Towing Made Easy
Understanding the hitching and safety equipment features of travel trailers and fifth-wheels leads to stress-free travels.
Towing a travel trailer or fifth-wheel isn’t difficult, but it does require an understanding of the towing equipment, paying close attention to road conditions and traffic, and looking ahead to anticipate what other drivers may do. While this is true of any vehicle you’re towing there are some differences between fifth-wheels versus travel trailers.
Fifth-wheels typically represent a larger investment both in the trailer and the tow vehicle, so it’s a good idea to learn as much as you can before making a purchase and know what is involved in hitching, towing, and backing. Fifth-wheels can be more stable and easier to maneuver since more of the weight is centered between the tow vehicle’s axles and lateral pressure by the trailer doesn’t try and push the truck’s body one way or the other as can happen with a travel trailer.
For a travel trailer, you may get bombarded with many different hitch designs and features from which to choose. The first thing you need to know before towing anything is the type of hitch receiver your vehicle has, if any. If the vehicle was never intended for towing, it won’t be equipped with a hitch receiver, but some vehicles offer one only when a tow package is available. If this is the case, the appropriate hitch receiver can often be added at a qualified RV center; just make sure it’s the same rating as the one offered at the factory level.
Once you’ve made the purchase, you need to learn the safe and proper way to hitch your fifth-wheel or travel trailer to the tow vehicle. When hitching up, don’t get sidetracked from the task at hand, take your time, and maybe even create a checklist to follow.
Like any new activity, practice makes perfect and you understand the equipment and how it works. In no time at all, you’ll be towing like a pro.
Travel-Trailer Towing Basics
Hitch receivers are categorized in classes based on weight ratings. Note that the ball mount and the hitch ball both need to be rated for the hitch class to safely handle the load.
WC: Weight carrying
WD: Weight distributing
- WC; rated up to 2,000 pounds GTW.
- WC; rated up to 3,500 pounds GTW.
- WC/WD; WC rated up to 6,000 pounds GTW/
- WD rated up to 10,000 pounds GTW.
- WC/WD; WC rated up to 10,000 pounds GTW/
- WD rated up to 14,000 pounds GTW.
- WC/WD; WC rated up to 12,000 pounds GTW/
- WD rated up to 17,000 pounds GTW.
Weight-Distributing Hitch Systems
- Roadmaster Nighthawk
- Fastway e2
- Curt TruTrack
Smaller, lighter hitches are dead weight or weight-carrying, meaning all of the trailer’s tongue weight is carried by the hitch itself. These hitches usually attach to the bumper or vehicle’s frame.
Larger hitches are weight-distributing (WD) and use spring bars (also called hitch bars) to distribute some of the hitch weight to the front axle of the tow vehicle and the trailer axle(s), and always attach to the tow vehicle’s frame via a receiver.
Smaller WD hitches are also available for today’s crop of ultralight trailers.
Hitch systems are rated for the GTW as well as the hitch weight, so it’s important to know these figures ahead of time. Be sure to buy from a known and reputable manufacturer.
- Blue Ox Sway Pro
- Camco Recurve
Travel trailers are more susceptible to sway than fifth-wheels due to the lateral pressure applied to the hitch ball under some driving conditions such as crosswinds or passing commercial traffic. That pressure, due to the distance from the rear axle to the hitch ball, produces leverage that tries to force the back of the tow rig one way and the front end the other way with the rear axle as the fulcrum.
Quite possibly the most feared situation in towing, trailer sway can be caused by a number of factors including buffeting from vehicles traveling in the opposite direction and crosswinds. The trailer begins to oscillate from side to side, exerting its forces on the tow vehicle, which can result in a loss of control.
Longer trailers have more surface area for the wind or a pressure wave from a passing truck to push against. Trailers built with lightweight materials for easier towing are even more easily influenced by these forces.
