In the same way that the right tie or scarf can transform a ho-hum outfit into a knockout ensemble, the right accessories for your trailer hitch can make or break your towing experience.
And it's not just about style, either. Many of the accessories made for your hitch -- the device that connects the tow vehicle to the trailer -- are designed specifically to keep you, your passengers, your cargo and fellow travelers safe. In fact, safety should be your primary concern if statistics from the U.S. Department of Transportation are any indication. Nearly 59,000 crashes involving passenger vehicles towing trailers occur each year, resulting in injury to more than 28,000 people, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Luckily, most of the popular hitch accessories are relatively inexpensive and easy to install. And yet those few extra dollars -- and extra few minutes -- can mean a great deal when you're hauling 5,000 pounds across 3,000 miles (or 2,268 kilograms across 4,828 kilometers). So let's get started.
Before we dive into the Popular Hitch Accessory 10, a quick bit of hairsplitting. A few towing pros may argue that some of the accessories we're about to cover (top-wind and swing-away jacks, for example) should technically be classified as trailer accessories. That may be true, but because a trailer and hitch operate as a single unit when they're connected, we feel such liberties are justified.
OK, now we're ready. Let's begin with ball mounts.
Hitch Accessory 10: Ball Mounts
When it comes to getting prepared to tow a trailer, it's easy to focus on the hitch itself. But a hitch won't get you very far without some important accessories. That's because most towing packages -- the factory-installed equipment that transforms a truck or SUV into a tow-ready vehicle -- include a hitch receiver, which is mounted to the tow vehicle, but not a ball mount. The hitch receiver is a square opening, usually 1.25 inches, 2 inches or 2.5 inches on a side (3.2 cm, 5.1 cm or 6.4 cm, respectively). The ball mount is a separate assembly. It slides into the hitch receiver and is secured with a locking pin.
The ball mount needs to match the class of your hitch, which reflects how much weight it can pull. There are five hitch classes, each of which has a corresponding maximum load.
Class I: 2,000 pounds (907 kilograms)
Class II: 3,500 pounds (1,588 kilograms)
Class III: 5,000 pounds (2,268 kilograms)
Class IV: 10,000 pounds (4,536 kilograms)
Class V: Greater than 10,000 pounds
You can't safely tow more than the lowest-rated weight capacity of any individual part, so it does no good to buy a class III ball mount if you have a class II hitch.
Next, we'll talk about what fits in that ball mount.
Hitch Accessory 9: Hitch Balls
Another important accessory is the hitch ball. Most hitch balls come with a plating of stainless steel, chrome or zinc, and can be protected, when not in use, by a rubber cover. The shank of the hitch ball fits through a hole in the ball mount. Then the two pieces are secured with a nut and washer. The hole in the ball mount comes in different sizes, so it's important to match the shank diameter with the specs on your mount. The same is true of the coupler, the front part of the trailer that connects to the tow vehicle. It will only accept a hitch ball of the correct diameter.
Many towing product companies offer interchangeable hitch balls. These sets come with either two or three balls, each with a different diameter. This makes it possible to accommodate different kinds of trailers with different kinds of couplers. Most interchangeable hitch balls feature a quick-release, positive-latch design, making it easy to change hitch balls without any tools.
But how do the hitch ball and ball mount connect to the trailer?
Hitch Accessory 8: Couplers
OK, technically the coupler is part of the trailer -- the piece located at the end of the tongue -- but we're including it as a hitch accessory because you won't be able to hitch your trailer to your vehicle without a coupler. Like hitch balls and ball mounts, couplers are rated by their weight capacity. A coupler must be able to accommodate the gross trailer weight, or GTW. GTW refers to the total weight of a trailer, including all of its contents.
Couplers come in two basic types: the A-frame coupler and the straight-tongue coupler. The former fits on trailers with A-shaped tongues; the latter fits on trailers with straight tongues. In either design, a hollow cup fits over the hitch ball, so it's critical that the diameter of the coupler matches the diameter of the ball. Once the coupler is seated on the hitch ball, a spring-loaded latch locks the two pieces together.
But the more mechanisms keeping the tow vehicle and the payload secure, the better right? That's the theory behind the next hitch accessory on our list.
Hitch Accessory 7: Pins, Clips and Locks
They're small items, but the pin and clip are essential accessories for any hitch. They're used together to attach the ball mount to the hitch receiver. The pin passes through holes in the receiver and the ball mount. Then the clip fits over the head of the pin to keep the pin from sliding out.
Some trailer owners prefer to use a hitch lock, which serves as a pin and clip but has the added advantage of protecting the ball mount from theft. Similar locks are made for the coupler. A coupler lock, which has a shank that passes through the locking hole of the coupler handle, prevents thieves and vandals from stealing your trailer.
Most manufacturers offer a towing starter kit to simplify the process of buying hitch accessories. Such a kit includes a hitch ball, a ball mount, a pin and a clip. Other packages include a lock and keys instead of the pin and clip.
We're not quite done with this line of safety-type hitch accessories. Keep reading to find out how our next hitch accessory will prevent runaway trailers.
Hitch Accessory 6: Safety Chains
Safety chains are located on the tongue of a trailer, one on each side. The end of each chain features an S-hook, which connects to a hole in the hitch. Should the coupler or hitch ball detach from the tow vehicle, the chains keep the trailer connected. Most trailer owners cross the chains under the trailer tongue to help prevent the tongue from dropping to the road in such an emergency. They also make sure there's enough slack in the chains to permit turning, but not so much slack that the chains drag on the road surface.
