Everything you need to know to get your motorhome and towed vehicle ready to hit the road
Let’s face it; motorhoming is the best way to see the country. After all, you are able to watch the scenery roll on by from the comfort of your living room. Want refreshments? Need the potty? They’re right behind you all the time.
But motorhomes do present a set of challenges as well: if you plan on touring after you’ve arrived at your destination, you have to pack everything up and drive the coach. That is, unless you’re towing a dinghy vehicle.
The meaning of dinghy is the same whether you’re in a marine or RV environment; taking a smaller, excursion-type vehicle along behind your larger, less maneuverable vehicle, such as a yacht or motorhome.
Dinghy towing has been popular for many years, especially since the advent of the modern, foldable, motorhome-mounted tow bar.
With the proper knowledge, equipment and vehicle, you can have a virtually effortless towing experience that will enhance all of your travels.
Related Story: Outfitting a Dinghy Vehicle
Here’s something everyone who is considering flat towing a vehicle needs to keep in mind: not all vehicles can be flat towed, and not all of them can be equipped in the same way. Dinghy towing requires a specially designed baseplate, custom wiring, braking system and occasionally powertrain changes.
A baseplate is the main structural connection for a vehicle being flat towed. Manufacturers like Roadmaster and Blue Ox design brackets for almost every model of vehicle that can be flat towed. This list changes every year, as model year design changes require the tow-bar manufacturers to chase down the new models for a fitment process.
Selecting the right dinghy vehicle is essential. Each vehicle manufacturer provides a list of vehicles that can be flat towed to MotorHome each year for the dinghy-towing guide (April issue). Available online for a number of previous model years, the annual MotorHome dinghy guide is the go-to resource for finding vehicles that can be towed, and what, if any, special instructions are required to make the vehicle flat-towable.
How much can your motorhome tow?
Before selecting a dinghy, it is essential that you are familiar with how much weight your motorhome can tow. The good news is that flat towing a vehicle puts a negligible amount of weight on the motorhome’s rear axle and hitch receiver. However, some motorhomes are rated for very little towing, and occasionally a small motorhome may not have a receiver, and isn’t rated to tow anything. This is where the homework comes in; once you have determined the motorhome’s tow rating, you can start looking at dinghy vehicles.
The bigger they are, the harder they tow
It may not be a hard-and-fast rule, but generally speaking, as the dinghy gets bigger, it becomes costlier, the hardware has to be heavier-duty, the fuel economy of the motorhome drops and it becomes even more difficult to find parking or get the motorhome towing the dinghy vehicle into tighter places. We recommend getting the smallest “towed” vehicle that will work for you. In any case, never exceed the tow rating or gross combination weight rating (gcwr) of the motorhome.
Selecting the proper hardware
Setting up a vehicle is not an inexpensive venture and can cost well into the thousands of dollars for the equipment and installation. So, researching the products you will need to flat tow is important.
The first component that comes to mind is the tow bar. Tow bars come in a number of styles and ratings, and selection is based on the application and how much the buyer wants to spend. From personal experience, I can tell you that it’s best not to skimp here.
The most economical tow bar is the basic solid A-frame type that bolts to the front of the towed car and connects to a ball-type hitch on the back of the motorhome. The problem with this setup is that it can be a challenge to connect to the motorhome, and the A-frame sticks up in the air while you’re driving the car if it’s not removed.
The preferred method in RV circles is to employ the motorhome-mounted foldable tow bar because this doesn’t leave hardware on the front of the dinghy vehicle. With this type of tow bar there are two telescoping and articulating arms that unfold to connect to the bracket on the front of the towed vehicle. Once the dinghy is connected, its brakes are released, and moving either the motorhome or towed vehicle extends the arms into the locked position. The arms are unlocked to release tension so the arms can be disconnected.
The ratings on the tow bars vary, ranging from generally 5,000 to 10,000 pounds. Be sure to buy a unit that will handle your current and future needs.
