How RV Hitches Work

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.