You should secure safety chains properly every time you tow. In fact, most states require that you do so. Most states also require that safety chains and hooks be rated to handle the gross trailer weight. Check with your local motor vehicle administration to find out what requirements affect you.
Next, we'll talk about a hitch accessory that you can customize and have some fun with.
Hitch Accessory 5: Hitch Tube Covers
When you're not towing anything, your hitch receiver becomes an entry point for the elements and for dirt and grime. You can protect your hitch by inserting a hitch tube cover in the ball mount hole. Some covers are made of plastic, others of forged steel. Steel covers offer the greatest variety of colors, which makes it easy to coordinate with the color of your vehicle. Another option is the branded hitch tube cover. Like vanity license plates, specialty covers allow you to express yourself or to show support for a favorite team, school or organization. If you're intrigued, read How Hitch Covers Work.
Another twist is the hitch step, which fits in your hitch receiver just like a tube cover. This enables the hitch step to do double duty: It protects the ball mount hole and provides a convenient standing spot to access a roof rack or truck bed.
Keep reading to find out another handy use for an idle hitch.
Hitch Accessory 4: Cargo Carriers
Most of the time, you'll use your hitch for towing a trailer. But wouldn't it be great if you could make better use of a hitch when you're not towing? Enter the hitch-mounted cargo carrier. This handy accessory fits into the hitch receiver on one end and, on the other, provides a flat cargo deck capable of carrying up to 600 pounds (272 kilograms). It's an ideal solution to transport a wide range of items, including garden equipment, lumber, and gear for camping, hunting or fishing.
There are two types of cargo carriers. Open-style carriers may or may not have side rails to help hold cargo in place. Most have attachment holes on the side that let you easily secure items with a bungee cord or strap. Some are made of polypropylene, a plastic polymer; others are made of steel. Enclosed carriers have lockable lids to protect your cargo. They are available in stationary or swing-away models.
Not quite satisfied with your hitch? Learn how you can modify it with two simple pieces of equipment next.
Hitch Accessory 3: Adapters and Extenders
Many hitch-mounted accessories require additional equipment. For example, if the shank of a ball mount or other accessory doesn't fit the size of the receiver tube on a hitch, then you can use an adapter to ensure compatibility. Some adapters increase the size of the receiver (1.25-inch to 2-inch adapters, or 3.2 centimeters to 5.1 centimeters), while others decrease the size of the receiver (2-inch to 1.25-inch adapters).
A hitch extender increases the clearance for a hitch-mounted accessory. Extenders are necessary if your vehicle has a large, rear-mounted spare tire or a camper shell that overhangs the rear bumper. Even if your vehicle doesn't have a camper or rear-mounted spare, an extender may be necessary if your hitch is located well underneath the bumper. In essence, an extender moves the hitch receiver forward an additional 6 to 12 inches (15 centimeters to 31 centimeters). With the extra clearance, it's possible to use accessories such as a bike rack or a cargo carrier.
Only two hitch accessories left. What's the next one going to be?
Hitch Accessory 2: Weight Distribution Systems
To pull heavier loads (greater than 3,500 pounds or 1,588 kilograms), you might want to install a weight distribution system. Many manufacturers sell these systems as kits that include a hitch head, a shank and a set of spring bars. The hitch head is the central attachment point of the system. On one side, it receives the shank, which extends from the ball mount. On the other side, it has holes to attach to the spring bars. The opposite ends of the spring bars are connected to the trailer. Finally, the ball is mounted to the top of the hitch head and fits into the coupler.
The kit functions by applying leverage across the trailer tongue and the tow vehicle. This distributes the weight of the trailer across the axles of both the tow vehicle and the trailer. Ultimately, this increases the stability of the ride and provides better control for braking and steering, and those are things that every driver can appreciate.
And now on to No. 1.
Hitch Accessory 1: Trailer Jacks
A trailer jack is another accessory that's actually mounted to the trailer, not the hitch, but it's an item that makes the hitching process easier and safer. Trailer jacks are located on the tongue, close to the coupler. They come in top-wind or side-wind styles that can be cranked to raise or lower the trailer from the hitch ball during loading and unloading. Most jacks provide up to 25 inches (64 centimeters) of lift and 800 pounds (363 kilograms) of capacity. Most also come with a swing-away design that enables you to store the jack above the road during towing.
You also can get electric trailer jacks if you don't want to hand-crank your trailer. Electric jacks feature DC motors with lifting capacities up to 3,500 pounds (or 1,588 kilograms).
So there you have it: the 10 most popular hitch accessories. But if you're a towing junkie, keep reading for many, many more articles on your favorite topic.
Ball mounts make towing a lot simpler. Learn all about ball mounts at HowStuffWorks.
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- U.S. Department of Transportation. "U.S. Transportation Secretary Mineta Announces New Consumer Publication On Safe Towing of Trailers." Press Release: June 10, 2002. (Oct. 13, 2008) http://www.dot.gov/affairs/nhtsa4502.htm
- U.S. Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "Towing a Trailer: Being Equipped for Safety." April 2002. (Oct. 13, 2008) http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/Cars/Problems/Equipment/towing/index.htm