Tiny House Moving Tips from a Professional Driver

A pickup truck and tiny home on a trailer respond on the roadway nearly the same as a commercial truck and trailer combination.

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Typically, a big truck and commercial trailer have an overall length ranging from 40 feet up to 70 feet.

A tiny house on a trailer combined with a pick up truck can range from 30 feet up to 45 feet or longer, give or take.

In both cases, usually the vehicle combinations have a height from road to the tip top of 13 feet and 6 inches–with a width of 8 feet and 6 inches.

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commercial truck and trailer weigh around 15,000# up to 80,000#, compared to a pick up truck and tiny home on a trailer, which weigh around 10,000# up to 25,000#.

A bit of a difference–but in both instances, there is substantial weight being moved on the road. Both require special consideration.

So, here I will share what I have learned about hauling trailers on roadways across the U.S. and Canada and hopefully you can benefit from these tips when moving your tiny house. 🙂

CHECK THE ROUTE FIRST

Know the route you are taking. Before going, check for low bridges and 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 gravel or dirt farm lanes. 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.

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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 along with your equipment and tiny house on a trailer. Most commercial motor carriers’ atlases have a section in the front, categorized by state, that provides a list of low bridges, weight restrictions, and other details about roads.

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.

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OBSTACLES ABOVE AND BELOW YOUR VEHICLE/TINY HOME WHILE IN TRANSIT

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.  Every turn you make, every entrance and exit ramp you traverse, every driveway, each road surface–all alter the angle and clearance between the underside of your trailer and the surface you are 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 that are protruding out from the sides of buildings and above that you might not notice. Watch out for  utility poles, power lines, cable lines, and the like.  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 out of your peripheral vision that you don’t notice and you might drive right into when you think you are clearing the side of a building, for example.

Always pay attention to your clearances from both sides, from above, and from below. 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. When you are traveling at speeds of 15mph, 35mph, or 65mph, even a seemingly small, soft tree branch can cause serious damage to your home.

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Depending on the length of your home, the length of your tow vehicle, the width between 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 RESTRICTIONS

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Don’t be a can of 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 in older towns all over the country and in rural areas throughout the Midwest and many far-flung, less populated parts of the country.  Let’s face it, there are old bridges all over this country.  You never know where an impassable road, bridge, or overpass might be lurking. So, beware of low clearances and be aware of bridges that have weight limitations. I have seen bridges rated for as low as 10,000#.

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RAILROAD TRACKS

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”.  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 enjoying a spontaneous 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 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. In the commercial hauling industry, trailers tend to sit pretty high off the roadway (on average, about three feet above the pavement) and even commercial trailers get stuck on these railroad crossing humps frequently. Imagine how easily a low-riding trailer (such as a tiny house trailer that might only sit 18 or 20 inches above the roadway)–can get stuck on a set of railroad tracks.

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If you get stuck on a set of railroad tracks, there is recourse. Each railroad crossing has a call box that that can be used to contact the authorities so that a train conductor can be informed immediately. Also you can simply call the police and they will immediately contact the train conductor and stop the train.

Some railroad crossings can be avoided by looking on a map and re-routing the trip to avoid railroad crossings altogether by taking a road or highway that overpasses the tracks. Whether looking at an atlas or GPS, you can identify railroad tracks as continuous lines with perpendicular or cross shaped images on them. Of course there are thousands of new, well-designed railroad tracks that are easily passable also.

MAKING TURNS

When hauling a trailer and tiny home, making wide turns might seem obvious. 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, and road signs by not remembering to take into account the swing of the portion of their trailer that extends beyond their rear axels.

Even though a tiny home may be 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. One way to ensure it does not hit anything, again, is to give yourself a wider berth and simply make sure there is not another motorist 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 or motorist 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.

BACKING UP

Good luck!  (Lol)  You know the drill. When backing, turn the steering wheel in the opposite direction that you want to go.  Mastering backing is just a matter of practice.

AVOIDING TIP-OVERS: VERY IMPORTANT

Turning too short and clipping a curb—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. Physics and gravity, working against us. By their nature (lofted tiny homes especially), tiny houses 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 because they destabilize the balance of weight on a trailer. When necessary to haul a top-heavy load, it is important to be aware of 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. The equipment will lean and we don’t want it to tip over.

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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 on its side in a city on a road with stepped-up concrete medians and you wondered how that happened. In the industry, this is called “load shift”. Simply put, the equipment’s center of gravity has been compromised and once the trailer starts leaning to the left or right, it pulls the entire assembly down, truck, trailer, and all. 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. Tiny homes are lower to the ground than a commercial trailer, but are usually the same height as a commercial trailer.  Tiny homes are not as well balanced as a commercial trailer and do not possess the same level of anchoring as a commercial trailer does–these freight boxes sit upon heavy gauge steel cross members.

Tiny homes are usually tall and narrow, comparatively and are relatively top heavy.  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–compact and well-balanced, meaning that the weight of the load usually has a low center of gravity which helps the trailer stay upright when moving on un-level 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 often unevenly, with much vacuous space in the center, uneven weight distribution from side to side, and maybe with more weight in the back than in the front. It is an excellent plan when designing your tiny house to keep more weight towards the front then you have in the rear and also to try and balance your weight from side to side and to avoid alot of weight up high.

