Here’s How To Tow a Car the Right Way
School’s in session. Let’s get you educated.
I started towing things when I was 16 years old. I needed a summer job, so I applied to our local parks association in the maintenance department. And yes, “Parks and Rec” hijinks ensued. What also occurred was a trial by fire, being thrown into Ford F-250 and F-450 Super Dutys with a 27-foot trailer loaded with about 10,000 pounds of mowing equipment. Not exactly an education many 16-year-olds get.
After four years of towing those beasts, I was a pro, teaching all the new recruits when they arrived — except for one older dude. He refused to listen to my advice and promptly got the rig stuck not once, not twice, but too many times to count. He tipped over a $10,000 mower and then nearly drowned a $40,000 mower. He was later fired. Anyway!
What you’re here for today is a lesson in towing. Maybe you need to move your car across the country for a new job. Maybe you just bought a track car that isn’t exactly street legal. Maybe you need to take your long-sitting project to the mechanic. Whatever the case may be, you’ve come to the right place. I’m here to get you up to speed on safely towing whatever you need.
Let’s get into it.
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Basics of Towing a Car
Estimated Time Needed: Half hour to an hour, depending on towing setup and skill level
Skill Level: Beginner
Vehicle System: Towing
Why Is Knowing How To Tow a Car Important if You’ve Never Done It?
Well, you could do it wrong and impact both your own safety and your car’s overall health.
Let’s first talk about the safety aspect. When you don’t know how to use a trailer, there are a couple of issues that can arise that could negatively affect your health.
Trailer sway is something you’ve all likely seen on “Ridiculousness,” “AFV,” or some YouTube clip show. This occurs when the trailer begins to sway back and forth and the driver fails to mitigate it and often makes it worse, causing the vehicle and trailer to do its best python impression on the open road at 65 mph. The resulting accident is often not pretty.
An uneven load can be just as dangerous as trailer sway, and I’ll tell you why. Your vehicle has four contact patches, namely, its tires. Those tires create a bond to the road and ensure that your vehicle is stable while driving. When you have an uneven load, it can reduce those contact patches.
For example, if you’re new to towing and renting a full car trailer from U-Haul, you may think you need to just load the trailered car and put the front wheels all the way up to the stops on the front of the trailer. Not so. What that does is put too much weight on the trailer’s tongue, which then puts weight on the rear of the car and actually lifts the front of the car up. That, in turn, reduces your ability to steer and brake, which can have disastrous effects.
The opposite is true as well. If you put too much weight on the rear of a trailer, the front wheels will have too much weight on them and the rears will lift up.
And if your load is too weighted to the left or the right, your turning dynamics can also be affected. In certain situations, loading up a trailer too much on the left or right can actually cause the trailer to tip over in a turn.
There is a limit to what you can safely load onto a trailer, dolly, or tow bar. Those things are not ants, capable of lifting 4,000 percent of their body weight. Just as your vehicle has a GVWR, trailers do as well. When you overload a trailer, you can bottom out the suspension, break the trailer in half, and lose all your precious cargo.
So, before you load up, check the trailer’s weight limit and see if what you’re transporting will stick to those guidelines.
This is a big one. For those who haven’t used a trailer before or do so infrequently, you may think that you can just pick up a trailer from U-Haul or Penske, load up your vehicle, and hit the road. Here’s the thing: You can’t.
Those trailers are used day in and day out, and they’re not as well maintained as you might believe. Brakes can become stuck or partially on. Chains can break. Ball hitches may not want to latch properly. Before you put anything onto the trailer, do a thorough inspection of the trailer.
Take that trailer around the block. Unloaded, it shouldn’t feel much different than what your vehicle normally feels like. If it feels like it’s dragging or as if it’s weighed down, you know that the trailer has an issue and you should return it. Again, if your equipment isn’t good, you may put yourself in danger and cause irreparable damage to your vehicle.
It’s not as simple as driving the towed vehicle onto the trailer and putting it in Park. Ratchet straps, the car-securing kind or car-wheel kind, are absolutely required, and so is a good chain.
