With the growing popularity of tiny homes, RVs, and other alternative camping options, there’s a lot to explore in the world of trailers and trailer hitches. Whether you’re using a trailer hitch for the first time, trying to expand your options, or hauling with a new vehicle, understanding the difference between different types of trailer hitches can help you avoid all kinds of hassle.
You don’t want to finish setting up your new DIY camping trailer, just to find out you’ve got the wrong hitch to haul it. The first tip is to pay attention to the specifications in the owner’s manual for any trailer hitch. You can learn a lot from guides like this, but each vehicle and hitch is unique.
Pay special attention to the max towing capacity of your vehicle, trailer, hitch, and any other parts used. And remember, the max hauling capacity of any setup is determined by the weight limit of the lowest-rated component.
What to Consider When Buying Trailer Hitches
To start your search, consider a few basic questions about what you’re hauling, the vehicle you’ll be using, and any other features you might need. Trailer hitches are designed with specific vehicles in mind, so you’ll be somewhat limited in your options by the make, model, and year of the vehicle you’re hauling with.
That said, there are adapters available for many vehicles, so you can theoretically use just about any vehicle to haul a trailer. Still, you should be careful to consider the hauling capacity of your car, SUV, or truck. Most trailer hitches are a type of receiver hitch and these are available for most vehicles.
If you’re towing a standard travel trailer or wheel trailer, a receiver hitch should work fine. There are five different classes of receiver hitch that correspond to different towing capacities, up to about 20,000 lbs. After that, you’ll be looking at heavy-duty options, like a gooseneck hitch or fifth-wheel hitch.
After you’ve determined the proper hitch class and found a few options that are compatible with your vehicle, you can consider additional features you might want as well as the look of the hitch. It might sound silly, but you do want the trailer hitch you’re using to match the general style of your car!
Common Trailer Hitch Parts
Before we dive into the different types of hitches and what they’re used for, let’s go over some of the key parts you should know. The standard receiver hitch set-up, sometimes called a tow hitch, is made up of seven main parts. Other hitch systems, like pintle hitches, have different components, covered in part below.
First, the term “trailer hitch” itself refers specifically to the primary connector between your trailer and your vehicle. So, this includes the receiver tube (which will either be square or round) into which your trailer hitch attachment will be inserted. Commonly, this attachment will be a ball mount that consists of a shank and a trailer ball platform. The shank of the ball mount is secured in the receiver tube by a hitch pin or hitch lock.
Next, the trailer ball is attached to the platform and this provides the direct connection to the trailer. Trailer balls are available in a variety of sizes, so you want to make sure the one you’re using works with your trailer. It should match the trailer coupler, which is the metal latch on the trailer itself which attaches to your trailer ball.
Finally, your trailer hitch needs safety chains and a trailer wiring harness to be complete. These two components are independent of the main mechanical parts of the trailer hitch. A writing harness allows for electricity to flow from your vehicle to the trailer. Safety chains are intended to catch the trailer should something happen to your hitch. So they should be strong enough to stop the trailer if they need to.
Towing Power and Hitch Classes
So how do you determine the towing capacity of your vehicle and use weight ratings to figure out which class of receiver hitch you need? To start with, make sure you consider the towing capacity of your vehicle, the hitch, the trailer, and any accessories used. Your vehicle’s towing capacity will be noted in the owner’s manual, or you can look it up VIN or using the make, model, and year of your vehicle.
Once you know the weight capacity (or towing capacity) of your vehicle, you should determine the gross trailer weight or GTW of the trailer you’re towing. The gross trailer weight is the combined eight of your empty trailer, along with any luggage, passengers, materials, or anything else that will be carried in the trailer. Then, while ensuring that the GTW of your trailer and hitch set up don’t exceed your vehicle’s towing capacity, you can choose a hitch class.
Class I hitches are found on cars, crossovers, and SUVs. The smallest hitch available, Class I hitches can two up to 2,000 lbs and are rated for up to 200 lbs of tongue weight. The receiver tube is 1-1/4″ x 1-1/4″ and these hitches are good for light-duty towing.
Class II hitches are very similar to Class I and also feature a 1-1/4″ x 1-1/4″ receiver tube. The main difference is that Class II hitches max out at about 3,500 lbs. When you get to Class III hitches the receiver tube goes up to 2” x 2” and some of these hitches can be used as weight distributing hitches as well.
A Class III hitch can haul up to 8,000 lbs, and these hitches are the most common for full-size trucks and SUVs. Class IV hitches also use a 2” x 2” receiver tube and can tow up to 10,000 lbs. Class V hitches are the highest-rated receiver hitches, found only on full-size trucks and commercial vehicles.
On commercial vehicles, the receiver tube will be 2-1/2” and can tow up to 20,000 lbs. Consumer models generally tow up to 17,000 lbs and have 2” receiver tubes. For especially heavy loads, you’ll need a heavy-duty hitch like a gooseneck hitch or a fifth-wheel hitch. Read on to learn more about when you might need one of these bed-mounted hitches as opposed to rear- or front-mounted hitches.
While towing capacity is partially about gross trailer weight, you’ll also need to pay attention to the tongue weight (of TW) that your hitch is rated for. Tongue weight refers to the amount of pressure put on the tongue (or connection point) between your trailer and the vehicle.
While Class I hitches are only rated for 200 lbs of tongue weight, Class II hitches can take up to 350. Class III hitches can be rated for up to 800 and Class IV hitches up to 1,000. The tongue weight rating for Class V hitches ranges from 2,400 lbs to 2,700 lbs, depending on the specific type. You also want to keep the tongue weight between 9% and 15% of the total trailer weight to prevent damage or a swaying trailer.
