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Are Light Travel Trailers Safe?

An Epilogue follows at the bottom, since I originally wrote this post when I had a double axle travel trailer (4500 pound GVWR), and was thinking of going to a single. I have indeed gone to a single axle trailer since writing this post.

Thus an epilogue is added at the bottom.

This isn't an RV "how to" blog. I avoid practical discussions because 1) it should be left to people who make a few nickels and dimes from Google ads, and 2) practical details are terribly boring to read, because they don't carry over well to somebody else in slightly different circumstances. (Which is true 95% of the time.)

But safety is special. Recently I had the wheel bearings repacked with grease and the brakes inspected/adjusted, on my 4000 pound travel trailer, with tandem axlesThe wires to the electrical brake were broken on one of my four wheels. (And it wasn't the first time.) No wonder I had noticed the rear end wiggling when braking.

'Noticed,' I said. There was nothing drastic about losing one brake out of four. I need to think about that when I get tempted to buy a lighter travel trailer that only has one axle rather than two.

I'd love to hear from someone who has actually experienced both types of arrangements, with the same tow vehicle. You could look at trailer brochures until the eyes fall out of your head, and you won't learn anything about this issue. Salesmen can't (or won't) say anything "bad" about anything.

Tandem axle trailers must be safer than singles for other reasons as well, such as blowouts or broken springs. Besides greater safety, tandem axles lower the weight on the hitch and might get you out of the bother of using weight distribution bars on a light trailer (my next one will be under 3500 pounds loaded.) I've always wondered what it feels like to go through a dip with only one trailer axle. Also, tandem axle trailers can carry a couple thousand pounds more cargo.

On the other hand, eliminating the second axle lowers the weight by 300 pounds, and keeps you from wearing out tires by scuffing. But a single axle means faster wear on your brakes and bearings. Worn tires are easier to inspect.

Epilogue: I went from a tandem axle trailer, 4000 pounds loaded, to a single axle trailer, 3000 pounds loaded. I do indeed notice the trailer wiggling more during hard breaking, but there is nothing frightening about it. My 3/4 ton van is rated to tow 6500 pounds.

I am not sure if I notice any significant differences in dipping when going through holes and bumps.

The single axle trailer came from the factory with load rating C tires. For another $20 per tire, I can switch to load rating E tires, which are "taller", that is, 1" bigger in diameter. How nice.

After a year of full-time use, I haven't had a flat or a blowout. But switching to the higher load range should mitigate some of those concerns.

Double axle trailers wear the tires quickly during sharp turns on pavement. It seemed like I was buying a new pair every other year. But with a single axle, there is less temptation to run the tires down to bald: after all, you only have to buy two of them, so why take a chance?

Newer epilogue: I wondered why I wiggled during braking.  Did the brakes need adjusting? That can be done by sticking the brake adjusting tool (from any auto parts store) through the hole in the inboard backplate, and tweeking the star adjuster inside. But it is easier to do this if you can see the star adjuster. So I waited until one year of usage, when it was time to have the bearings repacked.

The mechanic found that two parts were missing on one side! The guys who had installed the brakes aftermarket had really screwed up. It was an easy fix.

Shame on me for being so lazy and delaying this brake inspection and bearing repacking! 

The moral of the story is that my brakes were only working on one side for an entire year, and although it was noticeable, it did not prove dangerous, despite this being a single axle trailer!

But don't try this stunt. Your results may vary!


Wayne (Wirs) said…
I wonder if you could find your answers by renting a uHaul trailer, throw a bunch of stuff in it to simulate the weight? First hand experience is worth 100 second hand accounts.

I don't know if uHauls have trailer brakes though, but if they did, I'm sure you could disconnect one side to test (be sure to reconnect it before returning it).
Bob Giddings said…
That would be me, I suppose. I have gone from a dual axle fifth wheel to a single axle pull-behind. In stages. I've had no trouble with the single axle, though that doesn't mean there are not troubles to be had. I wish that guy hadn't been so greedy about the Kalispell I was looking at, because this Skyline is definitely overloaded a bit. Tracks fine, though.

It's the anticipation that kills you.

The fifth wheel was a cheap Mallard, and required constant maintenance. In 2005, I think it was, I spent a couple of weeks in southern Utah, took a turn down to Tuba City, and then up to Cortez and then Dolores to stay a while at the reservoir.

Somewhere in there I broke a right rear spring shackle. The funny thing is that I don't know where, because the front axle took the weight well. I never noticed any effect on driving at 60-70 mph.

