How to tow

How to tow – what we tow

Almost all full-time RVers tow something. Our decision of what to tow was first followed quickly by how to do it. These decisions interlock. You need to carefully make these decisions. How you tow – what you tow is a question that quickly arises. For us, this issue had to be solved before we even purchased a motorhome. RVs come in two basic varieties, trailers and fifth-wheels are towed and motorized RVs tow cars. If you choose to tow a trailer or a fifth-wheel then you will drive a truck, typically a large truck. Motorized RVs typically tow some kind of car. The most common vehicle that an RV will tow is a jeep.

Towing or towed

Someday we may change to a fifth-wheel or maybe a trailer. I think the chances are remote but it could happen. If so we are talking about a full lifestyle change because it will involve trading both our house (RV) and our car. When we went down the path of having a motorhome, especially when we decided on a gasoline-powered motor home, then we also made the decision to tow a car, a small(er) car. Had we chosen a towable RV (trailer or fifth-wheel) then the only choice would have been a truck. The bigger the towable RV, then the bigger the truck.

How we wanted to travel and sightsee

We chose a motorhome partly because if you choose a towable RV, then unless you chase, (chase is described below) then you are going to be sightseeing with a large truck. We didn’t really want to have our daily driver be a large truck. This the primary reason we didn’t get a towable RV. A second reason is that a big towable RV and a big truck are about the same price as a motorhome and a towable car.

Since we don’t tow a trailer or fifth-wheel and are nothing close to authorities on that subject we are going to leave you lacking information about that subject.

Chase

Some RVers choose to chase, (or follow) and drive in two vehicles. This is possible either with a truck/ trailer combination and secondary vehicle or sometimes we have seen motorhomes that have a non-towable car. In these cases, you and your traveling partner(s) don’t get to drive together. I can’t imagine traveling large distances chasing– even though many people travel that way. We could travel in a chase / follow method because we don’t desire to travel long distances. We don’t travel this way because we want to be together.

A few times we have chosen not to drive together, the longest length was about 20 miles. One of the things we noticed was how quick the car can maneuver compared to a motorhome. For us, because we were in San Diego, on the freeways we used the chase car to block traffic for the motorhome to aid in necessary lane changes. Since the motorhome is so much slower than any car, all we had to do was follow behind at the same speed as the motorhome. Then when the motorhome indicated a lane change, we changed lanes with the car first thus pre-occupying the new lane.

Decision logic

  • We wanted to travel together.
  • We didn’t want to sightsee in a big truck.
  • Our daily driver had to be big enough to move our toys around.
  • Our daily driver had to be small enough to be enjoyable and economical to drive.

For us a Motorhome

For us, the decision came down to a motorhome. The other obvious reason is that we didn’t desire to cover large distances and then sit in one location for an extended period, followed by another large distance move. Our vision was to travel a few miles, say fifty to one hundred miles, and then stay for a few days and look around using our car. Followed by another moving day and repeat as necessary. For frequent moves, a motorhome has an advantage in set-up and tear down and parking. If you don’t frequently move then this advantage isn’t as important.

What we tow

This was another decision. In 2017 we owned two non-towable cars. I say non-towable because to tow either one of these two cars we would have had to put them on a trailer or a dolly. (A dolly is a trailer with only front wheels, the front wheels of the car are parked on the dolly and the rear wheels remain on the ground.) Our first reaction was that we would get a dolly and just tow the car we already had.

Our Acura "toad" and 2013 Tiffin Open Road
Our Acura “toad” and 2013 Tiffin Open Road.

A family member told us how bad a decision it would have been to go that direction including expressions in four-letter words. He said that we would regret the dolly for the entire time we owned it including when we were trying to get rid of it. I am going to make a recommendation. Don’t do it. You don’t want a dolly. If you tow a car, you want to tow it with all the wheels on the ground. Towing this way is sometimes called four-down.

So, we went through an entire car change to a towable vehicle right from the start. Since we like nicer cars and I have issues with letting go of money without a fight, we picked an older Acura. The Acura we picked was already set up as a tow car (Sometimes tow cars are referred to as “toads”.). Even though it was older, it was a very nice car. Because it was a street, sport, luxury car, it was not a really good toad. As soon as it was detached from the motorhome it was a really nice car.

Transmission

The reason our already owned cars were not towable is that the transmission would destroy itself. Many transmissions need constant lubrication even when the engine is not driving the wheels. The Acura had a transmission that didn’t have this problem. Most cars are not towable for long distances because of this transmission issue. The answer is you have to check each specific car and year to make sure the transmission allows for towing. Some cars that have a towable transmission don’t have an available baseplate.

