All About Trailer Hitches

Types of Trailer Hitches
Hitch Weight Classes
Hitching and Unhitching Steps

What exactly goes into the selection of trailer hitches for your towing situation?

Let's discuss load and weight requirements, safety features and tips for hitching and unhitching your trailer to your tow vehicle.

Here's a typical conversation that I'll have when someone calls us to get a quote on hitching up a vehicle:

Customer: Hi, I'd like to get a quote on a hitch.

Me: Ok, what kind of vehicle does this hitch need to be installed on?

Customer: I need a trailer hitch for a 2011 BMW X5.

Me: What type of trailer do you want to tow?

Customer: Well, I'm looking at one of those pop-up tent trailers that you tow behind your car.

Me: Do you have any idea how much the trailer you want to buy weighs?

Customer: Not really. Oh, and I also want to get one of those bike racks that slide into the hitch.

Me: Ok. Just to let you know most of the bike racks available are designed for the Class 3 - the 2" square receiver style hitches, so I think we should just look at that size hitch. Your tent trailer probably doesn't weigh more than 3500 lbs loaded so this hitch will be fine for that. Now, what size ball will you need? And what are the wiring requirements of the tent trailer you want?

Customer: I haven't a clue. I haven't bought it yet.

Me: Well in your case, I would recommend that you select the specific trailer you want first, then we can set your ball and wiring up specifically for the trailer you end up purchasing. The tent trailers all seem to have different wiring requirements and plugs. Some have electric brakes, some need a charge line, some don't. Once I know what you need, then I can quote you based on the exactly what we need to do for you.

As you can see, every towing situation is different, depending on what you want to tow. What really gets me is when people call me up and I ask them what they need, and it turns out that what they want to tow is totally dangerous for their car. I kid you not!

One person called up and wanted to tow a 2-horse trailer with his Ford Mustang! His Mustang was only rated to tow up to 2000 lbs! He tried every which way to get me to tell him it was OK to do what he wanted to do. I couldn't do that as I have a legal responsibility to "hitch" you up safely. Here's what happens when people don't follow our advice and ignore common sense:

Bad Accident Small Truck trying To Tow Large Boat Which Lifts Back End Of Truck Off Road

So what trailer hitches are right for you in your own towing situations? This is the question you and your qualified hitch installer will answer before deciding on the equipment that you will purchase to tow.

It is my belief that the better informed you are, and the more you understand exactly what is going on when you tow, the safer you will be. So, lets get started.

Types of Trailer Hitches

Hitches are divided into five Classes each of which has a maximum Tongue Weight (TW) limit and a maximum Gross Trailer Weight (GTW) limit. The maximum limits for a Class on your particular vehicle may be less than the upper limits for that Class because both the physical strength of the hitch structure and a particular vehicle's weight capacity limitations are taken into account when a hitch is rated by the manufacturer.

For example, a small vehicle might be equipped with a Class I hitch rated by the manufacturer at 100 lbs TW and 1,000 lbs GTW while a larger vehicle might have the identical hitch installed, but be rated by the manufacturer at 200 lbs TW and 2,000 lbs GTW. The TW limit also changes when a weight distributing system is used with Class III or IV Receivers.

Always consult your vehicle owners manual for information about towing a trailer and your vehicle's weight capacity limitations. This can also be obtained by writing to the vehicle's manufacturer.

Hitch Classes

Hitch Class
Max TW
up to 200 lbs.
up to 2,000 lbs.
up to 300 lbs.
up to 3,500 lbs.
up to 500 lbs.
up to 5,000 lbs.
up to 1,000 lbs.
up to 10,000 lbs.
up to 2,700 lbs.
up to 20,000 lbs.

