RV Tow Bar Upgrade -> Our Snazzy New Roadmaster Sterling All-Terrain!
PRE-POST NOTE/ Today we take a brief break from our NY travel tales to update you on our towing set-up. For those that like these kinds of posts, enjoy! For those that don’t, we’ll be back to our regular programming shortly 🙂
We’ve been towing a Honda CR-V behind our RV with a Roadmaster tow bar ever since we started living on the road ~8 years ago, and we couldn’t really imagine traveling any other way.
Our tow car allows us to set-up “the beast” in camp and then we just hop around town (sight-see, grocery shop etc.) with our much-more-nimble and fuel-efficient Honda. Without it we’d be forced to go everywhere in the big rig which would likely mean missing out on quite a lot of stuff.
Plus it would make practical stuff like taking the animals to the vet, getting to the airport (flying home), going to the laundromat, or picking up mail at the post office so much more complicated. Having a tow car makes all of this infinitely easier!
Of course those of you who follow the blog also know that we had a towing accident last fall. It was a scary, scary time and although we had some damage to both the RV and car, we were incredibly lucky that no-one was hurt.
It definitely rattled us, as these things do and it certainly made us re-think our tow procedures, but it never changed our love of having a tow car, nor our confidence in our tow bar. Plus, although much hassle came out of our accident it got us talking with Roadmaster who thoroughly impressed us with their customer service. And, after talking with them for a while we were given the opportunity to review and test of one of their newer bars. It was the good that came out of the bad.
We’ve now had 4 months of intense testing/use of the new bar, so we can finally update our blog readers on our experience. Bottom line is that we LOVE our new bar and would recommend it to anyone! So, with that said lets jump into the review:
Video Overview (And Shout-Out)
If you prefer to see our review in living color, including some general info on towing, the un-boxing of the bar, the installation and how we hook and unhook the car, etc. then check out our ~20 min video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=01A1uMZBOdI
Also, before I get into the nitty gritty I want to take a moment to give a shout-out to some fellow RVers who’ve helped us along our own tow bar journey, and that’s The RV Geeks. They have several excellent Roadmaster videos on their YouTube Channel, including a comprehensive review of the snazzy new Roadmaster Nighthawk. Plus they have all kinds of other useful RV “how to” and maintenance videos on their channel too. We are big fans, and once you start watching their videos I think you will be too.
Our Accident Changed Two Of Our Towing Procedures
The towing accident we had last year taught us a lot.
For those who didn’t read the original blog post what we believe happened is that someone pulled the thin R-clips from our tow bar pins while we were on the 2-hour ferry from Ocracoke to Cedar Island, NC. We had easy-to-remove R-type clips, and (unfortunately) didn’t re-check our connections before we got off the ferry. Over the next ~30 miles the main pin slowly worked it’s way out, and when the car finally came loose and slammed into the RV both clips were gone, so we’re almost 100% sure this is what happened.
We never imagined anyone would do something as potentially lethal as this until it happened to us (or until so many readers posted about it in the blog comments!), but now we know and it’s changed two important things in our towing procedure
- We’ve Changed To Locking Pins: We now use locking pins on our tow bar. Our old R-type pins are gone and have been replaced with 1/2″ Trimax Locking Pins (regular steel version TRZ52 is available on Amazon, or you can buy the stainless steel version SXTRZ52 thro’ Trimax website)
- We’ve Incorporated More En-Route Checks: We now double-check all our tow connections every single time we stop (for gas, for a ferry, for stretching our legs, whatever), and we follow the exact same procedure as when we first hook-up. So before we leave a stop, we’ll both walk around the car, physically wiggle the connections/locks, and check the key is still in the car ignition (in neutral). We each check separately, so we always have two physical checks.
But We Stayed With Roadmaster!
One thing that did not change as a result of our accident, however, was the brand of tow bar we use.
There are basically two “big” guys in RV tow bar biz -> Roadmaster and Blue Ox and they both have good reputations. You’ll see RVers using both and you’ll see RVers recommending both, and they both offer bars with similar types of features. I honestly don’t think you can go wrong with either company.
But I have to admit that our personal experience with Roadmaster has made us firm fans.
Throughout our whole accident ordeal last year, Roadmaster customer service was top notch. They responded to us when we reached out to them, helped us review the accident photos and even checked & refurbished our tow bar at their factory. Their tow bar was not the reason we had our accident (our pulled pins were), yet they remained responsive and helpful throughout our whole ordeal, offering to help in any way possible. Their customer service was exemplary and it really stuck with me. So, several months later when we got the chance to review one of their newer tow bars, we jumped at the chance.
We Flat Tow (Or Tow “Four Down”)
Before I get into the specifics of our particular tow bar I do want to touch very quickly on the way we tow. I’ve written about this topic before, so I won’t go into too many details, but I’ll re-touch on the top-level stuff.
