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How to tow a car on a trailer

Transport your vehicle carefully on the open road

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    If you need to transport your vehicle for a move, you have a few options, including towing it yourself. Towing anything (let alone another car) can seem like a daunting task, but not to worry. If you’ve done your research, are able to follow instructions and have some good old-fashioned common sense, you can effectively tow a car on a trailer.

    Most experts agree it's not ideal to tow a car with a vehicle that isn’t a heavy-duty pickup, RV or box truck, but life isn’t always full of ideal scenarios. Maybe you live out in a remote area where getting a tow is expensive or unavailable, or maybe you need to transport a specialty vintage car to an event.

    Whatever the situation, you can tow a car yourself, but you need to know about the types of tow vehicles, the method and the car you’re towing before setting out.

    Key insights

    • A towing vehicle, or tow rig, needs to be larger and heavier than the vehicle being towed in order to safely move down the road.
    • Depending on the drivetrain configuration of the vehicle being towed (front-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive, all-wheel drive) and the transmission (manual or automatic), the towing method and apparatus may vary.
    • Different trailer hitches and trailer balls have different weight limitations.
    • Towing with a chain or rope should only be done in an absolute emergency.

    Tips for towing a car on a trailer

    The absolute first step of towing a car on a trailer is to make sure your tow vehicle has enough capacity to haul the weight of the other car and the trailer. You can determine this by a thorough read of your owner's manual or a phone call to your tow vehicle’s dealer.

    Next, it’s best to avoid towing a car with a chain or rope if at all possible. A proper tow dolly or car carrier is hooked up to the tow hitch of a car, truck or SUV and has brake lights, and some even have electric brakes that assist in slowing down. If you hook up your car with a chain or rope, you’ll have none of those safeguards — and it can be extremely dangerous for you and everyone else on the road.

    We had one person just a few days ago that towed out of the local mountains with a chain and had the car he was hauling smash into the back of this car when he slammed on the brakes! There’s a better way to tow than using that old-school stuff.”
    — Carol Gibbs, co-owner of The Trailer Specialist

    Most states don’t allow towing a vehicle behind another with a chain, but there are still some states that do allow for chain towing, including Delaware, Mississippi, New Mexico, Arizona, Florida and Louisiana.

    According to Carol Gibbs, co-owner of The Trailer Specialist in Acampo, California, many people still try to tow with a chain or rope in many states, even though it’s against the law.

    “I can’t tell you how many people come in here with stories of busted transmissions or transfer cases because they decided to tow their buddy's car with a chain,” she said. “We had one person just a few days ago that towed out of the local mountains with a chain and had the car he was hauling smash into the back of this car when he slammed on the brakes! There’s a better way to tow than using that old-school stuff.”

    So, how do you tow a car the right way? With a trailer, ideally.

    Types of trailers

    There are several types of car-carrying trailers on the market, and they all have their advantages and disadvantages.

    Disconnecting the driveshaft allows you to pull an AWD or RWD vehicle on a tow dolly, but, depending on the car, it’s not always the easiest project.

    Tow dolly

    Rather than having all four wheels on the trailer, tow dollies hook up to the front wheels and let the rear tires of the vehicle roll along the road. These trailers are inexpensive and lightweight; you can rent them from U-Haul, Budget Van Lines and other equipment rental companies.

    Gibbs explained why this method of towing is popular: “Car dollies are relatively inexpensive, and they can tow most cars well. The only thing to consider is what type of drivetrain your vehicle has. If it’s front-wheel drive, tow dollies work great, but if your car has rear-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, you can’t use them unless you disconnect the drive shaft.”

    On a front-wheel-drive car, only the front wheels are attached to the transaxle (transmission and axle), leaving the back wheels free to spin. On rear-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive vehicles, the rear tires are attached to the transmission and differential, and these components aren’t designed to be moved by anything but the engine. Towing an all-wheel-drive or rear-wheel-drive car on a tow dolly will damage the driveline and cost you some serious money.

    Open car carrier

    Instead of placing two wheels on the ground, an open car carrier allows a vehicle to be driven up onto it so all four wheels are off the ground.

    “Customers who have different types of cars that can’t be towed on a dolly or vintage cars that need a bit more protection usually go for the open car carrier,” Gibbs said. “The only thing you need to watch out for is the weight of a car carrier, because you’ll typically need a really heavy SUV, like a Suburban, or a heavy-duty truck to handle the weight of the car and the carrier.”

    Closed car carrier

    If you really want to protect the car you’re towing, go for a closed car carrier that keeps the weather and road debris off your vehicle while towing. These are even heavier than open car carriers, though, so be aware that you’ll need a tough tow rig with a higher towing capacity to move it along. They're often used for high-value or classic vehicles.

    Trailer hitches and balls

    Trailer hitches are either installed at the factory, by trailer shops or by traditional auto repair shops. Trailer hitches are attached to the chassis, or frame of the vehicle, which is the strongest anchoring point. The hitch also has a component known as the receiver, which the ball and ball mount attach to.

    Trailer hitches come in five different classes, and each is rated to tow a different amount 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 poun
    • Class 5: Up to 12,000 pounds

    And trailer balls come in four standard diameters:

    • 1 7/8 inches: Light-duty towing
    • 2 inches: Light- to medium-duty towing
    • 2 5/16 inches: Heavy-duty towing
    • 3 inches: Gooseneck towing for fifth wheels or other mega-towing applications

    According to Gibbs, the co-owner of The Trailer Specialist in Acampo, California, it’s smart to get more than you think you need when it comes to the ball and hitch: “We always advise customers to get a trailer hitch and ball that is a step or two above what they think they’ll need. You never want to be in a situation where your hitch or trailer ball is on the brink of not being strong enough.”

