The first things to learn about trailer towing are the names of the various components and parts used to connect the vehicle and the trailer. There's a whole range of terms devoted to towing, and you need to know the correct names to make the right choices. The following definitions will be used throughout this site, and each trailer hitch and towing definition includes a pointer to another Chapter in this Hitches & Towing 101 guide that provides more information about that component or part.
Your tow vehicle is the car, truck, van, or SUV you use to pull your trailer. Depending on the make and model, your tow vehicle can safely tow up to approximately 16,000 pounds with the right hitch. The largest pickup trucks can tow up to approximately 25,000 pounds with a fifth wheel hitch. Your vehicle owner's manual will tell you how many pounds your vehicle can tow safely. See Chapter 4 for detailed information on determining your vehicle's towing capacity and Chapter 12 for information on preparing your vehicle for towing. Remember, never exceed the vehicle manufacturer's specified weight capacity. The lowest rated towing component determines the maximum you can safely tow.
Table 2-1 shows examples of the variety of towing capacities for a sampling of vehicles. Consult your owner's manual to be certain of your vehicle's weight limits:
|Type of Vehicle||Example Models||Max Towing Capacity|
|Small car||Cobalt, Taurus, Avenger||under 1,000 pounds|
|Full-size car||Impala, Crown Victoria||1,000-2,000 pounds|
|Mid-size CUV||Edge, Taurus X, Equinox||2,000-4,000 pounds|
|Mid-size truck-SUV||Ranger, Trailblazer, Dakota||3,000-7,200 pounds|
|Full size 1/2 ton truck or SUV||Expedition, F150, Tahoe, Durango Hybrid||5,000-11,200 pounds|
|1-ton or 3/4 ton truck or SUV||F250, Silverado HD, Ram 2500, F350, Ram 3500||10,000-16,000 pounds|
|Commercial Truck||F450||16,000 pounds
24,600 with fifth wheel
|Class C or A RV||Marathon, Jamboree||up to 10,000 pounds|
Table 2-1: Example of a Variety of Vehicle Towing Capacities
Any wheeled construction designed to be pulled by another vehicle. Recreational, Farm, and light commercial trailer types include camper/travel trailers, livestock trailers, open utility and flatbed trailers, enclosed auto and gear haulers, boat trailers, car-towing dollies, and even automobiles being flat-towed with a tow bar. See Chapter 9 for information on hooking up your trailer, and Chapter 10 for information on setting up and towing with a dolly or flat-towing an automobile "dinghy-style" behind your RV.
A short two-wheeled trailer designed to cradle the front wheels of a car while leaving the rear wheels on the road. These light-duty trailers are used for short hauls or for dinghy-towing an automobile behind an RV or pickup with a slide-in camper. See Chapter 10 for more information on tow bars & dinghy towing.
A V-shaped bar with a towing coupler designed to flat-tow a car behind an RV or other tow vehicle. With a tow bar, the towed automobile is the trailer, while the tow bar provides only the coupler and clearance from the rear of the tow vehicle. Using a tow bar is often called towing "dinghy-style." See Chapter 10 for more information.
All trailers are required to have the same signaling lights as a powered motor vehicle. The vast majority are legally required to carry taillights, turn signals, and brake lights that are connected to the tow vehicle and actuated in sync with the vehicle lights. See Chapter 6 for more information on lighting and integrating trailer wiring with your tow vehicle.
The point where a trailer is attached to your tow vehicle. Hitches range from extremely light duty (a mounting point on the vehicle's bumper*) to extremely heavy duty (a fifth-wheel attachment located over a pickup truck's rear axle. Selecting the correct type of trailer hitch for your tow vehicle's towing capacity, and your trailer's requirements is a critical factor in successful towing. See Chapter 3 for complete information on the available types of trailer hitches. * Please note that although some bumpers are rated for towing, they are rarely recommended. Working tongue weights often pull the bumper down at an angle, which can compromise towing safety as well as detract from the aesthetics of the vehicle.
Weight Distributing Hitch
A special device used to haul very heavy loads with conventional receiver style hitches. A weight distributing hitch uses long rods called "spring bars" that attach back to the trailer frame. These spring bars exert leverage on the frame of the tow vehicle to distribute weight evenly between its rear and the front wheels. For more information on weight distribution hitches, see Chapter 3.
Hitch Ball Mount
Also called a "stinger" or a "draw bar," the ball mount is a square steel tube with a thick mounting plate to hold a hitch ball. These ball mounts are made to be easily changed so that you can quickly use a variety of hitch balls. The ball mount is held in place in the hitch with a special pin, or a locking device. See Chapter 5 and Chapter 8 for more information on ball mounts.
Also called a "tow ball," the hitch ball is half of a flexible joint that allows your tow vehicle and trailer to turn corners and navigate bumps and dips. The coupler mounts and locks on top of the hitch ball and articulates around the hitch ball. Recreational and light commercial hitch balls come in a variety of sizes including 1 7/8-inch, 2-inch, 2 5/16-inch and rarely, 3-inch. In general, lighter trailers use smaller hitch balls. While the diameter of hitch balls is fairly standard, shank diameters and the hitch ball weight ratings may differ. The rating of the hitch ball is just as important as the receiver hitch ratings themselves. See Chapter 8 and Chapter 9 for more information about hitch balls.
Hitch Pin & Clip
This pin holds the ball mount in the hitch. It is also a convenient attachment point for breakaway cables. Typically, a hitch pin is bent like a hockey stick, and drilled at one end to accept a hairpin-shaped retaining clip. A large bolt with a nut and a lock-washer is sometimes used in place of a hitch pin. See Chapter 9 for more information on using a hitch pin and clip.
Your trailer lights must be connected to your tow vehicle, and this requires wiring from the lights forward to a connector at the back of the vehicle. There are several standard formats for trailer connector wiring, with defined locations for taillights, turn signals, brake lights and trailer brake actuators. See Chapter 6 for information on trailer wiring and connectors and Chapter 7 for information on trailer brakes.
The coupler is half of a flexible joint that allows your tow vehicle and trailer to turn corners and navigate bumps and dips. The coupler fits over the hitch ball, and is designed to articulate around the ball. The size of the coupler and ball must match to operate safely. See Chapter 8 for information on matching your coupler to a hitch, and Chapter 9 for instruction on hooking your coupler to a hitch ball.
Every trailer requires at least one safety chain. This is simply a length of chain strong enough to restrain the trailer from complete separation if the hitch or coupler should fail. For heavier trailers, two safety chains are used, and set up to cross under the coupler. In this way, if the coupler or hitch fails, the nose of the trailer will be caught by the safety chains, providing a measure of control while the tow vehicle stops. Use of safety chains is required by most, if not all states. For more information on using safety chains, see Chapter 11 on Towing Safety.