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The Essential Guide to Safely Towing a Vehicle Behind Your Motorhome
Choosing which vehicle to tow behind your motorhome is a big decision. Because, beyond considering what type of vehicle you want to drive when your motorhome is parked, you have to think about how adaptable that vehicle is to towing, and how well suited your motorhome is to towing it. It seems simple enough at first, but there are a lot of options out there in vehicles and equipment, and choosing the right setup can make the difference between an uneventful journey and one fraught with annoying (and dangerous) problems.
Dinghy towing is arguably the most popular way to bring a vehicle with you on your travels. Dinghy towing (also known as “flat towing” ) is the process of towing a vehicle with all four wheels on the ground. RVers tend to prefer this method, as it does not require loading a vehicle on a dolly, and there’s no concern over where to stow the dolly once you arrive at your destination. Simply attach the tow bar from the car to the motorhome, connect your electrical and breakaway connections, and you’re off.
The purpose of this article is to help guide you through the process of buying the vehicle that’s right for you, and helping you set it up correctly so that you won’t be greeted by unpleasant surprises along the way.
Choosing a Vehicle
Beyond choosing a vehicle you’d like to drive, the first step is determining if what you’re considering is actually dinghy-towable. The limiting factor, in almost all instances, is the transmission. Whether automatic or manual, not all receive lubrication when the engine is turned off, and can therefore be severely damaged by towing at highway speeds.
To help narrow down your choices, just click a year above to download the actual towing guides by manufacturer and vehicle. In addition to pointing out which current-year vehicles can be towed, it lists crucial information such as vehicle weight and speed/distance limits. The former is important because each motorhome has a tow rating, and the weight of a towed vehicle obviously impacts its acceleration and hill-climbing ability. The latter plays a big part in how you travel; if the maximum speed you drive your coach is 65 mph and you only stop when you need fuel, you don’t want a dinghy vehicle that can only be towed at 55 mph and must have the engine started and run every 200 miles to lubricate the transmission!
In more recent years, the dinghy guide also lists any special procedures required to tow the vehicle you’re considering, such as transmission/transfer-case preparation, ignition-key position, fuse removal and other steps. These are required by the manufacturer to ensure that the transmission and transfer case (in 4WD vehicles) aren’t damaged, and that the battery does not discharge during travel. For example, some vehicles must have the key in the ignition, switched to the acc (accessory) position so that the steering wheel will remain unlocked during towing. However, this may switch on the ignition, dashboard lighting, etc., as well, so a fuse may need to be removed before towing, or the negative battery cable may have to be disconnected to prevent the battery from going dead. You’ll have to be honest with yourself and decide whether or not doing this work every time you tow is worthwhile, or if you’d prefer an easier route. Many vehicles, particularly small, manual-transmission models, require only that the steering column be unlocked and the transmission switched to neutral – no other steps required.
Depending on your budget and personal preferences, you may also consider purchasing a used vehicle instead of something brand-new. There are a few good reasons for this. One, you have the opportunity to thoroughly research the vehicle you’re considering and find out how easy/reliable it is to dinghy-tow. RV forums such as www.rv.net are great places to query other RVers about your potential dinghy choice. You’ll find that members are more than happy to share their experiences (good or bad) with you, perhaps even offer another suggestion that you hadn’t considered (a small SUV instead of passenger car, for example). Two, it’s often easier to find towing accessories such as baseplates (more on those later) for established vehicles than it is for brand-new ones – plus, there will likely be more choices available. Finally, consider that towing a vehicle can be hard on it. Beyond tire wear and tear, dirt and damage are always an issue. Diesel pushers can coat your dinghy in sooty residue, a freak hailstorm can strike and your coach can kick up rocks that cause damage (though there are some products on the market designed to prevent this). Your dinghy vehicle may also require permanent modifications to the front fascia (such as cutting a lower grille or spoiler) in order to mount a baseplate – something that may be easier for you to stomach on a 10-year-old car than a brand-new one.
Of course, there are benefits to choosing a new vehicle as well, not the least of which is that new-car smell and a factory warranty. Just be certain, when buying a new vehicle, to conduct your own due diligence. Ask the dealer to see a copy of the owner’s manual and confirm for yourself that the vehicle is, in fact, dinghy-towable. Be extra careful when looking at a manual that may cover several different models; for example, one version of an SUV’s 4WD transfer case may be towable, another may not be. Beyond making sure the vehicle is towable from a mechanical standpoint, seeing it spelled out in black and white confirms that the vehicle is approved by the manufacturer for dinghy towing, and therefore should be covered under warranty if anything goes wrong.
Baseplates and Tow Bars
In order to tow a vehicle behind your motorhome, there are some required essentials, namely a base-plate, a tow bar and a braking system.
