9. Hooking Up Your Trailer
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Hooking up your trailer to your vehicle requires patience and attention to detail. As discussed in previous chapters, it is important to outfit your vehicle with the right trailer hitch, ball mount, trailer ball and electrical components. If you are not familiar with any one of these items, you should address it before towing.
In this chapter, we will discuss the procedures for hooking up your trailer. We will cover what to do if you have a friend to help you in the process and what to do if you do not have a helper. We will also go over the procedures for hooking up a 5th wheel trailer and a brief checklist of things to do before towing any trailer.
The first step when hitching up your trailer is to back your vehicle up to the trailer. To make this easier, we recommend having a friend help you.
Before starting, agree on a set of signals to indicate which way you should turn, when to back up and when to hit the brakes. Have your helper stand on the driver's side of the trailer, about even with the trailer tongue, and make sure you can see him or her clearly before backing up.
Backing Up Your Vehicle
Step 1: Line up your vehicle in a straight line with your trailer. Having a straight shot to the coupler will make it much easier than trying to zigzag your way backward. Your helper should stand off to the side and give you signals of which direction to go.
Step 2: When you are about a foot away, stop and adjust the coupler height. Make sure the coupler will clear the trailer ball. If it is raised too much, lower it until it is only a couple inches higher than the ball.
Step 3: Back your vehicle up the rest of the way. The coupler should be perfectly lined up with the trailer ball. It is important that you go slowly during this step and that you rely on your helper to tell you which way the vehicle needs to go. If things are not lining up, don’t be afraid to pull forward and try again.
Step 4: Lower the coupler onto the trailer ball. With the vehicle in park and the emergency brake engaged, use the trailer jack to lower the coupler until it is resting on the ball. You should also make sure the coupler latch is in the upright, unlocked position before lowering. If you find that the coupler is offset from the ball, raise the jack again and repeat the previous step.
Step 5: Latch the coupler and secure it. With the coupler latch engaged and locked, lift up on the trailer tongue to test the connection. If it comes off the ball, it means that the coupler was not properly set before being latched. Unlatch it and try again. When the coupler is secure, fully retract the trailer jack.
Step 6: Attach the safety chains in a crisscross pattern. This is a very important step. Safety chains are required by law, and attaching them in a crisscross pattern underneath the coupler will provide a cradle to catch the coupler if it ever becomes disconnected from your hitch. Your safety chains should each be rated to meet or exceed the gross trailer weight, and they should not touch the ground when attached.
Step 7: Plug in the electrical connector. You should limit the amount of excess wire between the vehicle and trailer by wrapping the wires around the trailer tongue. They should not be touching the ground. With an adequate amount of wire length, press the trailer-side plug firmly into the vehicle-side socket.
Step 8: Check your trailer lights. With your helper standing in view of the trailer lights, turn them on one at a time to make sure they are working. You should check your right turn signal, left turn signal, hazards, running lights and brake lights. Have your helper call out each lighting function as he or she sees it. If one of your lights are not working, use an electrical tester to make sure there is an active signal at the vehicle-to-trailer wiring connection.
Towing Tip: Greasing the trailer ball before latching on the coupler can help maintain both components. With the amount of weight from the coupler constantly pushing down on the ball, a coupler can actually start to wear through if not properly greased.
If you do not have a friend to help you, hooking up your trailer may be more difficult. Here are a few tips to make the process easier.
Tip #1: Go slowly. This is a good tip any time you are hitching up a trailer, whether you have someone helping you or not. Take your time and don’t be afraid to redo a step if needed.
Tip #2: If your trailer is lightweight, push it to the vehicle rather than trying to back the vehicle up to the trailer. Don’t strain yourself. If the trailer is too heavy, this step may not be an option.
Tip #3: Use a backup camera. If your vehicle is not equipped, use a brightly colored stick or flag attached to the coupler to better see your target. Point the stick straight up so that you can see it through the back window of your vehicle.
Tip #4: Place a piece of tape on the center of your rear window to indicate the location of the trailer ball. If you are using a stick or flag to mark the coupler, line up the tape with the marker.
Tip #5: With only a foot or two left between your vehicle and the coupler, open your driver-side door and pick a spot on the ground as a reference point. Use the point as you back up to judge the remaining distance. Remember to have your coupler raised above the trailer ball to avoid damage.
Hooking up a 5th wheel trailer requires a few additional steps, compared to a bumper pull trailer. To begin, park on a level surface, chock your trailer wheels and jack up your 5th wheel trailer to a level height.
Preparing Your 5th Wheel Hitch
Step 1: Measure the height of your coupler and open tailgate. This will determine how high your 5th wheel hitch will need to sit in your truck bed. Subtract the tailgate height from that of the coupler. The difference is how high your 5th wheel hitch should be set. Also, it is vital that the clearance between the truck bed rails or walls and the overhang of the trailer be at least 5 1/2".
Step 2: Place your hitch into the coupling position. With the hitch mounted, open the coupler jaws. At this point, make sure the 5th wheel head is properly greased or lubricated and that the jaws are free of obstructions.
Coupling the 5th Wheel Trailer
Step 3: Back your truck up to the 5th wheel kingpin. It helps to have a friend to guide you during this step. You can also start with your truck and trailer lined up in a straight line to make the process easier. When you are about 4" from the kingpin, stop the truck.
Step 4: Raise or lower the trailer jacks. The kingpin coupler should be sitting about 1/2" below the top of the 5th wheel hitch head. This will ensure that the locking jaws properly grasp the kingpin.
Step 5: Back the vehicle the rest of the way. After the kingpin is coupled to your hitch, you will want to visually inspect the connection. Put your vehicle in park and engage the emergency brake.
Step 6: Engage the lock on the 5th wheel handle. When the jaws are properly wrapped around the kingpin, engage the lock on the hitch. On CURT 5th wheels, this is a safety pin in the handle.
Step 7: Plug in the electrical connector. Press the trailer-side plug firmly into the vehicle-side socket. The socket may be located somewhere near the bumper or in the truck bed. If your vehicle does not have an electrical socket, see chapter 7 on towing electrical and wiring.
Checking Your Work
Step 8: Test the coupler. Disengage the emergency brake on your vehicle and engage the trailer brakes using your brake control unit. Then, put your vehicle into drive and ease off the brakes. Only allow the vehicle to move forward a few inches, just enough to test the connection. If the trailer is coupled properly, you should feel resistance. If your vehicle moves forward without your trailer, go back and start again from step 2.
Step 9: Do a safety check before towing. Check the 5th wheel handle safety pin to make sure it is locked into place and fastened with a safety clip. Test your trailer lights and other lighting functions to make sure they are working correctly. Install the breakaway switch and test the breakaway battery. Also, do not forget to close the truck tailgate, remove the wheel chocks and fully retract the trailer jacks before towing.
Many 5th wheels, goosenecks and other large trailers are equipped with electric trailer brakes to assist the tow vehicle when stopping. It is important that these brakes are properly calibrated using a brake control before you tow. For more information on brake controls and trailer brakes, go to chapter 8.
When you have your coupler hooked up, your connector plugged in and your trailer ready to tow, it is always a good idea to double check your work. Take a moment to go over the following items to help ensure a safe, successful trip.
If you would like to print off a version of this list to keep in your vehicle, you can download a copy by following the link here.
Now that you know how to properly hook up your trailer, it is time to discuss safety. In the next chapter, we will talk about what practices to follow while towing a trailer, how to properly load cargo and how to handle certain driving situations with a trailer in tow.