Travel Trailer Hitches Demystified
One of the most important aspects of towing a travel trailer (or any trailer for that matter), is making sure you have the right hitch for the job. If your hitch won’t handle the weight of your trailer, not only are you risking damage to your vehicle, more importantly you’re putting your safety and the safety of others at risk. But fear not! We’ve put together this helpful guide to demystify the lingo surrounding travel trailer hitches. Give it a read and you’ll know all the right questions to ask before you hitch up your new RV!
Trailer Hitch Basics
Trailer hitches are bolted or welded to the frame of your tow vehicle, either at the rear of your SUV or in the bed of your pickup truck. There are two common types of hitches that you’ll see in the RV world. Rear receiver hitches are typically used by the towable travel trailer crowd. If you purchased the trailer tow package with your SUV, this is likely what you have. With this type of hitch, a hitch ball mount slides into the receiver of the hitch (typically a 1-1/4-inch or 2-inch square). It’s secured to the hitch with a metal pin, which in turn is held in place with a metal clip. Your trailer’s hitch coupler then connects to the ball. If you want, you can get an adjustable hitch ball mount that allows you to raise or lower the height of the ball to ensure your trailer is level with your car.
The other main category of hitches you’ll see on camper tow vehicles are those specific for towing fifth wheels. Designed to carry the heavier loads demanded by fifth wheels and large horse trailers, the hitch receiver is mounted in the bed of a pickup truck so that the weight of the trailer is directly over the rear axle of your truck.
There are 5 classes of hitches on the market. The higher the class rating, the more the weight capacity the hitch has.
Class 1: Tows up to 2,000 pounds gross trailer weight (GTW), with a maximum 200 pounds of tongue weight. You could tow a very small camper with a class 1 hitch, a small boat, or a jet ski trailer. They’re also great for hitch-mounted bike racks and cargo carriers.
Class 2: Often found on compact SUVs, class 2’s can tow trailers up to 3,500 pounds GTW, with a maximum 300 pound tongue weight.
Class 3: You can pull up to 6,000 pounds with this type of hitch, with a maximum tongue weight of 600 pounds. These are most commonly seen on vans, pickup trucks, and mid-sized SUVs. This is the perfect class for towing a lightweight travel trailer like the Bowlus (the GVWR of the Terra Firma or Endless Highways Edition is just 4,000 pounds!).
Class 4: These hitches are used for large travel trailers being pulled by full size pickups, vans, or any vehicle that is rated to tow between 10,000-14,000 pounds (depending on the hitch). Maximum tongue weight is typically 1,000 pounds.
Class 5: Required for the largest travel trailers that weigh in between 12,000 and 18,000 pounds (depending on the hitch specifications), class 5 hitches are most commonly seen on heavy duty pickups.
Do I Need A Weight Distribution Hitch?
While you won’t need one if you’re towing a Bowlus, if you’re pulling a larger and heavier travel trailer, you’ll likely need to invest in a weight distribution hitch. With a standard hitch, the trailer’s tongue weight is transferred to the rear axle of your SUV. If it’s too heavy, the back of your vehicle sinks and the front lifts up, compromising your ability to control your rig. As the name suggests, a weight distribution hitch uses spring bars to spread out the weight of the trailer so that it’s not all resting on the hitch ball mount, and thus your rear axle. Evenly distributing the weight can reduce the side-to-side sway RVers experience when towing larger travel trailers. It also allows you to maximize the towing capacity of your hitch. For example, a class 4 weight distribution hitch can take up to 14,000 pounds of GTW, with a 1,400 pound tongue weight. This compares to a standard class 4 model that can only handle 10,000 pounds GTW and 1,000 pounds of tongue weight.
The major downside to weight distribution hitches is their price. They can be costly, and if you’re towing a lightweight travel trailer like the Bowlus, you don’t need one, especially if you’re not exceeding your vehicle’s towing capacity.
Other Hitch Accessories
Larger, heavier travel trailers also often require the use of sway control bars. Trailer sway is most frequently caused by passing semis and wind gusts. Most commonly felt by drivers towing larger RVs and 5th wheels, it’s a side-to-side motion that at best is exhausting because you’re constantly correcting your steering. At its worst, it can be dangerous. Sway control hitch bars can be added to most trailer hitches and while costly, they can provide a smoother ride for bigger rigs. Like with weight distribution hitches though, sway bars are not necessary when towing a lightweight travel trailer like the Bowlus.
Most states require that you use some sort of safety chains or cable between the trailer’s coupler and the tow vehicle. This is a standard feature on every Bowlus. If you have safety chains, a best practice is to crisscross the chains underneath the coupler.
Hitch locks are another interesting accessory you might consider. Designed to stop some unsavory person from stealing your luxury travel trailer, a hitch lock prevents someone from lifting the receiver and unhitching the camper from your tow vehicle. That’s why every Bowlus comes with a hitch lock. Most hitch locks must be unlocked with a key.
Hitching Up For Safety
So now you have the basics of trailer hitches, how do you actually hook the thing up? With a Bowlus it’s easy! Simply back your tow vehicle into position and drop the trailer hitch coupler onto the hitch ball. If you need to make adjustments, you can use the Bowlus’ jockey wheel to move your lightweight trailer into position. It’s an easy one-man or one-woman operation. With other trailers, the process is more painful and often requires a lot of back and forth to get the ball exactly below the coupler (a little to the right…too far…back to the left a bit…too far…). Typically a two-person job (driver and guide), hitching your typical travel trailer can be a good way to test your relationship!
Once the coupler is secured on the ball, make sure the safety chains are in place, the hitch pin is in the receiver, and the clip is in the hitch pin. Connect the cable that controls the lights on your trailer and give them a test. Check the brake lights, hazard lights (which also tests the turn signals), and the trailer’s running lights that come on with your vehicle’s headlights.
If you have a larger travel trailer, you’ll need to invest in tow mirrors for your vehicle so that you can safely see to change lanes, merge into traffic, and operate your rig safely on the road. These aren’t necessary with a Bowlus (except in a few states). Our aerodynamic profile means you can safely see without the clunky addition to your SUV’s side mirrors.
And that’s it! Hitching (and unhitching) your Bowlus is an easy two minute process. Before you head out, it’s always a good idea to take a walk around your campsite to check for any belongings you forgot to pack. Make sure you’ve disconnected and stored your power cord and water hose. And now, you’re ready to hit the road!