Monday, November 12, 2012

Utility trailer buying guide


I recently bought a utility trailer. (I'll explain momentarily what that is and why you might consider buying one.) Going through the process (research, preparation, purchase, registration, setup and maintenance) has taught me that it's not a simple endeavor and very little good documentation exists in the public domain (e.g. on the Internet). Hence, this post.


In dictionary terms, of course, "to trail" means "to follow" (or to trace the path of a primary vehicle). Alternately, Wikipedia defines a trailer as an unpowered vehicle pulled by a powered vehicle.

So, let's get acquainted with what a utility trailer is and why you might consider buying one. If you're a hardworking, blue collar American you probably already have one -- it's the back half of your pickup truck. Well not quite, but that's the reason Australians refer to a pickup as a utility vehicle. A pickup is characterized by the presence of a flat bed in the back half of the vehicle.

This flat bed can be used to carry bulky items. Conversely, white collar yuppies tend to drive cars and sedans whose trunks can't accommodate bulky items. A utility trailer, then, is a bridge between the beastly pickup and the yuppie sedan or SUV.

In the simplest terms, a utility trailer is a detachable version of the back half of a pickup. Your car, sedan, or SUV represents the front half to which you can attach a trailer. Owning a trailer gives you the flexibility of driving a high mileage vehicle without losing the ability to lug a load of garden soil or a washing machine home yourself rather than having to shell out delivery charges. And once you own a trailer you will discover all of the other things you can do yourself rather than pay someone else to do.

There are, of course, many types of trailers. A utility trailer is a general purpose trailer, as opposed to a semi-trailer (typically used to transport large quantities of commercial goods across long distances), or a mobile home, travel trailer, or camper. In its most basic form, a trailer is nothing more than a flat bed with no predestined purpose. The flat bed can then be enhanced or customized for the purpose at hand, e.g. to transport a boat, a machine, or nearly anything else. However, what usually turns a trailer into a utility trailer is the presence of a flat bed surrounded by a 12 to 24 inch high walls to contain the load. The flat bed is generally made out of iron, steel, or aluminium. The walls are generally made of iron mesh or wooden planks.

Renting Versus Buying

In case you find all of the above somewhat intimidating, you can always just rent a utility trailer from U-Haul, the preeminent provider in this space. However, when you arrive at U-Haul to rent a utility trailer, U-Haul will remind you that regardless of whether you decide to rent or purchase you need to install a hitch on your yuppie vehicle in order to attach a trailer.


A hitch installation involves several facets, as outlined below.

First, you need to know your vehicle's gross combined weight rating (GCWR). This rating is generally explained in your vehicle's owner's manual and posted on the driver's side doorjamb. The rating represents the total weight your vehicle's engine can support, including the vehicle, driver and passengers, and the trailer. Some owner's manuals make it simpler and directly specify a maximum towing capacity for the vehicle. Also, most vehicles will recommend a lower maximum weight for a trailer without brakes. Trailers with brakes can carry a higher load because they have their own brakes to contain their momentum when the primary vehicle is slowing down, i.e. undergoing deceleration.

Second, U-Haul will recommend one or more hitches suitable for your vehicle. Hitches are categorized by class, e.g. class I, class II, etc. Higher class hitches generally support a higher towing capacity. Try to pick the highest class hitch available for your vehicle. The hitch's towing capacity should match or exceed your vehicle's towing capacity. Also, try to pick a hitch with a 2 inch receiver so that you will be able to tow most standard size trailers. The hitch is firmly bolted on to your vehicle's chassis on the bottom rear of your vehicle.

Third, you need to select a hitch ball and mount. If you installed a standard hitch with a 2 inch receiver, then will want to install a 2 inch ball. Ball mounts are available in various heights and depths in order to match the height of tip of your trailer's tongue when the trailer is level. Either buy the ball mount once you decide on a trailer or buy a "standard" mount and hope it fits.

Fourth, ensure that whoever installs your hitch also installs wiring for powering the trailer lights with a standard 4-way, flat wiring connector that'll work with most trailers.


It took me a while to figure out that there's pretty much no point in looking anywhere except on Craigslist. Almost any trailer you buy online is likely to be in the self assembly, ultra light category. So, if you're looking for a solid trailer, often Craigslist is the way to go. One more incentive for us yuppies to buy a trailer, in case I haven't already offered plenty, is the opportunity to make and break things and engage in do-it-yourself (DIY) projects like we did before everything became either disposable or controlled by mysterious microchips.

