If your RV is a towable model (or if you tow any type of trailer) knowing how to hitch a trailer to your vehicle to ensure safe towing is critical.
People who’ve never towed before often think the process is simple – you back the tow vehicle up so that it’s in line with the trailer, connect the trailer, and take off. And technically, that’s not wrong.
But there are a number of additional steps involved that are crucial for safe towing, and that’s what today’s post is all about.
Safe towing means knowing how to hook up a trailer without missing any of the critical steps from getting the trailer’s hitch position right, to making sure your trailer wiring is properly connected so that trailer lights, including brake lights and turn signals, are illuminated when they should be.
And there are a number of essential steps in between.
In towing, safety is everything.
So, let’s get to the meat of the post, and learn how to hitch a trailer to tow it safely.
- 1) Before Hooking Up Your Trailer
How to Hitch a Trailer to a Tow Vehicle for Safe Towing
- 2.1) Chock the Wheels of Your Trailer
- 2.2) Line Up the Tow Vehicle & Trailer
- 2.3) Set the Parking Brake on Your Tow Vehicle
- 2.4) Raise or Lower the Front of the Trailer to Just Clear the Hitch Ball
- 2.5) Back Up the Tow Vehicle
- 2.6) Lower the Trailer
- 2.7) Double Check Your Locking Mechanism
- 2.8) Connect the Electrical Umbilical Cord
- 2.9) Safety Chains, Safety Chains, Safety Chains!
- 2.10) Connect the Trailer’s Breakaway Cable
- 2.11) Check Your Lights & Brakes
- 3) Final Note
- 4) Free RVing Tips, Tricks, Reviews, Giveaways & More
Before Hooking Up Your Trailer
First, we want to note that when we use the terms “trailer” and “travel trailer” in this post, we’re not referring to fifth wheels. (Please see our post “What Is a Fifth Wheel?” for more information.)
A 5th wheel RV is a different animal, and while the steps may be similar, there are some important differences that apply to fifth wheels that we won’t be covering in this post.
Prior to taking the necessary steps to safely hitch your trailer up to your tow vehicle, there are some items that are important to check first.
Check Your Towing Capacity
It’s always the first order of business to make sure you’re within the proper specifications of your towing capacity.
When we’re talking about a travel trailer, you need to know not only the entire weight of the camper itself, but also the hitch/tongue weight. This is because you need to be sure that both the hitch and the cargo-carrying capacity of your tow vehicle are capable of handling that amount of weight.
We encourage you to take a look at our post “What Is Tongue Weight and Why Is It So Important?” for more detailed information on the topic.
Make Sure You’re Using the Right Hitch
Be sure the hitch on your tow vehicle is rated for the trailer you intend to pull.
And although it’s possible that your trailer can connect directly to the hitch ball on your towing vehicle, this may not be the safest or most comfortable way to tow your travel trailer, depending on your setup and the size of your trailer.
You may benefit from a towing setup that involves trailer sway bars or even a weight distribution hitch. These ensure even weight distribution between the front and rear tires of your tow vehicle.
The point is to avoid sag and sway.
Be sure to see our post on trailer sway control for essential information on what causes trailer sway and how best to prevent it.
Meanwhile, remember that a hitch with a higher weight rating than you need is far preferable to one with a weight rating that is too low (or even too close).
Tend to Regular Hitch Maintenance
Metal-on-metal friction is never a good thing. Lubricating your hitch ball with a good waterproof, high-friction grease is a smart practice for safe towing.
There are a number of good hitch greases on the market. Be sure to have some on hand and to use it regularly for the best hitch performance.
- Extend Hitch Ball And Coupler Life -- Protect hitch-balls and receivers from corrosion with this high-film strength and waterproof grease. Formulated...
- Multiple Application Use -- Compatible with any variety of trailer applications such as: receiver hitches, ball mounts and hitch balls, locks,...
How to Hitch a Trailer to a Tow Vehicle for Safe Towing
Let’s run through the basic steps involved in safely connecting your trailer to your tow vehicle’s hitch, and we’ll elaborate on some critical safety measures noted throughout each section.
Chock the Wheels of Your Trailer
Whenever you connect or disconnect your trailer, use a set of quality wheel chocks to keep your trailer’s wheels from moving.
Wheel chocks are cheap insurance against having your trailer roll away, causing damage to the trailer or anything in its vicinity, or, worse yet, injury to someone nearby.
You’ll find wheel chocks on our list of “must-have” gear as well as on our list of what’s important to have in your RV roadside emergency kit. Chocks are especially important for camping on sites sloped to the front or rear.
- Fit Type: Universal Fit.Fit Type: Universal Fit
Here’s another style of traditional wheel chocks:
- DUAL WHEEL CHOCK SET: This 4-Pack of rugged wheel chocks let you quickly chock a full axle of tires - both front and back - to give you the peace of...
