Single vs Dual Axle Travel Trailer – Which is better for you?

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Single vs Dual Axle Travel Trailer

 

Although smaller trailers often lack some of the more extreme features of their larger siblings, today’s compact travel trailers are still packed with options and variety. Shoppers in the current trailer market have no shortage of colors, floorplans, materials, and finishes to choose from. This intense amount of variety can make narrowing down your options an intimidating task. When trying to find the right trailer for you and your family’s camping needs, it is best to start with the basics. If you can determine the general type of trailer you want, then you can gradually narrow down your choices until you find the perfect camper. With this mindset, choosing between a single or double axle trailer is one of the first steps to consider.

Does it Matter?

You may be tempted to think that the number of axles a given trailer has is not important and has little bearing on the usability or function of the trailer. After all, all you need is for the trailer to be able to roll, right? Not exactly. As you’ll see in this summary, whether a trailer has a single or dual axle layout can have substantial impacts on its maneuverability, stability, carrying capacity, and even safety. Here are the main factors to consider:

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Carrying Capacity

Carrying capacity is perhaps the most important consideration when choosing the chassis layout of your trailer. It is unfortunately very common for newcomers to the RV world to assume that manufacturers would build in plenty of additional capacity into every trailer they sell. Sadly, this isn’t the case. To best understand the practical impact of this, we need to first discuss some acronyms.

GVWR, and Payload – What do they mean?

You will undoubtedly hear a lot of terms and acronyms thrown around when looking at any given trailer. Although you may feel your eyes start to glaze over, you need to know the basics to make sure you remain safe. First, the Gross Vehicle Weight Rating”, or GVWR, is the maximum amount that your trailer can weigh and still be safely towed. This means that you should never exceed this weight by overloading your trailer. This consideration is particularly important for smaller trailers because they can often have surprisingly low payloads.

The actual meaning is that the GVWR represents the maximum total weight that a specific unit is capable of safely weighing.

The payload is the amount of “stuff” you can put into your trailer without crossing the Gross Vehicle Weight Rating. This includes your camp chairs, clothes, food, beer, water, and any other accessories you may be inclined to stash on your next outing. To calculate the payload, you subtract the empty trailer weight from the GVWR. This delta is the payload. For small trailers, this number is often under five hundred pounds. Put another way, a mere sixty gallons of water can single-handedly push the limits of your trailer.

Double Axles Almost Always Have Higher Payloads

Every trailer has an “axle rating”, which is the amount of weight one axle can safely support. This number can range anywhere from two to nine thousand pounds, but four thousand is a fairly common standard for a small camper. Logically enough, double the axles mean double the payload, as two four-thousand-pound axles will be able to safely support up to eight thousand pounds.

Are You a Light Packer? Be Honest

Before you purchase a trailer, it is important to be honest about how you are likely to use it. If you intend to use your new camper for the occasional weekend getaway, you might not need to put serious consideration into the payload of your camper. However, if you often load down your trailer with bikes and enough gear for weeks, then you should spend some time calculating your payload limits.

Further, full-time RVing and extended boondocking are becoming increasingly common. With the desire to stay out for longer comes the desire to have more water, food, and backup batteries. All of these things have one aspect in common: they’re heavy. This issue is compounded even more by toy hauler trailers. I’ve seen several new models of single axle toy haulers on the market. Personally, I find this to be a dangerous trend. What is the point of a toy hauler that can only safely haul five hundred extra pounds?

In summary, if you want to put a little less thought into limiting your load, opt for a dual axle trailer.

Maneuverability

Maneuverability

Having discussed the increased payload capacity of a dual axle trailer, it’s worth spending some time considering a potential downside of dual-axle setups: maneuverability. Having an additional axle increases the force required to rotate a trailer and causes it to have a longer pivot distance. Thus, when reversing into tight parking spots or campsites, a dual axle trailer can often be more challenging to navigate. Yet, like most aspects of trailer design, the truth isn’t quite that simple.

It’s a Matter of Preference

Although single axle trailers are easier to back up on paper, not everyone necessarily agrees with this assessment. Single axle trailers rotate more easily, which is a blessing and a curse. If you need to make an extremely sharp turn into a space, then a single axle will do so more readily. However, this willingness to turn also makes them easier to jack-knife, which can create a frustrating or even damaging situation rather quickly.

Ultimately, Skill Trumps Design

You’ll hear a lot of emphasis put on the maneuverability differences of single and double axle trailers, and there is certainly some truth to these allegations. That said, the practical impact of these differences is likely to be quite small. If you are debating between a single or a double axle trailer, you undoubtedly have a fairly small trailer in mind. Further, you are probably intending to tow this trailer with a fairly compact tow vehicle. In short, any sub-20-foot trailer is going to be fairly trivial to maneuver with a compact truck or SUV regardless of how many axles it has. There may be a slight difference initially, but once you gain the experience and confidence to handle your rig in tight spaces, you’ll never notice the difference. All else being equal, the factor of maneuverability shouldn’t sway your decision.

