About 10 years ago, I was heading northbound on 81 with a Fleetwood Terry. My destination: a permanent campsite just past the NY state border. The sun was shining, classic rock tunes came through the radio, and truckers periodically took a double take when they saw a chick towing a 27-footer, with man’s best friend (and co-pilot) snoozing in the backseat. My good mood was unshakable, so I thought.
I remember experiencing serious sway on the highway about halfway through the trip, enough that I immediately pulled off at a rest area to assess. We secured the trailer and were back on the road in no time, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a frightening experience. As nerve-wracking as it was, I can’t imagine that same experience in wintry conditions. Any kind of precipitation this time of year could wreak havoc for standard drivers. Add a towable in the mix, and things can get ugly.
Just imagine driving down the road, fists clenched, as you watch the snow descend faster than those wiper blades can work. About the only thing you can see is the faint glow of taillights up ahead. And every time you tap the brakes for reassurance, there’s a stiffness reminding you that in this moment, you’re playing chicken with Mother Nature. Now, imagine that same terrifying situation… with a trailer in tow.
We teamed up with Chad Wall, Marketing Manager at Blue Ox, and Lisa McCrory, Product Manager for all private label RV lines at NTP-STAG and Keystone Automotive, to discuss proper towing techniques during winter. Their input is valuable in helping drivers avoid the mistakes, anxiety, or overconfidence in these situations.
Equipment Up to Snuff
Time and time again, we’ve stressed the importance of winter prep in all situations, from diesel maintenance and off-road preparedness to weight distribution and winter tire upgrades for daily drivers. “All of the important things become even more important come winter,” said McCrory, who stresses a back-to-basics approach.
As it applies to towing in winter conditions, it includes vehicle and trailer lights, brakes, tires, wipers, sensors, fluids, weight distribution, brake controls, etc. “Preparation for winter towing is crucial, and tire inflation is one of the most overlooked steps. It can decrease when the temperature drops, so always check the pressure and inflate to the proper pressure prior to towing,” said Wall. “Tires can gain up to 10% pressure increase from road friction. If the tire says 50 psi max pressure, then set the pressure at 45 psi to leave room for pressure expansion due to friction,” he continued.
Traction equates to grip, so it goes without saying that proper snow-rated tires are a must-have. Remember, tire chains may be required on trailer-braking wheels for highway use and, in those case-by-case instances, will need to be installed. Also, pay close attention to tread and air pressure—they’re just as critical to safe travel.
Get That Weight Under Control
Weight distribution and weight control are always paramount, but especially when towing during winter.
“This should already be part of your setup, but even more so this time of year,” said McCrory. “Lubrication to the SwayPro’s (weight-distribution hitch) rotating latch in winter conditions is helpful. Graphite spray works best because it will not attract dirt and repels moisture. Greasing the trunnions on the head assembly is a maintenance procedure that is recommended 3-4 times per year. To ensure the finish of the SwayPro, spray off with soap and water after towing on icy and snowy roads. Road salt and calcium chloride spray can cause the hitch surface to corrode,” added Wall.
Just as important, some situations call for the removal of certain product. “We recommend removing bolt-on friction sway control products in the winter time/icy conditions. It has been determined over the years that [these] products may make it more difficult to recover from a slide or an out-of-control situation if used when a vehicle and trailer are in winter/icy conditions,” said Christopher W. Moore, LKQ SPG Engineering Manager. “We do not recommend, however, removing weight distribution spring bars. Some people confuse weight distribution springs bars and use the term ‘sway bars’ when referring to bolt-on friction sway control products. Weight distribution spring bars are used for distributing the trailer weight across the entire length of the vehicle and are critical to safe driving in all weather conditions,” he continued.
Additionally, “In some cases the weight distribution portion of the hitch is integrated with the friction sway. That means you lose both because you have to disconnect the weight distribution to cancel the sway control,” said Wall. “SwayPro doesn’t rely on any friction points for sway prevention. We keep the tow vehicle and trailer in line as one and there is no need to disconnect—we are the all-weather weight distribution hitch,” he added.
General Preparedness Before and While Towing
Now that you’ve determined a proper winter setup for that vehicle and its towable, it’s time to chat about general preparedness before and while towing. First and foremost, be mentally prepared for the task at hand.
