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Common Tread

Lem's non-comprehensive guide to towing a motorcycle

Oct 09, 2019

We’ve covered hauling a motorcycle before, albeit incompletely.

But if you ask me, the very best way to move a motorcycle is to tow it. (Well, mostly the best way, provided you have lots of space and money and time.) If you have towed before, a motorcycle will be one of the easier ways to get started, because it’s one of the smallest things you can put in a trailer, so anything else you’ve towed will likely have been as hard or harder. So this is a loose collection of thoughts for those of you who haven’t done it much, or maybe at all.

trailer bits
Here you can see the ball on its mount, which is installed in the hitch. The trailer coupler is hooked up to the ball. There are safety chains and electrical that need to be hooked up, but mechanically, this trailer is ready to be tugged. Photo by Lemmy, courtesy of Blackmans Cycle Center.

There’s so much information available on towing it will make your mind melt; consider this a very, very basic primer that’s slightly motorcycle-specific. I am not gonna cover every single term out there, but just for the purposes of this article, there are a few words you oughta be familiar with.

Hitch: The metal piece that attaches to a vehicle that accepts a ball mount.

Ball mount: The square piece that slides into the hitch. At the other end, it flattens out and has a hole in the end for the trailer ball.

Tagalong: A type of trailer with no brakes. Also just called a tag trailer.

Stopping is more important than going

In my estimation, this is the cardinal rule of towing. Getting a load moving is easy; just mash the skinny pedal to the floor. Even tiny vehicles are capable of moving heavy loads forward in herculean fashion. Stopping a rig, however, is more difficult. If you want to know fear, hook a long, overloaded trailer with broken trailer brakes to a short-wheelbase vehicle, then descend a steep grade with lots of turns and traffic.

Trailer brakes
Nice light aluminum wheels, and if you look past them, you'll see drums — this trailer has brakes. Low weight and good stopping power are two ingredients that make towing a snap. Photo by Lemmy, courtesy of Blackmans Cycle Center.

Most small trailers suitable for moving a single motorcycle will be tagalong style. If you are lucky enough to have a small trailer with trailer brakes, it makes towing very, very easy. As a motorcyclist, you will also be able to appreciate being able to independently control the rear brakes on the trailer. If a trailer begins to sway, applying just the trailer brakes is one of the best ways to smooth things out. If your trailer has no brakes, this option is off the table.

If you’re renting or borrowing a small trailer, it probably won't have brakes. If you’re in the market, though, I would opt for them if possible.

Equipment matters: Bring a big truck

I’ve written in the past about giving yourself every edge equipment-wise that you can. This is no different.

Especially if you are new to pulling stuff, the very best setup you can have is the biggest, heaviest tow vehicle you can safely drive with the smallest, lightest trailer that will safely carry your load. (Within reason. I’m not suggesting you need a Cascadia with a fifth wheel or even a gooseneck, but it’s a lot easier to make broad statements about a full-size tow vehicle as opposed to rendering an opinion on someone tugging two Sportsters with an ‘88 Volkswagen Jetta on a trailer sporting eight-inch wheels. Is it possible? Sure. Can you do it? Unlike a three-quarter-ton truck, there’s a lot more left up to the skill of the operator in the Jetta scenario.)

“Ninety percent of the time, he doesn’t even need a truck that big!” You ever hear someone say that? That’s normally spoken by someone who doesn’t realize that the 10 percent of the time the brawn is needed, it’s really necessary.

Big trucks have big brakes. Remember the cardinal rule? Also, long wheelbase vehicles react to trailer forces much more slowly and in a controllable fashion than something with a short wheelbase. (This is part of the reason two-door Jeep Wranglers have such a low towing capacity. They’ll pull huge loads forward, but descending a grade with them gets real hairy real fast!)

Rent! U-Haul makes some of the nicest motorcycle trailers you can pull. I owned a trailer when I shot this, but for $24 I can skip a bearing repack, slush, and all the salt damage a winter can bring? Sold. Photo by Lemmy.