If you’re securing your vehicle to a trailer, dolly, or tow bar, having the right ratchet straps attached at the right points is critical. For most cars, you’ll want to attach them to the axles of the vehicle. This will keep it from moving too much. One per side will work, at least for a trailer. For a dolly, you’ll want to secure the front axle of the car with two straps and a chain. Tow bars are chains and chains alone, and they attach differently.
You could die, simple as that. Check everything twice. Check all your straps, chains, load levels, and connections. Check your brake lights. Check your turn signals. Check your tires. Check, check, and check again.
Everything You’ll Need To Tow a Car
Depending on the towing method you choose, your equipment needs will vary. In terms of big-ticket items, there are three common types of towing aparati: a trailer, a dolly, and a tow bar. Each has its uses and pros and cons.
Trailers lift the entire car off the pavement and onto a surface so that the trailered car’s wheels stay stationary. A dolly lifts the front wheels of a car off the ground, while the back wheels are free to spin (when left in neutral). Lastly, a tow bar connects the rear of one vehicle to the front of another, and all four wheels of the towed vehicle spin freely (when left in neutral).
You may also need a few accessories.
What You’ll Need
Here’s How To Secure a Car Using Each Towing Method
Let’s get started. We’ll outline the basics of the three most common ways to tow a car. Be sure you understand your tow vehicle’s capabilities and be honest with yourself about your skill level. Towing can be both dangerous and detrimental to the towing vehicle’s components. If you do it wrong, you could damage your ride and find yourself with a big ol’ repair bill.
The most common form of towing is using a trailer.
- First, hitch up your trailer.
- Make sure that the ball, mount, and chains are all rated for the weight and stress you’re going to put on them by towing a car.
- Attach the ball hitch first and lock it into place. Then secure the latch with either a cotter pin, bolt, or lock.
- Attach the chains, crisscrossing them beneath the trailer tongue and attaching them to the vehicle’s trailer hitch.
- Attach the brake and turn-signal circuit.
- Test the lights. It’s easier to work on any problems before the trailer is loaded up with a car.
- Pull your towed vehicle onto the trailer. Be sure to center the vehicle, both front to rear and side to side. Make sure that the trailer’s tongue isn’t pointing up or down in order to evenly distribute the trailer weight.
- You might want to have a friend help guide you onto the trailer, especially if you’re struggling with visibility.
- Secure the vehicle to the trailer using heavy-duty straps, wheel nets, and a good heavy chain. You’ll want to cinch the vehicle down and make sure that each side is equally strapped.
- Straps go on the vehicle’s axles.
- Wheel nets/straps go on a vehicle’s wheels, over the top of them.
- Chain goes on a hard point such as an axle or driveshaft.
- Once it’s locked in, check all the connections.
- Drive forward some yards, stop, get out, and retighten and check for any looseness or potential issues.
- Get on your way.
- If you’re towing over long distances, it’s a good idea to check your trailer and towed vehicle occasionally to make sure everything is still secure.
- Connect the dolly to your tow vehicle using the trailer hitch and ball.
- Make sure it is completely and securely attached.
- Check the brake lights.
- Check the turn signals.
- Check your chains.
- Pull forward onto the dolly.
- Make sure the front tires are up against the dolly’s front. You don’t need to worry about weight distribution here as the back half of the car will be free to roll on the pavement and more evenly distribute the weight.
- Secure the vehicle to the dolly using straps over both tires.
- Ensure the vehicle being towed is ready to tow.
- This may require disconnecting the driveshaft, differentials, or just putting the car into neutral.
- Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations on safe towing as some vehicles, such as Teslas, are only able to be flatbed/trailer towed.
- Set up your lighting system.
- This might include connecting the tow and towed vehicles’ lighting systems or a set of external lights that are mounted on the towed vehicle for visibility to those behind and around you.
- Test the lights before you set off.
- Once you’re ready to go, drive forward a bit to allow everything to shift and settle. Then get out and check everything again
- Check the connections, straps, or anything else that could go wrong.
