30 April 2011

There are literally four billion factors that can affect the ease of towing an Airstream like ours, and today we had nearly every one of them stacked against us. Let’s take a look at each one individually…

On second thought, suffice it to say that a tired and uncaffienated novice Airstream driver with a slightly overloaded trailer and arguably undersized truck with no weight distribution or sway control gets awfully nervous when towing across the snowblown summit of the Rocky Mountains with crosswind gusts up to 50 mph and semi-trailers passing quickly on the left. But here we are, of course, safe and sound; though not without some celebration and a bit of residual anxiety.

Overweight trailer

The day before we left, and just hours after packing the last of our items, I decided to weigh our rig on the scales out on the family farm. The general takeaway was that we were wildly overloaded and would have to do some major purging and repacking if we wanted to stay safe. To be honest, we thought we’d packed rather modestly (there is still lots of empty storage space in our trailer) but we easily found a few unnecessary pans, a dense bocce ball set, and our Weber grill & propane bottle to leave behind. Most of our trailer’s cargo weight comes from the modifications we’ve made to our forward bedroom: a pair of new bunk beds and an office desk, complete with 27” iMac (I’ll post more about these mods soon!). This weight isn’t easily removed and was especially troublesome since both are so far forward of the trailer’s axles.

On a whim, we decided to double-check some of our measurements and discovered that the scales were not actually zeroed-out properly; when empty, they read 800 lbs! That revelation was definitely a relief, but even subtracting 800 pounds we were still slightly overloaded in a few ways. For now, I think we’re okay, but long-term we may look at reengineering the desk to shed a few more pounds.

Undersized truck

Our new Ford F-150 Platinum was purchased for the explicit purpose of hauling our 27’ trailer all around the continent. I still contend we made the right choice–I love our truck and think its versatility makes it the perfect vehicle for the job–but a lot of RVers would insist on something beefier, like a 3/4- or full 1-ton truck. A larger truck with higher towing capacities and longer wheelbase would certainly eliminate most of our weight concerns, but wouldn’t be nearly as maneuverable, versatile, or elegant for all the time we’re not hitched up. And with the proper hitch installed, our truck should be more than adequate to handle the Airstream.

Hitch

A “mandatory” piece of equipment for anyone towing as much and through the kinds of terrains and conditions we will is a weight-distribution and sway-control hitch. There are lots of different types and brands on the market, but the ones widely regarded as the best are the Hensley Arrow and ProPride 3P, both designed by Jim Hensley. We ordered a 3P hitch several weeks ago, but we hadn’t received it in time for us to leave, and so we’re using a standard receiver hitch ball (the great Tow & Stow by B&W) for the time being. (Sean at ProPride was kind enough to change our shipping address to a UPS facility in Salt Lake City, where we’ll pick it up and install it early next week.)

Anyway, a standard hitch ball is just not as capable of handling the forces exerted by a heavy trailer like ours. The weight-distribution part attempts to spread the trailer’s weight across all of the axles evenly, providing a rig that sits level and tows smoother. Right now, our rig forms a noticable V-shape, dipping substantially where the trailer meets the truck; a WD hitch will fix that and hopefully keep people from flashing their brights at us.

The sway-control portion of the hitch attempts to prevent the trailer from pivoting at the trailer coupler and projects a new pivot point several feet forward, toward the truck’s rear axle, giving more control of the trailer to the driver. Sway is something I’ve been fighting ever since we loaded our trailer. We’ve dealt with strong northern winds most of our travels so far, keeping us well under 60 mph to keep from drifting across the center line. Passing semis also pose a potential sway problem. With each one, especially today, there’s a notable feeling of, first, the trailer being sucked into the passing truck, and second, just as it passes, being pushed away. I’m getting better at anticipating the forces and adjusting accordingly, but I never enjoy the looseness in the steering wheel as the trailer tries to push the truck around. That’s definitley something I hope a sway control hitch alleviates for us.

Driving conditions

The winds, which we’ve covered (50 mph gusts!), are clearly the big concern. But there’s a lot of other variables, too. Today we had to deal with low visibility and wet roads atop the summit east of Laramie, Wyoming from thick blowing snow. Traffic was decent, but we kept quite a bit slower than the experienced truck drivers who passed us quickly, and frequently.

Steep grades and hairpin turns are another issue. I bought the Mountain Directory West, a book that describes most of the mountainous driving conditions in the West in great detail: how long the grades are, how steep they are, how many lanes are available, if there are switchbacks, sharp curves, narrow shoulders, sharp dropoffs, escape ramps, etc. Today’s drive had just one 5 mile section of 5% grades. I was a little nervous about it, given all the other things working against us, but it worked out just fine. I’ll be happy when we’ve got our new hitch installed, but I’m ready to try something a little more difficult now (and indeed, tomorrow’s plans include a 2.5 mile, 9% section!).

It is cold here in the mountains. Tonight we’re in for lows of 20&deg and so we’ll be putting the Airstream’s furnace to the test. Here’s to hoping the propane holds out!