Towing a dinghy vehicle behind your motorhome is a popular choice for transportation once set-up in an RV park. Here’s how to outfit and protect it.
It’s a fact: an automobile isn’t a trailer.
That may seem elementary, but a lot more goes into towing an automobile safely and reliably than does a trailer. Consider that a trailer was designed from the outset to be towed; all it really requires is the correct hitch, and perhaps a sway-control device – then simply plug the wiring harness into the tow vehicle, and you’re off. By contrast, an automobile is meant to be driven; it has no hitch, and no harness to plug into the motorhome to power-up the brakes, charging system and lights. To confound things further, some vehicles require more steps than others to prepare them for towing, and many still require the removal of one or more fuses and/or disconnecting the battery to prevent discharging while being towed. Indeed, bringing the family vehicle along for your journeys can require commitment as well as equipment.
Without a roadmap as to what your dinghy vehicle will require, or what components are available, properly outfitting it can be a challenge. So, we’ve put this comprehensive guide together that spells out the process, in order, and provides some suggestions as to where you can find the products mentioned. Granted, there are a lot of choices out there, but by perusing this guide first, you can become a more-informed shopper and decide what products best fit your needs, budget and preferences. After all, you’d probably rather spend your spare time traveling than shopping.
The baseplate is the equivalent of a hitch receiver on a tow vehicle – but since every vehicle is different, manufacturers may offer hundreds to choose from. First and foremost, make sure that a baseplate is available for the vehicle you plan to tow, and research what is involved with the installation. Some baseplates bolt on easily with few modifications required, while others require the removal of the vehicle’s front fascia and/or modifications (read: cutting/trimming) to the grille, bumper mask, etc. Obviously, this will not only influence your choice, but also your budget, since you will likely be paying a shop to perform the installation. Blue Ox, Demco and Roadmaster all offer an extensive line of baseplates, and have fit lists to determine if a baseplate is available by simply entering the year, make and model of the vehicle. Installation instructions are also available for download so you can understand how much work is involved. It’s important to note that not all companies offer the same baseplates, and designs may vary as well (for example, one design might be essentially hidden from view, another exposed), so make sure you shop each company’s website to find what works best for you.
While it would seem like this is a fairly straightforward choice, there is a wide selection of tow bars available from companies like Blue Ox, Demco, Roadmaster and others, and features and functionality can vary greatly. Aside from the all-important weight rating, consider how the tow bar is stowed (on the vehicle or on the motorhome), and whether or not the bar is a non-binding or traditional design. Traditional tow bars may be less expensive, but they are more difficult to connect and can be impossible to disconnect if you find yourself on uneven ground. Non-binding bars offer legs that move independently of one another – so the dinghy doesn’t have to be perfectly aligned with the motorhome when connecting – and latches that can be released to make it easy to disconnect in less-than-ideal circumstances. Each manufacturer also has its own claim to fame for its tow bar design(s) and may offer unique features other manufacturers don’t – so shop carefully. Above all, the tow bar is one place where you shouldn’t scrimp, so get the best one you can afford and save yourself time and frustration later on.
Available for 2- and 2½-inch hitch receivers, the aircraft-grade aluminum Ascent tow bar from Blue Ox has a 7,500-pound rating and features non-binding latches and offset triple lugs to make unhooking easier. Rubber boots prevent dirt from getting into the legs, and safety cables are included. Shown above is model BX4370 with a Blue Ox drop receiver, which may be necessary to keep the tow bar level with the towed vehicle. Blue Ox offers a variety of steel tow bars as well, with ratings up to 20,000 pounds.
The Excali-Bar II steel tow bar from Demco Products offers the highest rating in its tow bar line at an impressive 10,500 pounds. Weighing in at just 46 pounds, Excali-Bar II features independent arms and an easy trigger-release system for easy hookup/release and a vertical bolt design that allows the user to maneuver the tow bar one leg at a time. A 1½-inch rise/drop receiver tube comes standard.
Roadmaster offers a wide range of steel and aluminum tow bars, but its latest is the 8,000-pound rated Nighthawk, the first illuminated tow bar. Featuring sleek, powder-coated aluminum outer arms and solid stainless-steel inner arms, the Nighthawk incorporates the company’s non-binding Freedom Latch and what the company claims are the longest arms in the industry for the largest hook up radius available. An enclosed channel for power cords and safety cables provides a clean appearance.
TIP: When outfitting a dinghy vehicle for towing, it’s a good idea to purchase all of the products from just one manufacturer. While this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, consider that most manufacturers have designed their products to work with their own products, not their competitors’ products – so it may be difficult or impossible to mix and match components. So, do some research and decide which company is the best fit for your needs and budget. This will also come in handy if there are any problems or warranty issues – if all the products are from the same company, no one can claim the issue arose from incompatible components.
