Cross-Country U-Haul

U-Haul Truck in Parking Lot at Dawn

In a departure from our normal camping and hiking adventures, this month we bring you the cross-country U-Haul moving trip. This is the third time in three years that I’ve helped our daughter move, and the longest by far.

The previous two moves took all day to drive, 525 miles each way. This one was 1850 miles, and took three and a half days. We took it relatively easy and did three days of ~550 miles each, then the final day was 200 miles. Given this experience, and the lack of information available on long distance self-moves, I feel comfortable providing some advice for those contemplating doing this yourselves.

Move yourself, or hire professionals?

This is easy: if you have the money, hire professionals. A professional crew will come to your house, pack all your stuff, load the truck, and drive it to your destination, where they will unload it and fill your new house with boxes. The movers will generally guarantee their work and replace damaged items. But this might cost five figures if you have a large house.

The next option is something like, which will drop a 28-foot trailer at your house. You get to load it, then their professional drivers will take it to your destination and leave it at your new house for you to unload. Upack charges by the foot of trailer used, so it’s best to use every vertical foot and pack as densely as possible (easier said than done.) They provide a bulkhead for you to seal off your stuff, then they attempt to sell the remaining space to a shipping company who has freight going in the same direction. Upack provides a ramp, but furniture pads and hand trucks are up to you. The trailer floor is 48 inches off the ground, which doesn’t sound that bad but it’s pretty high. Upack quoted a price of close to $4000 for this move, for 15 feet of their trailer. I thought this was a pretty good deal given that someone else gets to do the driving.

Of course you can hire paid help to load and unload, though there’s no guarantee they know how to load properly. We’ve hired moving help twice, and once they were experienced movers, and the others were a couple of college students — eager and willing, but they didn’t know how to load a truck the right way.

Finally, there is “America’s Moving Adventure,” a.k.a. U-Haul. They have 21,000 locations, 167,000 trucks, and 120,000 trailers across the USA and Canada. You can rent trucks in various sizes from “cute” to “gigantic” and trailers for your car or more of your stuff. For this move, we rented a 20 foot truck and a car carrier trailer, and paid $2100 with tax. This included a hand truck and four dozen furniture blankets. The 20-foot truck has a 33 inch deck height, and is easy to load and unload.

OK, I’m getting a U-Haul. What do I rent and how?

First, figure out what size truck you want. Then get the next bigger one.

For the first move a couple of years ago, I looked at the U-Haul website and they suggested the 10-foot truck was plenty large enough. Which had to be right — the kiddo didn’t have any furniture, really, and it says “Studio to 1 Bedroom Apartment” right on the website. Hah. We packed that truck to the ceiling and had to leave things in the house.

The 20-foot truck we rented this time was able to take a washer and dryer, many small boxes of books and kitchen supplies, a couple of living room chairs, a bed and mattress (still packaged in the original boxes, i.e., really small,) all her clothing and personal items, and that was pretty much it. No couch or sofa, no second bedroom furniture, no big dining room table – luckily she doesn’t have any of that. Yet. The U-Haul website says it’ll handle a “2 Bedroom Home” but I think that’s optimistic.

We rented the “car carrier” trailer that gets all four wheels off the ground. We’ll talk more about trailers shortly. This one is pretty easy to use. Do ask at your U-Haul dealer if you can leave the trailer to pick up after you load the truck — it’s much easier to hitch up at the dealer one time, rather than having to unhitch it at your house, load the truck, and re-hitch it. You can do the same thing in reverse at your destination. Note that you should check the trailer lights and brakes before taking the truck home to load it — if there is a problem with the trailer wiring in the truck, it’s not great to find out after the truck is loaded. We didn’t do this, and discovered as we were pulling out at 7am that the trailer lights didn’t work. Luckily the brake lights did work so we just hit the highway.

Should you buy the “Safe Move” insurance? We certainly did. That way I didn’t need to worry about any dings or dents or major accidents. For a cross country trip I loaded up every sort of insurance and trip coverage they offered — I didn’t want to be stuck somewhere.

How to Load Your U-Haul

First, put everything in boxes. Buy the U-Haul boxes and the paper packing tape. And I do mean *everything* goes in boxes. This makes it much easier to load and unload, and you can save the boxes for the next move.