I only discovered it when I backed into a site in Dolores that put the rear end of the trailer about 3 feet up in the air. There was something a little odd about the back end. Sure enough, the right rear axle was right up against the frame. God knows what was holding it there. I may have driven hundreds of miles like that.

I drove very very carefully back down into Cortez and got it fixed there. I had to go for parts to Farmington.

Needless to say, if that had happened on a single axle, it might have pulled me off into the ditch.

That said, I don't know where you are going to find a double axle trailer under 3500 lb. The lightest I've seen was a high dollar Camplite, and it had two 2000 lb. axles.

Sorry to have to inform you that tandem or single or triple axles have nothing to do with hitch weight or the need for equalization. Properly balanced trailers will have 12 to 15 percent of their weight on the hitch no matter how many axles. Weight distribution is a factor of how much weight the tow vehicle can handle on the tow bar without becoming unbalanced. My trailer tows fine without equalization on my 2500HD truck but a lighter truck like a 1500 would need equalization. Single axle trailers are slightly more prone to need sway control than tandem or triple axle.
Good anecdote. I too have had problems with one axle that was caught in time, but just barely. Like you, I'm glad there was a second axle.

About your over-loaded single-axle trailer: it's troubling to see the 900-1200 pound cargo ratings on those. That could be a safety/maintenance issue in itself, given my tendency to beat the crap out of the trailer on rough backcountry roads.
It might be possible to put it to a fair test, as suggested. At least swaying, dipping, and one-sided braking could be tested.
Bob Giddings said…
Mine had a carrying capacity of 580 lb., believe it or not. I'm carrying about a thousand, with a full load of water.

I did upgrade the wheels and added 8 ply tires, for what that's worth. So far, so good. The axle is a 3500 lb torsion type, which cannot be improved without replacement. I was told by an axle place that there was a considerable safety factor above that. We'll see. No obvious problems yet.

The kalispell is the only single axle trailer I know that is over engineered, or even adequately so. Too bad they are rare. I let one get away from me because it cost more than I wanted to pay.
Brian said…
The single axle trailer I pulled had a 3500 lb axle... a small tilt bed equipment trailer. I pulled a 10,000 lb gooseneck with the same truck.

Safe? Hell, I couldn't even feel the single axle back there... even when it was loaded. dips, wind whatever, it simply didn't have the weight to pull the truck around.

Now, get some horses or steer fighting in that gooseneck and it sure got wiggly. IT had the weight to control the truck... rather than the other way around.

Safety with trailers isn't so much about the trailer, other than it being loaded with proper weight distribution and NOT being over loaded... It's more about having the proper capacity in the tow vehicle.

TOO many tow vehicles on the road are grossly overrated for their towing capacity - In My Opinion.

Most of the Larger fifth wheels being hauled around are unsafe except under ideal conditions. They are simply way too heavy for the pickup draggin' 'em to handle except under good conditions. Get into difficulty and the truck simply doesn't have the weight in itself to control that TOO heavy load behind it.
Some of those single axle lightweight trailers I looked at had frames that were marginal when I ran the engineering calcs on them. I would have no problem getting a 3500 or higher pound axle under put a light trailer IF the frame could handle the load. Another worry I had on the light trailers was the ability of the light frame to handle the racking I put on a trailer when crossing ditches heading off road. One lightweight I looked at about two years ago had less than 400 pounds capacity left after filling the freshwater tank and small propane tanks. That is just too close for serious use full timing in my opinion.
I have towed single axle boat trailers, many of them over 5000# rolling, all over the Texas Gulf Coast for over fifty years. They are not anymore trouble or less trouble than the tandems in my opinion. They do tend to react quicker going either direction than a tandem. Several times I had one brake on the boat trailer quit working and it was more a nuisance than a major event, unless it was raining. Then it got nasty. Same with blowing a tire. No trouble unless it was raining. We never towed a single axle on ice or snow so I cannot help on that.
400 pounds! My (four) batteries and tools weigh that much. Freshwater is indeed the heaviest thing you actually have discretionary control over. I carry most of mine in 5-7 gallon jugs in the tow vehicle.
I want to downsize both the trailer and the tow vehicle. I need to have a little success downsizing the trailer, so I'll feel confident downsizing to a RAM 1500.

Yes, most giant fifth wheels are too big and are overloaded.Wouldn't it be nice if there was a commercial weighing service for weighing each wheel; then we could make some adjustments and weigh it again. We would all benefit from that.
I just switched from a tandem spring to a Dexter tandem torsion with self adjusting breaks. It was more then a world of difference, most people are ignorant of how poor quality their trailer, axel, tires & breaks really are, yet they still drive 75-80 with that crap.
One of the ways a blog like yours could be really helpful is to give the weight of the conversion: cargo trailer pounds AFTER versus BEFORE.