Like a trailer, the dinghy vehicle should have functioning brakes while towing to reduce stopping distance and improve safety. Some RVers tow without an auxiliary braking system in place, thinking that the motorhome’s brakes alone will be sufficient. However, even a small car can increase stopping distances by a significant amount – and this could be the difference between a safe stop and a bad accident. In addition, most states and all Canadian provinces require an auxiliary braking system in a towed vehicle, so it should be considered a mandatory purchase.
That being said, there are two basic designs in auxiliary braking systems: portable and permanent. Portable systems locate between the driver’s seat and brake pedal, and incorporate an arm and pedal clamp that depresses the vehicle’s brake pedal when the motorhome’s brakes are applied. Portable systems are a good option if you tow more than one vehicle, or if you may be considering another dinghy vehicle in the near future and therefore don’t want to commit to a permanently installed system. Features vary greatly in portable systems, but proportional braking provides more accurate performance. “Proportional braking” means that the system is designed to mimic the timing and brake application of the motorhome, so as you brake harder, so does the system. Less expensive systems may use “on/off” braking, which can lead to a perceptible jerking sensation as the brakes are applied. It still works, it’s just not as seamless.
Permanent brake systems require a larger investment in time during the initial installation, especially those that leverage the air- or hydraulic brakes in the motorhome to activate the brakes in the towed vehicle. However, once installed, permanent systems require little more than plugging in the power cord and/or quick disconnect, and you’re ready to drive. Because a small control unit is all that is required, these systems are also hidden from view under the hood or in the passenger compartment.
Permanent systems are a good choice if you plan to keep the car you’re towing for a while, and prefer the quickest possible set-up before towing. Blue Ox, Demco, Hopkins Manufacturing, Roadmaster and RV Innovations all offer reliable portable/permanent braking solutions.
Roadmaster offers three dinghy-braking systems, including the portable Even Brake, and permanently mounted InvisiBrake and Brake-Master products. All systems include an emergency breakaway provision, work in virtually any vehicle with power brakes and with any motorhome with hydraulic or air brakes.
Blue Ox’s Patriot II braking system is portable and features an in-cab controller with an extended RF range.
The RVibrake3 from RV Innovations is a low-profile, portable brake system that locates against the rise in the floorpan beneath the driver’s seat instead of the driver’s seat itself. Easily set-up with audio prompts, RVibrake3 employs an accelerometer to measure changes in brake force and to apply the dinghy brakes proportionally. A unique feature is the included 7-inch Command Center tablet and hub, which features a built-in Travel Checklist, RV Level, support apps and more. Tire pressure monitoring can be added optionally to the system.
One of the best-known names in dinghy braking systems, Brake Buddy by Hopkins Manufacturing is available in three flavors: the portable Brake Buddy Classic II and Brake Buddy Select II, and the permanently mounted Stealth.
SMI Brake Systems by Demco are some of the most respected in the RVing community, and consist of the Air Force One (for motorhomes with air brakes), Stay-IN-Play DUO and the portable Delta Force proportional braking system.
The ReadyBrake by NSA RV Products provides a simple solution for dinghy braking. Inserted into the hitch receiver of the motorhome, ReadyBrake uses the momentum of the dinghy vehicle pushing against the motorhome during a stop to compress a shock and spring inside the unit, which in turn pushes an actuator arm forward. A cable attached to the actuator arm then pulls the dinghy vehicle’s brake pedal.
The ReadyBrute Elite from NSA RV Products combines the company’s high-quality aluminum tow bar with the aforementioned ReadyBrake supplemental surge braking system. Rated at 8,000 pounds, the ReadyBrute Elite is designed for easy hookup/detachment on uneven surfaces with clevis connectors that can rotate and swivel.
To tow your vehicle safely and legally, its running lights, turn signals and brakelights must mimic the motorhome’s. The most common ways to do this are with a wiring harness that plugs/splices into the dinghy’s taillights, or a “bulb-and-socket” system, so called because it bypasses the towed vehicle’s lighting with independent bulbs and sockets mounted inside the taillight assemblies. In either example, the wiring harness is routed to a receptacle mounted at the front of the vehicle, for connecting a cable to the motorhome. If you’re not comfortable cutting into the dinghy vehicle’s factory wiring, Blue Ox, Demco and Hopkins Towing Solutions offer vehicle-specific wiring harnesses that plug into the factory harness, eliminating the need for cutting and splicing. These companies also have a fairly extensive fit list on their websites, but if your vehicle isn’t listed, a universal kit, or bulb-and-socket system, is likely available. If you’re looking for the quickest, easiest way possible to connect your dinghy, or if you tow more than one vehicle, you might prefer an auxiliary light system that attaches temporarily to the vehicle. Roadmaster’s Magnetic Tow Lights and Demco’s Light Bar are self-contained systems that require no connection to the dinghy’s electrical system.
