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Trailer failure
  |  First Published: December 2005



Here’s my list of the most common things that go wrong with trailers and some possible quick fixes to get you to the nearest repairer.

No matter how hard you plan for a trip, taking all the precautions you can think of to make the journey as easy as possible, you will still run into a few problems. Most of the time, with the right planning, these problems should be small and simple to fix. However, if you have failed to prepare your trailer these problems can be large and quite difficult to fix in the middle of nowhere with no spares or the right tools.

Tyres

The most common trailer problem, and the one that is often a real pain in the neck, is a flat tyre. Why? Because most people don’t carry spares.

Don’t get caught out – buy yourself a spare and make sure it’s a good one. I would hate to think of the number of times I have stopped to help people stuck on the side of the road, only to find that the spare is worse than the one that is flat. I also tell people to buy a can or two of tyre weld and throw the stuff under the seat just for good luck. I would hate to think how many times that has saved my bacon over the years.

Bearings

Problem No 2 is good old wheel bearing failure.

Always, always, always service your bearings before and after any decent trip. When I get the rare opportunity to make a trip to the beautiful north I always service the bearings before I go and after I get back.

I was lucky enough to be there a few weeks ago, and after doing almost 5000km in seven days, the first thing the trailer got was a wheel bearing service.

But let’s say you do find yourself in a situation where you have a failure. How do you get out of trouble?

First of all, always carry spare bearings and some basic tools. I have a full set of bearings and seals pre-packed with grease and stored in a sealed plastic bag under the seat. They take up no space and I have with them a few tools – a shifter, pliers, hammer, punch and a few rags. The other thing that is good to carry is a hacksaw.

If you have not looked after your bearings and the inner or outer bearing has frozen to the axle stub you may have to cut it to get it off. One you have changed your bearings, drive to the nearest town, buy another set and prep them up the same way. If you are not sure you have done the job properly, have someone check the job or re-do the service to make sure it is done right.

One last bit of advice: When handling the new-packed bearings, make sure you are careful where you put them and that your hands are free of any grit or dirt particles. The last thing you need is to change the bearings and let some grit or a sliver of rock into the new bearings. It will chew the new one out faster than the old one, leaving you stuck in the same position not that much further up the road.

Springs

When it comes to springs, the answer is simple: Carry a spare and the tools necessary to replace the broken one.

Let’s say you don’t have a spare – what do you do then? Firstly you need to pack the axle far enough away from the mudguard (if it is still there!) so you can get your rig to the nearest town for repairs. Most of you would have seen pictures of trailers with a log or piece of wood or pipe jammed between the axle and the frame and then tied in place to get the owner out of trouble. To be frank, there is not a lot else you can do in that situation to get yourself going.

One again, the spare or tools that you have packed will determine whether this is a simple job or a difficult one. It never hurts to have a roll of the good old eight-gauge fencing wire handy just in case.

Frames

Unfortunately, it’s hard to take any real preventative measures to prevent frames cracking. This is another one of those situations where you have to be pretty inventive with the tools and your surrounds to be able to tie the frame back into some sort of running position until you can get some repairs. I know some guys who carry a little portable welder on bigger trips but that is getting pretty serious.

The main thing is to evaluate the break and the possible damage it may do to the hull or other vehicles if the trailer lets go completely. You have to be certain that the running repairs will be enough to allow you to limp into the nearest town.

Coupling Failure

Not a common one, but it does happens more often than most people think.

The normal problem is for the coupling to start to fracture or for the actual head to come loose. There is no real quick fix for this one – you need a new coupling.

If you are lucky enough to have twin safety chains you can use those to hold the nose of the trailer off the ground to allow you to get home. You need to keep the chains as short as possible to minimise the forward and reverse motion that you will get from driving, as you now have no fixed way to keep the trailer attached to the car.

You should use this option only if you know what you are doing and only with twin chains, never with a single chain. And remember that if you’re not careful, the trailer can push you off the road or even into oncoming traffic.

Brake Failure

If your trailer brakes fail, the quickest solution is to get the brake off the axle and you should be right to keep going. If, however, the brake has seized or has been dragging for some time, the bearing may have overheated and might need to be checked as well. You may also have to lever the calliper off the disc if it has locked on.

Another thing that can happen with brakes, especially with inertia-type brakes, is the handbrake lever gets caught and causes the brakes to drag. This is simple to fix – just make sure the lever is thrown all the way over to stop it accidentally coming on while travelling.

Winch failure

Winch failure generally happens at the ramp but it can also happen when you are travelling.

The main culprit is overloading, which usually happens when people don’t tie their boats down properly and leave the weight of the boat on the winch. The winch is not designed to hold the boat on the trailer while travelling.

I see plenty of people who place a loose safety chain on the front of their boat to the trailer. That will stop the boat from falling all the way off the trailer but preventing that from happening in the first place is easy.

If you are towing the boat around on the winch, every time you hit a bump or rough road the boat will pull on the winch. The gears in the winch are quite small and over time the teeth will wear. The roll pin used to hold the gears can also fatigue and fail. Once either of these has failed there is nothing to stop the boat from rolling straight onto the ground.

Nearly all winch manufacturers offer no warranty on their product if it has been used to hold the boat on without proper fastening. To make sure the boat does not travel on the winch you need to tie the rear end down firmly and tie the bow of the boat both forward and back firmly. This will stop the boat moving forward and back and will allow you to release the pressure of the winch.

Lights

Lights are the biggest trouble spot of almost any trailer and seem to constantly fail.

The quick fix for this problem is to invest in a set of LED lights. These are more expensive but they are fully sealed and guaranteed to work. They either work or they don’t – there is no in-between with LED lights.

One of the biggest benefits is that most have polycarbonate lenses which are stronger and will take a few knocks. Plastic lenses tend to break.

Preparation

I’m sure some of you are thinking about other situations that have happened and I could write pages about the problems and their fixes. Things like loose U-bolts, roller or skid bolts and other small problems. You should check these items when you encounter one of the larger problems discussed. In the normal course of things though, they won’t affect your ability to get to a town for a service.

The main thing is simply to be prepared. It’s not always possible to carry all the spares that you could possibly need but sit down and evaluate the most important ones and make sure you have those with you, as well as a good tool kit and some basic odds and ends.

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