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TOW A TRAILER OFF-ROAD

How to

WORDS AND IMAGES ROBERT PEPPER

You’ve got the gear and the rig is set up. All you need now are the driving techniques.

First off, don’t attempt off-road towing unless you are already a skilled and confident off-roader and you have a trailer designed for the job. Trailers just make everything harder, although the basic techniques are the same, such as picking your line, momentum in sand, driving straight up and down hills, and use of ruts.

It’s mostly a matter of difficulty, and that starts with a golden rule of off-roading; never drive anywhere you aren’t prepared to back out of or recover yourself from. This rule is even more important for drivers with trailers because recovery is more complex, and backing a trailer may not be possible in some off-road situations.

Off-road drivers soon learn they must form a visual model of where the vehicle’s wheels are at any point in time. With a trailer, that model must be extended to include the trailer: Where are the wheels? Will the trailer cut into a corner? What forces is it likely to exert on the tow vehicle? For example, if you’re ascending a rock ledge, you know you’ll need a squeeze on the throttle to get the front wheels up and over, and another for the rear axle. But now you’ll need a third for the trailer.

The driving line is important but not as critical as it may first seem. The tow vehicle will try and keep all four wheels level to maximise traction, but the ideal line is far less important for the trailer’s wheels as both will be on the ground at all times, and its wheels are not driving.

If the trailer is canted over at a steep angle, it is still almost as easy to pull as if it were level, and a good off-road trailer should have even better clearance than the average tow vehicle and a higher roll resistance. Therefore, give priority to the tow vehicle’s line for good traction and clearance over that of the trailer.

GUIDE Towing Tips

THE ALL-PURPOSE COUPLER FOR ALL TYPES OF CARAVANS AND TRAILERS

ADVERTISEMENT
SCROLL TO CONTINUE

TACKLING HILLS – UP AND DOWN
Hill descents are where you’ll be glad you fitted an electric brake controller. The tow vehicle has the advantage of engine braking so may need just a light touch on the brakes, whereas the trailer has no engine braking. However, that light touch won’t necessarily slow the trailer very much, so increase the sensitivity on your brake controller (an earlier point at which the trailer brakes activate relative to the tow vehicle) for the trailer beyond the road setting, where engine braking isn’t used as much.

When starting a sharp descent the trailer will initially retard the tow vehicle, but as the trailer comes over the crest that retardation will be lost, so be prepared. As ever when descending, use ruts and make sure the trailer and tow vehicle use the same ruts! This may require some extra lining up before the descent. If things go wrong, there should be little chance of the trailer overtaking the tow vehicle. This is because the trailer is lighter, and we’re assuming the driver has appropriately reduced the tyre pressure on the trailer as well as on the much heavier tow vehicle. Therefore, the trailer is better able to brake itself on a hill.

An exception would be a situation with no ruts in the track and the brake bias set so the trailer locks wheels before the tow vehicle. In this situation, the trailer will continue to push the tow vehicle as long as it is descending, and can be used to our advantage where a descent turns immediately into an ascent.

Hill ascents are much the same as without a trailer. However, there will be even less weight on the vehicle’s front wheels due to the trailer towball mass, therefore expect reduced steering control and more lifting of the front wheels. A lower gear may well be needed to account for the extra weight, and the hill doesn’t end until the trailer, not the tow vehicle, is over the top.

ABOVE It is important to keep in these ruts for this descent, so the trailer track must be the same as that of the tow vehicle, and some early lining up in essential. A light touch on the tow vehicle brakes should activate the trailer brakes.

ABOVE If you set the trailer brakes to come on with a little tow vehicle braking, then feather the brakes over a crest the trailer can help retard the tow vehicle as it starts its descent. This isn't’ possible with overrun brakes. // BELOW Sometimes the trailer downforce can assist with stability.

“Never drive anywhere you aren’t prepared to back out of, or recover from”

CRISIS TALKS
The real problem with hills is what happens when you need to fail the climb, and that is perhaps the biggest issue with towing off-road. The issue is that you then need to back the trailer down, and it may well be at an odd angle with the tow vehicle unable to go forward, or you’re otherwise unable to get the lock on needed to manoeuvre the trailer.

