I am pleased to say that I am writing this from the comfort of my wife’s glider chair in the back portion of our fifth wheel camper after having parked for our winter “snow bird” season. The park we chose this year markets itself as the place “Where Summer Comes For The Winter.” And judging by the sun we felt on our faces yesterday afternoon afternoon we have no reason to believe otherwise. The drive down was rather uneventful and I am more than happy to say that as a 600-mile drive in a large pickup truck with a 30′ trailer holding on behind can offer up some incredible risks. It requires a little knowledge and a lot of practice though to remain safe on the road and to not endanger those around you. Here are some ways to prepare yourself and your fifth wheel before taking to the open road!
Practice Makes Perfect. This is perhaps the best tip one can give in this instance. You can research and Google and watch every YouTube video of every RV trailer but until you actually practice you cannot possibly have first hand knowledge. After all, we all spent time at 15 or 16-years old in the mall parking lot learning to accelerate and break, right? I suggest taking a couple of cones and marking out a few pretend scenarios like backing into a campsite, turning out of a parking lot without going over the curb, or even just stopping smoothly within a certain distance. This can also serve as a good time to get to know your brakes. Towing a trailer of any kind makes the stopping distance greater and the practice will give you a sense of what your particular safe distance is.
Weight For It. Weight For It…… The one thing I feel most RVers don’t appreciate is how much mass they are actually in command of. With the trailer hooked up movements need to be slower, more steady, and purposeful. Jerky movement with a trailer do not correct the same way they might driving a Fiat through city streets. On the trip down to South Florida we saw a standard size SUV pulling an 8′ long U-Haul trailer. Mind you this is NOT a large trailer. However, aside from distributing the load weight incorrectly they obviously had not practiced towing before either. The two factors – especially the weight – caused the driver to spend 12-15 seconds trying to get the trailer to stop fish tailing after every lane change. This sight is far too common. When braking, remember that even though your trailer may have electric brakes they simply won’t stop on a dime. It just isn’t possible. Give yourself plenty of space in front in case a panic scenario takes place.
Hitch Your Wagon. This caution varies based upon your trailer. However, here are a few more universal tips that I hope will help.
- Make sure the tailgate on your pickup is down. Don’t add dings to your ride. It isn’t necessary. On the flip side make sure you put the tailgate up when done loading or you run the risk of splicing a hole in your trailer upon your first turn.
- Always attach the emergency brake cable in case (and this is unlikely) the trailer comes unhitched.
- Before raising the front jacks of your fifth wheel too high after hookup give the trailer a “tug test” with the truck to make sure the hitch jaws are secure. You don’t want your fifth wheel to fall and crunch your truck bed or rails.
- Chock your wheels even if you feel the ground is totally flat. It’s just a ‘better safe than sorry’ scenario.
- Don’t allow onlookers to distract you. Stay focused so that nothing happens.
- Keep your trailer hitch properly lubricated and clean. You may want to check the nut and bolt torque settings every so often as well. It should all be in your maintenance log.
Much like waking up in the morning and getting ready for work you should establish a routine for hitching and unhitching. Do it the same every time so that it becomes almost second nature.
Stay Focused. Once you commit to hauling a fifth wheel camper or other trailer you are taking direct responsibility for the truck, trailer, and road. Stay focused. This means no phone talking, TXTing, fussing with the GPS, switching radio channels, adding more sugar to your coffee, etc. As stated before, unlike a car your recovery and reaction time is limited due to the size and weight of your rig. Even though we travel with a two-year old we try to keep the iPad noise and/or video noise to a minimum so focus can be paid to the road. Hearing a tire hissing or an axle grinding or a brake squealing can mean the difference between a successful voyage and a trip to the mechanics garage (or worse!)
Mirror, Mirror, On The Truck. When towing anything mirrors are about your best friend. Be sure to equip your tow vehicle with mirrors that are big enough and that extend far enough to see all the way down the trailer side to the back of the rig. You may also want to add a blind spot fish eye type of mirror as well. With these little attachments you can see vehicles come along beside you as well as parts of the trailer you can’t see with your standard mirrors. Remember to scan your mirrors side-to-side as you drive as well. Be even more observant than you think necessary.
Don’t Cut Corners. Trailers and especially fifth wheels take extra care when taking sharp(er) corners. On a corner the trailer is going to track a path inside that of your tow vehicle. How much depends entirely on the length of your rig. The more you practice the better feel you’ll have as to how wide of turn you need. When engaged in the turn take it slow and continue to scan your mirrors to make sure the trailer is clearing the corner. You will also want to keep in mind that the back-end of your trailer will swing wider than the two vehicle so you want to allow for that as well. This is very important to think about when pulling into and out of a camp site. You don’t want to damage your vehicle, your camper, or the electrical pedestal places just at the site pad.
Plan Your Route. Aside from knowing how to get to Point A and Point B and all the Cracker Barrel restaurants in between you will want to have an idea of what to expect from your drive. You need to think about bridge height, overpass clearance, fuel exits, weight stations, and road conditions. When you are road tripping in a car it’s usually pretty easy to turn around, get fuel, and deal with any type of road inconvenience. Not so much when your 40 –65 feet long and 12-14 feet high!
Tires. Tired. And reTired. In my lifetime as a driver I have seen more tire blow outs causing rigs to sit idle on the side of the highway than I care to remember. All the weight and stress of your rig is delicately balanced on just a little patch of rubber meeting the road. Before every trip you should check the pressure, lug nut torque, and visually inspect the sidewall and treads. Also when stopped feel of the tires for overheating along with the bearings. It is said to replace your tires after 5-7 years whether they look like they need it or not. I think 5 years should be the maximum though when talking about a fifth wheel or bigger. Tires can look perfect but be rotten on the inside. This is especially true if they sit for long periods of time without use.
Won’t You Back That Thing Up. Perhaps the most intimidating part of fifth wheel ownership is backing up. We have all imagined (or even experienced) the scenario of pulling into a campground, finding our site, and then having to back in while the rest of the “neighborhood” sits and stares silently remarking on each details. You can take this step to an art though if you want.
- Take your time. Rushing is only going to add stress to you as the driver and increase the potential of problems. Fifth wheels respond to your steering input in a delayed fashion so by going slower you have a great chance of correcting something even before it happens.
- Give yourself plenty of space. Enough said.
- Use a spotter. If you haven’t established hand signals with your spouse, child, or other spotter, do so before reaching the campsite. That visual communication can make the process of backing in so much smoother. If you hand signals aren’t your thing consider an inexpensive set of two way radios. I guess today you can use cell phones just as easily.
- Have a GOAL. A clever and popular trailer acronym GOAL stands for Get Out And Look! Don’t try to do it all from the captain’s seat. Stop, put the tow vehicle in park, and get out to have a look.
- Scan your area. This includes looking up. A lot of really good drivers (including myself) have forgotten at times to look up and remember the height of a camper. You don’t want to beat up your air unit or satellite on top because you didn’t see a giant tree limb.
Take Your Time. Are you in a race? Doesn’t the R in RV stand for recreation? Then act like it. Make the drive manageable and fun. Don’t put yourself in a position where you feel you have to get somewhere in record time. Just cruise along at a safe speed and rest when you need to. You owe it to yourself and those around you! Happy trails!