DIY Guide: How To Install a Tow Hitch to Your Vehicle

DIY Guide: How To Install a Tow Hitch to Your Vehicle

When you need to haul a heavy load, you probably book a U-haul without a second thought. Truck rental services are convenient but can run up a hefty bill – especially if you need frequent hauling services for road trips and moves. You can install a tow hitch on your car to do the heavy lifting with no truck rentals involved. 

While you may opt for professional installation at an auto repair shop or car dealership, performing a DIY trailer hitch in your garage will save time and money. Even if you’re not an auto fanatic or mechanical wizard, we know you have the skills it takes for this simple project. 

We’ll show you how to install a trailer hitch to your vehicle so you can tow like a pro.

This article will discuss:

  • How to determine the right tow hitch for your car
  • The tools and materials you’ll need for hitch installation
  • Step-by-step instructions for installing a trailer hitch

Choosing the Right Trailer Hitch for Your Vehicle

Types of Hitches

Before diving into the nuts and bolts of installation, you must choose the best trailer hitch for your vehicle’s abilities. The table below lists different types of hitches and their towing capacities. 

Type Towing Capacity
Receiver Hitch
  • Hauls up to 20,000 pounds
  • Compatible with most vehicle types
Fifth Wheel Hitch
  • Hauls up to 30,000 pounds
  • Compatible with pickup trucks
Gooseneck Hitch
  • Hauls up to 38,000 pounds
  • Compatible with pickup trucks
Weight Distribution Hitch
  • Hauls up to 15,000 pounds
  • Levels the vehicle and trailer
Pintle Hitch
  • Hauls up to 60,000 pounds
  • Compatible with heavy-duty vehicles

We will provide instructions for installing a receiver hitch on your vehicle. While shopping for hitches, you can’t just stop at the hitch type. You must also look for a hitch class rating that fits your towing needs. Receiver hitches fall into classes that indicate their maximum towing capacity and tongue weight.

Truck Spring, Inc. defines each hitch class and its capabilities:

Class Description
Class One
  • Suited for light loads
  • Typically installed on sedans and small SUVs 
  • Towing capacity of 2,000 pounds
  • Towing capability examples: bike racks, jet skis, motorcycles, small cargo carriers
Class Two
  • Suited for light loads
  • Towing capacity of 3,500 pounds
  • Suitable for installation on most vehicle types
  • Towing capability examples: bike rack with multiple bikes, ATVs, small boats
Class Three
  • The most common trailer class
  • Suitable for installation on SUVs, pickup trucks, and vans
  • Towing capacity of 5,000 pounds
  • An excellent choice for towing medium campers, trailers, and boats
Class Four
  • Towing capacity of 10,000 pounds
  • Only suited for installation on heavy-duty trucks and motor homes
  • Typically used for towing large boats, campers, or construction equipment
Class Five
  • Suited for ultra-heavy loads over 10,000 pounds
  • Only suited for heavy-duty trucks and commercial vehicles
  • Typically paired with other towing equipment like brake controllers

This handy guide from Curt Manufacturing, LLC demonstrates how to determine your vehicle’s towing capacity using gross trailer weight, tongue weight, curb weight, and other measurements. 

You can also watch this video from Two Camping Gurus for a visual explanation of vehicular towing capacity:

Tools and Materials for Installation

Tools

  • Thread tap
  • Wire brush
  • Ratchet 
  • Torque wrench
  • Work gloves
  • Safety glasses
  • Mechanic’s creeper
  • Wheel chocks
  • Trailer hitch wrench
  • C-clamp
  • Rag 

Materials 

  • Penetrating oil
  • Receiver hitch
  • Ball mount
  • Hitch ball
  • Drawbar pin
  • Retainer clip

The materials for this project are relatively simple. In fact, you probably have a few of them lying around in your garage. If you need to buy them all, don’t sweat. You can find these supplies at your local auto parts store, home improvement center, or online. Amazon has a catalog dedicated to automotive accessories, where you’ll find the tools you need for DIY hitch installation.

Steps for DIY Trailer Hitch Installation

Below, we’ll show you how to install a trailer hitch onto your vehicle in five easy steps.

Step One: Ensure Workspace Safety

The first step of DIY tow hitch installation is setting up your workstation for safety and efficiency

Remove the keys from the vehicle’s ignition and activate the parking brake to keep the car from moving. You’ll be working underneath your vehicle, so keeping it stationary is imperative to your safety. Add another layer of protection by stabilizing the vehicle’s wheels with chocks. Chocks are wedges that slide against the car’s back wheels to keep it from rolling.

Once your workspace is in order, equip yourself with personal protective equipment. We suggest wearing work gloves and safety goggles for this project. Work gloves protect your hands from cuts, burns, and rust contact. Safety goggles protect your eyes from debris or bolts that fall while you work under the car.

A mechanic’s creeper is an optional tool you can use to make this project safer and less laborious. Creepers are the rolling platforms auto mechanics use to scoot effortlessly under a vehicle. You should consider using a creeper for the job if you need extra back and leg support or if you might struggle to get up without injuring yourself.