The baseplate is the frame-mounted bracket that connects the tow bar to the towed vehicle. As previously mentioned, baseplates are custom designed for the most common towed vehicles, but tow-bar suppliers will design a plate for any customer’s vehicle if the customer brings the vehicle to their manufacturing facility. It’s generally better to match the baseplate with the tow bar; however, there are cross-manufacturer adapters available for certain applications.
Installing a baseplate can be a remarkably complex project requiring removal of much of the front end of the towed car, and is only recommended to be done by the most competent shade-tree mechanics. Most of the plates are bolt-on applications, but there are some that can require quite a bit of drilling, fabrication and fishing of bolts through small openings. Some specialized tools, like a torque wrench, various American and metric sockets and body-working tools may be required, as cutting holes in panels and grilles is not uncommon. When working on this kind of project, it’s always a good idea to measure twice, cut once.
Rear-facing lighting is required by law on every towed car. There are a number of ways of accomplishing this.
Strap-on or magnetic rear light kits connect to the back of the dinghy, and a cable is routed to the rear of the motorhome’s trailer connection. While this can be the least desirable way to go — as the cable is exposed, can cause rubbing damage to the towed vehicle’s paint and won’t have an easy way to share the motorhome connection with a braking system — there are wireless systems available that mitigate most of these issues.
The other, more effective methods are utilizing bulb kits and diode kits. Bulb kits and diode kits use a similar wiring harness that is run through the vehicle to the rear, and both require removing elements of the interior of the vehicle for proper installation. Bulb-kit wiring is routed to the stop/turn/taillight assemblies and holes are drilled in them to install independent bulbs that operate separately from the vehicle’s main harness.
A diode kit cuts into the stop/turn/taillight wiring harness in the rear of the dinghy, and is tied into the motorhome’s circuit; the diodes prevent feedback from damaging the circuitry of the dinghy and motorhome.
Most states require that towed vehicles, like trailers, have their own brakes and emergency breakaway brake systems. But braking systems should be used regardless of size or law.
Whether the towed vehicle is a Fiat or a Ford F-150 pickup, stopping distances will increase, in some cases substantially. A braking system will not only make stopping the motorhome and towed vehicle shorter and thereby safer, but will activate the towed vehicle’s brakes in the event of a separation, bringing the car to a safe stop as soon as possible.
Braking systems are available in a number of designs for different applications, and your dealer or Camping World can help you select the right system.
Standalone systems are popular because of their portability from one vehicle to another. They also require the least amount of installation time and are relatively easy to use. These systems sit on the floor of the towed vehicle and connect to the brake pedal by way of a bracket; 12-volt DC is provided to power the unit, and a breakaway switch is wired in.
Proportional braking is achieved by utilizing motion-sensing technology to sense the rate of deceleration and apply the appropriate amount of brake-pedal pressure to aid in the stop. There is no requirement to tap into the braking system of the motorhome, nor do they power up the master cylinder. Removal of the system is easy, and the unit can be used across numerous towed vehicles.
Other systems are built into the towed vehicle and sometimes require minimal installation/setup time. These systems still have breakaway capabilities, and feature a built-in vacuum reservoir or pump which enable the vehicle’s power brakes, requiring less force to activate the brakes.
However, most systems require extensive installation, and are very difficult, if not impossible, to transfer from one vehicle to another.
In addition to the tow bar, lighting and braking systems, a flat-towed system will need safety cables or chains, an appropriate electrical cable (frequently a six-way to seven-way coiled cable) and protection, if desired, for the towed vehicle from debris thrown up by the motorhome. These can include cross-coach mud flaps or screens and car-mounted shields.
A storage bag is also a good idea for the chains and cables. A tow-bar cover helps keep the bar in good a shape and clean. In some cases, all these items are included in an accessory kit that is sold by the tow-bar manufacturer.
Hooking up a dinghy to a motorhome isn’t particularly difficult. Each tow bar has its own procedure for connecting, which is included in its owner’s manual, so becoming familiar with the manuals that come with it and your braking system are important.
There are a few things to keep in mind whenever hooking up a dinghy to a motorhome. First, always try to make the connection on level ground. A checklist should be used that covers all the steps in detail for your particular setup. Each towed vehicle is different, and may have different procedures for putting it in tow mode, like removing fuses, having the ignition in accessory mode, setting then releasing the emergency brake, etc. There’s no single complete, ready-made checklist for this, so make one up yourself.
