Sooner or later, you may embark on a trip that involves your motorcycle—or someone else’s motorcycle for that matter—being transported on a trailer.
I never really gave the complexities of trailering much thought. After all, I grew up around tractors, trucks, and two and four-wheel trailers doing everything from making hay to logging and cutting firewood. I’d never found it to be much of a problem.
But taking a high-value bit of cargo like a motorcycle at freeway speed for a long-haul involving several thousand miles round trip across the vast open spaces of the American west raised my awareness of how many things can go wrong. It forced me to think about preparation much more than hauling a trailer load of firewood down to the house.
My first motorcycle trailer was thrown in on the purchase of a motorcycle. It was a 5’ x 8’ utility trailer with a motorcycle rail installed that had been stored outside in the elements for years. The little 9” tires were dry cracked, the chassis was liberally rusted, the wiring was corroded and cracked, the lights were non-working, it had no tongue jack, and a lot of things rattled loose when it was finally put under way. But, it was free—so all those were minor details.
Much of the accumulated wisdom I'm about to share with you about trailering come from my experience with this tired, yet remarkably game little trailer.
Hauling a motorcycle on an open trailer is, in some ways, easier than in an enclosed trailer. Using the tie-downs, for example, it also poses more challenges such as how to protect the bike from the elements and how to keep it secure if parked overnight. I also have a new enclosed trailer that made the same long-range trips west as the little utility trailer, and that had some secrets to share, which will be included as well.
Key elements that make towing a trailer work safely begin with the hitch. Make sure the ball and hitch are sized properly for the load you plan to haul and make sure you’re not dropping a two inch diameter hitch onto a 1⅞” ball. Make sure the hitch locks on securely by pulling up on it. Once that checks out, using a padlock on the handle is not only a good security idea, but a good safety idea. Make sure both (two always) safety chains are securely hooked to the hitch and secured so they don’t drag on the pavement—I tend to cross them over the tongue of the trailer. Make sure the receiver locking pin is the right size and is locked in place so it cannot come out. If the trailer is one that is equipped with electric or inertia brakes, be sure to check them out and make sure they work properly and evenly. Also, while you’re looking around under the trailer, check for cracks or corrosion in the frame and check out the condition of the shocks and springs.
Keep the connector for the lights clean and covered with a film of dielectric grease. This helps to prevent corrosion and it also provides a good connection. As soon as you hook up, check all the light functions before every trip .Taillights, turn signals, brake lights and side marker lights all must be in working order.
Trailer wheel bearings are easy to forget...until you fry them out on the Red Desert in 110 degree heat. We’ve probably all seen it—the sad situation of a trailer sitting on one side of its frame after a wheel bearing failed and destroyed an axle shaft. Check the wheel bearings by jacking the trailer up so the wheel just clears the ground and spin it. If the bearings are in good shape, there should be very little sound. There shouldn't be a grinding sound, and there should also be very little play in the wheel when you try to move it laterally perpendicular to the axle. Greasing the bearings that have a zerk fitting each morning was part of my routine when using the older utility trailer on long-haul trips. For bearings that don’t have the fittings, packing them as often as recommended by the trailer manufacturer is essential. Check the hubs for excess heat at every fuel stop. If the hub is too hot to touch, there may be a problem.
Good tires properly inflated are as important on a trailer as on your main vehicle. A trailer with small (9”) wheels really is not made for long-haul, high-speed trips. That said, I made two trips to Bonneville and back—close to 3,000 miles round trip with one like that. Keeping the speed down helped keep tire and bearing wear conditions manageable, but on one trip, two tire failures did occur—both tread separations from the hull of the tire—fortunately, no blowouts. That happened despite the load being only one bike of about 400 lb. with no other gear hauled on the trailer bed. The smaller the tire diameter, the faster they have to rotate to keep up with the speed of the tow vehicle. That increases the heat and stress in the wheel bearings and tires. Carrying a properly inflated, pre-mounted/balanced new spare is highly recommended.
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Get a Load Of This
It's vital to load the trailer as evenly as possible, within its designed load capacity and according to the manufacturer’s recommendations. Loading with a slight bias toward the front of the trailer makes it easier to hitch up, unhitch, and move the trailer by hand (should it become necessary). Of course, on larger trailers with tandem axles, moving by hand may not be an option.
Watch Your Tongue
A tongue jack really makes things a lot easier, but surprisingly, a lot of smaller trailers are sold without one. Adding one that is of adequate load capacity is helpful, and getting both a skid and wheel attachment for the bottom of it can make for more versatility in handling the trailer when setting up. Before getting underway, make sure it's locked in the raised position and check it at every fuel stop, particularly if it's the fixed vertical screw type of jack. I learned the hard way that unless they are tightened down securely, road vibration can make them unscrew themselves all the way down to the pavement.
Tie Me Down
The tie-downs that hold the bike in position are crucial. Make sure they are in good condition and properly anchored. I’ve equipped my trailers with four tie down eyes on each side of the bed. Using all eight is an option for the long haul, but even if you usually use three, it’s good to have an extra available in the event one fails.
Ride the rail
If your trailer has a fixed heavy steel gauge rail or track with built-in front wheel chock, you should be good to go as long as the rail is wide enough to accommodate both your bike’s front and rear tire. If you're retro-fitting a flatbed trailer, keep those dimensions in mind. A removable front wheel chock is an option that makes your trailer easier to convert to other uses, but be sure to set up the chock so it can’t back off its stays. A rear-wheel chock is also a very good idea if you’re not using a continuous rail.
Ramp Me up, Scotty
Folding or fixed aluminum ramps are available for a reasonable cost and really work well. Most come equipped with a nylon strap and a cam-lock fastener with a hook to attach to the trailer so the ramp won’t slip off the trailer bed during loading/unloading; be sure to use it and keep it tight. Load and unload while still hitched up to keep things stable, and on smaller enclosed trailers, watch that low headroom going through the door.
Walk Around at Every Stop
Check out the trailer, the load, the tie downs, the hitch, the tires, hub temperatures, safety chains, lights, doors (where applicable), tongue jack, and everything else related to securing the trailer at every fuel stop when underway, before heading out, and at the end of each day of travel. Gear up for roadside repairs and maintenance if you’re going on a long haul. Things like a floor jack or hydraulic bottle-style jack may work better than your vehicle jack for trailer tire changes. Wheel chocks for the trailer, and a few short sections of 2 x 6 lumber for stabilizing and jacking up the trailer may come in handy. A tongue box for storing things like that, cans of tire inflator, and so on can be real time savers out on the road.