When Does My Trailer Need Brakes?

There are laws that say when a trailer must have brakes.  In most places within the USA, when the trailer total capacity is over 3000 lbs, trailer brakes are required.  That’s all well and good, but we all know that laws are an ignorant way of covering the least common denominator.  So, are there better guidelines?

In practice, the better guidelines don’t exist.  However, this article considers several other things to think about.  These are not rules, or laws, but they are guiding principles.  Please note, some “Rules of Thumb” are conflicting, so this article is to open eyes, not to give strict rules.

Again, we’re NOT talking about the total your vehicle can tow, we’re talking how much WITHOUT trailer brakes.  For info about total towing capacity, read the article How Much Can I Tow With My Vehicle?

What’s the Big Deal?

Drum Brake InternalsNearly every axle you can buy comes with an option to add brakes.  For the most part these are like the drum brakes of older cars.  The technology has been around for a long time, and it looks kind of complicated, but it’s really not.

There are other styles like disk brakes too, but they are not as common.  Anyway, the type of brakes does not matter so much as if they are there and hooked up.  That’s the first job.

Weight Ratios

The need for trailer brakes really comes down to one thing — how much do you want to slow down?  Some people might ask instead — do you want to stop?  But brakes are for a lot more than just stopping.  In fact, the worst conditions for brakes are not stopping, but trying to control speed down a hill.

With that in mind, how good are the brakes on your tow vehicle?  How much weight does your car manufacturer think they can appropriately stop?

I’ve heard some guidance as weight of the tow vehicle compared to weight of the trailer.  If you’re going to use that concept, then you need trailer brakes if the trailer is more than 50% of the weight of your tower.  That’s a pretty easy guide, but . . .  Try stopping 50% extra weight — especially when that weight is not on the vehicle wheels assisting with the downward force that helps braking.

I don’t really like this guidance as it ignores some other important factors.

GVWR

Another way to think about it is in terms of GVWR (Gross Vehicle Weight Rating).  This is based on braking ability.  Granted, the trailer weight is not on the tow vehicle, but without trailer brakes, the vehicle must stop that weight too.  If we think in terms of what the manufacturer says, presumably the vehicle can stop that much weight.

Small SUVThis guideline says — you need trailer brakes if the weight of your vehicle + all cargo + trailer is greater than the GVWR.  So, if your mid-size SUV has a GVWR = 7,500 lbs, and you have the vehicle, 4 passengers with all their gear adding up to 6,000 lbs, then you can tow a 1,500 lbs trailer without trailer brakes.  (These numbers are improv only.)

In this example, if we look at the legal limit of 3,000 lbs for a trailer without trailer brakes, we see that puts the overall system into a questionable situation.  Even though specs for the SUV say it can tow 3,000 lbs, without knowing more about the braking system of the SUV, this situation is very likely big trouble.

Again, this is not super scientific since it does not take all the details into account.  However, as a general guideline, I like this GVWR approach much better.

Yes, there is the little factor of weight on the wheels to provide more traction, versus weight of the trailer which does not provide more traction.  Yes, skidding when trying to stop fast is a big deal when pulling a trailer that does not have brakes.  That is a limitation of this approach, but as a rule of thumb, it’s better than the 2 above.

Trailer Brakes Determination By Sampling

Try it.  If you’re wondering, hook the trailer up to your vehicle and drive a little.  See how fast it stops.  Check out how much added distance you need with the trailer (versus driving the vehicle without the trailer).  Start slow, then gradually faster.  If it surprises you about how much more it takes to stop things, then get the trailer brakes hooked up.  OR, If you can’t hardly tell, then you might not need trailer brakes.

On the other hand, if stopping or braking – especially into a corner – ever scares you – even just a little – then, go hook up some brakes.

Caveats in Choosing Trailer Brakes — or Not

There are definitely some environmental factors in the decision too.  Here is a list of additional decision makers.

  • For driving in the mountains, bias your decisions FOR trailer brakes.  You definitely don’t want to end up needing one of those run-away truck ramps.
  • If you will drive fast, again, brakes are more important.
  • For long distances, bias your decisions FOR trailer brakes.
  • When roads are less than ideal – rain, snow, ice, mud – having more points of braking contact is usually better.
  • If your vehicle is basically empty, and the trailer is basically full.
  • When you are near the GVWR, bias toward having trailer brakes.
  • Finally, longer trailers can benefit more from brakes.  The longer the trailer, the more dynamics effect things, so brakes become even more helpful.