Unhooking the trailer may not be much use if the tow vehicle cannot then ascend the hill from where it is. The solution is often going to be winching forwards, so consider that before you start the ascent.

If going forward isn’t an option, then the trailer may need to be unhooked – but how do you pull it backward? That’s where the Tirfor winch comes in, with the plate for the jockey wheel, or a car behind. Once the trailer is out the way you can focus on the tow vehicle. If that sounds difficult – you’re not wrong! Look at all hill ascents as a potential problem.

Check out Pat’s tips for recovering a bogged trailer

ABOVE The trailer is trying to pull the tow vehicle sideways, a force the rear wheels must counteract

ABOVE A rutted, and somewhat slippery ascent requiring momentum. This sort of marginal-traction situation is where a trailer that is easy to tow is the difference between making the hill or a recovery // BELOW The left trailer wheel has just been pulled over a rock, and now the right wheel is over a different one. The driver must remember those rocks, even though the tow vehicle is now well down the track, as well as thinking about the tow vehicle itself and what’s coming up

SOFT TO LIQUID AND SLOW-GOING
Mud bog driving is straightforward, literally. The key here is minimising resistance, so the trailer follows the tow vehicle’s wheels as closely as possible. The same is true of other soft surfaces such as snow and sand. Even so, the extra weight and resistance mean more momentum or a possibly a lower gear. Avoid turning, because then instead of all six wheels following in the same rut you now have all six wheels making their own ruts which increases rolling resistance. Backing a trailer in slippery or soft conditions may not be possible.

Water crossings need a bit more torque, despite the fact the tow vehicle largely forces water out of the way of the trailer, and again any change of direction starts to increase trailer resistance. Backing a trailer out of deep water isn’t easy, especially if there is any appreciable flow. Any off-road trailer worthy of the name will be at least as waterproof as the average 4WD.

Sand driving with a trailer requires you to drop the tyre pressures even further. The big problem with sand and trailers is any form of side-slope, for example on beaches. When on a slope, the trailer exerts a sideways force on the tow vehicle, and the sand might not offer enough lateral traction to resist so you end up with the back end sliding down the slope. That problem quickly becomes worse as the wheels forge their own ruts. In fact, downhill is the answer – turn downwards and drive it out. This is, of course, a problem if ‘downwards’ involves turning towards the tide!

The other big risk involving sand driving is ascending. Firstly, any slight side angle will again see the trailer pulling the back of the tow vehicle sideways. Secondly, reversing a trailer down a sandy slope is often next to impossible because sand offers so little lateral traction, meaning the trailer easily jack-knifes. It is also very difficult to drive uphill in sand to reposition the tow vehicle. Even worse, how do you get out of it? In sandy country there’s not usually a conveniently placed tree to act as a winch anchor. The answer is digging, traction ramps and other vehicles.

ABOVE Momentum is needed more often with trailers, and it carries a higher risk. The driver must have worked out “what if” for both tow vehicle and trailer

THE DYNAMIC DUO
A trailer does decrease a vehicle’s manoeuvrability, but not the outside turning circle as any off-road trailer should still allow you to turn at full lock. What does change is the inside turning circle as the trailer wheels cut inside those of the tow vehicle and the shorter the drawbar, the better. Swinging out wide with the tow vehicle helps, and in general when towing you need to be thinking and planning ahead much, much more than without a trailer.

Even on the road, backing a trailer at full lock may mean a jack-knife situation, and off-road the chances of trouble increase. One solution is to reverse the tow vehicle slightly at full opposite lock, intentionally jack-knifing the trailer to squeeze a little more turning circle. You can also unhook the trailer, and a third option is to use a winch to literally drag the front of the tow vehicle around.

You can also get creative with intentional skids. For example, manually applying the trailer brake and then driving the tow vehicle may induce enough of a skid or slip to move the tow vehicle just enough to make it through, or if you have the option placing the tow vehicle in 2WD and doing something similar to move the rear wheels sideways.

