What is a hitch rating, and why is it so important to understand the various hitch classes? We are about to break it all down in this informative guide to hitch ratings.
Can you move that with your hitch? Before you tow anything, you need to know your vehicle’s hitch rating–how much weight your car or truck can safely transport. Understanding the hitch class rating system will also help you make an informed decision about which hitch is best to install on your vehicle.
This article will explain how to determine your hitch class rating and breakdown the five major hitch class ratings by specs, requirements, and most common uses.
First let’s go over some hitch class terms so you can make the best decision when it comes to your hitch. If you already know about hitch terminology, you can jump straight to the hitch rating breakdown here.
What’s the hitch?
No, not the classic Will Smith romantic comedy.
A hitch rating is basically determined by three components:
- The hitch is the metal frame attached to the bottom rear end of your car that lets you attach trailers to tow.
- If you’re looking for the hitch weight capacity specifically, you can usually find it on a sticker/decal facing out. Check the right-hand side first.
- The drawbar (sometimes ball mount) is the piece of metal that slides into the hitch to attach the trailer to your car. This is where the “tongue” is (which will be important when we talk about weight).
- To find the weight capacity for the drawbar, check the front of the shaft. If it’s not on a sticker there, it should be stamped on the metal
- The hitch ball is the metal ball that connects the trailer’s coupler to your vehicle via the drawbar and hitch.
- The hitch ball’s weight capacity will be stamped on the top of the metal ball or along its base.
If you’re having a hard time finding these numbers, check out this video for some more guidance.
A hitch is only as strong as its weakest part. It’s good to know the weight capacity of every component in your hitch system and how they affect your hitch class rating.
A hitch in your armor
Heavy trailers are not something to take lightly. Two weights primarily determine your hitch class rating:
1. Gross Trailer Weight (GTW)
- This is the total weight of the trailer you’re going to tow, loaded up and ready to go.Before deciding which hitch class is right for you, you need to know what you’re going to use the hitch for. For example, are you transporting construction materials, moving furniture, or bringing your bicycles to the park?
2. Tongue Weight (TW)
- Remember, the tongue is the metal shaft that mounts the ball hitch.The weight of your trailer will push down on this part of your hitch. Around 10-15% of your GTW should be pushing down on the tongue. This is crucial information as both too high and too low of a TW creates dangerous towing conditions. Both under- and over-loading the TW will harm handling and breaking capabilities.
Here’s a good demonstration why an imbalanced trailer is so dangerous:
Notice how out of control that trailer is–exactly what you don’t want.
Three Steps to a Safe TW
There are a few ways to determine your TW, including the use of a special TW scale (reliable but requires special equipment), or rigging up a bathroom scale beneath your hitch’s tongue (not so reliable).
A good balance between ease and reliability is visiting a public scale with your vehicle and loaded trailer, and:
- First, weigh your vehicle with trailer attached but without trailer on scale to find weight A
- Next, detach the trailer and weigh just your vehicle to find weight B
- Finally, subtract weight B from weight APut another way:weight A(vehicle and trailer) – weight B (vehicle) = TWYou can find more tips and tricks to do this around the web.
The Five Hitch Class Ratings
Now that you know the basics of what a hitch is and how to use a hitch safely, let’s talk hitch class ratings.
The size of your car and the type and strength of the hitch itself (aka, the hitch rating), determines how much you can safely tow.
Choosing a hitch of an appropriate (and safe) rating really is as easy as 1, 2, 3… 4, 5.
Hitch Rating: 1
Pretty much every vehicle from your eco-friendly Honda Civic up can handle a Hitch Class 1. These are meant for light-weight towing loads. Think: weekend warriors heading to the local lake for a day.
|Gross Trailer Weight (GTW)||2,000 lbs|
|Tongue Weight (TW)||200 lbs|
|Receiver Tube Opening||1¼”x1¼”|
|Common Uses||● bike racks
● small trailers (eg cargo trailers)
● some ATV/dirt bike trailers
● moving a small apartment worth of stuff
Hitch Rating: 2
You’re going to need a bigger car to handle the next step up. Hitch Class II hitches are most commonly paired with larger cars, SUVs, vans, and light-duty trucks. Hitch Class II hitches are good for the someone who loves his (bigger) toys.
