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Whether your homestead is your backyard or a full-fledged farm, sooner or later you need to use a trailer. From livestock and feed to compost and equipment, things need to be delivered, dropped off, and hauled away (and don’t forget, “toys” need to be moved). Like anything involving homesteading, trailering can be intimidating at first. Besides learning how to tow, there’s a great deal to know about the trailer itself, its relationship to your vehicle, and where they come together. They require separate licensing and registration regardless of their size. The moving parts and connections need attention and maintenance. Some of the most important parts are the tires, brakes, and bearings. It’s important to know some trailer basics before you start hauling. Read on for some great tips on how to make sure your trailer is in good working condition.

Towing one of the toys.

Where the Rubber Meets the Road

Trailer tires are designed specifically for hauling. They have thicker sidewalls and the tread is not as heavy as car tires. Tire rubber has a shelf life, and because trailers tend to sit for long periods, they can rot and crack even with little road wear. Overloading, or using old or worn tires on a trailer, can lead to blow-outs. Heat, storage, under-inflation, and hard use can reduce the life of a tire. Valve stems can also rot and break. In heat-intensive climates, covering tires when not in use protects them from sun rot and exposure. Make sure to always check for cracks, nails, and correct air pressure before heading out to get the most life out of your tires and avoid blowouts from flats.

Old tires have sat for years in the sun and shouldn't be used.
Old tires have sat for years in the sun and shouldn’t be used.

Depending on their condition, tires should be replaced every five to ten years. If you’re buying a used trailer or tires, check the manufacture date to determine how old they actually are. You can find this information on the sidewall. The manufacturing code starts with the letters “DOT”. The very last four digits of this code indicate the week and year the tire was produced. The first two digits identify the week and the second two identify the year. In the photograph, 0717 indicates that the tire was made in the 7th week of 2017. When buying trailer tires, consider the weight of your loaded trailer and what kinds of conditions you’ll be driving in.

Tire identification.

Gimme a Brake

Except for the smallest trailers, most use electric brakes built into the wheel assemblies of the trailer. Vehicles equipped for trailer brakes have a controller in the cab to adjust them. If your vehicle doesn’t have one, it can be installed.

Newer vehicles that were designed for towing have trailer brake control boxes built in.
A brake box installed in an older pickup.

It’s important to know how to adjust the controls properly. Someone familiar with the system can show you, or you can look it up on the internet.

State laws differ regarding trailer brakes. Several variables go into determining if they’re needed, such as the weight, power, and size of the tow vehicle, weight, and size of the trailer, cargo, road and traffic conditions, topography, and terrain. Weight plus velocity can be a dangerous combination in the wrong conditions, especially with an inexperienced driver. If you don’t have brakes on the trailer, it will put more stress and load on the tow vehicle’s brakes. Going down steep hills or driving through cities with a lot of fast stops can lead to brake failure. An emergency breakaway system is sometimes required by law. It’s designed to bring the trailer to a stop by activating the electric brakes in case the trailer disconnects during travel.

Hauling an antique tractor.

The electrical connectors between the vehicle and the trailer need to be compatible. Plugs and receptors can have anywhere between 4 and 7 pins. Although a 4-pin plug has a wire for brake lights, you need a 7-pin plug for electric brakes. Lastly, once you’re all hooked up, always check to see if the lights on the trailer are working. If all the lights don’t work, the problem is in the tow vehicle or close to the connector in the trailer. If only one light isn’t working, it could be a burnt-out bulb that’s easily replaced. If that doesn’t work, check the wiring behind the bulb, and chase the wire back to the connector from there to see if it’s damaged.

Bear in Mind…

Wheel bearings are a vital moving part and are often overlooked. Bearings are the little rollers inside of the hub where the axle and wheel physically connect. There is a huge amount of friction at this point (especially under load), and if not well greased they will overheat, wear out, and the wheel can come off of a trailer moving down the road.

an old bearing that failed on the highway
An old bearing that failed on the highway.

To check them, after you’ve driven a few miles, touch the hubs CAREFULLY. If they’re hot, they need to be repacked with grease.

Here are the basic steps for cleaning and repacking bearings. Put on some old work clothes and get ready to get dirty!

First of all, remove the wheel from the axle to access the hub. Use a screwdriver or other flat tool to gently pry the bearing from the hub without damaging it.

Remove bearing from the hub.

Scrape the dirt and grease from inside the hub and wipe it out.  Use a solvent or degreaser to clean dirt and grease from all the surfaces of the bearing. Dry thoroughly and inspect for signs of wear or damage.

Cleaned bearing.

Re-grease the bearings with a small amount of high-temperature wheel bearing grease, making sure to get the grease down inside the rollers. Put it all back together in the opposite order, and you’re back in business.

Repacked bearing.

Ready to Roll

Finally, remember to do a safety check every time the trailer is hooked up and headed out. Double-check all connections, including the hitch pin, coupler latch, electric connection, and safety chains. Check for cracks in tire sidewalls and valve stems and check air pressure. The jack should be up and chocks out from behind the wheels. Your load should be balanced and secured, and plates and registration up to date. Make sure that the running lights, brake lights, and both turn signals are in working order. Now you’re ready to start hauling!


  1. I see trailers, especially single axle trailers, pretty often with appliances loaded in the back and tied to the loading drop down gate. You state the load should be balanced, but seems that most people these days have no idea that means properly loading a trailer by making sure the front weighs more than the rear. Or how the ball hitch is designed to safely stay attached only if it has weight pressing it down. It is not designed to hold a connection pulling upwards.

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