Tow hitch

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A tow ball mounted on the rear of a vehicle
A screw-on tow hook mounted at the front of a vehicle

A tow hitch (or tow bar) is a device attached to the chassis of a vehicle for towing, or a towbar to an aircraft nose gear. It can take the form of a tow ball to allow swiveling and articulation of a trailer, or a tow pin, or a tow hook with a trailer loop, often used for large or agricultural vehicles where slack in the pivot pin allows similar movements. Another category is the towing pintle used on military vehicles worldwide.

Regional variations[edit]

Under bumper class III receiver with 7-pin blade trailer connector
Class IV receiver for up to 10,000-pound (4.5 t) towing capacity with wiring connector on the left side

North America[edit]

In North America the vehicle attachment is known as the trailer hitch.[1] Trailer hitches come in two main configurations: receiver type and fixed-drawbar type. Receiver-type hitches consist of a portion that mounts to the frame of the vehicle that has a rearward-facing opening that accepts removable ball mounts, hitch bike racks, cargo carriers, or other hitch-mounted accessories. Fixed-drawbar hitches are typically built as one piece, have an integrated hole for the trailer ball, and are generally not compatible with aftermarket hitch accessories.

Trailer hitch classes[edit]

A trailer hitch typically bolts to the chassis of the vehicle. In North America, there are a few common classes (I, II, III, and IV) that are defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE).[2]

Class I – up to 2,000 pounds (910 kg) – light loads
Class II – up to 3,500 pounds (1,600 kg) – light loads
Class III – up to 5,000 pounds (2,300 kg) – larger loads (campers, boats, etc.)
Class IV – up to 10,000 pounds (4,500 kg) – larger loads (campers, boats, etc.)

Some manufacturers market Class V hitches, but there is no such standard according to SAE J684.[3]

"Class V" – up to 17,000 pounds (7,700 kg) – larger loads (construction equipment, etc.)

The trailer tongue (North America) or coupling (outside North America) slips over a tow ball attached to or integral with the hitch.

Receiver tube sizes[edit]

Receiver tubes come in various sizes depending on the load they carry and the country of operation.

Class I & II - 1+14 in (31.8 mm) receiver tube
Class III & IV - 2 in (50.8 mm) receiver tube
Class V - 2 or 2+12 in (50.8 or 63.5 mm) receiver tube

Tow ball sizes[edit]

Operation of tow ball with trailer hitch mounted

Tow balls come in various sizes depending on the load they carry and the country of operation:

  • 1+78 in (47.6 mm)
  • 50 millimetres (1+3132 in) (ISO standard)
  • 2 inches (50.8 mm)
  • 2+516 in (58.7 mm) heavy duty
  • 3 in (76.2 mm) heavy-duty gooseneck

In North America, the ball attaches to a ballmount. Receiver-type hitches use removable ball mounts, whereas the fixed-drawbar-type hitches have integrated ball mounts. The ball mount must match the SAE hitch class. The ballmount for a receiver-type hitch is a square bar that fits into a receiver attached to the vehicle. Removable ball mounts are offered with a varying rise or drop to accommodate variations in the height of the vehicle and trailer to provide for level towing.

To tow safely, the correct combination of vehicle and trailer must be combined with correct loading horizontally and vertically on the tow ball. Advice should be taken (see references) to avoid problems.

Outside North America, the vehicle mounting for the tow ball is called the tow bracket. The mounting points for all recent passenger vehicles are defined by the vehicle manufacturer and the tow-bracket manufacturer must use these mount points and prove the efficacy of their bracket for each vehicle by a full rig-based fatigue test.

Truck variants[edit]

Heavy trailer mounted on a gooseneck hitch inside pickup truck bed

Additionally, some pickup trucks come equipped with one to three mounting holes placed in the center area of the rear bumper to accommodate the mounting of trailer tow balls. Weight ratings for both bumper-mounted and frame-mounted receiver hitches can be found on the bumper of pickup trucks (for bumper-mounted tow balls) and on the receiver hitch (for frame-mounted receiver hitches).

For flat deck and pickup trucks towing 10,000-to-30,000-pound (4.5 to 13.6 t) trailers there are fifth wheel and gooseneck hitches. These are used for agriculture, industry, and large recreational trailers.

Front trailer hitches are also used on pickup trucks, full-size SUVs, and RVs for multiple purposes.[4] A front-mounted hitch can accommodate additional truck equipment such as front mount bike carriers, fishing/hunting gear, winches, step plates, and snowplows. It also allows a driver to maneuver a trailer with better visibility into a parking site. Front trailer hitches are mounted directly to the frame of a vehicle to ensure a reliable connection. Front hitches are typically equipped with standard-sized receiver tubes to accommodate a variety of hitch mount equipment.


