How to Install a Trailer Hitch
A trailer hitch is an essential vehicle part for many homeowners. Whether it’s used to tow a small utility trailer to pick up some lumber or topsoil, or to cart around your favorite off-road toys, a hitch for trailers provides so much functionality.
You may be surprised to learn that you can install a trailer hitch yourself, but it is a vehicle modification that many backyard mechanics can tackle. Keep in mind that there are several different types of towing hitch, including receiver, gooseneck, pintle, and weight distribution hitches. The standard receiver hitch is the most common type, typically priced between $150 and $450, and it’s the one we’ll cover here, so read on to learn the ins and outs of trailer hitch installation.
What Type of Trailer Hitch Should You Get?
Every aftermarket tow hitch is rated for a certain towing capacity, and that rating must match the capacity of your vehicle. Your first step in researching your new hitch installation is to check your vehicle owner’s manual for the towing capacity of your vehicle.
Some small cars and crossovers are not rated for any towing but can still be fitted with a low-capacity tow hitch that will accept bike racks or other active-living accessories.
Many mid-sized minivans, crossovers, SUVs, and small trucks have tow ratings between 2000lb and 3500lb, and you’ll find towing capacities of 5000lb and up on the largest SUVs and many full-size pickup trucks.
There are Five Classes of Trailer Hitches:
Class 1 Trailer Hitches
Class 1 – Uses a receiver size of 1-1/4-inch, can tow up to 2,000lbs and has a maximum tongue weight of 200lbs. The tongue weight is the weight that rests on the hitch, as opposed to the total weight of the item you are towing.
Class 2 Trailer Hitches
Class 2 – Uses a 1-1/4-inch receiver, can tow up to 3,500lbs, with a maximum tongue weight of 350lbs.
Class 3 Trailer Hitches
Class 3 – Uses a 2-inch receiver, with a towing capacity of up to 10,000lbs and a maximum tongue weight of 1,000lbs.
Class 4 Trailer Hitches
Class 4 – Uses a 2-inch receiver, can tow up to 15,000lbs, with a max tongue weight of 1,500lbs.
Class 5 Trailer Hitches
Class 5 – Uses a 2-inch receiver, with a towing capacity of up to 17,000lbs and a maximum tongue weight of 1,700lbs.
When choosing a hitch for your vehicle, you may want to select a class that exceeds the maximum towing capacity of your vehicle, so that you don’t accidentally tow something that is too heavy for your hitch.
For instance, many minivan owners will opt for a class 3 hitch with an 8,000lb capacity, even though their vehicle has a towing capacity of only 3,500lbs.
How to Install a Trailer Hitch
Once you’ve selected your hitch class, order your parts from AutoZone, using the year, make, model, and engine size to find the perfect parts for your vehicle. Now you can get to work with the installation by following these steps:
- Chock your front wheels and jack up the rear of the vehicle so that you have access to the undercarriage. Be sure to use jack stands to support the weight of the vehicle.
- Refer to the installation instructions from the hitch manufacturer to find the area you’ll be working on. You may need to remove a spare tire, heat shield, or even lower your muffler to gain access to the mounting points.
- Clean the area around the mounting points with a wire brush to remove any rust or debris. If there are pre-threaded holes in the frame you can clean them with lubricant and a tap. You may need to drill holes to mount the hitch, or fish in the bolts through the frame.
- Position the hitch under the vehicle and prop it up so that you can work on the bolts with two hands. Either enlist the help of a friend or use blocks.
- Fasten all the bolts and nuts and torque them to the manufacturers specifications using a torque wrench.
Depending on your make and model of vehicle, you may need to install a wiring harness to the hitch for towing a trailer. Be sure to wrap all the wires in protective tape or flexible tubing, to avoid premature wear on the wiring harness, and then zip tie the whole thing up in areas that are protected from road debris. This will save you headaches down the road!
You can expect the whole process to take between two hours and most of a day, depending on your specific vehicle and your level of mechanical expertise.
The Tools You Will Need
A trailer hitch installation is a medium to expert-difficulty task, depending on the vehicle. There will be certain tools that are a must-have, and others that may be required for more difficult installations. Let’s start with the must-haves:
- A set of wheel chocks, and either ramps or a jack and jack stands, to elevate the vehicle.
- Safety glasses. You’ll working upside down under the vehicle and all kinds of stuff will fall in your eyes.
- Good lighting.
- A screwdriver set, including flat-head and Phillips heads at the very least.
- A 1/2-inch socket and ratchet set. You can probably make do with a 3/8-inch set, if that’s what you have.
- A set of combination wrenches, in case you need to turn bolts in harder to reach places.
- Torque wrench, for final torque on the bolts.
- A pry bar, in case things need a little encouragement to fit properly.
- Wire brush, to clean all the mating surfaces before installation.
Some items will be needed if the installation is more challenging:
- A tape measure and marking pen, to mark drilling positions.
- A high-speed drill with appropriate drill bits, for drilling holes in your car frame.
- Lubricants for cutting or releasing seized parts.
- Specialty tools like Torx bits, if your car requires them.
Items that are optional:
- Nitrile gloves or mechanics gloves are great for reducing the amount of dirt and grease that become embedded in your hands when working on vehicles. They can also reduce injuries and fatigue.
- A creeper can reduce fatigue by allowing you to move easily under the vehicle.
Should you get a professional installation?
Depending on your level of mechanical experience and your vehicle type, you’ll need to set aside between two and eight hours to complete this job. Start by doing some research on your vehicle to see how difficult it is.
If you decide that it’s too big a job to tackle on your own, let AutoZone help you find qualified professional mechanics through our Shop Referral Program.