Six tips for towing in snow

Nobody really wants to tow in snow or icy conditions. Slippery roads and reduced visibility are much harder to deal with when you're towing a trailer.

For that reason our first recommendation will always be Don't do it. If you can wait a few hours or even a couple of days to get dry, clear roads, that's going to be a much safer choice.

But snow happens. If it does, what's the best way to handle it and be safe? We've got six recommendations for you: 

Make sure your weight-distributing hitch is dialed in

You might be able to get away with a less-than-optimal hitch setup in the summer on dry roads with no wind, but it'll be a much different story in tough weather conditions.  

Winter weather often means gusty winds, potholes, and uneven braking due to ice patches. Any of these things can induce a sway or a loss-of-control accident if the weight-distributing hitch isn't set up correctly.

If you're not sure, get an expert review, or even better read more about how to adjust it yourself in the "Loading" chapter of The (Nearly) Complete Guide to Airstream Maintenance, 2nd edition.

Beware steep downhill grades

One of the toughest driving situations is going down a steep grade with a trailer pushing you on a slippery road. This situation will raise the blood pressure of even the most experienced driver. (By "steep" I'm referring to a grade of 5% or more.)

You don't want to be in this situation, especially at highway speeds. But if you are, you're going to be relying on some advanced towing skills and a well-adjusted brake controller. 

So make sure you have both. Be sure you know how to manually activate the trailer brakes (typically using a button or lever on the brake controller) and practice the technique so you can do it without locking the brakes, even under stress. (Like I said, this is an advanced technique.) 

Being able to activate the trailer brakes without pressing the brake pedal means you can stop a sway in progress, or get the trailer to brake earlier than the truck so that it isn't shoving you around—if the worst happens and you find yourself in imminent danger of losing control.

In any case, always increase your following distance immensely when towing on the highway. Your braking distance is going to increase by a huge factor if there's any slipperiness on the road.

If this doesn't sound like fun, find an alternative activity for the day, and try again when the weather is better. 

4WD or AWD might be mandatory in the campground

You might have a perfectly good day of towing on mostly clear roads, and then get stuck in the last 40 feet of your trip. That's because a 2-wheel drive truck that is fine on dry highway is no match for an icy or snowy campsite, especially if that site is sloping.

Or, you might get into a situation like I had in Chatfield State Park in Colorado. It was a lovely spring day in the 70s with nothing but sunshine when I arrived. The next day I woke up to the scene pictured above. This time it wasn't a problem because the snow hadn't yet accumulated on the concrete pad, but on other occasions the only thing that would pull out 7,500 pounds of Airstream was All-Wheel Drive.

Stay winterized if possible

If the Airstream has been winterized, don't de-winterize until the days are safely above freezing. Any water left in the plumbing system will likely freeze while you are towing, due to the increased cooling effect of highway speeds.

This is particularly a problem at the "extremities" of the plumbing system, by which I mean the dump valves, outside shower, and city water fill. Those parts are outside the insulation of the Airstream and will freeze first.

If you're lucky they'll just defrost without damage, but you'll have to wait it out before attempting to use them. If you try to pull a frozen dump handle you'll probably tear the rubber seals and the dump valve will leak. If the city water fill freezes hard, it will leak later too.

In a pinch you can use some hot water to clean off road slush and quickly defrost the dump valves, but it may take a few gallons.

Remove salt immediately

Road salt is bad news for an Airstream. It will speed up corrosion everywhere, even on painted steel parts (like the A-frame and battery box up front) and clearcoated aluminum parts (the body). The damage that road salt can do in a short time is shocking. 

The reason is that invisible pinholes in the paint or clearcoat will admit tiny particles of salt, and then you'll quickly see spots of rust (on steel) or white (on aluminum)–which indicates filiform corrosion. Once the damage is done it's hard to rectify.

If you think there's a possibility that road salt has gotten on your Airstream, find a truck wash and get the trailer cleaned up ASAP.

Check hitch components regularly

Depending on what brand of hitch you have, there may be parts that require grease, or which need to be cleaned of ice in order to move properly. After towing in snowy conditions, take a moment to check the hitch for icy build-up or frozen slush and remove any that you find. Also, take a good look at areas of rust and make a note to clean up and/or re-paint those spots when the weather is warm again.

Lubrication is critical in very cold weather. Be sure to follow the hitch manufacturer's recommendations for lubricants, so you use the right stuff in the right places.

Plan for shorter towing days

If it's snowing, it's wintertime—and that means scant daylight. Don't tow after dark when it's snowing. Those conditions just compound the chance that you'll get into a tough situation. 

Instead, plan shorter days on the road. Get yourself to the campground well before sunset so there's time to get parked before it gets hard to see obstacles near the campsite, like rocks and tree branches. 

Likewise, temperatures will obviously drop after dark and at that point you'll want to be set up in your campsite with the furnace running, especially if the Airstream isn't winterized.

SnowTowingWeight distributionWinter travel


William Miller

William Miller

I have read about folks that run their furnace while traveling, is that something you recommend or not? I feel it may be unsafe.



As a Midwesterner, I’ve seen “chain up” areas out west. Do they mean your truck, or trailer or both?

Rich Luhr

Rich Luhr

William: I do not recommend towing with the furnace on. It can be done, but there are several risks. (1) Due to the cooling effect of towing at highway speeds, the trailer will rapidly lose heat and this will cause the furnace to run nearly continuously. This will deplete your propane gas very quickly. (2) There’s always a risk when leaving the gas on during towing. At the very least, install GasStops on both propane tanks to protect against the possibility of a large gas leak. (3) If the trailer is not winterized, plumbing can still freeze (see item #1). (4) The furnace uses a lot of power, sometimes more than your tow vehicle can replace through the 7-way plug. Your batteries may be dead after a long trip.

Rich Luhr

Rich Luhr

Cheryl, if road conditions are so bad that chains are required, and you’re towing a trailer, you should turn around and go home.

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