We’ve all seen those hilarious videos of a loaded trailer rolling down the road without a car or truck attached to it. I have an uncle who actually watched his trailer fly by his car after becoming unhitched—an amusing story to retell, but a complete horror for him driving his station wagon, wife, and 4 little girls through the Bronx, New York late one summer evening in the mid 80s.
Trailers and trailer hitches have come a long way since then, but to the average consumer, they can still be an intimidating experience for just that reason. Aside from the endless runaway trailer videos and accidents, you may stress about the weight a trailer adds to your vehicle or even the increased stopping distance required. But with the proper equipment and installation, towing a trailer can be a safe, stress-free experience for just about anyone.
There a number of reasons you would require a trailer hitch. Maybe you’ve got a boat you want to tow down to the lake. Maybe you’re moving and rented a U-Haul cargo trailer. Whatever your reason, you need to begin your search for a hitch knowing what you are towing and what vehicle you are using to tow it. Are you towing your boat, a camper, or something really heavy like a livestock trailer or an RV? Is your towing vehicle a car, a pickup truck, a van, or another vehicle to tow it? Every vehicle has a set weight it can safely tow. For a worksheet to determine your tow capacity, visit this page.
Your next important step would be to know the applicable towing laws. Most states have specific laws regarding brakes, especially on weightier trailers, and it is not only important to know your state’s law, but the laws of any state you are travelling through. Every state is different, so don’t assume anything with respect to the law.
Types of Hitches
With the basics figured out, you can now look into your trailer hitch. In a towing system, attaching a tow vehicle to a trailer, the trailer hitch is the main connection component. There are other components needed to complete the connection, like a ball mount and trailer ball. For a quick guide to picking the best trailer hitch, check out HItch Class 101.
- Receiver Hitch
- Bumper Hitch
- Front Mount Hitch
- Weight Distribution/Distributing Hitch
- 5th Wheel Hitch
- Gooseneck Hitch
- Pintle Hitch
The most common trailer hitch is the RECEIVER hitch. Depending on weight capacity and receiver tube size, there are five different classes of receiver hitch. Be sure you choose the proper class for your needs.
Class 1 receiver hitches are designed for smaller vehicles—passenger cars or small crossovers—and are generally rated to tow up to 2,000 pounds.
Class 2 hitches are designed for minivans, full-sized sedans, as well as pickup trucks and small SUVs and can generally tow up to 3,500 pounds.
Class 3 receiver hitches are the most common on SUVs and full-size pickup trucks and have a weight capacity of up to 8,000 pounds. Class 3 hitches, unlike class 1 and 2, can be used with a weight distribution system, which can generally bring the weight rating up to 12,000 pounds.
Class 4 hitches are also found on SUVs and full-size pickup trucks and have a weight capacity up to 10,000 pounds. With a weight distribution system, they can achieve a weight rating up to 14,000 pounds.
Class 5 trailer hitches are found on full-size pickup trucks and commercial trucks and can achieve up to 20,000 weight capacity. A weight distribution system does not usually increase the towing capacity of the class 5 hitch.
The BUMPER hitch is a type of receiver hitch that bolts to the bumper of the vehicle. Because it attaches to the bumper rather than actual vehicle, its weight capacity is limited to the bumper's weight carrying capacity, rather than the entire vehicle's capacity.
Another type of receiver hitch is the FRONT MOUNT hitch. Front mount hitches free up the rear for other towing, and allows you to perform different tasks like launching a boat. You can also use it to attach a snow plow, spare tire mount, winch, or skid shield, as well as mount a cargo carrier.
A 5th WHEEL hitch is similar to what is used by commercial tractor-trailer rigs. Mounting to the bed of a pickup, it is a heavy-duty mount with capacities ranging from 16,000 to 25,000 pounds. This hitch can consume a good portion of your truck bed.
The GOOSENECK hitch is like the 5th wheel hitch in that it mounts to the bed of a pickup truck, but it is generally less invasive. With the gooseneck hitch installed and no trailer hooked up, you can still fully access the truck bed. Gooseneck hitches can tow up to 30,000 pounds.
One other hitch is the PINTLE hitch. Mounted on the tow vehicle, the pintle hook latches to the lunette eye from the trailer. Pintle hitches can tow from 10,000 to 60,000 pounds, depending on the tow vehicle.
