Pickup Trucks 101: What You Need to Know Before Hitching Up a Trailer

Pickup Trucks 101: What You Need to Know Before Hitching Up a Trailer
By Justin Fort for PickupTrucks.com

Pickup trucks are simple, right? Not always. If you want to make casual motorists sweat, ask them to hook up a trailer. Hitching up a trailer can be intimidating but we're here to give you an introduction to a few basic things you might not know.

Frequently Used Towing Terms and Abbreviations

First, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with some common terms related to your truck’s weight ratings. (Please see our earlier story on this topic).

Gross combination weight rating, or GCWR, refers to your vehicle’s maximum loaded weight (gross vehicle weight rating, or GVWR), plus the trailer’s maximum loaded weight (gross trailer weight, or GTW).

Gross trailer weight is a loaded trailer's maximum weight. It's primarily dependent on a trailer's gross axle weight ratings but the trailer's tongue weight should be considered too.


Tongue weight, also known as tonnage weight or hitch weight, refers to the amount of weight pressing down on your truck’s hitch. It shouldn't exceed 10 to 15 percent of the trailer’s weight for a conventional hitch or 20 to 25 percent for a fifth wheel or gooseneck trailer. See, your truck doesn't just pull a trailer, it bears a portion of the trailer's weight too.

When loading a trailer, be sure to keep about 60 to 70 percent of the load in front of the trailer’s centerline instead of trying to spread it out 50/50 over the full length of the trailer. Remember, let the truck help with the load.

Hitch Types

Weight-Carrying Hitches:
Weight-carrying or conventional hitches are common with light-duty pickups and are frequently used for smaller trucks with a tow rating up to 5,000 pounds. The ball on a truck’s bumper or a square receiver underneath the bumper usually indicates a weight-carrying hitch. All the trailer’s tongue weight is put on the ball. That weight directly affects truck handling and braking, and that’s one of the reasons why they’re limited to lesser loads.

Weight-Distributing Hitches:
The weight-distributing hitch is an interpretation of the standard ball and receiver hitch, with additional parts that reach back from the ball point on your truck to the frame of the trailer.

A weight-distributing hitch’s equalizer bars connect truck and trailer redundantly and redistribute the leverage placed by tongue weight on the ball to more of the trailer and more of the truck frame. Also adjustable, a weight-distributing hitch is installed and then set for each trailer and truck.

Weight Distributing Hitch
Weight-distributing hitch and mechanical sway control

Weight-distributing hitches can be modified with mechanical friction sway control, a useful feature when dealing with heavier trailers. The regulating devices found on a weight-distributing hitch can also be purchased separately and installed on weight-carrying hitches for improved towing.

Weight distributing sway control is different from electronic sway control, which has been introduced recently in Ford and Ram pickups. Electronic sway control uses a truck's ABS system and a trailer's electric brakes to counteract dangerous sway conditions.

Fifth-Wheel and Gooseneck Hitches:
The heavy-duty alternative to a weight-carrying or weight-distributing hitch is the fifth-wheel hitch, which relocates the point of contact for truck-to-trailer to a more centralized spot in the truck's cargo box instead of at the bumper, most often over or before the rear axle.

Fifth-Wheel Hitch
Fifth-Wheel hitch

The fifth-wheel receiver looks like a giant horseshoe. It’s the same style of device you would find on the back of a semi tractor. A gooseneck hitch looks like a ball mounted on a plate in the bed.

The inherent weight-distributing setup of a fifth-wheel or gooseneck hitch helps improve towing stability compared with conventional hitches.

With a fifth-wheel, a larger portion of the mass of a heavier trailer is placed onto the truck’s suspension itself, again via the trailer’s tongue or king pin. If you’ve ever ridden in a Heavy Duty pickup and commented the ride was stiff, such as with a 2500 or 3500 Dodge or GM product or a Ford F-250 or F-350, now you understand why. These trucks are designed to handle a heavy trailer, with the load either handled by a weight-distributing hitch or a fifth-wheel attached directly to the frame.

Gooseneck Hitch Cutaway
Gooseneck hitch cutaway

An Important Note About Trailer Hitch Balls

You should also be aware that most trailer hitch balls come in three different sizes, depending on the size of your trailer's hitch and the load you're pulling. The sizes are 1 7/8-inches, 2-inches and 2 5/16-inches.