Big trucks also have big... everything else. The engines, frames, suspensions, axles, and tires are all designed to pull, ahem, very heavy shit. Tugging 8,000 pounds in an 8,000-pound modern diesel truck is far, far less “eventful” than pulling 4,000 pounds with a 3,000-pound subcompact gasoline truck. If you don’t have enough truck, give serious thought to buying, borrowing, or renting, depending on what makes the most financial sense.

People can (and do) get hurt doing this. Remember that.

Trailer plug
Looks like a seven-round connector to me. You'll typically find four-flat connectors on tag trailers, and seven-pin connectors like this on their bigger brethren. Photo by Lemmy, courtesy of Blackmans Cycle Center.

Equipment matters: Get ready to go beforehand

The amount of stuff that can go wrong with tow vehicles and trailers is insane. Locked up brakes on the trailer, bulbs out on the trailer, wiring issues on the tow vehicle, not having the right size ball or correct adapter (a seven-pin round trailer and a four-flat truck mismatch happens a lot!), or maybe not being able to find your hitch pin — the list is seemingly endless.

A hitch that's been mounted to the frame of a body-on-frame vehicle. Gooseneck and fifth-wheel mounts are probably overkill for most motorcycle applications, and bumper-mounted balls are often a little light. A frame-mounted hitch is usually just right. Photo by Lemmy.

A hitch is obviously important. “While bumper- and unibody-mount hitches exist, a frame-mounted hitch is by far the strongest way to pull a motorcycle in most scenarios,” James Bell, a good friend and owner-operator of trucking company 831 Enterprises, told me. 

Also, be prepared to either own (or purchase as needed) multiple hitch ball mounts and balls. There are a few different size balls, and trailers come in a variety of heights, as do trucks, so there are are ball mounts of varying heights as well. Mixing and matching parts will allow use of the correct size ball on the correct mount with the appropriate drop to keep the trailer level. (Mounts can be flipped for rise instead of drop, which is helpful.)

I keep a trailer ball nut wrench on hand for remounting; you may want to do that, too. If you’re going to use the same truck and trailer combo to tow your bike regularly, you may want to scrap that plan, and buy a mount and ball and then weld the nut to the hitch ball for added insurance.

Trailer mounts and balls
Here are a few balls on their mounts. Note one provides rise and one provides drop. In the center is an adapter to run two-inch square ball mounts in the 2.5-inch hitches you'll find on heavy-duty light trucks. Remember, your maximum limit is whatever the lowest-rated component is. Photo by Lemmy.

If you’ll have different combinations regularly, an adjustable-height ball mount may make more sense.

Do as much maintenance as you can before you need your equipment. Trailers are one of those things we don’t need often for motorcycles (if not moving them for hire), but much like the “90 percent” quote from earlier, when you need a trailer, you usually really need it.

Trailer tester
This little item has saved me a few headaches over the years. You can wire up your own or purchase a commercial version, but it's a great way to test the vehicle-side lighting and wiring before you borrow or rent a trailer. Photo by Lemmy.

Bell had some additional advice. “Wheel bearings are one of the only moving parts on a trailer — check the play and add grease often. Tires need to be monitored carefully, too, especially on units that are used infrequently.”

Equipment matters: Bring a small trailer

Small trailers have a lot going for them for a rookie. They’re lighter, which helps us with that cardinal rule from earlier. They’re also narrower. Towing a trailer which is narrower than the truck is nice; it just follows along. Your mirrors on your truck become like whiskers on a cat — if they fit through a spot, then the trailer will fit! On a wide trailer, this is obviously not true.

All but the lightest duty trailers will be suitable to move a single motorcycle, and if you’re thinking about purchasing one, smaller usually costs less than larger, all other variables being held constant. And as mentioned previously, if you can get one with brakes, do it, and learn how to set them up and use them properly.

Trailer deck
There are big benefits to using a motorcycle specific trailer (as opposed to a more general utility model). You're looking at a trailer with side-by-side chocks, and recessed tie-down points in the deck. There's nothing to run over, and these chocks are positioned to carry two bikes happily and safely. The flat, closed deck with ribs means the bikes roll easily on the deck, but your boots have plenty of traction. Also notice the V-nose in the background. Very nice for keeping your bikes clean and bug-free. It's the next best thing to an enclosed unit. Photo by Lemmy.

