Do Camper Trailers Have Brakes?


Brakes are an essential part of any vehicle that gets moving. I was wondering if camper trailers have brakes, so I did some research. Here’s what I found. 

Do camper trailers have brakes? Generally, camper trailers do have brakes. They usually connect to the truck so that they know when to apply. Some campers, if they are really tiny, will not have brakes, as the truck’s brakes should be sufficient to stop. There are two types: proportional and time-delayed.

Some states have very specific laws regarding brakes on your trailer, so it is important to stay informed.

How Brakes Work

With many things, knowing how it works is half the battle. Plus, it’s always interesting to learn how something works. Although there are several different styles, we can divide brake controllers into two distinct groups — proportional brake controllers and time-delayed brake controllers.

Mechanics

Electric trailer brakes work much the same as do drum brakes on cars and trucks. There are two brake shoes for each wheel, and each of these brake shoes is a half-moon shape. They are loosely fastened to a piece called the brake backing plate with their friction surfaces facing away from each other to form almost a full circle. 

The shoes rest against a stop at the bottom, while at the top they rest against the actuating arm. This arm extends down the front of the brake shoes. An electromagnet attaches to the lower end of this arm. The backing plate bolts to a flange on the trailer axle, through which the spindle for the hub and bearings passes.

The hub, which contains the wheel bearings, is an integral part of the brake drum. The drum resembles a round cake pan, but is made of heavy cast steel, so it can be suitable for stopping thousands of pounds of racing steel rather than serve as a holder for cake batter. The inside surface of the sides of the “pan” are machined smooth. This surface is what the brake shoes press against when the brake is applied.

When the hub and drum assembly is installed onto the spindle, the inner surface of the drum is a fraction of an inch away from the friction surface of the shoes, and the magnet is very close to the front inside of the drum. Electric current from the brake controller moves this magnet which in turn tries to attach itself to the spinning brake drum. The rotating motion of the drum causes the actuating arm to pivot, spreading the brake shoes, causing them to come in contact with the brake drum and apply the brakes. 

It’s all much more effective than trying to stop the speeding trailer with your own two hands, like Superman. 

Proportional Brake Controllers 

Proportional brake controllers use a motion-sensing device to detect how fast the tow vehicle is stopping. The moment the driver applies the brakes, the brake controller applies the same amount of braking power to the trailer’s brakes — if the truck is stopping quickly, the trailer will stop quickly; if the truck stops slowly, the trailer will stop slowly. In a situation that requires heavy braking, for instance, a proportional brake controller will cause the trailer to stop at exactly the same time as the truck does.

This type of brake controller provides the smoothest braking, and because both systems are doing the same amount of work, it reduces the amount of wear on each vehicle’s braking system.

Proportional brake controllers are also known as pendulum brake controllers because of the way they sense motion. These devices use the position of a pendulum as a motion-sensing device, and drivers typically need to calibrate them before using them.

When the vehicle is on a level plane and the pendulum is pointing straight down to the ground, the brake controller doesn’t sense any motion and won’t send any signals to the trailer’s brakes. When the vehicle moves, however, the pendulum points toward the rear of the vehicle. As soon as the vehicle brakes, the pendulum swings forward. Depending on how far the pendulum swings, the brake controller sends a degree of power to the trailer’s brakes.

Time-Delayed Break Controllers

Time delayed brake controllers, on the other hand, provide a pre-determined amount of power to the trailer’s brakes when the truck stops. The power is set beforehand by the driver and depends on how much trailer weight he’s towing.

A delay will always occur when the brakes are pressed; however, a sync switch allows the driver to adjust the length of the delay. Time delayed brake controllers put more wear on braking systems, but they’re less expensive and easier to install than proportional brake controllers.

Brake Controller Monitors

Sometimes simply hooking up a brake controller to your trailer isn’t enough reassurance. It helps to know how much brake power you’re applying during a stop or whether the trailer brakes are even functioning at all. Brake controllers almost always have some type of monitor built in, which, if placed correctly — often under the instrument panel, near the driver’s right leg — is easily viewable from the driver’s seat.

Digital display screens show the voltage delivery going from the brake controller to the trailer’s brakes. The more you press down on the brake pedal, the more power will go toward the trailer’s brakes; if you give the pedal a softer touch, less power goes to the trailer’s brakes. The brake controller monitor reflects the amount of pressure and power you’re applying to the brakes. Brake controller monitors help you make sure your trailer is properly connected and will notify you of any electrical problems that could put you in danger.

As technology improves, newer brake controllers, specifically electronic ones, offer more monitoring options. Some models come with LCD screens that give specific, continuous diagnostics and important warning signals to drivers. Often, displays are customizable, with language options in not just English but French and Spanish — some even offer color choices.

Installing Break Controllers 

Installing a brake controller is a fairly easy task. The first step involves simply mounting the brake controller in an area that is easy to access. Most people choose to place it under the dashboard and directly above your right leg; this keeps the brake controller in view, where you can monitor any potential problems.

Brake controllers typically come with a four-wire configuration, which can be hooked up to the braking system’s wiring. The four separate connections are:

  • Trailer feed – supplies brake power to the trailer connector
  • Ground – connects the brake controller to a negative, grounded source
  • Brake switch – the wire that transfers power once the brake pedal is pressed
  • Battery power – supplies power to the brake controller

If you’re not comfortable with bundles of wires (I’m definitely not. The best thing I would be able to do would be to tie a neat little bow in each one), you might want to have a trained professional take care of your brake controller installation; however, if you know what you’re doing and follow the directions provided by the device’s manufacturer, installing a brake controller shouldn’t be a problem.

Safety Features

Most states require that trailers using electric brakes be equipped with a safety circuit called a breakaway system, which is designed to apply the brakes if the trailer disconnects from the tow vehicle. This system consists of a battery mounted on the trailer and a normally closed switch.

The contacts of the switch are separated by a piece of non-conductive plastic to which a lanyard is attached. The other end of the lanyard is attached to the tow vehicle. If the trailer detaches from the tow vehicle, the lanyard pulls the plastic separator removing it from the switch contacts. The switch closes and applies current from the onboard battery to the brakes, stopping the trailer.

Related Questions

When does my trailer need brakes? Usually, a trailer’s need for a separate braking system of its own is dependent on its weight. In my research, I’ve found that most states require your trailer to have brakes if it exceeds 1000 pounds. Some, however, require all trailers to have brakes, regardless of weight. It’s best to do your research and see what is best for your trailer and the state you live in. 

What happens if my brakes malfunction? There are usually several safety precautions that come with braking systems that prevent any major catastrophe, so the complete and utter destruction of your brakes is fairly unlikely. However, if your trailer seems to have a mind of its own, it will continue to move when you stop and crash into the back of your truck. It also might push you forward, especially if the road is slick. But as long as everything has been set up correctly, this is very rare. 

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