This is a short lesson in hitch safety that we discovered the hard way. After more than 20 months of traveling, we got a serious scare in August of 2017 when going through the routine motions of setting up our trailer.
A brief summary of un-hitching an Airstream
To set the stage, I should explain the basics of the process we go through when un-hitching at a new site.
- Maneuver the trailer into the site for optimal placement
- Check the level of the trailer side-to-side
- If needed put leveling blocks under the wheels of the low side to level the trailer (you drive the trailer up onto the blocks)
- Put wheel chocks on the trailer to stabilize it (usually on the wheels that are not on the blocks)
- Put a stabilizing block under the power jack at the front of the trailer and lower the jack onto it.
- Detach the safety chains, emergency brake controller, and power coupling from the truck.
- Use the power jack to lift the trailer up to lower tension on the sway bars on the hitch
- Release the sway bars
- Lower the hitch just to where it rests on the hitch ball
- Unlock the hitch ball
- Raise the trailer with the power jack until the hitch comes free of the ball
- Drive the truck forward
- Use the power jack to level the trailer end to end
- Put down the trailer stabilizer arms to keep it from moving around while occupied.
What happened to us
Things were going according to the usual plan. We found our site to be a little-sloped side to side, so Trail and I worked together to get some leveling blocks under the starboard wheels. We also had a bit of a slope running from front to back on this site, though nothing too unusual. We had our wheel chocks in place. Trail had gone to work on hooking up power and water while I took care of removing the hitch.
I’d gotten to the step where I raise the trailer to get the hitch free of the hitch ball. As sometimes happens, the ball was a little stuck and came free of the hitch with a bit of a jerk. It’s hard to know when this will happen due to some tension between the truck and the trailer. Normally it is a non-event. This time it was not! Suddenly, and in that special kind of slow motion of impending disasters, I saw the foot of the jack ram start to slide on the levelers we normally put under it for stability.
I swore as I watched my whole house start to move out of my control. Trail was about to hook up the water to the tank as the trailer started to inexplicably retreat away from her. With a sickening feeling, I watched the jack piston slide off the block and crash to the ground, digging into the gravel and dragging the movement of the trailer to a halt. It had only “fallen” about 5 inches but it weighs around nine-thousand pounds so I was terrified that the jack might collapse and cause further destruction. Thankfully, for a tense moment, nothing happened and I let out my breath as Trail came running to see what happened.
Regaining our senses we, surveyed the situation. First, we checked to see if the jack would still work. Happily, it did. This meant we could get the trailer back on the hitch and have another go at getting it situated. Before that happened we wanted to try and sort out why it had happened.
My first thought was we’d forgotten to put the wheel chocks on, but a quick check confirmed we had. And looking at the rear chock, it was well dug into the gravel of the pad indicating it had done its job in keeping that wheel pretty much in place. What happened instead is that the trailer had pivoted on that wheel, and the wheels on the leveling blocks had rolled off of them and down the slope towards the rear of the trailer.
Investigating further, I saw that there was a lot of grease on the top leveling block we had under the jack foot. They often get a fair bit dirty but this had quite a substantial amount of grease on it. It was no wonder the jack foot had slid across it when the trailer started pulling back and to the starboard. But how had the grease gotten there?
We put it there of course, though not on purpose. Each time we hitch up our trailer, Trail takes a spray lubricant and sprays the jack shaft. We hadn’t always done this, but after having had some trouble with the Jack not working, we started to try and keep it well lubricated to protect the motor. What we hadn’t considered, was that this lubricant was flowing down the shaft, and then around and under the foot, slowly building up greasy sludge on the bottom of it. In hindsight, we should have anticipated this, but we’ve been doing it for months without any issues so we took it for granted.
Piecing it all together: The tension on the truck due to the slope caused the ball to stick, and on releasing it jerked the trailer. The wheels on the leveling blocks were stacked such that in moving only a little, they started to roll down the slope of the stacked blocks (think of them like a stepped pyramid). This turned the jerk into a pivoting roll. The slick grease under the jack foot kept it from holding onto the leveling block it rested on. Only when the wheels were off the leveling blocks and the jack foot ground into the gravel was there enough force to stop the trailer’s movement.
We identified two things we needed to do differently going forward. Firstly, we needed to clean off the bottom of the jack foot after finish hitching up our trailer. This would ensure it was clean of grease before we un-hitch at the next stop. Secondly, we needed to better secure the wheels we put up on leveling blocks so they could not easily roll off of them.
We decided to hit up our local Camping World store to find a solution to the leveling block challenge. Normally we mail order most of our supplies but we wanted to get this sorted out ASAP and only had two nights at this site. At the store, we weighed two different options: Internal wheel chocks which lock the wheels above the ground or a new set of leveling blocks that had integrated wheel chocks. The wheel chocks had the added benefit of offering trailer security, as they can be locked in place with a padlock. On the down side, they looked a bit cumbersome. We’d already been considering buying more leveling blocks because we sometimes come close to running out, so that argued in favor of that option. Price wise, the two options were the same.
We ended up choosing the new leveling blocks with integrated chocks. I think both options could work for us, but getting new blocks would allow us to get rid of the old ones that had been damaged over time and still have plenty for leveling. We also picked up some dense rubber leveling pads that we felt would offer superior grip and stability on gravel to put under the jack plate and stabilizers.
Hopefully, we won’t have any more excitement of this kind going forward.