Yes, you do need a utility trailer. Here’s why

Published: September 11, 2020

small utility vehicle on a small utility trailer with a canoe on top attached to a truck Photo by Pierre Rochon/Alamy

Everyone knows that mattresses hold a secret desire to fly like geese. How else can you explain their propensity to lift, bend, and flap about in the wind every time one of them gets the chance to ride on the roof of a car?

Perhaps all mattress wranglers should think about investing in a utility trailer instead. Small utility trailers carry everything from firewood to furniture. And trailers cost less than most people think—especially if you consider the price of actually losing something like lumber, or an antique dresser, in transit. In Ontario, for example, a ticket for an “insecure load” is only $130, but if that lost load triggers a collision and someone gets injured because of the driver’s negligence, the cost of a utility trailer suddenly looks pretty good.

Utility trailers come in all kinds of sizes, materials, and capabilities. Like lumber, they are still measured in imperial. Single-axle utility trailers (one pair of wheels) range from a cheap and rattle-prone $1,000 four-by-seven-footer made with bolted-together thin galvanized steel, to more than $6,000 for 7-by-12-foot and up trailers. Available in powder-coated steel, painted steel, galvanized steel, or aluminum, these smaller trailers are either open at the top with short side walls or fully enclosed. Bigger trailers with double axles are also available, but would probably be overkill unless you’re building a cottage from scratch. Many enclosed trailers have lights inside and a single door at the back; some have secondary side doors, particularly useful if you’ve packed the trailer to the hilt and need to retrieve something up front.

Picking the right type and size of utility trailer depends on what you plan to put into it, your towing vehicle, the distance over which you plan to tow, and your budget, says Chris Milosek, the president of Primo Trailer Sales in Ottawa. “Buy a bit bigger than you think you need,” says Milosek. “Four-by-eight-foot and five-by-eight-foot trailers were popular 20 years ago, but now people buy six-by-ten-foot or larger to carry quads and side-by-sides.” Of course, keep in mind that towing a very large trailer on soft, narrow cottage roads can make navigation tricky. And “the bigger the trailer, the heavier it will be,” says Milosek. That affects payload—the amount the trailer can safely carry.

What’s your weight?
Like trucks and cars, trailers come with a Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) that sets the maximum operating weight based on its construction and size. But the GVWR also determines the trailer’s payload, which is calculated by taking the GVWR and subtracting the weight of the trailer itself; so, for example, a trailer with a 2,000 lb GVWR that weighs 400 lbs yields a payload of 1,600 lbs—more than enough for a face cord of unseasoned hardwood. A single-axle 5-by-10-foot trailer with a GVWR of 2,900 lbs, but with a weight of 900 lbs, allows for 2,000 lbs of payload (easily enough for a pair of 600 lb ATVs). Trailers that have a GVWR of more than 3,000 lbs require their own brakes.

Don’t make the rookie mistake of overestimating how much your trailer can haul; just because something fits in it doesn’t mean that you can safely tow it, says Ted Koemsted, the president of Trailerman Trailers in Abbotsford, B.C. “It’s the driver’s responsibility to know the weight of what they’re hauling. And different materials have different weights,” he says. For example, one yard of gravel might fit neatly in a small trailer, but it “weighs approximately 2,800 lbs”—enough to potentially exceed the payload capacity. Also make sure you have space to park your trailer, says Koemsted. Look at its height and width. Is there anything that will interfere? Watch out, in particular, for low branches, a garage, a carport door, or a roof overhang, he says.

Materials matter
It’s important to consider what the trailer is made of, Milosek says. Aluminum trailers weigh less than steel trailers—and they don’t rust—but they typically cost 25 per cent more than steel. A typical 5-by-10-foot aluminum will weigh about 600 lbs, whereas the equivalent steel trailer will tip the scales at more than 900 lbs. Painted steel, while economical, will rust before powder-coated steel (though if you’re mostly hauling garbage, it may not matter). Galvanized steel, the least rust-prone, is ideal for trailers exposed to harsh weather and salty roads. Aluminum, while it can corrode, affecting its appearance, will be easy to move by hand and will look the best in the long run—as it should for the higher price.

Construction concerns
Think about how the trailer is put together. Up front, look for an A-frame tongue rather than a straight one. Wood decks, while common and much cheaper (but hard to remove and fix since they are typically 2×6 boards anchored with welded brackets), are not as stout as all-aluminum or steel decks. Fifteen-inch tires usually have a better load rating and come in a larger selection than 14s. And how the axle is connected to the trailer makes a difference. Sturdy leaf springs are as common as Friday afternoon congestion on the highway, but a torsion axle (with arms that flex with built-in rubber cushioning) will deliver a smoother ride. It’ll cost more, but your long-term maintenance expenses will be lower, says Milosek.

Don’t forget the back end—trailers come with a variety of tailgate options. These can be single-piece units that also act as loading ramps: useful, but they can drag in the wind. Two-piece units that are hinged to fold like a book make carrying long lumber easier but can be painful finger-pinchers. Other tailgates can be disconnected and tucked away inside or under the trailer.

Power struggles
Trailer buyers need to ask: “Can my vehicle tow this trailer?” Lots of small SUVs and cars can tow up to 1,500 lbs, while larger SUVs are capable of towing 5,000 lbs, and a regular half-ton pickup can tow roughly 7,000 lbs or more. Check your owner’s manual to be sure, says Koemsted. The hitch on the vehicle also has to be strong enough to handle the type of trailer you’re pulling: most utility trailers accept a standard two-inch ball. Plenty of vehicles come pre-wired for trailering, but if yours does not, you’ll need a four-pin or a seven-pin electrical connector, at minimum, to control the lights and signals, a job any licensed garage can handle. Those lights should also be LED. They’re brighter, safer, illuminate faster, and “last forever” says Milosek, eliminating the possibility of a ticket for a burnt-out light.

Drive safe, folks
Be prepared to adjust your driving habits, says Koemsted. “The faster you go when towing a trailer, the more damage you can do,” he says. And that’ll cost you. “If you are always travelling with the maximum weight for the trailer and pushing the speed, expect to pay the highest maintenance costs,” he says. Slow down, and don’t forget that you’re not only carrying extra weight—which can affect turning, stopping distance, and acceleration—but that your vehicle and trailer are now much longer, says Koemsted. “Always drive in the right-hand lane. If you need to pass, do so, and get back into the right lane immediately,” he says. “It’s easier to see what’s going on on your left side than it is to use the right mirror if you’re in the left lane.”

In Ontario, like other provinces, utility trailers are considered a separate vehicle from the car or truck doing the towing, and they must be registered with a one-time fee of $72 for a trailer licence plate, permit, and validation sticker. Documentation for registration varies, so check with your provincial transport ministry beforehand, or have the trailer shop do the paperwork. Hope is never a good plan when it comes to hauling.

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