Our Toyota Highlander couldn't be towed without destroying the transmission.
Our Toyota Highlander couldn’t be towed without destroying the transmission.

Baseplate

There are a couple of companies that make a baseplate for cars with known towable transmissions. Our Acura already came with a Roadmaster baseplate installed. The baseplate is an adapter that makes connection points for the tow bar (more later) to the car frame so that the motorhome can be attached to the tow car. The base plate is attached to the frame of the vehicle and you can think of it as an extension of the frame.

Roadmaster baseplate for a Roadmaster tow bar.
Roadmaster baseplate with direct-connect tow arms.

Baseplate economics

Setting up a car with a baseplate is expensive. It would be a poor economical choice to put an expensive baseplate on an old car that had little life in it. Most of the time, if you sell a car, the baseplate will not add and may subtract from the value of the car.

Wiring

Our Acura also already had the wiring installed to operate the lights from the motorhome. I didn’t have to make any changes to make the brake lights and turn signals work.

Just lucky

Since our baseplate was made by Roadmaster, then I purchased a Roadmaster tow bar — lucky. I didn’t know how lucky we were to get a Roadmaster. We are now on our second motorhome and second car, but we have only had one tow bar. I didn’t understand how lucky we were until we went to the FMCA rally at Coos Bay Oregon and after that visited the Roadmaster factory in Vancouver Washington. Here are links to the stories. Coos Bay & Mount Saint Helens

Our toad is a mule

I mentioned that we had a new tow car. Our criteria for a new tow car was that it had to have more ground clearance and be bigger than the Acura. It had to be big enough to carry two kayaks and that it also had to be a mule. The term mule refers to the fact that the tow car gets packed with stuff that we need to quickly access after our arrival at the campsite. Chairs and the like. The toad-mule carries the extra stuff. Here is the story about getting our new toad, the mule. New Toad

 Our RV and toad mule at Sam Owen Campground.
Our RV and toad mule at Sam Owen Campground.

How we tow the mule

When I chose the mule, I didn’t get lucky — it was planned. We shopped for about three months before deciding. First, we already had a towable toad so the mule would be a replacement and had to be ready to tow. This means that it already had to have a Roadmaster baseplate installed. This is because we were going to tow it with a Roadmaster tow bar. Second, our Acura had an iron bar that lived in front of the front bumper and it wasn’t easy to remove. Our new mule had to have the option of quickly removable pins that would attach the tow bar to the baseplate.

Snow Plow

While I owned the Acura, several times people would ask about the tow bar attachment on the front bumper. Since we were licensed in South Dakota I told them it the snowplow attachment. Of course, it was a joke. People from real snow country knew right away that it was a joke. In Southern California, Arizona, and Las Vegas people assumed that it was the truth until I told them the real truth. I always let them in on the joke after telling it. It sure looked like a snowplow would fit the attachment points quite well.

Our Acura with the (snowplow) towing attachment.
Our Acura with the (snowplow) attachment.

The good and not as good about towing our mule

Good, it is slightly bigger and serves us well as both a mule and as a daily driver. Our kayaks live on top of our mule. Not as good: The only towable Subaru’s are the ones with manual transmissions and the smallest engines, the base model. Someday we may be getting a new more powerful bigger mule. Since we have a big diesel motorhome towing a bigger mule will be fine.

Our toad mule with the crossbar (snowplow) towing attachment.
Our toad mule with the crossbar (snowplow) attachment.

Our tow bar

This is the picture of our Falcon All Terrain tow bar. The basic construction of the tow bar is stainless steel sliding arms inside a steel frame hooked to a pivoting hinge called a yoke. The tow bar can move up or down as the RV and crosses bumps and hills. The tow bar also pivots side to side allowing turning. It also will rotate to allow one of the car wheels to be above the other car wheel. The tow bar is attached to the car via the direct-connect pins or a crossbar. The older crossbar style attachment was what I called my snowplow adapter. As soon as I could I replaced the crossbar with the direct-connect pins.

Roadmaster Falcon All Terrain Tow Bar with crossbar connection system. (photo by Roadmaster Inc.)
Roadmaster Falcon All Terrain Tow Bar with crossbar connection system. (photo by Roadmaster Inc.)

Our brakes

We use a Brake Buddy braking system. I call this a brake-in-a-box. We used the same brake-in-a box in both our Acura and in our Subaru. You put the box on the floorboard between the seat and the pedal. The actuator arm attaches to the brake pedal and as you stop the box notices deceleration of the RV and applies the brakes. The brakes rely on plugging into a 12-volt receptacle on the dash and inside the box is a small air pressure pump that pumps up an air chamber and then releases the air pressure to apply the brakes in the car. If the car were to detach from the RV, the break-away cable would then actuate the car brakes to make sure that it would stop moving.

