Author: Z. Do Little.
CHECK THE ROUTE FIRST
Know the route you are taking. Before going, check for low bridges, bridges with weight and width restrictions. Also check your route for rural roads that might be very narrow, such as one lane wide or rural routes that may not be paved—small county roads and farm lanes that are made of gravel or dirt. Type of road, combined with the season, region, weather, and road conditions can present challenges that may get you stuck in a difficult situation and might necessitate a costly extraction via tow truck or worse yet, crane.
To investigate your route, a commercial motor carrier’s atlas comes in handy or a commercial GPS, which will give you simple-to-follow specifics of each road you plan to travel down with your equipment and tiny house on a trailer.
Always keep in mind that some roads are so narrow or perhaps have turns that are so tight, that you might not fit. Backing up a two-part unit for several miles is never any fun.
WATCH OUT FOR OBSTACLES BELOW AND ESPECIALLY, FROM ABOVE
Steep pitched driveways, steep pitched roadways, tight turns on narrow roads, obstacles in the roadway, and low-hanging tree branches, awnings, and other interesting low-hanging obstacles—watch out for these.
As you make your journey on the roadways hauling your tiny home, pay close attention to the clearance between your undercarriage and the road surface and also pay close attention to low-hanging foliage and low-clearance objects from above.
Every turn you make, every entrance and/or exit ramp you traverse, every driveway, each road surface alters the angle and clearance between the underside of your trailer and the surface you’re driving upon. So, assess what is coming and adjust accordingly. When in doubt, simply set your four way flashers, stop if you can safely do so, set your brakes, and get out and look. You’ll be happy you did so.
Once you get off a main interstate or four lane divided highway, the fun begins. Whether you are hauling your home through a residential area, through a city or small town, or through a rural countryside, there are many obstacles from above and from below that can trip you up when your home is at or near the DOT specified width and height limitations.
Please watch out for low-hanging awnings, signs, billboards, and objects from above that are protruding out from the side and from above that you might not notice. You would be surprised what is above your truck and trailer. Making a pit stop at a small gas station, a family-owned restaurant, or strip mall can turn into a crash course in learning how to avoid things just above—things just out of your peripheral vision that you don’t notice and you drive right into when you think you are clearing the side of a building.
Always pay attention to your clearances from both sides, from above, and from below. Check, check, check, and re-check…and get out and look when in doubt.
Never underestimate the ability of a tree branch, even a small one, to wreak major damage upon wood, steel, aluminum, plastic, or any material that is softer or harder than a tree branch. Visualize in your mind how force can make something softer penetrate something that is harder (blades of grass thrust into wooden poles during a tornado, for example). When you are traveling at speeds of 15mph, 35mph, or 65mph, even a seemingly small, soft tree branch can reap serious damage to your home.
Depending on the length of your home, the length of your tow vehicle, the width of your wheel bases, and the low clearance between the underside of your trailer and the surface you are driving across, you might not clear every driveway, ramp, and unpaved or paved surface that you travel across. So, when in doubt, again, set your flashers, set your brakes, and get out and look. Physics is unforgiving.
LOW BRIDGES AND BRIDGES WITH WIDTH AND WEIGHT LIMITATIONS
Don’t be a can of Campbell’s chicken noodle soup. There is a bridge in Durham, North Carolina that YouTube enthusiasts affectionately call the “Can Opener Bridge”—as this low bridge, 11 feet 8 inches eats trucks for breakfast, lunch, and dinner almost daily. Surprisingly, within our modern infrastructure in the United States, there are still hundreds, if not thousands of low bridges and old bridges with weight limits, especially in older parts of the country, such as New England and especially in older towns all over the country…and especially in rural areas throughout the Midwest and many other agricultural regions and far-flung, less populated parts of the country—this includes just about every state. You never know where an impassable road, bridge, or overpass might be lurking. So, beware of low clearances from above and from below.
A familiar foe to truckers nationwide…there are countless railroad tracks across the United States in small towns, larger cities, and in rural areas that are “built-up”—meaning, and I am sure you have seen them and have crossed them—the tracks present a giant “hump” in the road which might feel like a fun roller coaster ride if you’re taking a lazy road trip on a weekend; but when you try to haul a low-riding trailer over one—not so much fun any more. Tiny houses, by nature, usually sit upon “low-riding” trailers and a railroad crossing can be your worst enemy. You do not want to try and drive across a set of railroad tracks, only to get stuck in the middle.
So, you can avoid some railroad crossings simply by looking on a map and finding how you can re-route your trip to avoid the railroad crossings altogether by taking a different road that overpasses the tracks. It is well worth it to do so if you think you cannot make it over the tracks—to simply add a few miles to your trip and take the road less traveled. Of course there are thousands of new, well-designed, or modern railroad tracks that are easily passable. It just depends upon where you are coming from with your thow and where you are going with your thow.
