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Towing: How to hitch and unhitch a trailer

Improve your hitching skills and you'll be better able to enjoy camping adventures. (image credit: Brendan Batty)
Tim Robson
Contributing Journalist
CarsGuide

19 Oct 2018 • 19 min read

You’ve got your tow vehicle sorted, your trailer is ready to go and all that remains is to connect the two.

This is a very crucial element to get right, of course, and there are a few basics that you need to know before you set off. If you’ve never done it before it can seem daunting – but it’s not.

Know your hitch

This is a 50mm towball, the most common general-use hitch. (image credit: Marcus Craft) This is a 50mm towball, the most common general-use hitch. (image credit: Marcus Craft)

There are a variety of hitch styles available for various applications, but let’s focus on the simplest types that grace most cars and box trailers, camper-trailers, caravans and boat trailers.

The most common hitch on a typical road-going car is known as a 50mm ball. It mates to a fixed coupling on the trailer that uses a captive cup to grasp the tow ball. A range of options make them suitable for most trailers up to 3500kg, unless you’re planning on towing on rougher, off-road tracks.

In this case, an off-road coupling could be the ticket. The standard 50mm ball hitch has a limited range of movement, so can pop off if the trailer’s on too much of an angle. An off-road hitch, however, swivels and allows the trailer to articulate independently of the tow vehicle, providing a more stable connection on undulating or rutted tracks.

An off-road hitch swivels and allows the trailer to articulate independently of the tow vehicle. (image credit: Marcus Craft) An off-road hitch swivels and allows the trailer to articulate independently of the tow vehicle. (image credit: Marcus Craft)

Often on older or European-built trailers, either type of hitch is combined with an override brake assembly, which provides a mechanical braking system to the trailer. Some others have an anti-sway feature that grasps the sides of a 50mm ball to help stabilise larger trailers. Many off-road hitches have a pin, rather than a ball.

Do your research on the most suitable style to suit your vehicle’s size, the weight of your trailer – including the down ball weight – and how you plan to use it. If you’re embarking on a dream run around Australia, for example, a system that is easy to use and adds extra security will be worth the extra cost.

Keep it greased and maintained

Make sure your tow ball is well torqued – it shouldn't spin, wobble or rattle. (image credit: Brendan Batty) Make sure your tow ball is well torqued – it shouldn't spin, wobble or rattle. (image credit: Brendan Batty)

The hardware that connects vehicle and trailer is the focus point of a lot of energy, so keeping everything clean and tight is a must.

Ensure that all bolts on the hitch are not working their way loose and that the tow ball is well torqued – it shouldn’t spin, wobble or rattle. Always use a spring washer between the tow ball nut and the tongue, and use a big spanner or shifter for proper leverage.

There’s no need to slather on so much grease that your jeans’ leg resembles an oily rag the second you go near it, but periodically applying some marine-grade grease to the inside of a ball hitch will prevent it from wearing out prematurely and prevent the ball from sticking as you’re trying to unhitch. Although, if you have an anti-sway hitch, don’t put any grease on it.

That maintenance should extend to the electricals, too. If you don’t tow often, give your on-vehicle plug an occasional light spray of WD-40 to keep rust at bay, and make sure your electric cable is in good condition, with no breaks or frays. Replace damaged plugs and sockets as soon as you can.

Also, loosen the anti-rattle nut underneath your tow-bar sleeve. It’s only there to stop the hitch rattling while you aren’t towing, and could, in fact, damage the hitch if it’s left tight while towing.

Mating the trailer and tow car

 If your vehicle has a rear-view camera, like this one on the Ford Ranger Raptor, you can almost do the job of hitching by yourself. (image credit: Tim Robson) If your vehicle has a rear-view camera, like this one on the Ford Ranger Raptor, you can almost do the job of hitching by yourself. (image credit: Tim Robson)

Once everything is squared away, you’re ready to mount up. First and foremost, ensure that you have room to move, and that both vehicle and trailer are parked on level ground. If your trailer has a park brake, make sure that’s engaged, too.

If your car has a rear-view camera, you can almost do the job single-handedly; some vehicles, such as the Ford Everest and Audi Q7, even have dynamic guide lines on the rear-view camera screen to get you right on target.