You’ll want to start by putting small boxes of lightweight stuff in the “attic” over the cab. I could fit two rows of seven boxes double stacked, so I got 28 small boxes up there. Use some rope to tie them down so they don’t fall out.

Then you’ll want the big heavy stuff up against the front wall. A washer and dryer work here, or very heavy furniture. If you have a hand truck, get a nylon tie down strap that you would use to tie a boat down on your car — wrap the tie down strap around whatever you are moving with the hand truck to make your life much easier. A single person can move very heavy items this way. Cover the washer and dryer with several furniture pads — make sure all sides are covered, and double or triple pads over the top.

Now start stacking heavy boxes on the floor around your W/D or furniture, then stack very light things on top. Use some rope to keep items from shifting. Bring in more furniture, and use pads and rope to protect it. Light items and boxes can go on top of furniture, but make sure several pads protect the finish. When moving dressers and the like, remove the drawers first, then replace them once the frame is in the truck. Stack as high as possible, but it’s unlikely you’ll get to the ceiling. If you have big fragile items, like a large TV or a glass table top, put them in a flat box then pad the floor of the truck with furniture blankets before loading them.

When you get to the end, you’ll have some things that don’t fit in boxes. A vacuum cleaner. A broom. A big cooler. These will go in the space at the back of the truck. Leave room for your travel bags and a cooler for drinks on the road. Also leave room for the hand truck you rented from U-Haul.

Our U-Haul parked outside the hotel in Jackson, TN.

Driving the Beast

OK, it’s nowhere near as big as a tractor-trailer, but then we’re not professional truck drivers. A 20-foot U-Haul with a car carrier is a substantial vehicle, and it will change everything about how you drive and where.

You know those signs on the back of semis that say “Wide Right Turns”? Yeah, now that means you. Wide left turns, too. Watch your mirrors as you turn to make sure the trailer clears the curb, or the gas pump, or whatever else you would ordinarily ignore. These things aren’t very agile and it’s easy to let the trailer hit things.

Plan ahead for gas and other stops. Plan to patronize truck stops — they’ll have enough room even in the car refueling area to maneuver your combination — but even here you need to pay attention. If you’re booking a hotel, check Google Maps first — and look carefully at the aerial photo view to make sure there is enough room to park and also enough room to get out again. Some hotels don’t have a driveway around the back — if you pull in, you’re backing out. Don’t do that. You will not be able to stop at normal restaurants or that cute little taco shack unless the billboard says “truck parking” or “buses welcome.” Pay attention when entering rest stops, and follow signs for trailers or trucks, not “cars only.”

Every U-Haul trailer has a decal plastered on the front where you can see it in the rear view mirror. It says “55 mph Maximum Speed.” Uh huh. I’m going to drive 2000 miles at 55 mph. Right. In the real world, we saw dozens of U-Haul truck and trailer combinations on the highway, and every one of them was blowing past us at 80 mph. Never passed a single one doing 55.

So why does it say that? Well, liability, of course. If the trailer starts to sway (swing side to side), it can quickly get out of control and cause a particularly nasty crash. There are many causes for this — improper loading (too much weight at the rear of the trailer), high cross winds, and excessive speed. U-Haul would like you to be responsible for this if you drive over 55 mph. In my experience, the car carrier is rock solid even at 70+ mph in high cross winds, but I am absolutely not going to tell you to exceed 55.

In the U-Haul cab

The U-haul website suggests their trucks will seat three people. Well, yeah, there is a middle jump seat for very small people. Maybe your toddler will be happy here. It’s a good idea to have two people in the cab, though, as one can keep an eye on the route, and traffic, and refueling sites.

The driver’s seat can be adjusted forward and backward. The steering wheel can be adjusted up and down. There is probably an Aux-In for your phone to play music through the audio system. No cruise control, no real seat adjustment, manual everything. Our truck did have two cup holders, crucial for coffee mugs. We had a plastic grocery bag on the floor with snacks and water bottles.

Our truck had the “tow/haul” setting come on automatically when starting. Leave this on when you have a full truck and a trailer. It will change how the automatic transmission shifts, to help with accelerating smoothly. More important, it will automatically downshift when you start going downhill. Yes, it kills the gas mileage, but I think it’s safer.

Truck and Trailer

For this trip, we had an easy move. Great weather, uneventful driving, smooth and easy. We got to our destination in New Mexico, unloaded the car, dropped the trailer, and had the truck unloaded in three hours.

I’d do it again.