(click on image to enlarge)
The Receiver Hitch
Your RV Dealer and or hitch shop are the best sources for recommending the most appropriate type and rating of hitch you should be using. This will depend on the type of tow vehicle and trailer you are towing. There are many types and ratings which I will leave up to the experts to recommend. But you should know the basics and understand how hitches work. Some will be familiar like the basic ball hitch bolted to the bumper.
The next step is the receiver style frame hitch (1). Bolted to the vehicle frame and capable of receiving a slide in ball mount (3) with proper size hitch ball (2). This is the hardest hitch to back up and hitch to your trailer. You just can’t see the darn thing; the ball is at bumper level. A spotter is helpful but can be stressful. I discussed the merits of a backup camera in a previous article, and believe me it can be a marriage saver. This hitch and a different ball mount can also accommodate a ball mount that works with equalizer bars, also known as a weight distributing hitch (4). The weight distributing hitch does just that. It equalizes or distributes the tongue weight of the trailer to the frame of the tow vehicle using a lever effect. The result is the tow vehicle and trailer travel level and not in a V formation.
This is critical; too much weight on the tow vehicle hitch causes a V formation (seen in Fig: 1 above). This can over stress the rear suspension, taking weight off the steering wheels creating an unstable and dangerous ride. To adjust the hitch distribution bars, shorten the number of links between the bars and the hook-up brackets. When I hook up mine I just remember I have three loose links hanging past the chain hook. Be careful doing this hook up and unhooking. If there is a lot of tension on the chain, it can quickly turn the lifting bar in your hand into a leg breaking weapon. The safest way to perform this task is to,
#1 hook and latch the trailer to the ball.
#2 using the tongue jack lift the rear of the tow vehicle along with the trailer as high as you need, so the predetermined chain link slips easily over the hook and locks in place without excessive tension.
#3 lower the tongue, taking all the weight off the jack.
This puts the distributing load on the bars. Remember, weight distribution hitches can help with sway problems a little bit. But to reduce sway, you must use a sway control as well. There are weight distribution hitches available now that have an integrated sway control.
When the tow vehicle and trailer are level, you’re properly hooked up. If not, adjust the links up or down to get the proper equalization of the load.
Sway Control Fig: 2.1
I can’t count the number of RVer’s I have talked to about an anti sway bar or sway control. This is how the conversation usually starts with my new acquaintance. “Wow, we just about lost the whole rig when we started to sway in that wind we had today. My anti sway bars just didn’t do the job.” This seems to be a common misconception of inexperienced RV owners, thinking the weight distribution bars just discussed are sway control bars. It is true to a small extent that these bars offer a bit of side to side stability, but when you experience the trailer hula dance they are useless in stopping this action.
One of the most unnerving things that can happen when you’re towing is when the trailer starts to “waggle” behind you. This is usually an issue with large trailers that catch the wind – or the air blast when you’re being passed by an 18-wheeler. This can also frequently occur when driving at faster speeds – you need to slow down especially going down hill. Sway control devices help reduce the lateral movements of the trailer and keep it in place behind your tow vehicle. A sway control is simply a “brake pad” that uses friction to resist trailer sway once it has begun and keeps the trailer and tow vehicle stable. The sway control mounts to the trailer frame on the tongue and also to your hitch on the tow vehicle. An entire sway control kit is generally available for less than $100, and can really increase your peace of mind when towing. The sway control works best when you combine it with a weight distribution hitch on a Class 3 or higher rated hitch. A sway control should not be necessary with a Class 1 or 2 hitch, and will not work with any trailer with surge brakes. You require a special hitch (1) with an extra ball for the sway control (picture 4) & (Fig: 2.1) above.
The sway control attaches to the hitch (3) with a presto pin and to another ball attached to the trailer tongue (4). As you tighten the tensioning lever (5) it puts more pressure on the brake shoe material that the sway control slides through. If the trailer starts to swing side to side this breaking resistance slows swinging action and keeps the trailer under control. Picture (6) shows a configuration I built for a friend’s boat trailer. I have used a sway control on numerous trailers and they worked wonderfully. You will notice the stability and control imm
ediately; I won’t leave home without it.
Hook up the safety chains so as to form an X under the tongue by crossing them side to side. This forms a cradle for the trailer tongue to fall into should your trailer become disconnected. It will give you some control until you can stop. This disconnect can happen when you fail to do a final walk around check before driving off and discovering you forgot to properly latch and lock the tongue to the ball.
Tip: Checking trailer lights. You can do this without 4 trips to the back of the rig. Turn on the parking lights and hazard flashers. Walk to the back of the trailer. If the parking lamps and flashers are on, you’ve got turn signals and brake lights, because they’re the same filaments as the hazards. This assumes, of course, that the truck’s brake lights are working.
Fifth Wheel Hitch
These heavy-duty hitches mount in a pickup truck bed. Fifth wheel trailers are prized for their ease of maneuverability and stability, which is why they’re a common choice for large trailers. Fifth wheel hitches are easier to back up to connect to the trailer because they can be seen from the cab, unlike a hitch attached under your rear bumper. They are simpler and quicker to connect not having weight distribution or anti sway bar attachments. The main drawback to a fifth wheel hitch is you lose a large portion of the pickup box for all the junk we need to take with us. Other than that, it is the best for towing large trailers.
Trailer brake controller
Trailer brake controllers are small electrical control boxes mounted within easy reach of the driver. There may be sliders or wheels for sensitivity and gain and there’s almost always a slider to allow you to activate the trailer brakes without stepping on the tow vehicle brakes.
The activation slider (or manual control lever) delivers some electricity to the brakes, and you use it when setting up the controller or to apply braking if the trailer begins to sway. Applying just a bit of trailer brake is generally enough to stop the sway and pull the trailer back in solidly behind your vehicle.
Tip: Bad ground connections are the most common cause of trailer wiring problems. A bad ground can show up as an overall lighting failure even when the voltmeter says you’ve got current. Worse, a bad ground can create an intermittent failure, causing your lights to flicker as you drive down the road. Pick an existing factory ground connection (where other ground wires are connected) or make sure your connection is solidly into the vehicle’s chassis. It is advisable to carry out a pre-trip electrical check of all your trailer lights well before your trip date. You don’t want an anxious family waiting for you on departure day.
Tip: If you are heading to a serviced campground, carry only enough water while enroute. Ditto for breaking camp.
Empty the black and grey water tanks at the campground. No sense towing several hundred pounds of extra weight cross-country.