by Brian Hoag, Nevada Crew
Reprint permission of this article provided by Brian Hoag, owner/editor of www.rv-camping.org.
Towing a vehicle behind your RV offers another dimension to the RV camping experience. We really appreciate being able to park the RV and take the Jeep on our adventures once we get to our RV camping destinations. There are many things to consider when deciding to tow a vehicle with your RV. Safety of you and others on the road should be a primary concern.
There are many choices of tow bars, base plates (the attaching point for the tow bar to the towed vehicle), supplemental brake systems, and towed vehicle brake and turn signal lamp operation. You must be careful to not overload the towing capacity of your RV. There may be state laws to follow as well, and of course, you must know if your vehicle can be towed or if it needs a dolly or trailer to be towed safely.
This article is intended as a comprehensive overview of towing a vehicle with an RV. Every application will be different and you must determine all factors when choosing equipment and applicability.
What Vehicles Can Be Towed?
You must determine if the vehicle you want to tow can actually be towed. Many vehicles are not capable of being towed with all four tires on the ground, and in those cases, you will need to decide if you want to use a tow dolly or full trailer with your RV. Your towed vehicle owner’s manual has a section about “Recreational Towing” which describes how your vehicle can be towed.
The reason most folks choose towing with all four wheels on the ground is simplicity. If you use a dolly or trailer, you will have to find a place to store these items when not in use, and many destination RV parks don’t have accommodations for tow dolly or trailer storage. Additionally, you must strap and unstrap the towed vehicle to the dolly or trailer every time you tow, but an advantage is these units can be equipped with brakes, negating the need for a towed vehicle supplemental brake system.
What Can I Tow?
Critical to safe operation is determining how much weight your tow vehicle can actually tow. Your vehicles is designed and rated by hte manufacturer to carry/tow maximum weights and these weight maximums are usually listed on the driver’s door frame. The gross axle weight rating (GAWR), and gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) are critical to safe and reliable operation. To find out if your towing combination is within these limits, you will have to go to a vehicle scale location and weigh everything. Other possible common weight designation definitions are beyond the scope of this article.
The trailer hitch on your vehicle is also rated for a specific towing capacity. You need to check your owner’s manual specifications for the tow hitch weight limitations.
As you can see, beyond the towed vehicle’s ability to be towed, it’s all about weight ratings and actual weight when it comes to determining what your vehicle can tow. Though this may seem complicated, it’s not as bad as it seems, and once you determine that your towing vehicle will tow the vehicle you want, you are ready to decide on the actual towing equipment.
Tow Bars and Face Plates
A tow bar is a device used to connect the RV to the towed vehicle. Tow bars come in two basic designs and both perform the same basic function. Fixed arm style tow bars are simple and relatively inexpensive and virtually indestructible. Telescoping arm tow bars are a big jump in price, require minor maintenance, and can wear out over time. but offer much easier hitching and self-storage. Some telescoping designs fold up and remain on the RV, while another design has the tow bar folding and remaining on the towed vehicle.
When in use, a tow bar needs to be close to level. This has to do with physics of course, and tow bar manufacturers all have instructions stating that the tow bar needs to be close to level. Your new tow bar will come with instructions and specifications for maximum deviation from level over the length of the bar. Our Blue Ox Alpha tow bar specifies 3″ maximum above or below level. To accomplish this on a wide variety of vehicles, up/down hitch adapters effectively raise or lower the RV’s hitch. They are available in 2″ increments up to 10″.
For this article, a base plate is the tow bar connection point on the towed vehicle. These base plate connection points are usually vehicle specific and are manufactured by several companies. Base plates mount to the towed vehicle frame, and you should be aware that many vehicles will require minor modifications for installation of the base plate.
On our Jeep Wrangler with an aftermarket bumper, our base plate is the aftermarket bumper with its recovery point D-ring mounts.
Do I Need A Supplemental Braking System?
The need for towed vehicle supplemental brakes is widely discussed. Some folks will argue that their tow vehicle is rated to tow well over the actual weight of their towed vehicle. Additionally, laws requiring supplemental brakes in a towed vehicle aren’t uniform from state to state, with no Federal regulations as a guide. It is our understanding that supplemental brakes are required in Canada, but when we traveled there, they did not check to see if our Jeep was so equipped. Some states have a “performance standard” requirement stating the ability to stop from a defined speed within a specified distance, but we’ve never heard of these standards being tested on anyone’s vehicle setup.
So do you or don’t you need supplemental brakes? To answer that question I’ll just say that we’ve towed a Jeep Wrangler of one sort or another over 100,000 miles over the years, and I’m sure our supplemental braking system saved us from multiple accidents. I hope you will read this article to understand how even a large motorhome with a vehicle well under the weight maximums benefits from supplemental brakes. Our opinion is you absolutely, positively NEED a supplemental brake system.
Supplemental Brake Systems
I don’t believe there is a perfect supplemental brake system. Every one of them has something about it that somebody else thinks another product handles better. One popular system is the NSA Ready Brake/Ready Brute. Blue Ox also makes a similarly-designed brake system they call Autostop. These systems operate using inertia to operte a cable attached to the towed vehicle’s brake pedal. Simple and effective, and I’ve read few issues associated with the design. This design is one of the easier systems to hitch-up once it is installed.
There are several manufacturers of systems that essentially sit on the floor of your towed vehicle and operate the brake pedal using inertia sensors, and in a few designs, air pressure for brake operation. An arm must be attached from teh unit to the towed vehicle brake pedal every time you want to tow.