Hitch Classes

Hitch classes run from Class I to V and not exactly congruent with the aforementioned hitch designs. Each class has a maximum for tow weight and tongue weight and is subdivided again for the type of hitch, carrying or distributing, because a weight-distributing hitch can handle more weight.

Speaking of calculating actual truck and trailer weight, truck and trailer-size scales are easy to find in the Yellow Pages or online, if you don’t know exactly how much you’re hauling.

Conventional hitches are split into the following classes:

Class I:
Towing capacity of up to 2,000 pounds gross trailer weight and 200 pounds tongue weight.

Class II:
Towing capacity of up to 3,500 pounds gross trailer weight and 300-350 pounds tongue weight.

Class III:
Towing capacity of up to 5,000 pounds gross trailer weight and 500 pounds tongue weight. Also sometimes used to refer to a hitch with any two-inch receiver, regardless of rating.

Class IV:
Towing capacity of up to 10,000 pounds gross trailer weight and 1,000 to 1,200 pounds tongue weight. Although many times any hitch with a capacity greater than 5,000 pounds gross weight is referred to as a Class 4.

Trailer Connectors

7-pin Trailer Connector
7-pin trailer connector socket on a 2010 Ford F-150 SVT Raptor. A 4-pin socket is covered on the right. As you can see, the sockets can become clogged with dirt and debris over time and may need to be cleaned to work with the trailer.

Last, but not least, after hitching up your truck and trailer, you'll have to connect the electrical systems of both together using either a 4-pin or 7-pin connector.

A 4-pin connector provides power from the truck to the trailer for left and right turn signals and taillights. It's also an electrical ground point.

A 7-pin connector provides all of the functionality of the 4-pin, plus it adds a connector for a trailer brake controller and break-away switch for a trailer's electric brakes if it accidentally separates from the truck, it provides power to charge a battery for the breakaway switch and it provides reverse lights.

Final Word

This article is a quick introduction to trailer hitches. Help from a local trailer retail or repair facility is indispensable and expert advice is always worth getting.

The numbers in this story should be taken as guidelines — There is some overlap in hitch classes, and different states will rate and govern hitches differently. Some states permit certain trailer and hitch combinations without special license, while other states require certification for the exact same kit. That overlap also provides that Class IV and V might be lumped together in Class IV, while Class V could refer to fifth-wheel applications. Ask an expert if you're stuck!

It’s crucial to match your hitch with the weight capacity of your truck and weight of your trailer. A hitch that’s rated for more weight than your pickup will not increase the pickup’s capacities, and a stronger hitch will not fix an overloaded or poorly loaded trailer. Your hitch must be able to handle a trailer’s capacities while not exceeding a truck’s capabilities. Tow with the right hitch.


You were doing good until you said "A 7-pint connector provides all of the functionality of the 4-pin, plus it adds a connector for a trailer brake controller and break-away switch for a trailer's electric brakes if it accidentally separates from the truck, . . ."

And where did you find such a non-standard item as a 7 pin MAGNETIC trailer connector? An article geared towards first-time haulers and you put a picture of something that most of who have been towing for years have never seen? Shame on you.

@glsurratt: Thanks for the feedback. I've fixed the typo and you're absolutely correct. I should have inserted a picture of a conventional 7-pin connector. I'll get a new photo up shortly. Sorry about that.

It must have been a very slow day around the pickuptrucks.com offices for sure... LOL

One thing I will add is there are 6 way plugs to. And like glsurratt said most people have never seen a MAGNETIC plug in their life! Way to call that one gisurrantt!

@glsurratt and @shawn: Hope you both like the updated picture of the 7-pin socket. Just took it a few minutes ago, special for y'all. Thanks again for the feedback. :-)

No problem Mike. Thanks go out for you and your team for giving me and the other readers a great website! Keep up the GREAT work. Can't wait for the Shootout either :-)

Thanks, Mike. Looks a lot more familiar.

Are there any guidelines as to length of trailer vs. wheelbase of your truck?

