Sway Control

Equalizer bars, anti-sway control, weight distribution hitch, spring bars … even if you are a seasoned Airstreamer you might think you know the difference, but it’s easy to be confused because the industry uses these terms interchangeably. And after seeing a viral video recently circulating online—footage of a trailer alarmingly fishtailing on the freeway—you may be downright apprehensive.

“Many new Airstream owners don’t know if they need sway bars, or how to use them,” said David Montijo, Airstream Sales Consultant at Lazydays RV in Tucson, Arizona. Are you doing it wrong when it comes to sway control? Answers below.

What’s the difference between all these terms?

Sway Control
Weight distributing hitch that incorporates sway control

Sway controls and weight distribution “have two completely different functions,” said Montijo. Confusion reigns because sway control systems are integrated into many popular weight distributing hitches. That means the long black weight distribution bars on your Equal-i-zer, Reese Dual-Cam and many other hitches fill a dual role: distributing weight from the trailer’s tongue to the front wheels of the tow vehicle AND limiting sway. These systems rely on friction to discourage rapid movement of the trailer, which helps prevent sway.

More sophisticated “sway prevention” hitches such as Hensley and Pro-Pride prevent sway inherently as a result of their internal geometry, so on those hitches the weight distribution bars are just doing one job.

But some other hitches don’t have integrated sway control at all, and some people tow just by putting the trailer on the ball without any additional hitch system. For those people, an add-on friction sway control is a very good idea.

What causes sway?

CURT friction sway bars
CURT friction sway bars

A myriad of conditions can allow your any trailer to erratically—and dangerously—fishtail, including: crosswinds (including the blow-by gust created by passing semi trucks and other high-profile vehicles); improper loading (too much weight at the back of trailer); or too much (or too little) tension on the sway bars.

Do I even need sway control?

It’s a good idea. “Sway bars are not required, but are necessary in case of crosswind, or when trucks are passing the unit,” said Montijo. The problem is that you can’t just slap on a sway control the moment you need it. So advance preparation is the best strategy, kind of like wearing a seat belt.

Most dealers will recommend standard weight-distribution hitch that includes sway control, so check that the one you’re using has that feature, and that it is adjusted correctly.

Draw-Tite friction sway bar (top) installed in tandem with weight-distribution bars
Draw-Tite friction sway bar (top) installed in tandem with weight-distribution bars

If you don’t have such a hitch, an independent friction sway control can be added. A typical design has a bar mechanism that moves freely as your trailer turns normally, but applies friction to create resistance—similar to the way shock absorbers reduce bounce—if your trailer begins an unwelcome swaying movement.

I have a small Bambi—but it was built in the 1960s. Do I need to worry about sway control and weight distribution?

The need for weight distribution depends on the tongue weight of the trailer. Short and light trailers from the 1950s and early 1960s often have tongue weights below 300 pounds. Weight distribution will have a minimal positive impact with such light loads, especially if the weight distribution hitch itself adds 50 or more pounds.

But that doesn’t negate the possibility of sway. “All trailers, vintage as well as new models, can and should use some type of anti-sway control for added safety,” said Montijo. Sway control helps with side winds and also when you’re towing down a steep, winding hill, and going over bumps or around corners.

Uh oh. I’m swaying on the road. What do I do?

Don’t panic. “Manually apply the brake to the towable by using the manual switch on the brake controller in the cab of the tow vehicle,” advised Montijo. “When it’s safe to pull over, adjust the tension on the anti-sway bars.”

Reese Pro series friction sway bars
Reese Pro series friction sway bars

When the trailer is swaying, it’s because it has more kinetic energy than the tow vehicle. In other words, it is no longer under the control of the tow vehicle—and this can happen regardless of the size or weight of the tow vehicle. The trailer responds by using up that energy by swaying from side to side.

One incident of sway is a warning: something is wrong. If you don’t correct the cause, it will probably happen again. So think about why the sway started. Is there a mechanical problem with the trailer? Is the tongue too light? Heavy winds? Get professional advice before you tow again.

Sway bar tips

(These tips apply to independent sway controls, not those that are integrated into weight distributing hitches.)

You’ll know when an independent sway control is too tight: it’ll squeak. If it’s too loose, fishtailing or swaying can occur. “Each name brand has a different adjustment,” said Montijo. “For proper adjustment it’s best to refer to the owner manual.”