- It’s also a good idea to periodically check the towing hitch and security of the towed vehicle if you’re driving for long periods of time.
- Secure the tow bar to a point on the tow vehicle’s frame.
- Follow both the bar manufacturer’s guidance and that of your vehicle manufacturer to ensure a secure connection that does not damage either vehicle.
- Set up your lighting system.
- This will include connecting the tow and towed vehicles’ lighting systems or a set of external lights that are mounted on the towed vehicle for visibility to those behind and around you. Test before you set off.
- All four wheels of the towed vehicle will be in contact with the ground here. You’ll need to follow the manufacturer’s guidance on how to safely tow the vehicle to avoid drivetrain damage or a failure of the tow bar.
- This might not work for every vehicle, so check your old dusty manual.
- Once the vehicle is connected, drive 25 yards forward to let the vehicle settle in. Stop, get out, and check everything again for movement or looseness.
- Even though you’re not using a towing hitch here, it’s still a good idea to check your connections and make sure everything is still secure.
How to Tow
Now that you’re hooked up and ready to go, let’s talk about how to actually tow, or rather, let’s talk about what you need to know when you’re driving down the road with a trailer, dolly, or tow bar attached to your vehicle.
You now have a lot more weight behind you. That means your stopping distance is going to increase dramatically. Because of that, you want to give yourself enough space and time to adequately stop. Increase your following distance, decrease your need for speed, and generally act as if you have another vehicle attached to you. Use common sense.
Just as stopping takes longer, so does accelerating. When merging, remember that the extra weight is going to slow you down and could cause an accident if you don’t merge into traffic correctly. Think and judge whether you have enough time or power to get across traffic, merge onto the highway, or just make a turn.
Turning ain’t as easy as in a vehicle without a trailer attached. You’re much longer than you used to be, so your turning radius needs to be enlarged or you risk hitting a curb, hitting a stop sign, or mowing over a pedestrian minding their business on the sidewalk. You also risk damaging whatever you’re trailering.
No sharp turns, folks.
The idea of quick movements goes to the actual driving experience as well. Sharp inputs, quick lane changes, late braking have nothing to do with trailering. This is how you get into accidents or on the news. Slow down your movements; they’ll only multiply the effect on the tow vehicle and trailer. Move steadily and slowly.
Pro Tips to Tow a Car
I started towing when I was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at 16 years old. I’ve learned a lot thanks to that trial by fire. Here are a few tips I’ve learned along the way.
- Check the damn tongue weight. Listen, you’re asking for a wreck if you don’t make sure the tongue weight is even. Make sure it’s not pointed up or down.
- Get good ratchet straps. Quality stuff costs money and ensures your vehicle gets to your destination unharmed.
- Really feel out your space. One time at the parks department, a fellow coworker drove onto the grass with the trailer hooked up to an F-450 and promptly got it stuck. If you’re not confident or you think something unfortunate could occur, walk away.
FAQs About Towing a Car
You’ve got questions. The Drive has answers.
Q. Can I tow any vehicle?
A. Almost any vehicle can be towed on a trailer, but you’ll want to do your homework to determine if the vehicle you want to pull is capable of being flat towed (on all four wheels with a tow bar) or if there are special steps you need to take to prepare for towing. Don’t be the person that destroys their car by towing it the wrong way.
Q. I can’t be bothered to tow. How much does it cost to ship a car?
A. Funny you should ask. We answered this question recently in a post titled, How Much Does It Cost To Ship a Car?
Q. Is a trailer the best way to tow?
A. Trailer towing a car is one of the most stable and safest ways to tow, assuming you have a vehicle capable of the job. Some people prefer dollies because they’re cheaper and simpler to use, but they won’t match the stability of a trailer.
Q. Can I tow my car with a rope?
A. No. Towing with a rope is not only illegal in several areas, it’s not safe. Ropes can fray or snap, and there’s no safe way to stop the towed vehicle because ropes aren’t stiff like a tow bar or dolly.
Q. How much weight can my truck tow?
A. That’s a great question. Here’s an explainer on towing capacity and what it means.