From West Glacier, MT to Dubois, WY & Towing: Lessons Learned

Normally, I would extol the virtues of the places we would visit along the way from one destination to another, but that is not the case this time.  Although we had an uneventful first day of travel from West Glacier to Darby, Montana and enjoyed our overnight stay, the next day impacted our plans yet again and involved more pivoting to address the situation at hand.

To give you a sense of how we arrived at yet another “new game plan”, I need to share a bit of background.  For those of you who prefer, you can skip ahead to the Lessons Learned section to help you on your own journey.

As mentioned is my second blog entry, we kind of did things out of order (see question #3 for details).  We bought our truck before our trailer, and should have secured the trailer first and then determined what sort of truck we would need to safely tow our new home away from home.  But, we loved our new 2021 Ford F150 hybrid with its built in generator and better gas mileage when unhitched from the trailer, so decided to go on some mini trips to determine how safe it would be to tow our trailer instead.  Just to be clear, the truck is rated to tow more than 11,000+ lbs, and has a built in towing package, but it does not have the payload we had hoped at just over 1300+ lbs.

For those of you who aren’t familiar, towing capacity and payload are not the same.  Towing capacity refers to the amount you can pull, and payload is the amount the truck can carry, based on the maximum weight capacity that each point on the truck can bear (e.g. the axles, the tires, etc.).  This article explains it in a little more detail.  Managing payload is a moving target, depending on what you put in the truck, how many passengers you are carrying, where the weight is distributed in the trailer, what type of hitch you are using to tow, how much water you are carrying and in which tanks in the trailer, and so on and so on.  This has been a challenge for us from the beginning, but there was a third issue that we could not have foreseen that made our decision to let go of our truck more definitive.

Photo by Shane Aldendorff on Pexels.com

On one of our test trips we realized along the journey that we had lost our brakes on the trailer…even though the brake controller for the trailer was plugged into the truck, the truck was no longer recognizing we had a trailer connected, so our brakes on the trailer weren’t working. 😲 We pulled over and were able to get them working again, and later on Matt discovered online that there was an Integrated Trailer Relay Module (ITRM) Refresh bulletin on the truck, so took it into the Ford dealership to get an update to hopefully resolve the issue.

When we finally hit the road full time on our way to Glacier and were headed into Kennewick, WA, we discovered we had lost our trailer brakes AGAIN, and yet the truck showed we had an active trailer connected.  By the time we realized we had no brakes, we were a few miles away from our destination, but were concerned about leaving the next day, given we would be dealing with quite a bit more elevation gain and loss on our journey.  Yet again, we looked online to troubleshoot the situation and discovered a 2021 Ford F150 forum discussing this very issue and numerous other customers experiencing the same issue.  At the time, there were about 4 pages of comments, which was already concerning.  😫

The next day before we planned to leave, Matt checked the brakes on the trailer by pulling the emergency brake, and they were working just fine. He also used a multimeter to test the conductivity of each connection point in the 7 pin brake controller cable to ensure there were no broken connections that we could trace to the brake controller cable itself, and that was working properly as well.  He pushed out the metal connection points in the 7 pin slightly to try and create more surface tension and ensure a more solid connection between the controller and the plug on the truck, and when tested, the brakes were working when we prepared to leave.  After this, we did not have any problems until our trip from Darby, MT to Mackay, ID.

Given the brake control issues we were having and discovering this has been a longstanding issue with Ford F150’s since 2015 that still has not been resolved and no known solution, we were concerned about whether we should keep the truck or get another one to ensure we could tow safely.  Our worst case scenario was going down a mountain pass and having no brakes on the trailer, thereby putting all of the braking capacity on the truck alone, which is a scary thought, as you can imagine.  

And that is exactly what happened next. 😱 I was driving over a pass along highway 93, and we had just started descending down a 6% grade when the truck notified us that the trailer was disconnected.  Thankfully, we had some sort of notification this time!  Had we not known the trailer was “disconnected” like the previous two times, who knows what would have happened.  I remained calm while Matt talked me through using the manual engine braking on the truck to slow the truck and save the stress on the brakes themselves.  We used the hazards since we were keeping the descent to no more than 35 miles per hour, and yet we had to wait at least 2-3 miles before we had a pullout we could utilize to pull over and see if we could regain our brake controller. 

