# Trailer Build: Where Does The Axle Go?

Trailer axle position? This is a good question. Unfortunately, there is some popular, but misleading information around. So, how do you know proper trailer axle position? Here’s the whole answer, from The Mechanic.

There once was a boy who came to his mother and asked “How do rockets get to the moon?” She replied “Ask your dad.” To this, the boy mumbled “I don’t want to know that much about it.”

If you’re looking for a simple — maybe misguided or incomplete answer — this is not the right article. If you really want to know about trailer axle position, then you’ve come to the right place.

#### Trailer Axle Position Goals

For this discussion, we will focus on trailers with a traditional tongue attached to the rear of the tow vehicle. 5th Wheel (and Gooseneck) trailers are mentioned, but are not the focus.

To determine trailer axle position, we must first understand what drives the decision. **The Goals:**

- Stable, predictable towing.
- Proper weight balance for both the tow vehicle and the trailer.

There is a lot that goes into these goals including construction (straightness, flatness, perpendicularity, etc.), proper stiffness and more. However, with respect to axle position, we follow some well proven guidelines.

- Follow manufacturer specifications for the tow vehicle.
**Note:**there are 2 different limits — trailer weight, and tongue weight. Don’t exceed tow vehicle limits. Enough said. - In general, more weight on the tongue is better for stability.
**Example:**Over-the-road trucks (ie., a Semi or Lorry) trailers have roughly half the trailer weight on the hitch. It works because the tow vehicle is built for it. - For a 5th wheel (or gooseneck) trailer, weight at the tongue should be in the 20% – 30% range of total trailer weight. (Perhaps we’ll dive into this in a future post.)
- For rear connecting trailers (traditional), weight of the tongue should be in the 10% – 15% range of total trailer weight. (10% minimum, 12% is OK, and 15% is great.)

#### Stable Predictable Towing

The guideline above for 12-15% of trailer weight on the tongue is time tested for dynamic towing stability. If tongue weight is too low, the trailer will buck more over bumps, and wag around corners.

I won’t go into all the engineering, but the summary is inertia. If there is not enough tongue weight, a change like a bump or turn or steering correction leaves the trailer mass pivoting, and it takes additional energy to get things back to stable. What you, as a driver, feel is a bucking or a wagging of the trailer. In bad cases, it is very unnerving. In severe cases, a crash can result.

If there is significant tongue weight (above 10ish %) gravity serves to settle things back to stable. The more tongue weight, the faster stability is achieved, because the Center of Gravity is further from the axle.

#### Measuring Tongue Weight

Of course, the easiest way to know tongue weight is to measure it. Most of us don’t have a scale that will go high enough, so take the trailer to a vehicle scale.

For an existing trailer, load it for travel. (This is difficult for utility trailers because you never know what will be hauled.) Drive onto the scale with your vehicle enough that just the trailer wheels are on the scale. Take the measurement. For example, 2250#. Unhook the trailer on the scale so it measures the full trailer weight (tongue and axle). For example, 2600#. Subtracting: 2600# – 2250# = 350# tongue weight. For percentage, divide: 350/2600=13.5% which is great.

When building a trailer, one of the easiest ways to measure is to set the axle in place under the trailer, but don’t permanently mount it. Clamp it in place, then measure as above. Move the axle position forward or back as needed, then verify loading. This technique works well when you have a defined load for the trailer — like a boat, for instance.

On the other hand, for something like a Tiny House Foundation or a Utility Trailer, this method for trailer axle position doesn’t help much because you don’t have the actual load when constructing the trailer. See the Calculation Method below.

That said, using the measurement technique can help when setting bigger loads like a battery pack or water tank for a Tiny House. You can set an axle position that suits the overall design, then place the bigger loads where they measure out to give proper tongue weight.

#### Calculating Tongue Weight And Trailer Axle Position

We can also calculate tongue weight and trailer axle position. I’ll give an example, then if you need more detail, please contact us, or do some searching on the internet.

We use a balanced lever approach to calculate loading. First, we sum forces in a vertical direction. There are only 2 points that support the vertical loads (tongue and axle(s)). Then there are several loads:

**Trailer Weight**— WF — Weight of the trailer including frame, sides and flooring can be measured or calculated pretty easily. You will also need to know the center of that weight. (Measure this by placing a board on edge under the trailer frame, then move it till the frame balances on the board.)**Evenly Distributed Load**— WD — Loads that can be assumed as even along the length of the trailer bed. For a utility trailer this may be rocks, or firewood. For a Tiny House, this is the walls and roof. A good estimation is OK, but more accuracy gives a more accurate final answer. The location of this load, L5, is the center of distribution.**Points of Specific Load**— WT — These are big loads at specific locations. For a utility trailer this may be an ATV, or lawn tractor, or tank, or toolbox. For a Tiny House, this may be water tanks or battery packs or kitchen cupboards.

Measurements are center of the hitch ball to the load centers. If any of these are not present, just leave them out. If you have more point loads, just add them in as illustrated. Obviously, Tongue Length L2 has a big effect, so it’s worth reading this article too about Choosing the Right Tongue Length.

###### Example Calculation:

Let’s use a utility trailer rated for 3000 Lbs. Also written 3000#. We will assume an evenly distributed load of rocks, lumber, or whatever. It also has a mounted toolbox.

Weight of the Toolbox: WT = 300 Lbs @ L1 = 30″

Length of the Tongue: L2 = 42″

Trailer Bed Length: L3 = 96″

Trailer Frame Weight: WF = 450 Lbs @ L4 = 83″

Distributed Load: WD = 2250 Lbs, Center @ L5 = 90″

If we want the Tongue Weight at 12% of the Total . . .

