During the pandemic, while we sheltered in place and waited for the “all clear” to get back on the road, our Hitch Hints expert, Andy Thomson, from CanAm RV Centre in London, Ontario, took the time to record what we feel is the best video describing the process of setting up a weight distributing hitch system, as his contribution to the video series compiled for the 2021 (virtual) Toronto Spring Camping and RV Show.

Andy’s long-term efforts on behalf of the RV community, the RV Dealers Association of Ontario, the RVDA of Canada, and the community at large, contributed to his selection as the 2021 Canadian RV Dealer of the Year. Here is the link to the 2021 Canadian RV Dealer of the Year profile feature on Andy Thomson: https://rvldealernews.com/andy-thomson-2021-canadian-rv-dealer-of-the-year/ 

How to Set Up a Weight Distributing Hitch System

Click on the screenshot below to watch Andy’s video, on the CanAm RV Centre YouTube Channel:

Here is the text of Andy’s Hitch Hints column from our 2014 RV Lifestyle Magazine, Volume 43 Number 2, which addresses similar topics and concepts.

On the Topic Of Equalizing Hitches…

Recently, I was criticized on an RV blog for not recommending the latest gizmo in hitches, and for being from the “dark ages”, because the RV enthusiast felt that a new hitch design was far superior to what we had installed on a vehicle featured in one of our towing seminars. I did not bother to go on-line to respond that I had tested the new hitch when it was first introduced, and found some issues with it. Nor did I tell them that we had already removed a few of these hitches from rigs that people had brought to us after experiencing towing problems. On these rigs, after applying all of the recommended adjustments, the only solution was to remove the hitch and install a completely new, albeit less expensive solution.

So why do we like the old tried and true hitch design, and it if it is so good, why are so many people running off to buy these new designs? The main reason is that 90% or more of the people who have a conventional weight distribution set up have never towed with a hitch that is properly configured.

A properly set up weight distributing hitch, with sway control

Last summer, I was hosting test drives at an Airstream Rally in Ohio. One gentleman who participated in this test drive program had owned Airstreams for 30 years and had towed them with a succession of Chevy Suburbans. He was quite adamant that there was “no way that a Taurus could properly handle a 30’ Airstream!” When we headed out, I did a bit of a quick lane change. Not an “E” ticket by any means, but just enough to let him see that the rig was stable. He gasped for a moment, and then he said “there is no way I would ever try that with my rig!” When he was driving the Taurus and Airstream combination back to the Rally site he just kept repeating “I had no idea it could be like this”.

The reason that this gentleman never experienced the degree of control that we had achieved during our test drive is that his tow vehicle and trailer combination was not properly set-up. In fact, his rig needed very little to become dramatically more stable: better shocks on the Suburban, the hitch shank re-drilled, and the ball mount set-up at the correct height and angle with the correct pressure on the torsion bars. He had all the pieces thrown together, but the hitch had never been “dialed in”.

When RV enthusiasts are not happy with the way their rig handles, they often assume that they need a better hitch or a bigger tow vehicle. Think of it this way: no matter how good your car is, if I get under the front end and mess up the alignment settings I can make it almost impossible to drive even though the hardware will all still be there. A wheel alignment would be much cheaper than a new car.

Sometimes the problem is not the hitch system, but a hitch receiver that is too weak to properly transfer weight. If you properly measure your set up you will know this because no matter how much pressure you apply to the torsion bars, the front of the vehicle refuses to be pressed down. Occasionally, this is due to too light a spring bar but more often it is weakness in the receiver that makes it impossible to transfer weight and thereby get stable towing and a smooth ride. So before you rush out to buy a new hitch make sure your current one is set up the way it should be.

So how do you account for all the people who believe that a new hitch type is dramatically better than the established designs? Perhaps they managed to adjust the new hitch better than they had adjusted older models.

Torsion Bar Styles

On a weight equalizing hitch, the various components should match the towing requirements for the rig. On some hitches the torsion bars are not tapered, so they do not bend nearly as easily, which tends to produce more weight transfer. Just about any straight spring you look at will have a tapered shape so the spring has a range of motion.

The torsion bar system can pose a problem when you encounter an incline or a dip in the road…

When towing, we need the range of motion when driving up a ramp into a fuel stop or through a dip in a campground site. The un-tapered bar soon runs out of travel when you go into a dip. Something else will bend instead, usually the receiver, but occasionally the A frame, whichever is the weaker link. So while an un-tapered bar might accidentally give you more weight transfer, the trade off likely isn’t worth the strain on other components.

On some of these more exotic hitches, the improvement in towing stability and ride comes from a more direct sway control.  On these hitch designs, the sway control is usually built into the torsion bars, which sit on solid brackets on the trailer frame instead of hanging from chains. Other hitch designs use a sway control built into the pivot of the ball. These systems give a very direct acting sway control. On a separate friction-type sway control there is always some play in the ball and socket, so the trailer has to turn a little to activate the sway bar. If the weight transfer and a few other details are correct, then it is quite possible that you won’t even notice the sway control’s presence or not – so this tiny bit of play is not something overly critical. However, with the built-in systems the sway control has no play at all, which gives a reassuring feeling through the steering wheel even without proper weight transfer. While this might feel OK, there is not likely a lot of depth of control when you really need it.

Another concern that I have with some of the new design hitches is that it is not possible to turn off the sway control in slippery conditions. It is important that if you are towing on ice or snow – or even on wet greasy roads, you should be able to turn off the sway control or you might go straight when you wanted to turn… of course, being without proper weight transfer can make the situation worse. The only other downside for many of these hitches is the weight of the ball mount itself. It does not matter to the tow vehicle or trailer, but it may be a real pain in your back when you remove it from the receiver.

The person who posted the comment on-line does have a point with his “towing in the dark ages” comment. The weight distribution system we use today is very similar to what we were using 45 years ago. We have learned to fine tune these hitch designs much better now and we understand more about what makes them work, but the basic principle and pieces have changed very little. I am certain that I have tested every hitch out there, and for the moment anyway, I find the conventional weight distribution design with friction sway controls to be the best option for most combinations, although I am sure that someday someone will build a better mousetrap. The exception to all this would be a Hensley style hitch, which uses the geometry of its links to eliminate sway without friction, but at a substantially higher price.

I will be as excited as any RV enthusiast when someone invents a truly innovative weight equalizing hitch design, but in the meantime, here is a quick checklist of things to consider when selecting a hitch.

Points to Consider Check Reason
Does the hitch allow the ball to be close to the back of the tow vehicle? Any hitch that forces the ball out from the bumper is artificially lengthening the rear overhang. The more you add to the overhang, the less stability you have. The ride can be bouncier and the hitch receiver will flex more.
Are the torsion bars tapered? Only tapered bars will allow the combination to follow through dips without twisting the receiver or the A frame.
Can the sway control be adjusted separately from the weight distribution system? It is nice to be able to adjust your sway control to the right pressure for your combination and the conditions you are operating under.
Does the weight distribution system allow you to easily make adjustments to the amount of weight transfer? You can often encounter conditions where you need to adjust your torsion bar pressure due to the normal wear of the springs and torsion bars, added load. Etc.
Can you lift and store the hitch assembly once you arrive? A consideration for your health and enjoyment of the RV experience.
Does it have a sway control with zero movement? This produces a smoother “feel” for the road, transmitted through the steering wheel.

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