In previous articles we discuss the importance of trailer safety chain length. If the chains are too long, what can you do? Yeah, odds are you won’t need them, but what if you do? Long chains can complicate things quickly, so how can we safely shorten a chain?
This is a follow-on from the “How to Attach Safety Chains” article. Also, it goes more into the “how” to shorten a chain than in the original Trailer Chains? article. Those articles talk about the need to shorten a safety chain, so this one is the “how”. We invite you to read both of the previous articles if you haven’t already.
The goal with safety chain is pretty simple. If the unthinkable happens, the chains are there to keep the trailer connected. It won’t be pretty, but at least the trailer won’t go off on it’s own to kill someone like in this story, or to completely destroy your things if it tumbles.
Here’s a photo of a vehicle with safety chains that are too long. Until the chains were needed, they didn’t matter — but then they did, big time. As noted in the previous article, I don’t know the details, and I don’t know if it would have saved things, but an incident like this is easier to control, with less resulting damage if the trailer chains are short. They are also less likely to disconnect (as you can see one of them in the photo did).
Ideally, you want the chains connected (at both ends) as close to the trailer ball as practical. So, how do you do that?
Then, we want to minimize the amount of chain between the 2 attachment points as much as possible. While most trailers come with chains that are long, it’s up to us to shorten the chain and make it work for our tow vehicle.
Chain Length Matters
How long should trailer safety chains be? That’s a good question. The easy answer: Long enough that things don’t bind when you turn, yet short enough that there’s no extra. However, since this is a DIY site for people who like to build, let’s go one more step.
Trailer safety chains should be short, the shorter the better. That means 2 things will enter into the equation, one for each end of the chain.
- First, at the trailer, the chains should attach near the coupler (hitch). Within reason, of course. If they attach farther back, then by nature, they must be longer. But, the extra length doesn’t help.
- Second, at the tow vehicle, it’s best to connect the chains near the ball. While there is always a balance, a short coupler is desirable.
Here is one of my trailers. You can see, given the attachment points, the chain is relatively short. There’s not a lot of extra drooping down. Now let’s look a little closer to see what we can improve. Perhaps I should not do much on the vehicle side as that’s the nature of the receiver, but I can probably do a lot with the trailer side.
For more on this read this article about Improving Chain Adjustability and it shows the improvements for this exact approach.
Should I Shorten The Chain?
The coupler is about as short as practical given the drop for correct towing attitude. Chain attachment points at the tow vehicle are pretty standard, and reasonable. Extra slack is out, as you can see with not a lot of excess dangling. However, on the trailer, the chain connection is actually pretty far from the ball. That should change.
The solution? Add another bolt just behind the coupler (with the needed spacers). The chains will then have 2 bolts (for redundancy), and the loose length of the chains will decrease by about 4.5″.
It’s tempting to attach the chain with the same bolt that attaches the coupler. While that would be cool, the bolts do different things, so it won’t really work. The coupler bolt needs to be tight, firmly tight. The chain bolt should allow just a little movement for the chain links — if the chains are ever in action.
How much difference if we shorten the chain? In a devastating situation, every little bit helps. If the trailer swings back and forth 4.5″ less per side, that’s a lot. If the trailer can come into or under the vehicle 4.5″ less, again, that’s a lot. But it’s actually more than that. The intrusion portion, when the tongue punches into the tow vehicle gets a double benefit. In other words, it’s 9″ less. Look at the crash photo above and think about 9″ less intrusion.
How Can We Safely Shorten A Chain?
Moving the attachment points is the first and most significant way to shorten a chain. As close to the hitch as practical. While it usually takes some work, moving the attachment makes the biggest improvement. After that, it’s a matter of making the chains the right length.
But what if you don’t want to cut your chains off to make them the right length? As a matter of practicality, sometimes it’s easiest to add a connection point closer to the hitch, like a place to add a secure bolt, and leave the end of the chain attached where the manufacturer put it.
What if you tow with more than one vehicle so you need different lengths? This calls for something you can adjust.
Length Shortening Methods:
- Wrap the chains through the connection and back onto themselves. The image shows a wrap going all the way back to the connection on the trailer. You can actually hook into the chain at any link that makes the chain length right. : U-Haul gets away with long chains since they only want insurance money if you destroy things. (They don’t really care about your stuff.) However, when we rent, we must deal with the consequences – and the extra chain. This is one approach. Still, these chains are too long, but at least they are not all twisted up like the U-Haul employee wanted to do!
- Use additional hardware for shortening chain. These 2 can help. Please make sure they are stronger than the chain you want to shorten.
- Use a variable system like one in “How to Attach Safety Chains“. Some you can purchase, some you must make. Here are two examples — one using a bolt, and one using a pair of shackles. These can adjust by going through a different link to take up some slack. Pictures from William. Thank you.
- Now, some Don’ts. Please, Don’t Twist Safety Chains. Under tension, twisted chain is weaker. Second, please don’t ignore it and just leave them long.
- If you think you need a device like one of these (below), it probably means your chains are too long. Correct the length first, then you probably won’t need one. They are a nice way to keep chains neat and tidy, but not as an excuse for long chains.
I believe these are from Fastway and Curt, but there are many others. Both of these companies make good stuff, but these kinds of products are mostly misused. (For instance, Chains in the center image – from their advertising – are too long.) Please don’t try to hide a long chain problem by lifting the chain.
Customer Example To Shorten A Chain
From our previous articles one customer, Charles from Georgia, sent these images of his trailer. The first images show what he did to shorten the chains. (Full image left, closeup right.)
Using connectors, he effectively took several links out of the chain without cutting it. This is a good example.
Looking a little deeper, Charles also sent some images of the chain connection at the trailer. You can see the chain attachments are on the inside face of the tongue beam, but from the first images, we can’t really see what it is. These next two images show it from the inside.
The first (left photo below) shows the chain hook welding to the frame. A second (right side) is the same image with comments from Charles.
We talk a lot in the previous articles about strong attachments for chains. I think Charles does a great job of pointing to the issues. Thank you!
Looking back at the full hitch image, we can see a more complete fix is to change the connection entirely. Make a new attachment closer to the hitch, and that will shorten the chain even more.
Products Made To Shorten Safety Chain
As mentioned in the article on How to Attach Safety Chain, there are products available to completely solve the problem. Link Lock is one that does this very well. It does not shorten an existing chain, but worth considering when redoing a system. Here is our full take, good and bad, in a Review of the Link Lock System.
We also have Free Plans for a DIY method of making an adjustable chain anchor system that feels permanent. The plans are free. Instructions and calculations are on the page. Engineering information and steps leading to the system (along with other good ideas for DIY chain anchors) are on the page about Improving Trailer Safety Chain Connections. Adjustability is so much better to shorten a chain.
Weight Distributing Hitches
As a side note, weight distributing hitches like the one above are great for many reasons, but they often need longer chains. While it’s not ideal, it’s still good to shorten the chains as much as practical.
Chain length is one reason, we don’t recommend using the WDH as the drawbar when the spring bars are NOT in action. The spring bars apply a lot of force to hold the hitch on the ball, which is good for safety. Take the spring bars off, and the lever for the trailer to sway the vehicle is longer, along with the issues of very long safety chains are worse. Anyway, if you don’t need the weight distribution function, use a shorter drawbar and shorten the chain.
Incidentally, if you have a good adjustable system, it is easy to shorten a chain or lengthen a chain to meet your needs. When you do use the WDH or when you don’t. Just adjust the chain to fit.
We may write more on this topic at some point, but we’ll leave it here for now.
That’s it, hopefully these ideas help. Be safe out there.