- EZ HANDLES & ROPE TIES: AFA avoided the hard-to-grab eyebolts that rust and bend; instead you get beefy handles that are rust proof, easy to grab, and...
And here’s a special set of chocks specifically designed for two-axle towables:
- REDUCE SWAY THE EASY WAY: Lock the Maxchock x chocks wheel stabilizer between tandem tires on your camper or RV to keep your travel trailers stable,...
- TIME-SAVING INSTALLATION: With the included drill bit you can quickly adjust and install Maxchock x wheel chocks with any power drill in seconds –...
Line Up the Tow Vehicle & Trailer
Move your tow vehicle into place so that it lines up with your trailer. (Here, a backup camera or a human spotter is helpful.)
Set the Parking Brake on Your Tow Vehicle
When hitching and unhitching your travel trailer, be sure to set the parking brake on your tow vehicle anytime you exit the vehicle.
This is not only important to your safety and the safety of others in the vicinity as you hitch and unhitch, but it’s also helpful to the process in other ways.
For example, you may take the time to perfectly line up your tow vehicle with your travel trailer, but as soon as you put your tow vehicle in “Park” and take your foot off the brake, it will often move forward or backward slightly.
However, if you set your parking brake prior to putting your tow vehicle in “Park”, (or into “Reverse” or “Drive”), your vehicle will better hold its position.
Raise or Lower the Front of the Trailer to Just Clear the Hitch Ball
This is where your trailer’s tongue jack comes into play.
Whether you’ve got a manual or electric trailer jack mounted to the tongue, its sole purpose is to raise and lower the front end of the RV.
This is not only to get the trailer level from front to back for comfortable living, but also to move the trailer’s tongue up and down to position the coupler over the hitch ball properly.
So, in this step, you’ll need to raise or lower the trailer coupler just high enough to clear the ball hitch, back your tow vehicle into position, and then lower the trailer coupler onto the ball.
But what’s “just high enough?” How do you know how high that is? You could back the tow vehicle as close to the trailer as possible to line them up. Or you can use our pro tip, below.
PRO TIP: Our favorite way to easily get the coupler to the correct height when breaking camp is to use the “Recall Hitch Position” feature of the LevelMatePRO or the LevelMatePRO+. This remembers the correct height from when you set up camp.
When you’re ready to re-connect the trailer, it tells you exactly where to set the height of the front of the RV for easy re-connecting.
Here’s how it works:
Let’s say you’ve arrived at your camping destination, backed into your campsite, positioned your trailer where you want it, and leveled side to side with leveler blocks as needed. You’re ready to disconnect it from the tow vehicle…
As always, you’ll use the tongue jack to raise the coupler up above the hitch ball so that you can pull the tow vehicle forward and away from the RV. Right at this point, when the coupler is just above the ball, you’ll trigger the “Set” feature for the Hitch Position setting on the LevelMatePRO. This saves the height of the trailer’s tongue.
Note that hitch height has to be set each time you disconnect since the configuration of each campsite or parking location is different.
When you’re ready to break camp, you can tap “Recall” and raise or lower the tongue to that exact height, before you even back your tow vehicle into place.
This makes it quicker and easier to get re-connected, as there’s no guessing as to the correct height needed for the coupler to clear the ball when backing in.
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Now back to the basic steps of how to hook up a trailer.
Back Up the Tow Vehicle
Back the tow vehicle up so the ball mounted on the hitch is located directly beneath the trailer’s coupler.
Here again, using either a backup camera or a human spotter is extremely helpful.
Lower the Trailer
Lower the trailer so the coupler locks onto the hitch ball and secure the coupler latch.
Double Check Your Locking Mechanism
Never overlook this step!
Even though a travel trailer has safety chains/cables, (more on those below), it will also have some type of locking mechanism to keep the coupler secured to the ball.
This is critical for safe towing because it ensures that the coupler can’t open and allow the trailer to disconnect from the tow vehicle! Again, there are safety chains/cables, but those are there in case of mechanical failure, not to address self-inflicted wounds (like failing to lock the coupler to the hitch ball)!
Connect the Electrical Umbilical Cord
Be sure to connect the electrical cord that enables your trailer brakes and lights to work. And don’t forget that a thorough PTI (pre-trip inspection) includes checking to confirm all lights are working correctly.
Safety Chains, Safety Chains, Safety Chains!
Be absolutely sure to connect your safety chains or cables!
Criss-cross them (left cable/chain to the right side of the hitch ball and right cable/chain to the left side of the hitch ball) so that they catch/cradle the trailer coupler if it should disconnect from the tow vehicle.
Connect the Trailer’s Breakaway Cable
Not all trailers are equipped with a breakaway cable, but if yours is, this is when you’ll connect it. In the event of a breakaway, this cable triggers the trailer brakes to bring it to a stop… or at least pull back on the safety chains to prevent the trailer from rear-ending your tow vehicle.
