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

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 pounds of tongue weight this should cover most trail rigs and trail­ers out there. The sticker re­minds us that just be­cause the hitch can tow 6,000 pounds does not mean the ve­hi­cle can han­dle that load. That is spe­cific to the ve­hi­cle. If you want to tow more than 6,000 pounds and your truck or SUV is rated to do so, look to weight-dis­tribut­ing (WD) hitches, or Class IV, and V hitches up to 17,000 pounds gross weight and 1,700 pounds of tongue weight. More than that and you’ll need to look into a goose­neck or fifth-wheel hitch.

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 in­creases the tongue weight you can have and over­all load of the trailer with tor­sion bars and pre­loaded latches that re­quire a spe­cial tool to load (shown). WD hitches are also help­ful when your tow rig’s nose points to the sky when the trailer is at­tached, or if your trailer causes sway­ing go­ing down the road.

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 hinged cou­pler is closed and a steel col­lar slides for­ward over the cou­pler. The col­lar is held in place with a pin. Other tongues have a trig­ger latch, a wrap-around yoke latch or a thumb latch.

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 Raptor. A li­cense plate light is also a must, as are sev­eral re­flec­tors that are of­ten in­te­grated into the lenses of the brake lights.

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.

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 first thing we do is go back and put our fingers on the hub. A warm hub is fine. Hot to the touch is OK too. But if you can’t leave your fingers on the hub, you can be sure some­thing’s wrong. You want to catch these prob­lems early be­fore a bear­ing seizes or the trailer axle’s spin­dle gets dam­aged. If that hap­pens, most of the time you have to cut the old spin­dle off and re­place it with a new one or re­place the whole axle—not some­thing eas­ily done on the side of a high­way, although some spin­dles do bolt on.

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 are good for 1,500-2,000 pounds; five-lug, 3,500; six-lug, 3,500-5,000; and eight-lug sin­gle-wheel, 8,000. Du­alie axles are usu­ally good to 10,000-12,000 pounds, and wet (oil-bath hubs) go up from there.

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 four aired up to the max pressure of 50 psi.

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 trailer re­lated parts at etrail­

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 ve­hi­cle straps af­ter you’ve driven a few miles down the road and things have had a chance to set­tle.

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 ma­te­rial of the strap.

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