Lets face it: occasionally, even hard-core long-distance riders need to throw their bikes upon a trailer. Not just for repairs or break-downs; that's not what we're taking about here. More like riding out to Sturgis from, say, Maine or Florida. That's a lot of seat-time, wear on tires and wear/tear on the bike.
Ok, yes, a proper touring bike will certainly handle it. Sometimes, though, it's more about the destination and not the ride. And when you're toting extra people or pets, the bike is often not practical for that kind of trip.
It's common, unfortunately, for bikers to focus on their bikes and not their trailers. Out of sight, out of mind, it would seem. But doing so, risks big-time and expensive repairs along the way.
Here's some tips to ensure the best performance for your trailer.
- Tires: trailer tires that are exposed to the elements can dry rot and become damaged or weakened. High-mileage tires with tread wear encourages high-speed failure. Make sure your tires are in good condition and properly inflated. Air pressure issues are likely the most ignored and damaging factor in trailer tire failure.
- Load: make sure your trailer isn't overloaded. Take a look at the weight rating. If the sticker or placard is gone, go on the manufacturers website. If a home-made rig, the size of the axle bearings and number of tire lugs can indicate the weight rating. The garden-variety 4X8, 5X10 or 6X12 single-axle use a 3,500 lb rated axle. Weigh your trailer and subtract the weight of the trailer from the axle rating. That's the maximum live-load, or the stuff you can add to the trailer's existing weight. The safe bet, and some trailer manufacturers do this, is to under-rate the trailer. They'll list the maximum axle rating at 3,000 lbs instead of 3,500. Consult a professional in the trailer sales/service for more specific information if there is no info on the trailer itself.
- Bearings: utility or motorcycle trailers generally don't use the same parts you'll find on a boat trailer. But that doesn't mean you can't use them. Boats often have galvanized hubs with bearing buddies or other external greasing mechanism, although many regular trailers do also. When checking bearings, carefully jack and jack-stand the trailer side, pull the wheel and hub. Degrease the parts and examine the bearings and races. Any pitting, oblong wear, chips, significant darkening in spots or bearings that just do not feel right are indicators to shot-gun the entire bearing system. Don't replace bearings without races or vice versa. Check the seals on the inside of the hub. Were they intact? How much grease was in there? Is it thinned out and darkened? Or, thick and gummy? All signs of bearings that need replacement. The do-it-yourselfer without proper tools to drive out races and press them back in, might opt for purchasing a fully-loaded hub. They're not terribly expensive and already packed with grease, ready to install. Check with your local trailer place for availability.
- Grease: if you're packing your own bearings make sure you use the best quality high-temp grease you can find. Search YouTube and you'll find about a billion videos on how-to do this. Note: you CAN NOT pack dry bearings by using an indwelling grease fitting or port from the outside. This will not work. Bearings require pre-packing before installing, which means the grease is pushed through the bearing completely and then the race area (plus a small reserve amount) added to the inside of the hub. Watch the vids, they'll help. Here's a good one from the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife. They're working on a boat trailer but they axles will be almost always the same for a given weight rating utility or MC trailer.
- Axle nut torque: This is the most controversial aspect of trailer maintenance. Do you torque the axle nut? Do you leave it loose? The answer is, it depends who you ask. Generally, you'll be safe by installing the hub and nut, mounting the tire with the lugs tight enough to seat the wheel and while spinning the wheel, tighten and loosen the nut to "seat" the bearings. Use a suitable wrench or large socket. Then, after seating you do one final "preload" of the bearings but turning the nut until you have resistance and then just a bit more. Finally, back off the nut only enough to align the cotter pin or other retainer device. The wheel should spin freely but not be clunky loose in regards to side-by-side play.
- Lug nuts and wheel hub: Don't forget your nuts! Proper torque is very important. You don't need a torque wrench to set the proper torque but if you want it right, that's be best way. Torque varies per axle and lug size and thread pitch, so consult your trailer professional for the proper torque. Coating the lug threads with an dedicated anti-seize compound will help ensure they nuts will back off when the wheel requires removal and helps to get a good torque. Check the lug nuts before every trip and periodically during the drive. While you're down there, safely tucked away in a rest area checking the lug nuts, look for dripping or oozing grease from the hub. Is the hub super hot? You can carry an inexpensive laser heat sensor and "shoot" the heat reading at your stops. Or, risk grabbing a very hot hub. But a minor burn might be worth preventing a catastrophic failure. An extremely hot wheel hub requires immediate action. Something is wrong. Call for assistance if you aren't carrying your tools. Often, a super hot hub will "smell hot." It'll smell like cooking axle grease, literally. Drip some bottled water on the hub. If it sizzles, it's a problem. Any smoke wicking up is a bad sign.
- Trailer Lights: don't forget your lights. Uniform Traffic Codes require certain amounts of lighting as well as DOT specs. Check your trailer connector, keep it clean. Before towing the trailer, check the lights and replace any bulbs. Most light problems on incandescent bulbs are due to a ground problem. Clean the contacts inside the fixture and the bulb lights right up.
- Hitch: ensure the hitch latch on the trailer tongue is operating properly. Do you have the correct ball size? You'd be surprised how many people tow a 2" receiver with a 1-7/8" ball. Place a lock into the keeper hole to prevent an accidental unlatch. Keep the mechanism well lubricated. Inspect the are for damage, severe corrosion or cracks. Check your trailer chains and make sure they're long enough to hook up in an "X" pattern. In other words, the chains should cross each other and clasp the opposite tang on the hitch, forming an "X" and a place for the trailer tongue to catch if it pops off the hitch ball.
- Safety: any road-side repair is dangerous. If you must stop on the interstate or a busy highway, pull as far off the roadway as possible. Carry a reflector kit for daytime safety marking the approach to your disabled vehicle and trailer. At night, carry chemical glow sticks. They're safer than road flares and work quite well. Put the emergency flashers on and if the situation is simply not safe enough, either keep going to a safe pull off and eat a tire/rim/hub (beats being dead) or stay in your vehicle and call for roadside assistance.
This just covers the trailer side and there's much more to the tow vehicle to ensure problem-free trailer operation. Consult your vehicle owners manual for more on towing with your car or truck.
Keeping your trailer healthy keeps you safe and happy on the way to your distant destination.