Not every vehicle comes from the factory with a trailer hitch, but that doesn’t mean you can’t add one yourself. Trailer hitch installation can be a smooth and frustration-free process, as long as you’re properly prepared for each step. There’s no question that a hitch can add significant practicality and utility to your automobile, and having the right tools and know-how for the task can go a long way. Just take your time and remember that the goal is to have a safe, correct installation. With that in mind, here are three tips to help you get the installation done quickly and safely.
1. Clearance and Safety
Even if you’re working on a pickup truck or SUV, it’s always going to be easier to proceed with a trailer hitch installation if you have enough clearance under the rear of the vehicle to work comfortably. Before you get out your jack, however, you’ll want to make sure that your vehicle is in park (or in gear, if it’s a manual transmission), that your parking brake is set and that you’ve chocked one of the forward wheels to keep it from rolling. You want to work on a flat, level area with roughly six feet of free space around the back of the vehicle for maneuvering. Give the work area a good sweep to remove any rocks, dirt, or debris that might impede your movement while under the vehicle. You may end up sliding in and out from under the vehicle a few times during the project, so a few minutes of cleaning prep can make a difference.
Once you are under the vehicle check to see if the exhaust system is in the way of where you’ll need to work. You may want to unbolt the hangers and support it with jack stands to give yourself extra space. Often exhaust pipes and other exhaust components are secured using rubber hangers that can be slipped off and on using a small pry bar. The spare tire may need to be removed if it is in the way. Just remember to put everything back where you found it when you are done.
Lastly, it’s important to remember to use jack stands once you’ve got the vehicle up off the ground. Never work underneath a vehicle that’s supported exclusively by a jack, because even the best tools can fail and create a dangerous situation. A good sturdy set of service ramps can also be used to get the rear of the vehicle up off the ground if you prefer. Again, make sure the wheels are chocked and the parking brake is set.
2. Have the Right Tools
Your hitch is most likely going to require some assembly before you can install it. Take some time to sit down and read the entire instructions manual all the way through. At the very least, you’ll want to have a set of sockets or wrenches on hand to tighten the bolts together. A torque wrench is never a bad idea, especially if the instructions cite a specific tightness measurement. You may also need a screwdriver, depending on the design. If you are lucky the installation instructions will list out all the tools you need to make things easier. Your trailer hitch installation might require you to drill holes in your vehicle’s frame in order to add the mounting bolts, which means you’ll want to have either a cordless or corded electric drill on hand. If you are drilling take extra care to mark out the locations exactly as specified by the instructions. Before you begin, look for any components that might be located behind where you are drilling to avoid damaging them with a long drill bit. Take your time drilling and use the right drill bits for the material. Take care around freshly drilled holes, as edge can be sharp.
Some vans, trucks and sport-utility vehicles come with pre-drilled mounting holes (or if you are really lucky pre-drilled and tapped), so make sure you verify that fact before you start drilling. It’s also a good idea to double-check that the holes you are using are an exact match for the bolts that are supplied with the hitch. If there are existing tapped mounting holes take a minute to clean them out with a round brush as road grit may clog the threads.
3. Make It Easier On Yourself
The hitch itself can be awkward to wrangle while you’re kneeling or lying on your back, so using a scissor jack or other compact hack to hold it in place while you position the bolts can save you a lot of sweat and tears. A spare pair of jack stands makes for a great hitch holder. You can also hold the hitch in place with C-clamps to achieve the same effect. Of course, the best option is almost always recruiting a friend or family member to help you hold the parts in place during your trailer hitch installation, because teamwork usually makes every job that much easier.
Once your trailer hitch is installed you can now open yourself up to the world of hitch mounted accessories. Towing a trailer isn’t the only use for a hitch. Bike racks, cargo carriers, even an extra step make for expanded utility for your vehicle. And if you have a little more spare time while the tools are out, now is also a great time to consider adding a backup camera if you don’t have one. Finally if the process looks a bit too daunting you can always visit your local NAPA AutoCare and let the experts handle it while you relax.
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Having been bitten by the car bug at a young age, I spent my formative years surrounded by Studebakers at car shows across Quebec and the northeastern United States. Over ten years of racing, restoring, and obsessing over automobiles lead me to balance science writing and automotive journalism full time. I currently contribute as an editor to several online and print automotive publications, and I also write and consult for the pharmaceutical and medical device industry.