Whether you are hauling a monster 25ft caravan around Australia or taking the dinghy down to the lake, you are going to need a suitable towbar on your vehicle. In this guide we will discuss everything you need to know about choosing the right towbar for your needs.
If you plan on towing any sort of trailer, you are going to need a towbar. However, towbars come in a variety of different shapes, sizes and weight classes, making it hard to know which towbar is right for your vehicle and what you’ll be towing.
We spoke with Peter Ranken from All Vehicle Accessories to give us the ins and outs of what to consider when choosing a towbar.
Types of Towbars
Towbars usually come in one of four styles: rear step, swan neck, flat tongue and horizontal hitch.
Horizontal hitch towbars use a square hitch receiver.
Used for hauling heavier loads, a horizontal hitch towbar uses a square tongue that connects to the hitch receiver. It is like the ‘big brother’ to a flat tongue towbar. It comes in two different sizes: 40mm which is used to tow medium sized loads and 50mm which is used for heavy-duty towing. A strong metal pin is inserted through the side of the hitch to keep it secured to the receiver. This type of towbar is compatible with a weight distribution hitch.
Swan neck towbars are popular in Europe and are generally only used by manufacturers in that region. A swan neck tow ball will most commonly be permanently attached to the towbar. They typically resemble a U-shape or rounded L-shape. Modern vertical hitch towbars resemble the design of a swan neck towbar. These are not common in Australia and often have to be imported from overseas.
Flat tongue towbars are secured with two bolts through the bottom of the hitch receiver.
Only used in lighter towbar classes, the flat tongue towbar features a detachable tow ball that fits into a horizontal slot on the towbar. The tow ball ‘tongue’ is secured using two large bolts through the top of the hitch.
Rear step towbars are often designed to be used only on 4WDs. They are a towbar that protrudes out slightly further from the rear of the vehicle, which a rear step is fitted on to. They typically have better ground clearance than a normal towbar and are better suited to off-roading. However, they are far heavier and only available for certain 4WDs and utes.
A hitch (for example a tow ball, is the device that the trailer coupling connects to. Your hitch is often dictated by the style of touring you’ll be doing. If you use the wrong hitch in your setup, there may be catastrophic results for both your tow vehicle and trailer.
Articulating hitches and off-road couplings
Articulating hitches, also known as off-road couplings, can move far more than a standard tow ball. This type allows for extreme vertical and horizontal articulation, which is much needed when manoeuvring steep inclines and declines.
Articulating hitches can be either connected to a standard 50mm tow ball or put into the hitch receiver if they come with a tongue.
50mm diameter is the standard size for tow balls in Australia.
50mm tow ball
As standard, most towbars will come with a 50mm tow ball. Most trailers will come with a 50mm coupling that is designed to connect to this type of hitch. A variety of other applications such as bike carriers and spare wheels can be mounted to these too.
A normal 50mm tow ball is suitable for most towing duties. However, they are limited in their articulation compared to an off-road coupling. If their limits are exceeded, the trailer coupling may fall off the tow ball or damage the towbar.
The arms of a weight distribution hitch is what helps spread the load across the trailer and tow vehicle’s chassis.
Weight distribution hitch
“A weight distribution hitch is designed to level both the trailer and the towing vehicle. So, if you put a heavy trailer on the back of your vehicle and it starts to pull the rear of your vehicle down, your tow vehicle and your trailer will sustain massive handling problems, which could potentially end up being very dangerous,” says Ranken
“When a weight distribution hitch is installed and correctly tuned, it will spread the weight across the chassis of the two vehicles, instead of focussing it onto the tow ball. Most people won’t drive a heavy caravan without one of these.
“They come in a range of sizes to suit your trailer, all the way from ‘mini’ to ‘heavy duty’. Be sure to check that your vehicle is capable of using one, as some are not designed to be used with an OEM towbar, and can’t be used with some vehicles at all.”
Towbar Classes Explained
Towbars are divided up into ‘weight classes’, which defines the tow capacity of that particular towbar. Weight classes are often determined by the type of towbar and how it is mounted to the vehicle.
This table is a quick comparison between the different classes of tow bar.
