Tow­ing your rig to the trail has ben­e­fits, but don’t go into it blind.

TRAILER KINGS AND QUEENS, un­tie! Or is it unite? It re­ally should be strap down.

For years and years we re­sisted the temp­ta­tion to use a trailer to drag our off-road rigs to the trail and back. Af­ter all, the jour­ney to the trail­head and back home is part of the adventure. Still, there’s some­thing to be said for tow­ing your trail rig. The trailer al­lows you to try things of­froad that you wouldn’t try if you had to road-drive the rig back home. Also, those un­bal­anced tires that are trail tough but a night­mare at about 40 mph or above are no longer a con­cern. Same goes for that bent tie rod that shouldn’t be on the road at speed but still gets the job done in the rocks and mud. We could keep go­ing, but we’re sure you get the point.

Still, jump­ing into the trailer game blind is not a good idea. What do you know about trailer tires, trailer brakes, hitch rat­ings, tongues, and load se­cur­ing straps? Did you know that the type of hitch on your truck may not meet the max­i­mum tow­ing ca­pac­ity for that very truck? Tow­ing even a light­weight trail rig on a trailer means mov­ing and se­cur­ing a lot of weight. You need to learn which tools are nec­es­sary, what rat­ings to pay at­ten­tion to, and what to check pe­ri­od­i­cally. That’s why we’re here. Let our ex­pe­ri­ences, suc­cesses, and fail­ures be your teacher when it comes to trai­ler­ing your rig to the trail, across the coun­try, or to its fi­nal rest­ing spot at the metal re­cy­cler (please don’t do that).


Un­der­stand­ing hitch rat­ings isn’t easy. With five classes of hitches, in­ves­ti­gat­ing what you can tug with your hitch on your truck isn’t ex­actly straight­for­ward. Re­search­ing hitch class rat­ings turns up wishy-washy words like usu­ally and of­ten, even on the web­sites of well-known hitch man­u­fac­tur­ers.

For the pur­poses of this story we are go­ing to keep it brief and stick to a few rules of thumb. The real tow rat­ing answers to your ques­tions come from the ve­hi­cle man­u­fac­tur­ers, and by that we mean the an­swer is in your owner’s man­ual in the glove­box. From there the type of hitch your ve­hi­cle has de­ter­mines if that rat­ing can be met. For ex­am­ple, you could have a 1-ton truck with no hitch, so although the truck is rated to tow 10,000 to 30,000 pounds, phys­i­cally (and legally) it can’t tow the small­est trailer ever in­vented. A good rule of thumb is to make sure your hitch can carry more than your truck is rated for by the man­u­fac­turer, and then dial it back to what­ever the man­ual says is safe. Overdo it and cause a wreck and you can be in se­ri­ous trou­ble even with what you thought was the proper in­sur­ance cov­er­age.

Here are the gen­eral rat­ings for Class III through Class V hitches. Any­thing un­der a Class III shouldn’t be used to tow a trailer that can hold an­other ve­hi­cle, so for the pur­poses of this story we are go­ing to ig­nore Class I and Class II hitches.

CLASS III: Usu­ally has a 2-inch square re­ceiver on a frame-mounted hitch. Can tow up to 6,000 pounds Gross Trailer Weight (GTW) with 600 pounds of tongue weight if the ve­hi­cle and com­po­nents they are at­tached to are rated for that

weight. For ex­am­ple, a com­bined weight of 3,500 pounds of load and 2,500 pounds of trailer. Or 4,000 pounds of load and 2,000 pounds of trailer. You get the idea. With a weight-dis­tribut­ing hitch a Class III

hitch can carry 10,000 pounds GTW with 1,000 more of tongue weight if the ve­hi­cle and com­po­nents they are at­tached to are rated for that weight.

CLASS IV: Usu­ally has a 2-inch square re­ceiver on a frame-mounted hitch. Class IV can tow up to 10,000 pounds GTW with

1,000 pounds of tongue weight if the ve­hi­cle and com­po­nents they are at­tached to are rated for that weight. With a weight dis­tribut­ing hitch, a Class III hitch can carry

14,000 pounds GTW with 1,400 of tongue if the ve­hi­cle and com­po­nents they are at­tached to are rated for that weight.