When hauling a trailer and tiny home with a truck or van, making wide turns might seem obvious. Yes. Giving yourself some extra room when turning onto a road from another road and when turning into a driveway is smart. However, there are some other elements to consider when making a turn—such as impatient drivers who might be turning beside you and possibly, the swing of the rear of your trailer that is extending beyond your rear axels. In the trucking industry, this is called “trailer swing” and many a driver has wacked, smashed, and literally wrecked countless buildings, vehicles, road signs, and unfortunately pedestrians by not remembering to take in to account the swing of the portion of their trailer that extends beyond their rear axels.
Not to worry, there are ways to safe guard against this eventuality and even though a tiny home may be much shorter than a commercial trailer, there still is “trailer swing” on the end of most tiny homes on trailers. Not only can you hit something with that swing, you can also damage the rear of your home. We don’t want that. One way to ensure that the part of the rear end of your trailer that you cannot see in your mirrors when you are turning—to ensure it does not hit any thing, again, is to give yourself a wider berth and/or simply make sure there is not another motorist or pedestrian anywhere in the vicinity of the rear of your trailer when you turn.
When setting up for a turn, you always have the option of slowing down, setting your flashers, or maybe even pulling into a “middle turn lane” and pausing to assess the roadway and traffic flow and solve an impending situation with an obstacle, another motorist, or a pedestrian before a problem occurs.
It is fascinating how quickly traffic will vacate the roadway as soon as you click on your flashers. No one wants to be stuck behind or next to a vehicle with flashing lights of any kind, after all.
AVOIDING TIP-OVERS: VERY IMPORTANT
Turning too short and clipping a curb—this might seem like not much of a big deal and often, when you clip a curb when turning, nothing happens, unless your trailer is top heavy or the weight of your trailer is not equally balanced. Again, physics and gravity, not being kind to us here. By their very nature (lofted tiny homes especially), tiny homes tend to have a good amount of weight up high. In the commercial industry, top heavy loads are practically non-existent by design—top heavy loads are avoided at all costs; but when necessary to haul a top-heavy load, one must be acutely aware at how much that top heavy weight is going to sway when compromised by traveling over an un-level surface, such as clipping a curb, going around a ramp, going up or down a driveway, or maybe, simply the necessity of pulling off to the side of the road in an emergency. You are going to lean in these instances and you don’t want to fall over.
Here is an example, to illustrate. You have probably seen a tractor-trailer laying on its side on the side of an exit or entrance ramp or perhaps you’ve seen one laying down in a city on a road with stepped-up concrete medians or perhaps you have just seen a big rig laying on its side and you wondered how that happened. In the industry, this is called “load shift”. Simply, what has happened is that the equipment’s center of gravity has been compromised and once the trailer unit starts leaning to the left or to the right, it pulls the entire assembly down: or more simply put, the truck and trailer falls over just like tipping a cow (pardon the expression). You might think that your light-weight tiny home can’t fall over; but, it can easily fall over, as most tiny homes are even taller than your typical truck trailer—as they are lower to the ground than a commercial trailer, but nearly the same height as a commercial trailer.
Tiny homes are usually tall and skinny and relatively top heavy—by top heavy, I mean the following: A regular commercial trailer, whether a car hauler, flatbed trailer, tanker, or box trailer, is designed to be used so that the freight is low and tight or that the load is compact and well-balanced, meaning that the weight of the load usually has a very low center of gravity—which helps the trailer stay upright when moving on unleveled surfaces, when traveling around embankments, or when exposed to heavy side winds.
Tiny homes on trailers are not specifically designed so that the weight is low, compact, tight, and balanced for road travel. Rather, they are usually designed to have a “load” that is quite spread out inside often unevenly, with much vacuous space in the center, with some weight down, some weight up, and maybe with more weight in the front than the back or more weight in the back than in the front.
Not a problem. Just be sure to think about your “load” that is your tiny house and be aware that if you start to tip a little from one side or the other or if you feel your home swaying, you need to just slow down, take it easy, and ensure that road pitch, weight distribution, or threatening weather does not push you and your tiny home around on the road. After all, tiny homes are not usually designed to travel around a lot, but just to travel from point A to point B maybe a couple times and just be lived in. Of course there are exceptions to this rule, such as compact tiny homes specifically built to be like RVs. On the other hand, there are many tiny homes that are rather large, rather long, and rather heavy and that require careful consideration to move safely and arrive intact.
ROAD SURFACE, PARKING SURFACE, WEATHER, AND, OF COURSE, REGION
This topic is giving me a sinking feeling. In the commercial industry, professional haulers usually develop a healthy respect for road surfaces, parking surfaces, and weather. This is a given; but until you’ve hauled something, you might not fully understand how these elements can impact your ability to move and park and move again your truck/van and tiny home/trailer, unfortunately. So, there are some safeguards to take into account.