Class two is the ‘lightest’ of the classes. Most are only rated up to 1200kg and only suitable for towing small six by four-metre trailers or solo motorcycle trailers. Class two towbars typically only use a flat tongue style hitch.
Class three are for medium weight loads and are typically rated up to 1600kg. They are suitable for towing multi-motorcycle trailers, small boats, slightly larger trailers and compact cars. Class three isn’t very popular as most buyers opt for a class four which can tow far more weight for only a slight increase in price.
Class four towbars are primarily used for heavy-duty towing, as most are rated up to 3500kg. If you are hauling something big and heavy, such as a boat, horse float, caravan or car trailer, you will need a class four towbar. Weight distribution hitches are also compatible with this class of towbar.
Which towbar is right for me?
“Car manufacturers will have a section in the owner's manual that will outline how much that vehicle can tow. This figure will determine the which type of towbar is right for you.
“There is no point putting a heavier class of towbar on a car that can’t tow that much. For example, if you have a small hatchback that can only tow 1000kg, a heavy-duty towbar will offer no benefit over a light-duty one.
“On the other hand, some vehicles will only feature the higher classes of towbars. For example, an SUV that can tow 3500kg may only have the option of a class four towbar as no one typically wants or needs a light-duty towbar,” says Ranken.
Always choose the towbar that is appropriate for what you are towing. Always check what your vehicle’s tow capacity is and compare it to what you are towing. Once you have made sure your vehicle has the ability to tow the load, choose the appropriate weight class of towbar for your vehicle.
There are a lot of things think about when buying a towbar...
Factors To Consider When Buying a Towbar
When it comes to finding the right towbar, you need to first of all consider what you plan on towing. If you will be just taking a dirt bike on a trailer to your favourite track, a class two flat tongue towbar would be suitable. If you are going to be hauling a sizable boat to and from the coast every weekend, a class four horizontal hitch towbar will serve you better.
Here are a few other factors to consider when you are choosing your next towbar.
Is the towbar built to Australian Design Standards?
“For a towbar to be sold in Australia, it needs to comply with it AS/NZS4177, which is the Australian Standard for towbars,” says Ranken.
This means anyone who is thinking about importing one from overseas, in particular from Asia or Europe, must make sure their towbar is compliant. If it’s not, you may be risking the safety of yourself and your vehicle with a unroadworthy towbar.
The compliance plate can be typically found on the underneath the towbar or on the inside frame. If you’re not sure, contact the manufacturer for more information.
What if my newly-released vehicle doesn’t have a towbar available for it yet?
“If it’s a brand new model, the towbar manufacturers may be interested in using your vehicle to design a towbar for it. With that, you may be able to get it heavily discounted or even for free. It’s always worth asking just in case.”
“No, an aftermarket tow bar that is Australian Design Standard approved will not void your new vehicle warranty. If an issue occurs, the manufacturer would have to prove it was directly the fault of the towbar. If it does turn out it is the fault of the aftermarket product, you would then go to the supplier which would pursue it with the manufacturer.
“Either way you are covered in the event of a problem. Many of the towbar manufacturers, Hayman Reese included, offer a lifetime warranty on the product so as long as the car is under your ownership.”
It’s not uncommon to be not able to use aftermarket towbar accessories with an OEM towbar and vice versa.
Choosing an aftermarket or OEM towbar?
“Customer support is generally better through an aftermarket brand, as well as having a cheaper price for a comparable product. Most car dealerships, unless they have a switched-on service department, won’t know what to do with a towbar issue. They will often need to contact their headquarters that may be overseas for clarification which can take a fair while.
“On the other hand, aftermarket products, in particular Australian ones, will have far quicker and more efficient support networks to help you with your issue,” says Ranken
If you're buying a towbar for an older vehicle, you may have trouble sourcing spare parts for your OEM towbar. Things like tongues, pins and bolts can be extremely hard to find if the car brand decides to stop making them. Most aftermarket towbar brands should offer you a lifetime guarantee on all spare parts.
This can become a big problem, as some car manufacturers design their towbars so that aftermarket accessories can’t be used with them, including weight distribution hitches or off-road couplings.
