They say moving house is among the most stressful of all life events and, in any given year, April 30 has to be right up there with the busiest of days to move. But while stress may explain the incredibly selfish behaviour I encountered from some customers while returning a trailer to a U-Haul outlet in Toronto last April 30, it still doesn’t excuse it.
I’m talking to the woman who parked her car at the front of the vehicle-return line just so she could pick up a dolly. And the guy in the minivan who wanted me to back up, trailer in tow, so he could exit his parking space pronto. May you both spend eternity stalled in rush-hour traffic on the 401 highway.
It was an unfortunate finale to my otherwise successful – and highly educational – initiation into towing. The occasion will be familiar to many: a university or college student needing to vacate their apartment by April 30. Our son was in Kingston, his stuff needed to be in Mississauga, and the means to that end was a rented trailer.
I figured a trailer rental would be cheaper, and have a lower carbon footprint, than a U-Haul cargo van. I also wanted to test the theory that automakers persuade North Americans to buy towing-capable vehicles much bigger and thirstier (and coincidentally more profitable) than they really need.
Plan A was to rent U-Haul’s smallest eight-foot trailer and, in the spirit of investigative journalism, tow it with a borrowed Ford Escape plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV), which has a tow rating of 1,500 pounds. Then, we realized our penniless student had so much stuff, we would need U-Haul’s twin-axle 12-foot trailer, which raised the tow-vehicle stakes.
Nissan came up with a Frontier pickup, a more fuel-frugal mid-size alternative to the full-size pickups that are most Canadians’ default choice, but still rated to tow about 6,500 pounds. The U-Haul 12-footer weighs in at 1,920 pounds empty and can carry up to 2,480 pounds, ample for our needs. The Frontier came with a hitch receiver rated at 10,000 pounds, but no ball; U-Haul sold me a two-inch ball/mount combo for $40.
The first teachable moment occurred when booking the trailer. For a late-April booking in a university town, three weeks lead time wasn’t enough. Nothing was available in Kingston. But I got lucky; a U-Haul location in a small town nearby had one on the lot.
On the day, the navigation system brought us to the address a kilometre off Highway 401, where a lonely cube van and “our” trailer languishing out back were the only evidence that this variety-store/laundromat was also a U-Haul franchise.
The clerk, inundated by locals buying lottery tickets, had to call in help to assist the rookie customer in hitching up the trailer. Despite the trailer’s twin axles, its tongue weight – the downward force exerted at the coupling point – is a hefty 140 pounds. The offer of a jack was gratefully seized.
Towing the empty trailer the rest of the way to Kingston was no sweat, though, my wife and I both felt the truck’s ride was more jiggly with it in tow.
Our son inhabited a small apartment building on the main drag close to downtown, with an equally small parking lot out back, reached through a narrow alleyway. The only spot where we might have parked back there, along the side of the building, was already occupied by other families cramming their kids’ stuff into too-small SUVs.
In retrospect, I should have been grateful I was forced to park on the street in a spot that may not have been entirely legal. The fact we were loading seemed to earn us a pass from Kingston’s parking police.
The seeds of disaster were sown later, when we went to dinner in my son’s car. By now “my” spot alongside the building was free, and having pushed my luck long enough on the street, I opted to grab it. Getting in, no problem. I tucked it in nice and tight to the building wall on the right.
I had my exit strategy figured out in advance: Swing left into the (larger) lot behind the adjacent building; back up into the narrow space behind “our” building; then swing left again to go back down the alleyway. Anything to avoid backing out through the alley into the main road of Princess Street.
Not all the flaws with this plan were my own fault. Who knew the landlords would have an after-hours meeting on a Friday night, and one of them would park his Ford F-150 in the back-up space I’d scoped out for my three-point turn?
But first I had to make the first turn to the left, at which point I was seized by the fear that the trailer might swing out and hit the wall on the right. I decided to drive the rig forward and slightly left to get away from the wall, then back up so I could start my wide turn with more room. Who knew it would take so much space to get a long trailer lined up straight behind you in a new direction? I know now: I needed much more space than was available in that tiny parking lot.
I know the theory of backing up a trailer, but finessing it in a tight space in the dark was exceeding my rookie skills. I was starting to think I might need a backup backup plan. If I unhitched the now-loaded trailer, would we be able to manhandle it into a more manageable position? Doubtful. Would I have to call in outside help? I would never live it down.
Then my wife gave me that look: Failure is not an option. I kept trying, and somehow, barely, I still don’t know how, managed the big sweep to the left without trailer-to-wall contact. My son then crashed the landlords’ meeting, and the F-150 guy kindly came out to remove his truck from my backup space.
Exit strategy, accomplished.
After that, the three-hour return drive to Mississauga was a breeze. The Frontier’s ride seemed to have smoothed out and the truck (metaphorically) shrugged off its burden as we navigated our way out of Kingston and then merged onto the 401. No sweat.
U-Haul recommends a maximum towing speed of 88 kilometres an hour, but I settled on 105, of which the Frontier seemed to approve.
The biggest relief: Absolutely no issues with stability. U-Haul recommends loading 60 per cent of the weight forward of the axles, and my effort to comply seems to have been good enough.
If you’re planning to rent a trailer for the first time, here are my three top take-aways from the experience. First, find a wide-open space and practise, practise, practise backing up. Second, always have an exit strategy, so you never do have to back up. And third, when you’re picking up and dropping of your rental, be nice. Especially on April 30.