Speaking of steps, be sure to take your time and double and triple check everything, especially the first few times you tow. Make sure all safety cables and electrical cables are connected, hardware pins are secured, the transmission is set to the manufacturer’s specifications for flat towing, the brake is released and so on. Some owners like to view the dinghy in their backup camera while towing to make sure both arms are locked, the front wheels are turning properly and that the tires are spinning and not locked up.
On occasion, a dinghy can only be flat towed with a lube pump installed, or a driveline disconnect device engaged. A lube pump is designed to keep the transmission lubricated while the vehicle is being towed. While much rarer these days, if you have one, you will need to follow the directions carefully to avoid damage to your vehicle.
A driveline disconnect is a lever on the floor of the dinghy vehicle that is pulled to disconnect the driveline on an automatic-transmission vehicle. While also less commonly used today because so few new cars have rear-wheel drive and the resulting driveline, if you have one, make sure it’s in the proper position for towing, and when you disconnect the car from the motorhome, make sure you re-engage the disconnect, otherwise the vehicle can roll away if the brake is released.
Some dinghy vehicles will have a special requirement, like stopping and running the engine for 20 minutes every 200 miles or a similar procedure. Make certain you do this to avoid damage to the towed vehicle.
Once the dinghy is connected, be sure to do a walk-around to check the tow-bar connection, and that the lights and brake systems are working.
Wear and Tear
Readers often ask if flat towing a vehicle puts undue wear and tear on it, and whether the dinghy accrues mileage while being towed.
The answer to both is generally no, however there are a couple of things to keep in mind. First, tires, shocks and brakes are subject to wear while towing. As with a trailer, sharp turns sometimes result in dragging the front end of the dinghy, which can result in accelerated tire wear and front-end alignment issues.
Tow bars and associated equipment require very little maintenance. The bar itself is subjected to a lot of moisture and road grime. As a rule, wiping down the arms when you get to your destination and spraying some silicone lubricant on the moving or sliding parts will help keep them in like-new condition. Some tow-bar manufacturers recommend coating the arms with a light coat of multipurpose grease to keep them working smoothly. On occasion, dirt and road grime can get past the seals and into the slide tube, causing the arms to become difficult to move. In this case, it may be time for a thorough cleaning and inspection. Blue Ox, for example, recommends having a major service every two years.
Other items that may need maintenance include the safety cables and electrical cables. The safety cables should be kept clean and rust-free, and should be replaced if the cable begins to fray. Like most trailer connectors, the six- and seven-way plugs and receptacles on the motorhome, dinghy and the electrical cables may become dirty and corroded, and should be cleaned to ensure a good connection.
Pros and Cons
As with everything, there are pros and cons to flat towing, and these are worth considering before embarking on building out a vehicle for this purpose.
The most obvious benefit is the convenience of having a vehicle for touring and running errands when you’ve arrived at your destination. Especially in the cases of larger motorhomes, packing everything up for every little errand is a pain. If you’re a full-timer, then having a dinghy is really a must. Another pro is that if your motorhome should break down, you have a back-up form of transportation.
Alternately, the initial expense to set up a vehicle for dinghy towing can be quite high, with a complete system in the $2,000 to $3,000 range with installation. For people who take shorter trips, renting a car can offset the cost of flat towing, and some rental-car companies will even pick you up at the campground.
It’s also not possible to back the motorhome with a dingy vehicle connected. If you get in a spot where you have to turn around, the dinghy has to be disconnected first. Avoiding such a situation becomes a matter of planning ahead when you drive, and keeping your eyes open down the road for situations that may require you to back up the motorhome. On occasion you may end up in an RV park with insufficient room to connect and disconnect at the site, or to drive around the park with the car attached. Again, that can be cumbersome, but once you get used to where you can and can’t go with a dinghy in tow, you’ll do great.
All in all, dinghy towing is a great convenience, and is pretty easy to do once you get used to it. Plus, you’ll really appreciate having that second vehicle along.