6 steps to a DIY tow hitch installation
Tow hitch installation is fairly simple in theory, but depending on your car and tow hitch type, the process can get a li’l tricky in practice.
Here are the six basic steps for a standard tow hitch installation.
First things first: to choose the right trailer hitch, you gotta know how much your car can tow. The last thing you’d want to do is drill a tow hitch designed for a heavy-duty truck onto your hatchback.
You can usually find your towing capacity in your vehicle manual. You can also give it a good Google search or call your car dealership (they should have this info handy).
Your towing capacity helps you pick the right hitch, but it also tells you how much stuff you can attach to that hitch. Once you’ve figured out the maximum amount your vehicle can tow and found a trailer hitch, subtract the weight of the tow hitch itself.
For example: if your car’s tow limit is 8,000 pounds and your tow hitch weighs 150 pounds, you’d be able to tow only 7,850 pounds’ worth of trailer and cargo. So if you’re hauling a moving trailer filled with everything you own, you’ll want to ensure that entire weight is below your car’s tow capacity.
A good rule of thumb: don’t ever go over your tow limit! If you want to learn the ins and outs of towing capacities so you can do the math yourself, CURT Manufacturing has a user-friendly guide.
Your typical receiver hitches fall into five different classes (aptly named class I to class V) based on towing capacity. The hitch class you choose will depend on whether you’re towing a snowplow or a moving trailer filled with bedroom furniture.
There are also a variety of other heavy-duty hitch types for different vehicles and uses. Here’s the 411.
Average maximum weight limit
Some SUVs and minivans, most trucks
Bike rack, cargo carrier, ball mount–compatible trailers
Front mount hitch
Trucks and SUVs, some cars
Rear receiver hitch
Most cars and trucks
Weight distribution hitch
Most cars and trucks (requires hitch receiver)
Heavy-duty trailers, campers
5th wheel hitch
Heavy-duty tractors and trailers
Heavy-duty tractors and trailers, agricultural use
Construction, agricultural, and military use
*Images sourced from Home Depot
FYI: Most heavy-duty trucks come with a rear receiver hitch already attached. Depending on what you’re towing, though, you might need to install a different type.
2. Get your workspace ready
Before you get down and dirty with your tow hitch, you’ll need to make sure you have the right equipment. This will depend on the car and tow hitch type you’re working with—refer to your hitch instruction manual to figure out what you need for installation.
Here are the basics to have on hand for most installations:
If you’re pulling your new tow hitch right out of its box, you’ll likely find the washers, bolts, and instructions inside the hitch itself. Take these pieces out of their packaging and keep them within reach.
It doesn’t hurt to wear work gloves work gloves while you install your tow hitch—they’ll minimize any potential cuts and scrapes and keep your hands a whole lot cleaner too.
Next, make sure you have good light If you’re installing your tow hitch in your garage or a place with dim lighting. Plug in extra lights or have someone shine a flashlight for you.
Make sure you have your instruction manual on hand. It’s your friend—trust it, use it, and keep it close. Then assemble your entire hitch (if it isn’t already) per the manufacturer’s instructions.
A tip to keep your back safe: if your tow hitch weighs more than 50 pounds, play it safe and call a friend to help you lift it. (And even if it’s lighter, we recommend you have someone nearby to help regardless.)
Tricks of the trade
If you order a tow hitch that comes in a box, you can disassemble the box and lay on it while you work under your car. (Because who wants to lay on the ground?)
Before you just wedge your hitch into its place, you'll want to make sure your vehicle is secured, clean, and clear of any obstacles to installation. Here are a few steps to take:
- Activate your parking brake: this is the first safeguard against rolling.
- Chock your wheels: firmly place two wedges in the center of both rear tires in case your vehicle accidentally rolls. For peace of mind, feel free to put chock wheels on the other side of the tires too.
- Remove the spare tire: depending on where your vehicle’s spare lives, it may get in your way.
- Jack your car: this step isn’t required, but this can give you more working room.
- Remove any plugs or bolts from your car: some hitches require that you remove certain parts and pieces to make space for the actual tow hitch. You can check your instructions to see if this step is necessary.
