Ever see those gravel runaway truck ramps on the side of a steep mountain road? You don’t want to find out the hard way how expensive it is to be recovered from one of those, or the kind of damage that a trip down one of those can cause to your truck and trailer (not to mention your ego).
But that’s not going to happen to you, because you’re taking the extra step to do some research on what you need, which is a lot more than most people do — namely researching price and not whether the product is actually any good for what they need. So I’ll go into that as well as some tips for how to not only stay safe while towing, but to minimize your brake wear in general.
Brake Fade is Your Enemy
We all know what brake fade is, and have likely experienced it in one form or another, but what isn’t always clear is what exactly is happening to make our brakes less effective after hard use. I’ve covered a bit of this already, but I’m going to go into more detail.
There are two main reasons why your brakes fade, and they are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Additionally we’ll go through why some brake fade leaves your pedal feeling healthy and firm, but with decreased effectiveness — and why other times your pedal will feel squishy and soft, forcing you to pump the pedal to get any performance out of the system.
Pad glazing is when the surface of the brake pad literally melts and hardens, leaving a layer of dense, smooth material that slides easily across the rotor. This will result in a normal pedal feel, but requiring much more effort to achieve adequate braking. A glazed pad has lost its porous, almost flaky surface and instead is left with an almost glassy, hard face for it to slide on. Properly bedding in your pads to the manufacturer’s spec can prevent this.
Most aftermarket pads will come with a guide, but a broad one can be found right here.
Boiled Brake Fluid:
Some people are surprised to hear this, but you can pretty easily boil your brake fluid if you overwork your brakes. Why is that bad? Brake fluid boiling results in air bubbles in the brake lines, and while the fluid itself is not compressible, as we all know from the lovely world of forced induction, air is very easily compressible.
Those bubbles result in a squishy brake pedal and a reduced squeezing force on the rotors. It can even get so bad that you can push the pedal to the floor and still not be able to stop your car. That certainly isn’t what you want coming down a mountain pass with your family in the truck.
Tips for brake longevity and safety:
You could drop some serious coin on the best parts in the industry, but if you abuse them the wrong way, you could end up finding out the hard way how well those runaway truck ramps work. Or at the very least, wear your parts out prematurely or end up with “warped” rotors.
Always bed your pads to your rotors:
If you want to ensure healthy and even brake wear between your pads and rotors, manufacturers (and us too) recommend going through a proper brake bedding procedure. This is a process to “mate” your pads to your rotors with gradually increased heat cycles to create a thin, even film of brake pad material on the surface of your rotor. If the rotors and pads are not properly mated with each other, you could end up with brake shudder, squealing brakes, and uneven wear.
Use lower gears over riding the brakes:
The easiest way to overcook your brakes is to ride them when cruising down a long downhill section. It might even be relatively mild braking, but that sort of sustained use without a break for them to cool down is just asking to overheat the pads or even boil your brake fluid.
The dangerous thing here is you usually wouldn’t notice your brakes have faded until you reach something you really need to slow down for at the end of a series of hills, and then it’s too late to correct the issue.
Instead, you can shift down a gear or two and coast, allowing the compression of the engine help to slow you down. It might not be quite enough to maintain the speed you need, but it will definitely take some of the strain off your brakes, allowing you to make full use of them when you really need to.
Don’t hold down the brakes when stopped if at all possible:
After a long downhill section, it’s important to be aware of how hot your brakes can get even just to slow down for a stop light. By holding the brakes stationary on the rotors, you’re holding that crazy hot brake pad against the also crazy hot rotor in one spot with no appreciable air passing over your brakes to cool them down.
This can lead to pad imprinting, where a thin layer of brake pad material can stamp itself onto the surface of the rotor. This heats up the rotor unevenly, and once you start using the brakes again, your pads will pass over that high-spot imprinted material, and cause even more uneven heating on the rotor, and eventually uneven rotor wear. This can lead to the feeling of a “warped” rotor.
