Types of Trailer Hitches

Types of Trailer Hitches

Last Updated August 8, 2023 | Meghan Drummond

If you’re looking to tow a trailer, a recreational vehicle, or a classic car, you’ll need to know about trailer hitches. While these devices are relatively simple, there are many varieties, each suited to slightly different tasks.

The first thing you’ll need to consider with your trailer hitch is your vehicle. Ultimately, how much you can tow will depend on your vehicle, your hitch, and any hitch accessories. The tow rating of the weakest component determines your towing ability. So there’s no need to get something more heavy-duty than your vehicle.

A new Jeep Wrangler, for example, can tow roughly 3,500 pounds. Even if you get a trailer hitch rated at 6,000 pounds, you’ll still only be able to tow 3,500 pounds.

Aftermarket vs Factory Installed

Many vehicles can come with a hitch right from the factory as part of an optional “tow package.” They usually include a receiver hitch, wiring, and sometimes extras like transmission coolers.

If you’re buying used, or have recently picked up a new hobby that would be easier with a hitch, you can also install an aftermarket hitch. Aftermarket hitches should be just as high quality and durable. Often the factory-installed hitch is still manufactured by a third party anyway. As long as you correctly install the wiring, they should be equally practical.

If you don’t have the needed tools or experience, many garages will also install a hitch for you. The cost on this is pretty reasonable, depending on the type of hitch and how complicated the install is.

If you’re planning to haul heavy loads, then adding some of the same mods that the factory would have is a good idea. Adding a transmission cooler or changing the rear gear ratio on your differential makes towing easier.

Common Trailer Hitches

There are many different styles of trailer hitch. Here’s a comparison of the most common ones.

Hitch Type Comparisons
Hitch TypeTow CapacityVehicle Type
Receiver Hitch Up to 20,000 pounds Cars, SUVs, Vans, Trucks, and Heavy-Duty Trucks
5th Wheel Hitch Up to 30,000 pounds Pickup Trucks
Gooseneck Hitch Up to 38,000 pounds Pickup Trucks
Pintle Hitch Up to 60,000 pounds Heavy-Duty Vehicles

Receiver Hitches

The most common type of trailer hitch is called a receiver hitch. Receiver hitches come in standard sizes and with class ratings that indicate their capacity. Receiver hitches can also be modified with the use of tow balls, receiver extenders, and D-ring assemblies.

For most towing purposes, you’ll want some style of receiver hitch.

A plain receiver hitch, not attached to a vehicle

Receiver Hitch Classes

A receiver hitch’s capability is indicated by its class rating, which is a number between 1 and 5. The hitch class rating will also tell you other important information, like the size of the receiver.

Receiver Hitch Classes
Hitch ClassVehicle TypeTow CapacityReceiver Size
Class 1 Cars and Crossovers Up to 2,000 pounds 1.25”
Class 2 Cars, Crossovers, and Minivans Up to 3,500 pounds 1.25”
Class 3 Crossovers, Minivans, SUVs, and Trucks Up to 8,000 pounds 2.0”
Class 4 SUVs and Trucks Up to 10,000 pounds 2.0”
Class 5 SUVs and Trucks 16,000-17,000 pounds 2.0”
Class 5 - Commercial Duallies and Chassis Cab Trucks 18,000-20,000 pounds 2.5”

Receiver Hitch Locations

Receiver hitches are the most flexible in terms of location. Most of the time you’ll see tow hitches on a vehicle’s rear. But there are actually a lot of different hitch placements.

A front-facing hitch is a perfect mount for a winch or a snow plow. A bumper hitch is great for spare tire mounts or bike racks.

Because receiver hitches are so multifunctional, their locations are equally varied.

Heavy-Duty Hitches

If you have a pickup and plan to tow large items, like an RV or livestock trailer, then you’ll need something more heavy-duty than a receiver-style hitch. The three most frequently used heavy-duty hitches are 5th wheel, gooseneck, and pintle hitches.

5th Wheel vs Gooseneck Hitches

Both fifth wheel and gooseneck hitches are attached inside the bed of a truck. Both are capable of towing up to 30,000 pounds. But there are many differences between the two.

Side by side images of a 5th wheel and gooseneck hitch

A fifth wheel hitch uses a jaw and kingpin style connection. Because of this, it’s a rather bulky connection style that will need to be removed in order to use the rest of the truck bed. This is also what gives it its stability, and is why the fifth wheel hitch is the preferred style for travel trailers and campers.

The gooseneck hitch uses a ball and coupler style connection. This leaves a lot more of the truck’s bed usable, and is much less expensive to install. For farm-use, the gooseneck hitch is a much more sensible option.

Pintle Hitches

A heavy-duty pintle hook hitch

A pintle hitch is composed of two pieces: a heavy-duty hook and a jawed lock. This makes the pintle hitch the most flexible style of heavy-duty trailer hitch. If you’re planning to tow on rough roads with lots of bumps, this is a great towing style.

Unfortunately this flexibility is also the pintle hitch’s greatest weakness. The lack of full articulation allows the trailer and vehicle to bind up. If your trailer rolls, it will most likely take your vehicle with it.

Pintle hitches are also noisy.

Hitch Accessories

Depending on what you’re towing, you may also need to equip your hitch with a hitch accessory. Hitch accessories are almost all designed for receiver hitches.

Tow Balls

One of the most useful towing accessories is a tow ball. These plain, metal balls attach to a receiver hitch. The ball shape allows the trailer to be flexible when you’re going up and down hills or need to make turns.

Different trailers require different tow ball diameters. Generally, standard trailers need a tow ball with about a 2” diameter. Tow balls can be easily changed out as needed for different trailers.

It’s important to note that tow balls are not off-road recovery points and should never be used as such. You could cause serious injury if you choose to do so.

Drop Hitches

A drop hitch is necessary when a trailer and a coupler don’t reach the same height. You want your trailer to be level, for stability and safety.

Drop hitches are designed to fit into a standard receiver and lower the opening of the receiver. Many drop hitches have adjustable lowering heights, and some even come with tow balls in multiple sizes.

If you have a lifted Jeep or truck, then you’ll most likely need a drop hitch.

Weight Distributing Hitches

This receiver hitch attachment is used to ensure that weight is distributed evenly. That means less sway, more stability, and improved safety. With a weight distribution hitch, you can tow at your maximum capacity without causing excessive strain.

Generally, you can find out what size load you’ll need a weight-distribution hitch at in your vehicle’s owner’s manual.

A weight distribution hitch

Hitch Tighteners

A loose hitch connection can cause distracting rattles and noises. Hitch tighteners fix that problem. These devices are especially useful with lighter loads. Bike racks, trailer balls, and cargo carriers are all known for loud rattling.

Hitch Extenders

Though hitches are primarily used for towing, they have a variety of other uses as well. For rear-mounted spare tires or bike racks, you may need your hitch to come out further so you don’t scrape your paint. With an extra foot of space, it becomes a lot easier to use your hitch the way you want.

Finding the Right Towing Setup

People tend to associate towing with large trailers, but even small cargo racks need a good hitch setup. Whether you’re driving a small sedan, an off-roader, or a truck, you can take advantage of the extra capabilities a good-fitting trailer hitch provides. Just be sure to take your vehicle’s towing capacity and the types of things you plan on hauling into account when choosing your hitch.

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