Use these techniques with caution and, in fact, that advice summarises the entire approach to towing off-road, but once you master the techniques, you’ll be amazed where you can drag your trailer.

IT’S ALL IN THE TECHNIQUE
So how do you master the techniques? Well, of course, you can spend every weekend or more often out in the bush practising. Or you could enrol yourself in a course for off-road driving and or towing. What better way to combine the love of the outdoors with the theory and practical training you need to make sure that the other weekends you have free, you’re better equipped (read safer) to enjoy what it is you’re out there for.

Of course, getting bogged or coming a cropper off-road is the price of admission, most of the time, but while it can lead to some fun times, it can also have a nasty side – especially if you’re inexperienced and ‘just having a go’. That can end badly for all concerned.

So to make sure that the day ends as anticipated, with a drink, a sunset and the family camped safely – not swearing, sweating, filthy and stressed – it’s up to you to know what you’re doing! Or get someone who does to show you.

For a national training network, see getabout.edu.au

OUR TEST TRAILER
Over the years we’ve done a lot of off-road towing, but for this feature we needed another trip to get right into the rough stuff in a state forest, driving tracks I’d normally use for intermediate or advanced training. We also needed a decent trailer, and as Track Trailer has often suggested its products be compared for off-road ability against any competitor I called them to arrange a loan. How did it go? Superbly. My recovery crew were surprised that we managed the tracks we did, and they commented that the Tvan seemed to bounce less than the Defender in the rough, it tracked behind the tow vehicle very neatly and it never got hung up or damaged on the rocks or ruts. Perfect.
tracktrailer.com.au

ABOVE The tow vehicle’s rear wheels have avoided the rock, just, but there’s no way the trailer can avoid it. The trailer’s clearance is better than the tow vehicle, and the tow vehicle will have all four wheels on reasonable traction so the trailer can just be pulled through

First off, don’t attempt off-road towing unless you are already a skilled and confident off-roader and you have a trailer designed for the job. Trailers just make everything harder, although the basic techniques are the same, such as picking your line, momentum in sand, driving straight up and down hills, and use of ruts.

It’s mostly a matter of difficulty, and that starts with a golden rule of off-roading; never drive anywhere you aren’t prepared to back out of or recover yourself from. This rule is even more important for drivers with trailers because recovery is more complex, and backing a trailer may not be possible in some off-road situations.

Off-road drivers soon learn they must form a visual model of where the vehicle’s wheels are at any point in time. With a trailer, that model must be extended to include the trailer: Where are the wheels? Will the trailer cut into a corner? What forces is it likely to exert on the tow vehicle? For example, if you’re ascending a rock ledge, you know you’ll need a squeeze on the throttle to get the front wheels up and over, and another for the rear axle. But now you’ll need a third for the trailer.

The driving line is important but not as critical as it may first seem. The tow vehicle will try and keep all four wheels level to maximise traction, but the ideal line is far less important for the trailer’s wheels as both will be on the ground at all times, and its wheels are not driving.

If the trailer is canted over at a steep angle, it is still almost as easy to pull as if it were level, and a good off-road trailer should have even better clearance than the average tow vehicle and a higher roll resistance. Therefore, give priority to the tow vehicle’s line for good traction and clearance over that of the trailer.

TOW A TRAILER OFF-ROAD

How to

You’ve got the gear and the rig is set up. All you need now are the driving techniques.

GUIDE Towing Tips

WORDS AND IMAGES ROBERT PEPPER

THE ALL-PURPOSE COUPLER FOR ALL TYPES OF CARAVANS AND TRAILERS

ADVERTISEMENT
SCROLL TO CONTINUE

TACKLING HILLS – UP AND DOWN
Hill descents are where you’ll be glad you fitted an electric brake controller. The tow vehicle has the advantage of engine braking so may need just a light touch on the brakes, whereas the trailer has no engine braking. However, that light touch won’t necessarily slow the trailer very much, so increase the sensitivity on your brake controller (an earlier point at which the trailer brakes activate relative to the tow vehicle) for the trailer beyond the road setting, where engine braking isn’t used as much.

