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Top tips for towing: Safety, set-up and preparation is everything


As increasing numbers of truck and SUV owners use their vehicles for hauling and towing boats, personal watercraft and RVs, it’s important to educate consumers about towing safety. It’s critical to know your vehicle’s capability as well as the smartest and safest ways to hitch all together.

Depending on the model and trim level, the latest trucks can come with technologies that help keep you safe and even assist when you’re reversing a trailer. In fact, many vehicles designed for towing have features such as trailer sway control that use sensors to measure wheel speed and steering angles as well as cameras that show a direct view to your hitch, the bed or side views of trailers from the driver’s position.

We recently attended the 2023 Houston Autoboative Show, where autos and boats were hitched together at the NRG Center. RoShelle Salinas, executive VP of the Houston Auto Show, and Leah Cast, PR representative of the Houston Boat Show, told us it’s the largest of its kind in the nation, showcasing more than 500 vehicles from more than 30 brands plus 200 vendors from some of the biggest brands in boating and fishing.

While at the show, Ashton Parsley, a boating education specialist from Texas Parks and Wildlife, gave us her top five tips for safe towing:

  1. Coupler and ball size. Make sure both your coupler and ball are the correct size for your trailer. A common error people make is using a ball that’s too small, which can create a hazard on the road.
  2. Towing capacity. Make sure your vehicle has enough towing capacity and that your trailer is the right size for the boat you are hauling.
  3. Safety chains. Make sure your safety chains are crisscrossed, hooking your trailer to your truck. Additionally, make sure the safety pin is securing the coupler to the ball.
  4. Proper attachments. Towers and boaters don’t realize the consequences of not having the boat or watercraft secured properly, Parsley said. So, you need to make sure you have the right-sized rachet straps to secure your watercraft. And if you are hauling a watercraft that sticks out behind the bed of your truck, you need a flag so others can see it.
  5. Final adjustments. Make sure your mirrors are adjusted more “in” than usual for normal driving, so you have a good view of the boat and trailer. When unhitching the trailer, start your vehicle and let it first idle and then use slow acceleration to allow it to come off the ball. Be sure to put your parking brake on when unloading a boat at the water, so the truck doesn’t roll into the water.

towing safety

Even if you follow these tips religiously, breakdowns and emergencies happen. In fact, Scott Croft, VP of public affairs for the Boat Owner’s Association of the US and spokesperson for Tow Boat US, said 44% of the requests for roadside trailer assist service coming into BoatUS are for flat tires without a spare.

But with a service like BoatUS, which provides salt water and fresh water towing in addition to 100 miles of on-road towing, you have a little boating backup – kind of like having AAA membership for your car.

“You can be three states or three blocks from home and we’ll get you the help you need 24/7,” Croft said. “We all see the proverbial middle of the road boat and trailer or one left on the side of the highway. This service provides also provides a tow—or parts and help–for those that have had issues with tires or mechanical or breakdown. They will even help tug or winch a trailer or a boat up a slippery ramp, when people can’t get them out of the water.”

BoatUS has varying membership levels ranging from $25 to $200, and unlimited trailer assist can be added for $15 per year.

The bottom line on towing safety

Towing a boat takes skill and preparation, and even when you do everything right, things can still go wrong. So, making sure you have all your capacities and attachments correct, then having a backup like BoatUS, is playing it safe.

Sue Mead

Sue Mead’s automotive career began as a freelance evaluator for Four Wheeler Magazine in 1988, on the first team that included women as testers. Today, she travels the globe test-driving cars and trucks, and working as a photojournalist/feature writer for dozens of publications, specializing in 4WD and adventure. Mead has been an auto editor and 4WD editor for CNN/fn. Her books include Monster Trucks and Tractors; Off Road Racing, Legends and Adventures; and Rock Crawling. She has been to 70 countries; driven enough off-road and 4WD race miles to have circumnavigated the globe twice! Mead won the Open Production class at the 2011 Dakar; and is an inductee into the Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame. Mead, who is a private pilot, hasn’t owned a personal vehicle since 1994, when she purchased a 1951 Willys A pickup for $850.

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