There are what I I’ll call hybrid systems that utilize electronics and activators that while design-wise are complicated, operate in what most folks consider a proportional manner. Invisibrake, Brake Buddy Stealth, and US Gear’s Unified Tow Brake fall into this category…there are others. We feel these systems are the easiest of all to hitch and go.
A lot depends, in my opinion, how often you tow, and under what conditions. Will you be hitching/unhitching often, or is your plan to tow infrequently, and especially–will you be towing different vehicles? If you want to tow different vehicles, a drop-in floor system like Brake Buddy or Roadmaster’s Evenbrake may be your solution since one system can be moved from one vehicle to another.
If you will be hitching and unhitching often, I suggest looking into a system that is easy to hook up. A supplemental system that requires routine installation/removal of the brake actuator arm inside the towed vehicle may not be your cup of tea when it’s raining or snowing. If you will be towing in icy conditions, you may want to consider a system that allows independent operation of the towed vehicle’s brakes.
You should have a breakaway backup if for some reason your towed vehicle becomes unhitched. Many supplemental brake systems account for this in their design, but some, such as the above mentioned NSA Ready Brake, require additional equipment for breakaway operation.
We now use US Brake’s Unified Tow Brake because of its ability to operate the towed vehicle’s brakes independently of the towing vehicle for slick roads, remote adjust-ability of towed brakes for more aggressive braking such as encountered in city driving, and after installation, there is nothing easier to hitch and go. Here is my RV.net Unified Tow Brake Review. It has the reasons I selected this supplemental brake system, and includes installed photos on our Jeep Wrangler and motorhome. We have no financial interest in US Gear, we just feel their supplemental brake system works best for our application.
Turn, Running, and Brake Lights
You need to have running, turn, and brake lights on your towed vehicle. Virtually all RVs have an electrical outlet that provides running, brake, and turn signal circuits at the rear of the RV. Many folks have decided the easiest way to hook up towing lights is to use magnetic mount lights with a wire running to the RV directly. Another option is to use the towed vehicle’s lights and tap into the lamp circuits. While this design can be somewhat complicated, once installed it’s the easiest way to hitch and go.
Often electrical components such as diodes may be required. Determining which wire controls which circuit on the towed vehicle can be difficult, and damage to your towed vehicle’s electrical system could occur if the wiring is installed incorrectly. When using a supplemental brake system, it is possible for the brake system operation to over-ride the turn lamps causing the turn signals to stop flashing on the towed vehicle when the RV’s brakes are applied. Some supplemental brake systems account for this over-ride with their design, others require a fuse to be removed in order to deactivate the brake light circuit.
To simplify wiring, there are aftermarket wiring products designed to “plug and play”. While these advertising claims sound great, be aware that it’s not always as easy as the sales information sounds. If you are handy and understand low voltage DC applications, wiring your towed vehicle will take some time, but is not difficult. Wiring diagrams are available online for every type of towing application.
Towing Down the Road
We’ve found that towing a vehicle behind our RV is almost as easy as driving the RV alone. The issue becomes when you get into a situation where you need to back up (and everyone we know that has flat towed a vehicle has gotten into this predicament). You can’t back up a flat towed vehicle unless it’s in a straight line, and then you will only make it a few feet at best. If you are using a fixed arm tow bar in this situation, you may find it nearly impossible to get unhitched to get your towed vehicle out of the way to back up your RV. We had a crow-bar and needed it when we had a fixed arm tow bar and needed to unhitch once.
Your RV won’t have the same acceleration, but if you have a supplemental brake system properly installed and adjusted, your stopping distance shouldn’t be affected. One issue we’ve heard occurring infrequently is a flat tire on the towed vehicle. Your RV is much wider than your towed vehicle and you won’t be able to see it in your rear or side view mirrors. If the towed vehicle has a tire failure, it’s possible to travel for miles before realizing the problem, and by then the tire is completely destroyed and usually the wheel along with it. There are remote tire pressure sensors and monitors to inform you of tire pressure problems on your towed vehicle.
There are numerous reports of supplemental brake systems malfunctioning and applying the towed vehicle brakes. These reports are almost always accompanied by high repair costs for new brakes, rotors, tires, and even bearings and spindles. In every case we’re aware of, this problem would have been avoided if the supplemental brake system was properly installed with a brake pedal pressure alarm that is part of, or optionally available with every supplemental brake system. Unfortunately, the monitor is often left out of the installation as it must be wired physically from the towed vehicle to RV.
Based on your product selections, routine hitching and towing a vehicle with your RV can be a relatively simple task. When purchasing equipment for towing, the costs climb quickly and it’s common to spend well over a thousand dollars for a completely installed towing system. We required custom hitch modifications on our RV to accommodate the very high front bumper on our Jeep, which added several hundred dollars to our install costs. I’m a DIY guy and installed all the supplemental brake equipment in our Jeep and our RV. I purchased my Unified Tow Brake through an internet company as an “open box” and saved over 50%. I purchased a vehicle specific wiring harness that is nearly “Plug and Play” for the towed vehicle lights which required no diodes. It takes me perhaps 5 minutes to completely hitch our Jeep using a telescoping tow bar.
Every time we go RV camping or traveling, our Jeep gets towed by our RV. Once we finally learned that keeping the hitching process uncomplicated as possible, towing became much easier.