In addition to the above-mentioned, there are many things to consider when buying a utility trailer. One of the most important considerations is towing capacity, which should match or exceed that of your vehicle and your hitch. Also, consider the size of the trailer. 5'x8' is the most common size. I bought a used, homemade 5'x8' for $500. Some of the homemade trailers might be somewhat smaller or larger.


Depending on the condition of your trailer on purchase, you may have to do some minor setup and/or maintenance to get it in working order. In my case, I needed a new setup for attaching the safety chains from the trailer to the hitch. Safety chains are intended to keep the trailer tethered to the vehicle in case it gets disconnected from the hitch. The existing hooks were too narrow for the loops on my hitch. After trying a few different options, I ended up buying a pair of Lehigh Quick Links. Before you buy, check the link's load capacity as well as the size of its opening so that you know that it will fit through the loops on your hitch.

A tip I picked up from another web site: adjust the slack in the chains to allow for a jackknife turn but no more and cross the chains to catch your trailer tongue if it ever gets detached from the vehicle while towing. This will prevent the trailer tongue from hitting the ground and getting damaged.

As I discovered several days following my purchase, I also had very slow leak on the left tire. It meant that the tire would remain sufficiently inflated for the several hours required for any reasonable task but would have to be reinflated in a week or so. Luckily I had an air compressor and the appropriate attachments to inflate the tire every week. It's a good idea to spend $25 or so on a portable air compressor that will run off the power source in your car and provide you with much needed assurance in case of a flat tire (to inflate the flat tire or the spare tire). However, after a few weeks of inflating I decided to fix the problem. I took the tire off the trailer. Depending on the amount of rust on the tire's nuts and blots you may need a breaker tool to get the nuts off. Once you do get the tire off, it's a good idea to spray the rusted nuts and bolts with WD40 to protect them from further rusting. With the tire lying on the ground, pour some soapy water on it to find the source of the leak. Bubbles will accumulate around the leak. As often happens with older rusted tires, the tire rim begins to rust and the rust breaks the seal between the rim and tire, thereby causing tiny rim leaks. I was able to get Pepboys to sand the rust off the rim and apply a fresh bead where the tire meets the rim. It cost me $25 and I now have a perfectly good tire that holds air forever.

Finally, it is worth buying a small padlock that you can use to lock the trailer's locking lever that makes it possible to hook the trailer to a hitch. No one can tow your trailer unless they unlock the locking lever. Consider using the lock when your trailer is sitting at home unused or when you have it parked somewhere (e.g. at a store) for a long period of time.

Even if you're not using the lock, always use a pin to prevent the locking lever from unlocking as you go over a bump or something.


A trailer with a gross vehicle weight (GVW) of 500 lbs or more must be registered with the appropriate office of the department of motor vehicles (DMV). At the time of registration you will need to provide a title or (in the case of a used trailer without a title) specifics about the trailer such as towing capacity, color, etc. You will also need to provide a bill of sale (BOS). A new trailer will likely already have a vehicle identification number (VIN), usually somewhere on its tongue. If you bought a used trailer without a VIN, then depending on the rules in your area you may be required to get a local police officer to visit your home (free of charge) and look the trailer over to certify in writing that the trailer doesn't already have a vehicle identification number (VIN) or other visible markings indicating prior ownership. Typically, your DMV can provide you with the form that is to be used by the police officer for the VIN check. Once you register the trailer you will get a title and VIN, which you should keep in a safe place. You may also consider engraving the VIN onto the tongue of your trailer.


As with any other large item, regular maintenance will extend the life of the trailer and increase the likelihood of problem free service. Examples include applying machine oil (e.g. from Singer) to the release latch to help it operate freely, applying a coat of paint to cover rusted areas (after sanding), and applying grease or oil to moving parts in the axle. Finally, consider buying some tarp to either protect the floor of your trailer or to cover up soil during transportation. Use R-pins to tether the tarp to the trailer's walls.


The first time you drive with a trailer attached, go slow. The trailer has its own momentum and it takes a while to get used to it. Also, backing up can be tricky. The rule of thumb is to turn your vehicle in the opposite direction of the direction you want the trailer to go. Also, be careful when loading your trailer and keep your trailer's load capacity in mind. The rule of thumb for buying wholesale garden topsoil is that a one cubic yard bucket or scoop weighs roughly 1 ton/tonne or a 1,000 kilograms or 2,000 lbs.



Happy towing!