Tow hook mounted on the rear of a vehicle
Coupling ball of Class A . (Tow ball 50 mm [1.97 in]). Dimension according to regulation No 55 of the Economic Commission for Europe of the United Nations (UNECE) — Uniform provisions concerning the approval of mechanical coupling components of combinations of vehicles [2018/862], ANNEX 5, Figure 2.[5]
Trailer coupled (i.e., "hooked") onto a ball-type tow hitch and electrical connector plugged in

In the European Union, tow hitches must be a type approved by European Union directive 94/20/EC requirements and fitted to vehicles first registered on or after 1 August 1998.[6]

The ISO standard tow ball is 50 mm (1+3132 in) in diameter and conforms to a standard BS AU 113b (replaced by BS ISO 1103:2007). The ISO standard has been adopted in most of the world outside North America. With a minor modification, it was published by UNECE on June 15, 2018, as class A.[5]

There are two main categories of ISO tow ball: the flange fitting and the swan-neck which has an extended neck fitting into the tow-bracket. Swan-neck tow balls are often removable to avoid the inconvenience of a tow ball protruding from the vehicle when not required. Some manufacturers are introducing retractable tow balls as an option.

Across Europe around 25% of vehicles have tow balls fitted—but there are distinct regional variations, being more common in Benelux and Scandinavia. In Sweden, around 2.2 million cars of around 4.3 million (just over 50%) have tow balls.[7] In the United Kingdom the popularity of caravans is responsible for a large proportion of four-wheel drive (SUV) vehicles being fitted with tow hitches.

Electrical connector[edit]

The vehicle must also be electrically connected to the trailer. Trailer connector variants are standardised at the regional or national and local levels. Some variants are defined by the ISO standards for trailer connectors.

Trailer tow hitch[edit]

A car can be equipped with a trailer tow hitch with a removable tow ball.

Weight-distributing hitch[edit]

A weight-distributing hitch is a "load leveling" hitch. It is a hitch setup mounted on the tow vehicle that uses spring bars and chains under tension to distribute part of the trailer's hitch weight from the towing vehicle's rear axle to the towing vehicle's front axle and to the trailer's axle(s). It can help reduce trailer sway and hop. Trailer hop can jerk the tow vehicle. Trailer sway is also called fishtailing. At high speeds, trailer sway can become dangerous. Most vehicle manufacturers will only allow a maximum trailer capacity of 5,000 pounds (2,300 kg) and 500 pounds (230 kg) of tongue weight without using a weight-distributing hitch. Tow vehicles often have square receiver sockets to accept weight distributing hitches.

Pintle hook and lunette ring[edit]

NATO tow hitch
NATO tow bar
A pintle hook (top) and lunette ring (bottom), used in towing applications by the military

A lunette ring is a type of trailer hitch that works in combination with a pintle hook on the tow vehicle. A pintle hook and lunette ring make a more secure coupling, desirable on rough terrain, compared to ball-type trailer hitches. It is commonly seen in towing applications in agriculture, industry, and the military.

The clearance between the lunette and pintle allows for more relative motion between the trailer and tow vehicle than a ball coupling does. A disadvantage of that is the "slam" transmitted into the towing vehicle with each push/pull load reversal. This becomes a tradeoff between a more secure coupling and a more comfortable towing experience.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Campbell, Julia (9 September 2019). "A Mover's Guide to Trailers & Tow Hitches". Retrieved 19 February 2020.
  2. ^ "US Department of Transportation". Federal Register. National Archives and Records Service, General Services Administration. 65 (186): 57643–57646. 25 September 2000. Retrieved 29 October 2020.
  3. ^ "Trailer Couplings, Hitches, and Safety Chains -- Automotive Type (Standard: J684, Revision: A)". SAE International. 30 May 2014. Retrieved 31 July 2014.
  4. ^ Benjamin, Scott C. (8 October 2008). "How Front-mount Receivers Work". HowStuffWorks. Retrieved 6 July 2021.
  5. ^ a b "Tow ball 50mm - EU class A". EU, UNECE [2018/862] ANNEX 5, Figure 2.
  6. ^ "Directive 94/20/EC of the European Parliament". Official Journal of the European Communities. 30 May 1994. Retrieved 19 February 2020.
  7. ^ "Släpvagnskörning med B-körkort (SOU 2007:33)" (PDF) (in Swedish). 2007. Retrieved 31 July 2014.

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