We've seen it a hundred times: The enthusiastic new RV owner is shocked to learn that their new travel trailer or fifth wheel doesn't actually come with everything needed for proper towing. There are additional expenses that our sales team will explain before each purchase, but if you bought your RV elsewhere and perhaps were not aware of what is needed to tow your new toy down the road safely, here is a handy guide to get you started.
It All Starts With Specs
Finding the correct trailer hitch for your truck or SUV can seem like an overwhelming task. There is a ton of information out there, but it actually comes down to only a few things.
Your first stop is the owner's manual for your vehicle, where you'll find your vehicle's towing weight limits. This should happen before you pick out a trailer of any kind, as you need to be sure your tow vehicle can handle the weight. Remember, towing empty is very different than hauling the same trailer that is full of luggage, camping equipment, food, LP tanks, and more. Keep a comfortable margin there so you don't overstress your vehicle.
Time To Get Hitched
Once you have an RV picked out, your next step is to find a hitch that is designed for the trailer's weight and type, and one that will fit your vehicle. That last part is usually quite easy, since most receiver hitches are designed to be vehicle-specific. You'll need the year, make, model, and style of your vehicle to start.
The next thing to consider is what hitch class you need, which will depend on how much trailer you're towing. Cars and smaller trucks will use a Class 1, 2, or 3 hitch, while larger trucks (say, half-ton on up) will use Class 3, 4, or 5. This is a great subject to discuss with your dealer or RV mechanic. Using the chart below as an example, a travel trailer weighing 3,000 lbs. could be towed by a minivan, and would need a Class 2 or Class 3 hitch.
A hitch is only one component of a towing system, and it won't work without a ball mount. Just like the hitch, it's important to find the correct version for your specific needs. Luckily, most manufacturers will stamp or label the correct trailer ball size on the coupler at the tongue, but if yours doesn't have that, a few quick measurements should do the trick.
What you'll need is the correct shank size that matches the receiver tube opening of your hitch, a weight rating that meets or exceeds your gross trailer weight, and a rise or drop to help level your trailer. Easy peasy.
- Find the correct weight rating for your trailer, just as with the hitch.
- Measure receiver tube opening of your hitch. That's the shank size you need.
- Measure the inside of your trailer coupler to see what diameter ball you will need.
- Determine if you have a drop or rise. This is a little more complicated, but basically you want your hitch and trailer coupler to ride level (or very close to level) to the ground. If your hitch is higher than your trailer coupler, you'll need a drop mount, and if your hitch is lower than your trailer coupler, you'll need a rise mount. Measure the difference between the top of your receiver tube opening and the bottom of your trailer tongue to see how much rise or drop you have.
Stability Is Everything
If your trailer weighs more than 3,500 lbs., you may want to look into a weight distribution hitch. Rather than having a simple ball mount as the only means of attaching your trailer, this is a special setup that spreads out some of the tongue weight across the axles for increased stability. Make sure you choose a model that has a weight rating about 20% higher than your actual tongue weight, for the same reasons listed above. Reese Straight Line and Blue Ox are both good examples, easy to set up and reasonably priced.
For even more stability, you might need a sway control hitch, which uses a variety of ways to make sure your RV doesn't sway back and forth on the road. With one of these in place, the bumper pull doesn't move around because of wind or passing vehicles. As you might expect, it is a bit more expensive–up to $100 more than a hitch without this feature.
Five Wheels and Beyond
Fifth wheel and gooseneck hitches range from 16,000 lbs. to 30,000 lbs. in capacity, and are in a different class altogether, as they use a special mount in the bed of your pickup truck. Check for the same weight ratings as with other hitches.
In most cases, you'll want a dealer or qualified mechanic to handle the installation of a WD hitch or gooseneck setup. Some kits may appear straightforward to the determined DIY individual, but the complexity tends to be fairly in-depth, and one or two of those bolts may need to be torqued to a few hundred pound-feet, which is beyond the scope of most hand tool kits.
Get Your Wallet Ready
Most standard hitches are generally priced from around $150 to $800. Stepping up to a gooseneck hitch will run you from $400 to $800, and a fifth wheel hitch can go from $500 to $2,500. To get a high-quality, multiple-point sway hitch with chains, pulleys, and hydraulic pistons, fully installed, it can cost up to $2,000 or more. Plus, in addition to your hitch, you may also need brake controllers and possibly other wiring harnesses.
As you can probably tell, purchasing an RV is just the beginning. There are various options to choose from, colors or materials to pick out, and even added TVs or bed upgrades. What most folks forget about, however, is how their awesome new toy will be towed, which means finding the right hitch. Hopefully now you are fully prepared!
Got any tips or tricks regarding RV hitches and all their different varieties? Feel free to post them in the comments below!