Correct weight distribution is important, as well as proper loading of the trailer. The hitch should carry at least 10% of the trailer’s weight, and insufficient weight on the hitch increases the likelihood of sway.
Even when all the correct conditions have been met, you may still experience trailer sway. Consider getting a hitch system that incorporates sway control, as some WD hitches do. If you already own a hitch, add-on systems are available. These are sometimes friction-type sway-control systems that make it more difficult for sway to begin, but they aren’t designed to stop it once it starts.
To practically eliminate sway (there will always be some, but imperceptible sway is as good as none), look into a complete hitch system designed for this purpose or an add-on electronic sway-control system. They’re not cheap, but both have been proven to be extremely effective.
Keep Your Cool
If you encounter significant trailer sway, release the accelerator and manually apply the trailer-brake control—not the vehicle’s brakes. The trailer-brake control will apply the brakes on the trailer only, forcing it to pull straight again and slowing the tow vehicle and trailer at the same time.
- REDARC Tow-Pro Elite
- Hopkins Agility
- Curt Echo
Many newer tow vehicles incorporate an integrated trailer-brake controller. If your tow vehicle does not have one, there are a number of aftermarket products available that are easy to install and adjust. Since just about every trailer has an electric brake system that operates independently from the tow vehicle, a trailer-brake controller is a necessity. They are also required by law once the trailer you’re towing exceeds a minimum weight (check with your state’s laws for specifics, though they are generally between 1,500–2,000 pounds).
- When hitching a travel trailer, don’t just assume that the hitch ball is in the coupler. Pull the coupler handle all the way back and lower the coupler onto the ball. You should be able to feel the coupler slide into place with a satisfying clunk. Keeping the trailer hitch mechanism properly lubricated will help the smooth latching process.
- Have someone help you with a trailer-light safety check to verify that the running lights, brake lights, and turn signals work in unison with the tow vehicle once the power cable is plugged in. Then pull ahead safely and activate the brake controller manually to make sure the trailer brakes are working.
- Cross the chains. Form an X underneath the coupler by connecting the right chain from the trailer to the left loop of the receiver, and vice versa. This will form a cradle that will keep the coupler off the road should it come off the ball, provided there’s not too much slack in the chains. You don’t need a huge loop of chain hanging down and almost touching the ground. Uncoupled, the chains should support the trailer tongue and prevent it from dragging on the ground.
- Get in the habit of constantly checking the side view mirrors, even if you have cameras. They’ll help you stay in your lane, determine if the trailer is swaying, and keep tabs on other vehicles that may be alongside.
- Confused on which way to turn the wheel when trying to back a trailer using your mirrors? Here’s a tip from commercial trucking schools: Turn the bottom of the steering wheel in the direction you want the rear of the trailer to go.
Fifth-Wheel Towing and Hitching Basics
Unlike a travel-trailer hitch, which simply mounts to a receiver already on the tow vehicle, a fifth-wheel hitch is mounted inside the truck bed and is attached to the truck’s frame to mount the hitch system.
Fifth-wheel “hitch-ready” packages are available from the Big Three, whereby the frame is already prepped to handle the weight and forces generated by a fifth-wheel and includes universal hardware for attaching the hitch.
Manufacturers also offer so-called puck mounting systems, with the holes already drilled in the bed and sockets incorporated into the frame rails designed to accept unique fasteners. With these systems, it’s simply a matter of installing the hitch in the sockets, locking the fasteners in place, and heading out on your travel adventures.
If you anticipate purchasing a new truck to haul your fifth-wheel, it will be worth your while to opt for a fifth-wheel-ready model. If you’re prepping a truck without a factory-installed system, be sure to conduct research into qualified RV centers and check their track record through online reviews. Your hitch manufacturer may also be able to recommend a reputable installation center.
Fifth-wheel hitches are designated by the maximum weight of the trailer (GTW) they are designed to tow. A 16,000-pound (or 16K) hitch is rated for up to 16,000 pounds GTW, for example, and a 20K hitch is designed for a GTW of up to 20,000 pounds.
