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How to use your Electric Trailer Brake Controller Effectively

When you’re driving along the freeway or on dirt roads, it’s important to understand how to navigate and control your vehicle effectively when towing. You see, you no longer have just your tow vehicle to worry about, but also the full force and weight of a 3,000lb vehicle behind you as well – and not driving to proper conditions, or using logic and common sense can be catastrophic. You are ultimately in control of your 3,000lb of pride and joy.

Think of all the trailer sway situations you’ve heard, or people getting bogged down in the sand. Why does this happen? For many reasons, but it can be easily avoided when you have the right tools and equipment in your towing set-up to help in these circumstances.

One of these is an electric trailer brake controller, which by law is required to be installed in your vehicle for caravans and trailers over 3,000lbs (and can vary by State). Many people now use electric brakes on trailers that are far less than this too, because of the advantages they bring to the towing experience.

So, in what situations would you use your brake controller and how can you take advantage of its full features?

There are two common ways of applying the trailer brakes with an electric brake controller – User-Controlled and Proportional (or inertia sensing). User-Controlled is a good basic method, where the user adjusts the braking force via an interface with the controller, and when a brake light signal is given the trailer brakes will apply to the set level.

Nowadays this method is generally used in either lower cost brake controllers with this setting alone, or advanced controllers that offer it in addition to a proportional mode for driver preference and off-road towing.

Quality proportional modes use accelerometers which are advanced pieces of electronics that are small and robust, and they provide great accuracy of braking measurement across a range of conditions to give optimum braking in response to how hard the vehicle is braking.

The Tow-Pro Elite Electric Brake Controller has both User-Control and Proportional Modes, which really makes it the ultimate solution for all towing scenarios.

When to use Proportional Mode

A good inertia sensing brake controller makes towing a breeze. In this setting, towing is experienced with precision and ease. You brake soft and slow, so does the brake controller. Sail along on U.S Route 75, slow down for towns and bends, all with ease.

Or cruise along the Utah Traverse, slow down to take in the sights or avoid a rough section or dirt hole all with ease.

Roam the Trailer Ridge Road in Colorado, hit the brakes to save the life of an elk or bighorn sheep.

Eating up the miles on the Sun Road, Montana, hanging on the anchors to avoid a deer who took the opportunity to jump out in front of the only car for miles, with ease. When you brake hard and fast, so does the brake controller.

With all these scenarios, Proportional Mode will make it feel like the trailer is just an extension of your vehicle. On highway conditions, you can almost set-and-forget, as Proportional Mode will ensure the braking force will be applied to the trailer’s brakes, in proportion to your vehicle’s brakes.  

When to use User-Controlled Mode

User-Controlled Mode comes into its own at the same time your inner adventurer is grinning from ear to ear - things are about to get interesting. User-Controlled Mode provides complete control over trailer braking force, without considering inertia.

The selection of this mode is decisive and calculated. This is no different to picking the right gear and range in your vehicle in preparation of the upcoming terrain.

Deflate the tires, throw the rig into high range, select User-Controlled Mode and a low brake setting, to hit the beach on the run along Oceans Dunes in California. If you brake hard and fast in the sand, you don’t want your brake controller to do the same, as your trailer will anchor you in the sand as the tyres bite in - getting going again will be a challenge. In User-Controlled Mode, this doesn’t happen as you will have set the low braking force of the trailer with the manual setting.

Gazing across the High Rockies atop of Colorado, preparing for the descent, throw the vehicle into low range, select User-Controlled Mode and a high brake setting, to tackle the track you've been waiting for. The engine braking is doing all the work for the vehicle here, and just touching the brakes gives the reassuring tug from the rear and keeps the trailer tidy as you descend. You don't want to have to brake hard with the vehicle and compromise steering, but you need the trailer to behave and follow the same line.

Brake controller location

For most drivers, electric brake controllers, are set and forget. Adjust to the point where the trailer and car feel to be braking as a system together, without the trailer pushing or pulling the car - and you're done.

A user interface of some kind for the brake controller is installed in the vehicle, and in the case of the Tow-Pro Elite - a small LED lit knob - allows adjustment to suit the towing combination of the vehicle and trailer.

It is ideal to have it within reach while in your normal seating position, and visible within peripheral vision also. Why is that vital, if it is set and forget?

Firstly, and most importantly, brake controllers have an override function that allows you to operate the trailer brakes independently of the vehicle brakes. This override function is generally used in situations to avoid or rectify trailer sway - so you don’t want to be hunting for it when you need it most!

Avoiding trailer sway using your brake controller

There are many causes of trailer sway, and aside from setting the vehicle and trailer up correctly, some of the causes are road conditions that you will encounter every day.

The USA has some great stretches of highway and overlanding tracks and some terrible ones. With heavy trucking routes and well-worn tracks come the uneven roads when thousands of pounds of vehicles have pounded their mark over time.

Changing lanes on a highway or moving across a track to give an oncoming vehicle more room means crossing uneven roads and this simple action can be unsettling at best. The same effect can be had if you clip the shoulder between the bitumen and the dirt on a narrow country road.

Applying the brake controller over ride as you move can help to provide the tension between the trailer and tow vehicle that helps maintain a straight line when performing this manoeuvre. 

Heavy vehicles travelling at high speed, passing in the opposite direction or when you are trying to overtake them, carry a bow wave of the wind near the front and turbulent low pressure behind them. This means your vehicle and trailer will be shunted away from the heavy vehicle near its front and pulled in towards it at the rear. The strongest force is when passing the front of the heavy vehicle. Applying the override as you pass can avoid any sway manifesting into a potentially dangerous moment.

It's a situation we never want to encounter, but if it does, having the brake controller control knob mounted in an easily accessible location means you or your passenger can quickly react and hit the override if required.

So as always keeping your wits about you and taking advantage of all the features in a quality brake controller will ensure you’re setting yourself up for success for your next adventure.

Take the REDARC Hilux product tour to find out what products are best for your overlanding, power management and towing needs.