inch unit out there for more massive towing.

Ball sizes are 1 7/8 inch, 2 inches and 2 5/16 inches. Make sure the hitch on your trailer matches the ball size on your towing vehicle. The larger-size hitches will drop onto the smaller balls but will not be secure. That means they will disconnect by themselves at the worst possible time.

The receiver hitch will be just below the rear bumper, and trailers so pulled are still referred to as “bumper pull,” even though hitches attached to bumpers are almost nonexistent today.

Gooseneck and fifth-wheel hitches mount in the bed (or as part of, on a flat-bed pickup) over the rear axle. They also anchor to the truck frame. The advantage to this type of hitch is a massive improvement in stability. Heavier weight loads may be pulled also. The downside is: They require the use of the cargo area of the tow vehicle for the hitch.

Safety chains and brakes

Safety chains need to be strong enough to keep the trailer and the tow vehicle connected should the primary hitch break or separate. They are required on either bumper pull or gooseneck trailers. For bumper pull trailers, they should cross under the ball hitch, so they will support the trailer tongue if needed.

They should be long enough to not bind while turning and short enough to not drag on the pavement. (Note: Sparks from dragging safety chains can cause wildfires.)

Trailer brake requirements vary state to state. The current rule in Washington state is: Brakes are required on all axles of all trailers over 3,000 pounds if the gross trailer weight is less than 40 percent of the weight of the towing vehicle. That means a trailer is legal with no brakes behind my Mega-cab diesel up to 3,000 pounds. Without brakes, my Geo Tracker is only good for 1,140 pounds of trailer.

When trailer brakes are required, a breakaway device is usually required also. This will cause the brakes to apply should both the hitch and the safety chains fail. The unit consists of a small battery and trip cable that, when activated, applies the electric trailer brakes.

Control measures

Balance and leveling can take all the fun out of towing a trailer if they are not proper. To be properly level, the frame of the tow vehicle and the frame of the trailer should be parallel with the surface of the road. Leveling hitches are available for bumper-pull trailers that use spring arms attached to the tow vehicle hitch, where they pivot as the unit turns, and under tension to the frame of the trailer tongue. They transfer weight from the hitch to the front of the tow vehicle and toward the rear of the trailer.

Weight balance is also critical for proper control. The weight on the trailer should be centered over the trailer axles with 10 to 15 percent of the total trailer weight being on the hitch, carried by the tow vehicle. Weight too far to the rear of the trailer will produce the “tail wagging the dog” syndrome, which can be catastrophic.

A steady hand on the steering wheel is required to keep a towed load under control. The momentum of the towed load will cause the towing vehicle to misbehave if sudden steering inputs upset that momentum. In other words, “Take it easy.” You don’t need to have an upset to learn your limitations.

Consider the manufacturer’s listed towing capacity as a maximum – and better yet, as a sales tool. I’ve watched the videos of how they perform those tests. They use low-center-of-gravity trailers properly loaded and balanced with the best load-distributing hitches made. The test vehicle has all the options listed for that specific weight rating, including transmission upgrades and usually a lower drive axle (higher numerical) ratio.

Pulling a low-center-of-gravity load of 8,000 pounds and pulling a 30-foot-long high travel trailer of the same weight is not the same and may not be a good idea – even though the weight chart says it’s OK.

A longer-wheelbase towing vehicle will always be a more stable towing unit than an equally equipped unit that is shorter. Additions like air helper springs to stiffen the rear axle spring rate of the towing vehicle will stabilize the tow but will not increase the weight capacity of the towed combination.

And finally, to help those you share the road with control their vocabulary, learn to adjust your cotton-picking headlights. You’ll see the road better, too.  end mark

Brad Nelson is a freelance writer based in Royal City, Washington.


    Old mowers

    Snow was falling, and I had planned a day of repairs in the shop. I wandered...

    Fresh eyes

    And just like that – another holiday season is upon us. Another year of milestones...

    Tales of a Hay Hauler: Tips to share

    I forget what we were working on underneath the car my wife used daily. My helper...