Getting Hitched: Theories On Which Hitch Is Right For You

Towing a trailer seems like an easy task. Drop the trailer on the ball and go. However, there is so much more to it. Once you have the right equipment, though, it is fairly easy. There are four main ways to tow a trailer with a truck: a ball bolted directly to the bumper, a receiver hitch bolted to the frame below the bumper, fifth-wheel, and gooseneck. The purpose of this guide is to help you determine which is the right choice for you.

If you already have a trailer, that will likely be your starting point on which path to follow. If you haven’t yet picked out your trailer, this guide will help you understand what you need to get before you make that big purchase. Also, make sure to look at the specific ratings of your truck. You wouldn’t want to plan on towing a 40-foot toy hauler fifth-wheel with a Chevy Colorado. We’ve linked up with B&W Trailer Hitches to provide some specific product options as well.

Tongue Weight

Too much weight on the tongue can make it difficult to steer your vehicle, and not enough weight on the tongue can cause your trailer to sway. – Beth Barlow, B&W Trailer Hitches

First, let’s discuss an often overlooked portion of towing; tongue weight. Also known as pin weight for fifth-wheel and gooseneck towing. “Too much weight on the tongue can make it difficult to steer your vehicle, and not enough weight on the tongue can cause your trailer to sway,” said Beth Barlow of B&W Trailer Hitches. “I like to think of it this way: tow ratings are based on the capacity of a truck’s engine, transmission, and brakes to safely handle the weight of a loaded trailer. But that doesn’t mean all of the weight can be placed on the part of the truck where the trailer is connected. The truck’s tires, frame, and suspension have to be able to handle that amount of weight and those standards are usually 10 percent for bumper [and frame mounted receiver hitch] towing and 20-30 percent for gooseneck or fifth-wheel towing.”

B&W Trailer Hitches offers multiple types of hitch balls that can be used for many applications.

Bumper Tow

Most trucks come straight from the factory with a “step” style bumper that has pre-drilled ball mount holes. Towing with this setup is for light-duty applications only. Many manufacturers use a max tongue weight of 300 to 500 pounds, and typically have a max tow rating of around 1,200-3,000 pounds. This limits towing duties to small boats, jet skis, and small utility or camping trailers.

Additionally, the lack of height adjustment can be problematic. Having a level trailer drastically improves towing characteristics down the road. B&W offers multiple specialty and heat-treated hitch balls that can be used for bumper mounts.

Frame Mounted Receiver Hitch

The majority of towing on the road is done with a receiver hitch that is bolted to the frame of the vehicle and protrudes just below the bumper. Rated Class 1 through 5, not all receiver hitches are the same.

Class 1 and 2 are light-duty receiver hitches and are typically designed for passenger cars and small crossovers and SUVs. Both of these classes use a 1-1/4-inch receiver opening for the ball mount. Towing limitations are roughly the same as a bumper tow situation and are mostly used on vehicles that do not have a traditional-style rear bumper.

Class 3 is where the majority of towing starts, and is the most common receiver hitch used. Many half-ton and older heavy-duty trucks come from the factory with a Class 3 receiver hitch installed straight from the assembly line. On average, Class 3s have an 800-pound max tongue weight rating and 8,000 pounds pull rating. These numbers can be bumped to 1,200 and 12,000 respectively if a weight distribution system is used in conjunction.

Using a 2-inch square receiver opening, B&W offers many different size drop ball mounts to account for varying vehicle and trailer heights. There are fixed height, adjustable, and models with multiple ball-size options. As a rule of thumb for many trailers, the surface of the ball mount plane should be approximately 17 inches off the ground. That can vary widely, however, considering there are many different trailer manufacturers and types of trailers.

A Frame mounted receiver is the most common trailer hitch on the market for non-commercial vehicles. The multiple classes available allow for the right hitch to be found for just about every vehicle on the market. B&W offers the one above for popular late-model pickups and is rated for a maximum of 16,000 pounds.

The key is to keep your trailer as level as possible. Having the trailer nose high or low can decrease the effectiveness of the trailer’s natural tracking ability behind the tow vehicle as well as change the braking dynamics of the combination.

Class 4 and 5 are getting into the big dogs. Class 4 starts off at 1,000-pound tongue weight and 10,000-pound total weight and can be bumped to 1,200 and 12,000 with a weight distribution system. Class 5 steps it up to 1,400-pound max tongue weight and 14,000-pound max trailer weight.