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, 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, 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, tall, and heavy and that require careful consideration to move safely and arrive in tact. 🙂

ROAD SURFACE, PARKING SURFACE, WEATHER, TOW VEHICLE, TRAILER, and A SHORT STORY

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 have experienced how these elements can impact your ability to move and park and move again your truck/van and tiny home/trailer.

Wet, icy, snow-covered, graveled, and muddy surfaces will trip you up. Again, no one wants to pay for a costly tow, or at worst, a crane—to get out of an unwanted situation. Weather–when in doubt, wait it out. Surface conditions can dramatically change from hour to hour, from day to day, and from season to season. I would plan on hauling a tiny home during optimal weather and via an optimal route. 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 truck that can barely pull your house, you probably are not going to make it up a hill or be able to pull your trailer and home out of soft ground, out of a muddy situation, or through ice and snow. Weight capacity and viability of the actual trailer is so important to take into account from the beginning of the build. Again, simple physics and gravity working against us here. If you are at maximum weight capacity for your trailer and/or you are at maximum tow capacity for your tow vehicle, the likelihood something is going to go wrong in transit, even if you are only traveling 60 miles, is greatly increased.

We witnessed a stressful story a while back of a young couple whose tiny house trailer broke both axels while in transit, stranding the couple on the side of the highway. The tiny house could not be towed to a shop because the couple built a section out beyond the end of the trailer. When the tow truck driver tried to hook the home up to his tow vehicle, the tail end of the tiny home met the pavement and was dragging on the road.  It could not be moved. So, they incurred a very costly on-sight repair via mobile mechanic 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 remove a tiny mobile home that is built onto a broken, immoveable trailer and is over the height limit to haul away on a flatbed wrecker.

This is an important consideration. Because most tiny homes are built at the height limit for legal travel on roadways which is 13 feet 6 inches (in most states), if something goes wrong with the trailer in transit and a person needs to have the tiny home hauled away on a flatbed wrecker, it is illegal to do so and most tow companies will not accomodate.  Putting a tiny home up onto a flatbed wrecker increases the height by about three or four feet, which is not a legal height for road travel.

I have never heard of a tiny house on a broken trailer being towed behind a tow truck and I am not certain that this is something that can be accomplished if the tiny home has a broken axle or some other structural trailer failure.  A tiny house on a trailer is very different from a car when it comes to towability. Something to keep in mind. It is always good to have a backup plan such as extra mounted tires or perhaps emergency savings to cover a break down on the road. Mobile mechanics are much more expensive than simply going into a shop somewhere with your equipment.

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 avoid situations where the surface you are traversing will be soft and muddy.

Also, make sure that your parking 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 or concrete footers. The home will settle over time and will sink, making it difficult to move in the future.

TRAILER SMARTS

Here is something I have seen quite frequently: novice trailer builders that may or may not weld trailers to specs, might not position axels in the proper location, and might not ensure proper weight rating for mobility on the road without incident.

Another trailer safety isssue that I have seen often is salvage RV and mobile home chasses being converted into trailers for building tiny houses.  It is true that an experienced welder can beef up a salvage chassis by adding angle iron or another axle. However, a salvage chassis may not be in good enough shape and may not have an original weight capacity rating that can withstand the gross weight of a tiny house build.  A person who possesses a lot of welding experience does not necessarily have the ability to convert a salvage chassis into a functional, viable tiny house trailer that can stand the test of time or that can handle the stresses of road travel.

It is 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 nationally recognized safety standard. Or perhaps obtain a used trailer that was built by a well-known and highly-regarded trailer manufacturer. We have all heard stories of broken axles and the like. The tiny house trailer must be the most important component of any tiny home.

It is of paramount importance to use the trailer for its indicated purpose. In the story of the young couple that ended up with two broken axels, the first thing that went wrong is that the trailer was inadequate to carry the weight of the home in transit. The second thing to go wrong was that the couple assumed they could add more space to their home by building out beyond the end of the trailer, which not only created a weight imbalance, but caused the rear end to drag on the ground–as soon as the tow truck driver raised the front end of the home to tow it, the rear end that extended too far beyond the rear axels, dragged on the roadway.

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. Use a tow vehicle that can pull a little more weight than the final gross weight of your tiny house  and start with a trailer that can hold a little more weight than your “projected” final gross weight of your tiny house. If you do this, you really cannot go wrong. 🙂

HAPPY TRAILS…

As I recall all the videos I’ve seen of people hauling tiny houses and the stories I have read, I notice a common theme.  People are often trepidatious at the prospect of hauling their tiny homes. Hauling a tiny house intimidates me as well. These tiny houses are born from our imaginations and when we get ready to haul them down the road, we don’t know what to expect.  There is not a smiling salesman handing us the keys and reassuring us that our homes will travel down the road safely–not usually, anyway. We are kind of on our own out here. The task of moving a tiny house should give us pause.

So–be safe, have a backup plan, and tiny on.   🙂

Heidi Dotson: writer transitioning to tiny house living

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