Brake Buddy tow car brake system.
Brake Buddy

We have heard one story about an unmanned tow car passing the RV before it came to a stop. Perhaps this was the first self-driving car. It crashed just like the new self-driving cars.

Roadmaster Falcon All Terrain Part Names

Roadmaster tow bar part names.
Roadmaster part names.

Tow bar pre-assembly

Run the safety cables through the tow arm cable guides with the hooks on the car side and the loops on the RV side. Slide the 2-inch square tube into the receiver and secure it to the receiver with the hitch pin. Attach the safety cables to the receiver tube using the locking quick links. The safety cables must cross under the tow arm yoke to catch the tow arm in case of a break in the receiver or hitch pin. My pre-assembly also includes a double hitch, one to support the bicycles and the other for the tow bar. Taking a good tow bar picture on my RV is very difficult.

How to release the stainless steel to arms

The operation of the tow arms requires using the release lever located at the end of the steel square tube. You will use this lever anytime you want to retract the stainless steel extention bar from the fully locked position. To use the lever you must push the stainless steel arm slightly into the square tube while moving the lever. Operation of the lever will only release the stainless steel tow arm when there is a slight pressure toward the square tube.

Departure sequence

(I am writing this out partly so Tami can use this as a reference just in case she has to do it without my supervision. While I am hooking up the tow arm, Tami is installing the braking system.

Get the car ready

The first step is to place the direct-connect pins into the car. To insert the direct-connect pins you rotate the pin in your hand until the spring pin is at the bottom of the pin. Then you can insert it fully into the receiver tube. After fully inserted rotate the direct connect pin so that the spring pin pops into the slot on the receiver tube. Done correctly, it will not come out without pulling the spring pin ring forward and rotating the pin 90 degrees, then pull it forward out of the receiver tube.

Ready the tow bar

The first step is to release the tow bar arms from the spring-loaded storage latch and lay them on the ground. To do this I extend the shoulders and stainless steel tow arms to full extension and support them with one hand and then move the stow release forward carefully as not to allow the tow arms to twist or drop to the ground. After they are released I then hold both shoulders, one in each hand, and lower the upper arm to level with the lower arm. Then walk around the back of the RV with one arm in each hand. Then spread the tow bar arms to create a triangle shape behind the RV. While spreading the arms to create the triangle, I also extend the stainless steel inner arms to full extension.

The tow bar ready to hook up the toad behind our RV.
The towbar ready to hook up the toad behind our RV.

After that, park the car — engine off (*for our car with the key still in the ignition with the gear shifter in neutral and the parking brake on) — behind the RV. The position needs to be aligned with the RV direction of travel and close enough for the tow bar arms to reach the car, but not so close that when the stainless steel tow arms are retracted that they cannot attach to the direct-connect pins. *For us, we leave the key in the ignition so that the steering wheel will not lock allowing the front wheels to turn while towing (refer to your owner’s manual).

Attach the car to the tow bar

Remove the hitch pin from the direct-connect pin and set it aside. Attach the tow bar arms to the direct-connect pins by first retracting the stainless steel section of the tow bar arms (as necessary) into the square tube. Then extend the shoulder into the direct-connect pin until it rests on the direct-connect pin. Adjust slightly as necessary and slide the hitch pin into the holes of the direct-connect pin and through the shoulder.

Tow bar attached to direct connect pin with hitch pin and linchpin installed.
Tow bar attached to direct connect pin with hitch pin and linchpin installed.

Install the linchpins and safety cables

Rotate the hitch pin so that the hole in the hitch pin lines up with the linchpin hole in the direct-connect pin. After that place, the linchpin through the hole in the direct-connect pin and through the awaiting hole in the hitch pin. Rotate the linchpin ring to the locked position.

Attach the safety cables to the safety cable anchor holes on the baseplate and straighten the safety cables to prevent binding.

Install the breakaway cable and electrical cord.

Attach the breakaway cable to the break-away ring and the electrical cord to the electrical receptacle.

The electrical cord attached with a safety carabiner installed to support it if it disconnects.
The electrical cord attached with a safety carabiner installed to support it if it disconnects.

Our tow arm locking sequence

At this point, it would be safe to release the parking brake in the car, but we don’t do it that way. One person, (me) is always observing the next few steps while standing next to the car. Tami is driving the RV observing my hand signals to pause at the end of each step and to proceed to the following step. The following is the way we do it, not necessarily the way it has to be done and includes extra steps to make sure everything is working properly.

