What you learn by weighing your Airstream could save your life

Recently a kind reader of this blog sent me an interesting document: the receipt from an Escapees RV Club "SmartWeigh" event.

This document is interesting—and educational—for several reasons.

To start off, I've been advocating that Airstreamers weigh their rigs for many years. I've written about it in my books and I've blogged about it several times.

Usually, the only opportunity to weigh your truck and trailer is at a truck scale, such as a CAT Scale. They're found at truck stops all over the USA. But there is another way: the Escapees club SmartWeigh events. The club has a great program where they weigh trucks and trailers at certain events and rallies. If you're at a rally where this is offered, you can get a lot of important information without a lot of hassle.

Why weighing your rig is so critical

To put it bluntly, weighing your rig can mean the difference between life and death. I'm not exaggerating. You might think everything is fine with your hitch, but one day it will be challenged by a gusty crosswind, a truck passing at high speed, or a slippery road, and that's not the time to find out things could have been set up better. By weighing the truck and trailer you will know if your hitch's weight distribution is set up properly—before it's too late.

Without a properly adjusted weight-distributing hitch, your truck is kind of like a teeter-totter. The center of the teeter-totter is the rear axle of the truck. If you press down on one end, the other end goes up. That's what happens when you drop a heavy trailer on the hitch of your truck, without a weight-distributing hitch.

Doing this makes the front axle very light, and that means the steering may feel sort of sloppy, like you're on ice. This is a very dangerous situation. Even if you can't feel it, you've lost some amount of control—and it will affect your ability to control the trailer in an emergency.

Understanding what can go wrong

The goal of a weight-distributing hitch is simple: to even out the load on the truck, so that the weight of the trailer sits on both the front and rear axles. And that brings us to the SmartWeigh receipt that was shared by our reader: 

Toward the bottom of the receipt is the meaty stuff. Those numbers circled in red tell us that the truck's rear axle weighed 2,675 pounds with no trailer. When the trailer was hitched up, the rear axle got 1,625 pounds heavier. That's a pretty huge increase, and it tells us that something's not right.

Another clue is that the Airstream tongue weighs only 975 pounds, which is obviously much less than 1,625 pounds. So where did the extra weight on the rear axle come from?

The front axle gives us the answer. It weighed 3,050 pounds when there was no trailer attached, but it lightened up to 2,400 pounds with the trailer hooked up. Those 650 pounds had to go somewhere, and they went to the rear axle.

This is not ideal–it's a warning sign. Not only is the front axle quite light, but the rear tires are carrying a massive load. The Bridgestone Dueler tires on this truck are rated to carry a maximum of 2,205 pounds each, so they aren't technically overloaded, but they sure are close. Take a closer look at that receipt. One tire is carrying 2,200 pounds, and the other is carrying 2,100 pounds. Yikes.

What to do?  

Weight distribution to the rescue!

Undoubtedly the owner of this truck has a weight-distributing hitch installed, but it's just not adjusted properly. By tweaking the hitch according to the manufacturer's recommendations, he can shift some of the weight forward to the front axle.

In this case I'd like to see the weight distribution get as close as possible to how the truck rides without a trailer. The unladen weight ratio on the axles was about 53% / 47% front to rear. It probably won't be possible to get there with the trailer attached, but certainly the driver can do better than what he has now, which is about 36% / 64%.

This reader's story is a dismayingly common problem, and I believe it's a major contributor to towing accidents. The aftermath of these accidents is so often the same: the driver is confused why he/she lost control and spun off the road. Many times when I look at weight-distribution hitches during our own travels (on all trailers, not just Airstreams), I see that there's not nearly enough tension on the hitch's weight distribution bars—and the owner has no clue what's wrong.

Everyone in the industry (dealers, manufacturers, service centers, influencers, etc) should know about this problem and educate others, but sadly most are silent on the subject. Many are afraid of "liability" and so they believe that doing nothing is safer than giving advice. Heaven forbid they provide the service of setting up your hitch correctly, before you drive off for the first time.

My advice: Even if you think you're all set, take the time go to an Escapee SmartWeigh event or a truck scale, and find out what's really happening to your truck.

I also describe the process of weighing an Airstream in my book, "The (Nearly) Complete Guide to Airstream Maintenance" – the 2nd edition of which will be available in February. (You can pre-order a copy and save $7, until Feb 12, 2023.)

So, make it a point to get your hitch set up properly. It might just save your life.

12 comments

Bill A.

Bill A.

You caught my attention. I’d like to know the details in this rollover, since it appears they are using a good anti-sway hitch (Hensley). Our F350 does a great job towing our Classic 33 with the Propride.