Wet, icy, snow-covered, graveled, and muddy surfaces will trip you up. Again, no one wants to pay for a costly tow, or at the worst, a crane—to pull you out of an unwanted situation. I would just put my foot down in these instances. When in doubt, wait it out. Surface conditions can dramatically change from hour to hour, from day to day, and from to season to season. No sense taking a risk with your home after all that hard work.
Lots of things come into play regarding your ability to tow your home—such as having a tow vehicle that is properly rated with adequate tow capacity. If you have a half ton pick up that can barely pull your house, you probably aren’t going to make it up a hill or be able to pull your trailer and home out of soft ground or a muddy situation or ice or snow. Weight capacity and viability of the actual trailer itself is so important to take into consideration from the beginning of the build. Again, simple physics and gravity working against us here. If you’re at maximum weight capacity for your trailer and/or you’re at maximum tow capacity for your tow vehicle, the likelihood something is going to go wrong in transit, even if you’re only traveling, say 60 miles, is greatly increased.
We witnessed a stressful story a while back of a young couple whose tiny house trailer broke two axels while in transit, stranding the couple on the side of the highway. The tiny house could not be towed because the couple built a section out beyond the end of the trailer and when the tow truck driver tried to hook the home up, the tail end met the pavement and was dragging on the road—it could not be moved. So, they incurred a very costly on-sight repair while battling state troopers who were threatening to haul their home off to be impounded—you can do the math at how costly it would be for a jurisdiction to immobilize a home that is on a broken, immoveable trailer and is over the height limit for road travel. Had the worst case scenario occurred in that situation, they would have dismembered the tiny house and carted it off piece by piece and then would have sued that couple for thousands of dollars, perhaps fines too. Because we are building these homes, not necessarily in accordance with the law, we have to be very wary of things that might go wrong on the federally and state regulated roadways. Very crucial. I will never forget that scary story.
So, make sure you have an adequate tow vehicle and a viable trailer with adequate weight capacity. It does not hurt to have a back-up plan in case you get stuck. Avoid situations where the road will be slick with rain, snow, or ice and/or avoid situations where the surface you are traversing will be soft and muddy.
Also, make sure that once you are parked, that the surface can withstand the overall weight of your home over time—by creating a larger, harder surface area for parking which can be done simply with some large sections of thick plywood under each tire and under jacks or dolly legs, a concrete slab, concrete footers, or perhaps some bricks to rest your mobile home upon. The home will settle over time and will sink, making it difficult to move in the future.
HEIGHT, WIDTH, LENGTH
DOT standards for height, width, and length are pretty much common knowledge to just about everyone in this tiny house movement. However, there are other considerations regarding height, width, length. When it comes to hauling your tiny house on the road, it is strongly recommended that you stay within the height, width, and length requirements that are very similar nationwide, unless you don’t mind getting a special permit or if you are a commercial hauler or if you’re using a professional hauler. Here is something I have seen quite frequently. Burgeoning trailer manufacturers that may or may not be building trailers to specs. This is to say that if someone who is not steeped in trailer manufacturing specs is building you a trailer for your tiny home, it might not have the axels in the proper location to allow you to move your tiny house down the road without dragging on the pavement. It’s probably a good idea to skip that backyard trailer building guy and go to the little more expensive, licensed trailer manufacturer and purchase a reliable trailer that is being held to a legitimate federally-sanctioned safety standard. We have all heard stories of broken axels and the like.
Another issue that is of paramount importance is to use the trailer for its indicated purpose. In the story of the young couple that ended up with two broken axels and a trailer that was way too long to be towed, The first thing that went wrong is that the trailer was inadequate to carry the load of the home down the road. The second thing to go wrong is that they couple assumed they could add more space to their home by building out beyond the end of the trailer, which not only creates a weight balance problem, but creates a problem with the rear end dragging the ground when the trailer was moving across a change in the pitch of the road surface—for example, as soon as the tow truck driver raised the front end of the home to tow, the rear end that extended to far beyond the rear axels, dragged on the roadway. This same thing can occur each time you drive up or down a ramp, a driveway, or any embankment—the height of the trailer to the surface will change temporarily and you can get stuck.
A good rule of thumb is to leave yourself a little “cushion” with the tow capacity of the tow vehicle and leave a little cushion with the weight capacity of your trailer. A tiny mobile home that cannot be moved or a tiny mobile home that has a suspension or axel failure on the roadway is not only extremely costly, but is also an unsafe situation as well.
Well guys, I cannot think of anything else presently. I hope this is helpful. Safe travels and thanks for listening.
Contributors to this piece: myself (Z. Do Little) and every truck driver I have ever encountered in my trucking career
Author’s blog: Tiny House and Me