The Apples to Apples Trap

The Apples to Apples Trap

What do apples have to do with trailers?  Not a whole lot, but a comparison of ripe red apples to green apples prematurely picked from the tree is a good place to start thinking about what kind of motorcycle trailer you need and which one is likely to give you the most bang for the buck.

Suppose a ripe red apple costs $.37 at the local fruit stand but a green apple is only a $.25.  Well clearly the green apple is a much better deal, right?  Only if you ignore the taste, the texture, and the green apple quick step you’ll get from eating it raw.

In other words, as long as you look only at the easily measurable cost of two similar items, you will continue to make highly questionable and sometimes flat wrong purchasing decisions;  decisions that wind up being hard to live with.

To avoid buying a motorcycle trailer that you’ll have trouble living with, you have to think through the whole trailering experience from A to Z.  That experience starts when you hitch your new trailer to your tow vehicle and continues until you trade it in for a later model, or sell it on Ebay or Craigslist because you no longer need it.

What kind of experience will you have hitching up your trailer?  If it weighs a ton, has tandem ales, and no wheel on the bottom of the jack, you can forget moving the tongue a little bit to get the coupler over the ball.  Instead, if you are by yourself, you’ll have to back up, get out and check, get back in and adjust your position, over and over until the coupler is exactly over the ball.  It’s pretty easy to spot tow vehicles used with this kind of trailer—most of them have dents in the rear bumper from hitching mistakes.

What kind of experience will you have loading and unloading your bike?  If your trailer has a barn door instead of a ramp door, you’ll need ramps–ramps that you have to keep up with and haul around with you when you transport your bike.  And don’t forget those heart-stopping moments when you are on the ramp but not in the trailer or on the ground, and your feet won’t touch the ground.  You can often spot bikes that are loaded and unloaded this way by bent brake or clutch handles, dents in the gas tank, paint chips on the fenders, etc.

What about securing your bikes?  It’s been said that good judgment comes from experience and experience comes from bad judgment.  Trailering beginners exercise bad judgment by not taking the time and making the effort to really understand the problem. The experience that gets them past the beginner stage is opening the door of their trailer only to find their bike lying on its side or, worse yet, one bike lying underneath another.  Yet, it doesn’t have to be that way.  With the right chock, the right straps, d-rings in the right place and the right tie-on spots on your bike, one person can quickly and easily secure a bike for a 3,000 mile trip with only two straps.  (No need for any front-end around and over acrobatics as that’s not where the two straps go!)

To make bad matters worse, you have to be careful where you turn for help in making sure you have a positive trailering experience.  There’s a whole lot more trailer salespeople, bike dealership employees, and just plain biker friends who think they know how to tie bikes down than there are who really know how.  Consider the Honda dealership employee who told a trailer owner to put his Wing up on the center stand to tie it down.  That effectively turned the Wing into a pile driver which punched through the wood floor in roughly a dozen miles.

So when you are evaluating different trailers, unless you already fully understand the two strap tie down system, be careful! There’s ten times as much misinformation out there as there is good info.  And just because a trailer already has a few tiedowns and a couple of wheel chocks doesn’t mean they are in the right place for your bike(s).  Instead they are probably where somebody at the manufacturer though they should go.  And all of his experience may have been with motocross bikes when he was barely a teenager.

Driving is driving, right?  So your experience pulling one motorcycle trailer should be pretty much the same as it is pulling any other one.  Not hardly.  If the design of your motorcycle trailer causes or permits the front end to be overloaded (chocks against the front wall of a trailer considerably longer than your bikes), you may find yourself driving down the road with the front end of your tow vehicle much higher than normal and the backend practically dragging.  That might be a little hard on your nerves but it’ll probably be a lot harder on your tow vehicle.
On the other hand, fishtailing is not fun and as anyone who has ever experienced it knows all too well, it can be scary enough to really give your sphincter a workout.  Yet that’s what can happen if the inherent design of your motorcycle trailer encourages you to overload the rear of your trailer.  But if your motorcycle trailer has flat sides, a back end overload isn’t the only thing that can kick-off a fishtailing episode.

When you pass or are passed by an 18 wheeler at highway speeds, you have to be prepared to counter the sideways push-pull-push you feel.  As you get closer and as you leave its side, turbulence pushes you away from the semi.  But when you are side by side, the semi trailer sucks you toward it.  if you are back end loaded and towing over 55 mph, you’ll get a quick introduction to the “joys” of fishtailing.  And the LONGER, TALLER and the FLATTER the sides of your trailer, the worse the fishtailing will be.