CLASS V: Usu­ally has a 21/2-inch square re­ceiver on a frame-mounted hitch. Class V can tow up to 12,000 pounds GTW with

1,200 pounds of tongue weight if the ve­hi­cle and com­po­nents they are at­tached to are rated for that weight. With a weight dis­tribut­ing hitch a Class III hitch can carry

17,000 pounds GTW with 1,700 of tongue weight if the ve­hi­cle and com­po­nents they are at­tached to are rated for that weight. Any­thing over that and you’re talk­ing about fifth-wheel or goose­neck trail­ers and hitches to get the job done.


Two or three pa­ram­e­ters of a hitch ball de­ter­mine how much weight it’s rated to hold and pull. The first should be ob­vi­ous

and is the ball size used (com­monly 1 ⁄ ,



2, and 2 ⁄ inches). The next pa­ram­e­ter is


16 shank size, which ranges from ⁄ - to 1 ⁄


4 4 inches. The last pa­ram­e­ter is ma­te­rial and con­struc­tion of the ball, which can af­fect the load rat­ing. Clearly, the larger the ball the harder the ma­te­rial, and the larger the shank the higher the pos­si­ble load. But two balls the same size can have dif­fer­ent load rat­ings be­cause of dif­fer­ences in ma­te­rial or man­u­fac­tur­ing. Load rat­ings for dif­fer­ent balls will be stamped into the ball it­self. The torque spec­i­fi­ca­tion for tightening the nut on the dif­fer­ent shank sizes is also dif­fer­ent, but gen­er­ally: 150 lb-ft for ⁄ -inch; 250 lb-ft for 1-inch; 450


4 lb-ft for 1 ⁄ -inch.



The front end of a trailer has the cou­pling de­vice at­tached to it. Usu­ally called a tongue, an A-frame, or trailer cou­pler, there are a few dif­fer­ent de­signs out there. Some are cast steel and some are made of stamped steel, and all are spe­cific to a trailer ball size. By that we mean the tongue size must match the trailer ball size or bad things can hap­pen. Ball size and con­struc­tion dic­tate their load ca­pac­ity,

which will be stamped or cast into the tongue hous­ing. How the tongue at­taches to the trailer varies, but the gen­eral parts of a trailer tongue are the ball socket and latch­ing mech­a­nism. Tongues are wear parts that need to be pe­ri­od­i­cally ad­justed and re­placed or re­built. Some tongues can be locked with a pad­lock, and all should be se­cured with a pin or bolt while in tow. Some tongues also hold a hy­draulic ac­tu­a­tor for surge brakes and/or an emer­gency brake ac­tu­a­tor that is con­nected to the truck with a ca­ble. If the ca­ble pulls tight (be­cause the hitch has come apart) the trailer brakes are ac­tu­ated.


Trailer chains are there in case the ball and tongue, or re­ceiver and hitch, some­how be­come dis­con­nected while driv­ing down the road. Chains hook onto part of the hitch. Of­ten the hooks on the chains or the loops on the hitch or bumper are not prop­erly rated to hold the trailer to the tow rig. That’s dumb since this is a backup that you re­ally don’t want failing. The chains should form an “X” un­der the trail­ers tongue so if things come apart the chains will act like a ham­mock un­der the tongue.


This should be ob­vi­ous, but trailer lights help other driv­ers know how long and wide your trailer is, il­lu­mi­nate the li­cense plate, and let other driv­ers know when you are slow­ing or stopped. Two stop/brake lights, two tail lights, two turn sig­nal lights, two rear re­flec­tors, one li­cense-plate light, two rear side marker lights, two rear side re­flec­tors, two front side marker lights, two front side re­flec­tors, two rear clear­ance lights, two front clear­ance lights, and three lights in a row as a trailer iden­ti­fi­ca­tion bar. That’s what’s re­quired for a trailer wider than 80 inches and less than 30 feet long with a GVW un­der 10,000 pounds. Phew! If your trailer is longer or rated for more weight, the num­ber of lights just goes up from there.

We like LED lights for their com­pact size, bright­ness, and dura­bil­ity.