Check Your Lights & Brakes
Check all lights and brakes to ensure they work properly before you hit the road (the PTI is worth mentioning twice)!
Be sure to test all critical aspects of safe towing to confirm that you’ve properly hitched up your trailer and your brakes are working as they should.
We can never be too cautious when towing a trailer of any type or size.
When we’re towing a trailer down the road, we have a responsibility not only to ourselves and those traveling with us, but to everyone else on the road.
Checking and double-checking all steps involved in hitching a trailer up is always a good idea, no matter what you’re driving and no matter how long you’ve been safely towing.
We’ve been flat-towing an SUV behind our motorhome for 20 years now, and despite the fact that we could probably hook our toad up in our sleep after two decades, we still exercise caution and check ourselves.
We spent a month towing a Black Series off-road camper behind a heavy-duty 4WD RAM pickup truck, followed these steps, and never had a problem.
For those new to towing, having a checklist handy to ensure you don’t forget an important item isn’t a bad idea.
Here’s to safe towing!
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Friday 7th of April 2023
I would like to have setup lists on my mobile phone. Do you know of any apps that do this?
Friday 7th of April 2023
Hey Phelpers... check out the "Ultimate RV Checklist" app... available on the Apple iOS App Store and the Google Play Store (Android)
Tuesday 4th of April 2023
I don’t see any comments about Sway bar/bars?
Sunday 2nd of April 2023
I would like to remind trailer owners to make sure the trailer is horizontal to the ground when towing (especially with tow axles). It scares me when I see a travel trailer at 20 or 30 degrees being towed down the highway, I can only imagine the preasure on the one axle carrying the majority of the load(when it was meant to have 2 axles carry that load!!!!
Saturday 1st of April 2023
No mention is made of wind to attach the stability bars and I’m wondering why
Saturday 1st of April 2023
I have a question that has been bothering me for a long time.
When I purchased my first trailer equipped with emergency braking, the dealer showed me how to install the breakaway cable. I noticed the breakaway cable was longer than the safety chains which meant that the brakes would not actuate until after the mount and chains failed. That also meant in a full breakaway situation (mount and cable failure) that the trailer would go ballistic. The likelihood that the brakes would apply exactly the same drag on both wheels equally until it came to a complete stop was highly unlikely. More likely the trailer would go into a spin, roll, and come apart before it came to a stop. Anything in its path would be subject to flying fragments and extreme damage. I call that a catastrophic failure.
When I suggested that could not be the correct way to attach the breakaway cable, the dealer told me he had been doing it that way for years, never had a problem or a customer complaint. I showed him how you could effectively shorten the cable by adding a loop to ensure it would stop while the safety chains were still attached. His reply was something like “Nope, that’s not how to do it”.
I searched the internet and found both methods used from a variety of RV and safety equipment dealers. I couldn’t find any government safety agency with an opinion on the matter.
I noticed your article didn’t address the issue of adjusting the breakaway cable length but did indicate the trailer needed to brake while the chains were still attached. Do you have an opinion on this matter? If so, what is it?
Saturday 1st of April 2023
Hi Ken! Your question is an excellent one, and one that we have considered ourselves. While there does not seem to be a consistent standard for the length of a breakaway cable, we do have an opinion about it for both travel trailers and flat towing a car behind a motorhome with a tow bar.
With a travel trailer, it is our opinion that you are right on the money… If the trailer should separate from the towing vehicle, the brakes should activate as a result of it, falling back on the safety cables or chains. That, of course, requires that the breakaway cable be just a few inches shorter than the safety chains or cables.
With a tow bar pulling a car four wheels down, it’s slightly more complicated. If the hitch ball should come loose from the receiver on the RV, the entire tow bar would fall back, still attached to the car. That situation directly equates to what you were describing with a travel trailer, and we are of the opinion that the breakaway cable should also be just short enough that this will activate the brakes as the car hangs back tight on the the safety cables .
However, if one of the tow bar arms should separate from the front of the car, this is a much more challenging situation, no matter how things are set up with the breakaway cable. That’s because the release of a single arm would allow the car to fall back only very slightly and not pull the safety cables tight. Trying to size the breakaway cable just right to activate in such a situation would risk having it be short enough that it might activate going around a sharp corner when no breakaway has occurred.
The reason we didn’t address this issue is because while we do have the same opinion you do, it is not a universal given that this is the correct way to set things up. But we think that the trailer coming loose from the towing vehicle and rolling freely with only the safety cables or chains holding it to the back of the towing vehicle is a recipe for disaster, as attempting to slow down or stop will cause the trailer to collide with the rear of the vehicle.
Bottom line… Regardless of what the “official“ word is on this, our attitude is that the breakaway cable should be several inches shorter than the safety cables or chains, making sure that the breakaway pin will be pulled without the trailer having to completely separate and go careening down the highway by itself. The trailer pulling back tight on the safety cables or chains is what we would want to happen should our hitch fail.