Obviously, production vehicles are designed to be driven, not towed, so there has to be a way to create solid connection points on the vehicle where a tow bar can be attached. A baseplate is the answer. Think of it like a hitch receiver in reverse; it mounts to the frame under the front of the vehicle, and allows a tow bar to be attached so it can be towed by the motorhome. Depending on the baseplate manufacturer and the vehicle, this can be a pretty straightforward bolt-on, or may require the entire front fascia of the vehicle to be removed. Companies such as Blue Ox, Demco and Roadmaster offer handy fit lists that will tell you if a baseplate is available for your vehicle, how much time is required to install it and even what modifications may be required. When in doubt, call the baseplate manufacturer for specifics; not all manufacturers use the same mounting procedures.
You should also be prepared to make minor modifications. Baseplates are fit to an individual test vehicle, so connection points on subsequent vehicles can be slightly off, which means there might be some installation gymnastics involved. The good news is that base-plate fitment is better today than ever.
The tow bar is your next consideration, and it’s matched to the attachment hardware from the manufacturer. While you can still find tow bars that attach to the dinghy vehicle and hook to a ball in the motorhome’s hitch receiver, the trend is to use tow bars that remain mounted to the motorhome and connect to the dinghy vehicle for towing. The tow bar itself is shaped like an “A” so that it can be connected at two points on the vehicle’s baseplate. The important considerations for the tow bar are capacity (how much weight the bar is rated for) and how the bar functions. Release mechanisms vary among the suppliers and some are designed to work better on uneven terrain.
Make sure to compare features as well; basic tow bars may be more affordable, but they may be more difficult to attach and may not work when the ground isn’t level. You may also consider the materials (steel vs. aluminum) and what accessories (if any) can be mounted to the tow bar.
For example, some companies offer deflectors to protect the front of the dinghy vehicle from being damaged by rocks, including the KarGard II by Blue Ox, the Sentry Deflector by Demco, and the Guardian Rock Shield and Tow Defender by Roadmaster. These products may not make your dinghy vehicle impervious to damage, but they can certainly keep it down to a minimum. And, as with the dinghy vehicles themselves, RV forums can be a great resource to determine which bars/accessories are right for you.
As with towing a trailer behind a tow vehicle, dinghy towing is safe and trouble-free if you follow these simple tips:
- Follow the vehicle manufacturer’s instructions exactly.
- Rather than look through the owner’s manual each time, create your own checklist of what to do, and in what order. Include installing the brake system (if applicable) and performing a common safety check on that list. Don’t forget the keys!
- Check tire pressure.
- Remember, inflating the tires to the tire manufacturer’s stated maximum pressure on the sidewall will reduce rolling resistance and may help improve mileage. By contrast, underinflation will increase drag, accelerate tire wear and may result in tire failure while towing.
- Confirm that you are ready to tow.
- First, check that the dinghy transmission is set properly. After hitching up and going through the required procedure, pull ahead slowly to make sure the emergency brake is off and that the wheels are moving freely. You will know right away if the tires are not moving.
- Get a tire-pressure-monitoring system.
Tire-pressure-monitoring systems (TPMS) have made great advances in recent years, and many systems allow users to monitor the tire positions on both the motorhome and the dinghy vehicle in real time. When you’ve got as many as eight tires on the motorhome, and four more on the dinghy vehicle, a good TPMS can be worth its weight in gold, and go a long way toward making your trip worry-free.
- Use a rearview camera.
Most motorhomes have a rearview-camera system, but some of them only turn on in reverse. Manually activate the rear vision, if possible, to keep tabs on the dinghy vehicle. If you get a flat tire, or something else goes wrong, you’ll be glad you did.
- Don’t back up!
Backing up with a dinghy in tow can cause damage to the tow bar and/or tow vehicle. Our advice is that you become proficient at connecting/disconnecting the dinghy vehicle so you can move it independent of the motorhome when needed. Even more so than when driving just the coach, plan ahead and consider your anticipated route, such as maneuvering through a fuel stop with a dinghy tagging along, so you don’t need to back up somewhere along the line.
There is often a lot of debate on this subject, with many RVers claiming that a dinghy-braking system simply isn’t necessary. However, there are facts that refute this. For one, consider that a dinghy vehicle is essentially a trailer, and trailers weighing 1,500 pounds or more are required to have a braking system. Now, consider that most passenger cars weigh 3,200 to 5,000 pounds, with SUVs and pickups weighing as much as 7,000 pounds plus. You don’t have to be an engineer to realize that having several thousand pounds of unbraked weight behind you will increase your stopping distance – and even if it’s only by a few feet, that can mean the difference between safely stopping or hitting the vehicle in front of you. If you’re still not convinced, here’s a reason that is perhaps more compelling: More and more states, as well as provinces in Canada, require that any towed vehicle have a supplemental braking system.
