11/04/2014

Selecting the Right Hitch

It is critical that you understand your vehicle's maximum towing capacity before you begin towing. If you exceed the manufacturer's rated capacity you are creating an unsafe driving situation, and you are very likely to damage your vehicle's engine, transmission, rear axle, brakes and wheel bearings, and you will void the manufacturer's warranty.

If you have not yet purchased a tow vehicle, remember that in general, AWD and 4WD vehicles have a lower towing capacity than a comparable 2WD vehicle. Pickup trucks with extra-cab and crew cab designs also tend to have lower towing capacity than comparable standard cab designs. It pays to research towing capacities thoroughly before you buy, and it's always best to buy a tow vehicle with a much larger towing capacity than you intend to use.

Checking Your Vehicle's Owner's Manual

Your best means of determining your vehicle's towing capacity is to read your vehicle's owner's manual and to compare the information there with the certification plate on your driver's door sill. The owner's manual will provide detailed instructions and limitations, usually accompanied by tips for safe towing. If your vehicle is not capable of towing any trailer, that will be stated explicitly in your owner's manual. If you do not have a copy of your owner's manual, many automakers allow you download a copy freely from the Internet.

Finding Your Vehicle's Compliance Certification Label

After you've read your vehicle owner's manual, it's a good idea to double check the compliance certification label. This is typically a sticker placed somewhere in the driver's door sill area. This label will have several fields, labeled with acronyms such as "GVR," "GAW," and "GCWR." These fields are defined as follows:

  • Gross Vehicle Weight (GVW)

This is the vehicle's standard curb weight, plus an allowance for a standard amount of luggage, gas and passengers, as predicted by the manufacturer. Of course, your vehicle's actual weight will vary depending on how much luggage, gasoline, and passenger weight you have actually placed in the vehicle, so the GVW is an approximation.

  • Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR)

This is the maximum safe actual weight of your vehicle. If you exceed this weight, the vehicle's engine, transmission, brakes, and so on will be stressed beyond their design limits.

  • Gross Combination Weight (GCW)

This is the actual weight of your vehicle (GVW) plus the actual total weight (not the tongue weight) of your trailer. This number must not be higher than your vehicle's GCWR.

  • Gross Combination Weight Rating (GCWR)

This is the maximum safe weight of your combined vehicle and trailer. This weight includes all people, luggage, and other material. If your combined towing setup exceeds this weight, your vehicle's engine, transmission, brakes, and so on will be stressed beyond their design limits.

  • Gross Axle Weight (GAW)

These numbers are the weights expected to be placed on your vehicle's front and rear wheels. The two numbers are likely to be different to account for engine weight and other factors.

  • Gross Axle Weight Rating (GAWR)

This is the maximum safe weight that can be placed on your front or rear wheels. The two numbers are likely to be different to account for engine weight and trailer tongue weight and luggage. If you exceed this weight rating on either the front or rear tires, you can create a dangerous driving situation or even damage your vehicle.

Checking Trailer Weight

After you understand your vehicle's weight capacities and general towing capacity, you need to learn your trailer's weight. Unless your trailer is home-built, it will have a VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) plate installed somewhere.

VIN Plate
This plate not only carries the trailer's serial number, it also lists the trailer's unloaded GVW and a maximum GVWR for the trailer and a GAWR for each axle on the trailer.

The below chart shows representative weights for a number of commonly-used utility trailer styles.

Commonly Used Utility Trailers
If you don't have access to a VIN plate or other weight information for your trailer, or if it's hard to estimate the total weight you're adding to the base GVW of the trailer, the best way to find the weight is to load your trailer as you expect to use it and take it to a vehicle scale.


Such scales are sometimes available to recreational users at state highway weigh stations, refuse transfer stations, and commercial truck stops. The advantage of this method is that you learn the actual weight of your loaded trailer. Be sure to call ahead and confirm that you are welcome to use these scales, however.

Checking Tongue Weight

The last capacity you have to consider is your trailer's tongue weight. That's the weight on the coupler when your trailer is fully loaded and ready to go. In general, you want to try for about 10% of the total trailer weight to be carried on the tongue. Most receivers and other hitches assume that the tongue weight will be about 10%, and sticking to this ratio helps improve your towing experience.

