If you are a trailer owner, or are thinking about getting a trailer soon, there is one big, important detail you need to be aware of. Tongue weight. What does that mean exactly? In short, it means you need to have the appropriate amount of weight applied at the tongue, or front end of the trailer. Not too much and definitely not too little. The stability of your trailer while traveling at highway speeds very well depends on it! Let's explore how you can pack a trailer to keep yourself safe, as well as those around you, on the road.
The 60/40 Rule
The 60/40 rule is a simple guide to loading your trailer. In short, you want to have 60% of the weight on your trailer placed on or before the axle(s) with the remaining 40% falling behind the axles. Why is that exactly? Think of your vehicle and trailer as the pendulum of a grandfather clock. The end furthest from the top holds the weight which keeps the pendulum swinging. The same physics are at work with your vehicle and trailer. The further the weight is from your vehicle, the longer and harder your trailer will potentially swing back and forth when on the road.
Stopping Trailer "Death Sway"
OK, so you didn't get your trailer balanced very well... Now you're hitting the road and are wondering what you can do, if anything, should your trailer does start the death sway, right? The good news is, there are things you can do if you do find yourself towing a trailer in full death sway!
Keep Hold Of The Steering Wheel You want to keep both hands on the wheel because you may be in the fight of your life. When your trailer begins to death sway, especially with lighter tow vehicles, it can turn into a situation where "the tail is wagging the dog". Basically your trailer will start to rock your vehicle back and forth should it get too far out of hand.
Take Your Foot Off The Gas & Slow Down Naturally Speed is a big factor in trailer death sway. As you pull your trailer along, say at 25 MPH, should a gust of wind hit the trailer from the side, you probably won't notice too much. Why is that? Gravity. Gravity is keeping your trailer firmly planted to the ground and less likely to move side to side. So if gravity is a constant, why would speed make a difference? Great question! Enter other forces! So gravity does keep your trailer grounded but the force exerted by your tow vehicle make it move in a different direction which makes it harder for gravity to keep your trailer grounded. The easiest way to see this play out is picturing your trailer hitting a pothole at highway speed versus hitting the same pothole at 25 MPH. At the slower speed, gravity has enough time to pull your trailer tire down into the hole whereas, at highway speeds, your trailer wheel may not even touch the ground before it impacts the other side of the pothole. Let me say that again, your trailer just went a significant distance off the ground. It may only be inches but you just traveled a distance with half the traction you normally would have had on your trailer.
Do NOT Hit The Brakes The trailer is in full death sway now. You are starting to panic as it gets harder and harder to hold the wheel and keep your vehicle on the road. Your first instinct might be to jam on the brakes and bring everything back under control. Well, you'd be wrong. Remember the tail wagging the dog? You hit the brakes on your vehicle and your trailer isn't going to care. In fact, it might keep pushing in whatever direction it's facing when you hit the brakes which could send your vehicle into a tail spin! If you have a trailer brake controller and working trailer brakes, you can and should bring the trailer back behind the vehicle by using the trailer brake applicator. If you don't have working trailer brakes or a trailer brake controller, you should allow the tow vehicle and trailer to slow down naturally. Just take your foot off the gas, do not touch the brakes, and gradually slow down while holding the vehicle and trailer on the road as best you can.
Achieving your ideal 60/40 weight distribution will all but eliminate the chances of trailer death sway. You will also want to be sure to secure your load as it may shift in transit and compromise your ideal weight distribution. You will also want to consider reducing your speed while driving. As I mentioned above, in my attempt to explain physics, the faster you are moving, the more likely you are to have your trailer take flight and begin to swing around behind you. Take it easy, it's not a race, as the goal is to reach your destination safely, right?
Of course, when you don't load your trailer correctly, you get a bad case of "trailer death sway". Just ease down in speed and hang on until you can regain control