Though there is a wide variety of dinghy-braking systems available, they can essentially be broken down into two categories: portable and permanent. Portable systems are the most popular because they don’t require much time to install or remove, and typically don’t require any modifications to the vehicle. Simply place it on the driver’s side floor, attach the arm to the brake pedal and plug it in to a 12-volt DC power source (cigarette lighter). The down side of these systems is that they typically operate off of a “dead” pedal (the power brake system isn’t energized when the engine is off) and may not provide immediate, proportional braking; that is, when you apply the brakes in the motorhome, there may be a short delay while the brake system applies the brake pedal in the dinghy.
For those who prefer a permanently mounted system, there are a few good choices. Using this type of system requires a bigger commitment in both price and installation considerations, but once installed, it is fast and easy to connect. A permanently mounted system connects directly to the motorhome’s air or hydraulic brake system for quick, proportionate braking, and employs some method of energizing the power-brake booster. Roadmaster and SMI manufacturing offer permanently mounted systems with their own functions and claimed benefits, so be sure to research these products thoroughly before making a purchase. After all, once it’s installed, you can’t easily uninstall it.
As we stated earlier, vehicles are intended to be driven, not towed. That means that, unlike on a travel trailer or fifth-wheel, there is no provision for plugging a vehicle into the motorhome’s seven-pin connector and having the running lights and turn signals come on in the dinghy vehicle when you activate them in the motorhome (although the dinghy’s brake lights will come on if it is equipped with a supplemental braking system). So, you’ve got three choices: One-way diodes can be used to hardwire into the dinghy vehicle’s electrical system; a qualified technician can install independent bulbs in the taillight fixtures of the dinghy vehicle so they can mimic a trailer connection; or you can use auxiliary lights, similar to what a tow-truck driver uses when he tows your car. Some towing-hardware manufacturers also offer electronic adapters to facilitate this taillight wiring.Auxiliary lighting can be plugged into the motorhome’s electrical connector (typically seven-way) or you can go wireless, which is much more expensive.
Tow lights that mount temporarily to the vehicle with magnets or suction cups is another option. Products like the RVHW32 Wireless RV Tow Light Package from TowMate (www.towmate.com) have their own brake lights, taillights and turn signals and install in minutes – simply plug the transmitter into the coach’s seven-pin connector, mount the Tow Light on the rear of the vehicle, then plug the receiver into the dinghy’s 12-volt DC power outlet and turn it on. Some RVers may be concerned about mounting a magnet to a painted surface, but there are ways to mitigate this, and the suction cups allow the system to be mounted to the rear window. Like many choices in the RV lifestyle, whichever method you choose is a matter of personal preference.
A permanently installed system is definitely the most convenient, since it eliminates additional hardware and connection points for the lights. However, when hard-wiring or adding bulb fixtures, we can’t stress enough the importance of finding an experienced, qualified shop to do this sort of work – the wiring can be quite involved, and there is a lot of room for error if the technician isn’t experienced. Don’t leave the electrical work in your vehicle up to just anyone – do some research and find out who really knows what they’re doing first. Even if you have to travel out of town or out of state, a reputable shop that stands behind its work is worth the extra effort.
Maybe you’d like to be practical and tow a car you already have, but that vehicle isn’t mechanically suitable for dinghy towing. Or, there’s a new vehicle that you would really like to buy, but the manufacturer says it can’t be towed without damaging the transmission. Do you have options?
Yes and no. Remco Industries offers lube-pump kits that will circulate the transmission fluid while towing, preventing damage. Remco’s website (www.remcoindustries.com) offers handy tools that will let you know in just a few minutes if the vehicle you’re considering is towable or not, and which products will be required. There’s even a list of “recommended vehicles” for towing, which is great if you’re still shopping for a dinghy vehicle.
The bad news: If your vehicle isn’t on Remco’s list, it probably can’t be towed on anything but a dolly or a trailer. Even if you could fit a lube pump, you may need a baseplate custom-made (depending on the year and model of the vehicle) – which would likely make the whole project more trouble than it’s worth.
Another option may be to use a driveshaft disconnect, which prevents the transmission from turning, thereby preventing damage. The driveshaft-disconnect system previously offered by Remco is now sold through Superior Driveline
(www.remcodsc.com/driveShaft.php). The coupling (mechanical clutch) is installed into the rear portion of the vehicle’s driveshaft, near the rear axle. When disconnected, the rear axle is free to turn without turning the driveshaft or transmission. The coupling has a control cable attached, which extends to a location under, or on the side of, the driver’s seat. This control cable is pulled out to disengage for tow mode and pushed in to engage drive mode.
If your vehicle can’t be flat-towed and there are no towing solutions available, another option for front-wheel-drive vehicles is a tow dolly (towing a rear-wheel-drive vehicle facing rearward isn’t recommended and can be dangerous). A lot of RVers prefer dolly towing over dinghy towing because it’s simply a matter of connecting the dolly, plugging in the electrical, driving the car on and strapping it down – no concerns over dead batteries, and no need for a supplemental braking system.