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The Dark Side of Towing a Travel Trailer with a Toyota 4 Runner

The Dark Side of Towing a Travel Trailer with a Toyota 4 Runner

We towed our Lance 1685 with our trusty little Toyota 4 Runner over 10,000 miles through the mountains, out west and back with no problems, but we might have just been lucky.  Read on for a tale of a totaled Lance 1885 being towed with a slightly heavier and more powerful (8 cyl) 4 Runner.  Thanks to Tom S. on the Lance Owners Forum (LOA) for sharing his experience towing a Lance 1885 (3700# dry) with an 8 cylinder Toyota 4 Runner.

As Tom says … “So, lesson’s learned from all this?  I think the most valuable lesson is to never underestimate the importance of a big tow vehicle.  We got by fine with our 4 Runner until we didn’t.”   Here’s the account directly from the LOA link “Tale of a Totaled Lance 1885” or if you can’t access the forum, read on …

So, let me share what I hope is an unusual story of how quickly a beautiful Lance trailer can end up in a salvage yard.

I’d never towed anything beyond the occasional U Haul trailer when we bought our 1885, but did a lot of research on tow vehicles and settled on a V8 Toyota 4Runner.  Everything I read indicated the 4Runner would have adequate power and tow capacity to handle our 1885, and the dealer agreed.  For three years the 4Runner did its job.  It was, indeed, an adequate tow vehicle.  That being said, it always felt a little wobbly and I often thought about upgrading someday to a truck designed for towing.  I was concerned about what might happen if I ever had to jam on the brakes in an emergency situation.

 

A few months back my wife was returning with our rig to Denver CO from a solo trip to Moab UT.  In the mountains east of Vail Pass on I-70, the Lance tires got caught in the asphalt ruts that 18-wheelers sometimes make.  The trailer started to sway.  We aren’t exactly sure what happened next because my wife doesn’t really remember.  What we do know is that when everything stopped moving, the 1885 was lying on its side off the passenger’s side of the road and the 4Runner had been pulled sideways perpendicular to the highway.  Luckily my wife was unhurt and there were no other vehicles or people involved.

 

Our best reconstruction of the chain of events is that my wife panicked when the trailer started swaying.  She hit the brakes and downshifted which accentuated the swaying.  The trailer swung all the way around 180 degrees across the passing lane and smashed into the driver’s side of the 4Runner.  Then it swung back around the other way, tearing the hitch off the ball, twisting the Anderson “no-sway” weight distributing hitch bars like they were made of plastic, and rolled over, dragging the 4Runner sideways by the tow chains.

 

Luckily the trailer came to rest against an exit sign, which you can see in one of the pictures.  Otherwise it might very well have pulled the 4Runner over with it.  It must have been quite a sight.  Both sides of the 1885 showed damaged from coming into contact with the ground, but the roof was undamaged.  So we think it rolled onto the passenger’s side with such force that it bounced up and over the roof somehow.  We really aren’t exactly sure. 

 

The passing lane was closed for two hours while two massive tow trucks maneuvered the trailer up onto a flatbed and picked up all the pieces.  The state patrol declined to cite my wife since there was a white cross beside the road to mark where someone had rolled a fifth wheel at that same spot.  The firefighters on scene told us the driver had died as a result of those asphalt ruts.  

 

 

I know what you’re thinking; the outside doesn’t look that bad from the photos.  That was my initial thought when I arrived at the scene about an hour after the accident,  but the frame was bent in several places, the roof torn open at the front seam, and the inside…OMG!  The one inside photo doesn’t do justice to how completely destroyed it was.   I could not believe how bad the inside was destroyed.  Cabinets exploded off the walls, toilet torn out of the floor, fridge ripped out and tipped over.  

 

Well that’s the bad news.  Now for the good news:  Actually there was a lot of good news.  Most important, as I said, my wife was safe and no one was hurt.  The 4Runner, although bloodied, was okay to drive.  The plucky Lance was totaled, but she held together, other than that rip in the roof along the front seam.  So all of our belongings stayed inside the trailer, rather than being strewn out across the accident site.  I was able to salvage my solar panels, wiring, and Trimetric equipment (please note that those self-installed panels remained securely fastened to the roof, thank you very much, and were not easy to remove!).  We were also able to salvage most of our belongings.

 

The other good news is that I got on the LOA site soon after and located a 2013 1885 for sale in Denver.  We love that model and I figured it would be much easier for us to just move right back into another one, as well as knowing how to remount my solar equipment back where it belonged.  