Photo by Lukas Kloeppel on Pexels.com

After several attempts, we were able to regain the brake controller connection, but now the truck was telling us that we no longer had a right turn signal! 😡 It kept reminding us of this every time we braked, so we started searching for Ford dealerships to see if anyone could help us resolve this.  We arrived in Salmon, ID and pulled into their Ford dealership.  The man at the service desk said there were no appointments available for three weeks, and he mentioned that we may want to consider getting a different truck, because there was another pass we were going to encounter on our way to Mackay with an 8% grade and a hairpin turn at the bottom.

We did talk to their salesperson, but like most dealerships dealing with truck shortages, there wasn’t anything available for us to buy that would meet our towing needs.  So what next?  We did have rain the night before in Darby and some water had made its way into the brake controller 7 pin connection, so we got out the hair dryer to dry all connection points.  That seemed to resolve both the braking and turn signal issues, but we were nervous about going over yet another mountain pass under the circumstances. 

I’m not sure if the service guy was trying to scare us into an impulse buy, but there was no 8% grade pass…just a 3-4% grade pass that was totally doable, so it was certainly irritating to get such misinformation and solidified our wariness of auto dealerships. 🙄 We made it to Mackay safely and started calling more auto dealerships in the Idaho Falls and Pocatello areas to find out what trucks were available given the shortages we knew existed at virtually every dealership, no matter what make or model.  After learning about some potential options, we decided to press on and move closer to Idaho Falls so we could go truck shopping the next day without an additional three hour round trip from Mackay.  As we are now learning, you just have to keep pivoting!

The next day we test drove every new and used 3/4 ton and 1 ton truck of reasonable condition that could meet our towing, payload and general traveling needs.  Most 3/4 ton trucks were more than enough truck for us, so 1 ton trucks were obviously overkill.  Our goal was to balance our safety needs with ease of use and maneuverability.  The bigger the truck, the more sluggish it is, the harder it is to stop, to park, and to utilize for every day use as opposed to just towing.  Given we are towing much less often than we are driving for day to day activities without the trailer, that was important to us.  

After test driving all day, the first truck we drove, a Ram 2500, was the one we liked the best, but with the mega cab configuration, it wasn’t going to give us the additional payload we desired.  The salesman informed us that a Ram 2500 crew cab was coming in over the next week that could meet our payload needs and otherwise was identical to the truck we drove, so we requested that he call us as soon as it came in and allow us the first opportunity to purchase the truck.  

In the meantime, the 2021 Ford F150 forum had increased to 8 pages of comments and a new potential solve for the brake controller issue was posted, suggesting that putting the truck lights in the “ON” mode as opposed to the “Auto” mode could resolve the computer “glitch” of the truck no longer recognizing a trailer was attached.  If this all sounds absurd to you, welcome to the club! 🤨 But, given we knew we were about to head over two more significant mountain passes to reach our final destination of Dubois, WY, we were willing to give it a try.  Thus, we set out the next day to Dubois, and resolved to see how our existing truck would do over these mountain passes before making the decision to trade it in for the Ram 2500.

As an aside, because we are towing, we try to use both the Ford’s suggested towing routes and an app called RV Life to help map our routes, so we don’t end up on roads that are not suitable for us to drive on with our setup.  We also look at topo maps to get a sense of what sort of terrain we will be traveling over to further inform our routing decisions.  Well, nothing prepared us for what we were about to experience.  Unbeknownst to us, we were being routed over one of the most dangerous mountain passes: Teton Pass. This pass has a 10% grade in both directions and is not recommended for travel trailers. This was discovered en route, so there was no going back! 

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Well, our Ford F150 did make it up the pass…barely! It also made it down the pass, but the experience solidified our resolve to buy a new truck, and here’s why.  At one point we used a pullout going down the pass to let traffic behind us pass, but while trying to wait in the pullout for traffic to clear, the truck brakes wouldn’t completely hold and we were still inching along! 😰 Thankfully, traffic passed in time for us to get back on the road and make it safely down the mountain, but that experience reinforced for us that this truck just wasn’t robust enough to tow our trailer.  We pulled over to let the brakes cool after we made it down the pass (yes, we used manual engine braking on the way down to its maximum), and when we tried to resume our travels, the truck notified us that Adaptive Cruise Control was not available because the brakes were still too hot. 😬 Yikes!  Granted, we would learn to route ourselves over less serious passes in future, this was still a wake up call to get ourselves a safer towing setup going forward.