Step Two: Locate the Mounting Points

Next, locate the mounting points for the tow hitch. Mounting points are automatically built into most vehicles, which saves you the trouble of drilling holes into the frame. You’ll find two rows of screw holes on frame rails underneath your car. The rails are between the brake lights, behind the passenger and driver’s seats. 

Scoot beneath your car to locate the points. You may need a flashlight to get a good look at all of the nooks. We suggest using your smartphone flashlight because the phone can sit flat on the ground beside you and shine upward. Don’t get too excited to test your tow hitch, and forget to pick up your phone from underneath the car. 

If you store a spare tire underneath the vehicle, remove it before installing the hitch.

Step Three: Clean the Area

Once you’ve located the vehicle’s frame, you’re ready to prepare the area for trailer hitch installation. The underbelly of your vehicle weathers a lot of dirt, grime, oil, and water, so cleanup is necessary before attaching the hitch. 

Your vehicle’s mounting holes contain threads for screws, so you must clean them out to ensure a tight, secure fit. If the holes are especially dirty or rusty, spray them with penetrating fluid to break down the grime. Use a wire brush to clean out each of the holes in the frame rail. After cleaning out each crevice with the wire brush, test fit a screw to ensure it threads in without resistance. 

If you have trouble screwing it in, use a thread tap tool to clean out the hole and clear the threads for screws. Then, clean the rest of the mounting surfaces with the wire brush. Remove any rust or buildup that would prevent the tow hitch from laying flush once screwed into the frame.

Step Four: Mount the Hitch

Now, it’s time to install your tow hitch onto your vehicle. You might need help to complete this step – hitches can be heavy, especially when you try to hold them up to the frame rail and screw in bolts simultaneously. Recruit a friend or family member to perform this step safely.

Hold the receiver hitch to the base of your vehicle so that the screw holes line up with the mounting points. Insert washers onto each of the bolts so they’ll screw in tight. Start with the center bolts on each side, threading in the screws manually until the washers are flush with the vehicle. After inserting the center bolts, fill in the remaining washers and screws. Make sure you’ve screwed the bolts tightly enough that the hitch won’t fall or jolt when you release it.

Next, tighten each bolt with a ratchet and socket. A ratchet is a lever that allows you to tighten a screw past what you can achieve manually. The socket is the part of the tool that fits around various sizes of bolts for a tight hold. 

You’ll then use a torque wrench to tighten the bolt to the manufacturer’s specifications. Specifications or “specs” are guidelines from the manufacturer that help you install the product correctly. The manufacturer’s installation instructions will provide the torque specs for your tow hitch. 

Tightening the bolts to the correct torque ensures they have enough tension to hold the hitch together. This video from Moss Motors explains what torque specifications mean:

Ensure the hitch is stable and doesn’t budge before trying to haul anything. If it’s screwed securely in place, you’re ready to assemble the ball mount, drawbar pin, and retainer clip for towing.

Step Five: Assemble and Install the Ball Mount

You’re ready to install the ball mount to your tow hitch. The mount slides into the receiver hitch and holds a ball that allows you to tow different items. 

Selecting the correct mount for your vehicle’s height is crucial. If you have a lifted truck, you’ll need a mount with a more extended downward-sloping arm. If you install a ball mount that’s too short, you risk damaging your vehicle’s frame or bumper. You’ll also need a mount between 1.25 and 3 inches to correspond with your hitch’s size. 

Once you’ve determined the ball mount for your hitch, install it using the following instructions:

  • The ball will look like a giant bolt; prepare it for installation by removing the nut and washer from its base.
  • Put the threaded post on the ball through the hole at the front of the ball mount, allowing the ball to rest on the mount.
  • Use a trailer hitch wrench to tighten the nut to the specifications included in the manufacturer’s guide.
  • Secure the nut and washer tightly by holding the top of the ball steady with a c-clamp. We suggest covering the ball with a rag to prevent the clamp from damaging its finish.

Remember that the necessary ball size depends on what you’re towing. You must change the ball to fit the trailer or rack you plan to attach. 

If you have limited towing needs, you can buy a set with the ball already mounted and torqued to the proper specifications. You can also select a ball mount with interchangeable ball sizes for various towing needs. This option prevents you from having to unscrew the ball post from the mount each time you need to switch sizes.

Now that you’ve screwed the ball into the mount, you’re ready to attach the hitch bar to the receiver.

Insert the ball mount shaft into the receiver hitch until the holes line up. Then, stick the drawbar pin through the hole to secure the hitch bar. Next, insert the retainer clip through the hole in the drawbar pin. Ensure the bar is locked in place by jiggling the area where the two components connect.

Conclusion

Now that you know how to install a trailer hitch, you’ve unlocked unlimited possibilities for your vehicle’s functionality. Next time you need to haul a cumbersome load, you’ll have the tools you need already attached to your car.

If you installed a tow hitch for moving purposes, consider the moving truck or trailer you’ll need to complete the job efficiently. Our guide to moving truck sizes will show you everything you need to know when selecting a rental vehicle.

With your new tow hitch and ball mount system in place, you’ll be lugging trailers around in no time.

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