Begin RV

How Much Can You Tow Without Trailer Brakes: Explained

Are you towing your trailer legally? Trailer brakes are an important component that keeps you safe and legal while towing – and they’re not just for big trailers. So if you’re asking yourself the question, do I need trailer brakes? then you should read this!

Truck hitched to long trvel trailer
Do you know if you need trailer brakes?

Most of us that have hauled an RV have done so with trailer brakes. Some have probably done it without even thinking about it (or maybe without even knowing). When you connect your RV wiring to the plug on your vehicle, there is usually a brake connection being made.

With this connection made, there is no extra required action to apply those trailer brakes. So as you are driving and applying and releasing your vehicle brakes, you’re also doing the same with the trailer brake.

Regardless if you’re been unknowingly using trailer brakes or aren’t sure if you need them, let’s look more into this important safety feature.

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What is the Purpose of Trailer Brakes?

Trailer brakes assist with slowing and stopping a trailer in addition to the tow vehicle brakes.

Your vehicle brakes are designed to safely slow and stop the weight of your vehicle. An RV can double the total weight being stopped which is too much for the brakes of your vehicle. This is why trailer brakes are a legal requirement on trailers over a certain weight.

When driving, if you lift your foot from the accelerator while going 50mph, your car doesn’t just stop. It requires the brakes to slow it to a stop. Without trailer brakes, even when you apply the brakes of your vehicle, the trailer wants to keep going.

Being able to slow and stop the tow vehicle and trailer simultaneously is how we tow heavy loads safely. Trailer brakes not only work with your vehicle’s brakes but they can also be adjusted and (in some setups) applied independently of the vehicle brakes for greater braking control and safety.

What are the Different Types of Trailer Brakes?

There are two types of brakes found on trailers:

  1. Hydraulic
  2. Electric

Hydraulic Brakes

Hydraulic brakes use an actuator at the hitch to force fluid to the brakes (similar to your vehicle brakes). When you slow your vehicle, the pressure of the trailer pushing against the vehicle triggers the actuator to send fluid and braking force to the trailer brakes.

Hydraulic brakes require brake lines just like your vehicle. So maintenance and replacement are required to ensure they’re safe. The actuator also requires maintenance making hydraulic brakes more work.

One major downside to hydraulic brakes is that they can’t be separately applied and only work with vehicle braking. Being able to apply trailer brake pressure without vehicle braking pressure can help with sway in both emergency and proactive situations.

Trailer with hydraulic surge brakes connected to vehicle
Hydraulic brakes are activated by pressure in the hitch.

Electric Brakes

Electric is the more common type found on RVs. Electric trailer brakes use an electric signal and electromagnets to apply braking.

The system requires no fluids or brake lines and can be activated independently of your vehicle brakes. Swaying, downhill sections, and passing large trucks are all situations where applying some trailer brakes can really help.

Activating your trailer brakes independent of your vehicle can be done so via a brake controller.

What are Brake Controllers and When are They Required?

Brake controllers, whether factory-installed or aftermarket, are an accessory that allows you to adjust and independently apply electric trailer brakes.

This accessory is mounted on your vehicle’s dash for easy and quick access by the driver. They often have “+” and “-” buttons to adjust braking pressure, as well as two levers that can be squeezed together to apply the brakes.

The adjustment allows you to set what force of trailer braking you like against the force of the vehicle’s brakes. Being able to adjust this is important because each tow vehicle and each RV are different. As mentioned above, being able to squeeze the trailer brakes on slightly or forcefully has many benefits while towing.

As with trailer brake requirements, each state will have laws regarding when a brake controller is needed. In general, over 3000 pounds is a commonly used weight. So with the exception of small trailers, most RVs will be over this weight threshold.

Legal requirements aside, if you have electric trailer brakes and aren’t running a brake controller, you’re not getting the most out of your trailer brakes and as a result, aren’t as safe as you could be.

Our Recommendation for a Brake Controller

Most hitch companies also produce brake controllers. CURT and Reese, the two largest and most commonly seen hitch manufacturers, both have brake controllers of different levels. Tekonsha is a very popular aftermarket brand with some great options for controllers with more features.

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If you are looking for a basic, easy-to-use, trusted trailer brake controller, the Curt 51120 or Reese Towpower are two affordable options. Both of these models are easy to use with digital brake level readout, brake application leaver, and simple dial to adjust brake pressure.

If you want something a little fancier with some features closer to a factory controller the Tekonsha P3 has been consistently rated as a top controller for years. A bright LCD display and upfront buttons on a contoured face give it a factory look. Additional features such as battery voltage monitoring and system diagnostics make it a more pricey but great option.

How Much Can You Tow Without Trailer Brakes?

Legally speaking, how much you can tow without trailer brakes will depend on the location you are towing. In the U.S. and Canada, each state (or province) has its own towing laws. Some states, such as California, require trailer brakes over 1500 pounds. Meanwhile, Alaska allows trailers up to 5000 pounds without.

Each state may also have different factors in setting laws.

Trailer Weight

This is the most common factor used in locations deciding when trailer brakes are needed. The law will state a set weight such as 3000 pounds, over which you must have trailer brakes.

Vehicle-to-Trailer Weight Ratio

The weight of the trailer may not be the only consideration. Some states will only allow a trailer to weigh a certain percentage of the weight of the tow vehicle before trailer brakes are required. For example, 40% trailer weight would mean that if your tow vehicle weighs 3000 pounds, your trailer would require its own braking system over 1200 pounds.

Other Factors

Some states will also have additional factors such as:

  • The number of wheels on the trailer
  • Travel speed
  • Hitch type
  • Age of trailer
  • Items being towed

So, Do I Need Trailer Brakes?

The vast majority of people towing an RV will legally need trailer brakes. An even larger amount of those people should have them regardless of the law.

Before hitting the road check the laws in your area for brake requirements. 3000 pounds is the common limit used for trailer brake requirements. At this weight, a brake controller is also recommended. But whether it’s law or not, trailer brakes and a brake controller will make your towing experience safer and more relaxing.

Last update on 2023-09-13 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

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