When starting a sharp descent the trailer will initially retard the tow vehicle, but as the trailer comes over the crest that retardation will be lost, so be prepared. As ever when descending, use ruts and make sure the trailer and tow vehicle use the same ruts! This may require some extra lining up before the descent. If things go wrong, there should be little chance of the trailer overtaking the tow vehicle. This is because the trailer is lighter, and we’re assuming the driver has appropriately reduced the tyre pressure on the trailer as well as on the much heavier tow vehicle. Therefore, the trailer is better able to brake itself on a hill.

An exception would be a situation with no ruts in the track and the brake bias set so the trailer locks wheels before the tow vehicle. In this situation, the trailer will continue to push the tow vehicle as long as it is descending, and can be used to our advantage where a descent turns immediately into an ascent.

Hill ascents are much the same as without a trailer. However, there will be even less weight on the vehicle’s front wheels due to the trailer towball mass, therefore expect reduced steering control and more lifting of the front wheels. A lower gear may well be needed to account for the extra weight, and the hill doesn’t end until the trailer, not the tow vehicle, is over the top.

ABOVE It is important to keep in these ruts for this descent, so the trailer track must be the same as that of the tow vehicle, and some early lining up in essential. A light touch on the tow vehicle brakes should activate the trailer brakes.

ABOVE If you set the trailer brakes to come on with a little tow vehicle braking, then feather the brakes over a crest the trailer can help retard the tow vehicle as it starts its descent. This isn't’ possible with overrun brakes. // BELOW Sometimes the trailer downforce can assist with stability.

“Never drive anywhere you aren’t prepared to back out of, or recover from”

ADVERTISEMENT
SCROLL TO CONTINUE

CRISIS TALKS
The real problem with hills is what happens when you need to fail the climb, and that is perhaps the biggest issue with towing off-road. The issue is that you then need to back the trailer down, and it may well be at an odd angle with the tow vehicle unable to go forward, or you’re otherwise unable to get the lock on needed to manoeuvre the trailer.

Unhooking the trailer may not be much use if the tow vehicle cannot then ascend the hill from where it is. The solution is often going to be winching forwards, so consider that before you start the ascent.

If going forward isn’t an option, then the trailer may need to be unhooked – but how do you pull it backward? That’s where the Tirfor winch comes in, with the plate for the jockey wheel, or a car behind. Once the trailer is out the way you can focus on the tow vehicle. If that sounds difficult – you’re not wrong! Look at all hill ascents as a potential problem.

ABOVE The trailer is trying to pull the tow vehicle sideways, a force the rear wheels must counteract

Check out Pat’s tips for recovering a bogged trailer

SOFT TO LIQUID AND SLOW-GOING
Mud bog driving is straightforward, literally. The key here is minimising resistance, so the trailer follows the tow vehicle’s wheels as closely as possible. The same is true of other soft surfaces such as snow and sand. Even so, the extra weight and resistance mean more momentum or a possibly a lower gear. Avoid turning, because then instead of all six wheels following in the same rut you now have all six wheels making their own ruts which increases rolling resistance. Backing a trailer in slippery or soft conditions may not be possible.

Water crossings need a bit more torque, despite the fact the tow vehicle largely forces water out of the way of the trailer, and again any change of direction starts to increase trailer resistance. Backing a trailer out of deep water isn’t easy, especially if there is any appreciable flow. Any off-road trailer worthy of the name will be at least as waterproof as the average 4WD.

Sand driving with a trailer requires you to drop the tyre pressures even further. The big problem with sand and trailers is any form of side-slope, for example on beaches. When on a slope, the trailer exerts a sideways force on the tow vehicle, and the sand might not offer enough lateral traction to resist so you end up with the back end sliding down the slope. That problem quickly becomes worse as the wheels forge their own ruts. In fact, downhill is the answer – turn downwards and drive it out. This is, of course, a problem if ‘downwards’ involves turning towards the tide!