These classes typically use the same two-inch square receiver opening, though some Class 5s come with a 2.5-inch opening. Adapters are available to reduce the size to two-inch, but it is generally recommended to get the proper 2.5-inch ball mount. B&W offers its 16K Heavy Duty Receiver Hitch for many applications. Using a two-inch receiver opening, the unit is rated for 16,000-pound trailers with a max tongue rating of 1,600 pounds. Keep in mind, though, just because the hitch is rated for that much, the vehicle may not be. The B&W unit features a three-piece interlocking design and six-point frame mounting.

A weight distribution system can make a world of difference in leveling your load. The system allows the trailer and truck to work together to spread out the load. Photos courtesy of Equalizer Hitch.

Weight distribution hitch systems can be an invaluable tool for towing. The specially designed ball mount has two bars, known as spring arms, and extend out to points on the trailer tongue. The idea behind it is to evenly distribute the weight of the tongue to all four tires of the tow vehicle, helping to keep it level. It is imperative to have a level tow vehicle so traction, trailer control, and steering are most effective. Some weight distribution systems also utilize tongue mount brackets that help reduce a back-and-forth sway motion of the trailer.

Fifth-wheel hitch systems are extremely popular for large travel trailers. B&W offers an extensive range of options for many late model trucks.

Fifth-Wheel Hitch Systems

Much like the design of a commercial big rig, fifth-wheel hitches are designed so the coupling device is on the vehicle and not the trailer. The hitch assembly bolts into the bed of the vehicle, directly over the rear axle. Doing so provides a much higher tow rating as well as much more trailer control and better maneuverability. Fifth-wheel hitches typically range from 16,000 to 30,000-pound max tow rating with a max pin weight of 5,000 pounds.

Typically, fifth-wheel systems are used for recreational and travel trailers that spend much of the time on relatively flat roads. Fifth-wheel systems have improved dramatically over the last few decades and provide much more bound-free movement for uneven roads and land.

B&W offers many different fifth-wheel hitch systems. The Patriot 18k Fifth Wheel Hitch is designed to mount on a rail system for quick and easy installation and removal. The company also offers systems designed to work with factory Ford, GM, or Ram puck systems. Preinstalled as an option, the puck system is essentially a head start for a fifth-wheel install.

Gooseneck Hitch Systems

Gooseneck hitch systems allow for less intrusion in the bed of the truck. Mostly used for the towing of equipment, camping, or horse trailers, goosenecks are substantially more beefed up at the tongue than a fifth-wheel. Often times, the frame rails of a gooseneck trailer bend and come together at the hitch point, all as one piece.

 

The gooseneck trailer is also naturally less prone to binding during off-camber vehicle maneuvers, making them the first choice for farm/livestock and construction equipment trailers. With nearly all of the hitch either incredibly low profile or, like the B&W TurnOverBall, completely below the bed floor, the bed of the truck is far more usable than with the bulky fifth wheel. The TurnOverBall only puts a four-inch hole in the bed and the ball itself can be … you guessed it, turned over.

As you can see, each system has its own purpose. This is why it is typically recommended to figure out which trailer you’ll be using prior to making your hitch purchase. As you would expect, frame-mounted under bumper receiver hitches can certainly be installed on a truck that also uses a fifth-wheel or gooseneck. Just keep in mind the maximum abilities of the tow vehicle when making your trailer selection.

Bonus Tips To Help In Tow Situations

As an added bonus, here’s an extra tip: invest in some good rear mounted lighting options. There isn’t anything much worse than trying to connect to a trailer, any kind of trailer, at night and not able to see what you are doing. The factory reverse lights are generally weak at best and obviously turn off when the vehicle is no longer in reverse. Since it isn’t a smart idea to leave your vehicle in reverse when you need to get out and check clearances and alignment, some auxiliary lighting is beneficial.

We've all struggled to get our rigs hooked up without enough light, so adding auxiliary lighting when hooking up a trailer is a no-brainer. Plan ahead and snag some of the Rigid Industries SR-Q Back Up Lights.

Rigid Industries recently launched its SR-Q Back Up Light systems. Both flush and surface mount systems are available and kick out 1,568 raw lumens each. The 20-watt lights pull a meager 1.45 amp draw, making it a great light for long period uses when hooking up a trailer, whether at the camp site, in the field, or in the race pits.

Article Sources

About the author

Jake Headlee

Jake's passion started at a young age wrenching on cars with his Dad. Obtaining that glorious driver's license sparked his obsession with grease and horsepower, and the rest is history. Soon, he was a general mechanic and suspension specialist, and currently designs and modifies products for the off-road industry. Jake enjoys rock crawling, desert racing and trail running, and writing in his spare time.
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