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Stability and Handling

Speaking of sway, stability is a significant factor in trailer design. Dual axle trailers not only have more contact patches with the road, but they have more lateral grip resisting pivoting. The same thing that makes single axle trailers easier to back is also what makes them less stable when towed at speed. How much consideration should you give this factor? Well, it depends.

What is Your Tow Vehicle?

If you are towing with a particularly compact tow vehicle like a car or small SUV, you may want to consider focusing on a dual axle trailer. At first, this might seem counter-intuitive. After all, a dual axle trailer will have more weight, drag, and often length. So why would you want a dual axle trailer for a small tow vehicle? Stability.

Single axle trailers are more prone to bouncing, swaying, and being jostled by the wind. If you’re towing a 2,000-pound Scamp behind your family’s Suburban, you’re probably not going to notice some moderate sway from your trailer. However, if you are towing towards the upper limits of a compact SUV or truck, trailer instability can become a problem quickly. If the trailer is relatively heavy compared to the tow vehicle, it is more likely for the “tail to wag the dog.” When the trailer has enough mass to affect the tow vehicle, sway can amplify and become dangerous quickly.

If lightweight travel trailers are what you’re looking for, read this guide

How Far are You Towing?

Another consideration regarding towing dynamics is how far, and how fast, you plan to tow your trailer. If your trailer is primarily used for an occasional 20-mile round trip to the local lake, then towing dynamics likely don’t matter very much. Further, these types of trips are likely to be done at much lower speeds. A rig that is a handful at 70 miles per hour may very well be perfectly relaxing on a 55 MPH back road.

Yet, if you plan to tow your trailer long distances down the great highways and byways of America, you will come to appreciate the stability of a dual axle model. One of the worst things you can tell yourself when it comes to trailer shopping is “oh, I can put up with a badly towing trailer occasionally.” Not only is this philosophy unsafe, but it makes you less likely to use your camper as much as possible. The entire point of an RV is right in the name: recreation. If it’s miserable to drive, you’ll start looking for excuses to leave it parked.

Weight

Weight

Many unscrupulous salespeople will recommend single axle trailers because they generally weigh less. At first glance, this makes it seem like a single axle trailer is easier to tow using a smaller or less capable tow vehicle. However, as we just discussed, this isn’t normally the case. Given the stability advantages of a dual axle arrangement, the difference in weight is likely not going to provide enough of a difference to prove advantageous. Yet, there are instances where weight may still make a difference.

Fuel Economy

While the lighter weight of a single axle trailer doesn’t normally pose a significant advantage for smaller tow vehicles, it can provide a small fuel economy advantage in certain situations. If you are towing with a relatively capable tow vehicle and are concerned about holding out that last drop of fuel, then the lower weight and drag of a single axle trailer may be worth considering. Further, single axle trailers tend to be smaller overall, which reduces their aerodynamic drag as well, extending the fuel economy advantages even more.

Pushability

Another place where the lightweight nature of a single axle trailer can shine is pushability. Now, before you write to our editors to explain that trailers are meant to be pulled rather than pushed, realize that I’m referring to pushing quite literally: by hand.

I have several friends that store their trailers in very tight side yards or at the back of their workshops. In these tight quarters, backing a trailer using a tow vehicle isn’t practical. Thus, the standard practice is to tow the trailer near the spot, unhook it, and simply push it to where it is stored. When you’re lugging a trailer by hand, even a small advantage in terms of weight or drag can make a difference, so single axles get the nod of approval in these special circumstances.

Consider the Importance of Loading

On the topic of weight, weight distribution is an important factor to consider when debating between a single or double axle arrangement. We’ve already discussed payload, and how a dual axle trailer will generally have a higher carrying capacity. But the sheer amount of weight isn’t the only consideration. Rather, you also need to think about where the weight is. A single axle trailer is effectively a see-saw, so front-to-back weight distribution can have a large effect on how the trailer handles. Removing too much hitch weight from a single axle trailer can significantly worsen the stability issues, so most single axle trailers should be loaded primarily in the front. Depending on the floor plan, this can have a detrimental impact on the amount of usable storage the trailer contains. Although the question of weight distribution is still a factor in all trailers regardless of configuration, the concern is much greater when only two wheels are on the ground.