 

Then I spent two days researching a new tow truck and settled on a Ford F-150.  Buying a used vehicle is time-consuming, but really easy on the web these days.  I wanted a heavy-duty tow package, with electric tow mirrors, back up camera, and remote start since I can’t fit a big truck in my garage and a warmed up truck is critical on cold winter mornings.  We found the perfect truck.

 

The other good news is the way our insurance company, State Farm, treated us.  They were quick to respond and more than fair.  We had the 4Runner body damage repaired and the vehicle sold within a month.  The payoff on the 1885 took a little longer because there was some disagreement between State Farm and Ketelsen (dealer) on how detailed the repair estimate needed to be, which State Farm required before declaring the trailer a total loss. 

 

At the end of the day we ended up with a slightly older version of our original trailer and a much, much, safer and more powerful tow vehicle.

 

So, lesson’s learned from all this?  I think the most valuable lesson is to never underestimate the importance of a big tow vehicle.  We got by fine with our 4Runner until we didn’t.  If my wife had been driving the F-150 when she got caught in those ruts she might not have been scared so badly when the trailer started to sway because it wouldn’t have bobbled the truck like it probably did the 4Runner. The trailer might not have swayed as much with the bigger truck out front. The F-150 anti-sway system might have kicked in before she panicked.  So, if you have a choice, go bigger with your tow vehicle, and one designed specifically for towing. 

 

The other lesson is to think through what you would do, how you would react, if your trailer got caught in a sway situation, either because of wind, or ruts, or whatever.  Get that set in your mind so that if it ever happens you can stay calm and react properly.  In hindsight, my wife realizes she should have just kept the vehicle moving smoothly while she slowly steered out of the ruts, and perhaps eased up on the gas pedal.  She should have never touched the brakes or downshifted while the trailer was swaying.

 

 

We were so lucky in so many ways. So we tried to stay focused on the good things as we worked through this, everything we were thankful for, and everything has turned out just fine.

So now you’ve heard the “dark side” of towing with a 4 Runner, you can make your own decisions.  Read about our experience here.  And about why we switched from a 4 Runner to a Toyota Tundra here.

Personally, we’re glad we upgraded from our beloved 4 Runner to a Tundra.  If the 4 Runner is rated for 5,000 lbs, make sure that the trailer weight doesn’t exceed that capacity.  The 1885 in Tom’s situation was 3700# dry weight.  The gross weight was likely (just like our 1685) scary close to the 5,000# limit.   Safety first!  With a 4 Runner, keeping the trailer dry weight under 3000# is probably a safer/good idea.  We see a lot of 4 Runners & other smaller tow vehicles towing smaller Casitas, A-Liners, R-Pods and pop-ups with no problem – and no weight/tow safety issues.

Personally I’m just glad we didn’t experience what Tom & his wife went through, although it’s apparent to me that we were lucky.  Please leave a comment and share your thoughts or experiences.  Cheers!  Jan

    9 Comments

  1. Honestly, it’s very hard to find a tow vehicle that’s comfortable unless it’s overpowered and heavy. I’ve towed a5k 24 ft with my Tacoma with the same drive train as the 4 runner. It does way better than I expected. It does have a 6K+ tow rating. I now have a much bigger and more powerful silverado and I’m not impressed by the difference. When you pull a box down the road it’s never easy. I recommend a truck that weighs as much as the trailer with can carry a payload of double the hitch weight.

  2. I hope you’ve realized by now that the vehicle was not the problem. The problem was a poorly loaded trailer and poor towing practices. Trailer sway is not only predictable, but also relatively easily managed by proper weight distribution. And I’m not talking tongue weight – although that’s important as well. The physical formula for tow sway is relatively easy to understand for engineers, but for the lay person it’s a bit harder to just look at the formula and apply to your daily use. The three factors are distance from hitch to axle (of the trailer) average distance of load from axle center, and distribution of weight relative to the axle center fore and aft. You can’t change the first factor and hopefully Lance did a decent job with it. The second factor is probably where you failed in this case. You loaded your stuff at the ends of the trailer not in the middle. That’s bad. That induces sway. Weight needs to be as centered over the axle as possible. Weight moved further away from the axle center can overcome the tongue weight factor pretty quickly. And the sway will be induced as a result. I’d bet you had a lot of gear on the back and in the front, along with empty or half full holding tanks.

