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.