How RV Hitches Work

RVs can be a great way for families to vacation in style -- but how do you hitch it to your towing vehicle?
RVs can be a great way for families to vacation in style -- but how do you hitch it to your towing vehicle?
© iStockphoto/GarysFRP

Camping holds a special place in the hearts of many vacationers, with memories of campfire chats, bears and raccoons at harrowing proximities to campsites, and marshmallow roasting feats of perfection. For those who are more interested in the middle ground -- the fresh air of a woodland vista but with some of the conveniences of modern living -- a recreational vehicle (RV) can be just the ticket.

There are many different types of vehicles that fall under the umbrella term recreational vehicle, from small pop-up campers and travel trailers to fully accessorized motor homes. But not all of them use the same type of hitch system -- and some don't use a hitch system at all. Lots of motor homes are fully connected to the driving section of the vehicle, so there's no question of how to hitch them. In the case of other models, you may have to hitch them up to a towing vehicle.

RV hitches generally fall into two categories -- those that attach to the rear of the tow vehicle and those that attach to the bed of a pickup truck. The weight of your RV will go a long way in determining which setup you'll need. Another major factor is the capability of the towing vehicle. Not all vehicles are created equal, and this can limit both the type of RV you can haul and, in turn, the type of hitch system you use to tow it. On the next page, we'll look at how you should go about choosing a hitch to pull an RV.


Choosing RV Hitches

It's important to do your homework when you're picking out which hitch system you want to use. This fifth wheel hitch can handle a heavy load.
It's important to do your homework when you're picking out which hitch system you want to use. This fifth wheel hitch can handle a heavy load.
© iStockphoto/sshepard

When it comes to smaller recreational vehicles, the setup is usually a conventional ball hitch or a receiver hitch assembly. If a more heavy-duty hitch is needed, you'll commonly see gooseneck hitches and fifth wheel hitches in action. So how do you know which type you need? It all comes down to weight.

Hitches are divided into five classes. Class I hitches are for the smallest trailers and can be used on most vehicles, carrying loads up to about 2,000 pounds (around 900 kilograms). And that's not just dry weight; you have to consider the weight of payload in that figure. Class II hitches are good with mid-sized cars and up. They can haul loads up to about 3,500 pounds (that's around 1,500 kilograms). With Class III hitches, the load can be up to about 5,000 pounds (a bit more than 2,200 kilograms), and the towing vehicle should be at least a mid-sized pickup, van or SUV. Class IV hitches can haul up to about 10,000 pounds (or 4,500 kilograms) and are often weight-distributing hitches (we'll get into that more in a minute). The Class V hitches are used for the big loads, like horse trailers and large RVs, and they can handle up to about 30,000 pounds (more than 13,000 kilograms). Class V hitches come in two basic models: fifth wheel hitches and gooseneck hitches.

For smaller loads with systems utilizing receivers and ball hitches, you can tow a lot of trailers. But if you have a big RV, chances are you better keep shopping. Gooseneck hitches can do the trick, but they're more commonly used for large horse trailers. To learn about those, read How Gooseneck Hitches Work.

If you're looking to haul a larger RV, you'll typically be looking into a fifth wheel hitch. Keep in mind, though, not just any RV can be hauled with a fifth wheel hitch. For this system to work, the RV needs to have a front section that protrudes over the bed of the pickup in order to secure the connection. In a fifth wheel setup, a wheel-shaped plate connected to the underside of this overlying portion slides into the hitch. Fifth wheel hitches are beneficial because they allow for sharper turning, more towing capacity and increased stability. One downside is the amount of space they take up, although many are removable for times when they're not in use.

Weight distribution is an important concern when towing. Fifth wheel hitches naturally help distribute the weight of the load because of their placement in the truck bed, but if you're using a less heavy-duty hitch, you may want to consider the addition of a weight distribution system. This takes a portion of the weight off the rear axle of the tow vehicle and shifts it to the other axles, providing a safer and smoother ride.

On the next page, we'll look a little bit closer at how RV hitches are installed.


Installing RV Hitches

Installing a hitch to haul an RV can be a little tricky, so in many cases it can be better to have a professional with lots of experience get the job done for you. Basically, installation requires firmly attaching the hitch system onto the towing vehicle. This might be by bolting it to the back of the frame of a truck, van or SUV or, in the case of fifth wheel receivers, directly onto the bed of a pickup truck.

To install a trailer hitch, you usually have to prepare the vehicle a bit, possibly moving a few parts out of the way. Sometimes installing a hitch can be a two-person job while it's being fastened in place. Then the hitch is bolted onto the frame of the vehicle underneath the back bumper. There are several names for this component, such as bumper hitch or bolt on receiver, and once in place, they can usually be used in a number of ways, like with different sized receivers and ball mounts.

Fifth wheels hitches are installed with a metal framework bolted in place on the underside of the truck bed. Care needs to be given to not damage any other components of the truck, such as the brake lines and fuel lines, and some portions of the vehicle may need to be temporarily removed to facilitate the installation. Then holes are drilled through the truck bed to connect the framework to the upper portion of the hitch. Once the holes are drilled, you can attach the main body of the hitch and lock it into place.

Along with the installation of the hitch, chances are good you'll also be installing a connector through which a number of wires run between the two vehicles. If you have electric brakes and lights on your towed vehicle -- which is often required by law if you tow more than the lightest loads -- this will be an essential step in the process. The wires run along the underneath of the truck bed and through a hole in the side of the truck bed where they can be connected to wires attached along the hitch.

The most important thing to remember when installing an RV hitch is to follow the manufacturer's instructions to the letter. They know the best way to attach their hitch, so take their advice. On the next page, you'll find more links to RVs, trucks and towing.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


  • "Dictionary of Automotive Terms." Motor Era. (9/15/2008)
  • Family Motor Coach Association Web site. (10/1/2008)
  • Gray, Scott. "Trailer Hitches -- Ideas on How to Choose the Right One." (9/29/2008)
  • L­onghurst, Chris. "The Car Maintenance Bibles." (9/15/2008)
  • Martin, Joe. "Trailer Loading and Towing Guide." Sherline Products. (9/15/2008)
  • Recreational Vehicle Industry Association Web site. (9/29/2008)
  • "RV Comparison Guides for Today's Consumers." JR Consumer Resources. (10/1/1008)
  • "RV Fifth Wheel & Travel Trailer Towing Safety Tips." RV Basics. (9/15/2008)
  • "RV Towing Tips." (10/1/2008)
  • "Tips." CrossRoads RV Web site. (10/2/2008)
  • "Towing Glossary." U-Haul. (9/15/2008)
  • "Trailer Hitches." Corporate Web site. (9/29/2008)