Cargo Trailer Basics for First Time Buyers

It is almost like learning a new language - axles, cross members, gross vehicle weight - it can be confusing!! We'll be happy to take the time to explain the different options to you and to make sure that you make the right choice for your needs and that you have the correct trailer for your towing needs.

The construction of a trailer is important in determining how long your trailer will last and if it will be suitable for your towing needs. You want to make sure that the frame of your trailer will be sturdy enough to support the cargo that you need to transport. Choosing a trailer with a strong frame is an important factor in selecting your trailer.  Tubular steel should be utilized for the tongue and  may also be utlized for the main frame, though I-Beam construction may be used, as well.  Heavy-duty car haulers (8.5' wide) will often have a triple tongue, with an extra piece of tubular steel running through the center of the v-portion of the tongue.  Roof members should be tubular steel, as as apposed to hat post or z-post metal, and are typically spaced either 24" on-center for light weight trailers and 12"-16" on-center for those models that may be used in areas with snow loads. 

Wall construction is also an important factor, as studs should be at a minimum of 16” intervals for business use or for heavy loads.  Wall studs should be tubular steel as well, and are typically spaced 16" on-center, though they may be upgraded to 12" on-center. Floor joists, or cross members, are typically constructed of C-channel, though they may be upgraded to tubular steel for heavy loads. A well-constructed trailer will utilize 3/8” plywood on the walls and 3/4” plywood for the floor, with treated plywood preferred for the flooring in areas with standing water or snow. Luan paneling or OSB board is often used on the walls of lower grade models, though it is not as thick and does not provide as much support as plywood.  Exterior aluminum should be at least .024" thickness with a baked on enamel finish, and it is often upgraded to .030" or .040" for heavy duty models. Roof construction is typically galvalume, a durable aluminum and zinc alloy, coated with a high-tech sealant to prevent leaks.  The undercarriage of the trailer should be painted and should be undercoated to prevent rust and corrosion with a salt-resistant sealant.  

Having the correct axle is important in safely carrying your cargo and having a smooth, comfortable ride. Leaf spring axles are the industry standard and are used in trailers of all sizes. Single axle trailers have just one load bearing axle, and most models typically do not have electric brakes, though they are often offered as an upgrade. The standard model single axle trailer starts with a 2,990 lb. leaf spring axle. This axle is actually a 3,500 lb. axle, but by law must be rated at 2,990 lbs. if the trailer does not have trailer brakes.  If you plan on hauling over 3,000 lbs., a tandem axle trailer should be considered. The typical tandem axle trailer has two 3,500 lb. leaf spring axles, which may be upgraded to 5,200 lb. or 7,000 lbs axles, or higher if needed. Tandem axle trailers tend to track more accurately over varying road surfaces and are usually easier for a first time driver to handle. Rubber torsion axles are an optional upgrade and they can produce a smoother ride, if needed, for delicate cargo. Unlike leaf spring axles, torsion axles have an independent suspension, so hitting bumps on one side are not transferred to the other side of the vehicle. In determining your axle size, consider the weight capacity of the axles (GVW), less the weight of the trailer, to determine the capacity of cargo (payload) that you may carry. You will also need to consider the towing limits of the vehicle which will be towing your trailer, as well as the limits on the hitch on your vehicle.

On tandem axle trailers, electric braking systems connect the brake system on the tow vehicle to the brake system on the trailer. This is accomplished by installing a brake controller inside the tow vehicle, though many new trucks have this as a standard feature. The controller senses the braking force of the tow vehicle and in turn activates the brakes on the trailer.  In selecting a brake controller, it is imperative to choose one that is progressive and self-leveling.  This ensures that the brake pressure you apply in your tow vehicle works progressively from a light tap to a hard brake rather than simply apply a set pressure (if unit is set on a particular number only).  A good brake controller will prohibit excessive tire wear, brake lock-up on the trailer, and flat-spotting of tires. 

Trailers with electric brakes are outfitted with a breakaway system. In the event that the trailer becomes disconnected from the tow vehicle, the trailer brakes would apply automatically to stop a runaway trailer. A trailer equipped with electric brakes will have a separate battery to activate the breakaway system, which will need to be replaced every 3-5 years.   

In considering your rear door options, you may select from two rear double barn-style doors or a ramp door. Choosing the type of rear access will greatly depend on the cargo you intend to haul. If you will be hauling a motorcycle, vehicle, or using a dolly, then a ramp rear door will provide the easiest loading and unloading method. Ramp doors should be outfitted with a spring-assisted mechanism to reduce the weight of the door and to make for easy opening. The ground clearance to open a ramp door is more than for rear double barn-style doors. Most trailers will also feature a curb side door for easy access into the trailer. Single barn type rear doors are usually found on smaller enclosed trailers and are comparable in convenience to double rear doors

When shopping around, most folks just ask for the price of a trailer based on the size. There are many things to consider when just looking at price. Many times a “bare-bones” price is not a good value when options that are typically standard are added back to the price of the base model or if inferior materials are used in construction. Dealers of these low price models often cut corners by selling low quality products – including using hat post or z-post construction for sidewalls and roof, using an insufficient guage metal, reduced height, measuring trailer length from the tip of the v-nose rather than the box size, and by eliminating options such as a sand foot, exterior lights, and door handles. In addition, if purchasing a V-Nose trailer, ensure that the V-Nose length is not included in the trailer dimensions. It should provide an additional space right up the middle of the trailer, and not be included in the trailer dimensions. As an example, a 6’ x 12’ V-Nose trailer should have an overall length of 14’ from rear doors to the tip of the ‘V’.   

All of our trailers have a five-year limited factory warranty. This is an important consideration in buying a trailer and shows that the manufacturer has confidence in the trailer’s quality. In addition, most axle manufacturers also provide a warranty on the axles, as well.

To tow your trailer, you will need the appropriate hitch on your vehicle to support the weight of your trailer. Tow ball sizes for cargo trailers are either 2” for single axles without brakes or 2 5/16” for single axles with brakes and tandem axles. Tow balls come with different weight capacities, so you will need to ensure that your ball is strong enough for the weight load you will be towing.  You will also need to have a 4-Way Electrical Connector for the lights on a single axle trailer without brakes and a 7-Way Electrical Connector for a tandem axle trailer to ensure that your lights and brakes receive power. On tandem axle trailers, electric brakes will not engage unless you have an electric brake controller installed inside your tow vehicle. In addition, it is important to have your hitch installed at the appropriate tow height, so your trailer will ride level.  We suggest positioning tow ball height at 21" from the top of the ball to the ground, so when your coupler settles on the ball, the trailer runs level at 18".   

When you purchase from us, we'll make sure that your trailer is hooked up correctly and on your way with everything that you need.