A receiver hitch attachment designed to distribute the weight of the trailer is the WEIGHT DISTRIBUTION or weight distributing hitch. If you are towing more than 50% of your vehicles weight, it is generally smart to use a weight distribution system.
These weight distribution hitches generally increase the tow capacity of your hitch, but before you add one, ensure your hitch is rated for use with it. Helping to improve steering and stopping, this system also corrects vehicle sag. Some of the more advanced weight distribution hitches even integrate a sway control to correct any trailer sway.
Trailers can sway for any number of reasons like strong crosswinds or improper trailer loading. It is very important to have sway control when towing your trailer. If your weight distribution system does not include sway control, you may need to investigate SWAY CONTROL devices. There are two types of sway control devices—one that prevents sway and one that reduces sway once it has started.
For reducing sway, you can choose either an independent friction-style or a dependent 2-point sway control system. The independent sway control system attaches to the trailer frame and the weight distribution system. This lets the sway control keep the trailer in line through friction and tension. Dependent sway controls use the downward force of the spring bars to apply resistance on both sides of the trailer frame.
To prevent sway altogether, you need controls built into the weight distribution system. One effective type of preventative sway control is the dual-cam system. It keeps your system secure with the controlled placement of the spring bars. A 4-point sway control securely connects each spring bar to the head while the other 2 points attaches to the trailer's frame.
Working your Trailer Hitch
Now that you've determined the proper trailer hitch for your vehicle, it's time to get your hitch installed. Start by either watching an installation video for your hitch or reading the installation manual. If you are not 100% confident you can properly install your hitch, there is no shame in allowing a professional to do it for you and your fellow motorists will thank you when your hitch stays attached and you are driving safely with them.
Your hitch is properly installed and now you are ready to attach your trailer. This is best done with a helper. Even if you don't have a friend, you can can still hook up your trailer. Either alone or with a friend, just remember to take your time.
If you have a lightweight trailer, it is easiest to push it to your vehicle. If it is heavier, back up your vehicle to the trailer. You want to get your vehicle to the coupler. Make sure the coupler is raised above the ball on the trailer. Your friend can guide you to it, or you can mark the coupler with something easy to see from your backup camera, your rearview mirror, or side view mirror.
If it's a ball clamp, lower the coupler onto the ball. Lock it in place and tighten it down well and shake the trailer a bit. Tighten the clamp again. You want to be certain the coupler is latched and locked as tight as it can be. Raise the tongue jack to its highest point for the most ground clearance.
If it's a latch coupler, release the latch, place the coupler on the ball, and close the latch, placing the pin or lock on it to fasten it safely. You may even want to add a padlock to keep it closed.
Take the safety chains and crisscross them under the coupler. Cross them again and connect them to the eyes on the receiver. If the coupler comes off the hitch ball, the crisscrossed chains will catch it. You want some give in the chains, but not so much that they are dragging on the ground.
Lastly, hook up all of the lights—running, brake, and turn signal. Double check if the lights work.
Trailer Hook-Up Checklist
- Ball size matches the coupler size
- Properly torque the trailer ball on the ball mount
- Secured ball mount in the receiver tube with the hitch lock or pin
- Trailer ball fully engaged in coupler
- Coupler latch in locked position and secured with safety lock or pin
- Trailer jack fully retracted
- Electrical plug firmly inserted in vehicle socket
- Safety chains crisscrossed under coupler and hooked up
- Lights work on trailer—running, brake, and turn signals
- Brake control adjusted to trailers weight and works
AIR SAFE Hitches give you a 90% smoother ride than traditional hitches. Air safe hitches reduce the wear and tear on your tires, stress on your truck and trailer suspension, and help reduce gas mileage. Regardless of what you are towing—horse trailer, travel trailer, boat trailer—and what you use to tow with—SUV, car, semi-truck, bus, pickup truck—the air safe hitch puts your trailer on the air bag, not a pivot pin. Increasing your braking control nearly eliminates sway.
Safety is paramount to anything else when it comes to towing a travel trailer, boat, or livestock trailer. Always ensure you have selected the proper hitch and had it installed or installed it yourself properly. You don't want to have your trailer filmed by a fellow motorist as it careens down the road without your vehicle. We'll all be safer out there if you keep your vehicle attached to your trailer.