There are a few different ways to measure your trailer’s tongue weight, but the easiest is to use a tongue weight scale at a towing supply shop. One thing to keep in mind is that square receiver tubes have a slight advantage over round tubes, especially when it comes to tongue weight capacity. A square tube will handle more tongue weight than a round receiver tube.
Different Types of Trailer Hitches
For the average hauling job, there are five relevant trailer hitches to consider. Specialty hitches and mounts are available for attachments like winches, racks, or even snowplows, but most fall into just a few categories. If you’re hauling a trailer, you’ll need one of the following types of hitches. Keep in mind that only some of these are compatible with your average consumer vehicle.
That said, some of the pickup trucks on the market today have impressive towing capabilities and can be used with a 5th wheel or gooseneck hitch to safely towboats, large travel trailers, and more. Pintle hitches are generally only found on heavy-duty trucks like construction or military vehicles and are designed to maintain control and maneuverability in rough terrain.
1. Bumper Hitch
The simplest and most common kind of trailer hitch is the bumper hitch. Bumper hitchers come standard on many trucks and SUVs. Otherwise, it’s relatively easy to attach a bumper tow ball mount to the rear end receiver hitch of most SUVs and trucks. Even some sedans and other small cars can be used with a bumper hitch.
With a bumper tow ball mount, the main options you have are drop length (or rise length) and then style. A basic bumper hitch is great for smaller towing jobs like bike racks, luggage racks, or wheel trailers.
2. Weight Distribution Hitch
Weight distributing hitches are designed with a bit more control in mind. This is still a receiver hitch, so it can be attached to a standard vehicle and used with trailers, racks, and more. With a weight-distribution hitch, you can rebalance whatever you’re hauling as well as increasing sway control.
This is great for hauling larger trailers, or any trailer where you want more sway control. Most people use weight distribution hitches for travel trailers and campers to make it a bit easier to control these trailers. The way it works is by distributing the weight of the trailer between all the axles of your vehicle.
With a standard bumper hitch, the weight sits entirely on the back of the car you’re towing with, and on the rear axle in particle. By using a weight distributing hitch, you can spread the tongue weight across all the axles and reduce stress on your vehicle while improving handling, balance, and sway.
One thing to note, though, is that rebalancing the weight of a trailer does not increase the maximum weight your towing vehicle can haul. Once again, you should note the towing capacity of the lowest-rated component you’re using and regard that as the weight limit for your trailer hitch.
3. Fifth Wheel Hitches
The fifth wheel hitch was developed to move along with the towing vehicle and this hitch can pivot and absorb shocks. A fifth-wheel hitch provides an easier towing experience for heavy-duty towing jobs and you’ll often see fifth-wheel hitches used by tractor-trailers, car haulers, and cargo carriers.
You can carry a lot more weight with a fifth-wheel hitch than with a standard bumper hitch, but be sure your tow vehicle can handle the added weight as well. Maximum weight capacity is up to about 30,000 lbs. A fifth wheel hitch works by attaching the trailer to the truck via a kingpin mechanism, so the coupling system is a part of the hitch itself rather than the trailer.
A fifth wheel hitch is mounted either over or slightly in front of the axles in the bed of the truck. Because the weight is distributed between the cab and the rear axle, and the hitch is in constant contact with the trailer plate, this is a very secure way to haul a trailer.
In fact, we now refer to large travel trailers that use a fifth wheel hitch as fifth wheel (or 5th wheel hitch) trailers. Considered the top of the line in RVs and travel trailers, these trailers require a full-size truck to haul. The upside is that you can fit a lot, including even heavy appliances and amenities, in a large fifth-wheel trailer.
4. Gooseneck Hitches
Like a fifth-wheel hitch, gooseneck hitches are used for heavier hauling jobs and provide for a more stable towing experience as well as enabling tighter turns than the standard ball mount bumper hitch. These hitches are typically used for hauling cars, livestock trailers, and other commercial trailers.
Gooseneck trailer hitches can haul up to 38,000 lbs. Like a fifth-wheel hitch, gooseneck hitches are attached to the truck bed of the truck, either above or below. An above-bed gooseneck hitch is attached to the rails already on your vehicle just like a fifth-wheel hitch. Blo-bed gooseneck hitchers are more popular though and are specifically fitted to the towing vehicle and may have additional stabilizing brackets.
So, an above-bed hitch is better if you’re going to be switching hitches frequently. However, if you’re looking for more stability, power, and customization, a below-bed gooseneck trailer is the way to go. This kind of hitch is most commonly found on farms.
5. Pintle Hitches
Pintle hitches are the most powerful kind of hitch we’ll cover here. Using a hooking system called a lunette and pintle, these hitches allow for a much larger range of motion. The pintle is attached to the truck while the lunette (a ring that couples with it) is attached to the trailer. Pintle hitches are most commonly used in military, commercial, and agriculture scenarios where rough terrain or steep angles present an obstacle.
With a towing capacity of up to 60,000 lbs, these heavy-duty hitches can only be used for vehicles with a high weight capacity. Pintle hitches can be a little louder and rougher to ride with, but they’re made for off-road terrain, so it comes with the territory.
It’s easy to overlook this essential part of a new trailer purchase! Whether there’s a hitch that comes with your new trailer, or you have to buy it separately, take care in picking out the right trailer hitch for your needs. With these tips in mind, you should be able to figure it out based on the weight carrying capacity you need, the type of vehicle you’re using, and what kind of terrain you’ve got.
Trailers today are quite versatile, so you’ll have lots of options to think through. Whether you’re towing a boat or a portable tent platform, the right trailer hitch is out there if you know where to look. Plus, there are tons of styles and extra features available these days, so you can even match your trailer hitch to the look of your car.
Bonus tip: Check out this video on how to reverse your vehicle with a trailer attached!