When car­ry­ing ex­tra weight, it’s im­por­tant to in­crease your brak­ing power with trailer brakes. There are two gen­eral types of trailer brakes: hy­draulic surge and elec­tric. Surge brakes are con­trolled via a trailer tongue-mounted mech­a­nism that

ap­plies the trailer’s brakes hy­drauli­cally when the tow ve­hi­cle slows. Surge brakes can work well when set up prop­erly, but un­like elec­tro­mag­net­i­cally con­trolled brakes, they can­not be ap­plied with­out slow­ing the ve­hi­cle. Also, they can en­gage when you’re back­ing up a hill un­less a me­chan­i­cal stop (or a more elab­o­rate elec­tri­cally op­er­ated stop op­er­ated by the ve­hi­cle’s backup lights) im­pedes the tongue from de­press­ing and en­gag­ing the trailer brake master cylin­der.

Elec­tro­mag­netic trailer brakes use elec­tric power from the tow ve­hi­cle to slow the trailer ei­ther when the tow ve­hi­cle’s brakes are ap­plied or when the driver uses the brake con­troller to ap­ply only the trailer brakes. This is es­pe­cially help­ful if a trailer starts to sway when you’re go­ing down a steep hill, a time when slow­ing the tow ve­hi­cle may make the si­t­u­a­tion worse.

There are two types of elec­tro­mag­netic brake con­trollers: in­er­tia based and time based. In­er­tia-based brake con­trollers use an ac­celerom­e­ter to sense what the tow ve­hi­cle is do­ing and trans­late that to the trailer brakes. These are gen­er­ally a bit smoother when stop­ping. Time-based con­trollers ap­ply the trailer brakes based on gains set by the driver and are less pre­cise

than in­er­tia-based con­trollers.

Pretty much ev­ery trailer brake we’ve ever seen has been a drum, and pe­ri­od­i­cally the drums need to be ad­justed to work well. Adjustment is done through the drum back­ing plate with a spoon or a screw­driver. Turn the star wheel un­til the brakes drag slightly, and then back off a notch or two.


The tires on your trailer are its in­ter­face with the road and are just as im­por­tant as the tires on your ve­hi­cle. You want trailer tires to pro­vide lat­eral trac­tion and also trac­tion when stop­ping. As with the tires on your rig, pick­ing the cor­rect tires for what you’re do­ing will make or break your trip. While there are spe­cial trail­er­spe­cific tires, we’ve had pretty good luck with high-load-rated tires in­tended for mid­size pickup trucks. What­ever you run, it’s im­por­tant that your tires are all sim­i­lar di­am­e­ters and have a high load rat­ing.

Of­ten over­looked is check­ing trailer tire pressure. We like to keep the max­i­mum rec­om­mended pressure printed on the side­wall.


Just like your trail rig’s front (and maybe rear) axles, the axles on your trailer have wheel bear­ings, and these bear­ings live no easy life. They are con­stantly un­der heavy loads and spun down the road at high­way speeds, and they lit­er­ally fight each other go­ing around a turn on a dual-axle trailer. Con­sider, too, the lack of main­te­nance and the oc­ca­sional hard hit on a curb, a pot­hole, or rocks, and you can be sure those bear­ings (and tires) have lived a tough life.

Ev­ery time we head out on the road for a long trip with our trailer we like to jack up each wheel and check out the bear­ings. This in­cludes see­ing how they spin and how much play there is in the bear­ings. If we have to, we re­place, repack, or tighten the wheel bear­ings and al­most al­ways

add grease. Dif­fer­ent axles have dif­fer­ent ways to grease and ac­cess the bear­ings. Some have caps, some have greasable fit­tings. The greasable fit­tings do make keep­ing on top of main­te­nance eas­ier, but hey, if you’ve never repacked a bear­ing there’s no time like the present to learn.


