While pickup trucks used to be basic workhorse vehicles, their increased popularity means truckmakers now pay more attention to refinement and technical innovations. But even as pickup truck use becomes more diverse, trailer towing remains one of the primary purposes for a pickup truck. So it's no surprise that engineers have focused on helping people tow.
In this post we pick our 10 favorite (in no particular order) factory-installed features that come in handy when pulling a trailer. Some of these faves come from popular accessory applications; others are truck-specific adaptations of existing technology; and some require just a simple change to make towing life easier.
What has turned up on your latest truck that gives an advantage when you pull a load or what would you like to see automakers add? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.
1. Clever Bed Storage
Cars.com photo by Evan Sears
Towing requires a few items beyond just a trailer. Need a bin for your bungees? A place to store your dusty ratchet straps outside of the leather interior of your crew cab?
Finding a place in the pickup to organize your stuff has always been an issue. The RamBox Cargo Management System brilliantly takes a hard-to-use space and provides lockable, dry storage. Clearly you can put anything you want in a RamBox, but it's the perfect place for towing accessories that you want to keep in the truck. The RamBox also offers protection for the bed rails. A nice touch was adding it to keyless locking and unlocking system.
2. Multiple View Cameras
A backup camera is certainly a welcome addition to any vehicle, particularly on larger ones like pickups. Add a camper or a loaded bed and once you have a backup camera you'll never want to live without it. However, the masterstroke with these devices was placing the lens so that pickup owners can see the trailer hitch for fast solo hitch-ups. It sure saves a lot of walking back and forth when you are alone, not to mention smashed-up license plates.
Multiple view backup cameras are now standard across Toyota's Tundra lineup, but with center-stack infotainment screens becoming standard and slick in-mirror displays now available, affordability for this technology continues to increase across all brands. We also like cab-mounted cameras and side-view cameras.
3. Four- and Seven-Pin Plugs
Cars.com photo by Evan Sears
If you are going to tow a trailer, one thing you will definitely need is a trailer light wiring harness. So if you are building a vehicle that's made for towing, why not build it right in? Gone are the days of hacking into the pickup's wiring harness, trying to remember which color is which and making splices that are doomed to eventual failure.
Most trucks today come with four- and seven-pin connectors, so you don't have redo the wiring for different trailers or look for an adapter. Anyone who has ever been on their back under a pickup truck tracing wires can rejoice. Now if someone would come up with a solution for dependable wiring on the trailer.
4. Integrated Trailer Brake Controller
Cars.com photo by Evan Sears
Anyone doing serious towing with a trailer that has electric brakes is going to need a trailer brake controller. So what did we do before the factory built them in? We drilled holes and screwed a plastic box into the bottom of the dash. Not the best location when you actually need to use it. It was also more wires to cut, run and splice.
The widespread use of aftermarket trailer brake controllers certainly gave engineers the idea to incorporate trailer brake controllers as a standard option, and it also inspired some truckmakers to connect it to an electronic trailer-sway control. An added bonus of the controller is that you to use built-in display screens to adjust gain. And there's no more banging your knee on the black box. The technology is available in all pickups except Toyota, Nissan and Honda.
5. Electronic Trailer-Sway Control
Electronic stability control has been a great asset to the modern motorist by automatically helping to correct a skid. The sensors for the vehicle stability control system are already there, so by tweaking the programming it can be used to mitigate a trailer-sway situation. As in a skid, when you start sawing at the steering wheel and the truck is doing something different, depending on the system, the electronic trailer-sway control will apply individual wheel brakes on the vehicle, cut engine power and/or apply the trailer brakes if there is an integrated trailer brake control. It provides an extra edge in getting that fishtailing trailer back in line.
6. Smart Tow/Haul Mode
While some old-timers will tell you the manual gearbox is the preferred method of transmitting engine power when towing, it's the think-for-yourself factor that appeals to these grizzled veterans. Early automatics responded somewhat to analog throttle input, but not to load. With the age of electronic control came Tow/Haul mode, which raises shift points when accelerating, downshifts sooner when decelerating and delays or disables overdrive. By offering up and downshifts with the touch of a button, you can override the transmission without worrying about missing a gear and throwing your column shifter in neutral at a crucial moment. It keeps the engine in its sweet spot and helps extend transmission life. Since most truckmakers don't even offer a manual anymore, Tow/Haul mode has become an indispensible feature.
7. Air Suspension
There is no shortage of aftermarket airbags, but Ram was the first to offer a factory-optional load-leveling rear air suspension. With the success of the five-link suspension on the 1500, moving the 2500 to coil springs saw an improvement in unladen ride quality. Rear air suspension automatically levels the truck when loaded and helps beef up the 2500's newly added fifth-wheel and gooseneck capabilities. Adding air suspension to the leaf-sprung 3500 allowed engineers to soften the ride when empty.
8. Bed Step Access
More often than not, towing involves climbing onto the rear bumper to get into the bed or to give the trailer tongue a kick. Since pickups are taller than ever these days, those tasks are harder to do. The solution was bed steps; they were one of those ideas that cost basically nothing to implement, but are genius in their simplicity. Cutting a step in all bumper corners seems obvious now, even considering there was a day when most trucks didn't come with a rear bumper. But what really cinches it is the 45-degree angle cut into each rear stake pocket to make a more comfortable hand-grab point. It's an elegant solution to a common problem.
9. Bed View Camera
As the use of cameras on vehicles widens, a novel new idea is mounting the camera in the high center spotlight that Ram introduced in its heavy-duty lineup for 2013. The display uses the 8.4-inch infotainment screen in the center stack to give you a view of the cargo area for easier fifth-wheel and gooseneck hookups or for checking your load. It works for backing up, when parked or for 10-second intervals for a quick look while driving. Tailgate-mounted backup camera capability is maintained by moving to an LCD monitor in the rearview mirror.
10. Damped Tailgates
No matter how you use your pickup, it's going to involve opening the tailgate. What's more annoying than when it slips out of your hand and it slams down? This is unacceptable unless your horsepower comes from an actual horse. Previous factory attempts to break the fall, such as adding a torsion bar, have been largely ineffective. Some accessory companies tried to come up with a solution that usually involved a hydraulic strut, but hats off to GM and Toyota for introducing standard soft-open features in 2014 that also make the tailgate easier to close.
11. Bonus: Exhaust Brake
Cars.com photo by Evan Sears
Exhaust brakes (also called Jake brakes) have been used on cross-country big-rigs almost from inception to help slow down and control the monster loads with the help of exhaust pressure, but the technology took a while to make it into personal-use diesels. Cummins has a three-position Smart Exhaust system, while both GM and Ford are getting more sophisticated with their exhaust brake capabilities with each iteration. These systems should be used early and often when carrying big, bulky loads, especially when navigating steep downhill decents through mountains and hill country.