If you don’t have a camera, then you’ll need an assistant who has clear line of sight to the driver. And make sure you’re both operating on the same wavelength, too…

If your trailer has a jockey wheel, wind it up to a suitable height; if your jockey wheel is installed correctly, you should be able to raise the hitch to sit just higher than the ball, allowing for easy attachment.

If you can’t match them up, and the trailer is light enough, you may be able to lift the trailer on by hand. If it is not, lower the A-frame onto a suitable axle stand or jack and adjust the jockey wheel’s position in the clamp so it’s got the correct range.

Ensure that the hitch’s locking mechanism – a simple clip – is in the ‘open’ position as you’re lowering the trailer. The hitch doesn’t make a distinctive noise when it is fully on the tow ball, but it will sink down onto it and feel secure.

Generally, if you can lock the mechanism into place, the hitch is properly engaged. You can test it by either trying to lift it off with the jockey wheel, or in the case of some more advanced hitches, looking for the indicator that says it’s engaged.

Next, connect the safety chains, trailer plug and, if fitted, the break-away brake cable.

D-shackles and chains

Use the right gear – including safety chains and shackles – and you'll be towing safely and legally. (image credit: Brendan Batty) Use the right gear – including safety chains and shackles – and you'll be towing safely and legally. (image credit: Brendan Batty)

Not all shackles are made equally, and considering the job they may be called upon to do, it’s not worth saving a couple of bucks here.

There are rumours that Australian police conduct random checks on D-shackles and fine caravanners and others for not using the correct shackles. Police services deny this, pointing out that regular patrol cars aren’t equipped to test such items. And also, there’s no specific legislation that states which shackles should be used while towing a trailer. Of course, police can - and do - check that vehicles comply to general road safety.

It is advisable, though, to use a 10mm shackle that meets AS 2741-2002 standards, and with a working weight limit (WWL) of at least 1000kg. Usually these have a yellow or blue pin.

It’s a legal requirement to use safety chains – at least two if the trailer is more than 2500kg (or you’re in Western Australia). You should cross them over under the tow hitch in an x-fashion, which creates a ‘cradle’ for the trailer to fall into should it become detached. If your trailer is over 2000kg, you are also required to have a break-away brake system, which will apply the trailer’s brakes should it become completely detached from the tow vehicle.

Double-check, then check again

Have a pre-towing checklist and work through it at a comfortable pace before setting off – this includes making sure the jockey wheel is retracted and secure. (image credit: Marcus Craft) Have a pre-towing checklist and work through it at a comfortable pace before setting off – this includes making sure the jockey wheel is retracted and secure. (image credit: Marcus Craft)

You really can’t check your trailer fittings often enough. Take your time when hitching up, and make sure you’ve completed the following checklist:

- Hitch’s locking mechanism is in the ‘closed' position

- Hitch is actually locked onto the ball or pin

- Jockey wheel arm is retracted and secured in place or removed

- Electric cable is connected

- Chains crossed over and secured

- Break-away cable is attached to secure location

- Trailer park brake is in ‘off’ position

- Lights and brakes are operational.

Once you’re underway, your first stop should be at the end of your street. If you’ve messed anything up, it’ll be quickly apparent, so catching the problem before getting into traffic is best. Then check again when you stop for a feed or fuel.

If it goes wrong

Sensible driving, having a thorough pre-towing checklist and using the correct equipment will help prevent any strife happening when you're towing. (image credit: Brendan Batty) Sensible driving, having a thorough pre-towing checklist and using the correct equipment will help prevent any strife happening when you're towing. (image credit: Brendan Batty)

Trailer decouples are rare if you’ve been careful, but they can happen – and you’ll be lucky to escape damage if it does.

If you feel or hear anything that’s not normal when you’re towing, your first job is to gently slow the vehicle to get it out of traffic. The aim is to reduce your speed gently enough that the now-disconnected trailer doesn’t ram the rear of your car any harder than it’s probably going to anyway.

Once you’ve got it all stopped, you can hopefully use your jockey wheel system and your jack to prop the trailer up and refit the hitch onto the towball, or call your roadside assistance provider for help.

What are some of your towing tips? Tell us what you think in the comments below.

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