How To: Hooking up a Trailer

a trailer hitch

Follow these steps to hook up a trailer:

Buddy System

Get a co-worker to help to make the effort go easier.

Agree on hand signals for turning directions, when to back up, and brake. Have your helper stand on the driver’s side of the trailer, even with the trailer tongue, so you can see them clearly before backing up.

Line up your Vehicle

Position your truck in a straight line to the coupler with helpful hand signals from your helper. Grease the trailer ball (dry graphite lube-apply liberally)before hooking up to help maintain a smooth connection. With the weight from the coupler constantly pushing down on the ball, a coupler can start to wear through if not properly greased.

Align the ball and coupler

Adjust the trailer coupler height once your vehicle is a foot away from the trailer tongue. Ensure it will clear the trailer ball by a few inches as you back the vehicle up. As you back up slowly, line the coupler up with the trailer ball with your co-worker’s help. If things don’t line up, pull forward, make adjustments, and try again.

several utility trailers ready for landscaping

Lower the coupler onto the ball

Place your vehicle in park and engage the emergency brake. Lower the coupler with the trailer jack until it rests on the ball. Make sure the coupler latch is in the upright, unlocked position before lowering. If the coupler is offset from the ball, raise the jack again and repeat the previous step.

Latch the coupler

With the coupler fully seated on the ball, engage the latch and secure it with a safety pin or coupler lock.

Next, jack up the trailer tongue slightly to test the connection. The coupler was not correctly seated before latching if it comes off the ball. Unlatch it and try again. You can shift the tongue forward and backward to get it fully seated.

Attach safety chains in a crisscross pattern underneath the coupler to provide a cradle. If the coupler becomes disconnected from the ball, the crisscrossed chains catch the coupler. Each safety chain should be rated to meet or exceed the gross trailer weight and not touch the ground when attached.

Retract the trailer jack

When the coupler is secure, fully retract the trailer jack. The trailer jack must be up and out of the way for towing.

Some jacks feature a swivel bracket that allows them to swing up parallel to the ground. Others have a leg that retracts into the jack post.

Plug in the trailer wiring

Plug your vehicle wiring harness into this trailer. You can limit the amount of excess wire between the vehicle and the trailer by wrapping the harness around the trailer tongue. The harness should not touch the ground but should have enough length to make turns without tension.

With an adequate amount of wire length, press the trailer-side plug firmly into the vehicle-side socket.

Check the trailer lights

With your co-worker standing in view of the trailer lights, turn them on to ensure they work. You should check your right turn signal, left turn signal, hazards, running, and brake lights.

Have your co-worker call out each lighting function as they see it. If one of your lights is not working, use an electrical tester to ensure an active signal at the vehicle-to-trailer wiring connection.


Here is a checklist to follow while hooking up a trailer:

  • Trailer ball matches coupler size
  • Trailer ball properly torqued on the ball mount
  • Ball mount secured in the receiver tube with a hitch pin or lock
  • Trailer ball fully engaged in the coupler
  • Coupler latch in the locked position and secured with a safety pin or lock Trailer jack fully retracted
  • Electrical plug firmly inserted into the vehicle socket
  • Safety chains hooked up and crisscrossed underneath the coupler
  • Running lights, brake lights, and turn signals working on the vehicle and trailer
  • Breakaway switch cable securely attached to the vehicle
  • Brake controller working and properly adjusted to the trailer’s weight