There are basically three ways to tow a car behind a motorhome:
- Use A Trailer: You tow your car inside a separate trailer attached to the back of your rig.
- Use A Tow Dolly: The front two wheels of your car are lifted off the ground and attached to a tow dolly behind your RV.
- Flat Tow: You tow your vehicle using a tow bar behind your RV. This is also called “four down” towing, since all four wheels of the car are on the ground.
There are distinct advantages and disadvantages to each method. For example folks with classic (vintage) cars often trailer tow so their car is protected (from the elements, rocks etc.), but trailers are bulky to store in camp and can be heavy too. Folks with cars that have non-towable transmissions often chose to dolly tow since it’s less expensive and typically no special modifications to the car are needed, but then you have an extra piece of equipment to carry around (and store in camp) plus it can be a bit of a hassle (drive car onto the dolly, install straps, re-tighten straps after you’ve driven a bit etc.)
Our Clear Preference Is Flat-Towing: Our absolute preference, and the preference of most fulltime RVers we know is flat-towing. Flat-towing is the most compact way to tow (zero extra equipment to store in camp), it’s the easiest/fastest way to tow (just hook-up and go!) and we’ve never considered towing any other way.
It Does Cost Some $$: If you decide to flat-tow you’ll need to install a base-plate on your car, plus you’ll need to buy the tow bar. Finally, you’ll need to decide on supplemental braking (see below). The total can easily run upwards of ~$1500.
Plus Your Car Has To Be Capable: We already owned our 2008 Honda CR-V before we got on the road, and we were very lucky in that it was flat-towable from the get-go* with no modifications needed. You simply have to run through the gears after you hook-up (there’s a specific tow procedure in the Honda manual) and you’re good to go. Not all cars are this easy, and some may require transmission modifications in order to be flat-towable. Motor Home Magazine publishes an annual list of dingy-towable vehicles.
*NOTE1/ Older Honda CR-V’s are all flat-towable, but newer models are unfortunately not! Starting around 2015 or so Honda changed the transmission on the CR-V’s to CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission) which do not have a manual transmission option. So, if you want a flat-towable CR-V look for a 2014 or older model.
We Also Have A Supplemental Brake
When you flat-tow a car behind an RV, one of the additional choices you’ll have to make is whether or not you want to add a supplemental braking system.
There are many different kinds and prices of supplemental brakes out there, and once again I’m not going to go into all the details, but basically they all do a similar thing which is engage the brake in your car when you engage brake in your RV. And personally I do think it’s a “must have”. Having a supplemental brake may not make much of a difference while you’re moving, but it definitely affects how quickly you come to a stop both at lights and in an emergency. We’ve disengaged ours (to try it out) and can physically feel the difference even with our little 3,500 lb Honda on the back. It’s significant!
We’ve used a US Gear Braking System since 2010 and we absolutely love it. It’s integrated into the car (no need to put anything in the car when you hook-up) and offers both vacuum assist and proportional braking (sensed via deceleration rate of the coach). Plus it alarms loudly if anything is off.
Tips To Choosing a Tow Bar (And Why We Chose The Roadmaster Sterling)
The original tow bar that we’ve used on our RV for the past 8 years is a Roadmaster Falcon All-Terrain. It’s a non-binding, motorhome-mounted tow bar and has worked well for us. For our new tow bar we decided to stick with the same basic product type, but take a step up to the Roadmaster Sterling All-Terrain Tow Bar. There were several key features we looked at when making that choice:
Sufficient Weight Rating – The first thing about choosing a tow bar is that it must be able to handle the weight of the car you’re planning to tow. Our Honda CR-V only weighs around 3,500 lbs so our old tow bar (original Roadmaster Falcon 6,000lb capacity) as well as our new tow bar (Roadmaster Sterling 8,000lb capacity) both have more than enough capacity to handle tow our vehicle. When you chose your bar, make sure it’s the rated to handle your car weight**!
Motorhome versus Car Mount – You can buy bars that mount on either your motorhome or your car, and the only thing that really affects is where the bar is stored when it’s disconnected. We MUCH prefer a motorhome mount. I think it’s a much cleaner/neater set-up in that the bar stores neatly behind the RV when you’re parked, so you can drive your tow car around without a big object hanging in the front. Our old tow bar was motorhome-mounted and our new one is too.
Ease Of Connection – The next thing to look at is ease of connection. Most modern tow bars have individually extendable arms (telescoping arms) which make them super easy to hook-up. This means your car doesn’t have to be perfectly positioned to your RV when you hook-up. You simply drive your car close(ish) to the RV and then each tow bar arm can be extended and connected individually, even if you’re closer on one side than the other. Older bars didn’t have this flexibility (which made RV/car alignment a nightmare), but modern ones do . Nice, smooth, extendable arms are a definite “must have” in any tow bar, and both of our Roadmaster bars have had this feature.
