Need to tow something? It’s the best way to move stuff from here to there, and it’s simple in theory. But the reality of hitching a trailer to your truck requires you to have the right pieces working together for a safe, successful haul.
If you need a great tow setup and aren’t sure where to start, let’s look at the different types of trailer hitches available and what might lead you to choose one over another. Remember that this guide is meant to offer general information, but can’t capture the detail of every vehicle, tow hitch, and trailer combination out there.
It’s important to consult with your local trailer rep or dealership to make sure that you choose the right products for your vehicle’s GVWR, the trailer you intend to haul, the cargo it’s carrying, and any other specs you need to know. Let’s look at the different types of tow hitches available so you have a better idea of where to get started.
A rear receiver is a trailer hitch that bolts to the underside of the vehicle. It spans the rear of the vehicle with a tube into which a hitch accessory, like a ball hitch, can be mounted. Rear receiver hitches are generally divided into five (5) classes. These trailer hitches are a good choice for cars, crossovers, SUVs and pickup trucks, and they’ll max out around 20,000 lbs.
Choosing a receiver hitch? Once you have determined the right class for your vehicle, fixed vs. adjustable hitches may be a question you need to answer. There are benefits and potential drawbacks for both types. With a fixed trailer hitch, you have less versatility and fewer moving parts. The tow hitch is fixed at one height, which is a great choice if you need to haul the same thing every time. With an adjustable type, the trailer hitch height is adjustable, so if you need to be prepared to haul almost anything, it might be a good choice. Remember – only the hitch height is adjustable; so double check the hitch, truck, and trailer’s weight rating every time you load up.
A drop hitch receiver is designed to alter the height of your trailer’s hitch receiver. It helps ensure your trailer and your tow vehicle are better balanced and remain under control on the road by aligning the trailer hitch with the receiver. Evenly distributed weight is easier, safer, and more aerodynamic to move.
Fifth Wheel & Gooseneck Hitches
For heavier hauls than a receiver hitch can handle, like an RV or a king-sized car hauler trailer, look at gooseneck or fifth wheel (5th wheel) tow hitches. The two are similar, but have a few distinct differences to consider.
When talking about hooking up the 5th wheel, there isn’t actually an extra wheel involved – instead, a 5th wheel hitch is a heavy-duty, U-shaped hitch that mounts into the bed of a pickup truck. Using a king pin style connection, it offers a stable tow with reduced sway. Although it’s more invasive in the truck bed than a gooseneck hitch, a 5th wheel may be worth the trade-off for its reduced noise and improved stability for taller trailers, like RVs.
A gooseneck trailer hitch is another heavy-duty hauling option. While similarly mounted in the bed of a truck, it uses a ball hitch instead of the U-shaped fitting of a 5th wheel hitch. A gooseneck hitch is a good solution for heavy hauling, and ultimately beats even the toughest 5th wheel on towing capacity by a few thousand pounds (think around 30,000 lbs. for the 5th wheel and around 35,000 lbs. for the gooseneck hitch). Still, it might not be as smooth to maneuver or as quiet on the road.
Can’t decide? Need both types of hitch for your truck? Adapters are available to allow one truck to tow either a 5th wheel or gooseneck style trailer, using a 5th wheel-to-gooseneck adapter.
Weight Distribution Hitches & Sway Bars
A weight distribution hitch is a receiver hitch attachment. It is designed to distribute the tongue weight of a trailer across the vehicle and trailer for increased control.
Sometimes called equalizer hitches, they use torsion bars to evenly distribute weight and help keep things steady. Sway bars are another optional add-on to help create a smoother tow, and your local trailer dealer or trailer hitch installer may already sell them together.
There are circumstances that will necessitate a weight distribution hitch – for example, once the weight you are towing is greater than one-half the weight of your vehicle. (For a 6,000-lb. truck, that’s around 3,001 lbs.) Make sure to read and be familiar with any local laws that apply to your towing plans.
A pintle hitch is ideal for heavy-duty hauling and may be more commonly spotted in industrial or agricultural applications. Towing up to 60,000 lbs. is a serious undertaking and a pintle hitch is designed with a hook and ring coupling mechanism to maintain a dependable connection.
Pintle and ball hitch combinations, or pintles for receiver hitches, are also available for versatile towing. Pintle hitches for lighter towing are also available.
Size Breakdown – Receivers and Hitch Balls
Trailer hitch receivers come in four standard sizes – 1 ¼”, 2”, 2 ½” and 3”. The measurement refers to the width of the receiver opening, where the hitch drawbar is inserted and locked into place with a pin.
The hitch ball fits into the drawbar and couples the trailer to the tow vehicle. Trailer hitch balls are most commonly found in 1 ⅞”, 2”, and 2-5/16” diameters, with 2” as the most common size and 3” as an outlier that’s less commonly used. Hitch balls are sized for towing capacity, and in general, the smaller diameter balls are designed for lighter duty towing.
When you think about tow vehicles you’ve seen recently, like pickups pulling cargo trailers or campers and RVs, the most common scenario you’ve seen is a 2” hitch ball used with a class 3 receiver, or a medium duty trailer hitch.
Get Ready to Hitch On
Once you’ve determined which vehicle you’ll use to haul your cargo, which trailer you’re loading it in, and what type of trailer hitch you need installed, it’s time for installation! Trust a pro for this part of the process, unless you already know what you’re doing or can afford to learn on the job. Once your trailer hitch is installed, you can hook up the trailer and hit the road.
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Trailer Hitch Receiver Sizes FAQ – ETrailer
What Does GVWR Mean? – Sam Leman Automotive Group
Should You Buy an Adjustable Hitch? – USA Trailer Sales
What is a 5th Wheel? The Ultimate Guide – RV Share
What’s the Difference Between a Gooseneck Hitch and a 5th Wheel Hitch? – We Explain - Motor Trend
Do You Need a Weight Distribution Hitch When Towing? – Earnhardt Ford