First, let me start by telling you that we had almost no idea what we were doing the first tow with our 5th wheel. I was all excitement on the outside, but all nerves on the inside (read: completely freaking the f out!).
I did all kinds of research – YouTube, etrailer.com, towing guides, etc., which is absolutely critical to at least have some idea what to look for. Spoiler alert – reality is a whole lot different than what you see on the internet!
I have towed small trailers (think U-Haul and a 17 ft boat) before, but nothing like a 10,000+ pound 13+ feet tall 36 feet long RV. Unsurprisingly, it was a tad bit different, and our first trip had the scariest incident to date.
Critical Safety Notes
Before we get into the story, let’s go over some serious safety tips:
- Before even considering towing, check the manufacturer’s specs for your tow vehicle, hitch, and trailer. If any one of these specs doesn’t fit – do not tow!
- GOAL – Get Out And Look, probably the easiest yet most often skipped part of towing. If you’re not sure if there is a tree behind you, stop, get out and go look. If you’re not sure you latched one of the storage compartments, stop, get out and go look. If you’re not sure the hitch lock pin is in, stop, get out and go look.
- Hitch up correctly, here’s how we hitch up our rig.
- Plan your route, including fuel stops if necessary, here’s how we plan our trips.
- Do not rush – there’s no point, and you’ll just make things worse. Part of RVing is to enjoy the journey. Trust me, even experienced RVers don’t nail the park job every time.
- Drive carefully – this should be common sense, but for some reason, it seems like we have all seen that rig on the road swaying like crazy or merging practically on top of the car next to them.
- Know your rig – every rig combination (tow vehicle, trailer, driver, cargo) is different, you need to make sure you are comfortable with yours. For us, we do not tow over 60mph, hate hitch lube plates, and avoid towing with anything in our tanks – more to come on how we learned these tips!
- Know what to do when things go wrong. Nothing replaces experience, but try to have a plan in your head of what to do for some issues, so you aren’t starting from scratch on the first problem. Ex. trailer sway – a real thing that happens periodically for a variety of reasons – stop the sway by calmly driving straight and do not brake!
Our First Trip Fiasco
It was a dark and stormy night, just kidding, but it was windy.
A good idea – booked a county park about 30 minutes from our house, figured this would be a good first trial run. Bonus, municipal parks have epic space to maneuver and depending on location + time of year, not very crowded.
We spent most of the day loading the RV, and didn’t get out on time so a storm started to roll in. Thinking it will be easier and less stressful, we decided to leave the girls at daycare while we got the RV to the campsite and setup – another good idea, look at us go!
Got hitched up, GOAL’d a lot, both of us double checking every step along the way. Got out of the driveway, and off we go! Fun idea – floored it on the on-ramp, nothing really happened other than the truck was louder than usual, turns out the trailer and a heavy duty truck are not going to make it into the Fast N’ Furious anytime soon.
Merged onto the highway, safely in the right lane, totally crushing it at this point, it’s so easy!
First bad idea – how fast is a good highway speed? Definitely slower than we usually drive on the highway, but how much slower? Well F, none of the research I did mentioned a good highway towing speed / I probably missed it not realizing it was important. So, cruise control set to 70 mph.
Second bad idea – full tanks. Ever slide a partially full gallon jug across the counter? Notice how it starts great, then the liquid sloshes, and the just starts to scoot along. Now imagine a 50 gallon tank of water sloshing – that’s a lot of slosh. That meant that any time our trailer swayed, so did the water, and the more it swayed, the more the water swayed.
Third bad idea – construction zone. Technically not our idea, but did not help our cause at this juncture.
Here we come, changing lanes (and sloshing the tanks causing sway), going 70 mph, in a construction zone where the road is uneven. Top it off with the fact that we’re coming out of a large overpass area where there are huge ramps under construction making a tunnel that exits right at a joining on ramp with cars coming into our lane.
And then there was wind. Turns out a 13 ft + trailer acts like a gigantic kite when hit with side winds. That meant our wonderful, new, exciting trailer was now violently swaying behind us like a dog tail wagging, but in the middle of the highway. When I say swaying, I mean white knuckles on the steering, wheel Kirsten screaming, slam the brakes, hitch pivoting like mad.
Luck #1 – we didn’t crash, and we didn’t cause anyone else to crash. We slowed to about 45 mph and had people staring as they passed us, and I was able to get to the side of the road where we slowed to a stop.
Taking a minute to breath (pretty sure we were both in shock), we GOAL’d to see if anything was wrong, then double checked everything. Luck #2, all good to go, so back to driving we go! Yay! Why are we doing this?!?
Luck #3 – only about 5 miles from our exit at this point, on a relatively flat and open stretch of highway. Kirsten pep talked me all the way there, sounding like the nicest, most motivating GPS guidance ever – “only 2 more miles, you’re doing great!”.
Got to the park, heart rate back to normal at this point, and successfully setup camp! When I unhitched, we noticed that the seemingly great idea turned nightmare inducing idea of a lube plate was mangled in between the kingpin, jaws, and hitch head. I may have installed it wrong, since there seem to be a lot of people that like using these devices in lieu of greasing the hitch head, but I can tell you that ours went straight in the trash at that park!
The moral of this story is...
Take. Your. Time.
There was absolutely no need for me to be towing as fast as I was, other than I was used to driving fast and assumed everything was fine – 5th wheels are safer in general than bumper tows right??
We were headed to a park with hookups, meaning there was no reason for me to have water in the tanks.
I didn’t do a good enough job understanding my rig. A few more simple questions would have made things so much easier. Ex. should I use a hitch plate with a pivoting head king pin? how fast is safe to tow an RV?
Looking back on this story, I’m glad it happened, I’m glad it happened when it did, and I do not ever want it to happen again! We learned a lot, and got a bad experience out of the way in the beginning. We both questioned if RV travel was a good idea, but after spending the weekend camping as a family, there was no doubt – we love it!