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.
(click image to enlarge)
Figure 3-1: Class 1 Through Class 5 Trailer Hitch Receivers
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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-bearingt carrying hitches.
Weight Distributing Hitch
A weight distributing hitch (also called a "load equalizing hitch") is designed to distribute the tongue weight of a trailer across all four
wheels of the tow vehicle. Weight distributing hitches are used in the same Class 3-5 receivers as a weight carrying hitch. Any vehicle with a Class 3-5 receiver can use a weight distributing hitch.
There are a couple of key differences between these units and weight carrying models. The main difference is that a weight distributing hitch uses long rods called "spring bars" ( #2 on the
schematic above) to exert leverage on your tow vehicle's frame, transferring some of the tongue weight to the vehicle's forward wheels. Without a weight distributing hitch, heavy tongue weight
tends to lift the tow vehicle's front wheels and weigh down the vehicle's rear end. With a weight distributing hitch, your entire towing rig will ride level and be more stable on the road. Weight
distributing hitches are also adjustable for different trailer heights. You can also add sway controllers to a weight distributing hitch. While WD hitches can help reduce some sway, they are notsway
controls themselves. Only a sway control can significantly reduce or eliminate sway.
Front Mount Hitch
For certain applications, having a trailer hitch receiver at the front of your vehicle may be convenient. For example, a front-mounted hitch allows you to easily use a boat ramp by maintaining close control of your trailer. Front mount hitches may be of any class, and are easily installed on most full-size pickup trucks, vans and SUVs.