Story By Steve Temple
There’s an old saying that half of life is just showing up. For off-road enthusiasts, that first means towing your toy-hauler or 4×4 to a trailhead. That’s when the party can really start. So the unsung hero of any excursion is often the more mundane act of trailering. Even though it’s probably not what you would call the fun part of off-road actvity, learning about the proper towing stability products, and how they work is essential.
To provide you with some practical knowledge, we visited Hellwig Products, a company that not only offers all sorts of products to make towing safer and easier, but also has decades of firsthand experience with towing. When it comes to unwanted motion when hauling trailers, Hellwig is a veteran in the field, and has offered a variety of suspension upgrades to stabilize the tow vehicle since 1946.
Company president Mark Hellwig is an avid RV enthusiast and regularly takes his extended family and large trailers and campers to all sorts of rugged destinations for off-road outings. This passion goes back through generations of the Hellwig family. Decades of experience have been mixed with hard science to create the products that Hellwig offers today.
Level And Controlled
One of the initial challenges faced by the company was dealing with excessive weight on a truck’s hitch. This burden creates an uneven ride height. “A loaded vehicle squats in the rear, transferring load from the front end,” Mark explains. “The steering gets floaty.”
To offset that problem, “helper springs increase the spring rate [stiffness] for more stability,” he points out, “by returning the suspension to level, it improves the steering.”
It’s important to note, however, that helper springs do not allow you to exceed the gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) of your truck. “We used to call them ‘overload springs’, but bad things can happen when you overload the suspension.” He advises to first look at the sticker on the door jamb to determine the GVWR, and as general advice, “Don’t overload or even get too close to that number.”
In general, factory springs vary in both the number of leaves and thicknesses, since every company prefers different setups. For simplicity, Hellwig sticks with two basic types: both are .360 inches thick, one 2.5 inches wide, and the other 3.0 inches.
“We use the same heat-treating process as used on our sway bars,” Mark notes. “They are heated, formed and quenched in a tempering oil, and then inspected for dimensional accuracy and powdercoated.” He also points out that one big advantage of helper springs is their ease of use. “You just set it and forget it, there’s no tinkering.”
According to Hellwig, these springs are simple to install, require little maintenance, and help to stabilize a trailer when using fifth-wheel and conventional hitches. When installed correctly, helper springs can increase stability and extend the life of other suspension components, since they are under less stress.
Keep in mind that helper springs alone might not be enough, as they work better in concert with a set of high-quality shock absorbers; and they also will result in a moderate to firm ride when the truck is empty.
While helper springs are an important market for Hellwig, anti-sway bars make up the majority (65 percent) of product sold for pickups, in part because newer trucks have better payload and towing capacity.
Most factory sway bars are a compromise … – Mark Hellwig, President, Hellwig Products
As the term implies, an anti-sway bar increases ride comfort and vehicle handling by working to limit body roll. In its most basic form, an anti-sway bar is a metal U-shaped device attached to both the frame and the axle (or suspension arms depending on the vehicle) on each side. As the body and frame are forced to roll during a turn, it twists the anti-sway bar (which acts as a spring), creating a torsional force resisting the lean.
The problem is, Mark asserts, “Most factory sway bars are a compromise.” He adds, “They’re not designed to handle a top-heavy vehicle, such as a pickup with a camper. Side winds, or air compression when passing a large truck, can also affect stability.”
To improve vehicle stability, Hellwig offers thicker anti-sway bars that increase the deflection rate by anywhere from 15 to 40 percent, depending on their diameter and length. Forged in a 2,200-degree furnace “the bars are made out of 4140 alloy, a bar stock that retains memory,” Mark says. “They return to their original shape when deflected. When the vehicle body starts to roll, the spring (bar) pulls the high side back down to provide more tire grip and help keep traction.”
A three-hole mounting set up lets the driver tune the bar’s stiffness to suit driving style, and adjustable end-links allow the bar to work with vehicles of different heights. The difference on a truck with a Hellwig anti-sway bar installed is noticeable and improves handling, both in everyday driving or when carrying a large load.
Air is a better suspension component than steel. – Mark Hellwig
But a thicker swaybar does not change the ride quality. “A two-inch swaybar on a vehicle heading straight down the road won’t affect the ride,” he adds. “It doesn’t change the spring rate of the suspension.”
To optimize the truck’s spring rate, and thus towing performance, there’s a combination that Mark Hellwig uses on his 2012 Ford F-250 that not only carries a camper, but is also set up with an extended conventional hitch (called a hitch truss) to tow a trailer at the same time. It’s also a system he recommends for any 3/4- or one-ton pickups.
In addition to larger Big Wig anti-sway bars, Hellwig offers the Big Wig air-suspension system with auto leveling. They work together in controlling heavier loads and make the vehicle as comfortable and drivable as possible. The bigger bars minimize lean on winding mountain roads, and the adjustable airbags level out the cargo bed when it’s heavily loaded, and provide a more comfortable ride.
While Mark admits that an airbag suspension system requires more maintenance, “It is very user friendly when going from unloaded to loaded, and back again. You simply change the air pressure to level the suspension.”
While the airbags control the truck’s level front-to-back and side-to-side (assuming the air lines are plumbed separately, as recommended), they don’t reduce body roll the way anti-sway bars do, so they work in conjunction to improve stability. And these components aren’t intended as a fix for a flawed or overloaded chassis. “They’re not a total solution—they need to be installed on a sound vehicle suspension,” Mark advises.
Using a removable Reese 22,500-pound capacity fifth-wheel hitch on his Ford Super Duty, Mark Hellwig also can tow a 39-foot toy hauler trailer. “It’s not bad at all—just large.” Since the kingpin/skidplate setup on his fifth-wheel hitch is 18 inches above the bed, the center of gravity for the trailer is higher.
That makes beefier anti-sway bars advisable for minimizing body roll on turns or in high winds, as they serve a different function from air bags, springs and shocks.
To ensure a smooth ride, “The air bags on the Ford are larger and have more reserve capacity, so they don’t require as much air pressure, and don’t feel stiff,” Mark says.
While some airbags only go as high as a 2,500-pound rating, Hellwig’s Big Wig Air Springs can handle as much as 2,800 pounds per bag.
Mark, stresses, that this increase is not for a better load capacity. Instead, what airbags do is improve the ride quality and stability by keeping your tow rig even and level, both side-to-side and front-to-rear.
Adding airbags gives the suspension system additional support and smoothes out the ride. For those who tow often, the advantages are obvious. Your pickup won’t have its nose (and headlights) pointed skyward, and it will track down the road without the tail wagging the dog.
If you’re hauling a heavy load as well, airbags protect your cargo by keeping the bed off the bump stops, and reducing stress on the chassis by transferring weight from the springs to the airbags. After all, “air is a better suspension component than steel,” Mark observes.
In addition, Hellwig’s 2,800-pound bag allows you to fill the bags to only 60 psi instead of the full 100 psi, allowing for more flexibility in the bag and up to 15 inches of extension, for easier handling and articulation on tough terrain.
How do you know which setup is best for your application? A call to Hellwig and a discussion with its experts about your specific truck, its set up, your activities, trailer and various weights is exactly what is needed.
All told, there’s more than meets the eye to towing, with a wide variety of products for your particular application. Just be sure to do the arithmetic on your rig’s loading so you install the right products to keep your trailer stable. As Mark Hellwig notes from experience, “I don’t like to push the envelope. Leave a margin of safety, and don’t max out your rig.”