Trailer Hitches Classes Ultimate Guide

Best fifth wheel hitches comparison and reviewsIf you are an avid outdoor enthusiast, you are definitely bringing your entire household comforts with you into the wilderness if not for certain realistic constraints. These realistic constraints are characterized by two basic concepts – weight and space. What you want to bring with you for a long-term stay in the Grand Canyon, Lake Tahoe, or Acadia will have to get the approval of your vehicle’s cubic-feet cargo space and payload weight.

While space and weight are mandatory considerations (if not obstacles), the goal of the enthusiastic vacationer is to ‘make the most of it.’ Towing a trailer essentially addresses the problem of ‘where to put all the stuff I want’ given the obvious extent of what you can bring inside your vehicle. But the question of how much trailer weight your vehicle can pull deserves your most meticulous and painstaking attention to this detail called hitch classes.

The Hitch Classes List

A hitch is what connects the vehicle and the trailer or van. Knowing what variety to buy and install in your vehicle is basically categorized into different classes. The key principles for better understanding these trailer hitch classes are receiver sizes and tongue weight.

Class 1

  • Receiver sizes: 1-1/4 x 1-1/4 inches
  • Max tongue weight: 200 lbs.

The usual vehicles intended for this hitch class includes a sedan, a subcompact, and a mid-sized sports utility vehicle (SUV). A Jet Ski buggy and kayak trailer pretty much characterize the heaviest sets of wheels this class can carry. Due to its lightweight capacity, this hitch class is better suited for non-towing purposes – which would mean shouldering a bike rack or cargo box at the back of your SUV. Lastly, this hitch class can come in two forms: one that is installed in the vehicle frame and one that is rigged onto a bumper.

Putting it in the context of profiling an outdoor travel, you can pretty much imagine an expedient weekend trip. However, this hitch class can work well with vacationers who only need to bring extra clothes and nominal accessories considering that their intended venue already has complete amenities (e.g. log cabin).

Class 2

  • Receiver sizes: 1-1/4 x 1-1/4 inches
  • Max tongue weight: 300 to 525 lbs.

Basically, Class 2 has no difference with the previous category in terms of the receiver size and the type of vehicles usually sporting it. However, it can handle an additional 300 lbs. of maximum tongue weight. In addition to the previous types of trailers and non-towing freight, the Class 2 hitch can haul a pop-up camper, bass boat, sailing dinghy, and two all-terrain vehicles (ATV). Just like the Class 1 hitch, this class can either be fixed onto the underside frame or the bumper.

If you imagine the kind of outdoor traveler using this hitch, the profile fits most vacationers who can live for a couple more days in the wild – somewhere between a safari enthusiast and a seasoned survivalist. As mentioned earlier, this hitch is very suitable for boating and water sports hobbyists. 

Class 3

  • Receiver sizes: 2 x 2 inches
  • Max tongue weight: 600 to 800 lbs.

Class 3 is where you can usually draw the line between lightweight and heavyweight performance, characterized by a bigger receiver size. In addition to the typical vehicle varieties, this hitch class is also ideal for a large SUV, short bed pickup trucks and heavy-duty long bed pickup trucks. Practically, there are no longer bumper hitches under this class due to the tremendous pressure it is required to sustain. However, a weight distribution hitch is already allowable under Class 3, increasing your potential tongue weight by up to 1000 lbs.

Apart from the previously mentioned trailers and non-towing cargo, the Class 3 is capable of handling the weight of a midsize camper or a cuddy cabin boat. In fact, if you are in the business of accepting part-time commissions for transporting livestock, this hitch class is capable of dragging farm trailers that can tug the full weight of a rhinoceros.

Class 4

  • Receiver sizes: 2 x 2 inches
  • Max tongue weight: 1,200 to 1,800 lbs.

This receiver category is the highest class you can install in the underside frame of your large SUV and passenger van – especially with a weight distribution hitch. Considering the enormous tongue weight it can sustain, this hitch is not suitable for the subcompact, sedan and most mid-sized SUV. This hitch is also a popular option for light-duty and heavy-duty pickup truck owners that do not appreciate the complications of installing a fifth wheel or a gooseneck.