If your vehicle can handle it, a Class II Hitch is usually a better bet than a Class I as Class II hitches are more common, and therefore have more accessories available. Even better, with adapters, you can still use your Class I accessories with a Class II hitch (but more on those later).
|Gross Trailer Weight (GTW)||3,500 lbs|
|Tongue Weight (TW)||300 lbs|
|Receiver Tube Opening||1¼”x1¼”|
|Common Uses||● small boats
● small trailers
● jet skis
● moving a house’s stuff a few rooms at a time
Hitch Rating 3
Hitch Class III starts getting into some serious weight. Usually light trucks and SUVs will come pre-equipped with a hitch of this class allowing them to take advantage of their size.
These are for the people who are spending some time away from their home-base. In other words: you can carry a place to sleep with Hitch Class III hitches.
|Gross Trailer Weight (GTW)||5000 lbs|
|Tongue Weight (TW)||500 lbs|
|Receiver Tube Opening||2”x2”|
|Common Uses||● Fishing boats
● Small campers and RVs
● Small car trailers
● Moving a house in 2-3 trips
Important Note: As Hitch Class III is considered the “middle” in terms of capabilities, weight capacity for these can greatly vary. Always check your numbers!
Hitch Rating 4
Class IV Hitches are most commonly found on ¾ and 1-ton trucks, though they can be found on ½-ton trucks as well.
|Gross Trailer Weight (GTW)||10,000 lbs|
|Tongue Weight (TW)||1,200 lbs|
|Receiver Tube Opening||2”x2”|
|Common Uses||● Medium trailers and RVs
● Larger boats
● Moving a house-worth of stuff
Hitch Rating: 5
Class V hitches are the final and strongest of the rated hitches. As such, you’ll notice that they offer you the greatest weight capacity. In order to accommodate this, the receiver tube is half an inch larger around. This is important to remember if you intend to use attachments you already own from another size.
|Gross Trailer Weight (GTW)||15,000 lbs|
|Tongue Weight (TW)||1,200-1,700 lbs|
|Receiver Tube Opening||2½”x2½” (also available in 2”x2”)|
|Common Uses||● Large campers and boats
● Horse trailers
● Multi-car trailers
Gooseneck trailers are a whole different ball game.
These towing devices sit in the bed of a truck and are usually larger and more expensive than the above-discussed trailer types. Goosenecks always require a pick-up truck, and perhaps even a commercial license to use (depending on the weight).
Because the weight of the trailer sits on the your truck (not off the back of your vehicle), goosenecks offer a more stable tow, but making the decision between a bumper-pull trailer and a gooseneck warrants its own blog post (let us know if you’d be interested 😉 )
More Hitch Considerations
Let’s say you’ve outgrown your compact. Maybe your family got bigger or your toys grew. In any case, there’s no reason for you to get a bigger bike rack for your weekend trips to the trail. Except there is: your bike rack doesn’t fit on your new hitch!
Don’t fear, the only thing you need to buy is much smaller (and cheaper) than a whole new rack or any other accessory.
When you jump hitch class ratings, be sure to pick up a hitch adapter as well.
However, don’t forget to check weight ratings. Just because you can physically attach something to your car does not mean that you should!
Sorry–your compact is not going to be towing horses no matter what adapter you buy.
When looking at hitches, some other things you want to consider, in addition to the hitch class rating, include whether a hitch comes pre-welded or not, if you intend to use your hitch for a specific accessory (and what hitch class is needed for it), and–most importantly–your vehicle’s manufacturer recommendations for weights and hitch class ratings and hitch class systems.
That’s all we have (for now!) about hitches and hitch class ratings. Let us know if you have any questions, comments, or tips.
No matter what (or how) you’re towing, safe travels from all of us here at Vault Cargo.