Remove your friction-style sway bars before backing into your campsite. Reversing will be easier (and you won’t damage the tension system).

Avoid towing on icy roads, but if you must, loosen the tension when towing on icy roads. Otherwise the sway control might force the trailer to track badly behind the tow vehicle, making things worse.

Ways to keep your Airstream from being stolen

First the bad news. “If they want your trailer, they’ll take it,” say savvy Airstreamers. No matter what security measures you employ, a competent thief can find a way to separate you permanently from your Airstream.

“Airstreams are targets,” explained an expert at an Alumafandango seminar. “If yours gets stolen, you won’t get it back. They’re hard to recover, and they all look alike.”

“Most late-model coaches are stolen for parts, and can be sent overseas in shipping containers. Four or five coats of paint on your tongue hitch covers the VIN number. And cheap hitch locks are kind of worthless,” he continued. “They can be broken into in five minutes.”

Victims of theft agree. “It’s almost like the insurance companies go, oh, just get ‘em a new trailer,” said one. “They don’t go after who stole it and don’t pursue where it went. They just figure it’s been scrapped out, it’s just gone, and that’s the cost of doing business.” Don’t expect law enforcement to step in, either. “Sadly, the highway patrol does nothing proactive to find stolen RVs,” said one victim. “They simply add the license to their list.”

Yikes. What’s the good news? You can take steps to reduce your chances of theft—in increasing degrees of difficulty for the bad guys. First, get a really good hitch lock.  We sell the best one on the market, in the Airstream Life Store.

Thom (no pun intended) Locke at Sutton RV recommends the MegaHitch lock Coupler Vault. “It’s the best lock we’ve found,” he said. “It’s powder coated, and quarter-inch thick steel. When locked, you’d have to cut through two thicknesses, a half an inch. That’s a lot,” he said. “It also has a round key that’s almost impossible to duplicate.”

“It would take a long time and someone would have to work very hard to break into a MegaHitch,” said a fan. “It’s kind of like a car alarm in that it calls attention to the theft in process, causing suspicion.”

Second, keep your trailer close to home, if you can.  “Ours is on our own property in a fenced yard behind an electric gate, and there’s a truck usually in the way, blocking it,” said one owner.

 

If you want to go to extremes, there are more options:  “Take one wheel off on one side, and partially deflate the tire on the other side,” offered one Airstreamer. Others suggested “jack the trailer up and put it on blocks”, and “install a big u-bolt underneath with a drag mechanism on it.” Or not.

Third, check your insurance policy.  “A replacement policy isn’t necessary with most RVs, but with an Airstream, it is,” said experts at Alumfandango. Review with your agent every detail of your policy, and understand the meaning of replacement value, agreed value, and the various types of loss. Make sure your content coverage is adequate; there’s more in your trailer than you might remember. (“Thank goodness we had enough,” said an RV crime victim. “We needed not only to replace things like sheets, dishes, and inside supplies but all the tools, cords and hoses.”) Keep ALL receipts, and make it easy on the insurer. Organization scores points.

Fourth, don’t trust storage facilities to keep your Airstream safe.  “The biggest problem are those big facilities where they have small storage rooms as well as boat and RV parking,” said another, and many agree. “Thieves come in there and rent a small, cheap storage unit, and go in and out for a couple-three months. Since they have 24-hour access to the yard, one day they hook up an Airstream and just take it away. Then they keep paying their rent, inconspicuous, and cancel the rental after a couple more months.”

That’s exactly what happened to the former owners of a “new, 2009 27ft front bedroom we had in what we thought was a very secure storage unit,” said the victim. “People came in and out all the time that had nothing to do with the trailers.” (Management later suspiciously claimed the security camera wasn’t working or possibly rolled over the recording.) They have their new Airstream—entirely replaced by insurance—in a facility that “has tons and tons of cameras, and it’s strictly a boat and RV storage lot.”

More tips:

  • When choosing a storage lot, ask when security cameras recycle. “It’s gotta be at least three months,” said an Airstreamer who packs his away for the winter.
  • Keep the Airstream hitch and/or wheels locked tight when stored, no matter how secure the facility.
  • Etch the VIN number on both the trailer and your tow vehicle. “Etching kits are easy to find online and inexpensive,” said another victim of theft (who learned these lessons the hard way). “I etched the number around the vehicles in four places.”
  • Ask your dealership what anti-theft measures are in place while your coach is in for service.