My experience has been that the longer the truck wheelbase, the better the combination will handle, and the ride will be better. The shorter the wheelbase of the trailer (pin to forward trailer axle), the harder it will be to control when backing up (you have less time to make a decision on which way to turn the wheel before it gets away from you and you have to pull up and take another shot.)

I agree with glsurratt... A longer wheelbase truck always seems to ride and handle better when towing or hauling a heavy load in the back. I will add that a longer trailer vs. a shorter one is usually easier to back up to. I know this don't sound right but a shorter trailer takes a lot more correcting while backing than a longer one does. But this flies in the face of a short vs. long wheelbase truck because nine times out of ten a short wheelbase truck turns a lot sharper. This is only useful if you are in a tight place and trying to back or turn.

This is an excellent article for someone who hasn’t towed much, or at all but I think it would be good to also include how to load a trailer properly to help lessen the possibility of trailer sway happening. I have seen a lot of people put too much weight in the rear of the trailer and they wonder why it sways so badly. Also I think people need to be better educated with gear ratios when purchasing a truck that they know they will be towing with because a lot of people don’t understand how much of a difference it really makes.

Very true... I always try to stick with at least a 3.73 gear ration or higher for towing. A 3.55 is not bad and will get you better gas mileage but a 3.73 or a 4.10 (at least on a Ford) is better for towing and you feel the low end torque a lot better. Useful for getting a heavy trailer up and going from a stop light!

That should have been gear ratio not gear ration... sorry!


You get drivers who insist their pick up truck is "SPECIAL!"

Am I right or wrong?
A 1/2 ton is still a 1/2 ton
A 3/4 ton is still a 3/4 ton
A 1 ton is still a 1 ton and so on...

Regardless of any special heavy duty suspension.
All the weight ends up in one place to be carried and bare down on... THE WHEEL BEARING.

Extra suspension meaning to HANDLE THE LOAD!
As in Bouncing around, shifting, stopping, etc....
Not mean TO CARRY MORE? over the trucks capacity?

Please let me know because as the same warehouse loader I get this all the time...


And I try to explain.....
The extra heavy duty suspenion means to handle the load.
Not put more or carry more load on your pick up.
Because the laws of physics still apply. Your pick up truck is still A 1/2 ton capcity. The extra suspenion did not magicaly turn your 1/2 ton pick up into a 1 ton pick up. Your wheel bearings are still rated for 1/2 ton. And that is where all the weight of the load ends up. Extra Supeman suspension, towing package or not.

I get the...


I dont say it, but I think....

"That only means you've been misusing your long bed 1/2 ton pick up all those times. And so far lucky you havent killed yourself or others doing it. Like a soccor mom with kids in her mini van."


i been looking for a truck and trailer for my business. i found some great ideas here, thanks

i am so glad this internet thing works and your article really helped me.

Considering the large amount of electrical trailer connectors and a lot of pin-outs available a summary of the most common ones can now be found at Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trailer_Connector

I might would also add that when pulling trailers, you need to take into account how much weight you have added if you intend to change a flat, on the truck or the trailer.

can I tow a 21ft MacGregor sail boat with my 1996 Toyota Tacoma safely.

What type or brand 5th wheel would work with a Ram 2500 Hvy Duty 8ft bed truck pulling a 27 ft Dutchman,so that it rides level. I had a older Ram and this 5th wheel worked, but the new truck bed is higher and it is as low as I can get the 5th wheel, and with a new type would I have to change the tailgate on truck.

I'm very easily confused so bear with me a moment. I have a GMC Sierra 1500. Would my truck be capable of hauling a fifth wheel? Or a trailer with a gooseneck hitch? What's on my truck is a bumper pull, but I like the stability of a fifth wheel or gooseneck. I have an older (late 70s, early 80s?) I think would be too heavy for my truck so am looking for another type or weight camper of some kind. What my truck will and will not tow will dictate what I get. I know a tent trailer would probably work the best, but seems awfully hard to work just getting the outsides put together before I could even step inside (10 to 20 minutes?) and would be a pain if the weather was bad. I also want solid walls! I probably sound pretty dumb, and maybe I am. I'm a 62 year old grandma (as an artist, I have MUCH more right brain than left brain) so this stuff doesn't come easily to me. Thank you, dorsie jones

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