Unfortunately fishtailing is not the only thing you have to worry about with a flat sided trailer.  Strong crosswinds can literally blow you off the road while even moderate ones can move you from one lane to another.  Steady strong cross winds are one thing; you just hang on to opposite side of the steering wheel with both hands.  But strong gusty cross wind are quite another. Your only real choices are to slow to a crawl, or find somewhere to hole up until the weather changes.  Again, the longer, taller and flatter the sides of your trailer, the more severe the problem and the worse the trailering experience you’re likely to have.

How do you feel about fuel economy and frequent downshifting?  The heavier your trailer and the hillier the roads you travel, the more often your automatic transmission will downshift.  Check your owner’s manual and you’ll find some sound advice about how much downshifting is acceptable before you should turn your overdrive off.  But keep in mind, there’s no free lunch; clearly your engine will rev higher and it will likely burn more fuel.

Speaking of fuel, buy a tall heavy box-shaped motorcycle trailer and you can expect your towing mileage to be not much more than 45% of what the same vehicle gets when it isn’t towing.  Add a V shaped nose and you may be able to increase that up to as much as 55-60%.  Chop that extra foot off the top and there’s a chance you’ll see 60-65%. drop.  But you won’t see 80-90% unless you buy a low lightweight  trailer shaped a lot more like a bullet than a brick, and made out of something much lighter than steel.  (Mileage reductions are much less extreme for special purpose vehicles like diesel duallies.)

Let’s pause for a minute and remember that this is supposed to be about the whole trailering experience, and that experience includes a strong psychological component as well as the physical realities we’ve talked about so far.  If you are like most people who trailer, you are in a good mood on your way to some fun riding or coming home from such fun.  How long do you think that good mood will last when you stop for the umpteenth time to refuel?  How long do you think it will last if you have to fight to keep your vehicle on the road in crosswinds?  How long do you think it will last if you survive a serious fishtailing incident only to have to call a tow truck to get you out of the ditch and/or have to stop to clean out your pants?  Clearly when you ignore the emotional impact of buying one motorcycle trailer versus another, you may well live to regret it.

Unhitching your trailer is easy but putting it away and retrieving it can be a little harder.  Putting it away may be as simple as backing it into a regular parking space in a defined parking area or as complicated as parallel parking it.  Regardless of whether putting your trailer away and retrieving it are simple or complex, how hard they are depends on which trailer you choose.

If it has tandem axles, your manual options are limited.  Get enough help and depending on how heavy it is, you may be able to actually move it forward or backward.  But if you want to turn it and reposition it, you’ll need a small tractor.  By contrast, anything with only two wheels and weighing less than 1500 lbs can be moved around on level pavement or hard packed ground with a $59.95 dolly from Harbor Freight.   Even if it has a couple of big bikes in it.

But if your trailer is parked on sloping ground, you can forget moving it around by hand, loaded or unloaded.  It’s simply too hard to push uphill and too dangerous to pull down hill as even a light trailer can easily over run a really strong man.  So you need to think long and hard about just how you will use your trailer before your buy one.  In general, the more often you intend to use it and the more different temporary stops you expect to make, the more lack of maneuverability will limit your enjoyment of the trailering experience.

Let’s not forget storage.  After all, that’s where motorcycle trailers spend the lion’s share of their lives.  If the trailer you buy is too tall or too wide, it won’t fit through your garage door.  If it’s too heavy and has tandem wheels, forget about occasionally rolling it outside and hosing it off.  It’ll stay right where it is until the next time you really need to use it.

Last but not least, there’s resale value.  The current economic climate has literally put some major cargo trailer manufacturers out of business.  That’s allowed other trailer industry executives to acquire physical and human resources and raw material inventories at bargain basement prices.  The result is a flurry of cargo trailers so cheap they have to be seen to be believed.  Granted the quality of some of these trailers is so questionable that the new companies may not last long.  But while they are around, they put so much downward pressures on the resale value of similar looking trailers that any cash you put in one evaporates as soon as you tow it off the lot.

Fortunately cargo type motorcycle trailers are not your only option.  Ironhorse trailers look so different and are seen as so much better suited to motorcycle hauling that they are virtually immune to downward pressure from plummeting cargo trailer prices.  That, and their ever-growing popularity, has kept their resale values high.  The record as far as we can tell is an owner whose actual depreciation over several years amounted to less than $12 per month.

So the next time you are considering buying a motorcycle trailer, remember that there’s a lot more to buying apples and motorcycle trailers than simply comparing prices.  After all, if you are going to trailer your bike(s), you are buying not just a trailer but also a whole bundle of individual experiences.  And that the outcome of each of these individual experience can range from highly positive to extremely negative.  Clearly those who choose trailers with the biggest positive bundles will get the most out of trailering.  Those who ignore these factors will find that trailering can  be a real pain in the ass.

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