Tow bar attached to direct connect pins with safety cables, breakaway cable, and electrical connection attached. The tow bar is compressed ready for the drag-it-forward step of my checklist.
Tow bar attached to direct connect pins with safety cables, breakaway cable, and electrical connection attached. The tow bar is compressed ready for the drag-it-forward step of my checklist.

Drag it forward

With the car parking brake still on, ever so slowly, inch the RV forward to lock at least one of the tow bar arms in the extended towing position. When the tow bar arm locks (at least one) into the extended position, stop the RV. Then I release the parking brake and again check the stick shift in the neutral position. Dragging it forward eliminates the initial lurch caused when you first get to full extension of the tow arm. Dragging it forward also prevents the car, with the parking brake off from rolling forward towards the RV compressing the tow arms.

Make “S” turns

Drive the RV forward making “S” shaped turns. This turning allows for the other tow bar arm to lock into the towing position and it allows the observer to see if the steering wheel is unlocked and rotating.

Check the lights

Typically I will see the brake lights work during the drag-it-forward step. Occasionally I don’t see this but we always check both turn signals and brake lights as the last step of our towing departure sequence — every time we tow. After checking the lights I enter the RV, lock the door, wash my hands and we are ready to go.

Driving

Driving the RV with the tow car is nearly identical to driving without the tow car. One thing you need to remember is that you are now longer than before and for lane changes, you need to pull far enough ahead to have room for the RV and the car. One of the things we have is a full-time rear camera and we can watch our tow car pass the vehicle we are passing thus making sure we have ample room to enter the lane. Another use of our camera is to check that our tow car is centered in the lane following us down the middle of the lane. It is easier to see that we are centered in our travel lane by looking at the toad than it is by looking out the front window.

Backing up

It would not be a full discussion I didn’t mention that RVs with toads cannot backup. This is because the steering wheel on the toad is free to turn with the front wheels of the car. In our last four years, we have un-hooked our toad about five times because we couldn’t make a full U-turn and backed up about two feet total.

Arrival sequence

Unless you have a pull-through campsite you will need to unhook the car before getting to your campsite. This won’t take long to describe. Here are the critical steps. Apply the parking brake on the toad and remove the braking system.

Release the tension on the tow arm by moving the release handle forward. (Remember the release handle only works when there is a little forward force on the release mechanism.) Remove the linchpin and hitch pin and lower the shoulder to the ground. If this is not possible due to tension on the release mechanism is not releasing then try to do the other side first. (Occasionally, especially if the RV is going uphill, Tami will need to drive the car forward slightly to allow the release handle to function.) Remove and stow the electrical cable and breakaway cable. Remove and store the direct-connect pins.

After the toad is not connected to the tow bar, back the toad away about two feet (or just go park the car) and stow the tow bar.

Stowing the tow bar

It took me about half a year of full-time RVing before is found a good method to stow the tow bar. The first step is with the tow arms fully extended place the tow arms directly behind the RV. Then by grabbing the shoulders slightly tilt the tow arm. (I always stow the tow bar to the driver’s side so I always tilt to the passenger side tow arm slightly lower than the driver’s side.)

Tow bar yoke with safety cables and spring-loaded storage latch.
Tow bar yoke with safety cables and spring-loaded storage latch.

With the aft tow bar in the slightly lower position walk towards the storage side. After you are at the ninety-degree position then you can tilt the yoke towards the storage release lever. This will mean that the aft tow arm, which was slightly lower, will rotate to the top position.

Tow bar yoke with spring-loaded storage latch in stored position.
Tow bar yoke with spring-loaded storage latch in stored position.

As you arrive at the top position the bolt head will then enter the storage latch and you can compress the stainless steel tow arms into the square tubes.

Shoulders in the stowed position.
Shoulders in the stowed position.

Store the safety cables by attaching the hooks to the safety cable at the yoke and cover the tow arm to keep the weather off of it.

Here is a link to Roadmaster’s website. Roadmaster

As you know, our blog income is zero – this allows us to be independent and just tell the truth.  We do not get income or commissions. No, we don’t make paid endorsements.  We don’t make recommendations but instead, we will tell you what we like (or dislike). The links are only provided as a quick reference to help our readers.

8 thoughts on “How to tow – what we tow”

    1. The baseplate is designed as an extension of the toad frame. Most of the time it won’t transfer from one vehicle to the next. Sometimes the baseplate won’t transfer even between model years of the same vehicle.

    1. There was a company that made electric transmission lube pumps that would keep the transmission lubricated while towing. It is risky.

      We really loved the Highlander and it would have made a great tow car, but didn’t want to take the risk.

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