Tips for Loading an Open Trailer and Towing it Safely

Open trailers are extremely useful for hauling recreational vehicles, lawn and gardening items, and even for commercial use for landscapers, construction, and other businesses. However, without following the proper steps for loading and towing, you put your own safety and that of others at risk, as well as risk damaging the goods you are towing. Let’s spend some time reviewing some best practices for loading an open trailer and towing it safely.

First, make sure you know the Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) to determine the most weight allowed of both your trailer and the cargo you wish to tow. Look for the GVWR on the VIN label of your trailer. Next, be aware of the Gross Axle Weight Rating (GAWR). This is the maximum distributed weight that the axle of your vehicle can support and will typically indicate FR for the front axle or RR for rear axles.

Other helpful things to know include:

  • Trailer Weight: The weight of a fully assembled, empty trailer.
  • Payload Capacity: The total weight capacity of a trailer. To determine payload capacity, subtract the weight of your trailer from the GVWR and multiply by 80%.
  • Tongue Weight: This is the amount of the trailer’s weight that is transferred to your tow vehicle through the trailer tongue or gooseneck. A general rule of thumb is that 20-25% of a trailer’s total weight plus its cargo should be on the tongue of the trailer.

With this information at hand, you’re ready to start loading your open trailer. Keep in mind that your open trailer should be loaded heavier in the front of the box – this should be about 60% of your cargo weight. Remember to pack your cargo closely and firmly, using tie downs or other tensioning devices to keep cargo secure. No small items should be loaded above the height of the sides of the trailer box, even if you are only transporting something a short distance across your yard.

Beyond those basics, there are some additional loading tips for open trailers to keep in mind.

  • Fixed Loads: A fixed load includes mowers, palletized materials, and skid-steer loaders and other similar equipment. When you have this type of load, if it needs to be carried or dumped, be sure to do so evenly throughout the trailer.
  • Rear Loading Equipment: Remember to lower your rear stabilizers if your trailer is equipped, or place blocking under the rear of your trailer to help keep the front of the trailer in place during loading. Make sure your trailer’s doors/gates are securely opened and put the ramps into place. Then, load the trailer as you would any other, making sure the cargo weight is distributed appropriately.
  • Side Loading: If your trailer is equipped with a fold-down side, unlatch and open the side panel, and then load cargo such as pallets. Be sure to follow the proper steps for securing your cargo to the trailer, and make sure to raise and lock the side panels before towing your trailer. Failure to do so will create a driving hazard and could lead serious injury or worse.
  • Loading Bulk Materials in a Dump Trailer: If you will be hauling bulk materials, be sure to tell the loader operator your trailer’s payload capacity so he or she will have an approximate weight of the materials to be loaded. If you are uncertain about the weight of the materials to be loaded, always err on the side of caution and load a small amount and then weigh your trailer. Evenly distribute the load in the trailer across the width and length, and cover with a tarp if any materials might blow out of the trailer when traveling. If you notice your trailer is overloaded, do not attempt to raise the dump body. Use the necessary equipment to remove excess weight or do it by hand.

Once your trailer has been properly loaded, be sure to follow all the precautions for towing safety, such as:

  • Avoiding distracted driving.
  • Not driving when you are sleepy or fatigued.
  • Maintaining a speed of 55 miles per hour or less.
  • Anticipating stops, braking early, and maintaining a safe distance from the car in front of you.
  • Slowing down before you start driving downhill.
  • Not riding your brakes while going downhill.
  • Not using cruise control or overdrive while towing a trailer.
  • Avoiding sharp turns.
  • Easing off the gas pedal and slowing your speed to 25 miles per hour in the event that a wheel goes off a paved road, then gradually steering your vehicle and trailer back onto the road.
  • Making routine stops to check and retighten lug nuts, check air pressure, and that the coupler, safety chains, and cargo are still secure.

As always, consult with your owner’s manual or dealer for the most specific loading and towing instructions for your open trailer. You can find additional safety information in our Pre-Departure Checklist, Guide to Towing, and Vimeo Channel.