What Is A Flat Tow & How Does It Work?

Doing a flat tow, or flat towing, is a way to pull along a vehicle such that all four of its wheels are on the ground. Flat towing is also called dinghy towing, neutral towing, or four-wheel towing, among other names.

It’s a popular way to pull cars or four wheel drive vehicles behind large trucks or motorhomes. To do a flat tow, you only need a smaller set of equipment to hitch another car to your vehicle or RV. The time and effort needed to set up a flat tow are also minimal compared to the other towing methods.

A flat tow is a relatively simple system for towing a vehicle since you do not need to buy or set up trailers or dollies. Most of what you will need to do a flat tow are covered by a flat tow kit, assuming you have a vehicle that can be safely flat towed.

Flat towing is one of the three basic ways of towing vehicles, the other two being trailer towing and tow dolly towing. As one of several ways to bring another vehicle with you on a trip, flat towing offers some significant advantages. Of course, there are a few drawbacks to this method as well, to the extent that trailer and dolly towing are actually the more popular options when it comes to towing a vehicle.

What Are the Advantages of Flat Towing?

As you try to decide whether a flat tow is the best way for your vehicles, it’s good to get to know the advantages of this method. Flat towing may or may not be the best choice for your vehicles or the nature of your trip – it’s important to know when a flat tow is the ideal method for your case, or if you might need to consider other ways to bring your vehicle over to your destination.

One huge advantage of flat towing is that once you have set it up, it’s simply the fastest way to connect and disconnect the vehicle being towed. To start towing, you only need to position the vehicle behind your truck or RV, set up the coupling, and you’re ready to go – no need to put up two wheels or the entire vehicle off the ground.

And when you get to your destination, you only need to decouple the towed vehicle and it’s ready to drive since all four wheels are already on the ground.

The convenience of flat towing is certainly a huge factor to consider it, especially if you have planned out a trip that involves a lot of stops where you need to drive the towed vehicle. Doing a flat tow is a popular choice for drivers that are bringing along an off-road vehicle for several trails.

Flat towing a normal road vehicle is also a common practice for many motorhome and RV owners since the vehicle ends up being extremely useful for short trips to town or for running errands where a motorhome can be inconvenient to drive around. In these situations, the speed with which you can hitch and unhitch a normal vehicle and drive it around can be a huge asset to have.

Another reason to consider flat towing is for the significant space savings you can have compared to using trailer beds or towing dollies.

If you decide to go for flat towing, then all the extra gear you may need to keep around are likely limited to a tow bar, a few links, plus the tools and vehicle accessories you need to use them. Everything you need to do a flat tow will fit in a small corner of your garage, which makes this method an appealing one if storage space is an issue.

Since the set of gear you need to do a flat tow is so compact compared to the other methods, you also get better fuel mileage out of your setup. There’s simply less weight you need to pull along if you go for flat towing, compared to using trailers and towing dollies.

One additional reason in favor of flat towing over two-wheeled towing is that your tires will wear out more evenly since all four of them are on the road.

What Are the Disadvantages of Flat Towing?

The biggest downside of this method is the fact that you can’t safely flat tow just about any vehicle. Some vehicles are simply not meant to be flat towed.

Most of the time, flat towing is also not an option for recovering disabled vehicles – your car needs to be road-worthy for the most part if you’re planning to flat tow it. You have a better chance of towing a disabled vehicle using a dolly, and a trailer bed can recover even wrecked vehicles. The same simply can’t be said for flat towing.

Another major drawback to flat towing is the changes you need to make to your vehicle. You need to install the appropriate gear to your vehicle before you can flat tow it.

This may be a one-time procedure, but depending on the modifications you need to make, this can end up costing you more compared to buying a dolly or an entire trailer bed. Depending on the type and make of your vehicle, you may need to make changes to its bumper, front frame, brakes, driveshaft and more.

While the time savings that a flat tow setup can give you will quickly add up in the long run, there’s a significant time investment you need to put in for each vehicle you want to tow this way. In contrast, a trailer bed will get you ready to tow any number of vehicles as long as each of them fits.

Another important thing to consider when deciding to go for flat towing is the fact that the vehicle being towed undergoes wear and tear as you pull it along. Flat towing will wear out your tires, that’s a given, and it will also add miles to your suspension. And if you choose to tow your vehicle by simply setting it to neutral, then you have to take into account the wear and tear this adds to your transmission.