“For example, some genuine Holden towbars have the pin off centre, meaning you can’t use any other aftermarket tongue with the hitch receiver because the pinhole is in a different spot.”
“Normal towbars won’t come with recovery points (also known as rated tow points) included in the design. However, a rear step towbar is more likely to come with one. It’s best to check with the towbar manufacturer to see if they are included.
“Otherwise, you can buy a tongue that features a heavy-duty D-shackle on the end that can be used for towing. However, it’s still better to use a rated tow point secured to the chassis of the vehicle.”
Will a towbar affect vehicle reversing sensors?
“Adding a towbar should not interfere with a vehicle’s reverse sensor or camera system. That being said, it changes from model to model, some of which have very low mounted sensors which may pick up the tow ball, so it’s best to check with the towbar manufacturer to make sure,” says Ranken.
A simple solution to this issue is to always remove the tow ball from the hitch receiver when not in use. That way it can’t get damaged or lost while not being used.
Keep in mind that your reverse sensors will still go off while you are reversing with a trailer being towed. Some aftermarket reversing sensors have a cut off switch installed, while people with OEM reverse sensors will have to endure the beeping.
A tow ball cover helps protect your tow ball from the elements while not in use.
Other towbar accessories
“Generally, a towbar will come with everything you need. People sometimes buy smaller incidental items such as ball covers, while spare parts such as spare pins are far more common. Brake controllers and tow ball scales are also a common additions to caravan and boat trailers.”
Do towbars require maintenance?
Typically, no extra maintenance is required for your towbar. Just general cleaning when you wash your car and inspecting it now and again for rust.
Upgrading other components to accommodate the towbar
Your vehicle’s suspension doesn’t usually need to be upgraded to accommodate a towbar.
“Weight generally isn’t a problem. Lighter-duty ones start at around 20kg, while heavy-duty ones can weigh up to 35kg,” says Ranken.
However, wiring looms and cable placement within the chassis of the vehicle may have to be moved when installing a towbar.
Limitations to having a towbar
“Some vehicles may have a reduced rear ground clearance with a towbar installed. Apart from that, there are far more benefits to having a towbar than not at all”
If you are searching for a towbar for your 4WD, it may be worth looking into rear step towbar for your particular vehicle. This type of towbar provides maximum protection to the rear end of the vehicle, while still allowing you to tow a trailer. These also allow you to access the roof of your vehicle, which is particularly helpful if you frequently use a roof rack to store your gear. They are available for most popular 4WDs and commercial vans
However, this type of towbar weighs far more than the other types. Ground clearance can also be an issue on some models, so it’s best to check with the manufacturer to see if if it may effect your vehicle.
If you're just towing on normal roads mostly, this won’t be an issue.
A ‘mini’ weight distribution hitch is suitable for smaller trailers and vehicles with lower tow capacities.
DIY and professional both have their advantages. It’s easier to claim warranty if it’s installed by a professional as they will be likely held accountable if something happens. Some vehicles will also require cutouts to the bumper, which many people are not confident doing themselves.
Connecting the wiring looms is also typically a fairly simple procedure.
“Hayman Reese for example, use plug and play wiring looms. This has dramatically improved reliability and made installation much easier. However, those considering a DIY install should be aware that the wiring complexity in the vehicles themselves has changed a lot in the last decade. These days, the hardest part is often finding the correct loom to plug into.
“You can take off a plastic panel and be faced with dozens of different looms that all look pretty similar. This could be overwhelming to the inexperienced. I’d say this to anyone thinking of fitting it themselves, ‘if you are uncertain, just let us do it,” says Ranken.
However, if you are DIY inclined and have the necessary tools, installation instructions are included with your towbar or the manufacturer can assist you over the phone more often than not. It does normally take people a fair bit longer to fit it compared to a professional. It’s up to you really if you want to spend a little extra money to save yourself some time.
There are certain vehicles where the towbar is extremely easy to install. Other vehicles, especially your more modern European cars, can have more complicated setups and are a bit beyond the novice auto mechanic.
Who would've thought so much needed to be considered when buying a towbar? Now that you know what look for when buying a towbar, it’s best to begin researching them online to find one suitable for your vehicle. Just remember bigger isn’t better and to choose the appropriate one for your towing application!