Buyer’s Guide to Motorcycle Trailers

Created Thursday, March 07, 2013
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By Jeff Cobb

There are many types of trailers with which to transport motorcycles, and likewise, several types that a motorcycle itself can tow. When it comes to picking how best to tow a motorcycle across town or across country, there are dozens of choices to sort through.

A trailer intended to pull a single motorcycle could cost a few hundred dollars for a kit you put together, to over $11,000 for an enclosed carrier with custom paint and options.

Typically motorcycle trailers require a class 1, 2 or 3 hitch. These range from what would be installed on a car or small SUV, to what you’d find on larger SUVs and pick-up trucks.

Under federal law, trailers need operable tail lights, brake lights, side marker lights, turn signals, and side and rear reflectors. Trailers often have backup lights too. Check also with your state for other requirements, or if going out of state, inquire as needed. For example, brakes are often required for a loaded weight of over 1,500 lbs.

According to Nicole Ausdemore, public relations and advertising specialist for Featherlite trailers in Cresco, Iowa, what the trailer is constructed of affects durability, fuel economy and resale value.

While many are made of steel, or alloy/steel combinations, often with fiberglass tops, Featherlite trailers are constructed from strong, light, non-corroding aluminum, except for the highest-stress areas where steel is needed.

Where you mount the motorcycle in relation to the trailer axle(s) makes a difference too.
Positioning weight far forward, for example, over-weights the tongue and the back of the towing vehicle, and can un-weight its front wheels enough to affect handling and braking.

Unbalanced loading or trying to pull too long a trailer for your towing vehicle can also cause “explosive oscillations” leading to a “jackknife” on the highway, according to Ed Heard, co-owner of Ironhorse Trailers in Morrison, Tenn.

And another consideration: think twice before attempting to protect the bike with a tarp or fabric cover on open trailers. The highway wind will cause the flapping cover to chafe the bike’s finish, and the cover may blow or shred off.

Open flatbed trailers

These include general-purpose utility trailers, or ones intended for powersports with added wheel chocks and tie-down points. An advantage of general-purpose trailers is you can use them for hauling anything. Contractors, for example, can use them for work during the week and for play on the weekend.

A downside to open trailers is your bike is not protected from the elements or grit kicked up by your tow vehicle, etc. Some open trailers overcome at least part of this hazard by supplying a frontal barrier.

Open rail-type and other specialized motorcycle trailers

These are often designed for one or two bikes. They are often lighter weight, and like flatbeds, offer little protection from chips or weather, but in some cases, may be less expensive.

Some have rails positioned to accommodate trikes. And some are foldable, or semi-foldable.

If storing it out of the way is of value, you may consider a foldable trailer or one you can disassemble. But before buying, it’s a good idea to check the design for ease of use.

Enclosed trailers

These can be a general cargo trailer, or a trailer modified for powersports, or a “toy hauler,” which is a long trailer with a rear “garage” for loading “toys.”

Toy haulers can have camping amenities like beds, a kitchen, TV, shower, toilet, and whatever else you want to spend for. They may be heavy and need more powerful tow vehicles.

The upside for general cargo or similar designs is the same as for a general-purpose flat bed trailer. You can move lumber or a washing machine as easily as a motorcycle with one of these.

Additionally, there are no problems with precipitation, bugs, and chipping rocks with the bike(s) stored inside, also out of sight from potential thieves.

Many enclosed trailers have square sides, which on open roads with crosswinds or tractor-trailers sweeping past can affect handling. Some have a V-shaped or otherwise shaped nose to help with fuel economy.

Specialized enclosed trailers

A few manufacturers are catering to affluent baby boomers, and those who want special treatment for their bikes, who do not need a trailer for general purpose.

For a trailer capable of holding only one or two bikes, these may cost the most, but offer a few unique features that have let some carve out a market niche.

In the case of the Ironhorse brand and others, a “clamshell” design made of fiberglass gives a low roof height. Heard said his trailers fit inside a standard garage.

More aerodynamic shapes could also allow up to 60 percent improved fuel economy over a comparable square enclosed trailer, and tie-down points and balance of the bike(s) are nearly ideal.

These designs are relatively lightweight, handle well, and are easy to back up.

Swoopy or retro-esque styles are also a selling feature. And if you go all out with custom paint, you can make an especially snappy presentation rolling up to Sturgis, Daytona or another bike rally.

Trailers that motorcycles can pull

According to Andrew Preston, general manager for Bushtec trailers in Jacksboro, Tenn., larger motorcycles also make excellent tow vehicles.

The Bushtec designs use a 360-degree swivel pin coupling instead of a trailer ball that attaches to a special hitch on the bike. They utilize two 16” motorcycle wheels on a unique A-arm suspension with adjustable air shocks that keep the unit smooth and free from bouncing – important for motorcycle applications.

Other brands may use small automotive wheels and a 1 7/8” ball with a swivel coupling.

In many cases, riders report they do not notice the trailer behind them.

Several designs come with one wheel on either side, while some brands like the N-Line or Unigo use single inline wheels.

Some manufacturers have said their designs remain stable at speeds of 130 or 150-plus miles per hour, of course they recommend you obey all speed limits.

Owners of small sports cars may also buy two-wheeled motorcycle trailers, Preston said, because they handle well and add trunk space. 

Two-wheeled trailers usually have higher capacity than single wheel. In fact, Jim Gallihugh, sales manager for Open Road Outfitters in Sterling, Va., said some of his trailers are pop-up campers that “sleep four adults comfortably” with air conditioning.

Other specialty trailers can pull canoes, or in the case of the Wags Pet Trailer produced by Jeff and Carol Wagner in Denver, Iowa, you can haul dog(s) in a specially designed unit that looks like a mini-horse trailer.

Carol said a size small and large is available, and up to two grown Saint Bernards can fit in the larger model. They’ve sold over 100 units in the U.S., 10 in Canada, and two to Europe.

Dog lovers everywhere will be happy to know that as far as Carol knows, none have been in crashes.

Conclusion

Whether you are pulling your motorcycle or using it to pull, you have many options, including degrees of sophistication for suspension. Leaf springs, torsion bars, and rubber suspensions are common depending on trailer brands and types.

Some trailers are manufactured by large operations like Featherlite, which employs about 400 people, and supplies about 85 percent of the competing NASCAR teams with racecar trailers, or by smaller outfits including small fabrication shops.

Many U.S. manufacturers remain successfully in business and a fair number are located in the South, Midwest, and other centralized locations. Shipping costs can be high.

It will pay to do more homework to hone in on the right type of trailer for you.

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