Aside from basic electrical needs, there are other products available to address specific electrical issues. For example, if your vehicle requires that the battery be isolated during towing, a battery-disconnect system (like one offered by Roadmaster and other companies) allows you to disconnect the battery by simply flipping a switch. If your vehicle requires one or more fuses to be pulled before towing, Roadmaster also offers a FuseMaster kit, which simply disconnects identified fuses with the push of a button. If the battery becomes discharged by the end of a road trip, consider a charge-line kit that will help maintain the vehicle’s battery charge by supplying up to 15 amps of current.
Hopkins Towing Solutions offers vehicle-specific towed vehicle wiring kits that plug into the dinghy vehicle’s taillight wiring harness using OEM connectors – no cutting or splicing required.
The EZ Light wiring harness from Blue Ox can be plugged into a dinghy vehicle’s electrical system in as little as 15 minutes, according to the company. The EZ Light kit connects to the towed vehicle’s wiring to provide taillights, turn signals and brakelights while towing. The company’s website offers a fit list for a wide range of vehicles in a variety of different configurations.
Roadmaster offers universal diode and bulb-and-socket wiring kits, as well as specialty items like the FuseMaster, which allows owners to effectively disconnect one or more fuses (as required by the vehicle manufacturer before towing) by simply flipping a switch.
Some vehicles require the negative battery cable to be removed whenever the vehicle is flat-towed. The Roadmaster Battery Disconnect kit employs a solenoid that allows the user to disconnect the battery by simply pushing a button.
Demco offers vehicle-specific plug-in wiring kits, as well as Bulb Taillight Wiring kits and diode wiring kits that employ heat-sealed diodes to connect the motorhome’s running lights, turn signals and brakelights to the towed vehicle. Diodes prevent the backflow of electricity to protect both vehicles’ electrical systems.
Now that your dinghy vehicle has been completely outfitted, the next thing you’ll want to consider is how to protect it during travel. Every vehicle is exposed to some hazards during normal use, but when towed behind a motorhome, the risk of damage is magnified. Think about what would happen to your dinghy if your motorhome ran over gravel, tar or wet paint, and you’ll get the picture.
A rock/mud guard mounted to the motorhome is a good start, but for further protection, consider a product like the Blue Ox KarGard, Demco Sentry Deflector or Roadmaster Guardian mount to deflect rocks and other debris. Roadmaster also offers its Tow Defender, a vinyl-coated mesh screen that sits atop the tow bar and prevents road debris from reaching the vehicle.
For ultimate protection, Roadmaster offers what it calls the “Alaska Pack,” which combines the Guardian and Tow Defender to protect against the harshest of road conditions – namely the ones commonly encountered on the Alcan Highway.
Even with products like these in place, an occasional stray rock may still get through, bouncing off the hood or roof and creating rock chips. To protect against these incidents, you might also want to add 3M Scotchgard Paint Protection film, which must be professionally installed. A certified installer can be located on the company’s website (www.3m.com). The product is resistant to yellowing, is highly flexible and will fit snugly around the contours of your vehicle, making it difficult to detect, according to the company.
The KarGard from Blue Ox is a polyethylene protective shield that folds for easier storage. Aluminum mounting equipment and hardware are included.
The Sentry tow bar deflector by Demco Products is made from high-density polyethylene and is unique in that it is positioned at a 30-degree angle to deflect debris down and away from the towed vehicle. Said to be easy to install or remove, the Sentry attaches to the connecting ears of the Demco tow bar.
The Roadmaster Guardian Rock Shield is made from rotationally molded, high-impact polyethylene that the company says absorbs the impact of rocks and other debris, instead of ricocheting it back against the motorhome. The Guardian fits all Roadmaster tow bars equipped with quick disconnects and can be attached/removed in seconds, according to the company.
The Tow Defender is an interesting approach to deflecting rocks and other debris thrown up by the motorhome. Offering 20 square feet of protection, the Tow Defender’s all-weather, heavy-duty screen is secured by shock-absorbing gas struts. Seams have been reinforced and gussets added for increased durability. When not in use, it can be rolled into a 4-inch diameter package for storage. And, at only 14½ pounds, it’s easy to manage. The Tow Defender works with Roadmaster and competitive tow bars.
READ THE MANUAL
When considering a vehicle for towing behind your motorhome, always read the owner’s manual first – whether you already own the vehicle or plan to purchase it. It will provide valuable information on what is required before towing, which may influence your decision to use it as a dinghy. For example, some vehicles may require the removal of fuses, the disconnection of the negative battery cable and other steps, while others just require the transmission to be in neutral and the steering wheel unlocked. For more information, see our Annual Guide to Dinghy Towing.