You can measure your trailer's tongue weight with a common bathroom scale if it's less than about 300 pounds. If the weight is greater than 300 pounds, you can use some boards and pipes and set up a test as shown in this image:

Using this setup, you take a reading off the bathroom scale and triple it to find your actual tongue weight.

Keep in mind that you can change your trailer's tongue weight substantially by changing the way you load the trailer. If you place more weight in front of your trailer's axle(s), you will generate more tongue weight. If you place too much weight behind the axle(s), you can actually generate negative tongue weight.

If you have too much tongue weight, your combined tow rig will sag at the coupler and you will find that your tow vehicle has to work much harder to pull the load. If you do not have enough tongue weight, your trailer will tend to wander and if you have negative tongue weight, your vehicle's rear tire traction can be reduced with dangerous consequences. Always strive for about 10% tongue weight and you'll get better results.

Shopping for a Hitch

When you know what hitch class you need, you can contact us about the designs that are available. We may have some recommendations for your particular vehicle. Some hitches are made to be unobtrusive and hide under your vehicle's bumper, while others are designed to be more prominently placed or can not be hidden due to the vehicle's undercladding. You have many options in hitch style, quality, finish and in some cases even color, so investigate and invest in the trailer hitch that best meets all your functional and aesthetic needs.

If your vehicle came with a hitch installed by the manufacturer, check to make sure that the class of hitch on your vehicle matches your needs. If not, you can usually find a good aftermarket hitch with increased capacities - but again, never exceed the manufacturer's rating capacity for your tow vehicle.

The below chart shows representative weights for camping and travel trailers, and also relates those standard trailer weights to appropriate hitch classes.

Commonly Used Camping & Travel Trailers

Types of Hitches

When you go shopping for towing equipment, one of the most bewildering choices you face is selecting a hitch. There are many different options available, and it's easy to become confused about the details of each kind and class of hitch. 

Figure 3-1 shows the most common trailer hitch classes, with information about the maximum trailer weight and tongue weight allowed. In this figure "WC" stands for "Weight Carrying," meaning a basic ball mount and coupler. The "WD" ratings are higher, and those limits require you to use a Weight Distributing ball mount. "TW" stands for Tongue Weight, which is the weight on the trailer coupler when the trailer is fully loaded.

Figure 3-1
The receivers shown in Figure 3-1 are the most commonly used towing solution. However, both lighter and heavier-duty options are also available. The following definitions will help you understand the full range of options. The definitions are listed in order from lightest duty to heaviest, followed by definitions for Weight Carrying and Weight Distributing hitches and Front Mount receivers.

Bumper Mount



The most basic trailer hitch for a passenger car, SUV, or truck is simply the vehicle's bumper. Most truck bumpers and many SUV bumpers come equipped with a hole in the center of the bumper sized to accommodate a standard trailer ball. If your trailering needs are limited to less than 1,000 pounds and 100 pounds of tongue weight, this style of hookup and some basic wiring may be all that you need. Although some bumpers are rated for towing, use caution and never exceed the capacity of the lowest rated towing component.

Bumper Hitch

Bumper Hitch
One of the problems with a Bumper Mount for a trailer ball is that unless you purchase a quick-change trailer ball, you're limited to one ball size. Sooner or later, you'll need to tow a trailer with a different-sized coupler. A light-duty solution is a basic bumper hitch. These devices are available in a variety of designs that bolt to your vehicle's bumper and provide a standard 2-inch ball mount receiver and safety chain attachment points. While these devices resemble a class 1-5 hitch, remember that they do not add any weight-bearing capacity to your vehicle. Your basic bumper rating is still in effect. Weight distribution hitches can not be used in conjunction with this type of hitch.

Class 1 & 2 Receivers

Class 1 & 2 Receiver Hitch
These light-duty receivers are generally designed for passenger cars and smaller Crossover SUVs, but can be found for many makes and models. These classes use a smaller 1 ¼-inch receiver tube for the ball mount. Class 1 hitches are rated to tow trailers up to 2,000 pounds with 200 pounds of tongue weight, and Class 2 can handle 3,500 pound trailers with 350 pounds of tongue weight. It's important to remember, however, that these hitches do not increase the total weight that a given vehicle can tow.

