Trailer Hitch Setup and Safety Tips

Woman couple a trailer

Trailer hitches are becoming more and more common as standard features on larger vehicles like pickup trucks and SUVs. While towing was once a task largely left to professional haulers, today, many drivers are willing to take on the challenges of hitching up a load. The trailer hitch is an invaluable piece of equipment that can transform an everyday vehicle into a hauling machine. However, selecting the right trailer hitch and installing it is just the start. Setting up the hitch, connecting it to the trailer, and using it safely requires just as much consideration.

Choosing a Hitch Installation Option

Man welding his trailer frame

Most bumper, rear receiver, and front receiver hitches can be installed on compatible vehicles with bolts alone. Some manufacturers produce kits for rear receiver hitches that require no bolts or drilling at all. For most larger and heavier duty hitches like weight distribution designs, professional installation is often required. Don’t be afraid to pay for professional installation with welding and frame reinforcement if necessary since it can make the hitch much more secure and safer to use.

Trailer Ball and Receiver Compatibility

Close-Up Shot of a Hispanic Man's Hands Closing the Latch on the Trailer Coupler on a Sunny Day

Make sure when installing a hitch on the towing vehicle that it is compatible with the trailer ball and mount. While most hitch styles require an intermediate part like a hitch bar or shank to connect the two parts, they still need a basic level of compatibility to be connected by just a single piece. There are receiver adapters to help overcome incompatibilities. However, all parts added to the towing hitch system will need to be rated at a higher weight limit than the hitch itself to ensure none of them fail and compromise the safety of the tow.

Hitch-specific Setup

Each trailer hitch has a slightly different setup procedure once installed and ready to use. Slight variations in procedure also exist between different models, so check the manufacturer’s instructions for specifics. These general instructions for the three most commonly used types of towing hitches will help you prepare for the challenge.

Rear Receiver Hitch

Tow hitch for towing a trailer by a passenger car

The most common type of towing hitch is also generally the easiest to set up.

  1. Start out on a flat and level surface. Back the towing vehicle up towards the trailer hitch, doing your best to line up the vehicle and trailer. Get within a foot or so of the trailer’s tongue and park. Verify the tongue is only about 1 inch above the height of the ball, or flush with it if the manufacturer recommends it, for a level fit.
  2. Use a trailer jack to lift the trailer until the tongue is at least 4 to 6 inches higher than the hitch. Back the vehicle up, aiming to center the ball perfectly under the trailer hitch. Once you think you have it right, get out and slowly release the jack to lower the trailer tongue. If the fit still looks good, use the hand crank on the hitch or push the hitch over the ball to seat it properly.
  3. Secure the crank handle and insert any pins or other secure fasteners required by the manufacturer. Complete the setup by attaching the chains and plugging in the harness for the lights.

Weight Distribution Hitch

Weight distribution trailer hitch

These hitches are similar to rear receivers, but they feature two stabilizing bars that help give more steering control and prevent drift of the towed trailer or RV. They’re a little more work to set up each time.

  1. Follow the basic steps for completing the connection of the ball and hitch, then lift with the built-in jack slightly to release pressure on them.
  2. Attach the two spring bars with their marked sides pointing up to the hitch head. The manufacturer’s instructions will include fastening diagrams.
  3. Put the hook-up brackets in place, either by hand or with the lift handle, and connect the chains to the end of the spring bars. Check the manufacturer’s instructions for tips on counting the right number of links to maintain tension, or aim for the length that keeps the trailer tongue as level as possible with the hitch. Pin the brackets in place when the chains are at the right length.
  4. Release the jack and install any other sway control bars requires between the frame and ball mount. Finish by connecting the trailer lights.

Fifth Wheel Hitch

5th wheel hitch

Due to their size and balance point over their wheels, 5th wheels require a different mounting hitch than other towed equipment. These hitches are installed in the bed of a truck and then set up as follows.

  1. Lower your tailgate. Jack the trailer coupler up enough that it will clear the truck’s bed and the hitch height by a few inches at least.
  2. Grease the ball or plates on the hitch. Open the latch or jaws that secure the system, which may be on the hitch or the coupler depending on the design.
  3. Lower the coupler to the correct height for the hitch. Slowly back the vehicle up until the hitch closes over the kingpin on the trailer’s coupler. If using a gooseneck coupler instead, back up centered under it and lower it onto the hitch. Latch or pin the hitch as advised by the manufacturer.
  4. Attach the safety chains and wiring harness. 5th wheel chains are shorter, but they should still cross over and around the hitch as with a rear receiver.

Chain Safety

A man hitching up a trailer to a minivan

The chains on your trailer hitch are responsible for catching the hitch and keeping the trailer from coming loose if there’s a sudden failure. In order to do this, the chains must be stronger than the maximum load of the trailer to compensate for any shock. They must also be attached each time so that they cross over each over and pass under the shank of the hitch. This ensures they catch both the trailer and the hitch itself rather than letting it hit the ground and damage your vehicle or the towed equipment.

Trail hitches are valuable tools, but they can be dangerous if used incorrectly. Turn to a towing professional for advice and help if you can’t seem to get your trailer hitched or aren’t sure what parts to install.

While do-it-yourself projects can be fun and fulfilling, there is always a potential for personal injury or property damage. We strongly suggest that any project beyond your abilities be left to licensed professionals such as electricians, plumbers, and carpenters. Any action you take upon the information on this website is strictly at your own risk, and we assume no responsibility or liability for the contents of this article.