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Tire Safety

In many ways, we’ve already discussed the aspect of safety. The more stable and easy to load a trailer is, the safer it will tend to be. However, there is another factor that can tilt the scales even further in favor of dual axles designs. Tire blowouts can be particularly dangerous in a single axle trailer because the entirety of the trailer’s support is eliminated. While a dual axle design will still lose some stability if a tire goes down, the impact will be much greater for a single axle trailer. Normally, having a tire blow is not a catastrophe. Further, if you insist on buying high-quality trailer tires and keeping them maintained and properly inflated, this is hopefully not an issue you will ever need to consider. Yet, if you do a lot of high-speed towing and demand the ultimate in safety, a dual axle trailer will have the edge.

Cost

Whether we admit it or not, cost is almost always a factor in our purchasing decisions. A camper is sure to be a fairly significant expense in your life, so saving a few pennies here and there is a welcome feat. In this light, a single axle trailer will normally shine. The frame and suspension of a single axle trailer are cheaper to manufacture, and buying one axle is obviously cheaper than two. Thus, the sticker price of a single axle trailer will almost always be cheaper than a comparable dual axle model.

However, the savings go beyond just the initial purchase. A single axle trailer will have less maintenance cost across its lifespan. With half as many tires, brakes, and wheel bearings to maintain, your running costs will normally be lower. And as we mentioned before, fuel economy is often better for a single axle model. Thus, if keeping your camping expenses to a minimum is a high priority, a single axle trailer is worth considering.

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Aesthetics

This may seem like an odd inclusion. After all, we’re primarily talking about towing dynamics, payload capacity, and durability. But looks? Well, no one can blame us for caring at least a little about appearances. Thinking back to the classic trailers of the 50s and 60s, they were almost universally single axle models. Shastas, Scottys, Boles Aeros, and of course Airstreams were all primarily known for their compact single axle trailers. They’re adorable, and for the most part functional as well. If you’re going for a classic look or simply like the “cute” aesthetic of a single axle trailer, then that is a perfectly valid reason to steer your decision.

Camping Comfort

Camping Comfort

This is a niche consideration, but it is one that I’ve heard mentioned numerous times. Many RV dwellers are very particular about how stable their camper is when parked. This concern is understandable. Having your entire trailer move around when you walk in it gets annoying quickly. Even high winds can jostle a trailer, and make sleeping or relaxing a challenge. Overall, a dual axle trailer will exhibit much more stability when camping (or “Glamping“).

To some extent, this can be mitigated using leveling jacks and stabilizers. Thus, depending on how much you are willing to invest in high-quality stabilizers, this may not be a major consideration. However, I have personally found that removing that last bit of rocking from a single axle trailer can be a chore, to say the least. Does stable footing mean a lot to you? Get a dual axle trailer.

So, Should You Avoid Single Axle Trailers Altogether?

You may have noticed that this article has been more than a little skewed towards promoting dual axle/tandem axle trailers.

Frankly, there are a lot of reasons to prefer them. Safety, stability, and capacity are just a few of the reasons why dual axle trailers are technically better. With this myriad of factors, you might begin to think that you’re obligated to forego the single axle options entirely. This need not be the case.

We all use campers differently. For some people, a camper is the key to exploring a nearby state park or enjoying the scenery at a local lake. If you are taking relatively short trips and aren’t expecting to load down your camper with every camping accessory from the nearest Camping World, then a single axle trailer will provide you with years of excellent use without issues.

However, if you are more inclined to take long trips or haul heavy loads, then a dual axle trailer will provide you with a safer and less stressful experience. This factor becomes doubly true when we talk about hauling any motorized toys. As I touched on before, I have seen several single axle toy haulers come to market. To me, this is fairly irresponsible on the part of the manufacturer. A UTV or ATV can easily weigh over a half-ton, and many dirt bikes aren’t exactly light either. Many larger motorcycles carry similar heft. Even if you aren’t dealing with a traditional toy hauler, many campers opt for hitch-mount carriers for bicycles or dirt bikes. Once you get into the realm of hauling this amount of weight, the safety concerns of a single axle trailer begin to rear their head.

As with most things, it is a matter of honest assessment and judgment. Every trailer has its purpose, and if you make sure to use the right trailer for the job, you shouldn’t have any concerns.

Conclusion

Ultimately, the debate of single vs dual axle travel trailer doesn’t have a simple conclusion. They make travel trailers in all shapes and sizes because people use their campers differently and have differing needs, priorities, and preferences. It is impossible to say if a single factor outweighs another in your list of shopping priorities. However, the old adage is still true. Knowledge is power. By understanding the different advantages and disadvantages of different trailer designs, you put yourself in the best position to make a decision that suits you the best. Whether you choose a single or a double axle trailer, just remember the most important thing: to get out there and have fun!

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