Dinghy Towing: A 4 Part Series On Setting Up A Vehicle to Tow Four Wheels Down – Part 3 (towed vehicle braking system)

towed vehicle braking system


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In part 3, we review Towed Vehicle Braking Systems which are the most important components in a towing system, and yet the most overlooked.  Everyday we work with customers new to RV’ing who need help putting together a towing system, and many leave the braking system off the list.  While a big motorhome may have no trouble stopping a towed vehicle without a supplemental braking system, it’s those emergency situations that can a different story.  And while you may not think you need a braking system, the law may think differently. Let’s decide if you must have a braking system.

Each state has its own regulations on towing, with most states requiring supplemental brakes on towed vehicles of 3,000 lbs or more, and some states as low as 1,000 lbs.  To find out the law in your state, check out this state by state list by AAA.  If you’re good as far as the law goes, let’s look at the safety side of a breaking system.  That’s the breakaway feature which consists of a lanyard attached to the motorhome and a plunger style switch at the toad vehicle.  When the toad vehicle becomes detached a plug is pulled from the plunger and the brakes are applied in the dinghy.   This safety feature alone is enough to know you must have a breaking system with a breakaway feature installed in your towed vehicle before ever thinking about towing.

So you know you need a braking system, now let’s sort out the different types to see which one makes the most sense.  There are 3 types of supplemental breaking systems:

  • Portable Towed Vehicle Braking Systems – housed in a portable case that fits in the driver’s side foot-well and attached to the brake pedal. This style brake uses a decelerometer to sense the slowing of the motorhome and applies pressure to the brakes through an air or electric cylinder.
    • pros: minimal installation required, can be moved easily to different vehicles
    • cons: not as effective as a permanent systems, bulky, need to install and remove during each use, use a lot of power that will drain the battery
  • Permanent Towed Vehicle Braking Systems – installed in the engine bay or interior of the toad vehicle, these systems have various methods of applying the brakes, with most of them charging the power brakes, giving the system a soft pedal for more accurate braking.
    • pros: more accurate braking, quicker towed vehicle hookup and disconnect, nothing to store when not in use
    • cons: extensive installation required, too costly to move to a different vehicle
  • Surge Towed Vehicle Braking Systems –  installed at the receiver on the hitch and tow bar, they use the weight and momentum of the toad vehicle to pull a cable that is attached to the brake pedal.
    • pros: easy installation, no power used that would drain the battery, simple operation
    • cons: not as effective as permanent systems that use a live pedal

Let’s look at a few of the more popular systems from each group as well as some things to consider.

In the portable category the Blue Ox Patriot is unique from the other portables, with its electric actuator versus air cylinder to push the brake pedal.  This delivers much smoother action over an air cylinder, which initially hits the brake pedal pretty hard and can cause the towed vehicle to slam on the brakes initially in certain situations.  It also avoids the chance for air leaks to develop and uses much less power over an air actuated system, which has to run a pump to refill the air tank.  But not everything is rosy for the Patriot, with that smooth acting electric actuator is a slower reaction time and it’s one of the heavier units at 15 lbs. One of the issues with portables is that they need the front of the seat for support, which is soft and will cause movement.  With movement comes inaccuracy in braking.  The RVibrake and the Delta Force by SMI tried to reduce movement by going with a low profile unit that uses the back of the foot well as a solid support.  This is great for vehicles with a deep flat foot well that has just the right depth to fit the air cylinder. If your towed vehicle has a flat foot well, then you would need to install brackets or cable tethers, which start to negate the purpose of an easy to use portable.  The Brake Buddy system, which was the originator of portable brakes, is very similar to the Blue Ox Patriot, as is the Even Brake by Roadmaster. Both use a fast acting air cylinder to apply the brakes activated by a decelerometer. Having owned a 31′ Class C & 30′ Class A motorhome, I can tell you that the braking system and its effectiveness is critical.  You want the towed vehicle covering has close to it’s total weight in braking force as possible.  You never want the towed vehicle slowing down the motorhome, that will destroy the brakes,  but you need them working as closely as possible.

In the permanent group there is one clear-cut leader in braking and that is SMI Manufacturing.  The Air Force One is amazing, absolutely the best braking system I have ever used and I have tried most of them.  This system delivered the best truly proportional braking of any other brake on the market.  As you apply the brakes on your air brake equipped coach, that air is also sent to the towed vehicle, activating the brakes at the same proportion.  Super easy to set up when towing and it uses a live pedal for pin point braking accuracy.  The only down side is that it does require that your motorhome have air brakes.  If yours doesn’t, then my second choice would be the Stay-in-Play Duo brake by SMI, which features a simple on/off towing switch, vacuum assist live brake pedal, the speed and power of air pressure, dual signal activation, and reliable coach notification that everything is working properly.  This is an excellent choice for Class C and gas-powered Class A motorhome owners who will see the most benefit to perfect braking with the ability to adjust the braking force on the fly.

I’ll be honest, I never took the surge style of towed brake very seriously, it just seemed like old technology and way too simple.  But NSA Products has turned me around with their Ready Brake supplemental braking system.  I think this is an excellent choice for RV’ers looking for an economical option which covers the safety aspect of a braking system and offers an easy DIY installation.  I wouldn’t say this is the best choice for smaller RV’ers that need the Towed vehicle to cover the majority of its own braking, but on very large motorhomes this is a fantastic solution.  This will still cut your braking distance down and you have the safety of controlling a brake-away when that system is installed, which I absolutely recommend.

Here is a complete list of all the Towed Vehicle braking systems we are aware of and which group they fall in:

Portable Braking Systems

Permanent Braking Systems

Surge Braking Systems


View Towed Vehicle Braking Systems

Dinghy Towing: A 4 Part Series On Setting Up A Vehicle to Tow Four Wheels Down – Part 3 (towed vehicle braking system) was last modified: December 28th, 2015 by Bill Rowell

About the Author

Bill Rowell
I have been camping and RV'ing with my Wife and 2 children for the past 20 years. We began our RV'ing careers in a 1995 Jayco pop-up camper which we got caught in the rain in every time we used it. In 1998 I found a 1989 Winnebago Chieftain 23' Class A motorhome which we loved. During that time I was always looking online for good RV information but unable to find it. So I decided to start a website called iRV2.com which is a forum for RV'ers to share information. We wanted a family friendly site in which members were willing to help each other and leave the drama out. In 2000 I purchased our first new RV which was a 30' Coachmen Mirada Class A. For a new RV I had to make a lot of modifications to this motorhome just to make it a road worthy RV. My displeasure with traditional RV's lead me to Truck Conversions and in 2002 we built our first Showhauler motorhome. In 2004 we built our second Truck Conversions which was an improvement over the first, but a trip to the Winnebago factory in 2006 sealed my fate with the rest of the family who saw a Winnebago Vectra diesel pusher in our future. So in 2006 we made the move and enjoyed traveling the country in that until 2010 when we thought we would downside since the kids were off doing their own thing. Somewhere in that time we found ourselves with way to many irons in the fire and decided to focus all our energy on RVupgrades.com as well as another business we own and thus said goodbye to iRV2.com. This was a very tough decision since we had made so many RV'ing friends and great memories, but times had changed and it was time to leave it in new hands to continue it's growth. In 2010 we downsized to a Winnebago Cambria Class C which I really liked, but we quickly found was not the most roadworthy choice for long range travel. So in 2012 we went back to Showhauler and with all of the updates they made to their product found the last motorhome we will ever buy. (Sound familiar) There is never a last RV you'll ever buy when your a die-hard RV'er :-)

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