 Fixed Tongue Hitch
Also called Fixed Drawbar Hitch

small fixed tongue hitch

 Receiver Style Hitches
Sometimes called Box Hitch or Tube Hitch

Receiver Style Hitches
Sometimes called Box Hitch or Tube Hitch

  • The ball mount (also called ball platform) is removable when the hitch is not being used. This leaves the hitch's opening about even with your bumper.
  • The most popular style of hitch and is what you see on most trucks, SUV's, RV's and vans.
  • Best choice when using bike racks, motorcycle racks, cargo racks, etc.
  • Available with two size openings, 1 1/4" and 2".
  • Class I and II receiver style hitches can only be used for towing as a weight carrying hitch.
  • Class III, IV, and V receiver style hitches can be used either as a weight carrying hitch or as a weight distributing hitch when a weight distribution system is added. (See Weight Distribution Hitches.)
  • Receivers can also be installed on the front of your vehicle to make launching and recovering boats easier, to attach bike racks while you are towing a trailer or to mount a winch.
class I receiver hitch tows up to 2000 pounds
class II receiver hitch tows up to 3500 pounds
class III receiver hitch tows 3500 to 5000 pounds
class IV receiver hitch tows up to 10,000 pounds or more

We sell and install Curt, Draw-Tite, Stealth, Torklift, and other brands of hitches which are factory-made and specifically designed to fit your particular vehicle. Many bolt on using existing holes requiring no drilling.

We stock hitches for many vehicles. Less frequently used hitches can be special ordered for delivery within one - two business days in most cases, depending on the hitch's shipping origin.

We take and encourage appointments at 408-248-4454. You can leave your vehicle or wait for the work to be finished.

Curt™ has a handy Fit Guide where you can enter your information and it will tell you what different size trailer hitches are made for that vehicle.

Camping Life™ has a great online Tow Ratings Database where you can look up vehicles from 1991-current, and see what their tow weight capacity is.

Trailer Life Magazine™ publishes a Tow Ratings Guide every year. You can access copies from 1999-current right on their Web Site.

Hitching and Unhitching Steps for Conventional Trailers

Here's a quick review of how to hitch and unhitch your vehicle.

  1. Turn the tongue jack crank clockwise (or operate power jack) to raise the tongue and coupler. Raise the tongue sufficiently to clear the hitch ball on the tow vehicle.
  2. Back the tow vehicle until the hitch ball is directly under the coupler ball socket. If you are working alone, a backing aid mirror may be helpful.
  3. Be sure the coupler latch-locking lever on the tongue is fully open. Lower the tongue jack until the ball is firmly seated in the socket. Close the coupler latch and secure it with a locking pin, bolt or small padlock.
  4. Raise the tow vehicle and trailer with the tongue jack high enough to allow room to install the weight distribution hitch spring bars.
  5. Attach the spring bars according to the hitch manufacturer's instructions.
  6. After adjusting the spring bars, lower the jack, remove the foot or wheel, and fully retract the jack. Step back and check that the trailer is level from front to back. Do not permit the front to be lower than the rear on tandem axle trailers; this reduces tongue weight and loads the front axle, reducing sway stability. Adjust the hitch ball height if necessary.
  7. Adjust the sway control system according to the manufacturer's instructions.
  8. Connect the safety chains. Loop each chain through a suitable attachment eye on the tow vehicle and insert the chain quick coupler through an appropriate chain link. Adjust each chain length so it is as short as possible, but still permits full turn angles without becoming tight. Both chains should be the same lengths and short enough to cradle the trailer's tongue off the ground if the trailer ever accidentally becomes uncoupled. Be sure to close the quick coupler by tightening the threaded connector. WARNING: NEVER ATTACH SAFETY CHAINS TO THE HITCH BALL OR TO ANY REMOVABLE PART OF THE HITCH!
  9. Connect the breakaway switch lanyard to an attachment eye on the tow vehicle. Be sure that the switch lanyard is adjusted so the switch is not activated during a full "jackknife" turn. REMEMBER: the breakaway switch's emergency braking feature requires a fully charged battery on the trailer. This important safety item is required in most states including California.
  10. Plug the 12-volt electrical cord into the mating tow vehicle socket or plug.
  11. Run an operational check of stop lights, turn indicators, running lights and electric brakes before driving off.
  12. Reverse the process for unhitching.

Curt Manufacturing, one of my trailer hitch manufacturers, has created a great video demonstrating how to hitch up a trailer:

Once you have the hitch installed, it's time to wire up your tow vehicle to electronically hook up to your trailer. Please read the Lights and Brakes article next.

Return from Trailer Hitches back to Home