Because you won’t necessarily know the weight of your trailer when it’s full of freshwater, propane, and supplies, it’s a good idea to base any hitch purchase on the trailer’s GVWR and “buy up.” For example, if your trailer has a GVWR of 18,000 pounds, search for a 20,000-pound hitch.
- Trailair FlexAir
- B&W Companion
It’s a good idea to browse a variety of hitch systems. If you’re on a budget, you may want to get the most inexpensive hitch that will safely do the job and not “overbuy.” If you plan to tow frequently, will be towing a heavier trailer designed for full-time use, or you like your machinery to operate smoothly, a hitch with airbags, shocks, or some other suspension system will cost significantly more but will make for more refined operation and a more comfortable ride.
Also, some hitch assemblies are lighter than others, and some are designed to be assembled and disassembled in sections, making installation and removal easier (or at least possible) for one person.
You might want to consider a sliding hitch when using a shortbed truck. The hitch provides more cab-to-trailer clearance in turns. Manually operated “slider” hitches allow the driver to slide the hitch rearward for extra clearance before negotiating a sharp turn, which will do the job—so long as you don’t forget to do it. EVER.
A better bet is an automatic sliding hitch, which slides rearward when the truck and trailer begin a turn. It’s more expensive but far more convenient, and much cheaper than repairing your truck and trailer if the front cap and cab crash into one another.
Another option is an extension that bolts to the existing pin box, wherein the pin is prevented from turning in the fifth-wheel-hitch saddle via the extension incorporating a rotating turret that moves the pivot point approximately 22 inches rearward.
Like hitches, these pin-box extensions are also available in different weight ratings, even with a suspension system of some kind to absorb road shock. Just make sure that the hitch you own or are considering for purchase is compatible with a pin-box extension because not all of them are.
Weight For It
Weight is an important consideration with a fifth-wheel. A fifth-wheel typically places twice the hitch weight (percentage-wise) on the rear of the tow vehicle as a travel trailer does, or roughly 20%. So, in addition to making sure the tow vehicle has an adequate tow rating for the trailer, it must also have an adequate payload rating (the weight of all cargo and passengers) and GAWR to manage that weight.
Fifth-wheel trailers are prized for their stable towing characteristics. Because the pivot point is in the bed of the truck, not at the bumper, the trailer can’t exert the same degree of leverage on the tow vehicle, so the combination is much less susceptible to spooky handling due to wind and passing trucks. Trailer sway, which is an occasional problem in travel trailers, is also virtually nonexistent with a fifth-wheel.
However, the forward pivot point of a fifth-wheel and the general physics of directing the trailer’s movement when backing also means the trailer reacts more slowly to inputs from the tow vehicle, which is an important consideration when rounding corners or backing into campsites and parking spaces.
Making the Connection
The V-shaped opening in the hitch saddle is designed to help guide the pin into place, but the closer to dead center and the right vertical placement, the better. First, lower the tailgate on the truck, hang the power cord where it won’t be in the way, then slowly back up, guiding the hitch saddle opening toward the trailer pin.
When close to the saddle, raise or lower the landing gear so that the height of the leading edge of the pin box is level with, or slightly lower than, the hitch saddle (when it’s level), depending on the hitch brand. Then continue backing up until the pin finds its home. You may find it necessary to raise the tailgate partway through this process to avoid contacting the front of the trailer.
If you did it right the first time, the jaws will close. This will allow the locking arm (handle) to automatically find its travel (hitched) position or be physically moved and secured, depending on the hitch brand and model. Always confirm that the latching jaws are locked in place, with the arm in its proper position, before moving the truck.
If the hitch handle has a provision for a padlock or hitch pin to secure it in the locked position, use it. It’s a good idea to get into the habit of checking the hitch jaws whenever you’ve been away from your rig.