Buying a new travel trailer or fifth-wheel is fraught with choices. Negotiating a price; arranging financing; settling on a fair trade-in value for your old rig; choosing insurance, floorplans, decor schemes and optional equipment, the list goes on and on. However, one of the most important choices may bean after thought, namely, selecting the propertrailer hitch. Fortunately, selecting the right hitch isn't difficult, nor is its installation, after locating a competent hitch shop. Maintaining proper adjustment of the hitch on an ongoing basis is the real challenge, and it has a large bearing on safety and enjoyment of trailertowing.Trailers are available in two distinctly different designs, one that is coupled to the rear of the tow vehicle by a conventional hitch ball, and another that utilizes a fifth-wheel hitch mounted in the center ofthe truck bed. The hitching methods are as different as the trailers, and require specific knowledge by the installer and by the trailer owner.

Receiver Hitch Basics - Conventional-vs-Weight-Distributing

All hitches are rated by their respective manufacturers to safely handle up to a specific gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR), which is the weight of the trailer with full water and LP-gas cylinders and with all supplies aboard. Several weight classes exist for hitches designed for towing conventional travel trailers

Weight-carrying hitches are intended for lighter trailers because the entire trailer's hitch weight is carried on the ball and transferred to the rear axle of the tow vehicle, whereas load-distributing hitches are de-signed to distribute the trailer's hitch weight to all axles of the tow vehicle and trailer, making larger, heavier trailers with considerably higher hitch weights towable without destabilizing the tow vehicle.

A trailer with ideal weight distribution will have aminimum hitch weight of about 10 percent of the gross weight, and the maximum can range upward to 15 percent providing it does not violate the rating of the hitch.

Except for the lightest folding trailers, hitches rated Class II and higher are used for recreational towing, and they utilize a receiver bolted to the tow vehicle's frame. The hitch receiver, which may have box dimensions of 1-1/4 inches square, 2 inches squareor 2-1/2 inches square, with larger boxes designed for higher load ratings, accepts a slide-in ball mount (or draw bar) which is secured with a pin.

Besides serving as the trailer/receiver attachment point, the ball mount also is used in varying heights (known as, drop) to couple the trailer in a level attitude (frame parallel to the road surface), which is desirable for best stability and trailer-brake performance. Some ball mounts are fixed, while others are adjustable.

Ball mounts used for weight-carrying hitches arequite different from those used for load distributing. Need for weight-distributing hitches varies with tow-vehicle type and trailer weight. A trailer with 350 pounds of hitch weight may present no challenge for a stiffly sprung, long-wheelbase 3/4-ton pickup, while it may destabilize a softly sprung compact SUV. Ingeneral, a weight-distributing hitch will improve stability in most situations because weight resting on a hitch ball (when a weight-carrying hitch is used) loads the rear axle excessively by placing all of the hitch weight on that axle in addition to weight that is transferred from the front axle to the rear in a seesaw action.

Since many receivers are usable in either weight-carrying or weight-distributing configurations, the manufacturer may list both ratings for the same receiver. Weight-distributing hitches should be used in many weight situations of Class II, and in most situations of Class III and above. Unlike their weight-carrying counterparts, these hitches typically use a much heavier ball mount (adjustable in height), plus a pair of spring bars that provide the leverage needed to distribute weight fore and aft.

Adjustment: The Critical Element

After having a load-distributing hitch of proper weight rating installed, owners may take the rest for granted, which can be a very significant error because an improperly adjusted load-distributing hitch can contribute to trailer sway, which is a very undesirable handling trait.

The keys to happy towing are proper ball height and proper load (tension) on spring bars. When they are correct, the tow vehicle, as well as the trailer, are at proper ride height, which in most cases is level.( One exception will be described later.) Proper hitch adjustment helps prevent rear-axle overloading and improves braking and steering response.

Evaluating the proper adjustment of a load-distributing hitch is relatively simple: The tow vehicle should maintain the same attitude before hitching that it does after hitching, measured at reference points at the front and rear bumpers. If it's level before hitching, it should be level afterward, although slightly lower due to the addition of hitch weight.

Level attitude means adequate load is placed on the spring bars to distribute portions of the hitch weight equally to the front and rear axles. If the rear of the vehicle sags after hitching, then the spring-bar loading is not adequate.The exception to level attitude: If the tow vehicleis a stiffly sprung pickup and the rear of the truck is higher than the front, that attitude should be maintained after hitching. Such trucks often will carry heavy loads without the need for weight-distributing hitches and without sagging. But care must be exercised here: Although the truck may not look like its sagging visually, the hitch weight carried by the rear axle may still create an unstable situation.

