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. We invite you to read both of these 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 long safety chains. Until the chains were needed, they didn’t matter. 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 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?
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 enter 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 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 look a little closer to see what we can improve.
Should I Shorten The Chain?
The coupler is about as short as practical given the drop for correct towing attitude. Chains at the tow vehicle are pretty standard, and reasonable. Extra slack is out, as you can see with the 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.
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 link — 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″ less per side, that’s a lot. If the trailer can come into or under the vehicle 4″ less, again, that’s a lot.
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, it 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? Or, what if you tow with more than one vehicle so you need different lengths? Good questions. 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. However, when we rent, we must deal with the consequences — and extra chain. This is one approach. Still, these chains are too long, but at least they are not all twisted up like the helper wanted to do!
- Use parts made for shortening chain. These 2 can help. Please make sure they are rated for more 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 just 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. Don’t twist the safety chains. Under tension twisted chain is much weaker. And, please don’t ignore it and leave them long.
- If you think you need a devise 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 these companies make good stuff, but I think these kinds of products are mostly misused. (For instance, Chains in the center image are too long.) Don’t hide a long chain problem.
A Customer Example
From our previous articles one customer, Charles H 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 took several links out of the chain without cutting. 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 previous articles about strong attachments for chains. I think Charles does a great job of pointing to the issues. Thanks!
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.
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, and the issues with safety chains are worse. Anyway, if you don’t need the weight distribution function, use a shorter drawbar and shorten the chain.
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.