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How to Hitch a Trailer to Tow It Safely

How to Hitch a Trailer to Tow It Safely

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.

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.

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Mission Automotive 4oz Trailer Hitch Ball Lubricant - Grease to Reduce Friction and Wear on Tow Hitch Mount Balls, King Pins, Hitch Locks, etc. - Waterproof Lube Made in The USA
  • 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.

Camco Super Wheel Chock - Helps Keep Your Trailer in Place So You Can Re-Hitch - (44492)
  • Keeps the trailer in place
  • Durable hard plastic with UV inhibitors

Here’s another style of traditional wheel chocks:

Wheel Chocks for Cars, RVs, Trucks, Trailers, and Vehicles G.V.W. up to 8T, 4 Pack - Anti Slip Bottom Tire Chock for All Weather Use - RV, Travel Trailer, Pop Up Camper Accessory
  • MEDIUM WHEEL CHOCKS: At 9.1 x 3.7 x 4.7 in and 3.4lbs these wheel chocks work best for vehicles, ATVs, trailers and RVs that weigh up to G.V.W. 8T.
  • 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...

And here’s a special set of chocks specifically designed for two-axle towables:

Maxchock X-Shaped RV Stabilizer Wheel Chock (Allow Drill Adjust) Dual Axel RV Travel Trailer Camper Tire While Camping -2 Pack
  • 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.

The LevelMatePRO screen with the "Set" and "Recall" buttons noted

In this photo, we have our travel trailer parked, and have raised the coupler until it’s just clear of the hitch ball. We then touch the “Set” button to memorize that height. Once we pull our tow vehicle away from the camper, we can finish leveling, which in this case means lowering the nose 2″.

 

LevelMatePRO+ leveling a travel trailer using the hitch recall function.

When it’s time to break camp, we fire the LevelMatePRO+ back up, and touch the “Recall” hitch position button. We’ve just done that here, and the LMP+ lets us know that we need to raise the front of the camper 2 inches. Once we do that, we can then back our tow vehhicle up to the trailer, with the hitch ball coming in just under the coupler.

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.

Don’t have a LevelMatePRO or LevelMatePRO+? We can’t live without ours, so we know you’ll love having one, too.

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LogicBlue Technology LevelMatePRO+ Wireless RV Leveling System, Bluetooth Leveler for Campers, Must-Have Accessory for Travel Trailers, Effortless Setup for Phones with App, Apple Watch Compatible
  • FUSS-FREE LEVELING: LevelMatePRO+ is an essential RV accessory that saves you time for leveling. It provides real-time feedback on how much and which...
  • SIMPLE SETUP: Simply mount this device in your vehicle with the included screws. LevelMatePRO app compatible with iOS and Android will guide you...

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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.

Final Note

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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John Robinson

Saturday 30th of March 2024

In regards to safety chains, when you cross them as you turn neither one gets longer or shorter!

Jan Koczera

Saturday 30th of March 2024

Long time subscriber. See the weekly- Dailey emails. Where is the giveaway entry? Make it more obvious and accessible

TheRVgeeks

Saturday 30th of March 2024

Hi Jan. There isn't a giveaway going on at the moment, but whenever there IS one, we're usually pretty "loud" about it... including having a "Giveaway" item in the navigation menu, mentioning it repeatedly in newsletter emails, and sometimes even having a pop-up/banner reminder on the website.

Tom Taylor

Tuesday 8th of August 2023

Do you or can you show How to Connect a Trailer Breakaway Cable properly. I have searched your site, but couldn't find anything on the subject. Thank you.

TheRVgeeks

Tuesday 8th of August 2023

Hi Tom! The most important thing about the breakaway cable is that, regardless of where the failure occurs, the end of the cable stays connected to the tow vehicle. We've always connected the breakaway cable for our tow bar & toad (same situation as with a trailer) to the same rings on the trailer hitch that the safety chains/cables connect to. For that to fail, the entire hitch would likely have to fall off the tow vehicle, which is very unlikely. Any secure way of attaching to the hitch assembly itself should do the job (a small carabiner for example). Just be sure that the cable is the right length. If it's too short/tight, going around a tight turn could pull the breakaway pin, locking the trailer brakes. If it's too long, not only could it drag on the ground, but in the event of an actual breakaway, the trailer could fall back on the safety cables or chains, without pulling the pin. That would then allow the trailer to roll freely, and hit the rear of the tow vehicle when you slow down. The good part is that the actual cable connection itself doesn't have to be anything more robust than the cable itself, since it shouldn't take much force to pull the pin (testing that is a good idea - make sure it comes out when pulled, and that the brakes actually apply). Hope this helps. Safe Travels!

Phelpers

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?

TheRVgeeks

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)

Pat

Tuesday 4th of April 2023

I don’t see any comments about Sway bar/bars?

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