Now we know the loading if the tongue has 12% of the load. If that works for the tow vehicle, then we can move to the next step.

On the other hand, let’s say our tow vehicle can only handle 300# tongue weight. By dividing the max tongue weight, 300#, by the total trailer load, 3000#, we get 300/3000 and that yields 10% tongue load. That is on the margin, but can work.

#### Summing Moments (Load by Position)

Now we know the force values, the next step is to figure out where the axle goes so all those forces balance. We do that by summing the moments — basically, to sum the loads multiplied by their distance from the tongue load. By setting the moments with forces up equal to the moments with forces down, we can solve for axle position.

###### Back To Our Example:

Using the values and solutions from above . . .

So, our Axle position is 94.3″ from the hitch. Of course the numbers don’t have to be exact, because loading will vary. With fewer rocks, the load is less. Or, if there are not 300 pounds of tools, then that makes a small difference too.

From the example above, if we remove the toolbox, the calculated axle position changes to 100.9″

Or, using the example, if WT is 15% (instead of 12%), the axle position becomes 97.6″

When building your own trailer, run the calculations a few times with different load scenarios. Design for the maximums. After evaluation, make a judgement call for the final trailer axle position.

That’s it. Now you know how to calculate proper trailer axle position.

#### Trailer Axle Position for Multiple Axles

What is different for multiple axles? Nothing. Use the central position of the axle group for all the measurements and calculations. Treat them as a single axle. **Note:** *This simplification works for loading and trailer axle position on load sharing multiple axles, but not for stress or stiffness calculations.*

What about torsion axles? Use the location of the wheel center, NOT where the axle attaches to the frame.

#### Proving Or Disproving The Common 60% Rule

On the internet there are several websites and YouTube videos saying to place the axle at 60% of the trailer bed. What do you think?

In our example above, the trailer axle position is ~55% of bed length. If we put it at 60%, the tongue weight becomes 501 Lbs, ~16.7%. Or, if we take the toolbox off and went to 15% tongue weight, the desired trailer axle position is 65% of the bed. These examples show that the 60% guess-of-thumb is not always best.

In some cases it makes the tongue load below 10% which borders on dangerous. Other situations it can make the tongue load too high.

**My Opinion?** Setting the axle at 60% is the lazy way. In many cases it gives a reasonable answer, but why settle for a lazy guess when you can simply run the numbers and gain understanding. Sometimes the answer is 60%, but **calculate and be confident**.

All that being said, I recommend biasing the trailer axle position a little farther back for trailers where the load will change — like utility trailers. It improves towing stability, maneuverability, and safety. You can place the load appropriate for the conditions. Just make sure you have the right materials and design safety factors for the loads you intend to carry.

And now you have the trailer axle position figured out, we invite you to read Trailer Axles 101 and some extra tips on mounting a leaf spring suspension.

leo

February 6, 2019 @ 6:39 PM

Thank you so much for sharing your information!

Ryan D

March 14, 2019 @ 3:23 PM

I am a big fan of this website. The knowledge you share here is very valuable to me. Thank you!

I have a question that is more rooted in academic curiosity than practical application. Everyone discusses “tongue weight”. However, in a physics sense, is actual weight on the tongue the objective, in order to achieve stability? Or is the objective more about locating the trailer’s centre of mass (including the load) relative to the major pivot points (axle & coupler)? (If the latter, I understand that it would be translated to tongue weight rules of thumb, given average tongue lengths, so the layman can easily approximate the centre of mass and achieve a stable condition.)

If it’s more about centre of mass location, is the primary factor the distance from the axle, or distance from both primary pivot points (axle & coupler)?

As a thought experiment to illustrate my question, let’s imagine an 8′ utility trailer with an axle set a little back from the centre of the bed, with a tongue length of 4′, loaded evenly, with a result of 15% of the weight being on the tongue at the coupler. Now, ignoring the weight of the tongue material itself, let’s imagine we extended that tongue to be 12′ long. If I remember my math correctly, the weight on the coupler would be cut roughly in half; probably around 8% now. However, the centre of mass would still be the same amount forward of the axle. Would the second case be likely to tow stably, despite being outside the normal rule of thumb? (Let’s also ignore the other inherent stability benefits offered by the longer tongue, for the sake of this thought experiment.)

The Mechanic

March 14, 2019 @ 6:01 PM

Oops, now you’re thinking. We can’t have that! — But these are great questions. How much do you want to know?

Let’s play with your experiment. Let’s take your trailer and and move the load back so there is Zero tongue load. Now, as you drive your car goes over a bump. That pushes the tongue up fast, which throws the load back, which makes the trailer want to tip back (because the load is now behind the axle). As your car comes down from the bump, the process goes the other way. That back and forth switching causes some weird dynamics for the driver and he feels like it is “bucking”.

So making the tongue (your 12′ experiment) long does work like you say, and actually it makes the bump feel (to the trailer load) like it’s half as high. A long tongue has other nifty advantages too — within reason — though your 12′ tongue will create other issues. That’s part of why we avoid trailers with really short tongues.

That’s the straight line dynamic. There’s much more to it, so maybe I’ll write an article about this whole thing sometime.

Ryan D

March 20, 2019 @ 10:06 PM

Leading me further down that thought experiment was helpful. By continuing to follow that though, I think I got some clarity: it’s more about the centre of mass and its location relative to the trailer axle, at least for straight-line dynamics. Brilliant, thanks!

I relish the idea of an article that delves deeper. I’ll keep my eye out!