If I knew that number, it would help me choose the size of the cargo trailer, or perhaps even give up on the idea and go with a regular travel trailer.
For your style it may be important that the second axle gives you a nearly twice the flotation across soft areas. It will not be twice because the extra weight of the axle and attachments. It is my worthless opinion that the weight of a trailer is marginally increased with a tandem. However the trailer builders seem to always add nonessential heavy junk when a tandem axle is used. In my desired world, one of the light weight trailers retro fitted with a fat tire tandem axle set would be my choice.
Your point is well taken: there is a lot more freedom in tire choices than most of us really take advantage of.

I've never really considered getting a fatter tire, but I will drop the air pressure from 50-55 psi to 30 psi, thereby producing a big flat spot on the bottom of the tire.

"For your style" ? Hey, you're the dude who is always camping on a sandy beach. (grin) Loose sand is something I don't see much of, but I would see more of it if I camped more in loose sandstone in Utah. (And I hate it when travelers rhapsodize how red the sandstone is. Who cares!? I want some organic material in the sand that makes it soil.)

Generally speaking a national forest or BLM camper hits loose stuff only when crossing arroyos or when driving through a ditch on the side of the forest road, on his way to a nearby dispersed campsite. Therefore if I can just stay un-stuck for 10 feet, I won't get stuck at all. That's why I want traction control on my next tow vehicle.
Never camped on the beach but a lot of loose sand a few miles inland away from the beach. I was thinking of all the loose dirt I saw up here in the Lincoln NF near Queen NM. That 10 feet can be a long ways in some places. It has been a surprise during the last few months that the 6000# of my trailer has not made any trouble when I rolled onto the dirt/sand while exploring. The St 205-15c tires have had very good floatation with that load. They are set at 50psig.
Bob Giddings said…
I pulled off a road approaching an intersection in Nova Scotia to look at a map. When I figured out which way I wanted to turn I tried to pull back onto the road, and promptly buried the right wheels in mud and wet grass.

No worries, I thought, I've got 4WD. Didn't matter. I finally quit trying after I was looking out the passenger window right straight down at the ground. You see, I didn't have limited slip, and the whole right side was in slick stuff, so no power was going to the left side wheels at all.

It did not matter that the left side wheels, front and back, were still on the pavement.

I finally was pulled back onto the road by an ancient passing pickup. Since then I usually buy 4WD, but I ALWAYS buy limited slip.

WOW In my ignorance I thought all 4x4 systems were like the Chevy truck I drive. When you put it in 4x4 low all four wheels are locked together and turn the same amount, traction or no traction. Thanks for the education on other systems to learn about.
Wildsider said…
I have experienced both types of trailers with the same vehicle. Truck - Ford f-150, 4.9L. Trailers - 19' Wilderness tandem axle, 16' Fun Finder (current trailer)single axle.
I am a lightweight traveler, so weight has never been a problem. My style of backcountry camping is similar to yours. The most noticeable difference when going to the single axle is that weight distribution is more critical and the trailer will move around a bit more. I use sway control only - no weight dist. hitch.
One advantage of the single axle is that it can be unhitched and turned by hand in a tight situation.
As to braking safety, I travel light enough where loss of brakes on the trailer would not be catastrophic in most situations. I am the Macgyver (sp?) type so I can usually self repair.
Bob Giddings, wouldn't electronic traction control have gotten you out of that problem in Nova Scotia?
Bob Giddings said…
Dunno, B. Never studied "traction control". But I know for a fact that limited slip would have worked. This was in a F150 many years ago. Since then I've been careful not to get myself in the same situation.

Barney, I don't know about Chevy trucks. My 2011 Dodge 1500 4wd has limited slip on the rear differential.

Bob Giddings said…
A limited search brought this up:

Apparently it depends on the version of "traction control" installed on your particular model. I thought of it as only a braking strategy. But apparently some models also limit power to the slipping wheel. In that case, the answer to your question would be yes.

There's been lots of electronic progress since my trip to Nova Scotia. It may not be a problem any more, but I'd check the particular model to be sure.
Bob Giddings said…
These sherline scales are not too expensive:

As for me, I just guess. :o) I tow my 4200 lbs. with no anti-sway or weight distributing gear. No problems at all. This on a Dodge 1500 4wd.

When I first got the pickup, I had a trailer with 800 lb hitch weight. While that was possible to pull, it didn't feel quite right until I added airbags inside the rear springs. Cost about $100 for the pair. Now I'm down to about 400 lb., but I still carry 30 psi in them. It just feels better.
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