Ease Of Disconnection – Being able to disconnect easily is just as important! Once your RV starts moving your tow bar arms will fully extend and “lock” in position into a rigid A-frame arrangement. When you stop you need to “release” that lock to disconnect the arms and allow them to move again. With older bars this was often a hassle involving quite a bit of physical heaving and cursing, but many modern bars have “quick release” levers that simply pull up to release the lock. Our old Roadmaster bar had an awesome quick-release (we loved it) and our new Sterling release is EVEN easier to use (one finger, literally). Quick Release is a key feature that you definitely want!
- Ease Of Storage – Our Roadmaster bar (both old and new) store easily on the back of our RV. We just contract the arms, set the arms in place in the storage bracket, flip them to the side (rest position) and cover. Once the tow bar is stored it takes up almost no space at all and doesn’t impact where or how we can park our RV. Plus we can safely drive with it like that too. You literally don’t even notice it’s there!
The other features that we specifically liked about the Sterling bar were:
Cool Design & Materials – This is just geeky stuff, but I really liked the fact that the Sterling is made of 6061 T6 aluminium (aircraft-grade stuff) and the bar is extruded into an “eggshell” design. It makes for a really light, but really strong bar design. Plus, then you can argue about how to say “aluminium” 🙂
- Integrated Channel For Cables – The other thing we really liked about the Sterling design was the integrated channel for all our cables. In our old tow bar only the safety cables were threaded through the bar, but in the new bar the brake cable is also threaded through. It just means less stuff “hanging outside” the bar when you hook-up and makes the whole thing a little neater/easier to both install and store.
**NOTE2/ If you decide to tow a vehicle behind your RV, you must ALSO make sure you RV can handle the weight of the tow!! This involves knowing both the actual weight of your RV (your current weight) as well as the total Carrying Capacity (GCWR) of your RV. Knowing these numbers is important not only for general safety, but also for determining the correct tire pressure (for your RV tires) as well as deciding how much you are able to load up and tow with your RV. We weighed our RV as soon as we got it, and recommend you do the same. Don’t overload your RV and don’t tow more than your RV/engine can handle.
Installation Was Simple
Receipt and installation of the tow bar was super simple. It arrived via UPS ground (took 5-7 days) with everything included in the box:
- 2″ Hitch Bar: The Sterling bar came with a 2-inch hitch bar which matches the receiver on the back of our RV.
- Blue Ox Ends Installed: We have a Blue Ox-type baseplate on our car, so Roadmaster replaced their standard Roadmaster ends with Blue Ox-compatible ends (this is an easy mod that you can ask for by ordering part number 586***).
- Cables Pre-Threaded: The Sterling bar has all the necessary cables (7-pin brake/power cable and safety cables) already pre-installed through the tow bar channels, so there was literally nothing to add after-the-fact.
- Tow Bar Pins Included: The bar came with the two regular “R-type” pins (the pins that attach the bar arms to your car) which I personally recommend replacing with padlocks or locking pins. (Note/ You can buy a padlock set directly from Roadmaster, or buy a locking pins separately from Amazon or any of several other online stores)
- Tow Bar Cover: A nice, sturdy cover was included in the box. We always cover our bar (when parked) and the new cover is easy to both put on and remove.****
For installation all we had to do was remove (unlock) the hitch pin on our old tow bar, pull out the old bar and re-insert the new bar one in its place. Then we just re-inserted and re-locked the hitch pin and voila, we were done! It was literally the easiest RV install we’ve ever done.
***NOTE3/ If you’re ordering a brand new Sterling Tow Bar you can order with either the standard Roadmaster ends (part number 576) or the Blue Ox ends (part number 586). You can also order the Blue Ox adapters separately (part number 031-5).
****NOTE4/ The Tow Bar Cover is an extra order and not part of the standard tow bar “kit” (part number 055-3).
And It’s Been Great!
We’ve been using the new bar for over 4 months now and have absolutely nothing to report, which is exactly what I was hoping for! We love how easy it is to connect and disconnect (that new quick-release latch is awesome) and we love that all our cables are integrated into the bar. Plus we do think it looks rather cool (aluminium you know). Bottom line is it’s super easy to use and we expect many more years of worry-free towing.
I think if you’re considering a new tow bar, you can’t go wrong with Roadmaster, both for the quality of the product and the customer service.
Got car towing questions? Or any specific questions on our tow bar? Feel free to shoot ’em into the comments below and we’ll do our best to answer them!
Related Blog Posts:
- Blog Post -> All About Dingy Towing Part I – Toads
- Blog Pots -> All About Dingy Towing Part II -Tow Equipment And Supplemental Brakes