Safely towing a trailer involves thoughtful preparation, load care, and vehicle operation on the road. Whether you are a professional driver looking to avoid trailer sway or have a recreational trailer and want to learn how to prevent getting into an accident, knowing how to handle a situation where your trailer starts to fishtail is a critical part of safe travel.
Here, we are going to go over a few practical tips and some helpful information so that you can more easily prevent fishtailing and trailer sway as you travel. We’ll discuss how to safely recover from incidents, and what causes trailer instability in the first place. That way, you can get from point A to point B safely and securely.
Understanding Fishtailing and The Causes of Trailer Instability
Trailer sway and fishtail movements occur when a trailer starts to move from side to side on its own. This dangerous shifting can be caused by many factors. Before long, the trailer gets out of the control of the vehicle towing it. Many elements may contribute to trailer instability, such as the speed you are travelling, gusting winds, road conditions, and improper weight distribution. Eventually, the trailer’s shifting momentum can result in catastrophic consequences like the trailer tilting, turning, and in worst-case scenarios, flipping the trailer, and the vehicle hauling it over.
Some of the most common causes of trailer sway include improper weight distribution, speeding, tight turns, steep roads, high-speed driving (even within the speed limit), a larger truck passing, surprise wind gusts or crosswinds, over-correcting when swaying starts, and tires that are improperly inflated.
Properly Loading and Securing Your Trailer to Prevent Fishtail Movements
One of the most important aspects to understand when preventing a swaying trailer is how to properly load and secure your trailer and any cargo that it is carrying in the first place. This involves distributing payload weight evenly, using tie-downs and straps, and ensuring that your trailer is never overloaded.
To safely tow a recreational trailer, you will first need to look at the towing capacity of your specific vehicle, as related to its make, model, and hauling guidelines. Be sure that your truck or SUV is capable of hauling the weight of your recreational trailer. Consider how much weight will be inside of your vehicle and inside of the trailer as well. Then, you can begin loading and securing any cargo.
Drivers should be careful to ensure that any trailer is loaded evenly on both sides. As a rule of thumb, heavier items should always go toward the front of the trailer with lighter items toward the back and up top. Approximately 60% of the total weight of a given payload should be positioned toward the front of a trailer. Typically, the more weight that is packed toward the back of the trailer, the more likely occurrences of instability are.
Also, keep in mind that cargo can shift during transit, redistributing weight without you realizing it. This is why using straps and tie-downs properly is so important. Different tie-downs and straps often have different guidelines for use, so be sure to follow any instructions that you have for your straps as exactly as possible. Then, make sure that you tightly secure all of your cargo for the long haul.
The Role of Weight Distribution and Hitch Adjustments in Preventing Fishtailing
As you probably already know, there are several hitch designs out there to choose from. Many of these hitches claim to reduce occurrences of swaying through an array of friction control and weight distribution mechanisms. Friction-based hitches can create a more rigid connection which will limit sway while still allowing your trailer to turn. Alternatively, weight distribution hitches implement special parts that help distribute tongue weight among all axles for both the tow vehicle and the trailer.
You should also determine the correct hitch height for your travel trailer. Travel trailers are often adaptable for use with a range of different vehicles. However, these adaptable hitches can be difficult to adjust to the correct level if you aren’t sure what you’re doing. Usually, the hitch of your travel trailer can be adjusted but the receiver for your tow vehicle cannot. So, you will want to fit your trailer to match the height of the vehicle and keep things as level as possible.
Don’t forget to account for the rise or drop of ball mounts. Be sure to adjust the ball angle farther away from the towing vehicle. The goal is to angle any weight distribution spring bars downward, facing the ground. Poor hitching setups can be very dangerous, especially at high speeds. Finding the right hitch height for your travel trailer is a smart way to prevent trailer instability.
How To Recognize and Respond to Fishtailing While on The Road
It can be a scary feeling if the trailer you are towing begins to sway or fishtail while you are driving. Recognizing and responding to a fishtail situation properly can help keep you, your passengers, and other drivers on the road safer.