“People underestimate one way or another. Either they’re overconfident getting behind the wheel in winter conditions, or they’re not confident at all. Both mindsets can put you in dire situations,” said McCrory. Wall says that it’s important to have extra winter clothing, candles, water, a first aid kit, jumper cables, tire chains, road flares, reflective triangles, as well as a shovel and kitty litter in case you get stuck on ice.
Clear all snow off the vehicle and trailer before getting on the road, and always remember to plan ahead. “Look at weather reports. You have those who are towing somewhere with really nice weather, but they didn’t consider an early winter storm coming through that will impact their driving routes. Now they catch themselves in it with a choice to get through or pull off until it passes because they didn’t get out of town early enough,” she added.
Practice Makes Perfect
When it comes to towing techniques during winter: Know your vehicle, know your towable, know your route. If you’re a virgin tower in winter conditions, then McCrory suggests a practice run. “Don’t walk out and go, ‘Oh geez, it snowed last night and we’re jumping on the highway and I’ve never driven in this before.’ Maybe take a back road somewhere and just kind of try and get a little bit of a feel for how your truck and trailer are going to react before getting on a busy highway,” said McCrory.
As a side note, she stresses not to use your cruise control. “When using cruise control, your vehicle is accelerating and decelerating. If you use it a lot, you don’t even think about it. If you’re on bad roads and the cruise control all of a sudden wants you to speed up or slow down, it could throw you into a sway condition, which of course is going to be even harder on bad roads. It’s especially dangerous for those who are not as experienced. Now they’re trying to figure out how to handle this sway situation on top of the poor weather conditions,” she continued.
Low and Slow
There are infinite examples of why I love living in the south: year-round blue skies and warm weather, white sand just a couple miles away, a slew of outdoor activities, and Jeep Beach in my backyard. I needn’t harp on the fact that life is a bit slower pace down here and as a true northerner born and bred in the Tri-State area, patience, among other things, is not one of my strengths.
Nor is low and slow my game—never has been and likely never will be. A lifetime of driving in poor winter conditions didn’t warm me up to the idea. While it pains me to crawl, low and slow is exactly what it takes to get safely from Point A to Point B during wintertime with a towable. Be mindful, proceed with care, and don’t rush. The safety and security of your passengers, as well as those on the road, depends on it.
Safe Distance and Smart Passing
Studies prove there would be less accidents if drivers were diligent about driving in the right lane and only using the left lane to pass, as it’s intended. “You shouldn’t be worried about passing everybody while pulling a trailer, especially if the roads are bad. You should be extra cautious because, unlike others, you have two pieces of equipment on the road that you’re responsible for—that vehicle and a trailer,” said McCrory.
Don’t be overconfident. You think you’re all good, but don’t be fooled. Momentum may be on your side, but when you’re cruising along on someone’s tail in the left lane and have to slam your brakes with a towable—good luck. “Okay great, you’re all going 50 mph. But when that one guy in the front spins out and now you all have to stop, remember that you’re still on ice or snow. There is no way. Again, you are hauling … You’re driving your vehicle, but you’re also responsible for that second piece of equipment,” McCrory added.
Though the advice in this feature applies to any landscape during winter conditions, admittedly my mind went to handling back roads and climbing/descending mountains since that’s where I grew up. It’s the kind of driving that requires focus, instinct, and control. Other important factors when traveling roads that vary in grade? Weight and momentum.
“Your first preparation step is to check your weight. Less is more in the mountains,” wrote an RV blogger under the name fulltimetumbleweed. “Your preparations should begin by pulling out your manual and double checking the total weight your pull vehicle can safety pull and carry. Also get the exact safe weight figure for the trailer. The weight issue is also nonlinear. By that, I mean you don’t need to be a lot over your weight limit to get into really big trouble. Rigs are designed to take so much and no more. Beyond that they just fail,” she continued.
Likewise, stopping or braking during a climb is a great way to get stuck… or worse. This is true for all drivers but with a trailer out back, it’s crucial to keep in mind.
While these are recommended towing techniques during winter, many apply to simple bad-weather driving as well. Vehicles get more capable every year. More horsepower, better payload, greater towing capacities, infinite safety bells and whistles, and hoards of new tech. While these innovations are applaudable, they can instill a sense of false confidence. As more consumers gravitate toward utility vehicles and away from traditional driving, they begin to feel indestructible. And that can lead to some bad habits and risky behaviors.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how high the tow rating or how many aftermarket products you’ve slapped on: if you don’t know how to drive it, you’re the danger on the highway.