We made it to Dubois!  And the next day we got the call that the truck we wanted to buy had arrived, so we turned right back around (without the trailer in tow) to Idaho Falls to make a deal and say goodbye to our Ford F150. All went smoothly, and now we have a Ram 2500 diesel truck.  We are sad to no longer have a built in generator and hybrid technology and other comforts of our Ford, but the Ram is also a very nice truck with almost all of the same amenities, much more significant towing capacity and payload, and we can also take advantage of exhaust or compression braking that the diesel affords us as an added security measure for braking on steeper grades.  Although we can never eliminate all of the stresses of towing travel days, purchasing this truck will certainly help us sleep a little more easily at night.  😴

Lessons Learned:

I know that was quite the saga, and the story is not over yet as we have not towed with the new truck, but we have learned some very important lessons already that we think are important to share with you if you are considering towing anything substantial.

  1. Know your payload and towing capacity needs so that you are towing with a suitable vehicle.  Even though our 8500 lb rig was within the 11,000+ lb towing capacity of the Ford F150 and we could manage our payload within reason to remain within the truck’s limits, going over Teton Pass exemplified for us that this truck was still pushing the limits and likely not suitable for our needs.  If we were going to safely tow without an inordinate amount of stress, we needed to get a more powerful truck.  And, payload is the more important number to pay attention to as it will dictate your towing capabilities more than towing capacity.  Our new Ram 2500 has a 20,000+ lb towing capacity and over 2100 lbs of payload, so we are now well within the bounds of the truck’s towing capabilities and feel much more comfortable about our towing travel days going forward.
  2. Research known towing issues on vehicles before you buy.  Although we love the 2021 Ford F150 hybrid for many reasons outside of towing, buying the “latest and greatest” was perhaps, in hindsight, not the best decision.  Had we waited even six months, we would have seen this 2021 Ford F150 forum pop up and would have likely gone in another direction.  Apparently, this issue has been an ongoing problem since 2015 that Ford has yet to resolve.  Having no trailer brakes is a very serious issue, and having maximum braking capacity is a major safety consideration that you should not ignore.
  3. Research towing travel routes more thoroughly before you hit the road.  Yes, we have utilized every resource we know of to try and route ourselves as safely as possible to our destinations, but even those have not been sufficient, as we learned when being routed over Teton Pass.  Thanks to my great aunt Ruth who has been traveling on the road in an RV for decades with her husband, we have an amazing resource and wealth of knowledge with first hand experience with whom we can share our trials and tribulations and learn more along our journey.  She suggested this Mountain Pass Directory that provides detailed descriptions of each mountain pass in the western and eastern United States, including percentage grades and any pass restrictions based on weight or length of your rig.  Granted the app/interactive eBook for iOS is a bit clunky, it does work and we haven’t found another resource like this available on the market. If you know of additional resources like this, PLEASE respond in the comments and share, as I and likely my reading community would love to have as many resources as are possible.

Hopefully, our lessons learned will help prevent similar situations for you and give you a more solid foundation of safety from which to begin your travels.  We are sure these won’t be the last lessons we learn along the way, but it’s a start and well worth sharing so you can learn from us rather than having to experience these challenges yourself.  We wish you safe travels and will share more of the fun parts of our journey with you soon. ❤️

5 thoughts on “From West Glacier, MT to Dubois, WY & Towing: Lessons Learned

    1. Well, I wasn’t meaning to scare you away from it. It just takes a bit of preparation to make sure you can travel safely. There are always plusses and minuses to any kind of lifestyle, and I feel it is important to share both for a broader perspective.

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  1. Excellent write up, Mel. I didn’t know the difference between towing capacity and payload, but then I hope to never be towing a trailer. I did know Teton Pass is super steep from summer stays in GranTeton National Park; going down that without absolute confidence in your brakes is kind of like free soloing a climbing route without confidence in your shoes.

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    1. Thank you, Michael. I hear you! It was not a fun experience, hence the upgrade in truck. We tried to go “green” with a hybrid truck, but safety supplanted any environmental wins. We are moving on and enjoying the area while we can. We went on a hike yesterday, will go for a bike ride tomorrow, and a short backpacking trip before we leave. It will be a test overnight before we head to Wallowas, where we will FINALLY get to do a multi-day backpacking trip. I am so excited. 🙂

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  2. Wow! what an amazing story! I’m passing this along to everyone i know that tows oris planning on towing a trailer!
    Just catching up on your blogs – hope you are having an epic time!

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