Generally, you will be able to feel if the trailer you are towing begins to sway. However, you may also be able to see a swaying trailer in your rearview mirror before you start to feel it. When this happens, be sure to remain calm and keep a level head. If your foot is on the gas, slowly stop accelerating. Do not slam on the brakes or make any sudden movements. This can cause jackknifing.
If possible, gently reduce your speed and try to straighten out the trailer. Keep a firm hold on the steering wheel and avoid making any sudden turns until the swaying motion subsides. You can also carefully apply the trailer brakes if you have a vehicle that has them. Then, carefully move over to the side of the road outside of the flow of traffic.
When you have pulled over to safety, you can address the conditions that caused the trailer to sway in the first place. Did your cargo shift? Do you have a flat tire? If high winds or inclement weather are the cause of instability, consider waiting for the weather to pass so that you can safely resume travel.
The Difference Between Fishtailing and Swaying and How to Address Each
The terms trailer sway and fishtailing are often interchanged but are actually two different incidents. With swaying trailers, the side of a trailer experiences a force that for some reason causes it to wobble from side to side. Fishtail accidents occur when the swaying motion becomes faster, more violent, and more erratic.
A trailer that is swaying from side to side can sometimes be controlled by slowing down to correct the rocking motion. Then, consider pulling over to address the cause of the sway. A fishtail movement can be a little scarier and often involves faster, more erratic trailer movements. Think of it like the flailing tail of a fish out of water, hence the name. Fishtail motions must be handled with caution as they can lead to totally losing control of your vehicle.
If you have just stopped an incident of an actual fishtail motion, you likely need to adjust the settings of your hitch or address how your cargo is loaded. Sway is often caused by high winds, uneven hitching, or a load that is not evenly distributed. Your driving style may also play a role in incidents of a swaying trailer.
Tips For Safely Recovering from A Fishtailing Incident
Fishtail trailer movements can be very dangerous, especially at higher driving speeds. Do not, under any circumstances, slam on your brakes or overcorrect. This can cause the situation to worsen and may also force you to lose control of your vehicle entirely. If you can, keep your steering wheel pointed straight ahead and slow down by calmly letting your foot off the gas pedal. If you have trailer brakes or a brake controller, manually apply this feature using a smooth motion. This often will alleviate any swaying.
If you don’t have trailer brakes, maintain the speed you are going but gently begin decelerating if you can, especially if you are going downhill. If you are going uphill, consider gently accelerating instead of decelerating, as this can actually put forward pressure on the tongue of the trailer and straighten it out.
In an emergency fishtail incident, what you should do will all depend on the circumstances of your unique situation. No matter what, always stay calm, avoid overcorrection, and try to get your vehicle and the trailer it is towing under control and going in a straight line again. Remain calm and collected and use common sense. Never ignore swaying motions until they become an emergency fishtail situation. With something as dangerous as this, prevention is always the best option.
Preparing for the Worst: Get the Right Trailer Insurance
Swaying trailers can be prevented by following safe towing practices, including properly loading and securing the trailer, adjusting weight distribution and hitch settings, and recognizing and responding to a fishtail situation properly while on the road. However, sometimes, accidents are unavoidable. That’s why having the right trailer insurance is key! If the unthinkable happens, you will want to be sure to have liability coverage, collision coverage, and comprehensive coverage for your trailer and vehicle. That way, you can avoid costly damages, insurance claims, medical bills, and other unwanted expenses.
Sometimes, Trailer Accidents Happen. Are You Covered? Get The Right Insurance for Your Trailer Today!
Understanding trailer safety is always important. Still, accidents are sometimes unavoidable and almost always unexpected. That’s why having the right insurance for your trailer is so important! For the best recreational vehicle insurance in Canada, trailer and RV owners can look to RecProtect.
RecProtect provides a wide range of trailer and RV insurance packages tailored to meet your unique needs, and to help provide you with peace of mind. Whether you need to insure RVs, boat trailers, a fifth wheel, or some other kind of recreational vehicle in Canada, one of our brokers can help and is ready to provide you with a free quote now. Learn more about trailer insurance here!