    We always advise customers to get a trailer hitch and ball that is a step or two above what they think they’ll need. You never want to be in a situation where your hitch or trailer ball is on the brink of not being strong enough.”
    — Carol Gibbs, The Trailer Specialist

    Car carriers or tow dollies have a component, known as a trailer coupler, that the trailer ball slides into and locks down on. Most trailers operate in about the same way, but you’ll want to check with the manufacturer for the exact instructions on how to hook up your trailer to your vehicle.

    Loading the trailer

    When you’re loading the trailer, it’s imperative that your trailer remains level as it’s hooked up to your vehicle. The right type of ball mount can be adjusted up and down to make this happen with relative ease. Follow the instructions provided by your trailer manufacturer exactly, and there should be no issue.

    Next, you’ll want to ensure you have two safety chains hooked up to the trailer. Not only are these chains required by law, they can be the difference between a bad day and a really bad day on the road. Always make sure your safety chains are attached to the chassis of your towed vehicle at what’s called the recovery point (check your owner's manual or give your dealer a call for info on this). Make sure your safety chains are properly rated for the job at hand.

    Once you hook up your trailer properly, along with the safety chains, it’s time to position your car. If you’re towing on an open carrier, load your vehicle toward the front to prevent the trailer from fishtailing or swaying. For ease loading, use a spotter who can tell you exactly where to place your car on the trailer.

    After your vehicle is positioned, make sure that the straps over the wheels are tightly lashed down with very little slack — the tighter, the better.

    Being safe on the road

    The No.1 rule of towing a car is to maintain your speed and your distance from other vehicles. Towing several thousand pounds of weight puts extra strain on your tow vehicle’s brakes, and you’ll need extra time to slow down. Cornering with trailers can also be difficult due to the extra weight behind your vehicle, and excessive speed can cause a trailer to fishtail.

    Remember that backing up with a trailer can be difficult, too — you can jackknife if you’re not careful, causing damage to your trailer and hitch. If at all possible, never back up while towing a trailer, and try to pull through gas stations or parking lots without having to reverse. When making turns, account for the extra length while towing; you can run out of road or cut turns too short and clip other vehicles or street signs.

    To help eliminate visibility issues, make sure your tow vehicle has extra-long towing mirrors to give you the best view possible.

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      How to tow a car with a dolly

      If you opt for a tow dolly, make sure the vehicle you’re towing is able to be towed with a two-wheel carrier. Once you’re sure you can tow your vehicle, follow these steps to a successful tow:

      1. Connect the tow dolly to your tow vehicle by following the manufacturer's instructions or those provided by the rental company. Make sure the tow dolly is level when you connect it to your tow vehicle.
      2. Lower the dolly ramps and drive your car up onto the tow dolly. If you need help, make sure you get a spotter to assist you in lining up and stopping against the wheel stops. Be sure to check for clearance so you don’t damage your vehicle’s bumper or air dam on the ramps.
      3. Strap your car down with the provided straps by looping over the tires and ratcheting them down tightly.
      4. Stow the ramps and lock them down.
      5. Hook up the wiring harnesses.
      6. Disengage the parking brake.

      How to tow a car with a tow bar

      Tow bars are used for “dinghy” or “flat” towing of vehicles behind large vehicles like RVs. Here, the vehicle’s not on any sort of trailer, but is instead pulled with all four wheels on the ground using a special component known as a tow bar. Unlike towing with a chain, using a tow bar offers the control you need to safely move down the highway. Only certain cars can be “flat” towed.

      To ensure a safe tow with a tow bar:

      1. Always park on a level surface.
      2. Check the height between the RV hitch and baseplate.
      3. Mount the tow bar on the RV and secure it. 
      4. Park the dinghy vehicle behind the RV (use a spotter if you need extra help).
      5. Attach the tow bar arms to the dinghy. 
      6. Engage the tow bar latches and double-check for security. 
      7. Attach the safety cables.
      8. Plug in the wiring harness.

      How to tow a car with a chain

      Unless you’re in a dire emergency, towing by chain is not recommended. This should only be done over short distances and at very slow speeds.

      If you do find yourself in a situation where you need to tow another car with a chain, here are the steps you need to take:

      1. Choose a heavy-duty chain that’s free from rust and any sort of damage. Never use a rope or anything else.
      2. Wrap the chain around the chassis or frame of the vehicle you want to tow and secure it with a chain clamp or hook. You can also attach the chain to the anchor loop.
      3. Take the other end of the chain and attach it to the recovery point or anchor loop of the vehicle doing the towing.
      4. Don’t make the chains too long or too short, and always avoid slowing down drastically or speeding up quickly — both of these actions can cause damage or loss of vehicle control.
      5. Go slowly and, if possible, have someone else drive the vehicle being towed to help maintain control.

      Bottom line

      Towing a car on a trailer is a task that should be carefully planned. As long as you use the right equipment, including the proper tow vehicle, and use common sense along the way, towing your vehicle can be done without a problem. If you have questions or concerns, moving and transport experts can help to put your mind at ease before you get out on the road. As they say, practice makes perfect — and once you’ve got a few tows under your belt, it’ll be like second nature.

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