Buying a trailer hitch can increase the versatility of practically any vehicle. If you need space for a little more gear, you don’t need to have a bigger car or a pickup truck — you may only need a trailer hitch. But simply picking a random trailer hitch that physically bolts to your vehicle may not be the most appropriate solution. Here are some key considerations to help you find the perfect hitch to match your needs as well as your vehicle:
1. Weight Classes
Trailer hitch receivers, the parts that are attached to your car, are also assigned a weight class based on how large of a load they can safely carry. Class I receivers can handle a maximum of 2,000 pounds, Class II can tow 3,500 pounds and Class III and Class IV rated receivers can haul a load as heavy as 5,000 and 10,000 pounds, respectively. For serious towing Class V can be rated as high at 17,000 pounds.
Trailer hitch receiver opening is also important to consider. Class I and Class II receivers typically use a 1-1/4” square receiver opening. Class III and Class IV receivers typically use a 2” square receiver opening. Stepping up to heavy duty towing Class V receivers typically use either a 2” or 2-1/2” square receiver opening. Ford even went their own way in 2017 and offered a massive 3” square receiver opening. Don’t assume that if a vehicle has a certain size receiver it must automatically be able to tow a certain amount. The hitch is one factor in towing capacity, the vehicle itself is another. Which brings up our next point: staying within safe towing limits.
No matter how your hitch is rated, never exceed the recommended weight rating of your vehicle, which could be far less than that of a hitch. This information can be found in the owner’s manual. You can install a hitch with a higher weight capability than the car, but never carry or tow anything heavier than what your vehicle is designed to safely handle. Generally speaking, it isn’t recommended to tow more than 2,000 pounds with a compact or subcompact car, or more than 3,500 pounds with a mid-size or crossover sport utility vehicle.
The weight that a cargo carrier or trailer itself puts downward on the hitch is called the tongue weight. Never exceed the rated tongue weight of the hitch or the vehicle. Doing so not only risks damaging the hitch itself, but also the rear suspension of the vehicle. Trailers should always be slightly tongue heavy for safe towing, but not so much it makes the tow vehicle’s rear sag. An overloaded hitch can even lead to handling issues as the front end is raised via the hitch’s lever action using the rear axle as a fulcrum. If your vehicle looks like it is sitting down, you’ve overloaded it.
What you can carry on your hitch is as varied as every family’s interests. If you like mountain biking, virtually any Class I hitch can accept a rack that carries up to six mountain bikes. Ski racks weigh even less, and present no problem for a Class I hitch. If you’re into hunting or camping, you can put up to 200 pounds of gear on a Class I cargo carrier and still be within the acceptable tongue weight. If your toys are somewhat bigger, a Class I tow hitch can easily tow a motorcycle or snowmobile trailer, perhaps even a mini-camper. Heavier cargo loads, such as moving trailers, small boats or even a pop-up camper, can be towed by Class II hitches. A Class II cargo carrier can carry up to 300 pounds of gear.
3. Proper Installation
Once you’ve decided what you need to carry and which hitch class you need, you can proceed with installation, which is generally broken down into two parts: mechanical and electrical.
- Mechanical: A trailer hitch needs to be solidly mounted to your vehicle. Some trailer hitches are designed specifically for your vehicle, while others may require adapters or welding. Custom-fit trailer hitches usually reuse existing holes or chassis locations to ease installation. Vehicle manufacturers may also place pre-drilled or even pre-threaded points for mounting. If your vehicle has designated mounting areas, remember that these points were the ones specifically designed by the vehicle engineers for a hitch mount, so it is best to use them rather than make your own. Make especially sure that your mounting points are strong, or you could literally lose your cargo. Modern vehicle construction includes some areas that are designed to crumple in a collision and won’t work as a hitch mounting point.
- Electrical: While bike racks and cargo carriers typically don’t require an electrical connection, trailers definitely do, as the taillights must be extended to the end of the trailer. Make sure that your electrical installation doesn’t interfere with the operation of your vehicle’s taillights, brake lights and turn signals. If necessary, a powered adapter can protect the rest of your car’s electrical system. Today’s modern electrical systems are very sensitive, so an adapter is a good choice for most newer models. Many new models are wired with an adapter plug already in place for truly easy installation. Make sure any wires are tucked away and tidy and that any connections are protected from the elements.
Buying a trailer hitch doesn’t have to be difficult. Be honest about what cargo or towing needs you have and pick the solution that fits. If you think that you may need more capacity in the future, it is easier to move up a hitch class now so you only have to deal with installation once. If you have any questions or would prefer to let a pro handle installation just head to your local NAPA AutoCare location.
Check out all the towing products
Image courtesy of Flickr
Ben has been taking things apart since he was 5, and putting them back together again since he was 8. After dabbling in DIY repairs at home and on the farm, he found his calling in the CGCC Automobile Repair program. After he held his ASE CMAT for 10 years, Ben decided he needed a change. Now, he writes on automotive topics across the web and around the world, including new automotive technology, transportation legislation, emissions, fuel economy and auto repair.