This is where the “Common Sense” comes in.  Unfortunately, Common Sense is not so common, so take this for what it’s worth, and don’t be Cinderella’s sister.  If the shoe doesn’t fit, go find the right shoe.

I’ve done it, and fortunately lived to tell.  For kicks, here’s a silly story – from younger, dumber times.

Easy Does It

When I was in college, I drove an early VW Rabbit.  A great little 4-cylinder economy car.  I did some work on the engine including a switch to a multi-stage carburetor so the little VW was quick with get up and go.  The car weighed roughly 2800 lbs empty, and it had a tow rating of zero.  Seriously, the owners manual said you must not pull a trailer with it.  Note:  Bolstering the engine does nothing for the brakes.

I also had a 20′ trailer for towing a racing motorcycle and associated gear.  Guess what pulled the trailer?

Yes, I welded up a nice hitch for the VW, and I pulled a trailer around that weighted more than the car (a little more).  Young and dumb?  We can go with that, but as an Engineering student as well as a mechanic, I looked beyond the mark in thinking it was safe.  Dumb luck is more the truth.  It worked out fine, but I’ll admit, “Easy Does It” ruled the day.  I endangered so many people with that.  The hitch was great, but I didn’t ever take the time to hook up the trailer brakes.

Car n Trailer
I don’t have photos of mine, but this is a newer, nicer version of what I did.  I’m sure he does it better.  Cool rig from Stealth GTI.  And, a good example of A Trailer Instead of a Truck.

Trailer Brakes at 3000 Lbs.

I am a fan of brakes.  With small, light trailers it doesn’t matter that much.  Yet, there are limits.  My FIRST big advise is:  Consider what you’re doing, and think about how you’d respond if someone driving your rig was following your daughter (just learning to drive).  Would you want them to have trailer brakes?  If you’re good with it, then perhaps it passes the sanity test.

The SECOND piece of advise:  Yes, make sure you meet the legal limit with trailer brakes for anything over 3,000 GTW, but go a step further.  Figure out what the real numbers are for your rig.  For any vehicle smaller than full-size, it’s a good bet that towing at the 3000 lbs legal requirement is pushing the limits.

Torsion Axles with Drum Brakes

Safe Towing To You!

Comments

0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View All Comments

We Found These For You . . .

Product
6' 10" width, 12' Length Trailer Plans

Make your new trailer full width starting with a 6' 10" wide deck.  These blueprints are 12' length and 3500# capacity for a very functional utility trailer.  Choose from the many options to build it like you want it.

Article
DIY Drilling Steel
Need a hole?  Many of our plans require drilled holes, so here are some Tips about drilling in metal, like steel, as well as in wood, and other materials.

Read The Article

Product
24' Tiny Home Trailer Plans

Build on a solid foundation starting with plans specifically designed for the unique needs of a Tiny House Trailer. Low 8.5’ x 24’ top deck. Up to 14,000 lbs total capacity. Fully Engineered.

Article
As a simplistic introduction to beam loading, this article discusses the complications in calculating stresses and deflection.  While it’s pretty easy to calculate beam loading for simple theoretical cases, very few beams

Read The Article

Product
Heavy Duty Gantry Crane Plans

The big one, actually the big many.  These Gantry Crane Plans include Engineering graphs to choose the beam and legs from 2000 lbs - 6000 lbs lifting capacity.  Free Standing, Large or Small, Wide or Narrow. Build to fit your…

Article
A Story Of The Right Tools
Fun side story about finding the right tools for a do-it-yourself (with a friend) in automotive repair. This story is not about building great new Do It Yourself projects, but it illustrates the need to have (borrow, or rent) the…

Read The Article

Article
There's More To Just Mounting Trailer Axle Springs
As with many things, there’s a lot more to mounting trailer axle springs than first meets the eye.  Here are 2 tips to make your trailer frame stronger.

Read The Article

Article
Harbor Freight Improvement
You’ve seen them, the inexpensive bolt-together Harbor Freight trailer kits.  While they pack a lot of function, they unfortunately are often something like a rattle trap.  (Not always, of course.)  While they have a cheap rap, they sell a lot

Read The Article

Product
4'x6' Off Road Trailer

Build a great little DIY Off Road Trailer with these Plans.  The 4 x 6 is a nice adventure buggy size to use with a Jeep or any other 4-Wheel-Drive.  And, customize with options in the plans.

Article
There’s always more to it.  Our previous post titled “Where Does The Axle Go?” has spawned a lot of great questions.  Here is one in particular asking some very relevant info about calculating axle position. 

Read The Article