    An F150 would like have no difference in the outcome. It’s rear axle is typically lighter than that of the 4runner. There are certainly other advantages like power and extra space, but I don’t think the outcome would have any change in this scenario.

    The solution is proper trailer loading. Don’t put heavy stuff in the ends. Put them in the middle. Also it appears that Lance has the fresh water in the front and the gray and black water tanks aft – further from the axle. Having full waste water tanks and empty fresh water tanks could significantly alter the weight balance. This is a poor engineering decision on the part of the manufacturer. All of which likely combined to cause your accident.

    Glad you’re okay. Best of luck in your future towing!

  3. The best part of this whole story is your bride was unhurt! It could have been, well, worse.

    While I drove big trucks, I had a couple of harrowing experiences, but the most memorable was when I was hauling an empty trailer in a surprise snow storm. For reference, an empty semi trailer weighs about the same as the tractor and about 6 times as much when fully loaded.

    Crawling along in a strong side wind, the trailer stepped out on the fresh snow and was being hauled by the tractor at a 30% angle across the lane next to me. Had I let off, the trailer surely would have just kept going and a wreck would follow immediately afterward. Had I applied the trailer brake, the trailer would have swung quickly back the other way and, yes, a wreck would have ensued. What to do? I kept a little fuel going until the trailer calmed down and returned to its position behind the tractor.

    This all happened at a slow speed and I had a lot of experience. The weight of the tractor vs the trailer weight didn’t really mean much. Using the trailer brakes (which is not one’s first thought) would have been very wrong, and applying the tractor brakes would have been a disaster. Experience saved the day. Get out there and experiment, learn, and practice. Driving well is a skill just like skiing, playing the piano, cooking or golf. OK, golf is more about luck, but you get my point.

    • Thanks Russ! You’re right, more practice makes better drivers – especially when towing! Cheers! Jan

  4. We recently purchased a 2013 Lance 1575 from Pete of Kramer’s Kamper. We will be towing with our Nissan Pathfinder. So far with a few short trips it been great. The test for us will be our trip to Colorado Springs this summer.

    • Congratulations Don! Pete’s the one that equipped our original 4 Runner for towing our 1685, so I assume you’re in good hands with any necessary equipment for your tow vehicle – weight distribution hitch, brake controller, extended mirrors, etc. Enjoy your Lance 1575 & trip to Colorado Springs! Cheers! Jan

  5. Frankly, what should have been done is to apply the trailer brakes in a sway situation using the brake controller. Never apply the tow vehicle brakes. Of course, that procedure is counterintuitive and must be known and thought about often (i.e. Practiced in your mind…just in case). I think this accident would have happened with an F-150 as well given the account of the accident. That being said, the heavier the tow vehicle as well as the much longer wheelbase of a full sized pickup truck helps control a trailer better.

    • Thank you for sharing this. We have 2016 4Runner and tow our Lance 1685 with it. It’s been intimidating at times because we can’t see well on the sides even with extended mirrors. So far we have had good experiences, but I still feel very tense towing it.

      Before we started towing I read the 4runner manual and made my husband and I memorize this… when trailer sway situation occurs let go of the gas and continue to travel straight, do not hit your vehicle breaks, but use your electric breaks to slow down the trailer. We have practiced that on a small sway situations downhill in windy areas. It’s hard to do in a moment of panic I’m sure, but we keep practicing to reach for electric break and slow down the trailer before slowing down a vehicle. I has to be down to muscle memory – towing is no joke, no matter how light the trailer is.

      So glad to hear everyone is safe and now wondering if we should consider Toyota Tundra or F150 or even 250. This is a good lesson to read about. Thank you.

      • Every situation is different, but we are happy we changed tow vehicles from a 4 Runner to a Tundra. As Tom mentioned, the 4 Runner did the job – we called it our “little engine that could”, but we encountered no serious situations in our 10,000 miles from the Midwest to East Coast to the 4 Corners region and back to Midwest. Having said that, the Tundra just feels more solid, less marginal. With the Tundra we have to REMEMBER the trailer is back there, with the 4 Runner, we always KNEW it was back there.

        We drove 4 Runners for the previous 16 years (but weren’t towing a trailer), so the decision was not taken lightly. As suggested, we too will be checking out how to use the electric trailer brake in a sway situation, we’ve never done it and should practice ahead of time! Thanks!

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