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Towing: A Beginner’s Guide

Towing a Horse Trailer
Figuring out where to start as a driver who’s new to towing isn’t easy, but Blain’s Farm & Fleet is here to help.

Trailers and towing can be a complicated topic, and it’s important that you tow correctly for your own safety and the safety of other drivers. If you’re looking to start towing with your car or truck, there are a few things you’ll need to know to get started.

The first thing you need to know before you pick out a trailer hitch is your vehicle’s towing capacity. You can usually find this, along with some tips for towing, in your car or truck’s owner’s manual. If you don’t have your owner’s manual, you can usually download it for free online from the manufacturer. You should also check the compliance certification label on the inside of the driver’s side doorframe. This number will be that heaviest load that you’ll be able to tow safely without risking damage to your vehicle’s engine, transmission, rear axle, brakes, frame, or wheel bearings. Your car or truck can’t tow a load larger than this number.

Second, you need to know the weight and weight capacity of your trailer. The key number to know for getting a hitch is your trailer’s Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR). This is the maximum weight of the trailer when it’s (safely) fully-loaded. It’s usually found stamped on the VIN placard on the tongue of your trailer. These numbers are the starting point for getting all of your towing parts.

Finding The Right Parts for Towing

There are a lot of important parts involved in preparing a car or truck to tow a trailer, and Blain’s Farm & Fleet has them all. You’ll need a trailer hitch, tow bar, hitch ball, safety chains, a trailer hitch coupler, wiring connector, brake controller, and more to start towing safely.

Finding The Right Trailer Hitch for Towing

Note: this article only refers to the most common type of bumper hitch, ball-and-coupler-style towing systems. For information on gooseneck and fifth wheel hitches, check out our “Gooseneck Hitch vs. Fifth Wheel” article.

If you have your car or truck’s towing capacity and the gross vehicle weight rating of your trailer, you can use them as a guide for picking out the right hitch. The weight capacity of the hitch you need should fall somewhere between these two numbers. The tongue weight of the hitch you buy should also be at least ten percent of the towing capacity of your car or truck. Figuring out which trailer hitch you need is just a matter of doing a little homework on your vehicle and trailer. The knowledgeable and friendly staff at the Automotive Department of your local Blain’s Farm & Fleet will be happy to help you find and order the right hitch for your car or truck.

Finding The Right Tow Bar for Towing

To find the right tow bar for your vehicle, you’ll need to do a little more homework. After choosing and installing a hitch, you’ll need to find the difference between the height of your hitch receiver tube and your trailer’s coupler. This is called “hitch rise” or “hitch drop.”

Finding hitch rise

If your hitch height is lower than your coupler height, you’ll need a tow bar with a rise. To find your rise, use this simple equation:

[Coupler height] – [Hitch height] = [Hitch rise]

Finding hitch drop

If your hitch height is higher than your coupler height, you’ll need a tow bar with a drop. To find your drop, use this simple equation:

[Hitch height] – [Coupler height] = [Hitch drop]

Check out our how-to guide for finding your hitch rise or drop.

Once you’ve found your hitch rise and drop, you’ll need to find your receiver tube size, and your trailer’s weight.

In our guide to choosing the right tow bar, we show you how to find all of these numbers

Finding The Right Trailer Coupler for Towing

Most trailers come already fitted with a coupler, but if you do need to find a new one, you can do it by measuring the width of the tongue of your trailer. This will tell you the size of the channel you’ll need on your coupler.

Finding The Right Hitch Ball for Towing

Getting the right hitch ball for you is as easy as measuring the shaft hole on your tow bar and the socket on your coupler.

Ball size

This is the width of the actual ball part of the hitch ball. You should be able to find this number pressed into the top or side of your trailer’s coupler. If not, you can measure the width of the socket on the coupler.

Ball shaft size

This is the width of the threaded shaft that goes through the end of the tow bar. Measure the across diameter of the hole in your tow bar to find the shaft size you’ll need.

Finding The Right Safety Chains For Towing

Safety chains are chains that are fastened to the tow vehicle and the trailer to prevent separation in case the hitch and coupler disconnect from each other. The best thing to do when shopping for safety chains is to by the strongest ones you can find. Safety chains usually have a towing capacity marked on the chain or its packaging. The towing capacity of the safety chains you use must meet or exceed the GVWR of your trailer. So, use the GVWR of your trailer as a guide to help you pick out your chains. You can always go higher, but never go lower.

Finding The Right Brake Controller and Breakaway for Towing

Last, but certainly not least, you’ll need to find a brake controller and breakaway if your trailer has electronic brakes. These will make you and everyone on the road around you much safer when you tow. Brake controllers allow you to control and adjust your brakes to your own personal driving style. Also, your electronic brakes may not work without one. To find the right trailer brake controller, you need to take into account how many brakes you have on your trailer, and how much adjustability you like. Higher end controllers can control up to 8 brakes, while basic ones are for handling only two or four brakes.

Breakaways automatically apply the brakes on the trailer in the event of a disconnect. This prevents the trailer from swerving into oncoming traffic or onto sidewalks and causing potentially fatal accidents. If you are towing a trailer with electronic brakes, you must have a breakaway system.

You can find more information on brake controllers and breakaways in our blog article on their importance.

Once you have all of your parts picked out and installed, head over to our article full of tips for driving with a trailer.

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