If you don’t safely se­cure your load to your trailer you won’t make it far down the road and you’ll end up in lots of trou­ble. Most of how you se­cure your load is tied (pun in­tended) to how your trailer is built. The best method to se­cure a ve­hi­cle on a trailer is to use straps at­tached to the axles (or A-arms for in­de­pen­dently sus­pended rigs) of the rig and then from there to se­cure an­chors on the trailer. At­tach­ing straps to the chas­sis of the towed ve­hi­cle may seem like a good idea, but when the trailer hits a bump and the sus­pen­sion com­presses, the straps will loosen and could fall off. An­chors welded to the chas­sis of the trailer are the best places to at­tach the other end of the straps. The trailer we use most of­ten has an­chors welded to the chas­sis and metal deck of the trailer. Al­ter­na­tively, the stake pock­ets of the trailer make for great an­chors, although not all straps work well with stake pock­ets. Our straps come from Mac’s Cus­tom Tie Downs, 800.666.1586, mac­scus­

Be­fore ev­ery ma­jor trip we jack up each trailer tire, check the bear­ings for ex­ces­sive play, and tighten if nec­es­sary. We also pop the caps of the hubs and check the grease, adding it when pos­si­ble. On the trip, when­ever we stop for fuel or food, the...

Trailer axles have dif­fer­ent weight rat­ings that reflect how much weight they can hold. Since most trail­ers that will haul a 4x4 have two axles, take the axle weight rat­ing and dou­ble it to get an idea of what the trailer can hold. Most four-lug axles...

Some folks swear by trailer-only tires. Af­ter a stint of exploding trailer tires (a lot of our tow­ing oc­curs in the 110-de­gree South­west), we’ve had bet­ter luck with these light truck tires. They are rated for 2,183 pounds per tire, and we keep all...

Surge brakes use a tongue mounted hy­draulic sys­tem that ap­plies the trailer brakes when the tow ve­hi­cle slows.

Our tow rig has been around for a while and so has our brake con­troller, but it still works… most of the time. It is about time to up­date it, and lots of con­trollers and wiring har­nesses are now avail­able. There is loads of in­for­ma­tion and tons of...

Cross­ing the chains un­der the tongue of the trailer cre­ates a ham­mock that can grab the tongue of the trailer if the hitch comes apart.

Here is the tongue on a trailer we use a lot. This is a cast steel hitch has a pin style cou­pler. The front of the tongue has a hinge on it and a spring loaded cou­pler. When open the hinge is open and the tongue can go over the hitch ball when closed...

The ball size and load rat­ing is stamped, machined, or cast into the ball as shown. Hitch balls and tongues must match in size, whether 17⁄8, 2, or 25⁄16 inches.

DOT reg­u­la­tions re­quire lights on any trailer over 80 inches wide, with clear­ance lights at the widest points and three lights in a row as a trailer iden­ti­fi­ca­tion bar. This is sim­i­lar to the light­ing re­quired on a wide truck like a du­alie or Ford’s...

This ball has a built-in rise once again to help keep the trailer level with the tow rig. Trailer hitch balls should be pe­ri­od­i­cally greased and in­spected for wear. If the ball (or tongue) wears enough, these two parts can pop apart. That’s very bad.

Re­ceiver hitches come in dif­fer­ent styles so you can keep the trailer level. Drop-hitch re­ceivers come in many dif­fer­ent drop heights and can be used as shown for lifted ve­hi­cles or flipped for use on stock or low­ered ve­hi­cles, or very tall trail­ers.

A weight-dis­tribut­ing (WD) hitch spring loads the con­nec­tion be­tween tow ve­hi­cle and trailer. This helps equal­ize the load be­tween both axles on the trailer and both axles on the tow ve­hi­cle (rather than only the axle clos­est to the hitch). A WD hitch...

The Class III hitch is prob­a­bly the most com­mon hitch you’ll bump into when tow­ing a ve­hi­cle trailer. Here a steel cra­dle with a 2-inch square re­ceiver is bolted to the frame of the truck or SUV. With a max gross weight rat­ing of 6,000 pounds and 600...

Our trailer straps from Mac’s Cus­tom Tie Downs have been in ser­vice for years yet aren’t show­ing any ma­jor signs of wear. Our trailer is a steel deck trailer with these col­laps­ing tie-downs welded to the deck and chas­sis. Al­ways check and retighten the...

The di­rect hook ratchet straps with chain ex­ten­sions from Mac’s Cus­tom Tie Downs are per­fect for strap­ping down a rig (or two) to the stake pock­ets of a trailer. They al­low the strap to be at­tached around a steel cor­ner with­out dam­ag­ing the fab­ric...

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