One way to avoid excessive wear to your transmission and your engine is to unlink the drive shaft first before you tow your vehicle. While this method certainly does a great job of preventing additional wear to your transmission, this negates one of the biggest advantages of flat towing: the convenience of being able to drive as soon as you decouple your vehicle.

To address this, some manufacturers have begun to offer aftermarket drive shaft couplings that you can conveniently disconnect with the pull of a lover. Some drivers also opt to install an additional component that continuously lubricates the drive shaft and transmission, and these can also drastically cut down on wear and tear during long trips.

What Is A Flat Tow Kit?

A flat tow kit is a set that has most, if not all, of the hardware components you will need to flat tow a vehicle. By getting all your towing gear in the form of a kit, you can be reasonably sure that all your hardware will work well together. Plus, this way you are also sure that you have everything you need to safely and legally do a flat tow.

At the minimum, your flat tow kit will have five basic sets of hardware. There is your tow bar, which securely links the two vehicles together. To install this tow bar, a kit should also have a base plate kit that perfectly fits the vehicle you plan to tow.

The base plate is usually tailor-fit for specific vehicle models since they need to perfectly fit the vehicle frame in order to evenly distribute the forces exerted by the tow bar. The tow bar arms go into the attachment points provided by the base plate kit, so the two components need to be compatible with each other, as well.

Safety cables serve as a backup link between the two vehicles in case the tow bar somehow gets detached or breaks. They are mandatory for any tow bar setup in many regions, and you can get in trouble with the law if you don’t have them properly set up. The safety cables link the base plate arms with the hitch of the towing vehicle, providing a redundant link between the two vehicles in case of emergency.

A flat tow kit will also have the tow bar wiring that you will need to set up a set of tail lights on the vehicle being towed. Finally, many kits will also include supplemental braking systems that work with the braking system of the towing vehicle, which helps smooth out the braking forces experienced by both vehicles.

What Cars Can You Flat Tow?

Cars, unlike trailers, are not designed to be pulled along. Whether your car can be safely flat towed depends on its model and manufacturer – there is no hard and fast rule that you can apply to determine which vehicles are suitable for flat towing.

Every car model has its own specific transmission and lubrication system, and these determine whether they are safe to tow on their own four wheels. As always, it’s a good idea to check with your owner’s manual on whether your car can be flat towed at all.

Generally speaking, a rear wheel drive car with manual transmission is likely to be a good candidate for flat towing, without additional modifications. 

Some vehicles require lubrication pumps to keep the drive shaft lubricate and safely operating. Flat towing a vehicle means pulling it with the engine off, and these pumps will also be unable to function. Without adequate drive shaft lubrication, flat towing a car can result in transmission damage.

A few vehicles also have steering locks that keep the front wheels from turning when the engine is not turned on. Again, these cars cannot be flat towed.

Finally, a car that cannot roll on the road on four wheels cannot be flat towed. That means that cars with severe tire, axle or suspension issues probably cannot be flat towed – which rules out this method for recovering vehicles that have suffered severe damage to these components.

What Do You Need to Flat Tow a Car?

First, you need a baseplate that’s compatible with the car that you plan to tow. If you’re lucky, you may be able to find a baseplate that’s perfectly matched for the model of your vehicle – if you cannot, you may need to find a baseplate adapter.

Installing these baseplates may require some downtime for your car, since some of them may require a few modifications to the bumper, grille or the front fascia.

Once you have the baseplate set up, then you can now attach the car to a tow bar. Most tow bars will attach to your baseplate via two arms, with the other end hitching up to the tow vehicle using a receiver mount or some form of coupling system. Some tow bars will have telescoping arms and pivot joints to help you hook up the two vehicles even on uneven ground.

A legal flat tow setup will likely require a set of safety cables. These ensure that the vehicles stay coupled together even if the tow bar setup somehow comes loose or breaks down.

You will also need an additional tail light system you can put on the vehicle being towed, and these will have to work in conjunction with the tail lights of the tow vehicle. To run these lighting systems, you will also need tow bar wiring as well.

Supplemental braking systems are also required by law in many areas, and even if they are not, having a brake system is always a good idea in every towing setup.

These braking systems work in sync with the brakes of the towing vehicle, and they greatly reduce the stopping distance of your towing setup. They also smooth out braking which tremendously helps to keep your setup responsive, while also helping minimize wear on your vehicles and towing hardware.

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