The Class 4 hitch can carry non-towing cargo and a wide-range of caravan sizes not exceeding 18,000 lbs of gross trailer weight. Among the heaviest transport, it can pull includes a sports express cruiser (boat), a large camper, and a recreational van. This hitch class is highly recommended for vacationers who prefer retaining the familiar comfort and style in a wilderness.

Fifth Wheel & Gooseneck

As mentioned earlier, the fifth wheel and gooseneck hitches are only suitable for pickup trucks. What makes these transport connectors special is that they are both designed to tow up to 3,000 lbs. of maximum tongue weight. A cargo this magnitude easily fits the image of a shipping container or a sedan bridge sport yacht.

Unlike the other four hitch classes installed at the underside frame behind the rear axle, the fifth wheel and gooseneck are located at the truck bed. Instead of the mere rear axle sustaining the brunt of the pull, virtually half of the towing vehicle’s entire body is needed for the fifth wheel and gooseneck’s intended burden. While these pickup truck connectors are similar to each other in terms of weight capacity, they differ completely in design and overall towing performance.

The fifth wheel hitch locks the trailer king pin tight, ensuring complete control at the expense of maneuverability around tight angles. On top of that, the fifth wheel hitch occupies virtually 3/4 of the truck’s cargo bed space due to its size. In essence, once a fifth wheel hitch is installed on your truck bed that vehicle becomes exclusively used for towing trailers.

The gooseneck leaves a lot of room for rotary maneuverability but also sacrifices secure road control of the transported freight (especially if it is a very heavy cargo). Unlike the fifth wheel, the gooseneck occupies a very nominal cargo bed space. Some models even allow you to flip the gooseneck ball coupler into the socket to completely free the cargo bed when not in use – therefore making your truck accessible again for loading up anything on its cargo bed.

How to Choose Hitch Classes?

The trailer hitch classes defined and explained earlier pretty much tells you what you need to know about these useful towing connectors. Knowing how much pressure each hitch class can handle is one thing. The ultimate deciding factor comes down to the overall towing capacity of your vehicle.

Proper selection of a tow hitch practically means factoring the essential calculable elements usually featured in the vehicle’s manual and the trailer’s vehicle identification number (VIN). These are the following terms you should consider noting:

  • Gross Vehicle/Trailer Weight (GVW or GTW): the basic approximated vehicle/trailer weight that already includes a standard amount of luggage, fuel volume and passengers occupying every seat.
  • Gross Vehicle/Trailer Weight Rating (GVWR or GTWR): the maximum allowance for the vehicle’s/trailer’s gross vehicle weight – wherein exceeding this weight limit potentially cause a serious breakdown.
  • Gross Combination Weight (GCW): the actual vehicle weight (GVW) and the total trailer weight (GTW).
  • Gross Combination Weight Rating (GCWR): the maximum safe allowance for the combined trailer and vehicle weight, which already estimates the inclusion of standard luggage amount, fuel volume, passenger occupancy, and other accessories.
  • Gross Axle Weight (GAW): the expected average weight to bear down on either the front or the rear wheels, each with a different value as designed by the manufacturer.
  • Gross Axle Weight Rating (GAWR): the maximum weight restriction assigned to the front and rear wheels – wherein exceeding this figure can compromise driving safety. 

When it comes to connecting the towing vehicle and the trailer, the critical point of assessment is located at the coupling. The downward pressure exerted by the trailer king pin on the hitch is called the tongue weight. The safest tongue weight estimate for you to assess and determine the right hitch class is around 10 to 15 percent of the GTW.

Safe towing also entails proper weight distribution in the trailer and the axle weight rating. In essence, choose a vehicle with a total gross axle weight rating (GAWR) for both front and rear that do not exceed the wagon’s gross trailer weight (GTW). For proper weight distribution, place 60 percent of the trailer’s entire interior cargo at the front and 40 percent at the rear.

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