Class 3 Receivers

Class 3 Receiver Hitch
The most common receiver class installed on full-size pickup trucks and SUVs. If your full-size truck is equipped with a tow package, it's probably a Class 3. These receivers have a 2-inch square receiver tube. Class 3 receivers can handle up to 8,000 pound trailers and 800 pounds of tongue weight with a weight carrying ball mount, or up to 12,000 pounds and 1,200 pounds of tongue weight with a weight distributing hitch. This generally exceeds the towing capacities of most non-commercial vehicles, so a Class 3 hitch is rarely the limiting factor when towing.

Class 4 & 5 Receivers

Class 4 & 5 Receiver Hitch
These receivers are the heaviest-duty trailer hitches that can be installed at the rear of a tow vehicle. A Class 4 hitch can carry 10,000 pounds and 1,000 pounds of tongue weight with a weight carrying hitch, or up to 12,000 and 1,200 pounds with a weight distributing hitch. Class 5 receivers can carry up to 14,000 pounds and 1,400 pounds tongue weight. Class 4 & 5 receivers use the same 2-inch receiver tube as a Class 3, but some Class 5 receivers use a 2 ½-inch receiver tube. To go beyond the capacity of a Class V receiver, you need to install a Gooseneck or Fifth Wheel design that places the trailer's tongue weight in front of a pickup truck's rear axle.

Fifth Wheel Hitch

5th Wheel Hitch
These heavy-duty hitches mount in a pickup or commercial truck bed forward of the rear axle. Fifth wheel hitches are similar in design to those used by commercial 18-wheeler tractor-trailer rigs. Fifth wheel trailer capacities range from 16,000 to 30,000 pounds and up to 5,000 pounds of pin weight (tongue weight), depending on the design of the hitch, and the rating by the manufacturer. Fifth wheel hitches are commonly used in large campers, or travel trailers, and car haulers. Fifth wheel trailers are prized for their ease of maneuverability and stability, which is why they're a common choice for large campers. Most fifth wheel hitches have some "pivot" capabliltiy to absorb bumps and contours of the road. Fifth wheel hitches are the only type of hitch where the coupling device is part of the hitch and not the trailer.

Gooseneck Hitch

Gooseneck Hitch
Like the fifth wheel, this hitch design moves the trailer's tongue weight forward of a pickup truck's rear axle. The Gooseneck ball mounts vertically on the truck bed. Some designs can be folded down or quickly removed to allow full access to the truck bed when the trailer is not hooked up. Only trailers designed for use with a Gooseneck hitch can connect to this style of hitch, and they cannot connect to any other style of hitch.

Gooseneck Hitch
 Typical applications for a gooseneck include livestock trailers, car & toy haulers, and industrial/commercial trailers. Gooseneck hitches can haul up to about 30,000 pound trailers with 6,000 pounds of tongue weight. Goosenecks are typically installed on 1-ton trucks with dually (4 wheel) rear axles to handle that level of weight. Gooseneck hitches cannot be installed on passenger cars, SUVs, vans, or RVs, but are frequently installed on commercial truck conversions.

Weight Carrying Hitch

Weight Carrying Hitch
Any ball mount inserted into a receiver of any class, or a ball installed on a bumper or bumper hitch is considered a weight carrying hitch. The name means that all of the trailer's tongue weight is being carried on the ball and receiver. Tongue weight is one of the key limits to any receiver's towing capability, so weight carrying hitches cannot pull as much trailer weight as a weight distributing hitch installed on the same receiver. Weight distributing hitches add stability and increase the towing capacity of most weight-bearing carrying hitches.

To start looking for your perfect hitch use our hitch finder. If you need help, our online chat operator can assist you and as always, you can call or email the store. All of our contact information can be found by visiting the Contact Us page on our website.

1 comment:

  1. I used to have a Chevy Silverado 2500HD. I tow it with a trailer. To do that i need to buy a weight carrying hitch. can you please tell me how can i check the hitch before buying?
    Thanks for sharing this informative article!

    ReplyDelete