The other big risk involving sand driving is ascending. Firstly, any slight side angle will again see the trailer pulling the back of the tow vehicle sideways. Secondly, reversing a trailer down a sandy slope is often next to impossible because sand offers so little lateral traction, meaning the trailer easily jack-knifes. It is also very difficult to drive uphill in sand to reposition the tow vehicle. Even worse, how do you get out of it? In sandy country there’s not usually a conveniently placed tree to act as a winch anchor. The answer is digging, traction ramps and other vehicles.

ABOVE A rutted, and somewhat slippery ascent requiring momentum. This sort of marginal-traction situation is where a trailer that is easy to tow is the difference between making the hill or a recovery // BELOW The left trailer wheel has just been pulled over a rock, and now the right wheel is over a different one. The driver must remember those rocks, even though the tow vehicle is now well down the track, as well as thinking about the tow vehicle itself and what’s coming up

THE DYNAMIC DUO
A trailer does decrease a vehicle’s manoeuvrability, but not the outside turning circle as any off-road trailer should still allow you to turn at full lock. What does change is the inside turning circle as the trailer wheels cut inside those of the tow vehicle and the shorter the drawbar, the better. Swinging out wide with the tow vehicle helps, and in general when towing you need to be thinking and planning ahead much, much more than without a trailer.

Even on the road, backing a trailer at full lock may mean a jack-knife situation, and off-road the chances of trouble increase. One solution is to reverse the tow vehicle slightly at full opposite lock, intentionally jack-knifing the trailer to squeeze a little more turning circle. You can also unhook the trailer, and a third option is to use a winch to literally drag the front of the tow vehicle around.

You can also get creative with intentional skids. For example, manually applying the trailer brake and then driving the tow vehicle may induce enough of a skid or slip to move the tow vehicle just enough to make it through, or if you have the option placing the tow vehicle in 2WD and doing something similar to move the rear wheels sideways.

Use these techniques with caution and, in fact, that advice summarises the entire approach to towing off-road, but once you master the techniques, you’ll be amazed where you can drag your trailer.

ABOVE Momentum is needed more often with trailers, and it carries a higher risk. The driver must have worked out “what if” for both tow vehicle and trailer

IT’S ALL IN THE TECHNIQUE
So how do you master the techniques? Well, of course, you can spend every weekend or more often out in the bush practising. Or you could enrol yourself in a course for off-road driving and or towing. What better way to combine the love of the outdoors with the theory and practical training you need to make sure that the other weekends you have free, you’re better equipped (read safer) to enjoy what it is you’re out there for.

Of course, getting bogged or coming a cropper off-road is the price of admission, most of the time, but while it can lead to some fun times, it can also have a nasty side – especially if you’re inexperienced and ‘just having a go’. That can end badly for all concerned.

So to make sure that the day ends as anticipated, with a drink, a sunset and the family camped safely – not swearing, sweating, filthy and stressed – it’s up to you to know what you’re doing! Or get someone who does to show you.

For a national training network, see getabout.edu.au

OUR TEST TRAILER
Over the years we’ve done a lot of off-road towing, but for this feature we needed another trip to get right into the rough stuff in a state forest, driving tracks I’d normally use for intermediate or advanced training. We also needed a decent trailer, and as Track Trailer has often suggested its products be compared for off-road ability against any competitor I called them to arrange a loan. How did it go? Superbly. My recovery crew were surprised that we managed the tracks we did, and they commented that the Tvan seemed to bounce less than the Defender in the rough, it tracked behind the tow vehicle very neatly and it never got hung up or damaged on the rocks or ruts. Perfect.
tracktrailer.com.au

ABOVE The tow vehicle’s rear wheels have avoided the rock, just, but there’s no way the trailer can avoid it. The trailer’s clearance is better than the tow vehicle, and the tow vehicle will have all four wheels on reasonable traction so the trailer can just be pulled through