Dealing With Instability in Your RV
How to get the Jiggle Out of Your Travel Trailer or Fifth-Wheel
By Warren Petkovsek
OK, let’s talk about how to cure instability in your towable RV. We’re not talking about the kind of instability you may get driving down the highway if you are overloaded or don’t have enough hitch weight. That’s a whole ‘nother article for another time. I’m talking about the kind of instability you get when you are set up in camp. You know – the kind if little jiggle or shake that gets on your nerves after a while. Like when you are seated or maybe lying in bed and someone else is walking through the rig. You know – the kind of irritating little shake you get when your kids, “Thunderbutt” and “Leadfoot”, set up a shake that can be measured on the Richter Scale, turn the milk in the refrigerator into butter and set off car alarms throughout the camp. At least it seems like that doesn’t it? Well, there may be a couple of ways to improve trailer and fifth-wheel stability in camp and make your experience less irritating and more enjoyable. There is one caveat I should mention before we get started. Your RV will never be as stable as a brick house on a concrete slab. I can’t promise miracles, but I think that if you try some of these hints you will have a more enjoyable and restful experience while camping. Here we go!
An RV by its very definition is a vehicle and as such has some kind of suspension. This suspension is necessary in order to prevent the rig from shaking itself to pieces while traveling down the road and causing grief and panic to the occupants of the tow vehicle. This suspension has some kind of springs and maybe even shock absorbers, air bags or even torsion bars in order to smooth out the ride and make the other components of the trailer last longer. A suspension by its very nature is not at all solid. It must move up and down at the wheels in order to do its job. That, my friends, is the very movement that causes the rig to jiggle while you’re camping. Most if not all towable RVs come with some kind if stabilizing jacks attached to the frame that can be deployed when setting up camp and will greatly increase trailer stability by reducing the up and down motion of the suspension as people move around inside the RV. These may be some kind of stab jacks or scissor type jacks that can be cranked down until the foot of the jack contacts the ground and then you crank a little more to stabilize the rig. Some trailers, especially older ones may not have any stabilizer jacks attached to the trailer frame at all. If this is the case many times you would use manual jacks that have a threaded center that you turn until the jack comes in contact with the trailer frame. You would tighten these jacks at all four corners until the rig is fairly stable.
Ok, you’ve done all that and you are still not quite happy with the results. The first thing to do is to get a king pin stabilizer tripod if your rig is a fifth-wheel. You’ve seen these in camp before. They go under the kingpin and you crank them up until the kingpin is supported. This prevents a lot of unwanted motion in fifth-wheels. Another good hint is to use trailer wheel motion eliminators. These look like scissor jacks except each end is curved slightly. They go between the tires on each side of the rig (provided you have tandem or triple axles). You then tighten the jacks until the trailer wheels are immobilized. The slight back and forth motion of the wheels even when chocked can cause a good bit of jiggle and these devices eliminate that motion. Be sure that you don’t over tighten these jacks or you may cause damage to suspension mounting hardware or to the suspension itself. Both the kingpin tripod and the wheel stabilizers can be found wherever RV supplies are sold.
Well, if you’ve tried everything that has been suggested so far and you are still not satisfied. What are you, some kind of perfectionist?! Well join the club because I am too. I just can’t stand feeling the trailer jiggle – even just a little bit so I came up with a couple of more ideas that really help. Get yourself a couple of hydraulic bottle jacks. The six ton size will work on any size rig and they will run $16.00 - $20.00 each. You will need these anyway when you have your first flat tire so don’t start complaining about the cost, Cheapskate! Place each jack under a leaf spring mounting bracket at two opposite corners of the suspension (for example left front and right rear. See picture.) and jack up the spring mounting bracket about two inches or so. You are not actually lifting the trailer – just taking some of the weight off of two opposite corners of the suspension. This will take out a lot of shake and it seems to work best on smaller trailers with leaf spring suspensions. It worked great on the 24 foot conventional travel trailer that I had before my present fifth-wheel.
‘Still need more stability? Wow! You really are picky or maybe just really prone to motion sickness. Well, we can’t have that so please read on. I have previously mentioned the stabilizer jacks that often come attached to the trailer frame. Often these are scissor type jacks and those, my friends, have very little lateral or side to side stability. These came on my fifth-wheel and I figured out that the more they were extended the less stable they became. I cured that problem by stacking blocks of lumber under the jack feet so that they wouldn’t have to be cranked down so much and things became a lot more stable. There was just one problem. Being a fundamentally lazy fellow I really didn’t want to carry and stack all of that lumber every time I set up the trailer in camp, but my wife has the only vote so I continued to do just that until I came across a better idea.
As I mentioned before, scissor jacks have very little lateral stability and the more they are opened up the worse it gets so why use them at all? What’s that, Cheapskate? You say you use them because you paid good money for them? Well, I can’t argue with that logic, but there really is something much better and it doesn’t cost very much at all. Go find yourself some adjustable jack stands. The six ton capacity will be fine. I found mine at Harbor Freight Tools and they only cost $20.00 for the pair. You’ve seen these jack stands before. They are used by mechanics to safely support the weight of a vehicle when you have to work underneath it. They can’t jack up or lift anything, but rather you lift the load with a conventional jack and then place the jack stand under the frame of the vehicle. You then lower the load onto the jack stand. Here’s what you do to stabilize your trailer using a pair of these jack stands. Level your trailer from side to side as normal before you chock the wheels and unhitch then level the rig from front to rear as normal. You will then drop the front end two or three inches so that the trailer is slightly lower in the front. Take your two jack stands around to the back and place one under each side of the trailer frame as close to the rear as possible. This will be close to the factory provided stabilizer jacks that you may never use again. Adjust the jack stands as high as they will go under the frame. You may still have a little space between the top of the jack stand and the frame. This is OK for now. Go back to the front of the trailer and lift the front jack until the rig is once again level front to back. By lifting the front you have lowered the back of the trailer frame onto the jack stands and a very firm contact is made. These jack stands provide a lot of stability because their base is about ten inches square. That’s a big stable footprint. I have found that these jack stands provide much more stability than the scissor jacks that came with the rig, my wife is happy and I don’t have to lug around and stack all that lumber anymore.
OK, that’s all the stability suggestions in my bag of tricks. As I’ve mentioned before, the rig isn’t as stable as a brick house on a concrete slab, but we are satisfied and that’s what counts. I have found that a campsite with a concrete pad will give you much more stability than a gravel site. I guess those little pieces of gravel act sort of like ball bearings under your wheels and stabilizing equipment, but you just have to play the hand that you’re dealt. There are other products to stabilize your rig and you can find them in the ads in magazines such as Trailer Life or Highways. They look like they add cross bracing between the frame and stabilizer jacks or fifth-wheel landing gear. I am reluctant to try these because they require that holes be drilled in the frame and other components of your trailer and I’m not ready to go that far yet. Oh, they may be great and work miracles and if you use them and they work for you then let me know. Better yet, if you sell them you can send me some (free of course) and I will give them a fair product evaluation. Until then, I’ll stick with what works for me.
That’s it for now. If you want to eliminate the jiggle in your towable RV then try these tricks and let me know how they work for you. Until then, relax, enjoy camping and tell Thunderbutt and Leadfoot to be still and stop shaking the dad-gum camper!