Hugh McLaurin

Hugh McLaurin

So glad to learn more about this subject, which has gnawed at me ever since owning the Airstream. Last year I installed an AirLift system on the rear of my TV to help with leveling and weight distribution, but choosing the right setting is a guessing game. I would love to have actual data like this to get everything set up properly. Thank you for an excellent piece!

Charles Mickelson

Charles Mickelson

Some state truck weigh stations leave there scales active when they are not being used by the troopers. When towing, I will pull into those scales and weigh the trucks front axle, rear axle and the trailer. I have done this several times in both Oregon and Idaho. I record the information and put it in my notebook to compare to previous trips. So far, I feel comfortable with the balanced load between front and rear axles.

Rich Luhr

Rich Luhr

Bill A: I don’t know the details of the accident in the photo.

Like you, I use a Hensley hitch and in my opinion it’s a great safety device because it completely eliminates trailer sway. But the Hensley is not a magic bullet. In particular it’s not as good at weight distribution as some other hitch designs. I find that to get reasonable balance between the front and rear axles of my truck I have to have the weight distribution struts (or chains, on some models) pretty tight. If you can’t get decent weight distribution then you’re still at risk even with an “anti-sway” hitch.

By the way, if you’ve lost the Hensley Owner’s Manual, you can download one at https://hensleymfg.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Hensley-Arrow-and-Cub-Owners-Manual.pdf

Tom Stehouwer

Tom Stehouwer

Thanks for a very interesting and helpful article Rich. Seems like after 5 years of owning our Globetrotter you continue to help us learn new and useful information to keep it safe and fun to own.
After reading your blog, I did some online work, and found there’s a CAT Scale location about 15 miles from us. After visiting their website, I was impressed how simple a process it is to get your vehicle/trailer weighed. They even have an app for your phone that makes the process super-easy at the weigh location. We plan to leave home the first of March for a six-week trip to the Southwest, but first we plan to visit the CAT Scale. While we’re pretty certain our weight distribution hitch is doing what it is supposed to do, the small investment to weigh the truck & trailer seems worth it.
Thanks for all of the great information you pass along!

Tom

Dave S

Dave S

Interesting that the hitch in the picture appears to be a Hensley Hitch which in theory should completely eliminate trailer sway.

Rich Luhr

Rich Luhr

Dave S: That’s exactly the point of this article! Trailer sway isn’t the only thing that can cause an accident. Incorrect weight distribution is an equally serious problem. Even an anti-sway hitch like a Hensley or Pro-Pride can’t help if it’s not properly adjusted.

Donald N Wright

Donald N Wright

Thank you. Now if I can just find a place that can set up my hitch properly in 2023 in Dallas Fort Worth.

Jeffery Hammonds

Jeffery Hammonds

Rich, thank you for this blog. As always, I learn something when I read your blogs, and this time it prompted me to look into SmartWeigh. What I learned is that there is a SmartWeigh only 125 miles South of where we currently are in Florida. An appointment has been made!

Kat

Kat

We got our 25ft International Smart Weighed when we stayed at the Escapees Sumter Oaks park near Bushnell, FL. Happily, we were well under our weight limit and balanced side to side and front to back.
It is a great system that I wish was offered at Airstream parks and the mother ship. You can get weighed by Escapees at some of their Club [corporate-owned] parks by appointment. We are members and have stayed at many of their parks and use their mail service when we travel seasonally. I do not think membership is a requirement to be weighed or visit a park [non-member rates apply.] There are 8 corporate parks; locations can be found on the Escapees website, call to confirm they have a weigh station available. If you are in the Tucson/southern AZ area this winter, their weigh station should be set up at the Escapade rally held at Pima County Fairgrounds March 19-24, 2023. We attended that rally in 2019 and the weigh station was busy all day every day of the rally. Call Escapees headquarters in Livingston, TX for availability info at the rally 936-327-8873.

JT Long

JT Long

It also appears the F-150 here is within 50 pounds of its GVWR. Ignoring the weight distribution issue, spending all of your trailering time right at the truck’s engineered maximum capability doesn’t leave room for margin and likely adds to a more stressful driving experience.

Rich Luhr

Rich Luhr

JT Long: Good point.

This brings up another benefit of a properly adjusted hitch. When the hitch is set up with correct tension on the weight bars, some of the 975 pounds of tongue weight will be distributed back to the trailer axles. (This is not commonly understood by users.) This will effectively lower the load on the truck, getting it more comfortably under the GVWR.

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