The irony here is that if you truly do have a truck with lots of capability, you can (and may want to) purchase a trailer that can handle other duties, which may necessitate something larger. As your skills grow, your options grow. Remember, trailers are like motorcycles: Your first does not have to be your only or your last.

If you do decide a motorcycle-specific trailer is not the best option for you (and if you’re a Renaissance guy or gal, it probably ain’t), installing tie-down cleats and chock(s) should be high on your list.

Just because it's legal doesn't mean it's a good idea

When it comes to towing, just because you’re going by the book doesn’t mean you’re doing something that is a good idea. Much as a newly licensed rider can go out and legally operate a literbike, on a regular license in America, it’s possible to legally do some dangerous stuff and also some stuff that requires a fair amount of education and practice, towing-wise. Use your noodle here.

Trailer info plate
GVWR is the total permissible weight of trailer and load. In this example, we have the GVWR, and to get the capacity of the trailer, we need to subtract the weight of it. In this case, that's 600 pounds, meaning 2,390 pounds can be dedicated to motorcycles and gear lashed to the trailer, a figure nearly any pickup truck can happily pull. Photo by Lemmy.

I would always advocate you obey weight limits (whether law or manufacturer suggestion) for tow vehicle, trailer, and associated equipment (with the lowest limit being your max). The truth is that there are some setups that are legal but still suck. (The converse of that is true, too. There are some tow vehicles capable of far, far less than what “common sense” might tell you they can handle.)

In Massachusetts, for instance, you can run a 10,000-pound GVWR trailer with no brakes and follow the letter of the law. That might be OK for moving it from pasture to pasture dead empty, but to run loaded down the road like that? Nuts. Don’t break the law, but don’t presume that following it means you are set to fly.

Leave early

Arriving undamaged is better than arriving on time. Both are better than not arriving at all. Allow me to share a few truths of tugging a trailer:

  • People drive like assholes
  • Few people will act as though they understand your ability to go, stop, and steer are vastly reduced
  • If you leave a nice big safety cushion in front of you, people will continually duck into it, but you have to do it anyway
  • Speeding doesn’t really save that much time and just makes everything more difficult and hair-raising
  • If you’re stuck on a four-lane road, you’re too slow for the left lane and you make everyone’s merge difficult in the right (but seriously, get the hell out of the left lane)
  • Backing up a trailer is its own separate skill worthy of a mess of articles, and as a rookie you should pull through and park on “the back 40” whenever possible

Honestly, the whole business of schlepping your motorcycle is sort of a hilarious mess, but if you get mad instead of laughing, your blood pressure will go so high blood will pop out of your eyeballs and then you’ll mess up the interior of the truck and your buddy you borrowed it from will never let you use it again.

Just chill out, take it easy, and concentrate on arriving safely.

There's no such thing as checking strap tension too often. Photo by Lemmy.

Recheck your strap tension often

Check before you leave. Check a mile down the road. Check 50 miles down the road. Check… a lot. There is really no such thing as too much checking. Re-tension the straps as needed. And use good ones. If you buy the local tool-store junkers, at least double up so if (when?) one fails, you have on-board insurance.

James had some thoughts here, too. “Our drivers check the load during pre-trip inspection prior to departure. They also check within the first 50 miles, and every three hours (or 150 miles) as they travel, and you should do the same if you're on a long trip."

Body and paint work is always more costly than you think. This brings us to my final thought...

It’s OK to have someone else do it for you

Maybe this all sounds like a lot to absorb and learn. Looking back on how long it took me to pick some of this stuff up (and learn all the wrong ways to do things, because I have to discover each of those painfully before I do anything right)... it is.

It’s stressful for spouses, onlookers, friends, and strangers if you suck at towing. It’s also stressful for other road users (and yourself!) if you’re going to half-ass things and do this dangerously. It’s perfectly OK to ask an experienced friend for help, and that may include paying the friend. If that’s not possible, pay a stranger — again, I guarantee it’s cheaper than bodywork and paint, and if someone gets injured or worse, well… you know how that ends.

Try your best to be safe and try your best to be calm, and everything will probably turn out better than expected.

Just like riding a motorcycle.