Choosing a Brake Pad:
Choosing the best brake pads for towing is pretty similar to choosing a tire. There’s no glory in getting something outside of your driving style. All you end up with is an expensive compromise.
This works both ways, too. You might think you’ll be doing yourself a favor and be safer buying expensive heavy duty pads for daily driving, but what you could end up with is loud, annoying pads that dust like crazy and have worse cold bite than your stock pads. By the same token, if you’re doing a lot of towing or track days/autocross, you’ll be let down by a light duty pad that will fade after the first round of hard braking — to the point of being dangerous.
So Let’s Break This Down by Use Case:
Honestly, OEM replacement level is generally all you’ll really need, though you can bump that up a little to be safe. If brake dust and noise are pet peeves of yours, look into some ceramic pads, as they tend to have better daily manners as far as that’s concerned.
Power Stop Truck & Tow Pads:
These are really hard to beat for the price for someone looking to tow on weekends or in light/medium duty applications. These are quiet, last a while, and are all around a safe bet for a commuter. Also available as a kit with the matching rotors.
EBC Green Stuff Pads:
If you’ve got a daily driver that’s a little more sporty, or that you might load up and haul things with on the weekend, this is a great pad for someone who works their vehicles a little harder than the average Joe, but are still mostly relegated to daily driving duty.
Here’s where heat resistance starts to become a priority over street manners. Still, with the recommended picks below, you’ll be fine with day to day, but just know everything is a trade-off. Brake pad requirements tend to be pretty similar between towing and track driving. Both need to stand up to high heat over repeated cycles without fading.
EBC Yellow Stuff Brake Pads:
This pad is an easy recommendation for anyone looking to take their car to a track day, autocross, or who tows heavy loads in mountainous areas. You don’t want to have to find out the hard way how effective those gravel run-away-truck ramps are.
Hawk LTS Performance Pads:
Generally a little more expensive, but feature Hawk’s own ferro-carbon composite pad material that offers a higher coefficient of friction, fights brake fade, and can be relied on to maintain grip and pedal feel even after braking down a long hill.
Choosing the right brake rotors:
In most cases, you really don’t need to spend a ton of money to get a solid brake rotor these days. As long as you buy something decent by a reputable brand, the more important thing for longevity is how you treat them, and in choosing the right brake pad. I’ll go into more detail on longevity below, but first some staff picks for rotors:
Centric Premium Rotors:
Centric is one brand that you can trust at any price point to be able to deliver quality. This isn’t their cheapest rotor, but is certainly affordable, and features a tough electroplating on the non-wearing surfaces to protect against corrosion. These are some of the best OEM replacement rotors on the market.
Power Stop Cross Drilled and Slotted Rotors:
These are the rotors used in the Power Stops Z36 truck and tow brake kits, and we have hundreds of reviews from people who use them for just that. It’s hard to believe they are able to manufacture such good drilled and slotted rotors for this low of a price, but as you can tell by all those review, they are damn good rotors for the price.
For regular/heavy towing:
StopTech Slotted Rotors:
Direct, 1-piece replacement performance rotors with serious credentials. The slotting helps with brake dust dispersal, prevents glazing of the pads, adds bite and improves wet and dry braking performance. All this while maintaining better structural integrity than if they were drilled and slotted.
EBC Premium Rotors:
Don’t be fooled by the “boring” look of these straight faced, OEM looking rotors. The EBC Premium rotors are very high quality, very well made, and can hold up to a ton of abuse. They are sold in pairs, factory treated against corrosion, and come with a 6-month warranty, which is the longest I’ve seen on a set of rotors at anywhere near this price.
The important takeaway here is that relying on equipment alone isn’t always enough to keep you safe and on the road. It’s a cheesy saying, but knowledge really is power. So get out there and explore the country and do something fun!
Have any questions? Anything I missed? Unsure of what you need for your towing setup? Drop a comment below or shoot me an email and I’ll help you figure it out!