- Clean thoroughly: use a wire tube brush and lubricant to clean the holes in your car your hitch will hook into. (Don’t cut corners by using an old toothbrush—it doesn’t get the job done as well!)
- Drill holes: if your car or truck doesn’t have pre-drilled holes for hitch mount installation, you’ll probably need to drill them into the frame of your vehicle. (Some tow hitches, like the CURT hitch, have no-drill installation.)
If you’re drilling holes, make sure you don’t cut more than 1/16 of an inch wider or thicker than the bolts you’re working with—otherwise they won’t stay put.
Now your car is ready for the main event: attaching your hitch. Here’s how to proceed:
- Lift the hitch into position: if you have a friend nearby to assist, this is when you’ll want them to help.
- Attach the hitch to the frame of your vehicle: use C-clamps to hold it in place.
- Tighten the bolts: use your hands to tighten them just enough so that your hitch stays in place, but don’t worry about torquing them just yet (we’ll get to that later on). Adjust the other side to finger-tight as well.
CHECKPOINT: Does your trailer have a ball mount and a trailer ball? If not, here’s a quick installation how-to.
How to install a ball mount
If you think installing your tow hitch was straightforward, you’re in luck: installing a ball mount is even easier (and takes about five minutes.) Here are the steps to follow:
- Insert the ball mount shank (the heavy square part) into the receiver tube you just installed on your vehicle.
- Adjust until the holes on the shank and receiver tube line up.
- Secure the mount using a hitch lock or pin and clip (the thing that looks like a giant bobby pin).
Voila! You’re done. Be sure to wiggle the ball mount back and forth to test how firmly in place the mounts are.
If your ball mount rattles loudly while you drive, you can buy anti-rattle kits for certain types of mounts online through Amazon or at places like Home Depot, O’Reilly, or your friendly neighborhood auto repair shop.
How to install a trailer ball
If your ball mount didn’t come with a trailer ball, you’ll need to add one. Otherwise, you won’t be able to tow anything! Trailer balls come in different widths and configurations, so make sure you buy the right size for what you’re towing.
Luckily, just like installing a ball mount, it’s a pretty simple process:
- Remove the nut and washer from the shank you’ve been working on using a wrench. Once it’s looser, you may be able to use your fingers.
- Insert the shank into the ball mount’s hole.
- Replace the washer and nut and tighten them with your fingers.
- Once you’re no longer able to tighten the trailer ball with your fingers, use a torque wrench to finish the job.
Did you know?
If your ball mount doesn’t fit into your receiver tube opening, you can get a receiver tube adapter. They allow your hitch receiver to work with various shanks. You can buy them online or at any auto parts shop.
Once your hitch is attached, tighten the bolts as much as you can with your fingers. When you have all the bolts in place, use your torque wrench to tighten them to the values listed on your tow hitch’s instruction manual.
Finally, connect any electrical wiring for your brake lights and turn signals.
To legally tow a trailer, your vehicle’s brake lights and turn signals need to be wired to your tow hitch through a trailer wiring harness. A trailer wiring harness is a wire that extends from the back of your vehicle to your trailer.
Lots of trucks and SUVs come pre-wired for tow hitches and trailers, but if yours isn’t, you’ll need to buy and install a trailer wiring harness.
We won't get into the weeds on wiring here, but you can find how-to videos on YouTube or consult a professional.
Working with safety chains?
Always cross your safety chains! Chains catch the trailer tongue (the thing that connects your tow hitch to your trailer) in the event that it comes loose and falls.
6. Double-check your work
Test the security of your tow hitch by shaking, wiggling, and tugging on it, and check your brakes and turn signals to make sure your wiring is sound!
Safety first—don’t tow anything unless you’re certain that your hitch is installed correctly. And if you need reassurance, have any professional hitch installer check your handiwork.
Will installing a hitch void my warranty?
No! You’re in the clear. Thanks to the Magnuson–Moss Warranty Act, you can make changes to your ride and still be covered under your original warranty (as long as you don’t damage your vehicle in the process).