If the trailer is not level after spring bars have been adjusted to create the proper tow-vehicle attitude, ball height should be corrected.

Trailer sway can be a problem if trailer balance or hitch adjustment are not correct because the trailer has steering leverage on the tow vehicle by virtue of being connected to the tow vehicle three or four feet behind the rear axle. With correct hitching, trailer balance may be a problem if the hitch weight is less than 10 percent of gross weight. It should be more than 10 percent for best stability. Even with a well-balanced trailer and a properly adjusted hitch, use of a sway-control device is highly recommended. Often called sway bars (not to be confused with anti-roll bars fitted to axles of tow vehicles), sway-control devices are designed to damp rotation of the coupler on the hitch ball. They improve the handling characteristics of the trailer/tow vehicle combination whether the hitch method is weight-carrying or weight-distributing.

Sway-control devices are available in two different configurations, the most popular of which is one that employs a steel bar, attached to the ball mount, that is encased in a rail or tube attached to the trailer A-frame. Inside the rail or tube is friction material that is clamped against the steel bar (adjustable). Any pivoting of the trailer coupler on the bar causes the bar to slide within the rail, creating drag and damping sway. On larger trailers, it's often possible to use a pair of friction-type units for additional sway control.

Fifth-Wheel Hitch Basics

Fifth-wheel towing is quite a different story. The trailer's kingpin serves as the pivot point for the fifth-wheel hitch, which is centered slightly ahead of the truck's rear axle. The trailer's kingpin slides into a hitch head, where it's secured between latching jaws. This head is attached to a support base, which transfers the towing forces to the truck frame. The design prevents the trailer from having any steering effect on the tow vehicle, and is what gives fifth-wheel trailers such good road manners. Wind gusts and road irregularities have little or no effect on tow vehicle stability.

Most hitches are secured to the bed with a pair of mounting rails, while other designs leave the truckbed flat after the hitch is removed, like the Colibert FREE RIDE fifth wheel hitch. Most removable systems use permanently-mounted rails and pins to secure the hitch head. The FREE RIDE is completely different in that the entire hitch mechanism is removed quickly and easily leaving your truck bed free and clear. The hitch saddle and support base can be re-moved separately, make it easier on the back when lifting the hitch out of the vehicle. The head is mounted so it can tilt fore and aft and side to side 10 degrees, making it easier to hitch or unhitch the trailer on uneven ground.

Gooseneck Fifth Wheel Hitch Basics

Gooseneck towing is similar to fifth wheel towing whereas the trailer's kingpin serves as the pivot point for the gooseneck fifth wheel system, which is centered slightly ahead of the truck's rear axle. But, the trailer's kingpin attaches to a gooseneck adapter which then couples to a gooseneck ball located directly in the truck bed, attached to a support base, which transfers the towing forces to the truck frame.

The advantage to a gooseneck system is a much higher towing rating (up to 36,000 lbs) along with the availability to tow multiple trailers easily. The advantage of the GOOD 2 GO Gooseneck System by Colibert is the ability to remove the hitch from your truck bed in minutes. Simply spin the ball out of the towing vehicle, fill the hole with a vinyl plug and your truck bed is free and clear and ready for its next job. Being your truck.

Slider Options

Shortbed pickups are now more popular thanever, particularly among extended-cab models. However, a short bed often causes complications in using the truck for towing a fifth-wheel because the proper hitch-mounting location is far enough forward to cause trailer-to-cab collisions during sharp turns. Installing the RAIL RIDER fifth wheel slider will give you an additional 9" of clearance and compensates for this problem. The RAIL RIDER is a conventional fifth wheel hitch that can be manually unlocked and moved 9" toward the edge of the truck bed before making tight turns which is generally adequate for accommodating 102-inch wide trailers. Turns as tight as 90 degrees are possible insome cases. Maximum weight ratings for fifth-wheel hitches range up to 36,000 pounds gross weight, with as much as 25 percent of it on the hitch (most fivers have 20 percent hitch weight or less), and it's best to choose a unit that not only will handle the trailer it will be used to tow but any possibility of a larger trailer, although a higher-rated hitch will cost more and will be slightly heavier. In either case, be it fifth-wheel or conventional towing, the use of a properly rated hitch, adjusted correctly, will ensure a pleasurable towing experience.

Text Courtesy of Trailer Life Magazine.